The Merits of Playing Poker vs. Chess
Should our kids be playing poker instead of chess?
You may have heard the saying “This is chess, not checkers,” implying we’re involved in a situation that requires analysis and foresight. It’s been said in all kinds of contexts - in the movie Training Day about undercover police work, CEOs when running major corporations, boxing commentators talking about the sweet science, and NFL head coaches talking about game plans. The basic idea of this saying is that the activity (that you’re comparing to chess) is complex, that it isn’t a simple matter like checkers. You not only have to think many steps ahead, you have to plan and react to what your opponent does.
In all of these situations, what they should really be saying is “This is poker, not chess.”
Why do we play games in the first place?
Games encompass all sports, competitions, video games, card games, and board games. The easy answer is that games are fun. Why do we then obsess about teaching our kids certain games (sports, specifically)? And if it’s just about fun, why do we also obsess about the less-fun aspects like practice, training, and preparation?
Most of us realize games provide benefits outside of the gaming arena. It’s a safe space where we can explore, play, and learn. Playing games and sports throughout life teach us all sorts of lessons about teamwork, strategy, pressure, practice, emotional control… I could go on. 99.999% of game-players don’t become professional in their chosen arenas, but we still play because these games enrich our lives in a multitude of ways.
The Nature of the World
The World is Imperfect
Chess belongs to a class of games called perfect information games. A perfect information game means the entire state of the game is visible. In chess, you can see the entire board, and all the pieces. Contrast this to poker, where your opponents cards are either completely hidden or partially hidden. Perfect information games have been the first frontier of AIs playing games better than humans, as you don’t need to make any assumptions about the current game state; therefore, these games are generally simpler for AIs to either solve or win against humans.
Perfect information games: Chess, Go, Connect-4
Imperfect information games: Poker, most multiplayer video games, scrabble
Our entire existence outside of games relies on imperfect information. The surrounding context of our earthly decisions is massive; therefore, it’s impossible to know all relevant information - whether we are trying to close a business deal, market a product, or renovate a house. We have to rely on both deductive and inductive reasoning, educated guesswork, and communication. We have to fill in gaps of information or ignore certain information altogether. How we use the limited information we have - and with how much conviction to act on it - is a challenge we face in the biggest decisions we make in our lives. Poker can train this ability better than chess. Chess is an arena where we know nothing is missing, where we don’t need to communicate or get contextual information - the board is the board. In poker, like in life, context is everything.
The World has Things Outside of Your Control
Chess belongs to another class of games, known as deterministic games. The players control the entire game state. There is no element of chance. What has happened has happened only because a player has chose it to happen. Poker is a non-deterministic (stochastic) game, where there are elements of randomness. However, it is important to distinguish poker from a pure game of chance, like roulette. Poker is also not a game that becomes a game of pure chance after implementing a simple, solved strategy, like with blackjack or other casino table games.
Deterministic Games: chess, checkers, go, connect-4
Stochastic games: any sport with a ball or tool (football, tennis, etc.), all card and dice games
One of the key axioms of poker is to focus on process over results - only process can be controlled, and with a good enough process, results eventually follow. The same is true in the world. How often have you heard that something is a ‘numbers game’ (sales pitches, job applications, basketball shots, and.. dating?) - the core idea of a ‘numbers game’ is that there’s a lot up to chance when you take an action, so don’t let one bad result stop you. In chess, on the other hand, there is only you to blame and you to credit. This is a very appealing thought, but a very false one when it’s applied outside the context of chess. The clear feedback chess provides makes it easier to improve - given a certain amount of time, skill development will happen in a more linear manner in chess than in poker. Chess is also more ‘fair’ in the traditional sense. Life is not fair, and learning to distinguish between the things that work and don’t work in this messy world is an incredibly important skill to develop.
The World is Asymmetric
Chess has three outcomes - either you win, lose, or draw. The objective is simple - just win (or try to draw if you’re in a losing position). You don’t get extra points for winning fast or for losing a close one (ELO ratings, which take in to account how good the player is you beat or draw with, are a separate metric outside the game itself). In poker, scale matters. How much you win, and even at what speed you do it, measures how good of a player you are. You can lose in 70% of your sessions and still be a better poker player (aka have made more money, as money is the score-keeping tool in poker) than someone that has won in 70% of their sessions.
2 or 3 outcome games: most sports, chess, go, connect-4
Wide range outcome games: card games that keep track of points or tricks, games where speed or quantity matters (e.g. first person shooters)
In the real world, scale matters. It doesn’t matter that you just “win” or “succeed” in life, but how you do it and the magnitude of that success. Venture capital firms are built around this idea - all of them have more duds than successes, but the scale of those successes make or break the firm. This is true in love, business, career - fail many times but succeeding big once can turn each of these categories around quickly. The Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule), where 20% of the causes create 80% of the effects, is a prevalent phenomenon across nature. Equal scoring of all wins and all losses, common to many games, has few parallels in the world.
The World has Others
Poker requires more emotion regulation than chess. I am not arguing that emotion regulation is not also important in chess. Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy depicted in the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, devotes whole chapters of his writing to playing well while overcoming agitated emotions. Poker, however, deals an extra form of emotional turmoil: pure chance and things outside the player’s control affecting outcomes. Mental coaches and sports psychologists are more prevalent in poker than in chess, as are meditation and yoga as a performance tool. Learning to manage frustration and act optimally when we feel turbulent inside has obvious corollaries to our journey through the ups and downs of life.
Poker also requires more reasoning about the intentions and actions of other players. Given a chess puzzle, you can find an optimal solution without any background about the players involved. Chess relies on spatial reasoning and pattern recognition. Given a poker hand, you always give background about the players involved and any relevant history. To be fair, poker has become more analytical and less feel-based in recent years, and the general skill level of players have grown because of it. However, the soft skill of understanding a player’s motivations and emotional state still contributes to effective decision making. This combination of analytical strength and emotional intelligence is one of many reasons you see ex players finding outside success in startups and business.
The Lessons we Learn
This is the part where I slightly backtrack from my clickbait title. Poker takes place in a much more adult environment. Gambling addiction is very real - it runs in my family - so I have to be extra careful when I teach my kid poker. And because the scorecard for poker is money (any game with play-money does not approximate the ‘skin-in-the-game’ requirement of poker), it’s not very realistic to think a 6 year old could pony up and play. The boundary around games - that makes it safe to explore and take chances - well that safety is not quite there with a game like poker compared to chess, which you can play risk-free. There is real financial pain with poker.
With anything non-deterministic, it’s also very easy to learn the wrong lessons. In my 20 years of playing, I’ve played with countless people that have more experience than me but still take away all the wrong lessons from the game. “It’s not how I played the hand, it’s the dealers fault!” is an all-too-common thought process. It’s much easier to find scapegoats when there is chance involved. Results get easily disconnected from their causes, leaving us and our reasoning ability to decipher which actions create the best outcomes.
With deterministic games, it’s easier to find the correct lessons. It’s clearer to trace back to an error you made, or a moment of brilliance you found. And maybe that’s why we push our kids towards chess. The lessons are cleaner and easier to understand. Maybe it’s a better training ground, especially the younger we are.
I don’t need to go over the benefits of chess - they are widely published and widely accepted by society. Parents brim with pride when they mention their child plays chess. On the other hand, most kids in high school hide that they play poker from their parents. However, it is clearly a game that has more lessons to offer with parallels to the real world.
The Quality of a Great Game
Both poker and chess are great games - I would never argue against playing or teaching your kids either, despite the title of this article. They both perfectly embody the #1 trait of great games - they are simple to learn but offer enormous depth with endless opportunities to improve.
Another similarity between chess and poker, along with almost every game, is their zero-sum nature. Player A’s gain is exactly equal to player B’s loss. The world, of course, is not zero-sum. Zero-sum games are training grounds. They are worth playing because they offer fun and hard-earned lessons which we can use to add a positive-sum to the world.
Thank you for reading. I have a new YouTube channel with topics on finance, science, and self-development. Please check it out!
I would also love to hear your thoughts on this article whether you play poker, chess, or both.