Chess vs. Poker – Which Is Harder?

When it comes to mind sports, chess and poker hold big positions, captivating enthusiasts with their unique blend of skill, strategy, and sometimes, a little bit of luck.

While both games are deeply strategic and require a high level of skill to master, the debate on which game is harder is a nuanced one.

It largely depends on various perspectives including what has the higher level of variance, which is harder for the “average person” to compete in, the complexity involved in creating AI software programs for these games, and more.

Let’s delve deeper into these aspects to provide a comprehensive view.

Variance in Gameplay

Chess: A Game of Perfect Information

In chess, players have access to all the information they need to make informed decisions.

Each player can see the entire board and all the pieces, which means that the game is largely about skill and strategy.

Incompetence in chess is exposed very quickly, as a player with a lesser understanding of the game can hardly hope to beat someone who has mastered the strategies and tactics involved.

Poker: A Game of Imperfect Information

On the other hand, poker is a game of imperfect information.

Players do not have access to all the details, as they can only see their own cards and the community cards on the table.

This introduces a higher level of variance in poker, where even a player with a lower skill level can win against a more experienced opponent, especially in the short term.

From the perspective of an average person having a better shot at winning, it would definitely be poker.

The history of the game is replete with instances where amateur players have won the Main Event, showcasing the element of unpredictability and luck that is inherent in the game.

From this perspective, it’s much easier for the “average person” to compete in poker against the best players relative to chess.

Difficulty in Developing AI Software

When it comes to developing AI software programs, the challenges vary significantly between chess and poker.

Creating an AI software for chess is relatively straightforward because of the perfect information available in the game.

With enough computing power, the AI can calculate moves and outcomes in a much superior way to a human player, making it easier to program.

In contrast, developing AI for poker is considerably more complex.

The imperfect information and the necessity to bluff and strategize against human players, who may employ unpredictable strategies, make it a much harder task.

Therefore, from a technological standpoint, poker holds the crown for being the more challenging game to develop AI software for.

In sum, chess AI uses Markov chains while poker AI uses feedback systems.

It Depends on the Perspective

Ultimately, determining which game is harder – chess or poker, depends largely on the perspective one chooses to adopt.

From a pure skill and strategy standpoint, chess is harder as it demands a deep understanding and mastery of the game to succeed consistently.

From the viewpoint of variance and unpredictability, poker is easier as it offers opportunities for even amateur players to shine, albeit with a higher reliance on luck.

Furthermore, the complexity involved in developing AI software for these games also presents a different angle to consider, with poker being the more challenging contender in this aspect.

Chess vs. Poker – Breaking Them Down

Both games have their own unique sets of challenges and require different skill sets.

Here, we will explore the complexities and demands of both games from various perspectives:


Strategic Depth

  • Deterministic Gameplay: Chess is a game with perfect information, meaning all information is available to both players at all times. This demands deep strategic thinking and foresight, as players must anticipate their opponent’s moves many steps ahead.
  • Complexity: The game has an incredibly high number of possible positions and outcomes, which can make it very complex and difficult to master.

Skill Development

  • Pattern Recognition: Chess players develop the ability to recognize patterns and sequences, which is a skill that requires years of practice to develop.
  • Endgame Theory: The endgame in chess can be particularly challenging, with players needing to know specific techniques to secure a win (e.g., how to checkmate with a rook and king might be difficult for a beginner and checkmating with a knight, bishop, and king might be impossible for them).

Mental Resilience

  • Focus: Chess requires intense concentration and focus.
  • Pressure: Players often have to perform under high pressure, especially in timed games where quick decision-making is essential.


Psychological Depth

  • Imperfect Information: Poker is a game of imperfect information, meaning players do not have access to all the information. This introduces a significant element of uncertainty and requires players to be skilled at reading their opponents and bluffing. This makes poker a “mixed strategy” game relative to the more straightforward nature of chess.
  • Risk Management: Players must be adept at assessing risks and knowing when to fold, call, or raise, which can be a complex skill to develop.

Skill Development

  • Statistical Analysis: Poker players often use statistical analysis and probability theory to make informed decisions during a game.
  • Emotional Control: Being able to control one’s emotions and maintain a “poker face” is a critical skill in poker, helping to prevent opponents from gauging your hand strength.

Mental Resilience

  • Patience: Poker can require a great deal of patience, as players may need to fold many hands before getting a hand worth playing.
  • Stress: The game can be stressful, particularly in high-stakes environments where substantial amounts of money are on the line.

Learning Curve in Chess and Poker

While both games have steep learning curves, chess might be seen as having a steeper initial curve due to the necessity to learn opening theory, pattern recognition, calculation skills, and more.

Luck vs. Skill in Chess and Poker

Poker has a more significant element of luck involved, given the randomness of the card draw and the inability to see your opponents’ cards.

In contrast, chess is almost purely skill-based, given perfect information.

Cultural Perception of Chess and Poker

Chess is often perceived as a “pure” intellectual pursuit.

Poker, being associated with gambling, might not have the same intellectual reputation, despite the deep strategic elements involved in high-level play.

The greatest chess player of all-time, Magnus Carlsen, also dabbles in poker and provides his perspective:

Magnus Carlsen on Poker vs. Chess

Q&A: Chess vs. Poker – Which Is Harder?

Which game has a higher variance, chess or poker?

In terms of variance, poker stands out as the game with a higher degree of unpredictability.

This is primarily due to the imperfect information available to players, meaning that pure skill level tends to matter less in poker compared to chess.

In chess, players have complete visibility of the board and can calculate potential outcomes based on the current state of play, which reduces the variance significantly.

For an average person, which game offers a better chance of success, chess or poker?

From the perspective of an average individual, poker generally offers a better shot at success.

This is because poker allows for a greater element of luck and chance, which can sometimes favor less skilled players.

In contrast, chess is a game where skill and strategy are paramount, and any lack of competence is quickly exposed.

Have amateur players ever won significant tournaments in poker?

Yes, there have been instances where amateur players have managed to win the Main Event in poker.

This is a testament to the fact that poker allows room for unexpected outcomes and can sometimes favor the underdog.

It is a scenario less likely to happen in professional chess tournaments where expertise and skill are essential.

Which game is more challenging to create AI software for, chess or poker?

Creating AI software is generally more challenging for poker compared to chess.

The imperfect information and the unpredictable nature of poker make it a complex task for AI development.

On the other hand, chess, with its defined set of rules and visible board, allows for a more straightforward approach to AI programming.

How does the perspective of an individual affect the perceived difficulty of chess and poker?

The perceived difficulty of chess and poker can significantly vary depending on an individual’s perspective.

For someone with a strong analytical and strategic mindset, chess might be seen as a game where they can leverage their skills effectively.

Conversely, individuals who prefer a game with a blend of skill and luck might find poker to be more to their liking.

It is essential to consider personal preferences and strengths when determining which game is harder.

Can the skills acquired from playing chess be beneficial in poker, and vice versa?

Yes, the skills acquired from playing chess can potentially be beneficial in poker, and vice versa.

In chess, players develop strategic thinking and foresight, which can be useful in poker when it comes to reading opponents and planning moves ahead.

However, a skilled chess player is much more likely to compete in poker effectively against elite players than elite poker players competing against elite chess players.


The debate on whether chess or poker is harder is a multifaceted one, with valid arguments supporting both sides.

While chess demands a higher level of skill and strategy, the variance in poker allows for more unpredictable and exciting gameplay.

Moreover, the challenges involved in creating AI software for these games further add layers to this ongoing debate.

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