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Red Hot Poker

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The Washington Post has an interesting article on the popularity boom poker is enjoying.

"Poker is on fire, its popularity fanned by a combination of television, technology and, for some, the allure of big money.

The game Mark Twain once complained was "unpardonably neglected" in the United States is now played by hundreds of thousands of people online 24 hours a day and by celebrities on television."

Ah, what the elements of chance and money can do for a game. Sure, poker has a fairly high skill quotient and the longer a game goes the better chance the more skilled players will win. But chess it ain't. An amateur with good nerves and a few months of study can beat the world's best if he has a lucky streak. The last few poker championships were won by amateurs. With so many amateurs flooding the game, their sheer numbers overwhelm the pros for the top prizes. Still, the pros benefit overall from all the "dead money" coming into the game since they win more on the percentages over time.

Not much of a model for chess to imitate. The bluffing and odds-beating that make poker fun for amateurs, even beginners, to gamble on don't exist in chess. Some people just like to gamble, period. Bluffing, losing money, and beating odds all translate directly to television viewers, even if they barely understand the rules. And without the gambling element you won't see the massive promotion poker is getting from casinos.

Many chess players are heavily into card games, including poker. Six-time US champion Walter Browne is a veteran card shark. There are countless anecdotes about Lasker and other pre-WWII champions' addiction to whist, changing the names and the game to bridge post-war.


One of the top poker pros, Howard Lederer, has some sort of chess background (on some poker tv shows they state he was a master, although I've tried to look up his USCF ranking to no avail, and I tend to doubt it). From his bio:

"At eighteen, Howard deferred college for a year and moved to New York to pursue his passion for chess. He soon discovered a poker game in the back room of his favorite chess club - and was immediately hooked."

Geoff, I read your comments about Howard Lederer and found something very interesting (to me at least) that I didn’t recall from my past. I was thinking his rating would not be on the USCF site since they only have rating history since about 1991, and Howard is older than that. I went to look up his age just to be sure and I read his biography on his official site. As soon as I saw he was from NH, it hit me in a flash that I had actually played and beat him in my very first tournament back in 1980. We were both VERY weak at the time.

I left the state to join the USAF shortly after so I do not personally know how he progressed, but I just spoke to Hal Terrie, the “NH Chess Answer Man”, who has been very active in NH chess since before I started playing in 1980. He told me that Howard was about 2150 USCF when he left for NY, and then played in some major tournaments there. It is very possible that Howard Lederer did in fact break 2200 and became a master since he is clearly a pretty smart analytical guy, and was still young at that time.

Kevin Cotreau
3-Time NH State Champion

We're all playing poker now. It's just better, more interesting, and much more profitable. Chess is stupid and for nerds.

We know John is joking since he's here and this ain't a poker blog (yet). But not everyone enjoys the rush of gambling. The bluff psychology, the chance element, and the money are very addictive to many people. To others they are turn-offs compared to the science of chess. Watching a pool cleaner complete a flush on a dumbass 50-to-1 play and win is somewhat repulsive. Not just poker or cards, but anything with so much chance and so much hidden info.

I'm afraid your article is plagued with shoddy analysis. (Were there only a Fritz for journalism!) The whole dead money thing has been misunderstood (TJ Cloutier wrote about in the latest Cardplayer), as has the luck/chance ratio. The uncertainty is there in chess, too, only it is internal. And convince me the World Championship hasn't been "randomized" by FIDE.

But one thing for certain: chess permits you to retain quite a collection of personal weaknesses and still play pretty well; they usually fall under the euphemism "stylistic preferences." Poker demands a self-honesty and correction of leaks that many chessplayers just can't muster. You have to look at your dark side and know it.

Well, maybe I'm wrong there; perhaps if I'd know this when I was a chessplayer I'd have broken 2600. :-)

Anyway, you're right on the money about the money. I may have won more in my first 3 months playing poker than I ever did playing chess (of course I've had some unchesslike losses since...). And the prospect of hitting at some final table, as quite a few ex-chessplayers have, is real and enticing. And on TV? Deal me in.


Howie was a Washington Square Park chess hustler/master. I didn't know him then, but Diana Lanni credits herself with hauling him out of there and finding him "honest" work. I first met him at the Mayfair Club, after it changed from backgammon (way after bridge) to poker; he was sitting with Erik Seidel, analyzing a hand as if it were a chess or backgammon position. I was rather surprised, having no idea one could take poker so seriously. This was maybe 1990 or so.

A few years later I visited the late Coterie Club, perhaps the nicest place ever to play backgammon, and Chuck Papazian cornered me to play speedchess for what was for me great stakes -- Chuckie was hustling himself for the exercise, because, as he put it, "I'm gonna win some Bubbloons later." i.e. he had a blitz session for much higher money with Howard (known as "Bubba"). I remember they were stuck on some warped French Defense line. Bogart knew better (see Casablanca).

Elliot, as in chess analysis, condemning an article without providing any information is worthless. Internal versus external is entirely the point. Chess is a 100% information game, poker is not. There are no external factors as there are in just about any card or dice game.

As for the KO, chance in a game of chess is not the same as chance in a chess tournament. My point was about how the games aren't similar and so won't attract the same players or media attention. A game in which someone who learned the rules less than a year ago can win hundreds of thousands of dollars has little to offer chess.

The Cloutier article refers to top tournaments and how many unknown players are actually quite good. But the overall influx of weak players with money to lose can't help but put more money in the pockets of the better players. Unless of course poker is even easier than I thought, which is what I glean from the article. In it, he says:

"What the pros sometimes forget is that anyone with some basic knowledge of how to play the game can pick up a hand here and there, and suddenly have a whole lot of chips. And on any given day, lots of chips combined with some old-fashioned horse sense can lead you to the winner's circle regardless of your level of experience."


That does bring up another element in big poker tournaments, beating weaker players can provide you with ammo to beat stronger ones later. Of course that poker usually involves more than two players makes comparisons with chess even less worthwhile. I was more interested in the business model.

I enjoyed both sets of comments, and can't say anything about poker itself, as I've never played. I think Mig makes a very good point that even an audience unfamiliar with the rules in poker can find the televised games exciting, something chess has had more difficulty managing.

I do think Elliott's (two t's, by the way) comments may represent a fairly rare personal perspective, and should be taken seriously on that basis. He is an International Master at chess, has previously played for the World Championship in Backgammon, and recently took up Poker on the tournament level.

Few people reach those levels in even one game, let alone multiples. So I would think his ability to compare and contrast the characteristics of the games would probably run very deep. How much significance that would have for those of us playing at much lower levels is yet another question. :)

(I always liked Steve Kelly's line: "Grandmasters play a different game than we do. It just happens to have the same rules as ours.")


One of my best friends in college was a competitive poker player in the '80s. He had left college after 3 years to make his fortune with some friends salvaging computer parts, and for almost a decade he and his partners were each making in the neighborhood of $500,000 to $600,000 a year (which was a lot of money in those days). He also played high stakes poker in the card casinos in Southern California, Las Vegas and Reno. When he came back to college to finish his education, he had to sell his Porsche to afford the tuition.

You could draw the conclusion that my friend was a lousy poker player but, in fact, he was quite a good poker player and at one time or the other had beaten pretty much everybody who played in the high stakes games during that period and had one several poker tournaments in Las Vegas. But, like a lot of gamblers, at some point he just lost his perspective, played when he shouldn't have played, kept chasing the big win, and lost pretty much everything. This, unfortunately, is a very common story in the poker world.

I suppose if you are someone like Elliott Winslow with a strong natural talent for games you MIGHT make some money in the poker world. (I wish Elliott luck; I met him at the U.S. Open in Pasadena in the early '80s and he is a very nice guy.) There are, in fact, a lot of very bad poker players out there eager to give you their money. But poker players almost never exhibit the common sense and self-control that is necessary to make a profit from the game, and even casual players can get caught up in the lure of easy money, the andrenaline of gambling, and the belief that the next hand will be the big one. Most serious poker players I have known have self-destructed in one way or the other at some point. Some never recovered.

I worry about this poker craze, the online gambling, the fascination with televised poker. Gambling doesn't create money, and for every big winner there are a lot of losers. But gambling is horribly addictive and, once bitten by the bug, it is hard to get the monkey off your back.

I think I'll stick to chess, thank you, and I won't expect to win any money playing it.


It would seem that Poker is much easier to master than Chess. The University of Alberta computer games group in Edmonton has a program which is probably good enough to win a long, heads-up match against 99.99% of the poker players in the world. Yet the amount of programming time and research effort that has gone into this project is a tiny fraction of the effort spent on computer Chess.

Watch out for the Edmonton program. It will soon be making headlines. I'd bet on it!

I'm quasi-joking, perhaps, but I don't really see a future in chess for me, while I do see one in poker. If it wasn't for the New York Masters and these chess matches I keep doing, I'd probably have very little if any contact with chess. It just ceases to interest me, really.

The number of people in the United States making a living exclusively from chess is miniscule compared to the number making it from poker. That result means that chess can be nothing more than a hobby for 99.9999% of players in the U.S., while poker can truly be a profession, or at the very least a paying hobby. In terms of practicality of expected value vs. the amount of time one invests in a game of choice, poker is in a whole other league than chess. In fact, other than printing a worthless newsletter on chess, I find it difficult to name just about any US chessplayer that makes his living at ONLY the game itself. In poker, I personally know a few score, and have been doing it myself for close to a decade.

Gambling and luck are the components that keep the poker games alive. Because chess is such an exact science, only a fool would continue to play it for money when your chances of winning are nil. If you are an ELO 2000, why would you EVER play for money against an ELO 2400 (unless its just ‘someone’ who claims to be that strong but isn’t, and you could get odds from him based on his inflated self-evaluation – this example applies to TRUE 2400s.). If you just match up with other true ELO 2000’s, all you would be doing is pushing money back and forth to each other in circles, with just minor fluctuations due to variance in play, all of which would zero out in the long run. Once you reach a certain ELO and stay there for, say 5 years or so, you pretty much know what level you are at, who you can beat, and who you can’t beat. There is really nothing to gamble on, and thus no interest.

The incomplete information and luck aspects are what keeps weaker players WILLING to play against stronger poker players. They don’t know what they don’t know, and most are unwilling to apply the time and effort to realize how far back they stand, since, hey, they do win occasionally. The incomplete information and luck aspects are a BLESSING for the game of poker.

People who know nothing about the world of poker (like Mig) draw all their conclusions from the recent explosion of televised poker, and the specialized form of poker contained within. Here is a little secret. Most of the ‘big name’ TOURNAMENT poker players are broke, and the ‘lucky’ ones are being backed by OTHER’S money, not their own, since they don’t have any. This includes TJ Cloutier, who has been Lyle Berman’s Horse for years and years. He recently had an emergency visit to the hospital, and they had to PASS A HAT AROUND to help him pay his hospital bill. Yet he is one of the all time money winners at the WSOP.

I would say that if you named 20 ‘famous’ poker names (tournament only players, not the few successful at both tourney and ring games), more than half (easily more) would be known broke-and-begging people in the poker world. The structure of TOURNAMENT poker, particularly the no-limit variety (rising blinds, pushing all-in preflop to eliminate just about all of post flop play [where there is a ton of skill], the extremely large fields that you must beat to see ANY payoff, and the high (and growing higher) house juice, and high travelling expenses), means there is HUGE variance between expected and actual results. You may be the best tournament poker player in the world, with some obscene expectation (lets say 300% of a buy-in per entry), and still run out of money before winning a major 10K tournament. Its just too difficult to be properly funded beforehand to survive the variance that is tournament poker.

The real pros are cash game players, grinding our living at limit ring games, and making cash with much lower relative variance compared to tournaments. We are not known by name, because there is no “1st Place” award for what we do, and thus no hype. There is also little chance for amateurs to ‘luck out’ in these games for any sustained period of time (over 10,000 hands for instance), unlike tournaments where someone CAN win his 7 or 8 key hand matchups in a row ant take down the big money. The grinding, long-term nature of cash games, with immediate rewards and punishments, can quickly displace the luck element enough in a short enough time span to make a real living at the game.

Heads up, No-Limit hold’em is relatively easy to model on a computer and have it play ‘perfect’ game theoretical expected value game. Notice the two caveats – HEADS UP, and NO-LIMIT (i.e. eliminating all flop, turn, river play by going all-in). Once a pot in poker gets multi-way (3 or more players, each with a different style), the equations become increasingly complex and unpredictable, and thus very difficult for a programmer to ‘solve’ for his computer creation. AAdd in play on each round, and its even harder. Since poker is a game of incomplete information, and sometimes a great deal of irrationality, there is nothing close to a Fritz 8 or Deep Junior in the poker world (at least not made public). There are plenty of researchers using computers and modeling, but I think we are keeping most of our programs to ourselves. It;s just too profitable.

If you publish a worthless newsletter about chess, its makes sense for you to highlight that game’s virtues versus others, if just to be relevant. But the comparison is ridiculously biased. Spend $50 on Fritz 8 and you have more power and research on the game of chess that everyone save for a few of the top GM’s in the whole world would every be able to understand and use, totally dwarfing anything YOU could do at the chessboard. No, chess has not been completely ‘solved’, but it’s a lot closer to reaching that state than poker is at this point. If you want to remember the first 18 moves in ECO for all the openings by rote just to be competitive, and then make no money doing it – go for chess. But if you want to spend that time on a game where the best theories are still in development and that pays you directly for your efforts, choose poker. And don’t be deceived in thinking that TV Tournament Poker is what I’m talking about, like others who know nothing about the subject, but feel the need to comment on it.

You make some interesting points, J10Suited, but I also think you overstate your case in many ways. Leaving your gratuitous insults of Mig and "The Daily Dirt" aside (I don't agree with them, but I don't feel that they are worth addressing), I would take issue with a couple of things:

First, you don't support your claim that there are substantial numbers of people making a living from poker with any evidence or even firm numbers. Given the fact that the rise of internet poker has made it easier for poker pros to make a living (because of the 24-hour availability of games, the ability to play multiple tables simultaneously, the larger pool of "loose" casual players, etc.), I still haven't ever seen any convincing statistics about how many people actually make a living solely from poker. I suspect that the great majority of poker "pros" actually supplement their income in other ways (like a day job, for example). I don't play poker for money any more, but I have always been fascinated with the poker culture from a sociological standpoint. One thing that I have observed re: poker players is that there is probably no other "sports" culture in the world (at least that I am familiar with) that has so many people making exaggerated claims about their success. The same players that brag about their success often spend much of their time trying to put together another bankroll so they can go for another round. So I am not inclined to trust any unsupported statements that "x number of players are making x amount of dollars from poker," and even less inclined to trust the much more indeterminant statements that you seem to be making.

Second, even assuming that the proposition that a substantial number of people make a living playing poker is true (and I am willing to concede that, at least in these days of internet poker, it is at least theoretically possible for skilled poker players to win fairly consistently at say, mid-limit Texas Hold'em on one of the internet poker sites), I am not sure how this fact supports your thesis that poker is somehow better than chess. I would guess that there are more people in the U.S. that make their living committing robberies than from poker, but that doesn't make robbery preferable to poker or robbers preferable to poker players (although some people might think it's a close call). I am fairly familiar with both the chess and poker subcultures, and I prefer the former and its inhabitants. There are actually people that play chess for the art and beauty of the game and in a spirit of healthy competition. In contrast, the vast majority of poker players I have known (at least the ones who play seriously for money) have had a kind of hustler mentality. They don't play poker for its "beauty", but for the ego gratification that they derive from beating others and the adrenaline rush that they derive from gambling. (Okay, and for the money too.) My personal observations suggest to me that the level of social/mental dysfunction in the world of serious poker players is very high; almost the rule rather than the exception.

The relative ease of computer modeling of chess as compared to poker is another "fact" (probably a true one, I concede, since playing poker at a high skill level requires you to "read" your opponents based on limited information and psychological instincts, something that computer programs cannot yet do) that does not support your conclusion that poker is somehow better than chess. Poker may be to some extent an "unsolvable" problem because it is, in some sense, inchoate: other than the ability to calculate mathematical probabilities (e.g., pot odds, the odds of making a hand, etc.) and make rational decisions based on those odds, the greatest skill factor in poker seems to be the ability to observe your opponents and predict their future play based on those observations, while preventing them from doing the same to you. While I admit that skilled poker players are often eerily good at "reading" their opponents (particularly their unskilled opponents: reading a good poker player is of course much harder given that he/she is much more conscious about the dangers of predictability and will often consciously generate disinformation), I don't think that this factor makes poker somehow more interesting than chess. It just means that poker has a strong psychological element.

Moreover, if you are hinting that the lack of effective poker engines and the existence of strong chess engines makes it somehow harder to cheat at poker than to cheat at chess, you are being intentionally disingenuous. If you are as knowledgeable a poker player as you claim, you must be aware of the fact that in the world of mid- and high-stakes poker cheating is endemic. Even in internet poker, there is almost certainly a great deal of cheating in the form of collusion between multiple players at the same table, and the efforts of the internet poker sites to prevent this kind of collusion seem to be half-hearted and probably largely ineffective.

I admit that there is a fascination to the poker culture that can be mezmerizing (anyone who has read, e.g., Alvarez's "The Biggest Game In Town" or Hayano's "Poker Faces", or spent any time around poker players in the So Cal card clubs, Las Vegas or Reno will know what I mean). But I feel that this fascination is more akin to what people feel when watching physical disasters on the news, or watching the guests on an afternoon talk show go after each other. Some aspects of the poker world are so extreme, and some poker players so over-the-top, that you just can't help watching. But it probably is not an entirely healthy fascination, and I personally try to avoid spending too much time indulging in it. To the extent you might claim that professional poker players such as yourself are somehow removed from the tawdrier and more fantastic aspects of the poker world, I have to say that, to the extent this is true, I don't find what you do very interesting. Playing Texas Hold'em over the internet for medium stakes and hustling a bunch of loose fish who have never read any poker theory and are largely ignorant of the laws of probabability (and, possibly, don't even know what "J10Suited" means) may be moderately profitable as an exercise in applied statistics, but it is not exactly a compelling spectator sport.

On the other hand, I have known people who have played chess and participated in the chess culture all their lives, and who have derived a great deal of pleasure from both their own games and the games of others. On most of these people, chess appears to have had a generally benign effect. (Of course, you can overdo anything, chess included.) I just don't see the same level of dysfunction among serious chessplyers as I do among serious poker players.

Anyway, I have probably ranted long enough. I suppose it is possible to make a decent living and as a professional poker player while maintaining a healthy attitude toward life, and I wish you luck. But I think the odds are heavily against you. And someday you may discover, as countless poker players before you, that the house has taken its "rake" and that the odds are borne out in the end.


Chess and poker are both great games, and beyond that there is no comparison of the two. In one game you play the precise position on the board, in the other you play the uncertain set of circumstances. A superior human being, such as myself, can love and play both games without bickering pettily over which is better, realizing that neither is. Fools such as Geof, who have too much of their personal identity tied up in either game, cannot.

But there is no question that the business model of poker is far superior, which was the actual "thesis" of JTs' post. Want to be a professional chess player when you grow up? I don't think so. Want to be a professional poker player? Well you may destroy yourself in the process, but it is at least possible.

The ones who don't make it don't make it because they are losers, now exposed to the world. You can be WSOP champion and still be a loser. The ones who do make it are winners, and winners in the truest sense of the word. Not only are they winners at poker, but at the greatest game of all: survival.

And it's all as simple as that.

Now Geof, I am truly glad that you will stick to chess because as you yourself point out poker can be quite damaging. Of course, as I just explained it is damaging to losers, not winners. And not only can it damage just the finances, but the fragile ego as well. Have a nice life.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on September 8, 2004 12:40 AM.

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