Poker theory… by playing chess?
As a keen follower and player of both games I like to believe I have a reasonable understanding of what can constitute successful play in both. Granted, understanding good play and the ability to achieve good play are two very different things, but hey, it’s easier to comment on other people than to back it up yourself…
The purpose of this article is three-fold. Firstly, to comment on the similar characteristics and qualities of good chess and poker players. Secondly, how the evolution of competitive poker is in many important respects similar to the evolution of competitive chess over a hundred years before. Thirdly, to take the established links and use them to extrapolate a theory as to where competitive poker is headed, not in terms of numbers who play the World Series, or what the highest stakes will ever be played for are, but more where general perceptions of the game and theory surrounding it are headed.
In order to (hopefully) enjoy this article, or at the very least to take something from it for further thought yourself, you do not need to be able to play chess to any significant standard, or indeed at all. Let’s face it, you can only take the analogy so far – The French Opening is not like limping in with Jack-Ten Suited! But similarly nor do you really need a good understanding of poker, this article is designed to just make you think about where the game is headed as it’s popularity explodes and the quest continues to find the world’s greatest players, as well as what constitutes truly perfect play. This is more about them and what they must be able to do as the game evolves, and going back to the title itself, how competitive chess shows us exactly what that answer is.
PART 1 – The Similarities
Competitive chess and poker players share a lot of the same qualities. Personally, I find it kind of surprising that of the entire world’s top poker players, only Howard Lederer is widely known for his expertise over the chess board, although he is hardly considered a world-class chess player today. Both require immense concentration for sustained periods of time and require you to use your powers of logic and deduction to outwit an opponent. At times also, you will be relied upon to simply go with your instincts at a key moment just as much playing chess as you might playing poker, and at all times much reward can be gained from doing something your opponent isn’t expecting. Providing of course, that it is a wise move in the first place. Leading players in both games are incredibly competitive and can possess an intensity and passion for their respective game that is frankly scary. Casual players can sit back, watch what they do and when it is done take a deep breath and simply utter “awesome” or some other suitable superlative as they produce yet another piece of ingenious play us lesser mortals would not be capable of dreaming up ourselves.
But frankly, here is where the similarities end. If we want to start with more pedantic differences, for starters poker involves chips and cards whilst chess is about pieces on a board. Poker has an open door policy for it’s major championships – anyone can take part and anyone can win. Chess is famously riddled with internal politics (most recently claiming the scalp of Garry Kasparov – the greatest chess player who ever lived, now retired) and is more exclusive, with invitation to big tournaments coming only to the proven best, achieved by working your way through the rankings and slowly but surely improving your rating. If you want to get into more important differences in the two games, try the following:
Poker is more “play the player not the cards” whilst chess is more “play the board not the opponent”. Because of the essential nature of both games, there is a fundamental difference between the two that makes it impossible to immediately compare play within the two in any sensible way. Poker is psychological warfare against your opponents and your cards are second to outwitting them, whilst chess is all about solving the puzzle of the pieces that are in front of you – very rarely would you make a particular move specifically because of who your specific opponent was. However in either game you might adopt a certain tactic based upon who you were playing.
Secondly, whilst it is true that both games use a disgustingly obscene amount of mathematics as well as logic when analysed and played, the branches of mathematics that both games are steeped in are essentially very different. The mathematics involved with poker is all about statistics and probabilities – calculating outs, the odds of one starting hand versus another and such like. But the game of chess is more about discrete mathematics – finding the most efficient lines of moves that meet a certain level of effectiveness, or produce a certain short-term or even long-term result.
In short the similarities that might provide the cross over for a successful chess player to poker or vice versa are there, but ultimately limited. In essence to be successful in both you would need to learn a completely new set of rules for understanding the other game. But it is important for the purposes of the later parts of this article to show you what those are as we must show how far this analogy can be taken sensibly and why we cannot use the connections about to be proven to show more exact predictions about the future evolution of poker.
All this and we haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet! Well now we get into it, starting with a rather long yet important history lesson…
Part 2 – The Past
The game of chess was invented in the 4th century AD in either India or Persia (historians disagree on that one). The version that we play today is credited as having been invented around the 13th century, with the invention of queens and knights to liven up the game. The first recorded game featuring two known players is believed to have happened in approximately 1490 between Francisco de Castvellvi and Narciso Vinoles. It was much like all games until about the 17th or even the 18th century, the same opening, the same similar conclusions and the same old finishes. But as chess started to increase in popularity and was played by the more common man (as opposed to just the upper classes and aristocracy), the game took drastic steps forward – with exponents such as Philador, Deschappelles and Labourdonnais producing games of increasing tactical depth, whilst players such as Staunton and Morphy produced creative games, full of inspired sacrificial attacks and wonderful games still used in some training circles today. The clash of styles produced a number of highly regarded matches, and the Romantic era was in full swing.
But it wasn’t long after these games became celebrated by their successors and fans alike that some realised that as aesthetically pleasing as these games were, the moves played were essentially fundamentally unsound and the concepts behind their attacks flawed. Further analysis and play showed what the “right” way forward was. Games became displays of incredible technical proficiency instead. This brought about the Scientific era, when it was considered vital that absolutely nothing – pieces or squares – were given away without something significant in return. It wasn’t long before almost all games between the world’s top players were drawn, with experts using the same tactics and the same opening lines, the game was getting stale. The first of the World Champions, Wilhelm Steinitz crowned in 1886, followed by a number of his successors, pioneered a system that left the game of chess in deadlock after deadlock as World Championship matches would go on for months, the winner only being decided by the physical well being of contestants as well as the will power to prevent themselves from making the next minor mistake – enough to cost them a game.
But just as the critics were about to give up on the game for good as a great puzzle finally solved, a group of players emerged who blew it wide open again. Young and hungry for success, fame and glory, they challenged the way people played and the era of Hyper Modernism was born. For a generation, Living Legends like Lasker and Capablanca had their technical dominance challenged by the extreme play of Future Legends like Alekhine and Reti (who now both have unusual opening systems named after them), and they did it by attempting to blow apart everything existing players stood for. No matter how hard the established Grandmasters tried, they could not find a definite refutation to the Hyper Modernist’s unique approach to the game. Victories for each side were frequent, but essentially honours in the long run were even.
Even to this day, no conclusion has been reached about which style is best. Whilst players have continuously found better ways to play the game, with slight improvements here or there, it is largely believed that neither style is superior to the other. It is now widely accepted that to become one of the world’s leading players you must be fully proficient in both styles. Victory at the highest level comes less by inspiration over the board, but more through better preparation for a planned opening, perhaps with the occasional innovation, like a slight improvement found over 20 moves through a well known and often played opening.
But where does poker fit into that (as promised) rather long history lesson? Well consider changing the story itself, so the chess players were poker players and the game was also different and you will find that to a point the events are exactly the same. Poker was played by those of the old Wild West, where you can be fairly sure that as skilled as many of them will have been for their time, few would have been able to hold their own to any decent level in today’s game (not least because we play No Limit Holdem today over anything else!). As players would improve however, so their style of play might change. Personally I don’t see it as too much of a leap to consider the early to mid 20th century the “Romantic” era of poker, which slowly as mathematics became more prevalent in analysis of events in turn would have evolved into the Scientific era of poker. Perhaps all the evidence we need regarding which period of poker we are in, we need look no further than Doyle Brunson’s Super System, considered at the time and still now as the “Bible” of poker. But if the game is “solved”, then why has he written and published Super System 2? We all know he’s got a few quid in the bank, so it’s hard to imagine he is doing it for purely fiscal reasons. It would be more believable to assume that perhaps he is doing it because what was considered “correct” play at the time of publication of his first major book is not always considered “correct” play now? In other words improvements have been found and the game is evolving.
But in the last few years, we have started to see exponents of the game at many levels who have developed a reputation for playing “any two cards”. What is more, some of them such as Hansen and Negraneu are among the most successful in the world. They play a style that tends to produce more wild swings and consequently a greater variety of results in tournament poker. Because reading an opponent to work out their hole cards and act accordingly is such an important part of poker, it makes logical sense that if there are a greater number of hands you could be put on sensibly, the harder it is going to be to guess what you have. This aura of wrecklessness yet success has been seen before in a different game. Yes, you guessed it, the Hyper Modernists.
However more Scientific exponents of the game such as Hellmuth are known for being notoriously tight players, and who cannot see any justification of playing lesser hands regularly because with their style of play it does not win in the long run.
But this is exactly the point the Hyper Modernists made over the chess board – their style was completely different. Of course Scientific players cannot play the same way as Hyper Modernists, they still tend to drift back to their own style and cannot follow things up like they start them and things go wrong. The reason for this is very simple, there seems to be no way of marrying the two styles. It wouldn’t surprise me to say that that is true for poker too – you either play a hand the “Scientific” way, or the “Hyper Modern” way.
Part 3 – The Future
It is important to consider the overall standard of player that we are talking about here. Let’s face it, the world’s top professionals could, in the long run at least, beat us at poker playing just about any style, probably even without looking at the hole cards most of the time. It wouldn’t matter if this wasn’t their usual style, they are good enough to beat us regular mortals anyway. It is important that for this part of the article we consider like-for-like – a world class “Scientific” player versus a world class “Hyper Modern” player.
If one attempted to copy the style of the other when so convinced their own system is correct, then I think it is fair to assume that in the long run they would be less successful than the player who plays the chosen system all the time. They might be a little successful, but ultimately not as successful as the one they try to emulate. This is simply because when they play in a foreign system and are unsure what to do next, they will revert back to their own instincts and knowledge of the game, itself embedded in their other style. As we have already assumed the two styles cannot be married together, then we are left with grossly incorrect play when the two are mixed up.
But there is no reason why when “changing gears”, you can’t also “change styles”. Providing you are proficient in both styles, why not? But here is the thing, when Gus Hansen for example decides to tighten up for a while (heaven forbid!), he is generally not as successful for that period of time as say Phil Hellmuth when he tightens up (is that possible?!). Similarly when a “Scientific” player decides to change gears and loosen up, they still don’t become nearly as wild and unpredictable as “Hyper Modern” exponents of the game. In essence, these players are still stuck in their own style, despite the changing of gears.
So what can we expect from successful players of the future? Not necessarily future World Champions (it is just one tournament a year, after all), but those who are consistently challenging for major honours at all the world’s premier events.
You have probably already guessed the answer – full proficiency in both styles. It was what was needed to be done by the world’s elite chess players when they eventually realised that neither style was superior to the other and it wouldn’t surprise me to eventually find poker’s elite decide the same here.
So what does this mean for poker theory? I think to say all current theory is incorrect would be hasty, I think a more accurate assessment would be to say that it only tells half the story. Poker literature that will wish to be considered the new “Bible” will have to be effective coaches in both styles, as players will need to be able to perform under both.
How could this change the landscape of poker? This is far more speculative, but I have a theory for you. Perhaps it will do the unthinkable – the professionals will dominate once again. Perhaps it will reach the point where despite the huge numbers in the World Series Main Event, because the worlds leading professionals are so good in both styles and can change from one to the other so effectively, it will prove very difficult for those of us who do not play for a living to have the necessary understanding of the game to keep up.
Perhaps there is still a thing such as dead money after all…