Chimps can be taught a lot of things. Basic sign language, solving puzzles, and recognizing numbers and sequences are just some of them. Some chimps were sent to space, and some have made appearances in movies and TV shows. They’ve even been taught to paint, play instruments, and do other fun activities. Also, we have to admit – chimps are better at certain things than we are. Games are, apparently, one of those things. But don’t worry. You’re not going to watch chimps compete for the Grandmaster title in chess any time soon.

Chimp Mikey who (supposedly) learned to play poker

Back in 2006, there was a PR circulating the web titled “PokerShare Sponsors Mikey the Chimp at the WSOP”. And we’re not talking about Canadian online casino style video poker or some simplified version of the game, either. We’re talking about a chimp named Mikey who apparently knew how to play poker. So good in fact, that PokerShare purchased a seat at the World Series of Poker for him. But WSOP organizers quickly denied the story and we never saw Mikey play. In fact, there’s a good chance all of this was a good old marketing stunt. In theory, though, chimps could learn the basics of poker. It’s just that poker is a complex game that relies on more than just a set of rules. And a chimp, no matter how smart it is, isn’t really capable of understanding all the nuances that come with playing poker at an advanced level.

Chimps may be better at some games than we humans

Poker aside, it is already known that chimps have better short-term memory. But now, according to researchers, chimpanzees outperform humans in basic game theory competitions as well. Game theory involves determining the most effective strategy in competitive scenarios. A study published in Scientific Reports by the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute in Japan observed chimpanzees playing a hide-and-seek computer game. The researchers concluded that the chimpanzees performed better than humans. According to researchers, chimpanzees were able to learn the game quicker than humans and play at the same level as the Nash equilibrium, which is the theoretical benchmark. This could be due to their impressive short-term memory, and ability to quickly recognize patterns. Their competitive nature in the wild may also contribute to their success in the game.

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Primates and monkeys love long-term rewards

The Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) is a method of evaluating individuals’ decision-making abilities when faced with choices that have competing immediate and long-term consequences. Participants are given four decks of cards and must select one card from each deck. The cards can either lead to winning a specific amount of money or losing some money. If you’re interested, you can give it a try. Luckily, most of the games can be played online so it’s easy to sample the experience.

The researchers then created the ‘Primate Gambling Task’ as a simplified version of the IGT. The PGT uses two decks instead of four, food instead of money, and doesn’t have negative rewards as it’s difficult to take away food that has already been given to an animal.

According to the study, chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, and humans all selected the deck that offered the highest long-term rewards while minimizing the variation in rewards. To ascertain whether the subjects were motivated by maximizing their rewards or simply avoiding the condition with more variance, the researchers conducted two additional conditions to differentiate between the two possibilities. The capuchins, chimps, and humans all had a higher tendency to select the deck that provided consistent rewards and had the potential for long-term gain when considering the maximum payoff.

Do chimps play games in the wild?

They absolutely do! Scientists have observed chimps playing different physical games, like chasing, rough-and-tumble, playful fighting and similar. Just like in humans, playing is an important part of growing up for chimps, because it helps the development of physical skills and learning social boundaries. And while they don’t play games with rules and objectives in the wild, they play other types of games. Until someone steps in and teaches them how to play poker, that is.

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