My Poker life, part 1

This is the first in a series of articles about poker, and my experiences of playing it. I hope you enjoy it – please use the comment link to ask any questions about anything I’ve written, or about anything you’d like me to write about. Thank you for reading!


Between 2005 and 2008, I played a lot of poker. I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about it, though, except my blog on poker community FlopTurnRiver, which, I’m sad to discover, has been deleted on the site. It wasn’t very interesting, even to other poker fans, and would mean next to nothing to non-enthusiasts, which is pretty much everyone reading this blog!

I want to write something about the game, though, as I’ve recently started playing again, and enjoying it, after two years of barely picking up any (virtual) cards. But before then, as I said, I played a lot. Perhaps an hour a night online, on average, over three years – certainly over a thousand hours in total. I have documentary evidence of it – to analyse and keep records of my game, I bought a piece of software called Poker Tracker, which automatically tracked every hand I played and gave me astonishingly detailed stats of every aspect of the game. More about that in future posts.

Considering poker is a simple card game, with rules that are relatively easy to learn and understand, it’s quite hard to categorise. As money is involved, and luck is involved, it’s easy to simply shove it into a box marked “gambling”, and let any preconceptions you have about gambling – whether sports betting, craps, lotteries, or predicting the Christmas number 1 – relate to poker too.

But poker isn’t, or at least, shouldn’t be, that easy to pigeonhole. It doesn’t have to be about making, or losing, money. If we imagine, instead, poker played with chips with no monetary value, we see that the chips (or money) must remain a tangible facet, as the rounds of betting are the raison d’etre of the game. Without betting, there is no poker.

So money becomes a tool for playing, just as much as the cards are. The fact that it also makes up the prize is, in fact, a separate aspect. Indeed, the form of the game which I currently play, tournament poker, makes this literal. Each entrant buys in for a fee – could be 10p, could be (as at the World Series of Poker) $10,000 – and this fee buys them each the same number of chips, which they then use as a tool to bet against, and hopefully knock out, their opponents. The actual $$$ are put into a prize pool and shared out after the tournament, in a pre-defined pyramid structure, to the winner, runner up and any other money-paying positions. You could, of course, just as easily have a tourney where pride was the only prize the winner comes away with.

As for whether poker is gambling, it’s a debate that has gone on for years, in casinos, in home games, on internet forums and in the high courts of several different countries. I would say it IS a type of gambling, because money changes hands on the turn of a card, governed by pure chance; but it’s gambling with a significant, provable skill factor, which enables a better  player to win in the long run against a worse player.

“In the long run” is vital  here, because the way the cards fall, a complete beginner could beat a world champion on one individual hand, or even over a session. The newcomer may not have the skills, but if he gets lucky, his cards can beat anyone. Where skill comes in, though, is the fact that luck, by its very nature, evens out. So a good player, by folding, calling, betting and raising at (more often than not) the *right* time, will gradually forge an edge over a player who is less capable, regardless of how luck determines individual hands or sessions. A good player will maximise (inevitable) wins and minimise (just as inevitable) losses, and all this makes up a definable skillset.

Poker itself is a zero sum game (meaning anything lost by one person is won by another), but the context in which most of us play it isn’t. Anyone who plays in a professionally run game, live or online, will pay a sum to the house (called the “rake”) from which they cover their costs and make their profit. Online – where the rake tends to be smaller than in gaming houses – this amounts to approximately 5% of every pot played. So a winning poker player can’t just finish in the top 50% at his level because the rake will tip him into loss; in reality, the rake means that approximately the top 40% of players at each level are winners, and the other 60%, by necessity, are losers.

And this is where poker differs from roulette, blackjack, dice or any other form of commercial gambling determined purely by luck. A player with enough skill to make it to the top 40% of his chosen level (by which I mean the stake at which he plays – obviously, someone who plays in the $1000 game will, on average, be more skilled than those in the $10 game) can make a consistent and lasting profit which isn’t at the whim of the cards through his own pure ability.

And that’s the key. A common question I was asked was “how much money have you made playing poker?” – a fair question, and as a natural braggart I was happy to tell them. Often, though, they would follow it up with “but how much have you lost?”, as if I had only told them the sum total of every winning bet up to this point! Did they think I had a similar, probably larger, figure for my woeful losses? I’d have though it would be obvious that the only meaningful answer would be the net figure, taking into account every hand played and every dollar gained or squandered. And if you have the skill to beat your level, you should aim for, and expect, to come away with a profit. Which is a big reason why it can be such a great game.

    • Audrey O Reilly
    • January 14th, 2010

    Ah Mark, the subtext is certainly ADDICTION!! However, as hopefully that will make you desperate to drum up even more dosh through pushing your clients…YOU GO!!!

  1. You know what I was saying about leaving your preconceptions at the door… 😉

  1. January 26th, 2010
  2. November 5th, 2010

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