The Appeal of Poker

The Appeal of Poker July 29, 2004

In a thread below, Tim asks this question:

I wonder if you could explain the allure of gambling, in general. I have no religious, moral qualms against it, but I just don’t understand the attraction (or is it a psychological compulsion?). I guess I can see that poker has some aspects of skill involved, blunting the razor-sharp edge of absurd, irrational chance; otherwise, the whole staking of money on hopes of somehow outfoxing blind chance (being lucky) strikes me as a pasttime more fitting for the asylum recreation room (no personal insult intended — just wondering out loud).

I thought I would move this up to its own post so I can answer it in some detail. I can only answer him as it regards poker because that is the only game I play. I would argue that there is a very big difference between a poker player and a gambler (though some are both), and that difference is becoming more pronounced. I do not play any casino game against the house for a simple reason – if it wasn’t profitable to be the house, there wouldn’t be one. There especially wouldn’t be one that cost a billion dollars to build. Poker is the only game in which one plays against the other players only, not against the casino. You cannot win long term playing any other casino game.

So what is the appeal of poker? I think it’s the same appeal that chess has, or any other game of strategy. It’s the psychological and intellectual game within the game that I enjoy so much. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist from University of Chicago, wrote a great response to a post I wrote on poker once. In it he said:

The secret of the allure (and challenge) of poker is that it’s a game of incomplete information, the kind game theorists love to think about. You know the cards you already have, and you (should) know the probabilities of various further cards coming your way, but you have to infer your opponents’ hands from tiny hints (their bets, their positions at the table, their personal styles, etc). Texas Hold-Em is so popular because it manages to accurately hit the mark between “enough information to devise a consistently winning strategy” and “not enough information to do much more than guess.” The charm in such games is that there is no perfect strategy, in the sense that there is no algorithm guaranteed to win in the long run against any other algorithm. The best poker players (and there are a good number of people who earn their living from poker, so it’s by no means “gambling”) are able to use different algorithms against different opponents, as the situation warrants.

This is a really accurate statement, I think. I’ve had an ongoing conversation with my brother about this, with whom I play poker every week. He always insisted that poker was extremely simple and that it all comes down to the cards in your hand. If you have a good hand, you stay. If you don’t have a good hand, you fold. I tried to convince him that there is a lot more to it than that, but he wouldn’t accept it. Until he went on a long losing streak, that is. Then he started asking me more detailed questions, and he started paying a lot more attention to the details of the game. Now he has figured out that I was right, that you have to think about much more than that. Even more important than what you have in your hand is what the other players have in their hands. And equally important is what the other players think you have in your hand. And once you get to that level of thinking, you then have to think about what they think you think they have. I know it starts to sound like a comedy sketch after a while, but it’s really true.

Like chess, you’re also thinking further ahead than the next card. That’s one reason why position is so important in poker. You’ll play weaker starting hands in late position than you will in early position because you have more information when it comes time for you to bet or fold. The other players have to act in front of you. You don’t want to play weaker hands in early position because decisions you would ordinarily make can get you into trouble when someone raises your bet. It’s a lot easier to fold a marginal hand if the betting happens in front of you and you have to either call or fold. But if you bet or call in early position with a marginal hand and then get raised, it’s harder to fold it because you’ve already got money in the pot.

The number of things to consider is virtually limitless. There are hands that are, in the long run, only profitable to play against one other player, because the chances of one person drawing out on you is a lot lower than the chances of one out of 3 or 4 people drawing out on you. There are also hands that are only profitable to play against multiple players, because the right flop will make them very powerful, but hidden enough that other players will think they have the better of it.

I could go on all day about this, but I hope you understand my point. It’s an intellectual game that never has an ending. There is no perfect strategy and everything you do is contingent upon a hundred other factors, so it never gets boring for me. Every table is different, every game is different, every hand is different. And did I mention that if you do it well, you can win a lot of money?

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