In chess, there is a rating system that is able to predict performance based on the gap in ratings between two players. If I recall, an 800 point gap would predict a 99% chance of the stronger player winning the game. Someone with an 800 rating would rate as a very weak club player (in practice I think nearly all club players will have over a 1000 rating), but someone that might still think they were the stuff in maybe a junior high or high school setting (they would be relentlessly crushing the opposition they ran into, perhaps having a nearly 99% win rate over some opponents that others might regard as skilled).
Against this hypothetical player, a solid club player with a 1600 rating would be able to win 99%. Against this solid club player, a strong master with a 2400 rating (probably aspiring to international master status), would win 99% of his games. Against this strong master, the strongest players in the world, with ratings perhaps in the 3000 range, would win well over 90% of their games.
If we think of every 400 points as being a very clearly different level of skill, in chess you might argue that there are at least 8 clear levels of player skill. If 200 points is a clear enough boundary, then perhaps 15 levels.
In go, a rank beginner at 40 kyu can be given a gigantic 9 stone handicap (and could win vastly more than 99% in an even game) by a 31 kyu player. A 22 kyu player could give that player a 9 stone handicap. A 13 kyu player could give that player a 9 stone handicap. A 4 kyu player would be even odds with a 9 stone handicap against that player, and a 6 dan amateur could give that player a 9 stone handicap. 1 dan pro can then give the 6 dan amateur a sizeable handicap (not 9 stones… and I forget the exact amount), and then the increases are smaller up to 9 dan pro.
I’d speculate that each 2 levels here is at least a 200 point chess rating gap, but even being very conservative and saying 4 levels, that creates roughly 15 distinct skill levels (and I’d really say it is well over 30). I suspect a 4 dan gap, even at the professional grade, will usually equate to nearly a 99% win rate in an even game.
I suspect most people would imagine there is far less skill involved in poker than in both of these games. I would contend that poker actually has more distinct levels of skill than chess, and is perhaps in a league similar to go.
But how do we compare? There is obviously no gap in skill that allows one player to win 99% of the hands that they play. But I think a single hand is more like a single move in chess or go, and that it is a long session, of hundreds and hundreds of hands, that is the more natural point of comparison with “a game of chess”, or “a game of go”. I think there are at least a few perspectives that can be illuminating.
First, there is a question of how much knowledge or brain power does a given level of skill require. For both chess and go, each of these levels is generally associated with an exponential increase in knowledge about the game. I’d guess in chess that a 200 point increase in rating probably correlates to twice as much literature digested (or twice as much of some other form of acquiring knowledge, pattern recognition, and/or computational ability). Similarly, go professionals will typically spend well over 40 hours a week working on their game, often beginning this well before they are 10 years old, and continuing as long as they strive to maintain a professional standing. And this is often above and beyond time actually spent playing go.
Poker of 40 years ago did not require this level of attention to theory. The best players would spend long hours thinking about the game, but there simply was not a deep library of theory about poker that someone would need tens or hundreds of thousands of hours to digest. That has changed over the last 20 year, and especially over the last 10, and the study of optimal poker has become increasingly deep. Many books by professional players don’t reflect this, but there are bad books published on chess or go, also (and some of these are not really bad as books, but just very light on advanced theory… a bibliography or a beginner’s book can still be good reading). I’d still say that both chess and go have much deeper libraries of literature, but it takes time to wright books, and both chess and go have been at it for over 1,000 years.
The second approach involves trying to think of what constitutes a clear level of skill in poker, and I think that something as straight forward as stakes illustrate this. I’ve played every level on this site from 1/2 to 100k/200k regularly (and recently), and have tracked my performance. It is obvious that at each level, my average win rate, measured in big blinds won per 100 hands (with samples of at least 3,000 hands at every level) decreases, showing that on average, as stakes go up, players at each level are distinctly stronger on average. I suspect the size of this skill gap from say, 1/2 to 2/4, is smaller than a 200 point gap in chess, or a 2 kyu gap in go, but still easy to detect, with very noticeable differences in play. On this site, for no-limit holdem cash games, we have 18 different blind levels, ranging from 1/2 at the lowest, to 500k/1m at the highest. Cutting that in half gives 9 levels (though we see very little activity on this site at the highest two levels). Further, it is not like the highest two levels on this site probably have the strongest players in the world… if anything, these in general are our strongest amateurs, perhaps equivalent to the 4 to 7 dan amateurs in go, with pro 1 dan still being a meaningful step up.
Now, I’ll admit that poker as a whole draws a less intellectually elite crowd, and that means you have a lot of “club” poker players that with an equivalent chess rating would probably be rated wellllllllll below 1000. You just don’t have this body of players in chess and go that just want to gamble, or think that by knowing how a knight moves, they can now expect to win any game against a grandmaster. It’s like many poker players, if they were chess players, think it is enough to know how the pawns move, without even learning the way the other pieces move. So somehow people are happy playing poker with a level of skill that would be frustrating in these games where you get more immediate feedback about how bad you really are.
Finally, I think it is meaningful to ask if we have a measurable way of rating poker players that is more objective and logical like the rating systems used in chess and go. The objective of poker is to win money (or chips if you prefer, on a play money site). Those that achieve this more regularly are stronger.
In the past, in live play, these win rates were hidden, and it was more difficult to tell objectively who was crushing games. But with the advent of online sites, we also soon saw the advent of databases tracking results, and of course Replay poker actively displays bank roll. Now some players put more of their bank roll at risk, and so will shoot up and down the ranks more rapidly, but for players that play exclusively on one level (tables of the same stakes) for and extended period of time (preferably 10,000 hands or more), big blinds won per 100 hands played becomes a very objective way to compare two players and say who is stronger (or at least better at extracting chips in that environment), and could probably be used as the foundation for an objective, mathematical rating system.
OK… I’ve just kind of typed this out in a stream of thought. I certainly don’t think this suffices as convincing evidence that there are more skill levels in poker than chess, or even as many. But I believe there are, and that becoming one of the strongest players in the world at poker today is every bit as hard as becoming one of the top chess grandmasters in the world, and further has a much larger pool of people competing (which also impacts the bell curve distribution of strengths, and the size of the gap between the weakest and the strongest).