Chess and poker may not seem like two games with a lot in common. For centuries, chess has been viewed as an intellectual pursuit, a game in which players spend their entire lives trying to master intricate tactics and strategies, looking several moves ahead and calculating all of the possibilities the board holds. Meanwhile, poker has been the ultimate game for gamblers, where the flip of a single card can change a player’s fortunes, and millions of dollars could be up for grabs on a single hand.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Both chess and poker are complex games of strategy which can be learned quickly, but require years of experience and study to master.
Given these similarities, it should come as no surprise that many strong chess players have shown a knack for success at the poker table as well. As recently as 2008, Ylon Schwartz – recognized as a master both by the US Chess Federation and the World Chess Federation (FIDE) – made this obvious by finishing fourth in the World Series of Poker’s Main Event.
Chess Strengthens Poker Players
What is it about chess that prepares players so well for a career in poker? Perhaps the most important trait that experienced chess players bring with them to the world of poker is their structured learning and thinking processes, which are important for mastering any strategic game. Chess players already understand that it takes a combination of experience and instruction (from strong players, books, and other sources) to improve their game, and that there are always areas of the game they can improve upon. You’re unlikely to find a chess player who assumes they’ve truly mastered chess, poker, or anything else! It’s no coincidence that in both chess and poker, one of the best ways to improve is to analyze your games (or hands) with a stronger player so that you can learn from your mistakes.
Good chess players also possess strong analytical abilities, and know how to consistently use these abilities to find the best moves. Not every player uses the same thinking process in chess, but any good player has one: a systematic approach to looking at a position, narrowing their options, and finally selecting what they believe is the best move. This discipline is critical in chess, since a single bad move can ruin an otherwise perfect game. It’s easy to see how this translates over to the poker table; in a poker tournament, lowering your guard for a single hand can end your day, so discipline and the ability to concentrate for long hours under high stress are both critical to success.
There are other areas where chess and poker intersect, too. Chess masters plan out sequences of moves, much in the same way that a skilled poker player might plan a line of play from the time they make their first preflop bet. At high levels of chess, memory is critically important to learning the openings; these memory skills definitely come in handy at the poker table when trying to keep track of opponents’ tendencies. Psychology plays a role in both games, as do concepts like gaining the initiative.
Of course, there are plenty of areas where chess and poker differ. In chess, nothing is left to chance; there are no dice or cards to help a weaker player get lucky against a stronger opponent. Chess is also a game of complete information, where everything going on in the game is visible to both players at all times. In poker, even the best players can’t actually see their opponents’ cards, adding a layer of complexity that makes playing poker a completely different type of challenge than playing chess.
But despite these differences, it’s clear that the skill set of a strong chess player translates well in the world of poker. This relationship is more than just theoretical; over the past decade, numerous strong chess masters have become well known as dangerous opponents in the poker room as well.
The Jeff Sarwer Phenomenon
Perhaps one of the best known examples is that of Jeff Sarwer. If you’ve read Searching for Bobby Fischer, or seen the movie based on the book, you probably know that Sarwer was a Canadian chess prodigy who was widely regarded as one of the most talented youngsters in chess history. At the age of eight, Sarwer won the Under 10 World Youth Chess Championship in Puerto Rico. Though Sarwer was absent from the world of chess for over two decades, he played in a Polish rapid chess event in 2007 in which he showed he was still able to compete and win against high-caliber opposition.
In recent years, Sarwer has made his mark on the world of poker as well. At the 2009 European Poker Tour event in Vilamoura, Portugal, Sarwer finished 3rd, taking home a prize of over $230,000. He followed that up with a 2nd place finish at a € 10,000 buy– in event during the EPT’s 2010 stop in Berlin, winning € 110,000. Sarwer looks very likely to continue his success, having cashed three times in the 2010 World Series of Poker.There are other prominent examples as well. Greg and Jennifer Shahade – siblings who hold the titles of International Master and Woman Grandmaster in chess, respectively – have become successful poker players in their own rights. Interestingly, Greg Shahade was also involved in a large wager that bridged the worlds of chess and poker, when high– stakes poker pro Tom Dwan (known online as “durrrr”) wagered $50,000 against David Benefield that he could beat any chess player in the world with rook odds – in other words, if his opponent started the gme missing one rook. In the end, Shahade became the opponent for the wager, and defeated Dwan to win the bet for Benefield.
It’s clear that the connections between chess and poker will continue to grow in the years to come. The depth of strategy and competition involved in both game attract the same type of smart, dedicated players to the board and to the felt. And as the prize pools in poker tournaments continue to grow larger, you can expect a lot more chess players to trade in their checkmates for check-raises.
Many chess players who are thinking of making the transition from chess to poker will want to visit one of the top online poker sites where they can best utilize their chess skills to kill the game of poker. We feel the best site suited for them is PokerStars.
This article is a dedication to Bryon Nickoloff – The Stu Ungar of Chess.