Great minds: 10 players who excel at both chess and poker
Chess and poker are recognized as intellectual sports and the metaphor of “seated boxing” can be used to refer to each of them. It is said of both games that they take a few minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Somehow, a few players have managed to excel in both disciplines.
This article is the first part of a series that will look into the similarities and differences between chess and poker.
The 10 players are classified by year of birth.
Dan Harrington (born in 1945)
Dan Harrington is proof that chess players did not wait for the 2003 poker boom to switch to poker. “Action Dan”, as he is known in the poker world, is a US National Master and winner of the 1971 Massachusetts Chess State Championship.
Harrington then became a professional backgammon player, before moving to poker. He won one World Poker Tour (WPT) and two World Series of Poker (WSOP) titles, including the 1995 Main Event, which could then be considered as the “Real World Poker Championship”!
His series of books “On Hold’em” was a must-read for every player in the 2000’s. Harrington has his name in the Poker Hall of Fame and his winnings exceed $6.6 million!
NB: The Hendon Mob only compile winnings for live tournaments. They do not report how much a player spent in buy-ins (starting fees) and include neither cash game winnings nor online winnings. So the number given is a mere indication.
Ylon Schwartz (born in 1970)
FM Ylon Schwartz first made a living by playing chess in the New York parks. He soon devoted himself full-time to many sorts of gambling, in chess, but also backgammon, darts, horses and strange proposition bets.
Ylon learned the poker rules in 2000 and won his first two tournaments, walking-out with $12,000 and a new career.
In 2009, Schwartz finished 4th in the WSOP Main Event for $3.8 million.
That year, in an interview to the New York Times, Ylon said:
Chess is a purer game. It is my passion. I love poker, too, but I don’t know who gets together to play poker for fun. There is always something on the line.
In 2012, Ylon won his first and only WSOP bracelet.
Schwartz made $5.1 million in live poker tournaments and is still playing chess. His current rating is 2258.
Loek van Wely (born in 1972)
8-time Dutch Champion Loek van Wely played in the elite tournament of the Wijk-aan-Zee festival 25 times.
Loek reached the world top 10 in 2001 with a peak rating of 2714.
Loek made his first poker cash in 2009 and his best in 2018 with a 4th place for $33,210, making his total live earnings +$82k!
In 2019, Van Wely was elected to the Dutch Senate.
Almira Skripchenko (born in 1976)
Daughter of two chess coaches, Almira Skripchenko became U16 Girls World Champion.
In 2001, Almira scored her biggest achievement by winning the European Championship. After the Moldovan obtained French nationality, she played in the mixed French Championship two times and won the Women’s French Championship six times.
She was taught how to play poker in a cab by two chess friends while going to her first tournament. She eliminated her two teachers on her way to the final table, discovering a hidden talent.
For a few years after 2008, Almira, known as “ChessBaby” in the poker world, was part of the Winamax Team, alonside the Belgian poker legend Davidi Kitai, the international footballer Vikash Dhorasoo and the French singer Patrick Bruel. The later won a WSOP bracelet, contributed a lot to popularizing poker in France and is a decent chess player. You can watch him play a friendly game against Garry Kasparov [Spoiler Alert: Bruel lost]
Almira finished 2nd for $50k in the 2011 WPT Celebrity Invitational, behind her teammate Davidi Kitai. Her live earnings exceed $250k.
Eloi Relange (born in 1976)
A pupil of Iossif Dorfman during his youth, Eloi Relange became an IM at 18 years old and a GM at 22.
Having work as a pioneer in online chess commentary between 1999 and 2001, Eloi then turned professional in poker.
In 2005, Eloi founded Poker Academie, which is still still running as the largest poker school in France, with more than 100,000 students. [NB: I also work for Poker Academie]
Eloi was mostly a cash game player and his biggest win in a live tournament is “only” €25k in 2006, for 2nd place behind Davidi Kitai.
Eloi Relange is running as a candidate for election to the Presidency of the French Chess Federation.
Jeff Sarwer (born in 1978)
Jeff Sarwer won the U10 World Chess Championship in 1986.
Jeff is portrayed in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer as Jonathan Poe, Josh Waitzkin’s rival who lost his game after refusing a draw. In the real game, though, Jeff did refuse the draw offer from Josh but the game was still drawn when they reached king vs. king.
He quit chess at a very young age and became famous in poker, where he won some $800k in live tournaments!
Jeff made a quick comeback to chess in 2015 and reached a peak rating of 2344.
Jennifer Shahade (born in 1980)
Jennifer Shahade was born into a chess family, with an FM father, Mike, and an IM brother, Greg.
Jenn won the US Women’s Championship two times, in 2002 and 2004, and became a WGM in 2005.
To attract girls to play chess, she wrote two chess books: Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, and Play Like a Girl: Tactics by 9Queens.
Jennifer also explores gender dynamics in chess in her art, with works such as Not particulary Beautiful or Naked Chess.
In 2014, Jennifer won a Chinese Poker HighRoller tournament in Prague for €100k and became an ambassador for Pokerstars. She has $350,000 live earnings.
Regularly working as a chess host, especially for the Saint Louis Chess Club, Jennifer actively contributes to the popularity of her two passions.
Alexander Grischuk (born in 1983)
Super Grandmaster Alexander Grischuk obviously needs no introduction on chess24!
To the question: “A few years ago you said that poker had become your second profession. Does that statement still stand?”
Not anymore. Now if you want to achieve success in poker you need to devote your whole life to it. You simply can’t turn up and play, even on the internet, since the level of players has risen so much. Therefore you could say that poker is in the past.
It turned out it was a bluff by Sasha!
This year, because of the COVID crisis, the WSOP took place online for the first time. Sasha made no less than 8 cashes, including a 6th place for $30k!
With his unique sense of humor, Sasha found an analogy between poker and the 2018 World Chess Championship, during live commentary on chess24:
Dan Smith (born in 1989)
Dan Smith reached a rating of 2100 when he was 16 but at that point he was already focusing on poker, in which he pursued a full-time career at the age of 18.
Since then, Dan Smith has grown to be one of the absolute best poker players of all time!
- His first cash was a 1st place in 2008, for more than $100k.
- In 2012 he entered a $100,000 buy-in tournament, finishing 1st for $1 million.
- In 2014, he won another $100,000 buy-in tournament, this time for $2 million.
- In September 2014, he was ranked 1st in the world by the Global Poker Index
- In 2018, Dan played a record $1 million buy-in tournament, finishing 3rd for $4 million.
- He is currently 5th on the All Time Money List, with more than $36 million in live earnings!
James Obst (born in 1990)
James Obst was a talented young chess player who reached a 2100 rating when he was 15 and played in a few World Youth Championships.
He started to play poker when he was only 14 and at 19 he was known as “the Australian teen who’s won $1.5m in online poker from his bedroom“.
In 2016, James played one legendary fold with a full-house against a straight flush late in the WSOP Main Event. Having saved chips that everyone else would have lost, James finished 13th for $428k.
Obst won his first WSOP in 2017 for $265k, and his live earnings have reached $3 million!
We’ll be organising casual poker tournaments with GM Jan Gustafsson, GM Laurent Fressinet and others in collaboration with partypoker soon. If you’d like to receive further information, send an email to [email protected] or leave a comment below!