Poker isn’t chess default content graphic

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.

Poker is slighted by history. Until recently, poker wasn’t treated with the dignity of bridge and chess. Those were considered cerebral games, worthy of intellectual scrutiny and scientific evaluation. Not poker.

Well, poker is actually more cerebral than either bridge or chess. In fact, finding the right solutions for common poker situations is more complex than for either bridge or chess.

Not only does the raw math dictate that poker is more complex, there’s something else. Psychology. Without psychology, poker would still be a more sophisticated game than bridge or chess. But add that human factor to this overabundance of tactical interaction and you get what is arguably the most challenging game ever played by millions of people.

Fair question

I hear you thinking, “Well, if poker’s so complex, how come I always get drawn out on by someone who can’t analyze anything?” Fair question. Here’s a fair answer.

I didn’t say that there wasn’t more luck involved in poker. There is. Just because it’s harder for you to come up with the right decision in poker doesn’t mean the right decision will work in your favor. In chess, the best decision may be easier to know at times, and it’s also more likely to be rewarded.

When correct decisions are consistently rewarded, that gives any reasonably sophisticated game the illusion of being even more skillful. Such is the case with chess. Chess seems to require more skill than poker to play at the highest level, but it doesn’t. Poker requires more skill to play perfectly.

Right choice

In poker, you can frequently make the right choice and see it work against you. For instance, if you hold a pair of aces in hold ’em and raise, there’s no way to stop someone from stubbornly coming in with an inside straight attempt and getting lucky. In chess, if you make the right move, you won’t lose ground. In poker, you might.

So, repeating, poker is factually more complex than chess, but making the right decisions isn’t always immediately rewarded. This means that in poker your chips are not the main scoreboard! I teach my students not to gauge how well they’re playing by the size of their stacks. Instead, they should gauge success by the consistency with which proper decisions are made.

Eventually, your dollar result at poker will closely mirror what you mathematically expected to earn or lose on all previous decisions. But that’s the long-term result.

In the short term, your results are likely to be erratic and might be terrible. The same is true of  football, for instance. You can be behind in a game, due to bad breaks, while having played admirably — or vice versa. If I were a head coach, I would keep a separate scoreboard of what the result should be, based on the quality of my team’s play. The rest is just fate, and — as in poker — you have to live with it.

The money

But, over the years, even if luck plays a large part in today’s outcome, the best teams win most football games, and the best poker players end up with the money. So, it’s time to give poker the intellectual respect it deserves. I remind you again that the object of poker isn’t to win pots, it’s to make the right decisions.

But, don’t treat poker like chess at the table. You can overanalyze and forget the people element. A poker guru once asked me what I should do in jacks-or-better-required-to-open draw poker in this situation: I have a pair of aces in the dealer position, which qualifies me to open, and I do; everyone folds, except the player to my right, who calls; he draws one card and I draw three; I make four aces!

Now I decide to check, hoping my opponent will bet. His one-card draw indicates he’s trying for a straight or flush, otherwise he would have opened. He bets, I raise, he reraises. Now what?

The guru answered. “You must fold immediately. He knows that you know that he’s trying for a flush or a straight. When you raised, he knows you can beat a flush, so he would just call unless he had better than a full house. The only thing he could make that’s better is a straight flush, so that’s what he has. You must fold.”


“I’d call immediately,” I countered. This has to do with not treating poker like chess. In poker, players get inspired and play hands at whim. They frequently make the wrong moves in the heat of combat. Overall, not only would I call, I would expect to win quite often in that situation, because the chance that my opponent was doing something bizarre weighed heavily against the chance that my opponent made a straight flush.

Throw out the psychology and you still must make this call most of the time in a limit game. That’s because, if you didn’t, an opponent could frequently bluff by reraising, knowing you’d fold most of your full houses.

Most importantly, poker isn’t chess. Your poker opponents aren’t always playing rationally. And if you don’t factor irrationality into your decision making, you’re doomed. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


5 thoughts on “Poker isn’t chess”

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  1. the long term is TOO long, if I was 20, i would not worry as much, but being much older than 20 I dont have the luxury of more games to play

  2. Seems to me that on the one hand, you can work out mathmatically the right moves, even the psychologically right moves also. However, then there is always the flipside for every logical move, in that your oponent could be tricking you/being foolish/etc.

    So it seems, the best way to play, is to not go mathmatically or someone will randomly beat you, to not go willy nilly or someone will drain you mathmatically, but instead to…
    Find a way to control the whole game to influence your oponent’s decision making process
    – in short, you don’t make the right move that wins, you craft the game to make your oponent make the wrong decision.

  3. Let’s not forget that it’s bad beats that keep bad players coming back for more. That may seem too obvious to be post-worthy, but it needs to be said again. If not for the luck factor, you wouldn’t have any opponents.

  4. I’m just glad to hear someone depart from the annoying tendency of comparing everything from martial arts, business and grocery shopping to chess.
    It’s really getting to be such a cliche. Usually it’s some pretentious goof trying to impress his buddies or his girlfriend, “…well, that’s a lot like chess, you see.”
    Gimme a break. The only thing that’s really like chess is chess.

    Thanks for not being one of “them.”

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