I would suggest that the use of the word “opening” in chess and poker is more than a semantic coincidence. In both instances a solid opening sets up later advantage.
Many successful chess players have transitioned to poker, either as a relaxing sideline or as a major source of income. Alexander Grischuk and Peter Svidler have peak world chess rankings of third and fourth respectively, the former having competed in the WSOP on multiple occasions and the latter being a devotee of cash games. WGM Jennifer Shahade has live poker tournament winnings in excess of $300k to go along with two US Women’s Chess Championships. Poker authors are also well represented in the ranks of chess players and include Dan Harrington and Bob Ciaffone, the latter having written about both games.
In this article I’ll address the similarities and differences between these two games, and suggest why so many chess players have transitioned to poker, or at least added the game to their repertoire as an enjoyable hobby.
Beyond the fact that chess is played with chess pieces and poker with cards, the most obvious difference between them is the amount of information available to the players. Much of poker strategy is driven by the fact that you don’t know your opponents’ holdings. Contrast this to chess where the position of every piece is plainly visible on the board.
At first sight it might appear such a significant difference would make poker unappealing to the dedicated chess player, but I’d like to suggest that there is some commonality.
When you sit down at a chess board as White and play 1.e4, you have, at least to some extent, controlled the lines down which the game may proceed. But your opponent has a vast array of moves that, until they are played, remain unknown. She may choose to play symmetrically with 1…e5, go into a Sicilian with 1…c5, a French with 1…e6 and so on. In fact, after a mere three moves by each side, the chess board can take on 121 million different configurations! And while it is true that certain opening lines are played repeatedly, it has been estimated that the number of possible games of chess exceeds by many orders of magnitude the number of atoms in the universe.
Poker has its big numbers too. The next time the dealer pulls the shuffled deck out of the shuffler, consider this: the order of the cards in the deck has almost certainly never occurred before in a game of poker. That’s because there are 52-factorial (52x51x50x…) ways of arranging a deck of cards which is about 8 with 67 zeroes after it.
It’s certainly the case that the differences in available information of the two games is important, but it’s also evident that great depth and complexity are elements that both games share.
The partial information nature of poker is precisely what gives the game one of its defining features: the ability to bluff. Surely this is completely absent from chess and not something I’m going to be able to finesse with somewhat tangential arguments?
Yes and no. Despite playing chess for decades, I never thought the idea of a bluff really fit the game until I heard multiple chess commentators on YouTube using the term. The analogy isn’t perfect, but there are situations in which a player will make a move they assess as potentially inferior, but which adds enough confusion to the position that it might force their opponent into a mistake.
This is particularly effective in short time controls or in any situation in which one’s opponent is in time pressure. And the fact that the top players carry out deep computer analyses of openings makes this bluff more effective. On seeing a novelty played quickly by a grandmaster, it is natural to assume one is walking into a nasty trap, whereas in fact the move is nothing more than a “bluff.”
More broadly, this illustrates the psychological element of chess, and the fact that it isn’t a battle of moves, it is a battle of minds. Mikhail Tal, known as “The Magician From Riga” was famous for his intimidating sacrifices, and had such an aura of invincibility about him it was said by Ragozin that: “Tal doesn’t move the pieces by hand, he uses a magic wand.” This may sound rather hyperbolic, but is also reminiscent of what some high-profile poker players say… well, of themselves. “That’s white magic, baby!”
Strategy, Tactics and Plans
These three related areas strike me as common to both games. Indeed the ability to appreciate and employ all three elements is probably what differentiates skilled players from patzers/fish. Let me illustrate this first with concepts from chess and then draw the poker analogies.
Chess has been around a few centuries longer than poker and as a result has a far greater canon of theory. When watching a couple of top chess players slugging it out in the opening, it may be the case that both are walking down well-traveled theoretical paths for twenty or more moves. But the reason such long opening lines are played at all is because they have been analyzed deeply and have been determined to be strategically sound.
As one transitions from the opening to the middle game, its important to have a plan. A frequently quoted chess aphorism is that it’s better to have a bad plan than no plan at all. Often the plan will be dictated by the opening. The Queen’s Gambit Declined, for example, will often lead to White carrying out a queen-side minority attack, whereas many hypermodern openings will see Black first allow White to build a pawn center, then enter the middle game with the plan of destroying it.
Tactics in chess tend to flow from strategically sound plans. Let’s suppose the player with the White pieces has come out of the opening with a harmonious arrangement of pieces; that is, there are no loose pieces and all are working together in some strategically thematic way.
If Black’s pieces lack adequate protection, it is almost guaranteed that any tactics will favor White. One simple example of this is a double attack. If Black’s pieces are unprotected and White can make a move that attacks two at once, perhaps via a fork, in many instances Black is destined to lose a piece. Thus White wins a piece through a tactical play, but the play was set up by sounder strategy.
I enjoy reading chess books and it’s often discussions of this strategical-tactical interface that makes me think of poker. Talk of harmonious pieces always reminds me of the importance in Omaha variants of having all four cards working together. And both chess and poker training material hammer home the importance of having a plan. Moreover, in both games I believe winning tactics stem from sound strategy.
In poker, the bedrock of our strategic plan is simply which hands we choose to play at all, or in modern parlance our opening range. I would suggest that the use of the word “opening” in chess and poker is more than a semantic coincidence. In both instances a solid opening sets up later advantage.
Consider the common poker situation when an opponent calls the big blind preflop, we raise them on the button, and they call our raise. We have set up a postflop situation in which they always have to act before us. This in itself is hugely profitable. In addition, our preflop raise suggests we can have the strongest hands, while their more passive play implies they cannot. The net result of this is that we will usually win this pot by the simple tactic of betting at some point, irrespective of whether we actually have a strong hand.
Luck And Profit
The continued existence of legal cases debating whether poker is a game of luck or skill is a thorn in the side of all serious poker players, not least because historically the idea that poker is nothing more than a game of chance has impeded efforts to get the game more widely legalized. There is, of course, an element of luck in poker, in a hand or a session, or even a professional career. But in the long run, poker rewards skill.
Luck in chess is limited to an opponent missing a winning move, or at higher levels of play, choosing an opening variation for which our opponent is unprepared. In fact it’s precisely because chess contains less luck than poker that many chess players have taken up poker.
Suppose we pitted a chess grandmaster against a strong club player. If you want to quantify it, let’s assume the combatants have Elos of 2700 and 1800, respectively. We let the players complete one hundred games. The most likely result is that the club player may manage a handful of draws, but will not take a single win off the grandmaster.
Switch to poker. We place a world-class player in a full ring game with eight other $2/$5 grinders. The players engage in one hundred four-hour sessions. It would be surprising if the world-class player showed a profit in more than two thirds of these sessions.
Now you may argue that this analogy fails because chess is played heads-up and poker usually isn’t. But even if our world-class player competed against a winning $2/$5 regular in a heads-up cash game, I’d still expect the weaker player to book around 20% winning sessions. Over a few hundred hands the card distribution can wipe out a huge skill edge at that sort of frequency.
According to FIDE and the WPT, 600 million people play chess worldwide while 100 million play poker. And yet there are far more professional poker players than professional chess players. Why is this?
The simple answer is “luck.” Playing a game in which you nearly always lose simply isn’t a lot of fun. It’s far less fun if you’re playing the game for money. The beauty of poker, for both the recreational players and the pros, is that losing players win enough sessions to make the game entertaining and to keep them coming back.
So if you’re a chess IM trying to hustle a few bucks playing in a park or a cafe, that’s admirable, but I can assure there is an easier way to support yourself. Play poker.