Chess and Poker – the Mathematical Brain

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JenPLAGshoot500Poker has attracted a significant number of talented chess players. Poker players are cool-headed and calculate the odds for the prospect of substantial monetary rewards. To survive and prosper they must have a mathematical brain – or must they? The formidable Jennifer Shahade addresses this topic at her conference presentation on Sunday. She is a Woman Grandmaster and twice the USA women’s champion – and a professional poker player. She will host the prizegiving at the English Girls’ Chess Championship on Saturday at Olympia and give a pep talk to the girls.

Jennifer has written two critically acclaimed books exploring the involvement of women in chess. Chess Bitch looked at the histories and personalities of female chess players and Play Like a Girl extracted sparkling gems from female play. Her message is that traditional feminine preoccupations such as fashion and cosmetics are not necessarily in conflict with being an aggressive chess player. She suggests that females are socialised to be less outwardly competitive.

Remarkably, more girls are playing chess in USA both numerically and proportionately than at any time in the history of the USCF. Jennifer predicts that this trend will continue as chess becomes more glamorous and mainstream with the rise of champions like Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana (who was brought up in the USA although he now plays for Italy).

Jennifer was good at school math, but did not feel she was great. She operates on the efficient “need to know” principle: she only started to absorb mathematics once she got serious about poker. She is a specialist at a variant known as Open Face Chinese Poker. If you thought Texas Hold’em was complex, then the Open Face variant takes it to a higher level. Invented in Finland (not China), it has swept the world in recent years. Jennifer has written articles and produced training videos for “Run it Once” which have helped spread its popularity. There is wodge of mathematics needed for every hand. In spite of the mathematical component, Jennifer avers that poker is much more about psychology – it is vital to understand how one’s opponent is thinking.

She makes the telling point that chess and this particular poker variant are similar in that there are very few exploitative strategies. In more conventional forms of poker, much of the gain is about exploiting one’s opponent’s vulnerabilities. Whilst Jennifer does collect winnings this way, she is naturally more comfortable with playing according to smart strategies – basically out-thinking her opponents. This takes a lot of preparation, hard work and passion.

RouletteChessJSSTLNot only poker variants, but chess variants fascinate Jennifer. She is genuinely excited by the New Game Design competition being run in conjunction with the conference – the first ever such competition – and looks forward to trying out the winning entries. She has also created her own somewhat jet-set variant: Roulette Chess. She actually made the wheel with Larry List. One feels that chess in the future may look quite different from chess today.

Jennifer’s keen interest in chess was launched by a chess problem she encountered when she was 14 which she can still remember. She fell in love with chess problems and derives an aesthetic joy from solving them. She agrees that it’s preferable to have puzzles that appeal to diverse dispositions because this expands the participation in mental games. Ideally, she wants more young people to experience that “aha” moment when they recognise the beauty of a solution.

YamieChessphotoAt the conference she is representing a educational platform called Yamie Chess which integrates chess and mathematics. Although the name is new, the concepts have been developed over a number of years by some leading educational experts. If anybody can make this system popular, she can, and it is worth dropping by the Yamie Chess stand.

Immediately after the London Chess and Mathematics conference, Jennifer will fly off to Prague for the Open Face Chinese Poker World Championships and then the European Poker Tour event. She tweets a lively, and artfully photographed, account of her European adventures. Justifiably, she attracts over 10,000 followers, no doubt as much due to her photogenic qualities as her tournament prowess. The number of her followers is greater than the number registered chessplayers in England – which possibly means the ECF President needs a makeover.

Chess and poker are global games which give Jennifer the opportunity to connect to people of various ages, backgrounds and political beliefs. She particularly enjoys the social aspects of poker and meeting its fascinating characters. She has a moral streak too. She recently signed up for an organisation called “REG”, Raising for Effective Giving, and pledged to give 2% of her tournament winnings to charity.

In spite of her professional involvement in poker, she remains a natural ambassador for chess and its benefits. She was recently on the Isle of Man for the PokerStars Chess International and took the opportunity to give a chess simultaneous display for children from all over the island who clearly had a lot of fun.JENIOM3

Jennifer is in demand as a speaker on women and gaming. She recently gave a simultaneous display and a series of talks at the massive gaming convention, GenCon. She is a commentator on live broadcasts of major international chess events (although too busy for London this time). Oh, and by the way she is editor of the US Chess Federation website and a board member at the World Chess Hall of Fame. Her public profile continues to grow in the area of human endeavour containing arguably the greatest amount of concentrated brainpower in history.

From Jennifer’s presentation: HulaChess





About John Foley

Director, London Chess Conference Secretary, Education Commission, European Chess Union Director, ChessPlus Ltd Promoting chess as a way to develop thinking skills

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