Poker, Chess and Life – Part 1: Subjectivity


I like chess, but sometimes it drives me crazy. I like poker, but sometimes it drives me crazy. I like life, but guess what? Yeah, it drives me crazy sometimes.

I want to investigate these three spheres more closely and take a look at the nature of each as I think there are a lot of interesting comparisons to be made between the three. This article is for anyone who has an interest in poker, chess or life and wants to read my take on how they relate to each other; the differences and the similarities.

I’m going to examine how each of five concepts functions in each of the three realms and what that can teach us about these concepts. The concepts in question are subjectivity, skill, luck, progress, and success, which are all pretty central things to how we approach the world. Poker and chess are of course internal sub-parts to the realm of ‘life’ – which I use to cover everything a human could encounter in any way during their existence, be it conceptual or actual; common or rare. Anything you’ve ever heard of or thought of falls into this realm and much more.

A word of warning: some basic knowledge of poker and chess will be necessary to follow parts of what follows, but I’ll try not to go into complex detail about either or bombard the non game geek with geeky gaming jargon.

 Part 1 – Subjectivity 

If something is subjective then its value, nature or description is not fixed by external reality, but is dependant on whoever is experiencing it. I hate marzipan. I think it’s revolting so to me marzipan is a horrible thing that should never be eaten, but that doesn’t make it so objectively; in fact many people love to eat it and would use completely opposite adjectives to describe it. If you want to say ‘Marzipan is great’ you’re not wrong, and neither am I, we just disagree about its value as it affects each of us differently.  What you can’t do, however, is tell me that Marzipan is a type of frog. If you said this, you’d be wrong. It’s name and what that references is fixed objectively by reality i.e by the way it’s been coined and used over time.

The value of marzipan is subjective, but it’s nature is objective.

So with that out of the way lets begin in the realm of life. In life, many subjective matters tend to cause negative actions in us humans from friction and argument to war and death. People feel an inherent discomfort with others perceiving the world differently to the way they do, possibly because that threatens their ability to determine truth and determining what’s true is really important if you’d like to survive. Common examples are religion, culture, ethics and lots of other stuff where it’s a murkier matter separating right from wrong and good from bad. Some of us like to blow each other up over these matters, invade each other’s country, or perhaps just to write hateful posts on the internet behind the safety of our keyboards. If you removed all of the subjective stuff from the realm of life, you’d probably see a huge reduction in the amount of bad things that are done to humans by humans. I’ll start off by saying that as a species, we don’t handle subjectivity very well.

But, enough about the depressing side of life, let’s jump into the realm of chess and see what we find…64 squares, 32 pieces, and a rigid yet extremely large number of possibilities.

In chess much is objectively certain – most statements of the form ‘X is good/bad’ are necessary truths and it would be absurd to believe otherwise. To think the pawn is the most powerful piece or that the best way to start the game is by throwing a knight to the side of the board (1.Na3) where it’s placed far from the most important squares is not a reasonable difference in opinion but a failure of logic. While there are some subjective parts of chess that remain a matter of taste, such as which opening is best to deploy or whether open or closed positions are more fun to play, they are usually unimportant to our chess lives and we’re happy to disagree on them just as we are marzipan. Each situation (position) has a fixed evaluation and a computer can instantly tell us who is winning and by how much. It can also tell us with a great deal of accuracy what the best thing to do is. The reason for this is that chess is an extremely concrete and narrow realm where the vast majority of the beliefs we can hold are determined by the objective reality of what is on the board. Anything that matters in a game of chess can be found by exploring the fixed and transparent nature of the position – and in rigid terms which a computer can handle very well.

Therefore, in chess, there are no massive disagreements about what is true or correct. We can unearth huge amounts of truth and reach an extremely high level of competency because when we find something to be true of chess, it’s true regardless of different cultures, moods or tastebuds. A rook will always have no legal moves at the start of the game, if you say otherwise, you’re simply wrong and no ethical belief can justify your absurd claim. Objective realms lead to faster learning as observable matters are solved through agreement. In life, we haven’t come close to solving the problem of abortion in harmonious agreement because it’s too subjective. If there’s an objective solution, it’s shrouded by our subjective takes on the elements of the problem.

So there’s a practical benefit to the concrete objective nature of chess. We have a simple streamlined way of handling the world and hence live in certainty and peace with fellow players. We disagree about nothing that matters on an unsolvable basis. A chess novice is often wrong and accepts his ignorance while seeking to improve himself. Imagine if an uninformed racist could acknowledge his failings so quickly and respectfully in the realm of life – but he usually can’t – because that realm is too subjective. It’s too easy to find some reason to justify your views, or even to disband reason altogether and let emotion do the work. The chess equivalent: ‘I don’t care that 1. Nh3 is a poor placement of a piece – the knight has a right to experience that square. I’m a proud owner of two knights and so I should decide their future’ is ridiculous, but we only see that clearly because we have no subjective smog distorting our view as we so often do in life.

So in chess, mass objectivity helps us to learn quickly and in the same direction as others. In life we’re divided and at war over many of the numerous subjective matters that we just can’t seem to resolve. How subjective is poker and can we learn anything from that?

Poker undoubtedly lies somewhere in between the other two realms. We have a logical framework much like in chess that we can use to make concrete observation. We can state lots of rational facts such as ‘You have to win at least a third of the time to call a pot sized bet on the river.’ and ‘a flush draw has more chance of beating top pair than a straight draw does’. We can use these objective truths to build a network of strategic thinking and know that sometimes we’re definitely doing the right thing.

The problem with poker is it’s complexity. We’re cast into the role of the estimate maker because even if there exists some absolute solution to a situation, the factors that go into it are too vague, numerous or have uncertain weight. We might not  know exactly what range of hands our opponent can have when he takes X action, or even what it’s most likely to be. We might not know if it’s better to call the river shove or not in a spot where villain’s range is unclear and we have around the middle of ours. We constantly have incomplete information. We’re constantly approximating how is best to proceed based on the factors we consider and how much weight we give each one. As a result, we disagree a lot. Some good players give certain factors more importance than others do, or disagree on how to assess them.

So poker is similar to chess in that there always exists some concrete reality that calls for one decision being the best. It differs in that the door of poker lacks the lucid peephole into this truth that a great chess mind or chess computer can grant us access to. There is something to be discovered as the exact answer, but what that thing is is often difficult to find and then verify. Poker is not so subjective as life, however. There are no areas in poker where there may well be no objectively correct action to take. Knowing that this action exists is what motivates us to come as close to it as possible and this final point may be of wider significance than it seems.

From this look at subjectivity I think we can summarise a few main points. Firstly, disagreement and conflict are in some way intrinsically linked to the level of subjectivity present. The problem here is that because much of our world is objective, we like to assume it’s all objective. Consequently we battle over things that may not have a truth value and in some cases kill each other over an issue as irresolvable as whether marzipan tastes good.

Secondly, objectivity, especially in the transparent form, yields mass opportunity for learning. The more we can eventually agree on, the further we’ll come as knowledge seekers. When we don’t know something in chess, we know that we don’t know it and we can go about trying to discover it. Life is opaque and frightening. Discovery can challenge not just one idea but your entire framework. We might assume subjective matters are objective, but perhaps we’re also guilty of the converse – believing we can justify objectively false thoughts under the guise of our heart felt opinions and feelings.

Finally, when we know for a fact that there is one best action to take in every situation we seem to be motivated to take it. This is the guiding bubble of the strategy game. In life we often have no guarantee that we’re even aiming in the right general direction or else we’re dissuaded from trying by the thought that we just have no idea where to start. In games, the objective good is winning, the objective bad is losing and there’s very little else that matters. In life, there is no definite concrete outcome and perhaps it’s the subjective journey rather than the objective result that’s most important. If the end of the game in life is death, then I’m not sure that I care whether I’ve won or lost.

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