For some people, games should be all about strenuous physical endeavour, or manual dexterity, perhaps either shooting a ball into a goal or basket, or mowing down armies of invaders on a computer screen.
But for millions of people around the world, of all ages and from all walks of life, the best games are about mental focus, concentration and strategy. These are the chess players, card players, crossword solvers and jigsaw assemblers — including all of us for whom the ultimate test of our abilities is online poker.
Here we take a look at some of the most popular games of strategy and mental acuity. There are, of course, thousands of them. But these are some of the most popular.
Whenever one thinks of a game that requires the very deepest levels of concentration, chess immediately comes to mind. We have all seen the images of the highest ranked grand masters hunched behind the board, their brows furrowed like planting season and a clock ticking menacingly beside them. They sit motionless for what seems like hours, then make the tiniest move, perhaps advancing a piece only one square, and passing the agony over to their opponent. There can be few pursuits with such an apparent imbalance between physical and mental agility.
Chess and poker share much in common. They are games of strategy and wits, often played against just one other person (heads-up pots are common in poker), where players need to work on both aggression and defence. There are, of course, profound differences too, most notably that chess is a game of complete information, where absolutely nothing is concealed or left to chance, while poker players are often making educated guesses and are, to an extent, victims of fortune.
However, both require definite mental focus, where one slip can be terminal. We are all familiar with the poorly judged shove or all-in call ending our poker tournament. And in chess, one false move can undo hours of meticulous preparation and previously perfect play. Just Google “Nepomniachtchi” and “error” to see how the most high profile match-up of recent years foundered because of one player’s false steps.
And while we are on the subject of Googling, type in “chess strategy” then “poker strategy” to see that each term returns more than 1 million hits. While there are obvious differences in how we apply those strategies, these are both games in which strategies are very important indeed. Chess has its beginning, middle and endgames, while poker players too know to adjust their strategies based on the stage of the tournament.
Most importantly, these are games played and enjoyed by players of all abilities. But while chess masters will always trounce the less experienced, part of poker’s appeal is the way in which newcomers can sometimes defeat the pros.
Before the relatively recent poker boom, the card game for which there were most books discussing strategy was bridge. This is a game in which there is an extreme gulf between the best players and the amateurs, and for which there are all manner of sophisticated tactics and strategies — as well as a particular language.
Unlike most other games discussed here, bridge is played in pairs. Two players on the same team square off against two players in another team, and in tournament play, numerous other pairs are playing with the same card distributions. The test is which pairs can play these specific card deals most successfully, with the scoring system determining who played it better.
Bridge can seem daunting for the uninitiated, with not much of what is said making a whole lot of sense. The first phase of each hand is an “auction” in which the pairs essentially decide among themselves what the “contract” is for that hand. One pair, usually with the strongest cards, will essentially state how many tricks they propose they can win, on the condition that a certain suit is “trumps”, i.e., stronger than the others. (It’s also possible to have a “no trumps” contract.) The idea is to reach the highest-scoring contract that it’s possible to make.
Players pass information about the strength of their hand to one another, tied up in bridge’s particularly coded language. But this is not like poker where bluffing and deception plays a part. Bridge players must stick to specific rules governing the information they are imparting with their bids.
When a contract has been reached, the four players then play a game similar to whist, where the “declarer” will try to reach the contract, and the opposing pair will try to stop them. There are points available for reaching the contract, and penalties for missing it. The best players are able to harvest the information about all four hands offered to them during the auction, and then to construct a path through the entire hand that earns them the most tricks.
Top bridge players need both an excellent memory and a versatile mind, allowing them to plot a course through a hand. Even in defence, a player needs to figure out the best way to thwart a declarer’s intentions, based on what information they have learned from the auction.
If you’re reading fiction, or watching a play or a film, one of the most reliable indicators that a character is supposed to be an intellectual is that they’re a whiz at the crossword. In the UK, this will usually be the cryptic crossword in The Times; in the USA, it’ll be the New York Times. The character picks up the newspaper, swishes the pen around for a few moments, and then it’s done. And the audience knows immediately they’re in the presence of a great mind.
There’s no doubt that crosswords do indeed require a certain level of mental dexterity, and that both general knowledge and a large vocabulary helps significantly, but solving crosswords, particularly the British cryptic type, is actually mostly about remembering rules and identifying fixed pointers buried in the clues. It is usually a case of breaking down what initially looks like a strange and mystical statement into its constituent parts and then working through them logically.
A standard British cryptic crossword clue will have one part of it that offers a clear definition of the solution, and another part comprising elegant wordplay that points to the same answer. Here’s an example from the book titled How To Crack Cryptic Crosswords, published by The Times:
Clue: President saw nothing wrong (10)
This may seem very oblique to a newcomer, but it’s an easy one for an experienced crossword solver. The “definition” part of the clue is the word “President”. And the “wordplay” part is the “saw nothing wrong”. The word “wrong” here is an indicator that the clue has an anagram in it, and the letters in the words “saw nothing” are the same letters as in “Washington”.
So the word Washington answers both parts of the clue. It’s a president, and it’s an anagram of “saw nothing”. And it also has 10 letters, indicated by the (10) at the end of the clue.
Of course, there’s a great variety in the clues, and some are far more knotty than others. It’s why crosswords appeal to anybody with the kind of brain that enjoys untangling complex puzzles, within a fixed framework. Poker players fall into that category for sure.
The most popular word-based board game is Scrabble — and here’s another game for which mental focus pays immense dividends. Everybody probably knows the basics of the game — take seven tiles and try to make the highest-scoring word from them — but there’s a great deal of strategy that separates the newbies from the very best. (We delved into some of it in our Second Steps: Scrabble guide.)
It may be counter-intuitive to most, but the best players almost certainly don’t know the definitions of all the words they might play. Scrabble requires people simply to know what words are valid, rather than how you might want to use them in conversation, and top players memorise huge lists of words without ever troubling themselves much further than that. Some world champions have not even been native English speakers.
Like chess, top Scrabble players receive a ranking based on their abilities, which also helps figure out similarly-capable opponents. Games are timed too, again as in chess, meaning the pressure is on for players to come up with their highest-ranking words before their time runs out. The top players know how to manipulate their letter tiles, and manage their clock, to ensure they maximise their chances of success. They also need to manage the board and block off high-scoring opportunities for their opponents, if at all possible.
There are huge Scrabble tournaments, in which competitors play a series of matches in a bracket like arrangement, before a final between the top two (usually played as a best-of-three). These events are now often streamed live on the internet, with viewers able to see the racks of the players, much like poker tournaments are streamed now cards-up.
Another key way in which Scrabble is similar to poker is the random element associated with drawing letters. In theory, a weaker player might defeat someone stronger if they get lucky enough to pull the best letters at the right time, much like a run of the right cards can help a poker player. (There’s an interesting side point about Scrabble tells too. See 23:21 on this video for an in-play discussion of that subject.)
However, a player’s skill will usually prevail — and that’s where all the focus and concentration helps.
If you’ve ever rented a rural cottage somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the chances are it came with a cupboard full of jigsaw puzzles. The implication is very clear: you’re on vacation, you have hours and hours of time to fill, you’re going to need something to keep you occupied and you don’t want to do it quickly.
This is where jigsaws come in.
It’s probably unnecessary to describe here what a jigsaw puzzle actually is. Everyone surely has a clear understanding of that. And along with that understanding is the memory that, yes, jigsaw puzzles do indeed require a lot of concentration and mental focus, as well as a keen eye for detail.
It might surprise you to learn that high-level jigsaw puzzle assemblers compete in an annual World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship (WJPC), under the auspices of the World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation (WJPF). The WJPC “is a skill-based competition that recognizes the fastest jigsaw puzzlers in the world”, with three categories: teams, pairs and individual. There’s a cash prize on offer to the top three ranked finishers in each category.
Although there are variations in strategies among players and teams, most seem to adopt a similar practice of building the outer rim and then working on areas defined by specific similar colours. They just do it more quickly than most recreational assemblers in the holiday cottage, who will probably find themselves putting the unfinished jigsaw back in the box on the final day.
Many of the games discussed here feature alongside poker in the annual Mind Sports Olympiad, a series of more than 100 board game competitions. Other very popular strategy games including backgammon and go also feature, plus newer games, including Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders, Dominion, and Carcassonne.
All of this means the most obvious lesson to learn from this quick scout around is that there are heaps of options for people looking to expand their range of strategy games. Enjoy your time at the tables.