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The role of psychology is more salient in poker than in chess: Viswanathan

Neeta Lal/ 15 May 18 | 06:57 AM

Viswanathan Anand

The Poker Sports League (PSL) started last year to popularise the game in the country. Institutes like IIM (Kozhikode) are offering specialised courses in the game. The finals of the second season of the league were held in Goa between May 9 and May 13. Goan Nuts was the winner, getting a cash prize of Rs 20 million. Chess maestro Viswanathan Anand, brand ambassador, PSL, talks to Neeta Lal about his association with this new game, its appeal among Indians and its parallels with chess

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Do you play poker?

I hardly play poker but I've watched it a lot. That makes me just a casual fan. Nonetheless I’ve spoken about it with a lot of chess players and so I’d call myself a poker enthusiast!

What parallels do you draw between chess and poker?

Quite a few. The most obvious one is that in chess you can better your own game by studying previous games. Everybody is encouraged to study past hands and learn strategies from them because we have a rich tradition in chess. This is very similar to poker, a game where you tend to examine past examples. Next, you study your opponent closely in both games. In chess you look at the game played by your opponent and try to find patterns and identify weaknesses you can exploit. We do that in poker too. We study the hands of poker players and how they deal with various situations, which gives an insight into their next moves. 

So you’d say both are mind games?

Yes, the role of psychology is very important — probably even more salient in poker than in chess because in the latter all the information is on the table. But in poker some of it is hidden. Also, the game trains you a lot of skills that chess also prepares you for. The most vital is restraint. You may have seen us, chess players, keeping a blank expression or “poker face". The idea is to not give away any information to your opponent and ensuring that you’re not taking any impulsive or rash decisions. 

Do chess players play poker?

About 15 years ago I started hearing a lot of chess players were playing poker. In fact, quite a few even switched to playing poker full-time. So I was intrigued by the game and decided to follow it. Whenever I get a chance I watch poker on television. And there’s no denying it’s gripping and requires a definite skill set. It is also a sport that lends itself very well to engaging viewers. It’s nice to watch, so when I got the offer to work with the Poker Sports League I saw it as a great opportunity. And guess what? I will also get a chance follow the game closely and sharpen my own skills.

Do you think poker is finding resonance among Indians? How? 

In the last couple of years, we've observed a paradigm shift in people's mindset for poker as a game. The zeal displayed by poker lovers has given rise to a lot of platforms that are not only encouraging the sport in India but also opening the doors for youngsters keen to explore a career in this game. Also like many other international universities, IIM Kozhikode is offering a course in poker, which establishes that it’s a game that’s played with skill. 

What is your role as PSL brand ambassador? 

My association with the PSL is an attempt to establish the fact that poker, like chess, involves a lot of strategy. When I was introduced to poker I could instantly draw the parallels (with chess) and connect better with the game. 

What is the format that the PSL follows? How are the teams selected?

The league was rolled out with the online and live qualifiers from December onwards, climaxing in the final team selection in April 2018. There are 11 teams with 10 players each, comprising a mentor and a captain, two pro-players, two from free live qualifiers, three from free online qualifiers and two wild-card entries. Each team has professionals and amateurs co-existing for imparting knowledge and skills to the new entrants.

What has been your experience so far with the brand and what is the league’s vision?

Gambling is looked down upon in Indian culture because it involves betting and is based on chance rather than skill. However, the reason the PSL is an important platform for mind games in India is that through this a poker player can prove that the game isn't just gambling but much more.

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