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Mind Sports “Legitimizing” Poker Alongside Chess, Scrabble, Backgammon – Special Features

The recently completed WPT Baden in Vienna saw hundreds enter the main event but poker was hardly the only game on tap.

Thanks to Mind Sports International, players also had the option of competing in chess, backgammon, Magic: The Gathering, eSports and Scrabble.

The new collaboration between poker and mind sports helps legitimize poker as a skill game and also raises the profile of some of the lesser-known games.

Mind Sports a Natural Fit for Poker Festivals

PokerListings had the chance to sit down with commentator Jesse May and poker pro Scott O'Reilly and find out why mind sports are a natural fit for poker festivals.

PokerListings.com: What’s behind the idea to host mind sports along with poker tournaments?

Scott O'Reilly: The thing is, there are a lot of players who used to play some of the other games. I, for example, used to play a lot of chess, I played Magic for several years, and I still like to compete in these games.

On the other hand it is good for poker to bring it closer to the notion of it being a mind sport.

jesse may
Jesse May and Scott O'Reilly

Jesse May: There is already the idea to bring all the players together after their respective main events, and have them compete in all the other games.

Like a games pentathlon.

It would make for a nice comparison, because all the players think their own game is somehow superior.

PL: They do?

SOR: Oh, yes. The chess players for example think that everyone else is just messing around.

PL: Isn’t it true, though, as chess is supposed to be the game without any luck factor?

SOR: So you think chess requires more skills than scrabble?

PL: I didn’t say that. Did I say that?

JM: I just don’t see why “luck” is the arbiter that decides whether something is a pure game or not. Why isn’t managing your luck as much of a skill as anything else?

SOR: Exactly. That is certainly also true for a game like backgammon. Backgammon is essentially a solved game. Technically. But it’s still a game.

And the reason is the cube. The cube is essential, as it changes the game completely, and it’s also a very good example for managing calculated risks.

The backgammon players consider themselves particularly good at this, so they also think they are playing some special game.

kara scott
Kara Scott was one of many players who played several games at WPT Baden.

Luck and Luck Management

PL: So, just as in poker, there is luck involved, but you can still play good or badly.

SOR: Yes, and you play good or badly with your luck. You have to know when to take a gamble and when not to. There is just no other way to say this.

You need to know when you can turn the odds in your favor, when to increase the stakes and when to decrease them – which is also what poker is.

I’d like to say that different games require different skill sets. Scrabble for example is a very interesting game, and that guy from New Zealand [two times scrabble world champion Nigel Richards] has memorized – I mean literally memorized, a dictionary that is this thick.

There is NO other game in the world where that kind of skill and knowledge is present or required.

PL: I guess towards the end of a match, he also knows the letters you have on your board.

SOR: Yes, he has the information of his own board and the letters on the table, so he knows.

Now if you compare chess with Scrabble, the reason why chess is considered a much more skillful game is because it’s been around a lot longer, so it’s a lot more accepted.

But Scrabble requires a different skill set. It requires language, it requires math. You need to know the optimal placements for your letters to get maximum points, without letting a door open for your opponent.

It has a lot of elements in common with chess, but it requires different skills as well.

scott oreilly
Scott O'Reilly has over $1.1 million in online poker winnings.

Gambling in Mind Sports

PL: What are the gambling and strategy elements in these games?

JM: Well, for once, the luck factor materializes in the set of letters you draw. Do you get a board with no vowels, or do you get three vowels.

The next questions for me is, do I make a defensive play, so my opponent cannot play the cue and doesn’t get many points, and then leaves the board open for me?

Or do I try to go for a more risky play, in the hope to pick up the letters I need in the next round. When you reach a certain level in this game, those decisions become highly mathematical.

SOR: The different lines you can take are actually very similar to chess, but people don’t realize it, because it’s such a completely different looking game.

In both games, what it comes back to, is calculated risk. Managing your luck.

PL: How do you manage your luck?

David Williams
Poker pro David Williams also plays Magic: The Gathering.

JM: One thing that’s important, and we know this from poker, is the ability to stay in control.

Staying in control again requires a skill set, that let’s you understand that despite whatever you do, there are always a couple of unknown factors involved that can make things go badly against you.

Game theory, in this respect, seems to be very particular to poker, as opposed to chess.

Chess and Variance

SOR: Chess is more of a learned method. Looking at the games here, maybe the first ten moves will usually be standard play.

Someone starts with an Italian opening, for example, and the black player responds with a queen’s gambit, and so the first moves are from the book. Only then do they start playing.

Chess players think they play with no luck involved, and poker players do. But they have to realize, that playing blitz chess, and reducing the thinking time between the moves to a few seconds, means that they add luck as an extra element into their game.

JM: In these blitz format games, a low range player might beat a grandmaster, which he simply never would in a standard format. The faster the game, the more uncertainties you don’t have control over anymore.

Poker players talk about variance all the time, and what you often hear is phrases like: “Luck decreases skill”, and “luck increases variance”.

Now these are two completely separate statements. Yes, luck increases variance, but it doesn’t really influence skill.

Variance is something most people don’t understand or don’t want to think about.

SOR: Also, luck plays a major role in a lot of sports. Do you hit the bunker with your golf ball, or do you miss it by a foot? Does the ball bounce out of or into the goal after it hit the bar in a football match.

That’s luck. In poker, luck is just a lot more definable, by numbers, odds, outs, expected value and so on.

Jason Mercier
Open Face Chinese Poker is growing fast. Jason Mercier is a fan.

What's Considered a Mind Sport?

PL: What defines a mind sport?

SOR: A game that involves more skill than luck, and it has to be thinking skills.

JM: I think it’s not that easy. Think of tic, tac, toe. Is it a mind sport? It is possible to play tic, tac, toe badly, but almost everybody at the age of four knows the perfect strategy. Ok, I might have been six or seven. (laughs)

SOR: But if someone isn’t playing the perfect strategy, they get destroyed, so yes, it is a mind sport. Mind you, it would be boring as hell in a competition with all the draws.

Another example: Monopoly. Monopoly involves luck elements and skill elements. Still, I would say that poker is a more skilful game because it involves more thought processes.

But both games have a majority of skill over luck – even so the exact odds are impossible to calculate –  so they should both be considered mind sports.

If there was no skill in poker, what about the people who win consistently? Are they lucky? Is there such a thing?

Open Face Chinese Poker 'Exploding'

PL: How important is the skill vs. luck relation in Chinese and Open Face Chinese Poker?

JM: I am stoked about Open Face Chinese.

SOR: The two games are a world apart. Chinese Poker is a solved game. There is skill involved, but once you get to a certain level, you should be able to play nearly perfect.

Open Face has a lot of different aspects to it that use different skill sets. You can see your opponent’s cards, so you’re getting more information, and this will influence your play.

You can see what the other players are going for, you can see where your flush cards are gone, and you have to set your own hand accordingly.

You will also set your cards differently depending on your position. Position is crucial to Open Face. You have so much more information in late position, especially in the first round where everybody gets dealt five cards.

And again, it is a lot about calculated risk.

mind sports
The Vienna Mind Sports Festival

JM: There is something very chess-like about Open Face Chinese. There are the elements of infinite possibilities and pattern recognition.

In both games, there are so many moves or permutations that the human brain cannot go through all of them. And exactly as in chess, you eliminate the 95% moves or sets which are obviously bad.

The amazing thing about it is, it’s only been around for a very short time, but it has literally exploded.

SOR: Everybody who is taken to Hold’em will be drawn to it like a duck to water.

There are parallels to Hold’em, but Open Face probably plays out more like chess than any other card game.

Part of the attraction it has also comes from that nobody knows a lot about it. There is no theory, and no one has figured out the perfect way to play. So, many people think they are really good at it, but no one knows if their play is successful in the long run.

JM: I have only played for ten days, and I’m pretty good. I mean – I’m not!

PL: Should it be part of the WSOP? Is it actually even poker?

A Scrabble game at WPT Baden

SOR: It already is part of it. They have a 5k event. And yes, it should definitely be in every big event series.

JM: If only for the simple reason that it would sell out. At the end of the day, skill or not, we have to go with what the players like, even though there will always be purists who oppose it.

SOR: There used to be purists who were against playing Omaha.

Others opposed against Mixed Games, while others say there aren’t enough.

There was a time, when someone introduced Hold’em, and people would massively go against it.

JM: Yeah, they said, ‘we’re playing Draw Poker here, son’. (big laugh)

SOR: Now, we’ve come up with a new game, and people are enjoying it. A new game is evolving, and we have to react.

Ant it’s amazing how quickly it spreads. It’s only been on the scene for about a year, the Finnish say they’ve played for about three years, and the roots probably lie in Russia, where they have played it for about five.

New and different games are played all over the world, and that’s a good thing. My personal favourite for example is six card Omaha double board.

JM: To me, the most important thing is not the definition of mind sports, but that everybody gets together and plays all the other games, too.

SOR: And a perfect mixed mind sports evening would probably have chess, backgammon, Open Face Chinese, Scrabble, and maybe one more game, depending on logistics.

JM: Then we’ll find out who really are the best players.

The next Mind Sports Festival is set to take place April 11-15, 2013 at the Marbella Casino in Spain.

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