Comparing No Limit Hold 'Em to Chess

I had an interesting discussion the other day comparing No Limit Hold ‘Em Poker with Chess. Now when I was a kid, I played chess competitively– I even managed to make a little money in some tournaments. When I first took up Poker in a serious way, I was surprised by how similar the games were in an abstract kind of way. It explains why so many people are enamored with both games.

Both Games Involve both Tactics and Strategy.
The difference between tactics and strategy is primarily one of scope. The only way I know to illustrate the difference is to draw a military analogy…

Strategy is immutable; it is a Big Picture look at a problem that focuses upon the entire forest and not individual trees. Military concepts such as objective, offensive, simplicity, unity of command, mass, economy of force, maneuver, surprise, and security represent the timeless principles of strategy. Why do you think Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been a best seller for thousands of years and translated into every imaginable language? Because it teaches strategy and the lessons of strategy are timeless. They are bound to our very nature as humans.

Tactics vary with circumstances and, especially, technology. If I were to teach you how to be a soldier during the American Revolution, you would learn how to form and maneuver in lines, perform the 27 steps in loading and firing a musket, and how to ride and tend to a horse. Naturally, yesterday’s tactics won’t win today’s wars – but yesterday’s strategies still win today’s wars… and will win them tomorrow and into the future.

To bring this back to the games I’m comparing and contrasting, there is very little pure strategy in non-tournament poker– in general, you’re simply using tactical moves. In tournaments, however, there is significant application of strategic thinking.

(I’m open to debate on this topic– but I’m confident I can prove to you that I’m correct if we agree on the definitions of strategies vs. tactics. In ring games, the only real strategic moves you make are psychological manipulations of your opponents.)

In poker tournaments, examples of strategy might include playing tight to survive early rounds, loosening up in later rounds and especially as tables get short-handed. Also, the varying application of the gap concept, and the relative value of chips as they relate to the size of your stack and the antes/blinds are also strategic thinking, as are long-term moves such as mixing up your play and establishing a specific table image for deceptive reasons.

Chess, on the other hand, is a game in which strategy is the primary element for expert-level play. Establishing a firm control of the center of the board, gaining (and exploiting) a material or positional advantage, etc. are all examples of chess strategy.

Tactics are much easier to illustrate because the correlate to specific moves that you might make in a given game. Check-raising is a common poker tactic, as is slow-playing, bluffing, etc. These are short-term tactics that allow you to execute on your strategy. In chess, you have tactics like discovered attacks, forks, and pins that, again, allow you to implement your longer-term strategy.

Both Games Reward Aggression
I’m constantly preaching that aggression is the key to winning at poker, a truism that finds its purest expression in no-limit games. However, it’s just as true in chess. If you’re spending all your energy trying to defend in chess, you’re playing a reactive game that can only win if your opponent makes a key mistake. In chess, as in poker, the best defense is a great offense.

Both Games Have Powerful Mathmatical Elements
In poker, you’re spending a lot of time calculating odds, statistical probability, and the relative value of a given hand. In general, you’re employing two branches of mathematics: statistics/probabilities, and game theory. Chess, on the other hand, can be accurately described as an expression of spatial relation and geometry-based patterns. (Most people don’t realize this until they get fairly deep into chess theory.) There’s also a very simplistic form of statistical analysis at work, in terms of calculating who has a greater degree of “force” on the board as expressed by their control of a higher number of squares on the board, with squares closer to the center having a higher degree of value.

Both Games Use Similar Metrics to Define “Who’s Winning”
In a poker tournament, it’s generally very obvious who is “winning” at a given time– you simply look at their stack of chips. While by no means a sign of certain victory, having your opponent out-chipped is a significant advantage. In chess, one of the primary gauges of your current level of success midway into a match would be based on whether or not you have managed to secure a “material advantage” for yourself. (This basically means you have a greater number and “quality” of pieces on the board.) To illustrate, let’s say that you and your opponent have the exact same pieces on the board, except you have managed to take one pawn and one rook from him, giving you a significant material advantage. At this point, it is highly advantageous to start making equal trades (a knight for a knight, a bishop for a bishop, etc.) until your 2-piece advantage is practically insurmountable. (Those two pieces may not seem like much of an advantage, but if you keep trading pieces until everything on the board EXCEPT those pieces is gone, checkmate is a mere formality.)

Both Games Have A Strong psychological Element
Those of you who play poker regularly know that the psychological element of the game is critical. However, the same is true of chess. If you know your opponent’s style in chess, it can be a huge advantage, and you can communicate a lot with a singe chess move. It’s hard to illustrate to a reader who doesn’t have a great degree of chess knowledge, so you’ll just have to trust me that there’s a lot of psychology in chess. :)

Both Games are Highly Positional
In Hold ‘Em, your position relative to the button is almost as important as the cards you hold in your hand. (I won’t bother explaining this fundamental poker concept.) In chess, the player who makes the first move has a slight advantage because he gets to set the tone for the game– in a way, every move that his opponent makes is, by definition, reacting to that first move. While not nearly as powerful an advantage as being “on the button,” making the first move in chess can make a difference in your strategy early in the game. (However, the difference wanes exponentially as the game progresses.) However, this is not the primary application of position in chess… in general, you’re trying to restrict your opponent’s movement, relegating them to a tiny degree of control over the board. In short, you want to gain a position advantage. If you have a powerful positional advantage in chess, and you’re a good enough player to exploit it, you can’t lose.

They aren’t the same, though…
However, these two games aren’t exactly the same– there are some differences. The biggest one (and the one that required the most getting used to for me) is poker’s element of chance. While it has little effect in the long run, in the short-run, the random nature of the cards can leave you talking to yourself. (Indeed, I’m convinced that most of the crazy homeless guys that stand outside 7/11 stores talking to themselves are really poker players lamenting bad beats.) It’s not like that in chess– the person who plays the best in a given match always wins. Always. There are no exceptions. You can always point to a specific instance where the losing player made a mistake.

Also, chess is a game of complete information, making it easier to define the correct long-term strategy, and even the best possible next move. You know exactly what pieces your opponent has, and where they are… this ma kes it theoretically possible to look forward and pre-calculate every possible thing that could happen in the game. In poker, on the other hand, you are missing some very important pieces of information, namely the cards your opponents hold. You cannot figure out the “optimal strategy” for a given hand without knowing this. To illustrate, it’s always a bad idea to play a jack-five offsuit before the flop into an all-in raise… unless you knew that your opponent had a jack-trey offsuit! It’s this lack of full disclosure that makes it extraordinarily difficult (impossible?) to build a computer program that plays poker as well as the very best human opponents. However, doing this in the chess world has largely been a problem of mustering enough computing power to calculate all the possible permutations of moves to a sufficiently deep level, a problem that has largely been solved.

Why does this matter?
Well, to be honest, it doesn’t… but as someone who has extracted a lot of enjoyment out of both games, it’s interesting to look at them and see the many ways that they are the same. Playing chess was always looked upon as a sign of intelligence, and proof that one could think strategically. It’s only recently that poker has acquired this same halo effect for its players, and it’s because that people are starting to realize that it’s at least as hard of a game. And that it’s hard for many of the same reasons.