Have you seen The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix? Are you watching it now?
It’s great, isn’t it?
The seven-episode mini-series adapts the 1983 Walter Tevis novel about a female chess prodigy, and is every bit as good and gripping as you’ve heard.
A lot of poker players have been watching the show and sharing their responses. A common reaction tweeted frequently over the last couple of weeks has been “Now I’m interested in learning chess!”
As PokerStars Ambassador Jennifer Shahade pointed out to us last week, there are many ways the show should appeal to poker players. She also notes how in the Tevis novel there was even a poker-related scene that didn’t make it into the mini-series.
While watching The Queen’s Gambit and seeing different elements of chess dramatized so effectively, poker players might have questions about how chess compares to their game.
As someone with lots of experience (and success) in both chess and poker, Shahade is a perfect person to answer such queries.
I asked Shahade six questions about chess designed to help us poker players sort through how the two games compare. Her answers reveal how our poker playing has prepared us for chess in more ways than we might have realized.
1. When you first start playing poker, it’s obviously necessary to learn the hand rankings. It seems like knowing how the pieces move in chess would be analogous as a first step toward learning the game. Is that true?
You know, I think the most analogous one would actually be the values of the pieces.
These values are approximations in chess, because the only goal in chess that is 100% applicable is checkmate. You’ve got to checkmate your opponent’s king or force them to resign.
But they have created these values of the pieces that kind of average out so that they are applicable in most positions. Those I think would be the most analogous to learning hand rankings. So those are…
- Queen = 9
- Rook = 5
- Bishop = 3
- Knight = 3
- Pawn = 1
Then the king doesn’t really have a value, because you can’t capture it.
It is very useful [to know these values], and they are true so often it is very valuable information. But like all rules of thumb, if you stick too closely to it you might just win a queen and then get checkmated. That’s why I always say you need to put an asterisk on it.
In your Washington Post article describing “Five myths about chess,” you mention how people often overlook how important the pawn actually is.
My point there was even though pawns aren’t as valuable as other pieces, they are important because they take up a lot of space. They kind of determine the direction of attack, the amount of fluidity… without pawns, everything just gets traded off or captured. They are less powerful, but they take up 16 spots!
2. In poker, once you know hand rankings there are other fundamental concepts that are good to learn early — things like the importance of position. Are there one or two key concepts in chess I should learn that are similarly important?
Maybe king safety and development. [Knowing] that you need to develop your pieces and castle early. You are already playing the early stage of the game like a pretty proficient player if you are able to do those two things.
How about occupying the center of the board? Is that like “position” in poker?
Yes, that’s important, too. Development typically means developing pieces toward the center. Usually it’s the most harmonious way to develop, anyway.
3. One way of “keeping score” in poker is to look at stack sizes, or to add up how much money players have won or lost. In chess, how do you know if you’re ahead or behind? It’s not just how many pieces you’ve won or lost (is it)?
Actually that would probably be the most similar. The easiest way to keep track would probably be to see how many pieces you’re ahead or behind. It’s a rough guide, of course. If you get checkmated and you have a lot of pieces, you still lose. But usually if you’re up a lot of material, that means you’re more likely to win the game.
When watching other people play, that seems to be a quick way to tell who is up.
Yes, chess parents sometimes watch their kids’ games and they look for that. They try to make a determination whether their kid is doing well or not based on that. It’s actually pretty logical. It’s not going to be foolproof, but more often than not if they see that their child is up a queen, they’re going to win.
4. Here’s a more conceptual question. Bluffing is an essential element of poker. Is there anything like bluffing in chess?
There can be. It’s rare, though. There is something very analogous in chess which would be playing a move very confidently and hoping that your opponent doesn’t see the correct response, because if they see it, you’re dead. You know, like a mathematical decision where 80% of the time they’re not going to see it, so you’re just going to go for it. But the 20% of the time they see it, you lose.
That only happens once in a while, though. Something that happens more frequently that might compare is an in-between move or an intermediate move. There’s a German word for it — zwischenzug. That’s when you are playing through a variation with your opponent… [say] a series of captures, and within that series comes a shocking bolt from the blue. And a lot of times your opponent misses it and that causes you to win the game.
I see… it’s like a bluff because you’ve set up your opponent to expect one thing when you’re actually deceiving them and about to do something different.
It’s a really pivotal part of chess tactics. It just means something unexpected, basically.
5. This makes me think of all the different chess openings experienced players know. “The Queen’s Gambit” is an example of one. Is it fair to compare those to “standard” opening plays in poker, like raising before the flop or continuation betting after you’ve raised?
That’s actually a pretty good analogy. In chess, opening strategies are a part of the game where there’s a little bit more pure memorization, and that depends on your brain. Some people just don’t really work well with pure memorization. You have experience and remember things that way, and you develop pattern recognition.
So you do it over and over, and you see others doing it, and eventually you absorb it?
Yes. There’s a little bit of memorization in both games. And most of it is from experience and pattern recognition. There are times when you just have to keep repeating something and then you will remember it.
6. Finally, we know poker is a “skill game,” but luck matters in poker, too. Meanwhile chess seems like it could be all skill and no luck. Is there luck in chess?
A little bit, but not a lot. It’s not like an integral part of the game, but it’s more peripheral to the game. It exists for sure, like just little things, like whether you get to be white or black. Or whether your opponent normally plays really, really sharply but is a little tired and doesn’t play as sharp that day. Or whether or not you’re lucky enough that you play an opening, and your opponent for some reason didn’t look at that.
The luck isn’t like hitting a lucky card, then, but more to do with humans being imperfect and making mistakes and getting to benefit from those slip-ups?
Right. For instance, usually if you win a major chess tournament, there’s some point at which a very good opponent who doesn’t make mistakes blundered somewhere.
It’s a very minor role of luck as compared to poker, though. We’re really talking like thin margins there. But you can imagine that if you get really, really good, all of those little thin margins can matter.
Thanks to Jennifer for the insights and tips. You can learn more poker and chess by listening to Jen’s podcasts, both of which have won awards.
For poker, check out The Grid, winner of the 2020 Global Poker Award for Podcast of the Year. For chess, dial up Ladies Knight, which Chess Journalist of America named the best podcast of the year in 2019, including the most recent episode where she discusses The Queen’s Gambit.