Poker & Chess - Two Sides of the Cranial Coin

01 June ‘20, 12:00 am


“… In chess, you have just two opponents, each with identical resources, and with luck playing a minimal role. The real world is much more like a poker game, with multiple players trying to make the best of whatever hand fortune has dealt them.” – David Moschella

Eminent academicians like Mr. Moschella will always consider poker and chess to be sports that are very separate in their nature. However, and this is something you probably realise at an intuitive level yourself, the two have parallels closer than any board game will draw with chess, and any card game with poker. So, to begin with, here are a few levels on which poker and chess are like for like…


Few games require as much forethought as chess and poker. This is because, simply put, few games have such dire consequences for “wrong” moves. Minor errors, made early in the game, can drastically offset the chance for victory.


The argument is often made that chess will never be like poker because of the latter’s “gambling” element. However, to successfully clinch a comfortable win in chess, one needs to go out on a limb often enough to qualify it as gambling.

This comes from the need to predict or anticipate what your opponent is going for. Whether on the board or the table, correctly being able to identify your opponent’s motives are often the difference between dictating the play and succumbing to it.


In poker, there’s little need to explain the need to bluff. In chess, however, a huge part of tactical acumen rests in the ability to lure your opponent into a false narrative. Some of the proudest moves that every grandmaster will talk about is one where they deliberately made an inferior move, to influence the strategy of their opponent. This allows them to be certain of what their opponent is angling towards, what part of the board the stronger pieces will target, and so on. In chess, bluffing is primarily selling the opponent on a false strategy, and using it to mask your actual strategy.

Now, there are some obvious differences in these two “classical mind sports”, but even then they’re rooted in a similarity. This may sound confusing, so let’s bring in similes to do the talking: Chess and poker are like Harry Potter and Game Of Thrones. Both are similar in terms of genre, medium, and experiential quality, but have strikingly different narratives. While one gives you the comfort of well-defined primary characters and a plot that accommodates their being alive, the other gives you the thrill of not knowing what awaits whom around the next corner, no matter how crucial the character to the plot.

While one is definite about which characters are primary, the other takes time to give you any comfort of certainty.

In chess, you operate with complete information right from the start, while in poker you receive new information with every card. That’s why chess requires analytical depth, while poker demands a certain mental and emotional fortitude, with the ability to be able to strategise fluidly, on one’s feet.

Further proof of the undeniable parallels between the two sports come in the form of professionals who have competed in both. Jeff Sarwer is a former World Youth Chess champion, who has also been the final tablist on the European Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has also turned to poker as his primary sport, as well as Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, who is now a bona fide poker pro. She maintains that learning poker lends chess players a certain practicality, while playing chess lends poker pros a new level of foresight, which comes in handy when you’re furiously calculating probability while masking your emotions.

All in all, these are two mind-bending sports that don’t have anything alike in their immediate category. Both are immensely complex, both demand strategic and tactical agility, and both reward the art of deception. While chess does offer a more stable, predictable sequence of events, poker is made for those who enjoy tackling discomfort, and inducing it in the people they’re playing against.

Be it on the board or the table, for the river or the checkmate, these are two sports that are bound by their need for cunning, mental guile, and a certain ruthlessness that threatens to blur the boundaries of sportsmanship. Neither are for the faint-hearted; both are for the willingly wicked!





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