Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Poker and Chess

Yeah, I was one of those dorks. I played chess when I was a kid. Competitive chess. Chess clocks and tournaments and opening books and USCF ratings, the whole nine yards.

For whatever reason, my kid brain was wired in such a way that I was good at chess. Abnormally good. Not prodigy good, but good enough to produce a room full of trophies and more than a few sizeable checks from winning tournaments. I never quite made it to the official level of master but I got pretty close. Then I got old enough to drive and acquired a life and, well, basically stopped playing chess. I’d also hit the wall where to get any better would require a pretty serious devotion of time and study that I wasn’t anywhere near willing to expend.

Lately I’ve been thinking about parallels between poker and chess. More specifically, I’ve been rolling around the question of whether skill at chess equates to an advantage at poker. Do mad chess skillz translate to additional +EV at the poker tables?

It’s an interesting comparison, because in some ways the games couldn’t be more different. Nothing is left to chance at the chess board; at the poker table, every single hand is influenced by chance. Poker is a constant battle of imperfect knowledge while chess is the ultimate struggle of perfect knowledge. Everything in chess is known, transparent, and deducible. No amount of preparation, study, or skill will ever reveal your opponent’s hole cards in poker.

But there are similarities. The most obvious is that success in both chess and poker depends heavily on second, third, and fourth level thinking. It’s simply not enough to consider what move you should make, or whether you should bet, based on what you see before you. You must consider the response. And your counter-response. And on and on and on.

This is most apparent in poker when you flop a monster hand and are faced with the enviable task of trying to extract the most money from it. You basically have three moves to make (check, bet, fold) three different times (bets on the flop, turn, and river), with different combinations producing different results. The real challenge isn’t so much in representing nothing (the easiest slowplay in the world is to simply check and call to the river, then bet/raise) but in representing something, just seemingly not enough. The key, then, is a series of moves (underbets, checks, tiny re-raises, et al) planned at the flop, which will culminate with your opponents calling (or raising) a large bet on the river.

Stepping back a bit, higher-level thinking also permeates nearly every hand you play, as far as the table image you project. Do people see you as a maniac? A rock? Does their view of you affect how they’ll respond to a bluff? A raise? What do they think you have, based on the table image you’re projecting? What do they think you think they have? And on and on and on. All of this involves higher-level thinking, and, to some extent, plays a part in every poker hand you play.

There are also more subtle instances where chess prowess serves one well. One is pattern recognition, which is pretty fundamental to chess. Chess is basically a recurring series of similar positions, with slight (but crucial) differences. You learn to recognize and prey upon isolated pawns, exposed kings, pins, and forks. It happens on almost the subconscious level, as you never really say “Hmm, let me see, is there a knight out there I can pin against a queen?” You simply recognize the relative position of your opponent’s knight to his queen and take advantage of it, based on past experience of it being advantageous to do so.

This happens in poker, too, on a similar intuitive level. After you play for awhile you develop an internal radar of sorts for certain bets. The internal voice that says “True, I’ve only got bottom pair, but the board is ragged and he checked it down to the river, and is probably betting with just overcards,” springs directly from experience, of recognizing similar patterns in the past and capitalizing on that experience. Ditto for someone who underbets a pot after raising pre-flop. You just recognize “wrongness” and take advantage of it. Granted, you’re not always right, given that poker is a game of imperfect knowledge, but often you are.

Success in chess and poker also depends largely on the accumulation of small advantages. While both do sometimes display short-term success with a brutally quick knockout blow, in general long-term success is dependent on the steady, inexorable accumulation of small pluses, which, as a whole, result in victory. Patience and discipline rule in both games, as do preparation and study.

All this babbling aside, ultimately it’s probably silly to make too much of a connection between poker and chess. I don’t think it’d make you a better poker player if you learned how to play chess. It wouldn’t hurt, but the games are far too different to truly compare. The opportunities in poker to utilize chess skills such as higher-level thinking are also relatively rare, if you ignore general table image. Yeah, being comfortable with looking twenty half moves ahead at the chess board might equate to an extra 10BB each month, but it’s likely –EV to devote enough time to get to that level of ability at chess. The patience and discipline necessary for chess also serves poker players well, but you can be patient and disciplined and never know how a knight moves, or what the castle looking thing is called.

It would be interesting, though, to compare how professional chess players fared if they switched to poker, and vice versa. My gut tells me that chess players would have an advantage, but that’s just a wild-assed guess.

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