Poker: Hobby, Sport, or Profit?

“I had discovered that a person does not have to be this or be that or be anything, not even oneself. One is free.”
–Walker Percy
Work and social commitments (ugh) have kept me off of the poker tables for the last couple of days, although I did manage to eek out a couple of short, barely-winning sessions on PartyPoker. I did get to engage with a thought provoking session with a reader via email, who brought me back to the question of “Why do people play poker?”
The reader astutely pointed out that although PartyPoker may be the most profitable place to play, it may not be the best. If our goal is not to win the most money, but to challenge ourselves intellectually, then most likely the site with the most fish is not the best place to play.
I’ve been struggling with this question for a while now. It always seems to appear in different forms, but it really comes down to “Why do you play poker?” Note that this is not the same question as “Why do you play poker rather than do X?” where X ranges from watch tv to saving the world. It could be reformulated as, “What is your goal as a poker player?”
The answer to this question has wavered over my short career as a poker player, but it always seems to fall across 3 categories. Poker as a hobby, Poker as a sport, or Poker for profit. I gonna break it on down for ya.
Poker as a hobby
Sorry, but I’m going to have to go to Webster’s:
hobby–a small Old World falcon (Falco subbuteo) formerly trained to catch small birds (as larks)
That’s actually the first definition! Let’s go to number 2…
hobby–a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation
Ahh. So Webster tells us that the most important attribute of a hobby is that its purpose is relaxation. So poker as a hobby can be looked at as a form of relaxation. This is very interesting from a personal perspective, since I’m very bad at relaxing. If I’m not doing something, I get anxious and start pacing, and eventually find something to do, whether it’s drink a beer or meditate on pot odds. But poker is a very active form of meditation– just you, the cards, and the other players, and your mind churns away trying to figure out if your hand is the best, and why the hell the maniac in seat 1 keeps reraising. Although I enjoy the relaxation aspect of poker, my desire to improve and “win” seems stronger than my desire to “relax”.
Poker as sport
Webster’s definition of “sport” sucks, so I’ll do my best…
sport–an activity in which a group of competitors attempt to achieve a defined goal according to a set of agreed upon rules
A little-known philosopher once said that all sport is just a sublimation of war. It’s a way that humans can satisfy their instinctual urges without killing or getting killed. I agree with that to some extent, and see sport as a way to combine knowledge, skill, and instinct to defeat one’s competitors. So if we look at poker as sport, the most rewarding game would be one in which we utilize our unique abilities to win our opponents chips (which act as the scoreboard). Thus, the dream of the poker-for-sport player is be to consistently beat the best players in the world for a single big bet per hour. This player would be happy even if the limit was .01/.02, if he or she was sure that the other players were playing their best. The problem is, increased stakes usually result in an improvement in play. If someone’s rent money is on the line, it’s a lot more likely they will be taking the game more seriously and concentrating a lot harder.
I think this brings us to the WPT/WSOP folks. I find it very hard to believe that these tourneys can have a positive expectation for anybody. Most of the people in these tourneys have plenty of money to burn, and I would think that 99% of the players have lost a considerable amount of cash on this tour. Short term luck is the most important factor, and with a 10K buy in, your expectation is pretty low. But you’re playing against the Lederers and the Iveys, the most skilled players playing their best game. And if 10K doesn’t hurt your bankroll, who wouldn’t enjoy doing that?
Poker for profit
And we come to the grinder’s perspective. There are many who would argue that those who are not playing poker to win the most money are not true poker players. This attitude goes hand in hand with one of my most hated quotes: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” What matters is not how you played, it’s how many chips you bring to the cashier when you rack out. Of course, if you sucked out a 2-out runner-runner to win those racks, that’s not important.
The grinder’s pleasure comes from watching his bankroll grow steadily. He knows that his small edge will add up over time, but the “thrill of the chase” is not for the likes of the grinder. Poker for profit relies on being more disciplined than the average player, sacrificing the thrill of gamb00lin it up for the pleasure of slowly and steadily bleeding the gamblers dry. Some might argue that this is a perversion of gambling– “seeing all the angles but not having the stones to play them”.
But poker for profit doesn’t have to be a grind. The grinder knows his odds, and can shed his grinding shell at any time. The true grinder never leaves the grind, always minimizing risk for the sake of a slow and steady profit. But a grinder can “roll up the stake and go to Vegas”, knowing he’s good enough to beat any game with a little short term luck.
The Verdict
I’m still working it out, but I’d have to say I fall somewhere in the middle of poker for profit and poker for sport. Right now I choose the grind– 3 $3-6 tables of straight-forward poker. But it’s still somewhat of a challenge, as I’m still learning a fair bit. But I’ll often hop on the more challenging $5-10 shorthanded games, where psychology and knowledge become more important and result in bigger profits (if you can withstand the huge swings).
My hope is that when I finally tire of robot poker and have extracted as much knowledge as I can from the $3-6 games, I’ll be able to move on to the $5-10 shorthanded games armed with knowledge and a fat bankroll.
Or maybe I should just stop blogging so much and play some damn poker. Shut up and deal!

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