In this article, we’ll explore the strategic parallels between these two globally popular games. From renowned poker superstars who harbor a love for chess to grandmasters unable to resist the allure of the felt, we’ll uncover the similarities between the games and discuss how insights from one can enhance performance in the other.

A Brief Overview of Chess and Poker as Strategic Games

Chess and poker may today be natural partners in the gaming world but there are actually eight centuries between them. The oldest recorded chess game in history took place in the 10th century between an Iraqi historian and his pupil. A list of rules was composed in ‘Middle Persian’ and 11 centuries later, we can lose to a 12-year-old playing online from anywhere in the world.

Poker’s origins trace back to the early 19th century. The original game of poker saw players receive five cards each from a pack of 20. The game may have originated in French-speaking saloons, but it was developed on Mississippi steamboats between 1810 and 1825. Almost two centuries later, over 10,000 people are expected to play the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas this summer.

Both chess and poker are highly strategic games with rich and complex histories. They also have a lot in common today. Both require you to think several moves ahead, adapt to your opponent’s style and play and strategise for how best you can attack them and when. Chess and poker also require a lot of mental discipline, an appetite for learning new techniques and the ability to remain calm when your own standing in the tournament or single round of gameplay is under threat.

Intriguing Parallels Between Chess and Poker

Over recent years, there has been a huge amount of crossover between the games. Netflix’ recent smash hit The Queen’s Gambit was hugely popular with poker players such as Daniel Negreanu, who quickly announced to his followers that he was taking up the game.

Alexandra Botez, a chess grandmaster herself, switched from the chequered board to the poker felt and met with huge success, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in both tournaments and cash games alike. With her poker star rising, she is now a virtual ‘hybrid’ poker and chess player and has huge mass appeal due to her enjoyment of both games.

Alex Botez

The Power of Decision-Making

Chess: Evaluating board positions and planning moves

There is a long-standing joke in chess that the best way to play is to think games ahead. That’s because to think only a couple of moves ahead puts you behind most players, who will be regularly thinking up counter-moves and strategies that extend further and further into the game they’re playing.

It’s vital to have foresight when it comes to your chess strategy. Can you anticipate what your opponent is likely to do? If so, how can you punish them for the mistakes they’re going to make and at the same time maintain your own control of the board? Balancing the offensive and defensive aspects of gameplay in chess is vital. You need to know that you can go on the attack and not leave valuable pieces open to counter-punches from your enemy at the board.

Poker: Assessing hands and making strategic bets

A very similar evaluation should be made when you’re on the attack in poker. Make it obvious that you’re leaning a certain way, and your value bet won’t be paid off. Be too timid and that hand you’re holding can be overtaken in strength on later streets. The role of probability plays a bigger part in poker decisions, with your opponent’s range being almost impossible to specifically break down to a single hand of two cards, or in the realms of fantasy, four.

Being able to navigate the psychological aspects of poker is crucial, but you must also calculate the odds of any given card coming and if it does, how it will improve your hand and of course the hands of any other players in the hand. Being too attacking can leave you open to more people than you to call you being involved in the hands you play, while being too defensive can lead to you being attacked more often.

Risk and Reward Dynamics

Chess: Sacrificing pieces for long-term gains

One of the most interesting dynamics that fluctuate during a game of chess is that of losing pieces from your side of the board. Starting with sixteen pieces, you’ll have eight pawns, two knights, two rooks, two bishops, a queen and of course, the king under your command. Pawns are worth a lot less than your other pieces due to their movements across the board but while it can be tempting to simply hold onto as many of your pieces as you possibly can, there are flaws in that strategy that can – and will! – be exposed.

Sometimes, losing a piece isn’t a bad thing, even if it one with special powers on the board, such as a knight. Having fewer pieces on the board that are yours can leave you weaker, but it can also allow you to move your pieces more freely around the board. This, in turn, leaves fewer pieces to be attacked and can prove useful in late-game strategies, let alone that initial period of mobility and setting out your stall.

Poker: Betting strategies and calculated risks

In poker, reading opponents is vital for strategic betting. Just as you’d like to attack every player at the felt and take their chips, the same strategy against different players won’t work. You need to know what your opponent is going to do when you take the action you’re planning to, so observing your opponents’ behavior in hands they’re playing against other players is crucial. Watch what they do when put to the test in marginal situations and you’ll be well placed to take advantage to the maximum extent.

Bluffing is a calculated risk in poker and is only to be done when you’re expecting your opponent to fold. If you bluff with the worst hand and they call, then you’re losing chips, power at the felt and possibly your poker tournament life. Bluffing, once called the ‘Cadillac of poker moves’ by Doyle Brunson, is the best feeling in poker when it comes off. Calculating whether your opponent with fold or call – or even raise – is a skill developed over many years, so don’t trust your instincts at first, but rather after they have had a chance to refine themselves over time.

Positional Awareness and Board Control

Chess: Controlling the center and strategic squares

When playing chess, how you control the center of the board and the key channels where most of the action takes place is a huge differential that affects your win/loss ratio. Don’t be afraid of the center of the board but make sure that you respect the number of extra decisions that you need to run through your mind before making a move in that area. Controlling key squares just outside the center of your own frontline that protects the king – and the angles that fee into that area – is massive.

You need to deploy pieces which have the ability to defend difficult positions intelligently. Charging both of your knights up the opposition’s ‘royalty’ pieces might feel exhilarating for a few moments but you can run out of room and find you wildly out of position within a couple of moves.

Poker: Controlling the table dynamics

In poker, it’s impossible to control all of your opponents’ moves, after all, you can’t play every hand and retain your power, people will think that you’re a loose aggressive maniac! Positional awareness is crucial in poker strategy. Table position is dictated to by the deal changing each hand. The later you are to act, the more information you receive before doing so and therefore the better you can strategize.

In terms of emotional position at the table, this is the positional sense that many players don’t think of enough. Adapting your strategy in each hand according to the often fluid table dynamics is of huge influence over proceedings. Do the table see you as an attacking player or a defensive one? Are you in control of the table, dictating play by the sizing of your bets or are you at the mercy of others? Figuring out how best to take control is crucial in poker.

The Psychology of Your Opponent

Chess: Anticipating and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses

Chess is all about utilizing your own strategy and blocking your opponent in their design to implement theirs instead. To do so, you’ll need to recognize the patterns they fall into. Do they rely on their bishops too often, underdeveloping their rooks, especially in early gameplay? Do they move their pawns too soon and too aggressively? Your opponent’s play should never dictate your own, but ignoring it is foolhardy in the extreme. Anticipate your opponent’s moves and you’ll be in control of the game’s direction… and its conclusion.

In chess, being ready to exploit your opponent’s mistakes and capitalizing on weaknesses is absolutely paramount. In poker, this is done by winning a hand, piling up chips, and as such can be a lot easier to recognise, simply by comparing stacks. In chess, you can think that you’re winning, only to be blindsided by a well-calculated move, and watching your king fall, the game is over in one move you yourself did not make.

Poker: Reading opponents and identifying tells

In chess, the facial tics, physical twitches or behavioral tells that are easily displayed in poker are a lot harder to

a) pick up on; and

b) take immediate advantage of.

Seeing your opponent sweating on your decision in chess can often mean very different things from one move to the next.

Understanding physical and behavioral tells in chess is a complex business and doesn’t always yield results. In poker, however, those tells can give you chips and power quicker than in chess. Adjusting your strategies based on your opponent is the key to it and being aware of the psychology of your enemies’ moves is vital. What was your opponent(s)’ motivation for betting against you, or raising you after you have bet? What do they have to gain or lose? Understand your opponents and their motivations, combine this knowledge with a good understanding of physical tells and at-felt behavior in the game and you’ll be well-armed to throw a net over the poker table you’re sitting at.

Endgame Tactics and Closing Moves

Chess: Strategies for checkmate and endgame scenarios

There are many different strategies for ending a game of chess. One of the most common is having more powerful pieces left than your opponent, using them to take all of their pieces other than the king then utilising two rooks, two bishops or a combination of either one of those pieces and a queen (or converted pawn into a queen) and manoeuvering you opponent’s king into a checkmate position. Check out Gotham Chess and some of his checkmate tactics:

Other strategies are far more complex and require time and dedication to firstly learn then secondly implement. Taking a hit early then recovering to win the game is something that beginners really struggle with but grandmasters don’t, so why is this? The best chess players adjust to the situation quickly, not taking any emotional damage but merely adapting to the new parameters for movement and amending their strategy to get back into the game, either by drawing their opponent forward in an attack they can pick off or by converting a pawn by protecting them to the end of the board, for example.

The importance of your king at the start of a game of chess is virtually nil. He is protected by the queen, and at least six other pieces for a good length of time. His activity in the endgame, however, should change a lot. Where your king moves, whether it is to cross the board in order to leave your opponents’ pieces ineffective, or move forward in attack in alignment with other pieces in order to confuse and manipulate your enemy is up to you, but if you reach the endgame, the king is very much in play, or at least he should be. If yours is often static until the close of each game, there’s one problem you can isolate and correct.

Poker: Navigating the final stages and securing victory

The poker endgame is no less complex and there are, once again, several strategies for different poker variants you’ll need to master in order to get the win. If you’re playing a cash game, the parameter for the endgame is not set – though your stop/loss or profit/leave lines should play a major part in dictating your personal game boundaries – but in tournaments, it is simple. The winner is the last player with chips – all the chips.

Several poker players – even very experienced ones – still have problems with their endgames and

Capitalizing on opponents’ weaknesses in the final stages is all about knowing that you should do whatever you can to get to the heads-up game… then win it. Perfecting your heads-up game – and even a short-handed game of three or four players – is a lot easier than people might assume, due to readily available online poker game variants where the game itself starts with just two, three or four players. Working in reverse, final tables are six or nine-handed Sit ‘N’ Go’s.

From two tables out, there are a small number of players who know one of the best ways to make it to final tables. This is to strategize including all the players that you are aware of. This sounds complicated but isn’t. Let’s say that with two tables left, the seats and tables are redrawn. It’s a common practice. You’ll likely be at a table where you know just over half your opponents, as you may have played with them earlier in the tournament only for you or them to have been moved tables.

But you have also played with players who you know who are now on the other table.

Many players in this situation will focus on their own table, blithely ignoring the secondary table. This is a big leak. If you know that a particularly aggressive player has all the chips and is likely to cause carnage at the other table, this can influence the pace, the power and the dynamics of your own table and their table. You might want to wait for some eliminations to take place and the table to be rebalanced. You might consider ramping up the aggression on any players who have come over to your table from that one as you know they’re likely to be passive simply to catch their breath.

I once spoke with a very successful player who has won over $5 million in live tournaments. He told me that this period of big poker tournaments is the key one and is routinely ignored by players who by this point in proceedings are so self-absorbed in their own journey to the final two tables that they are not able to consider everyone else’s route there. Make sure that you buck this trend and I promise you’ll see more final tables, and therefore victories, along the way.

In Conclusion

Both poker and chess require a huge amount of strategy and determination to yield results. The good news is that plenty of the key skills that are used in one game are easily transferable to the other. From a mental discipline when the chips – or chess pieces! – are down to the ability to adapt to different strategies within the game or even poker hand that you’re playing, game intelligence is everything.

Check out chess and/or pursue poker if you only play one of those games and you’ll soon discover that while the two ancient games came into play over 800 years apart, they are now closer than ever in terms of how they feel to play, and how playing them makes you feel.

Did this article deal you a winning hand?

Jackpot! You’ve flopped a winning hand! This article has surely added some extra chips to your stack. Tune in for more valuable insights and pro-level strategies!

Looks like you’ve been dealt a bad beat. We’ll shuffle the deck and try again.

Paul seaton


Paul Seaton, a poker luminary with over a decade of experience, has reported live from iconic poker events, including the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, and World Poker Tour. He’s not just a spectator; he’s been the Editor of BLUFF Europe Magazine and Head of Media for partypoker. Paul’s poker insights have graced publications like PokerNews, 888poker, and PokerStake, where he’s interviewed poker legends such as Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel, Phil Hellmuth, and The Hendon Mob’s, entire lineup. His exceptional work even earned him a Global Poker Award nomination for Best Written Content. In the poker world, Paul Seaton’s expertise is a force to be reckoned with, captivating enthusiasts worldwide. 

More by Paul