Ask the average gamer how Street Fighter correlates to poker and chances are, you're probably going to get a puzzled stare. Before I attended Seth Killian's lecture on game design in fighting games last year, I was certain that people like Hevad 'Rainkhan' Khan, who placed sixth in the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event, and online legend Randy 'Nanako' Lew were flukes. Now, I'm not so sure.
Earlier this month, I called up professional Street Fighter player Arturo Sanchez to ask him about the similarities between poker players and professional Street Fighter players. He told me that I would have to learn the game first. That's how I got here. It's 7'o clock in the morning and Arturo Sanchez, his voice nasally from a recent flu, is breaking down his after-hours match from Evo 2009 over Skype.
"We were doing it just for fun, but people decided to make bets." Arturo Sanchez is one of the rare few who can comment so flippantly on an encounter with Daigo Umehara, the current Guinness World holder for 'most successful player in major tournaments of Street Fighter'. As 'The Beast' of the competitive Street Fighter landscape appears on the screen, Sanchez grins. "I think $20, 000 USD or so exchanged hands that night."
"Street Fighter is about position and space control." Sanchez explains as he draws a line across two thirds of the screen, the characters frozen in place; Umehara is playing Ryu, Sanchez has Dhalsim."See this? This is Dhalsim's optimal range. This is my sweet spot. Daigo can't cross this line without being punished and he knows this."
He unpauses. The fight that ensues is almost mechanical; a mediated dance composed of equal exchanges, one occasionally broken by sudden, desperate savagery."That's why he's trying to change that. Ryu's amazing up close. As long as I'm in optimal range, I'm good but if Daigo manages to eliminate that gap, that's it for me."
Even as Sanchez speaks, Umehara takes a sudden leap forward. "He's trying to bait me. He wants me to do something stupid, to waste a button press so he can get in under my defenses." Sanchez retaliates by having Dhalsim wedge a knee in Ryu's abdomen. Umehara falls back. The second time that Ryu jumps, Sanchez ignores him but Umehara doesn't appear deterred. Three times. Four. Sometimes, he manages to execute a combo before he is shoved back. Sometimes, he doesn't. Umehera dives forward for the umpteenth time. Sanchez answers with a blast of flame and the second round is his. When I point out to Sanchez that Umehara seems to be taking unnecessary damage, he shrugs. "The rewards outweigh the risks. Daigo knows what he's doing. He's testing me. He's letting himself get punished so he can see how I react to things. He's got a game plan."
In the third round of the first match, there is a moment when Sanchez slips and drops his guard. Umehara lunges for the kill; an uppercut segues into a shinnku-hadouken. The screen burns blue. It's over in seconds, a victory as absolute as the crowd's approval. Umehara claims the first match.
"Daigo did two things here. He scored a win and he got me scared."
"Though it can be hard to believe for people who think fighting games are all about mashing buttons and stringing together big combos, Street Fighter and poker have a lot in common. At high levels, both games come down to correctly reading your opponents and optimizing your resources."
Seth Killian is the Community Manager and 'Special Combat Advisor' at Capcom. But even before he began working with the people responsible for the Street Fighter franchise, he was already a part of the scene. A former professional Street Fighter player, Killian has, among other things, helped organize the famed EVO fighting tournaments. Additionally, he is also a semi-serious poker player who has trained under 1996 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion Huck Seed.
“Good fighting gamers are some of the best in the world at pattern recognition.” It is a statement that few others can make with such impunity. After all, Killian is living testament to this. “ You could show me 10 anonymous matches of good Rufus players in SFIV and I'll be able to tell you which one was Justin Wong, win or lose, just because I know how he moves.”
Killian added, “When you're in the top tiers, you must not only be able to pull off complex combinations and moves, you must also be an expert at reading your opponent. You have to make sure you can't be put into unfamiliar situations where you're likely to make mistakes."
Though separated by disciplines, experience and geography, his words are eerily similar to those uttered by Anton Westbergh - my only real contact in the world of professional card games.
"A professional poker player is obsessive. He spends hours analyzing his previous performances. He is focused. He takes advantage of previous experiences and builds upon them. He reads literature. He watches videos. He learns. Poker is all about information – the information you're missing, the information you know, the information your opponents know and the information your opponents think they know. It's crucial to be on top of what's going on."
Now retired from professional poker, the current CEO of Coffee Stain Studios, a Swedish game development company best known for their First-Person Shooter Tower Defense Sanctum, explained that pattern recognition is also a big thing in poker. “While there are many variables that can affect the flow of a game, I always take a few things into account. Firstly, there's focus. Even when you are not in the hand, you should always be watching your adversaries and their interactions. Secondly, we have timing. You learn a lot from how your opponent responds to time-sensitive situations. When he has a tough call, does he take extra time? How quickly does he make his bets? If you see a pattern, you can use it against them."
While Street Fighter and poker are prone towards evoking high emotions, both Killian and Westbergh were quick to stress the importance of self-restraint. “A professional poker player is always in control of himself. He does not react based on emotions. He is capable of functioning under extreme pressure. Unlike an average player, he doesn't blame his losses on bad luck or other external circumstances.” Westbergh said.
Killian reflected the statement in his description of what differentiates the great from the exemplary. "You have to be able to look outside of yourself and learn from your mistakes. There's always an explanation of how or why you lost. Thus, if you can step back enough to have a clear view of your actions, you can learn and improve. Without that ability, and the ability to control your emotions in the heat of battle, you will eventually hit a wall of great players you can't beat.”
The video is seventeen minutes long. Arturo Sanchez took two hours to dissect it. We went over the game frame-by-frame. We replayed definitive moments. We discussed the theories. Like Seth Killian in the lecture that first precipitated my interest in the whole thing, Sanchez carried a certain sort of reverence of his voice. Street Fighter is more than a game to some. It has to be. By nature, fighting games aren't intuitive. Sanchez tells me that he learned things the hard way - “I learned it from just getting my ass beat over the past two decades.”
The same can be said about poker. In fact, the same can be said about any card game. They're easy to learn. You can teach someone the rules in minutes. You can set up a game with a novice in less time than that. However, mastery of the game can take lifetimes. Like Street Fighter, poker is ruled by high tensions and mechanical exchanges – it is a contest of wits, luck and opportunism.
When I ask if Sanchez plays poker himself, he says no. “I'm terrible at poker. I'm ultra-conservative. I like to minimize risks. I'm straightforward. It shows in my game and it definitely carries over to poker.”
Does Daigo Umehara play poker? Sanchez laughs. “No. He plays mahjong so that may explain everything.”