Mind Sports Rampant

Master players of poker, chess, draughts, bridge discuss how skill games enhance learning

International draughts master Alex Mogilyansky with board and checkers in Langdell Library

Master players of chess, bridge, poker, Go, and international draughts convened at Harvard Law School on June 13 to discuss how such “mind sports” might enhance learning in schools and libraries, and even contribute to building civic life in communities “with an Olympic vision.” The daylong conference, “Bringing Mind Sports into the Classroom and Beyond,” drew 24 invited participants from the education and library worlds as well as the game masters. 

Weld professor of law Charles Nesson, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (which co-sponsored the symposium with the Law School and the United States Mind Sports Association), led the proceedings, with his daughter Rebecca Nesson ’98, J.D. ’01, Ph.D. ’09, of Public Radio Exchange, as co-leader.  He began the day by having conference-goers play a few hands of “one-card war,” a simplified version of poker because, as he declared, “the way to start any meeting is by playing something.” (Symmetrically, the conference concluded after dinner with a longer session of poker in the reading room of Langdell Library.)

“Education must strike a balance between physical and mental sports,” said Nesson, who has used poker to teach strategic thinking to his law students for nearly three decades. “Teaching kids, we can use the notion of starting with play—which is where they are. Schools tend to turn them off at certain points: fractions and algebra are just death on math for so many kids. But in a game, they aren’t just abstract symbols, but tools.”

Anthony Holden, author of Big Deal, a 2007 book on his life during a year as a professional poker player and first president of the International Federation of Poker, moderated the first session of the formal program, a series of “lightning talks” by the masters of the games.

Holden touched on a theme of the day: mind sports mirror life away from the gaming table. “Things that can go wrong in poker have parallels in things that can go wrong in life,” he declared. “You are caught out in a bluff in poker—maybe you are caught out in a lie in life. And in both cases, one big challenge is keeping your ego under control.”

Poker expert Jim McManus, author of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009), called poker “the American mind sport—the game that is closest to the free-market system. The language of poker is money, and the goal is to win as many chips—as much money—as possible.” He observed that the “American national character has two threads”—the “entrepreneurial cowboy spirit and the Puritan work ethic. The entrepreneurial side loves poker, but the Puritan side finds it abhorrent that people would risk a lot of money in a game.”  McManus noted that as the descendants of immigrants, Americans come from “the most risk-happy 2 percent of the population.”

Poker was a centerpiece of game theory, he explained, saying that mathematician John von Neumann, one of the founders of game theory, had no interest in games of “complete information” like checkers and chess, where both players can access all relevant data and hence “there is no room for deceit, ambush, bluffing, or any role for guile or luck.”

Andy Okun, president of the American Go Association, countered that although Go might be a game of complete information, “there is no way to exhaust all the possibilities,” and that a player who launches an attack doesn’t necessarily know if the opponent realizes what is afoot. He showed how one can teach Go to beginners, including children, with a 9 x 9 square board instead of the standard, but more intimidating, 19 x 19 board. He described an animated cartoon, about a teen who contacts the spirit of a deceased Go master after finding an old board in the attic, as another way to interest young people.   

 The Go board is large enough that in the endgame, several different battles can be in progress, and a player has to learn “how to play multiple games when you can only make one move at a time.” He drew a parallel to the late phase of a U.S. presidential election campaign, when there are several swing states in play, but a candidate can only be in one place at a time and has a limited fund of money to spend in different places. “Americans are used to strategic thought,” Okun said. “But they aren’t necessarily trained in strategic thought.”

International grandmaster Maurice Ashley called chess “a game of geometric relationships, dramatized.” He noted that the chess pieces move in ways consistent with Euclidean geometry, and that “you have to make all these geometric relationships work together. You can destroy the other person’s pieces with your heroes of linearity.”  Chess teaches “concentration, problem-solving, the need to think before you act,” he said, adding that chess has done a good job of getting into school systems; a New York City chess-in-the-schools program, for example, has served 400,000 students since 1986.

In contract bridge, unlike the other mind sports, players work with a partner, and so “to be a good player, you have to be a good partner,” said Howard Weinstein, a former options trader who became a World Life Master in bridge. “You need to be a good communicator, and be able to help your partner out. The top partnerships are like marriages.” He reported that some complex bridge bidding systems are based on the Fibonacci series; like poker, bridge is a game of calculation, with plenty of psychology and unknown information. And “you have to put yourself in the minds of the opponents.”

International draughts master Alex Mogilyansky, who has coached three world champions in his game, announced, “We should have children play all the mind sports,” comparing them to the pentathlon and decathlon in track. His own game ignores the standard American checkerboard, an 8 x 8 arrangement with 64 squares like a chessboard, to use a 100-square, 10 x 10 board, producing a far more complex game. Mogilyansky was, as a youth, a star checkers player in the Soviet Union who received a full-time government salary (“three times that of an engineer”) to play draughts.  Yet he emigrated to the United States, and is now one of this country’s top players. He believes that American education needs a shot in the arm.  “I have a 13-year-old daughter who is one of the best at math at one of the best schools, and she doesn’t know math at all,” he said. “The system of education in the United States is terrible.”

The director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, took part in the conference, as did Amy Handelsman ’76, executive director of the United States Mind Sports Association and the United States Poker Federation. They spoke on a panel focused on mind sports as “an element in the civic construction of local community.” Handelsman quoted a friend who called mind sports “a way to make nerds cool.”

 “One challenge is to convince educators and administrators of the relevance of mind sports to the real world,” said Ashley, the chess master. “Chess has largely resolved that—but less so for bridge, Go, poker, and checkers. We have to be very clear in drawing those connections.” There are distinct parallels between chess and science, for example, he pointed out: “Chess is one of the few areas where experts try to falsify their own hypotheses immediately.” Furthermore, “after a game, you look at your game [all moves are recorded]. When you do that with kids, they see how their decisions have consequences, and see where they made mistakes—they’ll try to avoid making the same error twice.”

One challenge poker encounters, Holden said, “is the perception that poker means gambling.” In fact, he emphasized, there are 60 million to 70 million online poker players pursuing the game with no money changing hands. McManus and others are advancing the cause of (non-gambling) “duplicate poker,” tournaments in which hands are pre-dealt and so all players have a chance to show their skill holding the same cards.

The future, and the upside, of mind sports in the classroom and community loom large. “All five mind sports work online,” Holden said. “There is huge potential for expansion.” Nesson took satisfaction in the conference’s effort “to conceive and express mind sports as an educational venture. These ideas are templates, capable of being replicated.”




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