This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2011 - I was watching ESPN Sunday night, and I noticed the World Series of Poker was being shown (live, with a 15-minute delay, due to Nevada gaming laws). One of the announcers noted that there was an "expert" chess player at the final table. In chess lingo, an expert is someone just below master level (unlike bridge, where an expert is above master).
Over the years, I have met many bridge, poker, backgammon and chess players, and many who play more than one of those games, if not all. Often these game players talk about what skills are necessary to be a top player in each. Of course, the commentators on ESPN gave their 2 cents about poker and chess.
Phil Hellmuth, a famous poker player, said that a lot of chess players play poker, but some don't like the fact that playing the "best way" is not always successful. He also said that there is a different skill set for each game.
I have heard this often in my own circle of friends. For example, a chess player who always plays the best move will win or draw every game. However, in poker, if you have the best hand and all the money goes in the pot, sometimes the "bad player" who calls you with a 1 percent chance of winning is awarded the pot at the end. That is because poker is a percentage, long-term game.
Over a long period of time, if you play better than your opponents, you will be a winning player. But on any one hand, you could play perfectly and still lose. Hellmuth insinuated that chess players don't like that. They are used to doing well when they play well and achieving bad results when they play badly.
Another commentator noted that the "expert chess player" who made the final table was very good at concentrating. He also stated that said player felt his poker game improved when he played in strong chess tournaments that lasted a week, since he was then ready to play long sessions of poker for days (just like the World Series).
I think the biggest difference in the mindset of the poker vs. chess player is the fact that, most of the time, poker players are playing for a lot more money. The typical chess player pays an entry fee in a chess competition of $5-$50 (maybe $100-$200 for really expensive chess tournaments) and may win $50-$100 in a good event.
In poker events, sometimes the entry fee is thousands of dollars, and even amateur players can win hundreds of thousands in one event. Every year I go to Las Vegas and play in the National Open Chess Festival. The entry fee is about $125 (I get to play for free, being a grandmaster), and first prize is $5,000 -$7,500 depending on the number of entries. A few miles away, the World Series is played at the Rio, and entry fees for some of the smaller tournaments are usually $1,000-plus. The main event entry fee in the World Series in $10,000!
The skills that make someone good at both poker and chess are patience and hard work. Grandmasters and top poker players alike are always trying to improve. Taking your time and making good decisions are the root skills every good game player needs. Sometimes in poker you lose a million dollar pot, and sometimes in chess you make a losing blunder after four hours of excellent play. Learning to deal with "bad beats" is what makes a good chess player a great chess player.
Ben Finegold is the GM in residence at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center.