Poker shows success comes to those who get the breaks

December 16, 2005|By SAM BRAIDS

The recent crackdown on local poker tournaments makes me wonder why the vice squad has not gone after the organizers of local chess tournaments.

As in a poker tournament, each participant in a chess tournament must pay an entry fee on registration. The money collected is used to pay for the cost of the event, its organizers and to form a prize award for the winners.

The stock response to my seemingly absurd question is that poker is gambling because it involves luck while chess is not because it depends on skill. An amateur chess player, if given 1,000 tries, would not win even a single game against a grandmaster. By contrast, if the cards fell just right, an amateur poker player occasionally could beat a professional.

But the importance of skill in chess presents a huge problem for chess tournament organizers. An adequately funded tournament with an attractive prize needs a large number of players willing to pay the entry fee. Masses of average chess players are not going to contribute their money for a prize that they have no chance of winning.

The chess organizer's solution to this problem is to introduce elements of luck into the awarding of prizes. It is an obvious but little-mentioned truth about any contest that involves skill - when the competitors have similar abilities the outcome is not predictable.

Consider the example of baseball, a game that requires near-superhuman skill to play at the professional level. Yet chance events, such as bad bounces, dropped fly balls or questionable strike calls are often decisive. The best team does not always win. But the unpredictability is desirable because participants and spectators have little interest in competitions with known outcomes.

So chess tournament organizers generate substantial prize pools with a performance rating system that groups chess players into classes with comparable abilities. Cash prizes are awarded in each class. As a result, all participants feel that they have a chance of winning money and willingly contribute to the prize pool. As players improve, they move into higher classes and are forced to compete for prize money with more skilled players, just as in any other competitive activity that uses a handicap system, such as golf or bowling.

But as chess players improve, a funny thing happens. They become luckier. Strong chess players save more apparently hopeless positions and encounter opponents who make more mistakes. As I experienced the role of luck in chess, I learned a lesson that has served me well in life: strong players know how to create luck. They know how to keep up unrelenting pressure so that any lapse in attention by their opponent is decisive. They find moves that are psychologically unsettling for their opponent and induce mistakes.

The ability to create luck is useful in chess, but it is the critical skill in poker. Uncertainty is built into poker so that no handicap system is necessary. A poker player must study the cards looking for opportunities. A poker player does not expect to come out ahead in every playing session anymore than a baseball player expects a hit in every game.

But the idea of poker is to keep looking for favorable chances. Not every worthwhile bet will pay, but if enough favorable bets are placed, over time the mathematical laws governing chance dictate that a profit will accrue.

We live in a culture that is increasingly risk-averse. Elaborate laws have developed to protect us from the vagaries of chance. Consenting adults are arrested for risking their own money in a poker game because they might suffer financial harm if they lose. Never mind the financial harm because of the arrest.

But how far can we go to eliminate risk?

Examine the life of any successful individual and you will find that the success required difficult-to-acquire skills that took years of practice to hone. You will also find that those skills would have amounted to little without some "lucky break."

We learn that in life, just as in poker, success requires both skill and luck. Successful people keep taking chances. They learn how to create luck.

Sam Braids lives in Reisterstown and is the author of The Intelligent Guide to Texas Hold'em Poker. His e-mail is

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