Anyone remember the duel between Kaiba and Pegasus in the first season of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! anime?
I’ll set the scene a bit for the uninitiated. Kaiba has just spiked the Duelist Kingdom tournament with a single duel. After receiving five star chips (essentially the duelist’s equivalent of a poker chip; “mere mortal” tournament participants start with two star chips each and wager them in duels with each other until they’ve accumulated ten, at which point they qualify for a seat in the top 8 elimination rounds) as a gift from TO Maximilian Pegasus himself, he confronts Yugi en route to the Duelist Kingdom elimination rounds that Yugi and Joey have just finished qualifying for. Yugi and Kaiba proceed to have a duel in which they ante five star chips each, and Kaiba pulls it out by the skin of his teeth with a devastating early Crush Card Virus, a Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon, and finally, a suicide threat when Yugi is about to win in spite of all of this. Yugi forfeits and Kaiba moves on to duel Pegasus himself.
This was the culmination of Kaiba’s Season 1 anti-hero development, as well, so going into it, both the viewer and Yugi’s group find themselves strangely compelled to root for the once-evil rich kid. He’s up against an unequivocally evil villain of a higher magical order (more on that later), dueling for the first time in the series for a cause that the audience might sympathize with: Pegasus has captured Kaiba’s little brother’s soul in a card (on a bored whim, to the best knowledge of Kaiba, Yugi, and the audience so far).
When the duel itself starts, Pegasus starts promptly wiping the floor with Kaiba. His Millenium Eye lets him read Kaiba’s mind, call all of his bluffs, predict all of his battle tricks, and play around all of his traps, and he eventually sets up a lock with Toon cards that no one other than himself understands. For maximum disrespect, Pegasus uses a (really broken) Exchange-like card to snatch Kaiba’s Blue-Eyes White Dragon right out of his hand and onto his own side of the field.
While the game state doesn’t look good for Kaiba, we are reminded that the self-made child billionaire CEO is no slouch himself. At this point, almost everyone is at least aware that Pegasus’s Millenium Eye grants him some sort of psychic ability, but the specifics aren’t known. Yugi’s played Pegasus for all of twenty minutes with mostly vanilla monsters, and that’s about all anyone knows about what Pegasus is like in a duel. Kaiba considers the possibility that the Eye lets Pegasus see whatever Kaiba’s seeing at the time, then that it lets him listen directly into their thoughts, and so on and so forth. In every case, he reasons, Pegasus’s advantage comes from knowing stuff about Kaiba’s cards before he’s “supposed” to. So what does Kaiba do?
He ditches his hand and starts playing off the top of his deck. Seriously! He doesn’t even try to use any of the cards in his hand, he just chunks them straight to the graveyard and starts Summoning whatever he draws.
One of the most basic rules of amateur poker is to know when to go big and when to stay small. What this means is that you aren’t supposed to play every hand when you’re starting out, especially if you’re playing against people that you know are better than you. Experienced players will tell newcomers to wait for big hands like pocket Aces and not to even bother trying to play stuff like 5-7 offsuit. As you get better, you widen your range until you’re playing what Daniel Negreanu calls “small ball” — you’re playing every hand for very small gains on each bet, maximizing your gains over your opponents over longer and longer periods of time.
The problem is that to be able to do this, you have to be able to outplay your opponent that much more. There are more hands, more bets, more chances for you to do something suboptimal. Small ball poker isn’t as entertaining to watch, and it’s far more difficult to follow, especially to the untrained mind (this is why TV makes Phil Hellmuth look far worse than he is and why many Smashers root against players like Hungrybox and Mew2king). And if you try to play small ball when you’re not ready, your opponents are going to make you look stupid.
This is the position Kaiba realizes he’s in when he’s trying to play a regular old game of Yu-Gi-Oh! against some bored lonely asshole with a magical cheating eye. Kaiba’s solution is to stop playing small ball. If Pegasus is going to have the information necessary to outplay Kaiba throughout every decision tree, Kaiba is more comfortable forgoing those decision trees altogether and leaving both him and his opponent to make up their game plans essentially “on the fly.” Kaiba’s odds are still slim, but now, there are at least some possible universes in which Pegasus gets greedy or predicts Kaiba’s draws incorrectly and Kaiba gets a chance to capitalize and maybe pull out the win.
Long story short, that’s exactly what happens, at least at first. Kaiba hits runner-runner outs in the form of his second of three Blue-Eyes White Dragons and a Shadow Spell, allowing him to trap and weaken Pegasus’s Blue-Eyes Toon Dragon. It isn’t quite enough, as Pegasus eventually one-ups him with a Crush Card Virus of his own to strip Kaiba’s deck of any and all remaining threats, but Kaiba’s play illustrates what I think is a beautiful and oft-underappreciated point: you don’t have to play small ball if you don’t have to. The best line of play is only as good as you’re able to navigate it relative to your opponent.