Does poker get enough respect…?
One of the year’s biggest TV hits, The Queen’s Gambit, centred around an intense, troubled young woman in 1960s America and her journey from orphan to queen of the chess world. Around the globe chess is now enjoying a bizarre boom. I’m sure it’ll die down as soon as would-be champions (or, more accurately, pushy parents of would-be champions) realise that this fantastical, albeit entertaining fictional adventure bears no resemblance to reality. (Somebody needs to write a poker version…)
But, for now, people have been bitten by the chess bug to the point that they’re finding it difficult to buy chess sets in the US! Suppliers – after years of catering to a finite, if loyal clientele – have found themselves unexpectedly overwhelmed by demand. Suddenly, I’m seeing my contemporaries from my pro chess days being interviewed on TV.
What does this have to do with poker, I hear you ask. Well, first, chess and poker are very close bedfellows, and a number of chess players who found themselves reading this article will – being already interested in poker – inevitably give good old Texas Hold’em a try. And I’m all for converting chess fans to poker…
Secondly, one of the questions chess masters were sure to be asked during these interviews is the old classic ‘How many moves can you think ahead?’…
I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years I’ve been asked this very same question. It’s understandable, but misplaced nonetheless, and to explain why – and give a meaningful answer – would be a whole new article in itself.
However, this specific question leads me to one of my own – namely, when I first tell people my work revolves around poker, that I’ve played across the globe from Vegas to Vienna, that I write about the game just as I have done about chess… why is their initial curiosity NEVER anything to do with the tremendous amount of thought and analysis and concentration that goes into the game? Poker players are constantly under pressure, and are required to think ahead when confronted with critical, nerve-wracking make or break decisions, practically every time they sit down at the table. Chess, of course, is an all-thinking game, but the unknown/luck element in poker due to information gaps caused by not knowing who holds which cards and what will come next doesn’t in any way negate the skill element. In fact, one could argue that this lack of a full picture makes ‘thinking’ – and, significantly, thinking ahead – all the more of an imperative.
Yet I could tell the very same person that I’m a chess pro or a poker pro, and get two quite different reactions. The ‘How far can you think ahead?’ question is a given, but – and I know I speak for other poker players here – when it comes to poker the reaction might well be ‘Oh – my friend bets on horse racing a lot’ or ‘I have a cousin who also used to gamble at the casino – he lost a lot at roulette’…
Now, as a poker player – as opposed to someone who peppers a roulette table with chips based on lucky numbers, birthdays, the fact that the ball has landed on 28 twice in the last hour, what a horoscope has suggested in that day’s newspaper and so on – my initial reaction to the ill-informed questions above is to want to point out what one would hope is an obvious, fundamental difference between roulette and poker. The former is a game of total, 100% chance where the only concrete mathematical fact is that the house has a permanent edge thanks to the presence of a zero or two on the wheel. There is zero skill involved in the context of the fact that however much thought we put in, whatever our effort or analytical genius, we have no influence on the outcome. Poker, on the other hand, is played against other players, with understanding and ability of everyone involved being key factors which cumulatively create a complex analytical conundrum, hand after hand, with the best players inevitably finishing at the top of the pile over time. Moreover, the ‘unknown’ element, being the same for everyone, while of course introducing variance, at the same time adds to the thought and skill that is required. Anyone can gamble and get lucky, but the more able, skillful, thinking player will eventually emerge ahead over time.
Note my deliberate inclusion of the word ‘also’ in ‘…also used to gamble…’ here. The assumption is that roulette and other games against the House, and betting on horse racing or football or tossing a coin and so on, and poker, are all classed as gambling and therefore exactly the same in terms of skill. The poker industry reluctantly uses the g-word because this common but erroneous fundamental misconception can mean poker is denied the respect it deserves as a complex mind game of skill and ability. But semantics shouldn’t alter the fact that ‘thinking ahead’ is no less applicable to poker as it is to chess, being part and parcel of the constant battle to overcome fellow players as we all try to navigate a route through the jungle that can be a single hand.