We Have Chessboxing, Why Not Pokerfighting?

Alex Weldon : August 19th, 2015

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This morning’s poker-related Twitter drama involves Doug Polk and Doc Sands, who last night were apparently trying to negotiate a high stakes boxing match. It was Sands who initially challenged Polk, who was willing to fight, but only if given sufficient time to prepare, as apparently Sands is currently in better shape.

The two failed to reach an agreement, as Sands would like the fight held within three weeks, while Polk wanted to schedule it for six months in the future. Polk got on Twitter to make the negotiations public, but Sands seems to be losing interest and it looks unlikely to me that the fight will happen.

Reaction on Twitter was divided between people who would really like to see such a fight happen, and those who think it’s beneath the dignity of adult men to challenge one another to fights. My opinion is that the image of combat sports as dangerous and barbaric is a misperception by those who haven’t engaged in them personally. As someone who previously trained in boxing for a few years, I don’t see how challenging someone to a boxing match is much different from challenging them to a footrace or a round of golf.

Furthermore, I’ve previously pointed out that poker itself is much more like a combat sport than it is like some of these other, less directly confrontational contests. Given that, and how many top players these days are young, aggressive and into fitness in general, fighting and poker seem like a natural pairing. But rather than poker players challenging one another to battle away from the felt, what I’d really like to see is the two contests combined.

Yes, chessboxing is actually a thing

That may sound like a ridiculous idea, but there’s actually precedent for such a crossover competition in the form of chessboxing. You may not have heard of it, but it has been a real sport since 2003, when the first formal chessboxing competition was held in Berlin.

The way chessboxing works is quite simple. It consists of a blitz chess match, with nine minutes on the clock for each player, broken down into six rounds of three minutes combined time each. In between these rounds of chess, the players put on gloves and have a three minute round of boxing.

Victory in chessboxing comes by way of winning either of the two halves: checkmate or timeout in chess, knockout or technical knockout in boxing, or resignation in either.

Poker being a mindsport like chess, there’s no reason that if chessboxing works out well, pokerboxing (or poker-kickboxing, poker-wrestling, poker-MMA or whatever) shouldn’t work equally well. In fact, it might actually work out better, although some modifications to the chessboxing format would be required.

A proposal for pokerfighting

What I would suggest first and foremost is using a computerized heads-up match for the poker portion of the contest; live play is simply too slow to be able to play a reasonable number of poker hands over the course of a match without allowing excessive amounts of rest between fighting rounds.

Rather than having a fixed time interval for the poker segments, I would recommend playing a fixed number of hands – perhaps 20 – but using strict time controls to avoid an exhausted fighter tanking unnecessarily in order to earn a rest.

The advantage of pokerfighting over chessboxing is that poker allows for players to be directly rewarded or penalized in the form of chips without fundamentally altering the game. This, in turn, allows for round judging, which is absent from chessboxing. You could not, for instance, give the winner of a boxing round an extra pawn in chessboxing without altering the nature of chess itself, but in pokerfighting, the winner of each round can be awarded, say, 5 or 10 big blinds from the opponent’s stack; if the match is being played online rather than using custom software, this could be accomplished simply by requiring the losing fighter to fold a specified number of hands preflop before regular play resumes. This means that holding an advantage in fighting can still tip the scales of the overall contest even if the fighter does not manage to finish his opponent outright.

As with chessboxing, you’d want to fix the number of rounds, as prolonged fighting matches do become more hazardous to the fighters’ health. You could win in pokerfighting either by KO/TKO, by felting the opponent (whether through poker or winning their last chips through round judging), or by holding the most chips after the prescribed number of rounds.

Greater than the sum of its parts

Chessboxing seems like a superficially silly idea, and was in fact originally proposed in a comic book before being made a reality some years later. However, now that people are actually doing it, what’s been discovered is that the two seemingly unconnected activities create interesting dynamics, in terms of how the player’s situation in one half of the contest affects their strategy and performance in the other. It would likely be the same in pokerfighting, perhaps even more so.

For one thing, being exhausted, full of adrenaline and perhaps stunned from blows makes it much harder to think clearly. In chessboxing, and almost certainly in pokerfighting, a player who’s taken a beating in the physical half of the contest is much more likely to commit blunders in the mental half, even if he would be the favored player under ordinary circumstances. Thus, wearing down your opponent physically during the fighting will provide an advantage in both halves of the contest.

For another, poker allows for much more control of pacing than chess, so players can choose between trying to play small or large pots depending on whether or not they’re inclined to fight another round. A player who took a beating in the last fighting round may resort to desperate aggression in the poker side of things, while one who thinks his opponent is tiring may opt to play a tight, small-ball style in the hopes of getting another chance to wear his opponent down further.

It works the other way as well, in that a player with a massive chip lead may opt to fight defensively in order to avoid risking a knockout, while a player very short on chips may find himself in a must-win round in order to avoid being crippled on the felt or even eliminated entirely.

Best of all, these strategic considerations play into the mental, bluffing aspects of poker because they mean players have a greater ability to anticipate one another’s gear changes, leading to new sorts of leveling wars. For instance, a fighter who took a heavy hit late in the round may be expected to play more recklessly than normal when poker play resumes… but a player intending to tighten up might actually feign greater injury from a late-round hit than he actually sustained; if he then happens to pick up a big hand, he could hope his raise would be interpreted as desperation. The possibilities are endless.

So… Doug Polk vs. Doc Sands, pokerfighting HU4ROLLZ. What do you say?

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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