Poker and Chess

Just remember that the goal is for us all to capture all we want.” —
Anderson/Squire

YouTube, in its wisdom, just threw a couple of chess videos onto my feed. I found this bemusing, since I don’t play chess or, better said, haven’t played chess since the age of 12. I know how the pieces move, but please don’t ask me to explain an en passant pawn take.

But the video they offered me had 900k views, and I thought, “900,000 people want to watch a chess video? Sure, make it 900,001.” The next thing I knew, I’d watched a dozen chess videos over a couple of days. Here’s what I learned:

CHESS IS TO POKER AS POKER IS TO GO FISH

Nobody loves poker more than me. Its depth and complexity are a constant joy. But chess is an order of magnitude more complex. Of course, since I’m a complete newbie, it’s not surprising I wasn’t able to follow the discussion about the boards. But I fully understood that the level of discourse was far more sophisticated than even the deepest poker conversations I’ve been in. This is a game for which entire books have been written about a handful of opening moves.

COMPLETE INFORMATION CHANGES EVERYTHING

The single biggest difference between chess and poker is that poker is a game of incomplete information—you do not know my hand (or portions of it) and I do not know yours. In chess, everything is out in the open, for both players to see.

This means a chess player must set bluffs and traps (and they do both, I’ve learned) multiple moves ahead. A chess player may suggest to his opponent that he’s going to zig, but his true plan to zag must be hidden well enough and far enough into the future to lure the opponent into the trap.

The complete information also permits glorious verbal interchanges between two opponents. I particularly enjoyed watching a couple of chess masters bait each other about their play. “That was a mistake—you should have done ‘bishop c4’.” “Nah, had I done that, you’d have done ‘rook d5’ and forked my rook.” “No, because then you’d have played ‘rook b3’—had you seen it—and gotten out of that.”

REALLY GOOD CHESS PLAYERS ARE AMAZING

The people I’m watching on YouTube are obviously extremely strong players, including Magnus Carlsen, who is the best chess player in the world at this writing. But their ability to analyze and recall games blows my mind.

For instance, I watched a game where Internet chess star Andrea Botez took on grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. She’s an extremely good chess player, but he’s a lot better. Unlike poker, “a lot better” in chess means, “wins 100% of the time unless he makes a silly mistake.” So he gave her a handicap—he played blindfolded.

A chess board is an 8x8 matrix—64 squares—with a practically uncountable number of possible board positions. But Nakamura played as if he could see the board, without hesitation or confusion. I won’t spoil the outcome, but you can see the match here.

Or the match where two pairs of top women players played against each other. The game ended in a draw, but the post-mortem was what attracted me. They began discussing what would have happened had one team made a different play at move 13. A spirited discussion broke out—clearly all four were able to completely visualize the board at that specific point in the game, and intuit the possible direction of the game had that alternate move been played.

Very smart people are very smart.

I NOW UNDERSTAND NON-POKER PLAYERS WATCHING POKER

I used to wonder about people who will watch televised poker, even though they’re not sure if a flush beats a straight. Certainly the money and drama are part of it. But as a non-chess player watching chess, I get it now. I have only the vaguest sense of what’s happening on the board, but there is no doubt in my mind that something supremely beautiful is taking place.

That, coupled with the engagement, good humor, and sparkling wit of the players, makes the game eminently watchable, even if I’m not 100% sure where the pieces end up after a castle.

POKER IS STILL A BETTER MODEL OF REAL LIFE

Back to the “complete information” thing. I was struck by how much that changes the entire dynamic of the game. And as a real-life model, poker gets the nod, exactly because of this. The parallels between poker and business (and military) scenarios are famous. The real world never offers two competing parties complete information about the opponent’s resources, intent, strengths, and weaknesses. The only secret a chess player can keep is the overall arc of their game plan, and even the end goal—check-mate the opponent’s king—is known by both players.

Also, I believe the single greatest gift of poker is it teaches you to deal with real-life variance. A successful poker player quickly learns to move past bad beats, and sees them as an unavoidable component of playing the game. This lesson, properly internalized, translates seamlessly into the real world and helps one cope with an arbitrary and capricious universe.

Chess, however, offers no such lessons. The better player always wins. Good planning and proper execution are invariably successful. It’s a world many of us would like to inhabit, but it’s definitely not the world we live in. Poker players plan; the deck laughs.

YOU WON’T SEE ME LEARNING CHESS

You might think that after this paean to the game, I would be breaking out a chess set and learning the London opening. For better or worse, that won’t be happening. I have a plate full of wonderful interests and not enough time to pursue all the existing ones. But perhaps as importantly, my decades as a poker player have taught me that I would barely scratch the surface of chess before time and age caught up with me. One of the things I enjoy most about poker is my ability to understand the subtlety and nuance—a skill that has taken me years of study and experience. I’ll leave chess to those who have (or will) put the time and effort into it.

But with that said, I probably haven’t watched my last chess video. Over the years, I’ve gotten great joy from watching a beautiful thing—any beautiful thing—done well. Chess is no different; I was tickled to get a glimpse into the extraordinary world its players inhabit.


Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.