Chess and Poker: From 64 squares to 52 Cards
As I write this, the U.S. Chess Championships and U.S. Women's Chess Championships are wrapping up at the Saint Louis Chess Club. The latter is a competition I have won twice, and this tumultuous time for American poker is a perfect occasion to compare my two favorite skill-based games.
Chess players often adapt well to poker, picking the game up rather quickly. Star examples include original November-niner Ylon Schwartz, author and World Series of Poker champion Dan Harrington, and French poker pro and International Master Almira Skripchenko. I got into poker via my brother Greg Shahade, who is a Super Nova on PokerStars and an International Master of chess. Greg is also the founder of the US Chess League, which PokerStars sponsors.
When I first learned to play poker, the things that made me a champion chess player helped me enormously. I approached the game with analytical fervor, and was interested in what the best move was, berating myself much more for playing badly than for losing. My gaming background also helped me avoid typical psychological roadblocks to poker success such as fear and boredom.
In this article, I'll focus on a few tips from my work in chess, which I have also found immensely valuable in poker:
Before a big event, go over fundamentals: Confidence is key to top form in both poker and chess. In chess, it's better to err on the side of over-confidence rather than under-confidence. Lack of self-belief can cause a player to move slowly which is disastrous in a high-intensity timed chess game. Before a major chess event, I will always go over simpler puzzles than I would during a general training period. Similarly, before the World Series or another major event, I wouldn't want to read an article on poker, watch a video or talk to a player that made me feel as if I knew nothing. Those types of deeply humbling learning experiences may help in the long-term, but in the short-term I don't believe in shattering my sense of self-confidence with information that I will not have time to absorb and apply correctly.
If it doesn't hurt, you're probably not doing it right: Before competitive chess games, I'd spend the whole morning combing databases with millions of chess games, analyzing my opponent's previous strategies. Most of my games would last about five hours and after that I'd engage in "post-mortems," where hero and villain worked together to pinpoint where the vanquished erred. After the process, I often felt like eating a steak and then putting my brain on ice.
Because there is a luck element in poker, it's easy for me to indulge in many distracting activities, from twitter to daydreams. Still I believe that after a long day of poker, I should feel as exhausted as after a chess game. If I don't, I'm probably not exerting enough mental energy.
Embrace Tension: In chess, I like to attack, attack and attack! I like to execute concrete ideas such as captures and checks, which often culminate in beautiful checkmate. Other times it releases all the tension in a position and leads to a draw, in which case neither player wins. In both chess and poker, a style that appears aggressive can actually be a style that fears complexity. Many of the top online players today raise the minimum preflop and carefully size their 3 and 4-bets to add layers to the game rather than scare their opponents away with oversize bets. Since I recognize a tendency in myself to release tension in chess, when I look over hand histories and find myself padding bets in no limit, I am able to step back and analyze why.
Strategy vs. Tactics: Books on chess middlegames are often broken into two categories--strategy and tactics. Tactics refer to short operations to win your opponent's pieces, while strategy refers to long-term plans to gain an advantage when there are no obvious winning ideas on the horizon. European Poker Tour regular and former chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer said that his favorite time during poker tournaments is during the breaks, when he can focus on strategic thinking. "Much like a chess position where you take a bit of time away from pure calculation to analyze how your opponent feels . . . You can feel who is becoming edgier, who is becoming more passive, and set up particular plans for individuals at the table. That planning feels so chess-like!"
The learning process is not a one-way street. Chess players could also learn a lot from poker players about money management and psychology. For instance, poker pros know better than chessmasters, that it's not about playing perfect moves, but finding the perfect way to rattle an opponent.
In a time of change for the PokerStars community, it is more important than ever to compare poker to other skill based activities. And since April 15th, I find myself more than ever reflecting upon the parallels between 64 squares and 52 cards.