Given that I’m a former pro chess player who switched to poker a couple of decades or so ago, it should come as no surprise that I’m fascinated by the psychological aspects of both games. More accurately, it’s the role that psychology – or, at its simplest: thinking – plays in how we make decisions and strategise generally.

When comparing chess and poker there are many similarities and, at the same time, a couple of notable differences. One such has a wonderful irony to it: with chess there are effectively infinite possibilities which would take countless lifetimes to go through but are there in front of us nevertheless. While we can have a decent idea what our opponents might do  – by ruling out the ridiculous and contemplating the feasible – we still don’t know what’s coming but, crucially, all the possibilities are there. From a practical point of view there are too many for us to consider, let alone analyse, and nor do we have any control over the opposition’s actions, but they are still ‘known’ elements. We still have all the information at hand.

Poker is a different animal in that respect because, while the possibilities are fewer, the fact that we need to operate without all the relevant information available to us has a massive impact on our ability to make decisions. While there are fewer scenarios due to there being ‘only’ a limited number of cards and, in turn, a limited number of possibilities, with so many being unknown to us – significantly, which cards our opponents hold, and which cards will be dealt – the game is no less complex than chess.

It is interesting that friends and colleagues on both sides have quite contrasting opinions, some championing their own game, others admirably citing the other as being the more challenging. Personally, I believe that the ‘unknowns’ aspect of poker which some might argue is what makes the game imperfect is, in fact, the magic ingredient that gives it an edge over chess. Contrary to what I anyway find to be a somewhat simplistic and ill-informed argument that poker is ‘spoilt’ by the perceived luck factor created by our not having access to all the facts, it actually enhances the skill element!

Of course, luck, which essentially plays no role in chess (blunders from the opponent are as close as it gets, but overall are irrelevant), is part of poker, but it’s what makes luck a possibility that also makes it a skill game.

We’re all in the same boat in poker when it comes to making decisions, formulating plans, adopting this or that strategy and so on – all having to be done based on incomplete information.

To better explain the significance of the ‘unknowns’ factor, I’ll quote someone who we might not necessarily expect to have said anything applicable to a fundamentally key aspect of poker, namely former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. At a news briefing in February 12, 2002, at which the (lack of) evidence of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections in Iraq was discussed, Rumsfeld said:

“There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

While this might sound like a tongue-twister, it is actually very logical and, in fact, evolved from an analysis technique created in 1955 by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham. Incidentally, Rumsfeld’s version of the theory of unknowns proved so significant that it has been referred to many times since, including, for example, being quoted twice at the World Summit on Evolution.

In relation to poker – even more so with online poker, where there are extra unknowns due to not being able to glean any information from watching our opponents – these riddle-like words are particularly relevant. This is because we’re in a constant struggle to navigate countless safe routes through the jungle that is poker, all the time having to make do with incomplete information and basing our eventual judgements on our interpretation of each narrative as it unfolds. It also helps to have an idea of how others might be thinking, as well as how they perceive us, too. It’s far from an exact science, yet at the same time demands from us a combination of scientific reasoning and a pretty complex appreciation of psychology. In the long-term, luck is barely a factor, rather success depends on skill level.

And this is why, were we to observe players over a significant amount of time, it is the most skilful who will more frequently, consistently and ultimately successfully negotiate the issue of limited information, from the measurable, familiar known knowns, to known unknowns and the murky waters of unknown unknowns.

The Ludicrous Luck Myth

Poker might well be a jungle through which it’s never easy to find our way, but it’s the very incomplete, unknown aspect of the game that makes it one which requires skill. The notion that luck is a significant factor which renders skill almost irrelevant is a ludicrous misconception exclusive to those who can’t play, and which can sometimes cause those who are looking for an intellectual and psychological challenge to mistakenly not try the game. And that’s a pity…

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About the Author

AngusD

AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “Why the ‘Unknowns’ Factor Makes Poker a Skill Game” was made by AngusD on February 18, 2021