Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Appeal of Poker

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?

Comments

  1. #1 Tim B.
    July 29, 2004

    Ed,

    Thanks for the informative reply. Poker, it appears, bears practically no resemblance to slot machines and roulette. Regarding those last two things, do you have an opinion about what compells people to think they can get one over on chance? And are slot machines truly random? I suppose enough people are winning at those things to at least give the impression that chance can be supernaturally defeated by one’s lucky touch.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    July 29, 2004

    Thanks for the informative reply. Poker, it appears, bears practically no resemblance to slot machines and roulette. Regarding those last two things, do you have an opinion about what compells people to think they can get one over on chance? And are slot machines truly random? I suppose enough people are winning at those things to at least give the impression that chance can be supernaturally defeated by one’s lucky touch.

    I wish I had an answer for you. I just do not get why someone would sit at a slot machine and beat the odds. I can even understand a craps table, where there is a social aspect to it that is sun. But slots or roulette? You might as well throw your money out the window.

  3. #3 Andrew Ti
    July 29, 2004

    Tim,

    As someone who thinks himself rational but has enjoyed a hand or two of blackjack (a mugs game), I might make the argument that even if there’s no chance of winning money in the long run, gambling is no more a waste of money than any other form of entertainment. While you have no real control over whether you win or lose, there’s the appearance of control, it certainly consumes time, and the real world consequences of betting money provide a small level of risk not dissimilar to riding a roller coaster. Plus, often there are free drinks, combined with the social aspect of sitting round a table playing a game with a bunch of people, which make a losing night at a blackjack table not too dissimilar from a night out at an expensive bar. You might argue that you personally wouldn’t want to spend your time and money that way, but there are lots of things that people do that you wouldn’t want to spend your time or money on either.

  4. #4 Andrew Ti
    July 29, 2004

    I just want to say for the record, I have no idea why I’m offering this opinion. I’ve only ever been to a casino once and played blackjack and put one single quarter in a slot machine. But…

    Is sitting in front of a slot machine that much different that playing a video game? There are, at least some possible social aspects, and again, at least there’s the possibility of “free” booze. I’d liken it to those simple arcade touch screen machines that have been showing up in bars recently with simple trivia and other games. It’s like getting wasted playing one of those, maybe not your cup of gin, but it’s not that difficult to understand why somebody might do it.

  5. #5 Tim B.
    July 29, 2004

    Andrew,

    That does make a lot of sense — the idea of casual fun and socializing and free drinks. I guess I was really more interested in those (few?) who gamble as if they might, with a charmed fairy on their shoulder, put a spell on an otherwise-algorithmic unfolding of chance and fate. Just the whole psychology thing about luck.

  6. #6 Lynn
    July 29, 2004

    Free booze isn’t a factor when Ed is playing poker, and I specifly “playing poker” as he is not a gambler. Ed doesn’t drink or smoke. It is the game he enjoys.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    July 29, 2004

    Free booze isn’t a factor when Ed is playing poker, and I specifly “playing poker” as he is not a gambler. Ed doesn’t drink or smoke. It is the game he enjoys.

    True. In fact, I count on the other drinking and doing stupid things as a result. LOL. But I think Andrew is right about that appeal for other people when it comes to things like blackjack. A good blackjack player can reduce the house edge down to maybe half a percent and can play and have a good time, get free drinks all night, and socialize without taking a big risk. I can understand that appeal. I can’t for the life of me imagine why someone would sit by themselves and shove bills into a slot machine though.

  8. #8 Morat
    July 29, 2004

    Speaking for myself: I only “go gambling” with friends. I’d love to get involved in a poker game (the aspects you alluded to interest me a great deal), but so far I’m lacking people to play…

    But blackjack and slots and all the other Vegas games? I play them. But mainly because my father is playing, or my brother is playing, or my friends are playing…and generally it’s just another excuse to get out of the house with friends.

    It costs more than the movies (or Dave and Buster’s, I suppose…although the way I play videogames, it’s close) but I’d not consider it a waste.

    I just don’t expect to win, long-term.

  9. #9 MuddyRoad
    July 29, 2004

    Perverse Humans, we. I fold a hand if the pot odds are less than the card odds and pay the rake of 10%. I do not play the slots and table games, where the toll is (table games) is 8% to 2% (read rake). The slots promise a return of 96% to 99.6% — rake is 4 to 0.4%. If you put up a bet of five of your dollars to one of mine I would probably take it (well, if I knew the game). I regret that Sklansky ever wrote that “It depends.”.

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