John Hesp. Poker. Chess. Fantasy.

by admin on July 22, 2017

Last night and the previous night I watched parts of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) final table on ESPN. It’s the first time I have ever watched live poker on TV, although I have watched the “canned” broadcasts now and then in the past. Of course, whenever I watch poker I mentally compare it to chess, and wonder what we can do or cannot do to advance chess to a similar level of popular awareness.

One thing that surprised me was that the final table at the WSOP was not boring. I had read some opinions online to the effect that live poker would be boring to watch because it’s so slow. Most hands have very little real action, and most players fold about three-quarters of their hands. That’s probably why poker first appeared on ESPN in canned form, so they can fit a day’s worth of action into 30 minutes or an hour.

Nevertheless, I didn’t mind the slower pace of “real time” poker at all. The rhythm of the game was closer to the rhythm of chess. In chess, too, you spend a lot of time in routine positions building up to the relatively few moments of climax.

I also learned some things that I had somehow never figured out from watching the pre-recorded and edited broadcasts. I learned what terms like “3-bet” and “on the button” meant. From the canned broadcasts I couldn’t even figure out what “big blind” meant, even though they talked about it all the time. The live broadcast gave the commentators time to explain the strategy and gave me a chance to learn just by watching a lot of supposedly boring hands.

Lesson for chess, if we should ever make it to mainstream TV: Condensed, edited game packages might be a good way to attract viewers who don’t know much about the game. But don’t give up on the authentic game, played at the authentic pace. Don’t give up what makes chess wonderful and fascinating.

Now let me talk about what was special this year, 2017. The biggest story of the tournament was the man who finished in fourth place: John Hesp, a 64-year-old poker amateur from England who came to play in the WSOP because it was on his “bucket list.” Dressed in a dapper suit with patches of floral fabric and a white hat, he looked just like a tourist who had wandered in and started playing. He was the only one among the nine finalists who just seemed to be there to have a good time, and his presence definitely loosened up the others as well. The commentators marveled at him over and over, “John Hesp is great for poker.” Norman Chad kept saying that it was time for someone to make poker fun again and rescue it from the robo-poker players who never joke around, never do anything as déclassé as showing their cards after a successful bluff, and never use tactics like a lead out (a bet placed in the first position after a flop card). All of these, of course, were things that Hesp was doing.

Although I don’t know poker, there certainly is an analogue in chess, the kids who are booked up to the gills in currently fashionable openings and would never dream of playing something romantic and (supposedly) unsound like the King’s Gambit.

For a while on Thursday, Hesp was in the lead and was just having a grand time. Then came a calamitous hand against the player with the second-largest stack (and the only player who was close to him), Scott Blumstein. Because this isn’t a poker blog I won’t bore you with the details, but it was tragic because the cards seemed to conspire against him. The flop and turn and river cards (which are visible to all players) seemed to set him up perfectly. There was no way for him to know that they set up his opponent even better. It was probably the most pivotal hand of the tournament, because it dropped Hesp from first to almost-busted and gave Blumstein a huge chip lead that has continued to grow and grow.

In some ways I was most impressed by what happened next. I expected Hesp to lose the rest of his chips in pretty short order, which would have put him in seventh place. And in fact he was somewhat glum for a while, not the talkative, chatty player he had been. Chad said that “the life has gone out of the table.” But he hung in there, played patiently and gradually seemed to recover his good spirits. He stayed in the game for quite a long time after that and eventually finished fourth instead of seventh.

I have to admit, after watching this crowd-pleasing performance, that chess has nothing like John Hesp and I don’t see any way that we ever can. What Hesp offers the viewing audience is the fantasy that they, too, could go to Las Vegas, buy in for $10,000, make it to the final table and become famous. It’s sheer fantasy, of course, like thinking that you can win the lottery. (Except it costs a whole lot more!) However, in chess we cannot even offer this fantasy. An amateur cannot go to one of the biggest tournaments of the year, say the World Open or Chicago Open, and finish fourth. The difference in skill is too vast, and there is no way to make up for it with luck.

But chess does offer something that poker doesn’t: beauty. This is perhaps the number one reason, to me, why I can’t get interested in playing poker. Suppose you win a fantastic hand with a straight draw. What have you created? How have you added to the sum of human wisdom? It seems to me that you have created nothing except a momentary jolt of adrenaline. We already knew that 4 lies between 2, 3, 5, and 6. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this fact. By contrast, in chess a beautiful game lasts forever and teaches us about possibilities on the chess board that nobody ever knew before. Poker has a vacuum at its core that is covered up by money, while chess is intrinsically satisfying and does not depend on money to captivate us.

I don’t know if there is any way to communicate this beauty on television. And maybe we shouldn’t even worry about it. In spite of the fact that poker has higher TV ratings than chess (which doesn’t even have TV ratings), I actually think that the public perception of chess is higher than that of poker. Lots and lots of parents want their kids to learn chess, because they rightly believe it will teach them impulse control, logical reasoning, concentration. By contrast, I don’t know of any parents who take their kids to poker lessons. They instinctively understand that there are aspects to the game that are best for a young person to avoid.

When Norman Chad says that poker needs someone like John Hesp to save it, I think that it speaks volumes. Poker will always need someone to save its soul, because it doesn’t really have a soul.

Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. This morning I was reading some blog posts on a poker blog that reinforced this impression. One was from a guy who wrote about playing some games against a new and very well-funded player who started showing up at his local casino. This “whale” actually did very well at first, but before long the piranha (including the guy who wrote the post) surrounded him and bled him dry. The blogger found out from a casino employee that the high roller had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Poker was his way of saying, “Screw it, I have only two months to live so I’m going to do what I want.” The blogger hated being one of the piranha that fed on this guy. On the other hand, he said, he said he had to do it, because if it wasn’t him it would have been someone else.

Very sad, and from what I have heard about poker, typical. The way that good poker players get rich is not by winning tournaments like the WSOP, where just about everyone knows what they’re doing. The real money is in taking advantage of rubes who don’t know what they’re doing.

The second sobering blog post was from a guy who wrote about how he got started in poker in college, got completely addicted to it, made more money than a 21-year-old should have but lost even more, and made bad choices that cost him his best friend, who had gotten him into poker. He wrote that he “betrayed” his best friend by becoming everything that they had said they wouldn’t. But after that first year he learned to control his poker better, got a good job and a girlfriend. But still he was seduced by poker. He says he quit the job because of the lack of advancement potential. Worse, his girlfriend asked him to walk away from poker when he was up $1200 in a tournament. He said no, one thing that he could never give up for his girlfriend was poker. She left him, and he lost the $1200, and he was more torn up about that than the girlfriend.

That’s what poker needs saving from — gambling addiction, greed — and it will always need saving. The WSOP puts the best possible face on it, but the other side is there and people know it.

So that’s why I would rather be a chess player with no financial prospects. But it would be even better to be a chess player with financial prospects … 

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John V July 22, 2017 at 6:10 pm

I think you underestimate the depth of poker. To a novice poker player, maybe it is just throwing chips around and getting 5 cards in a row. But perhaps to a novice chess player, chess is just pushing wood around until someone tips their king.

I play both chess and poker at a decently high level and I find poker nearly as beautiful a game as chess. There is a tremendous amount of theory, understanding, and math that goes into playing the game at the highest level. Yes, the result plays out on 5 playing cards laid out next to each other, but the thought process that goes into each hand is where the beauty falls.

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admin July 22, 2017 at 8:51 pm

I was hoping that I could entice a poker player to join the discussion! I know a lot of chess players who do play poker, or have given it a try, so I would love to hear where other people fall on the poker-versus-chess spectrum.

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Roman Parparov July 23, 2017 at 8:29 pm

The difference is that in poker practically any casual observer has a good idea what is going on, and the moves and their qualities are obvious AT LEAST IN HINDSIGHT.

In chess, most of the observers even up to Master level haven’t often a good idea what is going on, and the moves and their qualities aren’t obvious for a very long time.

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Mary Kuhner July 23, 2017 at 9:15 am

You might enjoy James McManus’ book _Positively Fifth Street_, which is mostly about the WSOP. (There’s a murder story too, but it’s surprisingly dull.) He captures both the appeal and the sleaziness of poker very well, I think.

I do know someone who attributes his first divorce to chess: it can be obsessive in much the same way. I am the biological daughter of someone who destroyed his marriage with gambling, which has led me not to gamble; but at various points in my life chess has certainly been a problem, so perhaps I inherited some personality traits.

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