Chips and Chases: Where Rugby and Poker Collide

Anyone who has played the game of rugby union knows the importance of strategy to creating a successful team.

But the time, energy, and effort that goes into pre- and post-match analysis, tactical planning, and the detailed study of opponents, is often overlooked or simply not understood at all amongst those on the outside looking in at the game.

Rugby’s image is one of brawn, and not brains. Union and league get lumped in together in the minds of the public, and the media portrayal of rugby players from both codes tends to be one of hard-drinking, unthinking gym-dwellers who are more likely to want to plan a pub crawl than talk tactics.

But the truth is far from the media myth, and top level players, coaches, and backroom staff are better informed than any previous generation of professionals about the importance of strategy, tactics, planning, diet, the avoidance of injury, and the many other nuances and details that can make the difference between winning and losing.

The depth of detail that modern rugby coaches attend to has led to comparisons between rugby and games long thought of as more cerebral.

For the sake of keeping up with the times that we are living in, this article looks at the similarities between rugby strategy and the winning approaches of a pastime that has become hugely popular since the advent of online gaming: poker.

The two might seem worlds apart and certainly in terms of setting, the mud and rain of a rugby field bears little comparison to the warm, comfortable confines of a casino.

But in terms of approach, and the considerations that need to be taken into account in order to achieve to achieve success, there is much that participants from these two worlds can share with each other.

Here, we take a look at where those crossover points occur, and how the vast wealth of information that exists online regarding poker strategy might be able to help players and coaches of rugby union.

Poker says: Learn the game

“If you have no idea what you’re doing, then you’ll have no idea what anyone else is doing either.”

This is one of the first things any amateur poker player learns as soon as they take to the tables and find themselves floundering due a lack of breadth in their understanding of the game.

It’s possible to quite quickly assimilate enough knowledge to play poker: you understand the implications of your hand, and what it allows you to play. But poker strategy goes beyond those basic steps and into tight and aggressive styles of play, and approaches that give you an advantage by allowing you to take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes.

And so it is in rugby, where emerging talent and gifted individuals might show the qualities required to play the game, but fail to develop a full understanding of tactics and strategy. This can be a significant barrier to development, and the importance of high quality coaches at junior level is of paramount importance to the success of any rugby-playing nation.

Young players learn how to tackle, pass, lineout and scrum in their early training, and by playing Rugby Sevens. These are the basic building blocks to playing the game, and these are universally coached.

But strategy involves learning to play to your strengths. Just as a poker player must assess the hand they have been given and make good decisions based on that hand, a rugby player or coach must assess the strengths of their team – and their opponents’ team – and adjust their strategy and approach accordingly.

Poker says: Understand your strengths – and your weaknesses

People who start playing poker will see their hand and not fully understand its implications. Or, they might get the knack of knowing which starting hands to play, but fail to master the art of what to play for the rest of their hand.

The poker players who succeed are those who out-perform their opponents beyond their starting hand, because they understand how to use the cards they have been dealt.

In rugby, this process is known as game management – deciding when to do what.

Your team might have strong forwards, but your backs are not so incisive. If this is the case, you might play a forward game that involves the pack holding onto the ball, and the scrum-half kicking over the top for the forwards to run on to.

If you’ve got weak, lightweight forwards and you are playing against a bigger team than yours, you want to get the ball away from your forward as quick as possible, and in to your backs – your centre and wingers – and this is known as the running game. This is the form of the game most spectators like to see, with  the ball being passed, not kicked, and players beating the opposition defence with decisive running at angles.

Good game management is understanding your strengths and weaknesses – the hand you’ve been dealt with – and adjusting your game appropriately.


Poker says: Know your opponents

In poker, players will learn to make intelligent guesses about the hand their opponent is holding, based on their body language. By studying their opponents, players can learn to spot patterns and signals that can be interpreted to gain an advantage, by knowing when to gamble.

The huge growth in popularity of poker in the last 20 years has allowed professional poker players to study their opponents and learn about the way they play the game.

In rugby, good game management depends entirely upon who you’re playing against. Are your forwards better than your opponents’ forwards? Are your backs better than theirs?

If an opposition full-back is weak under a high ball, a stand-off might put towering kicks up to put pressure on the full back. If there is a weakness in your opponents’ scrum, you’ll scrummage as often as you can. This demoralizes them and gives you forward dominance.

All of these decisions depend on a thorough knowledge of your opponents.

You might not possess the most strength in the pack. Your players might not be quicker than theirs. To draw the parallel with poker one more time, your hand might not be the strongest. But intelligent rugby, quick passing, and the ability to drop the shoulder can be the keys that help a team to unlock any opponent.