What makes poker so attractive to chess players?

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The poker boom is in full swing and chess players, too, are not immune to its charms. It's the nature of the beast that a disproportionate number of chess players have to do with poker, either as a hobbyists, semi- or full professional players. To name a few prominent examples: Klinger, Tolnai, Gallagher, Grischuk, Kasimdzhanov, M. Gurevich, A. Sokolov, Skripchenko, I. Sokolov, Relange, Nataf, Fressinet, Dautov, and Gustafsson.

Considering the relation between poker and chess as strategy games and the many chess players already at the poker table, the migration of even more chess players is a natural development - at least in the background of the broader poker boom. So what is it that makes poker so interesting for chess players? What are the similarities between the two games? What characteristics of chess players help them in poker?

To answer these questions, I will examine poker from various angles from the perspective of a chess player. When I say poker, I refer to that discipline of kings among its variants, Texas Hold'em. If you see poker on TV, it's Hold'em. The world champion of poker earned this titles in Texas Hold'em. It is not the intent of this article to convince chess players to turn their backs on chess for poker. Rather, I present poker as an interesting enrichment for chess players.

a) Economics In all honesty, this is the most important point. Money is a central point of many activities for most people. This section applies principally to professional chess players, but also to amateurs between Elo 2000 and 2300 who put forth a great effort without the chance of ever being paid for it. To get to the point: the decisive advantage of poker over chess is the much improved financial prospects. Of course, there's no art to trumping chess in this fashion. "Unfortunately", chess is elitist and therefore not attractive to TV or sponsors. The monetary pool is rather small and so for those players under 2550 Elo, the game is not very profitable despite their considerable abilities.

Joe Hachem in July 2005 after winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Photo: Reuters

Poker is different. Poker is much easier to play and transfers well to television. It is a phenomenon of the masses. Accordingly, big business has taken an interest in it. Prize money for poker tournaments is exploding. The world champion received a record sum of 7.5 million dollars for his victory. And that amount is only likely to rise this year. But it's not only the tournaments that make poker so lucrative. To get those top prizes takes a whole lot of luck. The day to day cash games are much more interesting with regard to profiting from playing; they can be a regular source of income. These games scarcely take a minute online and perhaps twice as long in a casino. Cash games are the economic fundament of most poker pros, with big tournaments serving only to frost the cake.

The economic kernel of poker profit results from the simple fact that worse players are prepared to play with you (hopefully a good player) for money, maybe even for a lot of money. This would be unthinkable in chess. No 2000 Elo player would enter a game with an Elo 2600 for money. Even a difference of 100 Elo would quash such a duel. But in poker weak players are constantly giving up their money to the strong. How can this be explained? Essentially, it stems from a misconception about the nature of the game. Poker is a game of both chance and skill. It is the weak and ignorant players who overlook or discount this second aspect. This random element of the game also obfuscates success at the game, whereas the dominance of the strong in chess cannot be missed. Poker would be better described by tracking a stock traded on the market, subject to random perturbations, zigging and zagging from day to day. For a good player, this curve will tend steadily upward like the Dow Jones chart over a long period of time. Bad players will show downward drift, but not without sharp upward leaps. It is these short term experiences of success that keep the losers in the game. Just before they lose interest, fate throws them a bone and they decide to keep losing money instead. Cash games are structured hierarchically. Games take place on all financial levels, from bets of a few cents to 4 digit sums of dollars. This structure means that an untalented player is not forced to lose money. He can just stay on the lowest limits and play with beginners. But the ego often gets the better of the said player, and reason loses out. He wants to play on the high limits and cross blades with the pros. In the long term, he'll lose a lot of money that way. Luckily for the pros, the world is full of neurotics like this who are willing to bestow a pleasant life upon them. In addition to weak opponents, there is a second pillar supporting the house of the poker economy. You could call it 24/7. On the internet, at least, pros can make money at any time of day. This time is limited in a normal life. A chess player has dry spells between tournaments. Travel time saps those finances further, and woe to him who does not make it into the prize money...

b) The nature of the game In essence, poker is both a game of luck and skill, depending on your perspective. If you look at a single hand (one hand lasts about 50 seconds), it's probably 97% luck and 3% skill. The more hands you play, however, the more weight is placed on making correct, skillful decisions. This is the law of large numbers. Assume I toss a coin with a friend and call heads. If it's heads, I'll make a Euro and I'll pay him 97 cents if it's tails. Obviously, this is a good deal for me because I make an average of 1.5 cents per toss. But for a small number of tosses, this effect can hardly be seen. In 10 throws, we could easily see 9 tails and just one head. Things look a bit different if we consider 100000 or a million tosses. The frequency of heads will settle on 50% and my profit will be considerable and stable. It's well within the power of the poker professional to minimize or turn off the random component of the game. He just has to play enough hands and manage his capital so as not to go broke during streaks of bad luck. This is just a matter of maintaining a sensible ratio between capital and bet size. The bets must not exceed a certain mathematically determined size. It's no problem to play 100000 hands per month. So from this point of view, luck is irrelevant after 2 months or so.

We still have not touched on the question of where this skill at Texas Hold'em enters the game. Isn't it just a banal game of cards? In response to this rhetorical question, a quote: "Hold'em takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master." It's similar to chess in this respect. In simple terms, Hold'em consists of a sequence of 4 decisions between 3 options. There are 3 correct and 9 incorrect decisions. This creates a lot of potential mistakes. To make the correct decision, one must calculate or estimate the expected winnings from each move. These estimates must be based on probability theory. Strategy and psychology also play a role. Many books and treatises have been written on these topics. To be truly good takes around 2 years of both theoretical study and practical application. Intelligent persons who are used to thinking analytically and taking a lawful view of things have a clear advantage in this regard. And that brings us back to chess players...

c) Training The following phenomenon is quite telling. Vast numbers of poker players come to the table and are overtaken by intelligent newcomers in a brief period of time despite having years of experience. This is because poker defies the normal human learning mode of trial and error. The brain usually learns from direct experience. After touching a hot stove for the first time, I am unlikely to try it again in the future. But the dominance of randomness in the short term means that this approach to learning is untenable for poker. It is not uncommon in this game that a short term mistake will lead to winning a hand. In the same way, it's possible to do everything right and still be punished with a loss. The method "success= good= worth repeating" is therefore doomed. Knowledge of poker can only be gleaned from statistically relevant sample sizes and abstract mathematical considerations. In a purely practical sense, poker is unlearnable!

Does this entail an advantage for chess players? Well, chess players are disciplined and pursue their studies with rigor. They may even be familiar with the use of computers and databases (these are invaluable in poker!). Consider that most poker players are out for fun or relaxation and it becomes clear that a chess player has a head start. Most players in casinos or online are just hobbyists and would not consider making a martyr of their freetime activity with the "drudgery" of theoretical study. Many people have an impossible time reading non-fiction books or working with concentrated amounts of information at all. They will never make it past a certain point and are just sitting ducks for the practicing chess player.

d) During the game Experienced players on the internet usually play at multiple tables simultaneously. This typically increases profit since more hands are played. By multitabling, many decisions must be made in a short amount of time. Chess players shouldn't have a problem with this since most of them will have practiced making decisions under pressure enough in 10,000 timed matches.

A screenshot from an online poker table.

Patience is one of the most important poker virtues. It might happen that you are dealt poor cards over a long period of time. The weak players lose patience and begin to play mediocre cards as well, which is not profitable. The pro is not affected by such adversity and waits with collected stoicism for good hands. The very format of the classic tournament game with 3 minutes per move gives chess players experience with patience. The tediousness that comes with a career in chess weeds out the impatient. Chess players as a group are patient lot, so they already have a key characteristic of a killer poker player.

Poker players must he hard of mind. The depression and elation that set in during short term streaks of luck, both good and bad, can lead to losing sessions (as was said, the focus must be on middle and long term time frames). Chess players often have considerable mental armor since they have amassed a lot of gaming experience and so they know how to lose. Lacking this ability is extraordinarily dangerous in poker. Players may constantly be observed flying off the handle, or as we say in poker, going on tilt. This usually leads to reckless and aggressive play that only generates more loss. And in this way, above average players become net losers. He who has a handle on himself can deflect such moods and will be in a position to take advantage of this phenomenon when it appears in his opponent.

Chess players are basically objective and ready to take responsibility for their own actions and especially for their mistakes. They sometimes search for mistakes in their matches in self-deprecating fashion to prevent their repetition in the future. It is no great wonder that the role of the self-critic, which is the only road to victory in chess, is also a key in poker. I surely do not need to mention, dear chess players, that many poker players, that is, your opposition, are not so eager to look for their own mistakes.

e) Lifestyle An internet poker pro has a pleasant lifestyle. If he performs well, he'll have plenty of money. When it rains, nobody can tell him he has to go out of doors. His work attire is a bathrobe and he picks his own hours. He doesn't have to deal with coworkers or grumpy bosses and depends on no customer, supplier, or circumstances -- there is always somebody to play. All in all, his lot could be worse.

In closing: What concrete steps should I take to become a good poker player? Now, as the founder of PokerStrategy.cc, the largest school of poker worldwide, I can answer this without hesitation: join us free of cost or obligation at www.pokerstrategy.cc. You'll get a complete education in poker with the following features:

  • more than 100 comprehensive strategy articles


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Whether at chess or poker, I wish you all great success!

Matthias Wahls is a chess grandmaster and a poker player from Germany. In 1985 he became junior chess champion of Germany and during the nineties he belonged to Germany's strongest players. In 1997 he wrote a book on the Scandinavian Defence. During recent years he's mostly occupied with poker. He founded the online poker school PokerStrategy.cc.
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