01/12/2015

Poker & Chess - The Connection

Michael '007' Lang

Poker is extremely popular with many whose primary game or sporting interests usually lie elsewhere – Carl Froch recently signed on as Brand Ambassador with PartyPoker, Ronaldo and Neymar Junior are PokerStars icons, as was Nadal until recently –and golfer Sergio Garcia as well as many others have fallen in love with the green felt.

The one game where poker really has a hold among adherents, however, is chess – the strategic complexity of the games requiring a similar mind- and skill-set. Both require calculation, although perhaps chess more so, while bluffing may not be as prevalent in chess, but still happens – and more frequently than you might think.

Many chess-players – it being a lonely, self-absorbed type of game – are fans of online play. The long hours seated alone in front of a screen playing poker no different from those required to study or play chess. Many strong chessplayers have reached SuperNovaElite online or cashed in EPT’s on the live scene.

The one area in which the games really differ, however, and it might not seem so at first so bear with me, is in the use of technology.

I mean, both games have harnessed the power of the web to promote and expand their respective qualities and gameplay.

Both use calculating machines (known as ‘engines’ in the chess community) to solve difficult problems – the tables of numbers in HUD’s, databases and ICM calculations not so different from the databases, tablebases and engine assessments of who is better in chess.

So where is this difference I speak of?

In real-life chess – and I have witnessed it again just this week in Iceland – the use of technology to cheat has become so easy, that metal detectors, signal jammers, body searches and bans on almost all types of technology have become the norm.

When I walk into a casino I don’t get searched for my phone. I don’t have to check in my watch (!) before playing. No-one prevents me from talking to my friend – or even a stranger for that matter – or, as happened here to me in Iceland yesterday in the European Team Chess Championship, speaking to my captain which earned us both a sharp rebuke!

The fear –paranoia actually is the right word for modern competitive chess - of that other person having somehow found out the answer to the poker hand in front of me just doesn’t exist at my local casino.

Would it be as easy to cheat at live poker – where the rewards are usually much higher - than it would be in chess?

Let’s look at a scenario in both games, using real-life events which I have witnessed first-hand or have been well-proven and documented.

I’m playing chess in a live tournament. The position in front of me is visible to anyone spectating, and to millions online. I don’t know quite what to do but I have a friend watching. He quickly adds his ‘engine’ to the position on his mobile – an engine which even on a mobile is now streets ahead of the world chess champion (Magnus Carlsen of Norway in case you were wondering, who incidentally lost here in Reykjavik yesterday not 20 yards from my own board. I lost too, so we are about the same strength I reckon ;) ).

Anyway, the engine soon gives my friend the correct move, who relays it to me (via sms, Bluetooth in my earphones/hand signals from across the way or a host of other methods which have been seen – and sometimes caught – in the real world of chess). I play the move, win the game, and walk off happy and a bit richer eventually from winning the tournament.

So, now I am playing in my local casino at the £1/£2 tables. There is usually about £3000 in play when it’s a full-ring game, so there’s money to be made. My friend is behind me. I have my iPad on the table, phone next to me, headphones in and for all the world it looks like I am just another poker wannabe seeking distractions from any slow play or dead cards I might be dealt for a while.

Behind me is my friend, who is acting like any other spectator - but this friend is paying a great deal of attention to my cards -which I am lifting just a tiny bit higher than usual so he can see them.

He, naturally, is inputting them into some program on his phone - let’s say PokerStove – which will tell him quickly my percentages against other random hands, or ranges of hands, and can easily have the flop, turn and river inputted.

All it takes is a system, a clever way of doing this quickly, and a pre-arranged way of letting me know when it’s profitable to bet out/call/fold whatever and when not. For all anyone else knows he’s checking the football scores or playing some mobile casino (while in a casino, I know, but poker players are just as weird sometimes as chessplayers!)

Of course, I show know these things myself – work on my poker game and improve my knowledge of the numbers to give myself better chances – but so too should the chess masters who resort to the unscrupulous – downright cheating – behaviour which has become such a feature of the chess game. To the extent that I was bodyscanned entering the playing hall yesterday, coming back from the smokers area and also when going to the toilet!

Having played both games for a number of years now I have no doubt cheating using technology in a live chess setting is theoretically easier than in a casino environment. But not in a practical sense - not anymore. If I had to cheat somewhere -if my life depended on it - I reckon a casino would be much easier, because there are no real safeguards beyond the awful hiding you’d get in my local casino if you were caught!

Strangely enough, in online chess everyone knows and pretty much accepts your opponents is receiving assistance. In online poker they’re trying to ban such things to ‘level the playing field’ - in real-life the roles are reversed!

For those who think it would never work, that you could never devise a system which was quick enough or useful enough, have a look at what has happened in the past. Where there is money involved especially, cheats will always look for – and find – a way to profit from it. Don’t say you haven’t been warned! ;)