November 22, 2012 9:30

FM Stanislav Cifka turns to Magic, wins US $40,000

FM Stanislav Cifka

There are many stories about chess players being successful at poker, but what about other card games? Last month FM Stanislav Cifka won a big tournament held in Seattle – not with chess, but with Magic: The Gathering, a popular trading card game. He went home with – hold your breath – US $40,000. GM Dimitri Reinderman, a Magic player himself, interviewed Cifka for ChessVibes.

Stanislav Cifka (2409) with the big cup he won with the card game Magic | Photo courtesy of

When he was young, for FM Stanislav Cifka (now 25) playing games was what made him happy, and he dreamed of doing it as a professional. At first, he thought his profession would be playing chess: he played world championships under 18 and under 20, but at a certain moment he realized that becoming a (strong) GM would be hard for him.

By GM Dimitri Reinderman

Cifka became a poker professional. Though he could make enough money with that, there was another game he liked more, which was Magic: The Gathering. Could he become a professional in that? He drastically cut his time spent on poker, instead playing Magic all day, and it paid off: by winning Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in Seattle he became one of the new stars in this fantasy based trading card game, and more importantly: he won 40,000 dollars!

You can watch the final of the Pro Tour Return to Ravnica below: 

"In the fifth game of the finals, Cifka kept a no-land, two Lotus Bloom hand
and found a way to victory over Watanabe's Jund deck." (

It's not rare to see chess players making money with poker (Grischuk, Skripchenko, Van Wely for example), but seeing a chess player excelling in Magic: The Gathering is rare. There is some logic in it though, since Magic has been described as a combination of chess and poker.

It is first and foremost a strategic game, in which making plans is an important skill. For example, sometimes it's best just to try to use your cards to get your opponent from 20 to 0 life (the goal of the game) as quickly as possible; sometimes you should try to accumulate advantages and get a good 'board position' or 'card advantage' (similar to a material advantage in chess). There is an element of chance, and the cards in the hand of the opponent are (normally) unknown, so just like in poker, being able to guess the opponents hand is an important skill.

As I also play both chess and Magic: The Gathering at tournament level, I was interested to know how Cifka managed to become good in different games and how he sees the relationship between playing chess, poker and Magic. He was kind enough to answer some questions.

Tell me about your chess career.

My best results in chess have been winning the Czech championship U20 (2006), winning the 16th Donau Open (2007) and the 4th place in the Czech blitz championship. Nowadays I don't have much time for chess; I play about ten rated games per year, but I'm still very interested (I'm watching the top tournaments etc.).

My rating is over 2400 [Cifka's November rating is 2409 - DR] but I have only one IM norm. I would like to become an IM in a few years. One day I would love to be GM, but unless I will work much harder on chess, it will remain only a dream.

How did you become a poker professional and can you describe that?

I started playing poker for money at the age of 18, first at casinos in the Czech Republic. I realised that it's much easier to make money by playing poker than by playing chess. When I improved my game enough I played online poker more and more. My best poker years were 2010 and 2011. My best poker result was when I qualified for the Grand Final of the European Poker Tour in Madrid in 2011. Though I was satisfied with my income from poker, I didn't like my life at all, and realised I had to change something.

I didn't like the poker lifestyle (spending the whole night in a casino and hoping people will be gambling with you, the permanent stress, the big money swings, etc.) and after some time I also stopped enjoying the game. Nowadays about half of my income is from poker. I play less than I used to (one day per week on average), which helps me to enjoy the game more.

And your Magic career?

I started to play Magic when I was 12. I had some good results, like two times the top eight at the Czech Nationals, but I wasn't able to break through until 2011, when I finished second at the Czech Nationals. This way I qualified for the World Championship in San Francisco.

My game wasn't very good at that time, but I realised that I enjoy playing Magic more than anything else, so I worked very hard to improve my game. I finished 18th at the 2011 World Championship, which meant I qualified for all the important tournaments in 2012. Thanks to finishing in the top 16 of the Pro Tour Avacyn Restored in Barcelona I got the platinum status. [This is perhaps comparable with the GM title in chess. Players with a platinum status get conditions such as hotel accommodation, an airplane ticket and an appearance fee of $3,000 for playing in a Pro Tour tournament - DR], and since then I consider myself a Magic pro.

Cifka, an FM of IM strength (2409) and a poker player, but even
more successful at Magic | Photo courtesy of

Pro Tours have the same status in Magic: The Gathering as Grand Slam tournaments in tennis. The strongest players from around the world compete in two disciplines: limited, where players 'draft' the cards from 'booster packs' and try to construct the best possible deck with the 'drafted' cards, and constructed, in which players bring their own deck from home. Knowledge of the best decks, their strengths and weaknesses and how best to play them is important, so Cifka spend lots of time to figure that out.

I prepared for one month, 7-8 hours per day on average. I was playing all the possible decks. For the last two weeks I would meet with my testing team and we were preparing together. It's very similar as preparing openings for chess tournaments with the difference that we don't have any engines in Magic and we have to all work ourself, like how it was in chess twenty years ago.

Did your experience in chess help you with Magic?

Yes. The principle of every game is different, but some things like managing stress, being able to keep concentration for a whole day, coping with losses, time management before the tournament etc., are the same for every game. And for all these games, you need to calculate the variations, so playing one of these game improves you in the others.

In Magic you are known for your unorthodox playing style. How is that in chess and poker?

In chess my style was at first very peaceful and positional. However, in poker my style is super aggressive and after some time it showed in my chess games as well.
In Magic I'm going another way than most of the players. I believe that like in chess, there is not just one way of right play, and the moment of surprise is a strong weapon. I play different decks than others in constructed and I draft different cards in limited if I believe that's right.

Do you make money with Magic just by playing, or also in other ways? And what are your plans for the future?

You can make money in Magic by writing articles or by having sponsorship from some websites or webstores. But you need to do something extra, and because of my laziness my income from that area isn't very high.

I didn't finish university, so I might go study or I can switch to another game, if it will be interesting. In the worst case scenario I can move back to poker. But currently I really enjoy playing Magic and I would like to keep playing for next couple of years.

Magic the Gathering is a trading card game, the first of its kind, created by Richard Garfield and introduced in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast. Magic continues to thrive, with approximately twelve million players as of 2011. The game can be played by two or more players each using a deck of printed cards or a deck of virtual cards through the Internet-based Magic: The Gathering Online or third-party programs.

Each game represents a battle between mighty wizards, known as "planeswalkers", who employ spells, items, and creatures depicted on individual Magic cards to defeat their opponents. Although the original concept of the game drew heavily from the motifs of traditional fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, the gameplay of Magic bears little similarity to pencil-and-paper adventure games, while having substantially more cards and more complex rules than many other card games.

An organized tournament system and a community of professional Magic players has developed, as has a secondary market for Magic cards. Magic cards can be valuable due to their rarity and utility in game play.

More at Wikipedia

Editors's picture
Author: Editors


jmason's picture

Congratulations for playing the game so well and managing to enjoy yourself very much by playing it !

CHESS's picture

How is this even remotely related to chess?

filiusdextris's picture

Magic is very math-based. Some board states (all known elements) can become complicated - knowing when you can make a successful attack (better than exposing yourself to counterattack) can be difficult to determine. Factor into that decision all unknown (but predictable) variables and your ways to handle those becomes more complicated. That was tactics. The game has a ton of strategic depth as well, as you have to determine what deck gives you the best odds, how many of each card to run, and even in a given situation, which cards actually matter. Suppose you have an attack available with a 90% chance of being lethal based on the board and what your opponent likely has, it may still be an error to make that attack if you can foresee that your opponent has no way to beat you ultimately if you refrain for a few turns, allowing you to build the percentage to 100%. That's just one very basic example.

Chess is more deep for a concentrated board, but Magic has more breadth, with the game constantly evolving. Both are amazing games.

Dimitri's picture

It is interesting to see how strong chessplayers fare in other games, I think, and if chess abilities can be transfered to other games.

Anonymous's picture

He prefers this to poker? I thought you could make a lot more in poker.

Dimitri's picture

anonymous: there is more money in poker, but for Cifka playing poker was just hard work, not really fun. He enjoys playing magic much more (and still makes good money with it).

Joe's picture

I watched parts of the video and it was more interesting than I'd expected beforehand. Thanks for the article, GM Reinderman!

Dimitri's picture

You're welcome :)

Dimitri's picture

I tried to do the three replies above in one reply first, but for some reason I couldn't get past the spamfilter this way (Your submission has triggered the spam filter and will not be accepted.)

RG13's picture

I have also had intermittent hassles with chessvibes temperamental spam filter. Sometimes I would love to know what I am doing wrong so that I could stop triggering it!

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