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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Why Poker?
Today I was at my local public library for a work-related errand, and I stopped by the poker section. There were about a half dozen older poker books, including Scarne's Guide to Modern Poker and Spanier's Total Poker. I should check out both of them some time, but today I borrowed Zen and the Art of Poker. I haven't started reading it, but I've read the reviews on Amazon before and am hoping it will help me with some of my bad habits.

After a year of playing low-limits online, I feel I've got the math parts of the game down pretty well. I think the major leaks in my game right now are psychological--feeling underconfident or overconfident, playing when I'm distracted by other things (as I did this weekend), loosening up too much when I'm winning (this is a big problem for me), letting a maniac put me on tilt, etc.

A lot of these psychological leaks are tied to a somewhat Zen-like question I've been wanting to post about, as I've been pondering it off and on ever since I first got into poker. This question was posed by HDouble on The Cards Speak in a March 13 post titled "Poker: Hobby, Sport, or Profit?" I'd phrase it as "Why play poker?" but HDouble's 3 categories are pretty useful. To very briefly summarize his post, hobbies are about relaxation, sports are about competition and self-improvement, and profit is about, well, making money, and HDouble concludes that the latter 2 are his main reasons for playing. Fair enough.

For me, the appeal of poker definitely has several components. I think the first is fun. I just really enjoy playing. That is a good thing, but I think it's also what gets me into trouble sometimes. It is not alway fun to play poker well. Folding is not fun. Holden has a great couple paragraphs about this in Big Deal:
The consistent winner will play fewer pots than the man who has come for some action. . . However high his stack grows, he will continue to exert the self-discipline to wait, wait, and continue waiting for the right hands, the right odds, the right position, the right situations. . . . Above all, the consistent winner is the man of strong enough character to grant the most relucatant poker truth of them all: that poker can be--at times, perhaps, should be--boring.
Or as the Poker Penguin recently put it, "If it's boring, you're doing it right."

I think self-discipline is the key term here (and that's where I'm hoping Zen and the Art of Poker might be useful). Self-discipline, IMO, is not fun. But poker is. In this respect poker is sort of like rock climbing or flying a plane--it's fun that must be tempered with self-control.

I'm going to be honest and say that one of the reasons I enjoy poker is its gambling element. Some folks deny that poker is gambling, saying that it's a game of skill. I think too many people think of the word "gambling" as a pejorative, associating it only with casino games that are stacked against the player. But I don't want to get into semantics or legal distinctions. Of course there's a huge skill element in poker. But there's also a gambling/chance element. Once AK has gone all-in against a medium pair in a tourney, it's a gambling moment, and that has its appeal. I think one of the main reasons the WPT has become so popular is that it affords many viewers who know little about poker but enjoy gambling many vicarious thrills. By and large the skill in poker is recognizing and pouncing on the right gambles, and again, self-discipline is needed to temper the appeal of trusting in Lady Luck at the poker table.

The main appeal of poker, for me, has always been the competition aspect. I have always enjoyed games of all kinds, whether they be board games or trivia games or party games or whatever. Games in general provide a great way to interact with other people and to amuse oneself (solitaire, computer games, HSX, etc.). There's a degree of competition in any game, which hopefully adds to the fun, and poker is simply one of the most competitive games there is.

Of course, a big part of the reason that poker is so competitive is that it is played for money. However, some people play golf, pool, and backgammon for money, but I don't associate these sports and games with raw competition in the same way that I do poker. One reason is that poker is open-ended*. In most games the loser gets to stop at a pre-determined point and return to fight another day with something like a clean slate. Not poker. A good player can keep on crushing bad players til they go broke. Wins and losses are therefore generally more heartfelt.

*A side note about poker tournaments: They are not open-ended, and this is the main reason they are such a different animal. That's a topic for another post.

Another thing adding to poker's competitve nature is the history and culture surrounding it. The Cincinnnati Kid, Rounders, the WSOP, and the WPT have only added to the romanticized public perception of poker as grim world where bad players (the fish) get eaten alive (by the sharks). Perception has molded reality here, to such a degree that any 10 American guys who've never played poker before, once taught Texas Hold'Em and given some chips, are gonna be much more cutthroat about it than they would be about, say, pool or chess.

I can't easily explain why competition per se appeals to me so much. Big Deal and other poker books get into man's primitive nature and such and end up sounding a little silly. But I bet the guys in Fight Club would've benefited from a weekly poker night. I'm not ultra-competitive when it comes to most things, including other games. To some degree, I think that poker serves as a fairly healthy outlet for aggression in a way that other games do not. Not that I'm a jerk at the table or anything, I just think that playing can be soothing in its own way. If I said to you that I used Scrabble as an outlet for aggression that would be pretty weird, but in poker it seems almost normal.

Okay, recap: So far we've got fun and competition. The third thing I'll add is self-improvement. I like the idea that you can just keep getting better at poker, your whole life long because it's such a deep game and it's about playing your opponents as much as the cards. This is of course related to the competition element--I want to get better so I'll win more. Iggy at Guiness and Poker puts it nicely (although I think I am INTP):
I think primarily poker has fascinated me because I am an ENTP personality type and love to learn. I can't help it, that's just the way I'm wired. Poker fully engages my brain - the more I learn, the more I question. . . . You are never done improving at this game. Someone said once that if you're not getting better, you're getting worse - there's no standing still. Stasis = death. . . . It's so damn challenging. . . . And fun.
And finally there is the profit motive. I honestly don't think money is one of the reasons I play poker. It's just a really nice bonus. Now I know there're many players who say that if you're not playing for the money, you're not playing to win. Again we are in danger of getting into semantics. I am fully aware that money is the way in which you keep score in poker. Therefore being a winning poker player and being a profitable poker player are in large part the same thing. When I say that profit is not one of the reasons I play poker, I mean that the few dollars I win at the low limits is not the reason I play. It's the winning of the few dollars.

Well, this post was a little rambley, but it seems required given the subject of this blog. Also I'm really starting to feel more comfortable just letting the thoughts flow and not constantly editing myself. Hey, this blog thing is working out. Now I'm gonna go catch the last half of the WPT rerun that's on right now, and then maybe play some poker.

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