Hold'em with Holloway, Vol. 91: Poker Lessons from a Game of Risk

Risk Board Game Poker

This past weekend, my group of friends opted to skip our usual poker home game in favor of a board game night. We played a throwback game of Risk, the game of global domination. I'm not exaggerating when I say 20 years ago or so we played it every night for the better part of a year.

I long ago gave up my global conquest dreams and swapped them for the pursuit of poker glory. Still, it was fun to play again, and I must admit I was surprised by the similarities I noticed between poker tournaments and Risk — so much so that I decided to write about it in this week's column (Strange I know, but c'mon, I once wrote an article about which players were right vs. left handed).

Ideally, I'd have consulted 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event champ Joe McKeehen for this article. After all, he was the 2010 Risk World Champion after winning the Risk Annual Classic. I admit, though, I didn't ask him. That said, McKeehen did have some advice for me when I posted a picture of myself playing Risk on Facebook.

"Get an older one," he advised. "Armies, knights and cannons is sooooooooooo awful."

Chad Holloway playing Risk
Chad Holloway & friends.

Like so many poker home game players do, we're prone to either make up our own rules or tweak others to the games we play. That's my disclaimer to any Risk purists out there who might want to say, "But that's not how it's played." It's how we've always done it as kids, so deal with it.

That said, here are some lessons I learned while playing risk that I realized also apply to poker.

Play the Cards You're Dealt

At the start of a Risk game, each player shakes a dice to determine who goes first. In our five-player game, that was me. In order to determine which countries we start with, we randomly assign them by taking turns drawing a country card. Luck would determine where we'd start.

Just like in poker where you have to make the best of the cards you're dealt, in our game of Risk you had to make the most of the randomized territories. Luckily, I was dealt a strong hand with five countries in the Asia-Pacific region. As any fan of Risk can tell you, having a foothold in Australia is a great way to start the game (for those wondering why, it's the easiest continent to control in the game).

The lesson learned is that there's no point in complaining about the cards, you just need to make the most of the deal. In Risk terms: When life deals you Kamchatka, load up your armies and head for Alaska.

Know Your Opponents

At a poker table you want to identify players who are prone to give you trouble. You want to figure out who plays fast and strong, and who exhibits constant aggression. On the flip side, you also want to find the weak and inexperienced players and attack.

In our game of Risk, my buddy Chris is a wild card. He's aggressive and will attack you for no other reason than you have too many countries, or armies. Like a LAG player in poker, I was going to avoid a big clash with Chris until I had the goods.

"This was a dynamic I had to be aware of and adjust my game accordingly."

Fortunately, Chris went for North America, which was on the opposite side of the board. I quickly wiped out his few lone soldiers in my neck of the woods to make an unpredictable attack highly improbable.

As the two most powerful armies on the board, we had an unspoken agreement to target the weaker players, not unlike two chip leaders staying out of each other's way until the end (which is what Chris and I ended up doing, by the way).

Pay Attention to Game Dynamics

In poker tournaments, blinds and antes continue to rise, which in turn forces the action. Similarly, in Risk players trade in cards for armies. The more cards traded in, the more armies are awarded. For example, the first player to trade in receives four extra armies, the second six armies, and the third eight armies, and so on. Eventually, trade-ins get as high as 50 armies, which results in big power swings.

Given I was first to act and players are required to trade in when they have five cards in their hand, I was going to be forced to trade in first, thus opening the door to my opponents receiving more armies. This was a dynamic I had to be aware of and adjust my game accordingly.

For me, it was similar to being near the money bubble with a shorter stack. I constantly had to pay attention to chip stacks and position (so to speak), lest I make a crucial mistake.

Pick Your Spots

"The strategies and lessons you learn in poker have far-reaching applications off the felt."

Given the above information, I quickly determined the only way for me to win the game of Risk was to make a move against an inexperienced player two to my left. He had five cards and would be required to trade in. However, I was first to act, traded in first, and prepared my armies for war. I was going to go all in on attacking him, and if successful, I would win his cards.

It's not unlike being in the cutoff with a shorter stack and having an even shorter stack in the big blind. You might just make a move to try and pick up those valuable chips.

In poker, knowing when to jam and against who is a critical skill. It's the same in Risk, when you must determine not only who to attack, but also have to find just the right time to do so.


I ended up winning our game of Risk by conquering the world, and it felt good. Not quite "winning a poker tournament" good, but good nonetheless. I couldn't help but feel that what I've learned in poker helped me clinch victory, and maybe that what I learned from Risk so many years ago helped me on my poker journey.

The strategies and lessons you learn in poker have far-reaching applications off the felt. Some apply to larger aspects of life, such as risk and bankroll management, while others can be used for something as lowly as a game of Risk.

  • In a new Hold'em with Holloway, @ChadAHolloway discusses poker lessons he learned while playing Risk.

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