Poker vs. Chess: Which Game Is Harder to Master?


Poker and chess are two of the oldest games that we’ve been playing for centuries. Both are entertaining mind games that rely on skills to outplay the other player. But when someone is thinking about which of these two should they play, the first thing they’d ask is what game is harder to master, right?

Poker is a harder game to master. It relies on the general population tendency. A professional poker player understands how most people would react in certain situations, while chess depends on forward-thinking and calculations. Chess masters always adapt to changes to make the best possible move.

Knowing which of these games is harder to master will depend on a player’s skill set or the skills he’s willing to develop. We’ll compare both games in great detail to help you understand the difference between the two. Stick around to learn more about it and to find out which of these games is a better choice for you.

In chess, you can still study moves from Bobby Fischer from more than 50 years ago. Master them and you will be a great chess player. If you would study someone’s poker game from 50 years ago, you would get destroyed in today’s poker games.

If you would like to become a great poker player then joining a training site is a great small investment (with many winning strategies available even for free). Click here to read my list of best poker training sites for any poker game.

The Basics of Playing Poker

In poker, you’re trying to outplay your opponents by using a combination of representation, math, and a bit of luck.

Your goal is to make your opponents believe that they have the winning hand and force them to bet their chips. Their goal is to do the same, leading to a perpetual game of strategy and analysis.

Each player can only choose between four moves: check, call, fold, or raise. However, they can only perform three actions at any given time. Although poker players don’t have many moves to choose from, it’s still a sophisticated game because it relies on the general population tendency

It means that you have to represent yourself properly and make the other players think they’re making the right move. The player who understands their opponent better wins the game.

Since every player’s decision varies in different situations, poker creates a high level of ambiguity and competitiveness. Simply put, people have different reactions when they wake up to pocket aces (2 aces at hand). Some of them will play loose, while others will play tight, leading to even more variations when it reaches another player. Some might think they are guaranteed to win, while others will know exactly what are AA chances to win against different hand ranges.

Many professionals believe that poker has a strong resemblance to how people react in real life. In fact, half of the Game Theory—a study of how people respond to different situations—the noncooperative part, used a simplified game of poker. It’s a mathematical formula that is popular among economists, social scientists, and biologists.

Another factor that affects poker is ambiguity. When certain information is not available to the players on the table, they produce different assumptions based on what they can see. Many professionals use it to outplay their opponents, allowing them to gain the upper hand.

Since poker is mostly a game of skills, luck, and intuition, it can be challenging to predict how a person would react.

Therefore, the most effective way to beat an opponent in poker is to use the general population tendency. It means that you’ll set traps that most people would take, but you have to ensure that you’re giving them enough reasons to take the risk.

In its simplest form, poker is still a complicated game because there’s an infinite number of possibilities in people’s reactions. Even beginners, who aren’t using sophisticated strategies, may have different responses to certain situations. You have to play with the same person multiple times before you understand his tendencies and triggers (or use a hand-tracking software and a HUD for online games).

This high-level of sophistication is one reason why poker remained one of the most popular games, even after centuries.

The Basics of Playing Chess

In chess, your goal is to capture your opponent’s king. Only two players can play it simultaneously (4 player variations exists if you want to play it just for fun), and both can see everything that’s happening on the table. Since there’s no ambiguity in chess, it heavily relies on a player’s skill. The player who can make the best plan, several moves ahead, and set traps for his opponents wins the game.

There are some fun 4 player variations of chess. In the video: 4 Player Chess with Alexandra Botez, GothamChess, and Qiyu Zhou.

Setting traps in chess sounds simple, but traps need to be more sophisticated because both players see everything on the table. In many cases, it would take several moves before a player can accomplish his plan, and during that time, he needs to predict his opponent’s next moves.

Like poker, chess is a highly competitive game that requires the player to think and make the best moves possible.

However, you can never use your intuition to win in chess. You need to calculate every move you make and adapt to all the changes that happen as the game progresses.

Despite all the pieces being on the table, and both players see everything that’s happening, it remains a highly complex game that remains unfathomable. To give you an idea, each pair of chess moves (white and black) has an average of 1,000 different variations. All of these can lead to another set of variations. Each of these moves leads to a unique game that no one has ever played before.

The Shannon number refers to a conservative level of complexity in chess but remains sophisticated for most people. If we follow this formula and use it in a chess game that lasts for 40 moves, we’ll have 10 on 120 (10 followed by 120 zeroes) possible variations. The more moves there are in a game, the more complicated it gets, and the harder it’ll be to calculate.

Chess and High Computational Power

This high level of complexity and possible variations are why experts use chess to calculate computational power. In 1985, IBM developed a chess engine, which was named Deep Blue in 1989. In 1996, Deep Blue won the first game over Garry Kasparov, the reigning champion, and became the first chess engine to beat a chess champion. However, the series ended 4-2 in favor of Kasparov, which led IBM to upgrade Deep Blue.

In 1997, Deep Blue became the first chess engine to beat a reigning champion by defeating Kasparov 3.5-2.5. IMB later revealed that Deep Blue is capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second.

Today, there are far stronger chess engines than Deep Blue that can surpass what most players can achieve in a lifetime.

Google even developed its own chess AI that plays against itself to master the game, making it a perpetually evolving program.

In chess, the player with more computational power will always win the game. It’s the reason why chess masters spend most of their life studying the game. However, it’s also one reason why some people don’t have a positive outlook on chess’s future. As we continue to develop robust programs, it won’t be long before we have one that solved the game, including all of the possible variations.

Google AI plays chess against itself. Is it a perfect game? Video: AlphaZero vs AlphaZero.

Poker vs. Chess: A Quick Comparison

To make a proper comparison between the two, let’s break down the parts of these games—things that make it interesting for players. We believe that poker and chess both have their merits, and the choice depends on a player’s skill and personality. However, knowing these parts will also help you understand which of these two will be easier for you to master. 

Mental Game

Poker and chess are intense mental games. They rely on players thinking and analyzing throughout the game. Players also need to ensure that they’re thinking ahead of their opponents. The difference between the two is how players execute their strategies and how players will react to it.

In poker, you play without knowing your opponents’ cards. It mostly depends on representation; the better you represent yourself at the table, the easier it’ll be to outplay your opponent. Since there’s a high level of ambiguity in poker, most of the strategies you’ll use are presumptive. You play according to what you have and what you think your opponents have.

In chess, every piece of the game is on the table. Players devise their strategies based on careful execution and forward-thinking. The further you can look into the game, the better plans you can create. Since all the pieces are visible to the players, it can be challenging to have something concrete in a single move. Your opponent can see through your actions and possibly prevent you from executing your plan.

Both are mental games that require players to keep analyzing. However, poker relies on the element of surprise, while chess relies on high computational power. It’s the most significant difference between the two, and a determining factor that many people use when choosing the game they want to master.

Complexity

We believe that poker is slightly more complicated than chess because it allows players to have more options.

Since most parts of poker is a guessing game, it becomes more complicated. You’d have to know what the other player is thinking before you can even start planning.

Since it’s not possible, players only use the available data to make their decisions, making it perpetually complicated.

Chess is also a complicated game, but you don’t have to assume anything. Before you start playing, you know every piece that you’ll have, its respective points, how it moves, and the rules of the game. You don’t have to assume anything because the other player’s goal is to make the best move possible.

On the other hand, your goal is to make the best move that counters your opponent. Every data is available, and the player only needs to make the calculations to win.

Luck and Skills

Luck plays a role in poker and chess. But a lot less than you might think. After enough games the more skilled players will always be a winner.

These are factors that can also affect the outcome of a game. In almost every game, you’ll see players who are having a “good day.” It makes them perform better than usual. These two factors also have a massive impact on both games, but they’re not as much as people think. 

There are also some misconceptions that players make when they think of poker and chess, and how luck and skills can affect them.

Many people believe that poker is a game of luck, but it’s not. Sure, there are lucky draws that players can make, which gives them the upper hand in the game. However, luck becomes less significant if you’re playing more poker games, and the most skilled player will always win.

In fact, if you’re going to play with your friends, you’ll notice that many of them had the best hand in the game, but they can’t take advantage of it. That’s because they still lack the skills they need to win poker games. Strong hands can help you win more games, but it’s not the only thing you need to be a competitive poker player.

On the other hand, chess players think that their game solely relies on their skills, but it’s not. Of course, a better player will always win the game because they have more computational power than their opponent. However, luck still plays a significant role in chess games because players make mistakes.

If you’re going to ask chess masters, the perfect chess game will always be a draw. If it only relies on the players’ skills, many of the championship matches end in a draw. Lucky chess players are the ones who played against someone who made a grave mistake. However, since they’ve made calculations best on the best moves, they also need to have the skills to adapt to a new plan.

Evolution of Game and Players

Poker players have evolved a lot since the early days. The games that we prefer have also changed from Stud and Draw games to Hold’em and Omaha.

Surprisingly normal Hold’em games are not the most profitable type of poker. If you want to know which poker variant is easiest to learn and start making serious money, then read this article.

In terms of evolution, poker has better room for growth because of the flexibility in its games. In the early days, you can win tournaments by bluffing your opponents. Today, it’ll make you too predictable, and the other players can easily beat you.

Studying poker is perpetual because it includes the general population tendency, probabilities, odds, and various game approaches. You can learn poker’s fundamentals and start playing games, but you can’t be competitive without studying all of its parts and formulate your winning strategy.

Video: 6 ways to make you a better poker player if you are just starting out.

On the other hand, chess players have become more competitive because of all the available data. Players can use past games to study and figure out the best move in every scenario. Although they’re getting better, chess players remain the same; they try to become the best players by outplaying their opponents.

Chess has been around for over 1500 years, and the game remains the same. The rules and strategies remain unchanged, aside from a few updates to improve parity in tournaments. Basically, the chess that the kings played in the 6th century is the same chess that we’re still playing today. The evolution of the game stopped, and only the players have improved.

Chess is a collective game—the more we play and analyze, the better every player becomes.

Which Game Is Harder to Master?

To your original question, we believe that poker is harder to master. Chess isn’t that far because it’s still one of the most complicated games in the world. However, the level of ambiguity that poker presents make it a perpetually evolving game.

An exceptional poker player will be mediocre in a few years if he doesn’t improve his skills. Players get better, and the game evolves rapidly, so a poker player needs to keep improving to remain competitive.

Chess is also hard to master, and players spend a lifetime to be good at it. However, once you become a master, your skills will remain relevant even after you retire.

Take Bobby Fischer as an example; an American chess grandmaster and a chess icon for many enthusiasts. He retired twice, but still managed to become a world champion after he returned. His peak rating was 2785 in 1972. If he’s still alive today, he’d still be the 4th best player in the world.

It was almost 50 years since he stopped defending his title, but his skills remain relevant today. In fact, many people who are studying chess still use Fischer’s past games to analyze and become a better player. The reason for it is because chess has barely changed over the century, and it’ll most likely remain the same for several years to come.

Chess evolves slowly, making it possible to use other games as a reference for anyone to become a master.

In contrast, poker evolves rapidly. Although there are players in the past that we still consider one of the best poker players ever, the games they’ve played are too different from how we play poker today. The strategies that worked years ago no longer work today. We can’t use games that happened 50 years ago to figure out what we should do in a particular hand.

Conclusion

Chess and poker are excellent mind games that we recommend for anyone. Both games force you to think ahead and make the best move possible. However, that’s where their similarities end and the better game between the two will depend on a person’s skills and personality.

If you prefer to play a perpetually evolving game, poker is a better option for you. Although it’s a bit harder to master, it’ll give you infinite possibilities on the games you play. If you prefer to use computational power and forward-thinking, chess is a more straightforward game to master. It’ll also be more enjoyable for you because of the references that you can use to improve.

Primoz

I have played poker professionally for more than 10 years. I was a winner at every poker format that I played - from tournaments to cash games, both in NL Holdem and PLO. Now my biggest satisfaction is to provide enthusiastic but new poker players with answers to all of their questions.

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