Why I play poker (part 2)

Since hold ’em is on hold while the in-laws are in town, I thought I’d take a stab at figuring out what draws me to poker. I’m happy to see that this journal has gotten over 100 hits (unique IP addresses) since I posted it to RGP… I’m honored and a little bit frightened that a few fellow travellers have found it interesting to check out my innermost poker thoughts. It’s a bit scary however– hopefully a few brave souls will offers some comments…Anyway, back to the purpose of this post… In The Big Deal, Anthony Holden suggests that his lifelong struggle to “beat the man” drew him to the game. He talks about his father’s struggles with money when Holden was young, and says that perhaps his desire to overcome all worries about money drew him to the game. I think there is some of that in me, but there are other reasons as well. Here are my reasons in order of importance:

1. The immediate and tangible reward for skill
I’ve always wanted a world where hard work and study are justly rewarded. Alas, it isn’t so in most arenas of life. I’m a pretty good programmer, but politics is always in the way in the business and even academic world. No matter how good a job you do, you are not directly compensated for your good work. Even if you make the best program in the world, as a young programmer, your boss will probably end up getting most of the credit anyway. The first paper that I had published was stolen by my advisor– after promising me that I would be the main author of the paper, I wrote the paper and worked with her on revision. She suggested some revisions, which I made, and sent her the paper, which she had agreed to submit to the journal for publication. I guess I picked a bad weekend to go to Vegas– when I got back, she told me that she had made a lot of revisions, and she had claimed authorship of the paper. I have heard this is a common occurrence for young graduate students. At work, when I create a program, the people above me get credit, and the annoying thing is that they actually believe they deserve credit, since they did a good job “managing” me (which amounts to describing in very general terms what the program should do).

In Poker, it is only you, your cards, and your chips. There is no boss. There is no politics. Your winnings are the result of your play, and only your play. Of course, luck is involved, but my effort at the table and my studies away from the table result directly in profit or loss. In other words, the poker world (for me), is pure. Thus far, I have used everything I’ve learned in my college probability classes (which I’d never used before) as well as a voracious appetite for reading in order to develop my game. The growth of my bankroll has been directly proportional to my poker knowledge, which satisfies me as “the way it should be.” Yes, even the perfect play is often defeated by an unlikely card, but your skill will win if you can make it to the long run (whether or not you can make it to the “long run” is another story)…

2. Poker as a replacement for sport
After playing football at a relatively high level for my entire life (since I was 8 years old), I became somewhat addicted to competition (perhaps it is adrenaline I’m addicted to). I finally retired this year, after two years of semipro ball, not completely willingly– the coach for my semipro team is a former player, and not a very good coach. It’s tough to work for a boss that you feel isn’t guiding you in the right direction, and it’s even tougher to offer your blood, sweat, and tears up to a coach who feels that how you look in uniform is more important than how you play. Although there is nothing like the feeling of all of your neurons firing to achieve one common goal, poker offers a replacement for competitive sport.

When I was trying to catch a ball on a post route, knowing that the safety was 3 yards away and if I didn’t tuck the ball immediately I would be decapitated, my reward was directly proportional to my ability to concentrate. This reward-concentration ratio also exists (to a lesser degree) in poker. If I miss a facial tick or incorrectly calculate my pot odds, my profit suffers. The key word here is intensity. If you’re not at your best on the field or at the table, most likely something bad is going to happen. When you sit down at the table, no matter how tired you are, or what kind of mood your in, if you can’t elevate yourself to an appropriate level of concentration, you are going to lose money. Although this isn’t true in the $6-12 game I play at currently, it is definitely true at higher limits. In a game where the big bet is $60, a single mistake can eliminate your profits that you fought so hard for in the last hour.

John Updike said that retirement for athletes is like a “little death.” An athlete feels the rush of adrenaline every day, feeling your muscles tense as your body obeys your brain’s almost subconscious commands. Then one day, you don’t feel this ever again. It’s tough to swallow. I’m hoping that I’m being reborn as a poker player.

3. Poker as struggle: the way life should be
Fine, poker offers a tangible reward, as well as competition and intensity. But it also places you at the feet of fate, complete with ecstasy and heartbreak. We wander through life, seeking intense experiences, but it’s tough to get them sitting behind your desk for 8 hours a day, or at the dinner table with your significant other. Enter the poker gods. The fickle poker gods can take all of your chips even if you play a hand perfectly. Or they can smile on you and give you a seat at the final table of a 200 player tournament. Knowledge is a big part of the battle, but your ability to handle the occasional bolt of lightning that coarses through you after a fish hits his two-outer on the river is also important. Life deals you many different hands… you might get a good job, or get lucky in love, but discovering these things is usually a gradual process. But the poker gods are violent– every hand is a new battle, and you face riches or ruin (to some extent) every time you take your seat at the table. Poker offers an intensity of experience that is absent from most other arenas of my life. Although this romantic view of the game may be a bit overblown, I really feel this way when thinking about my win or loss on the drive home from the casino, and the feeling is what counts. Maybe this feeling will disappear with experience, but I hope that it won’t.


I’m sure there’s more to it than three italicized items in a journal, but it’s a start. NFL picks coming tomorrow if I can manage to check out the games…

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