Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chess and Poker

Two very different articles in today's New York Times about battling the decline of interest in Chess. In the Op-Ed section, Jennifer Shahade, a recent US women's chess champion argues that chess should learn lessons from Poker.
How can chess save itself? No doubt it would make purists protest, but chess should steal a few moves from poker. After all, in the past few years, poker has lured away many chess masters who realized that the analytical skills they've learned from chess would pay off in online card rooms.

And that's a shame. There are plenty of smart people playing poker (and I love playing it myself), but there's no denying that when it comes to developing mental acuity, chess wins hands down, so to speak. Dan Harrington, a former world poker champion who quit chess because there wasn't enough money in it, laments that poker is thin and ephemeral in comparison.

Meanwhile in the Style section, Dylan Loeb McClain discusses the World Chess Beauty Contest which has the stated goal of raising interest in the game.

Why has chess been undergoing a decline in interest in recent years? Perhaps after Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in 1997 the world views the best chess player as a machine, reducing interest in the game for humans.

And we shouldn't lament poker so. Prime time coverage of a game that uses probabilities, Bayesian analysis and complex strategies can't be completely a bad thing.


  1. But of course, it is money that rules the world. If not all, most of the people base their decision to a great extent on monetary considertions. To make money playing Chess, you need to be among the top. Poker is not like that.

    To an extent, the situation is analogous to theory vs applied areas. In theory, to get funds and to publish good papers, you need to be the best. In applied areas there is a lot of funding and even an average person can manage to make resonable contribution and get good funding.

    I am not trying to denigrate people working in applied areas. It is just the nature of the field wherein you have more questions and a number of ways of looking at a problem and evaluating the solution.

  2. It's not just the deep blue vs kasparov game. For example, I used to follow the goings on at chess tournaments because Vishy Anand, one of the world's top players, was Indian.

    What happened in the middle 90s was a series of feuds between FIDE, Kasparov and others that led to a series of splits in the world chess governing bodies. Now, almost like boxing, there are a gazillion titles, and numerous competitions, and it's hard to keep track of what's going on. Or if things have stabilized, this has not penetrated the general consciousness.

    One could write an equally effective rant about bridge vs poker (and it would even be closer to the truth of the connection). I am not sure that comparing chess and poker even makes sense

  3. I think computer-aided chess tournaments would be more exciting. Also, having spectators participate in some way -- perhaps collaboratively -- would help increase interest in chess.

  4. Suresh -- it is worth pointing out that along with the opinion piece on chess, there was right with it another piece about bridge (and the comparison with poker...)


  5. You want to know the advantage of poker over chess? It's a social game. You can easily have 9-10 people at the same table, all immersed in the same hand. Moreover, you can drink profusely and play at the same time.

    Come to the lobby of your focs/stoc hotel around 2am, and there's a non-negligible chance you'll find a game. If I recall, Adam Klivans cleaned everyone out in Pittsburgh...

  6. Another problem with chess is the advent of computer chess. Not onlt Kasparov vs Deep Blue, but the fact that Average Joe can use Fritz 9 while playing on an internet server. It takes fun out of it.

    Plus many other problems: the political situation, draws, etc, etc.

    For those reasons, I took up go a couple of years ago. (On the other hand, go is even less an everyman-game: it just takes too much time.)

  7. I would say that the problem with chess is that it is too "solved". Come on, a game that requires you to memorize the first 12-14 move possibilities (openings) for any serious play is not that much fun...

    One solution that I heard proposed is to change the rules so as to "reset" the learning curve and return to the old days where intuition and thinking was 99% of the game. After all this is not the first time it would happen - Western chess is already a variant on the original game (mainly optimized for faster developement of the gameplay, by the way).

    There are already some interesting contenders - Fischer's Random Chess (no relation to me), Omega Chess, and Ralph Betza's Chess with Different Armies. Perhaps now it is an opportunity to recommend my favorite site for chess variants (both serious and rediculous),

  8. I think we're just a couple of popular references away from making Go a hit in the Western world. Just like how the movie The Color of Money made pool halls increase in number, so could something popular with Go.

    I think some hang ups people have with Go is that they don't get the idea that "the end" is mutually determined and there's no real algorithm for it: territory is relative to what the players believe is proper territory. (Of course, if there are disputes, the game can continue until the matter is settled.)

    After that shift in thinking and learning a couple of concepts, the game is quite easy to learn. Go has the added bonus that you can make effective handicaps, there are no ties, and no computer is good enough to even beat an advanced 13 year old.

  9. There's also a cultural element. In Japan, go is a major spectator event, and go masters make a real living... (At least that's what the head of the go club at UMD said) There are no equivalent spectators for chess...

  10. Bridge is also a social game but we now have trouble getting a foursome because of the bridge players who have defected to Texas hold-em.

    Some of this is simply that the game strategies for Texas hold-em are novel since novelty alone has an appeal. One measure of the complexity of a game is the number of distinct levels of play that separate the best players from beginners, where two players are at different levels if one consistently has an advantage over the other head-to-head. I recall it being said (by some well-known MIT prof who was a top poker player but whose name I forget) that by this measure poker is more complex than either chess or bridge. Is this complexity part of the attraction?

  11. Hmm, I'm not sure about the complexity measures there, but the rating for Go is very detailed and specific, with many levels.

    It's the same kind of rating used for Japanese martial arts, where you start at 20th kyu, work your way down to 1st kyu, and then after that you're a 1 dan to positive "n" dan (1 dan is black belt level, but first level black belt is just the beginning).

    That could support your argument if you think that adds to Go being popular in the East, but work against it if you don't think so.

    I'm not sure how Texas Hold-em or Pilates ever became such a fad (did I miss a movie or TV show, is it just the Zeitgeist?) but perhaps Go will have its day. We just need a movie out about a genius Go player who is in love with the game...

  12. Go is a great and complex game but (i) it is hardly social (ii) it takes too damn long. I can play blitz chess (or even better bughouse/Siamese chess which is plenty social, too) in a little more than 5 minutes even 13x13 Go takes too long.

  13. There is 9x9 Go, which is fairly common and pretty fast.

    And it's just as social as Chess.

  14. Play Go on yahoo/igs and you'll find the standard of play is quite fast. Still, it takes too long, and the excitement cools towards the endgame unless you're a born accountant.

    High-level Go also demands as much sequence-learning (joseki) as chess, although sequence deployment is nuanced and contextual. Still, after years of playing I had to admit it wasn't what I was looking for.

    To fix the game (relative to my own limitations/impatiences) I would (a) a la Fischer, use sparse, radially symmetric random stone configs to start the game, queering openings, (b) ideally play for money, with stakes escalating as the game continues to pressure pre-endgame resignation.

  15. Didn't read all the comments, but did anyone mention CHESS BOXING!!

    (little picture here)