The Poker Art of War

Posted by Rod Stirzaker, December 1, 2014

What have poker, armed combat and a 2,500 year old Chinese general called Sun Tzu got in common?

The answer is war.

Cards are war in disguise of a sport

On the face of it, a card game like poker may appear to share little in common with the brutal maelstrom of armed conflict. Quiet protagonists sitting round a table passing chips back and forth seem a world away from battered soldiers knee deep in freezing mud, risking their lives in defence of their countries or principles.

Delve deeper into the complex psychology and strategy of the game however and you'll find war at the very heart and soul of poker. Players are combatants, the felt is the battlefield and betting is a weapon; make no mistake, poker is war.


Battle at the Felt

Is this hyperbole? An exaggeration of the stakes? After all, at war lives are on the line; at the poker tables, nothing more than a player's bankroll and pride. No one is maimed, no one dies and no one suffers any of the myriad horrific and tragic consequences that ensue from warfare. Is poker war comparable to actual war?

Take a view from the trenches and it's hard to put a case for poker players sharing much common ground with soldiers. Without wanting to stereotype too freely about appearances, athletic ability and discipline levels, it would be fairly easy to distinguish the average poker player from the average soldier.

Adjust the focus of the microscope however and look at battle from a macro level and the previously stark contrasts between war and poker begin to blur. From the position of a general directing a campaign, coordinating his resources and looking to outflank and outwit the enemy, the strategies employed in war start to coalesce with those used in poker.

Sun Tzu


The Poker Art of War

Sun Tzu's illustrious work "The Art of War" has been used as one of the foremost books for strategists throughout history. Written 2,500 years ago, the evergreen wisdom within has propelled men from a range of eclectic backgrounds to great achievement.

In the sporting realm NFL Coach Bill Belichick (5 Super Bowls) and Luiz Felipe Scolari (2002 Brazil World Cup winning manager) cite Tzu’s work as instrumental in the successes they have achieved.

In other fields, generals, politicians and leading men of business have scaled lofty heights having been inspired by the philosophies laid out by Tzu. If poker games are war, we would expect his doctrine to also resonate with some of the central tenets of poker strategy and as we will see, this proves the case.

Ostensibly a book about warfare, "The Art of War" also explores the psychology behind conflicts and it is these insights in particular that can be so instructive in developing a robust strategy for waging poker war.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Tzu’s words and see how with just a little tweaking, the parallels between the tactics he employed to conquer ancient china remain as relevant as ever in the modern game of poker.

bamboo slips art of war


Sun Tzu Poker

“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.” - Sun Tzu , The Art of War.

This pearl of wisdom from Tzu strikes a chord with a number of key poker concepts, most notably that of position.

The concept of lying in wait for your enemy can be readily translated to the idea of ditching some of the moderate hands in your range in early position so you can “lie in wait” to play a broader range of hands in later position. Playing more pots in position will give you a wider array of weapons at your disposal. You can pot control, value bet and glean information on your opponent’s hands much more easily.

However, you can also apply Tzu’s thinking to the idea of maintaining discipline in the face of adversity. As poker players we have all had situations where we know we are beaten but stubbornness in the heat of battle means we make an ill-advised call anyway only to have our fears confirmed. “I knew you had it,” is the classic lament heard after a dubious call.

The prudent player will look to excise these follies from his game. Lay the hand down, live to fight another day. Pick your opponent off when he lacks the discipline to do the same.

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”– Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

“You’ve got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em”Kenny Rogers

Waiting to play pots in strong position and showing the discipline to fold marginal hands will give you a healthy edge that will see your poker profits rise accordingly and leave you in prime position to win the poker war.

art of war


Supremacy without Conflict

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”- Sun Tzu , The Art of War.

Tzu’s philosophy is very interesting because, although it seems counter-intuitive given the title of the work, many of his ideas stem from the idea of avoiding war wherever possible in order to prosper.

The quote above has some very obvious applications to online poker tournaments. It is difficult to win tournaments by showing down too many hands. Math dictates that you can only win so many hands at showdown before variance condemns you to lose one and see your hopes of winning this poker war dissolve.

You can help minimize the opportunities of this happening by winning pots without showdown – by forcing players off their hands without exposing your cards. More easily said than done perhaps, it is nevertheless wise to actively hunt opportunities to take down pots without exposing your cards. Raise as often as you can get away with, pinch those pots where no one seems to be interested, steal those blinds whenever possible.

Remain busy and keep the pressure on. By applying this pressure, you will find many opponents increasingly become wary of engaging with you and you collect chips at a healthy clip without having to run the gauntlet of showdowns too often.

bamboo binding art of war


Misrepresent Your Ability

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him... Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance”- Sun Tzu , The Art of War.

This phrase is so fundamental to the world of poker that we see these words echoed in a quote from one of poker history’s most well-known figures:

“It never hurts for potential opponents to think you’re more than a little stupid and can hardly count all the money in your hip pocket, much less hold on to it.”- Amarillo Slim

Excessive ego is a very common flaw in a number of both weak and strong players. For some it is not simply enough to be the best player at the table, it is important everyone knows and appreciates they are the best player at the table.

This can be a self-defeating strategy. Why share your strengths with your “enemy” at the table? In the poker war, misrepresentation of your skill-set can only weaken your opponents’ strategy and open up weaknesses in their defence. You can take measures to encourage this in several ways, although there are opportunities that will organically present themselves in the course of play.

Have you ever faced an opponent dishing out disparaging comments in your direction after losing a pot? Of course you have. Doubtless it rankled a little and you may have even been drawn into a verbal conflict with the player. Next time it happens, look at it differently.

If you are abused, derided, belittled, insulted or patronized at the table – be it at the real or virtual felt, resist the temptation to fire back with a vigorous defence of your poker chops. This is actually a great opportunity to secure a real and beneficial advantage. If the other players underestimate your ability, that can only count in your favour. You will catch them off guard with sophisticated plays they neither expect nor believe possible of someone with so little talent.

 If you find it difficult to swallow your ego, take heart that Sun Tzu has your back.

“I will force the enemy to take our strength for weakness, and our weakness for strength, and thus will turn his strength into weakness.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Given a hard time at the felt, smile inwardly and turn your opponents’ perceived weakness of your ability into a weapon you can use against them in the poker war.

sun tzu art of war in poker


The Numbers Game

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

This stunningly prescient insight from Tzu can be lifted wholesale from The Art of War and inserted directly into your poker arsenal by simply substituting “the general” for “the poker player.”

Whilst it is true there are players who achieve enviable success without intensive analysis of the maths and situations in poker, they are compensating for the absence of this hard work through raw talent.

Looking into your poker game with the dispassionate eye of the disciplined strategist will really reap its own reward and inflate your bottom line.

As a starting point it is important to know the basics: chances of making a flush draw, odds of hitting an inside straight etc. You need to make these numbers intuitive and automatic to assist you in-game when you are working out pot odds.

Also consider investing in some tracking software. These packages offer very useful in-game assistance, taking much of the donkey work (if you’ll pardon the phrase) out of calculating other players’ tendencies. Information such as how often your opponents raise the button, their three-betting frequencies and how often they defend the blinds can really assist you make informed decisions about when and how to plan your attacks for maximum results.

Spend time studying. Look over past hands, analyse areas you’ve been weak, explore the potential of playing different lines in hands. The hard work will pay off and ensure your profit margins increase.

 If after every session of poker you play, you look over at least one mistake you’ve made and aim to correct it next time, you will soon iron out many weaknesses in your game and start to become a real threat at the felt.

the art of war as applied to poker


Winning the Poker War

It is testament to Tzu’s enduring wisdom that we can approach the game of poker using many of his core concepts and expect to develop a winning style.

“Poker is... a fascinating, wonderful, intricate adventure on the high seas of human nature,” commented David A Daniel and this is perhaps the key to understanding why Tzu’s ancient treatise mirrors some of the thinking of leading poker strategists two millennia later.

Poker is a card game, a numbers game, a pastime, a hobby and for some, a profession. Underneath it all though, it is a sophisticated look at the human psyche, the reasons people do what they do in the search for victory. Strip away the incidentals and the specifics, look at the essence of poker war and military war and you’ll find the strategies for waging both are driven by the same things, the very things that motivate us all as human beings.

Understand your fellow man, adapt your plans to avoid conflict, apply pressure, misrepresent yourself and your holdings and put the hard yards into studying the numbers and your game will flourish and grow.

Become an advocate of Sun Tzu poker and you’ll be well on the road to burgeoning profits. We’ll leave the last word to the man himself.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.


Rod StirzakerRod Stirzaker is a journalist and poker player from the UK. He has spent the last 15 years travelling the world studying, playing and writing about poker. Rod enjoys writing about poker strategy, the history of the game, and its relevance to new technologies and trends. He has provided live coverage from the WSOP, the EPT, and many other big tournaments. Rod enjoys writing about how poker links to current popular trends, particularly online. Read all of Rod Stirzaker's poker articles.


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