WSOP 2011 Best Bets: Chess Players

Jeff Sarwer
Chess players already have the skills needed to succeed in poker.

Every year, PokerListings releases its list of Best Bets for the upcoming World Series of Poker.

In the past we’ve picked out individuals, based on results, skill and our vast knowledge of the vagaries of the poker world.

Frankly, our predictions have been less than accurate.

That’s why this year we’re taking the shotgun approach, aiming at groups in hopes of scoring a few hits.

So let’s continue the 2011 WSOP Best Bets series with our second group: Chess players.

If there is a group of people more prepared for success at the 2011 World Series of Poker than chess players, PokerListings hasn’t found it.

Two world-class female chess players dominated the World Poker Tour Celebrity Invitational in Los Angeles this year en route to making the final table.

And while Almira Skripchenko and Dinara Khaziyeva didn’t win, they proved they’re poised for big things in poker.

Historically, chess players have proven the transition to poker to be a profitable one.

1995 WSOP Main Event champ and two-time finalist Dan Harrington is among those who played chess before he turned to poker, as is 2008 November Niner Ylon Schwartz.

“A lot of chess players look at poker as a great way to make money." - Jeff Sarwer

Plus, child chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer emerged from a life on the lam in 2009 to find incredible success on the European Poker Tour.

Sarwer took his first crack at the WSOP last year and managed to cash in three events.

He says chess players, and in fact anyone with a gaming background, usually come ready to play.

“There really is (something fundamental about chess that makes chess players successful at poker) and I think that goes for all the gaming crossovers,” he told PokerListings.

“If you have a gaming mind then you have a lot of the same foundation. It goes for Magic the Gathering, backgammon and chess.

Almira Skripchenko
Almira Skripchenko: Looking for first major win.

“Chess players are bringing a lot of the competitive sports psychology with them. While backgammon is more of the math side, in my opinion chess is more of a bluffing game. Because the positions are so cloudy, it gets really messy.

“It is a game of complete information, but it’s purely artistic at some points. So some people can be really bad at the math in chess and still succeed, which isn’t the case in poker these days.

“And all the pressure elements at the higher levels of chess, how to put pressure on your opponents, is very similar to poker. Also knowing when to change your approach and change your strategy.”

Sarwer says much of the chess community views the game of poker as a good way to make a living for mid-level chess players who can’t quite crack the top one or two thousand in the world and as such, more and more are entering the fray.

“A lot of chess players look at poker as a great way to make money in gaming, especially because of the luck element,” he said.

“Chess players generally have a hard time dealing with the idea that you can get sucked out on, but they understand that that’s where all the value comes from.

“Chess players are also interested in poker because the theory is still quite young, and it’s changing every year.

“For all those reasons we’re going to see more and more chess players converting to poker.”

Sarwer plans to spend a bunch of his time at the Rio chasing WSOP gold this summer.

And after her final table appearance in the 2009 World Series of Poker's $2,000 No-Limit Hold'em event, PokerListings expects to see Skripchenko joining an ever growing group of chess players there as well.

All indications point to this being the year that at least one of them ships a bracelet.

"I just think that chess players are naturally skilled to become poker players because chess involves a lot of strategic thinking," she said.

"Yes, of course, there is a lot of math in poker, but this is more important than math. Math can be mastered by everyone and all the strategic and analytical skills, you have to develop."

Stay up to date with all the action from Vegas this summer with's WSOP 2011 Live Coverage section.

More chess players to look out for:

  • Vladimir Schmelev (former Russian chess prodigy and four-time final tablist at 2010 WSOP including 2nd-place finish in $50k Players Championship)
  • Jennifer Shahade (two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, serial Sunday Million casher and WSOP cashes in Ladies Event in 2007 and 2008)
  • Alexander Grischuk (Super Grandmaster, 2006 World Blitz Champion and 2009 Russian Chess Champion)
  • Eugene Yanayt (FIDE ranked Chess Master and sixth-place finisher at the 2011 EPT Grand Final in Madrid)

Note: For a great follow-up piece and more on Almira Skripchenko, including video from the poker table, check out

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