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Garry Kasparov is Mistaken about Poker

18 March 2010, By: Charlie River
gary kasparov1
gary kasparov1

In an article on chess and computers for the New York Review of Books, chess super ultra grandmaster Garry Kasparov briefly mentions poker, and shows that he hasn'€™t understood it.

The article is a well written and insightful treatment of man’s old dream of building machines that can think like humans.

After machine defeated man in chess (something that Kasparov can relate extremely accurately, being the man who was defeated), the efforts of artificial intelligence researchers and computer programmers have turned to other games.

Poker being one of the main points of interest for this endeavor at the moment, in the end of the article Kasparov is naturally led to touch upon the subject of poker and poker playing computers.

His view of the Fine Game of Poker is not as educated as the rest of the article. Kasparov seems to drastically underestimate the theoretical complexity of poker:

“Poker is now everywhere, as amateurs dream of winning millions and being on television for playing a card game whose complexities can be detailed on a single piece of paper”

Please show me that paper, Garry! For me it’s taken several pages just to explain some of the basics of poker theory.

In this passage, Kasparov's description of poker is partly correct:

“ has hidden cards and variable stakes, creating critical roles for chance, bluffing, and risk management.”

Fair enough, but Kasparov forgets decision making. In his article he talks about “using the decision-making process of chess as a model for understanding and improving our decision-making everywhere else”.

It should be clear to anyone that poker is a much better model of human decision making than chess. With its many layers of unknown variables, poker mimics the decision making situation of the real world.

Chess on the other hand, with its complete information, is very unlike most real situations and more of a curious exception in the area of decision making.

Eventually, Kasparov opens up a small window for poker as something useful for human society:

“Perhaps the current trend of many chess professionals taking up the more lucrative pastime of poker is not a wholly negative one. It may not be too late for humans to relearn how to take risks in order to innovate and thereby maintain the advanced lifestyles we enjoy. And if it takes a poker-playing supercomputer to remind us that we can't enjoy the rewards without taking the risks, so be it.”

Amen to that, but why such a condescending tone? Poker is a fine, fine game, no need to treat it as a necessary evil.

I love chess, and I have an enormous respect for Garry Kasparov both as a chess thinker and a sensible intellectual. But what he says on poker in this article just isn’t good enough.

Do your homework, Garry!


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  • Charlie River 26/11/2010 10:02am (10 years ago)

    I think poker is a fine game of cards, nothing more nothing less. I think it mimics regular business better than the "speculative financial markets". What kind of production happens in chess? Chess is also just a (fine) game, right? What benefits to society do chess players bring?

    Also, do you really want a society where playing games is looked down upon? Humanity would be the loser.

  • Joseph Cohen 23/11/2010 4:54am (10 years ago)

    "Fair enough, but Kasparov forgets decision making" Reading it I do not agree with this, it seems to be the point that Kasparov is trying to make.

    The reasons for a condescending tone I think is fair. Poker brings out the worst of our form of capitalism, in fact Poker is akin to the speculative financial markets where no production really happens. People dream of being rich by taking other people's money. What benefits to society do poker professional players bring?