Can Chess Players Learn From Poker?

Can Chess Players Learn From Poker?

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Chess and poker are frequently compared as both games are based on strategic thinking and decision making. I know many professional and semi-professional chess players who've completely abandoned chess in favor of poker.

At some point the numerous fans of Russian super-GM Alexander Grischuk were really worried that he might be another casualty of this trend. Fortunately both GM Grischuk and WGM Almira Skripchenko (who won over $250,000 in her poker career), decided to stay in chess.

As you can see, many chess players tried to utilize the skills they acquired by playing chess at the poker table. But can poker skills be useful at the chessboard?

While we lightly touched the subject of bluffing in chess in this article, the reason to discuss the subject of chess and poker again is the following bizarre idea of one chess amateur. He quoted the recent tweet of Bill Mitchell:

"One of my favorite tricks playing poker is to bet big on a hand I know I'll lose so my opponent thinks I'm bluffing next time..."


So, the above-mentioned chess amateur suggested to deliberately blunder something in the very beginning of the game, so your opponent thinks that you are a total beginner who doesn't know how to play chess. Then you set up a trap and offer bait. As your opponent still thinks that it is just another beginner's blunder, he/she takes the bait and promptly loses the game. 

You see, I don't play poker, so I don't know who Bill Mitchell is (and a quick Google search didn't provide any answer). The guy could be a poker star or he could be just an amateur. Also, since I don't play poker, I cannot say if the Bill Mitchell's strategy is good or bad.

But I can tell you that in chess this idea would be both ridiculous and stupid.

This is how I see this "strategy" in chess.

1) At the very beginning of the game you make a ridiculous blunder. I assume it should be something like this:

So, your opponent believes that you are a beginner and takes the bishop. 

2) Later in the game you set up a trap and give him another piece for free. Probably it should look like this:

As silly as this scam looks, I truly cannot say that it is completely pointless and it would never work. First of all, after your initial blunder 2.Ba6?? your opponent might start laughing so hard that he/she dies and consequently you will win by forfeit. Second, against a total beginner it might work because beginners generally accept all the free pieces they are offered without any worries for the consequences.

But, I can assure you that against this kind of player you don't need the initial, intentional blunder, since the beginner will accept the real bait even without your sophisticated psychological preparation!  

So why might this strategy work in poker but most certainly will not work in chess if you are playing anyone above USCF 1500? To answer this question, let's check game theory.

Game theory divides all games into two categories: cooperative and non-cooperative. Both chess and poker are obviously non-cooperative games as the opponents are trying to achieve their own goals: one player's win is certainly another player's loss!

Wikipedia states:

"Non-cooperative games are generally analysed through the framework of non-cooperative game theory, which tries to predict players' individual strategies and payoffs and to find Nash equilibrium."

Nash equilibrium is one of the cornerstones of the game theory. This is how Wikipedia explains it:

"In game theory, the Nash equilibrium is a solution concept of a non-cooperative game involving two or more players in which each player is assumed to know the equilibrium strategies of the other players, and no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy."


So basically, similar to the Newton's first law that says that "a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force," the Nash equilibrium says that a player in a game has no incentive to change his/her current strategy unless the opponent changes his/her current strategy. So far so good.

It looks like it only proves that when we start the ruse by playing 2.Ba6?? we set our opponents on the wrong track, which they will keep following until they discover the deceit when we checkmate them. But if we dig deeper, we can find a big difference between chess and other popular games, including poker. Wikipedia calls chess a "perfect information" game, where you can see all the information on the board. At the same time backgammon has perfect information on the board, but has chance moves (roll of dice). And what about poker? Wikipedia says that poker has both "imperfect information" (some or all the cards are held by other players) and " chance moves" (the cards being dealt).

So while superficially chess and poker might look similar, in reality they are completely different! Therefore, unlike poker, when you offer opponents your second "free gift" as bait, they will see all the information on the board (remember, unlike poker, chess is the game of perfect information), see the obvious trap and reject your sacrifice -- so your whole strategy will fail!

Does it mean that chess players cannot learn anything from poker since it is a totally different game? I think we can! Just like in poker, it is very important in chess to understand your opponent's general strategy; try to read his or her mind. Then you can turn the game in the direction that will be the most unpleasant for your opponent! Here is a good example from my youth.

My very first opening for Black that I learned was the Dragon variation of the Sicilian. I loved the excitement of an attack in the position with opposite-side castles. To tell you the truth, this excitement and adrenaline rush were even more important than the result of the game! If I got this kind of the position, I could play pretty well:

After the game I learned that the whole combination happened in the game Althausen and Simagin played in 1943, and this information made me even more proud since I felt like I played like a grandmaster!

But sometimes my adult opponents thought: "why should I go for all these complicated positions against a kid who can probably calculate some variations, but doesn't know first thing about chess strategy?" So, these mean people castled kingside and I felt cheated. This is not what I liked. 

All experienced chess players "play the opponent" in some way. I remember that before playing GM Etienne Bacrot in the famous tournament Cap d'Agde I was thinking about my strategy for this knockout match. I knew that my opponent was younger than me and already had a higher rating. I also suspected that just like all youngsters he liked sharp positions and knew all the developments of the modern opening theory. So, I decided on the following strategy:

1) Follow the old Soviet chess saying : "С молодёжью в эншпиль!" (Roughly translated: "when you play youngsters, go straight to the endgame!")

2) All the openings I would play in the match should be very fashionable. That is, very fashionable at the time when Etienne's grandparents were born!

Here is one of the games from our match:

And here is the latest opening development I was following:

As far as I know, many professional poker players wear sunglasses, so their opponents cannot see their eyes. Fortunately, chess players don't, with the exception of this famous game:

Next time before the game, look at your opponent's eyes. Try to figure out his/her thoughts, what he/she likes and dislikes. What's his/her mood? This information can be very handy for your decision making during the game!

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