‘Poker is all about skill and self-control’
An American expert on poker challenges the idea that it encourages reckless, addictive, spendthrift behaviour.
Poker has long since stopped being the clichéd preserve of men in smoke-filled dens. It is now an almost-approved leisure activity, played by celebrities on the telly and millions of punters online. I say ‘almost approved’ because at the same time as it appears ubiquitous, poker, particularly its online version, has its critics, too. Headlines such as this one last month, ‘Online gambling tempts students further into debt’, are never far away. The fear is that the ease with which one can play online poker is just too tempting, and that many people won’t be able to control themselves.
However, as former spiked intern Julius Pasteiner, author of an MA thesis on gambling, has argued in the spiked online debate The rise of online poker, this ‘too easy’ criticism of online gambling undermines any liberal idea of rationality and subjective self-control: ‘Internet poker, the biggest pull for online gamers, highlights the problems with a philosophy of self-regulation. Firstly, the player is removed from the social environment and gambles in isolation in any physical or mental state and at any time with a number of anonymous screen names. Secondly, the player occupies an abstract world where money is never handled, chips are never touched and bank accounts are hooked up straight to the table. Thirdly, the skill of observation, so valuable in a real game of poker, is negated as every player comes with a digital poker face.’
Pasteiner concludes that ‘to expect individuals successfully to manage finances under such conditions is asking a lot of their prudence’. Yet one of the curious things about poker is that its defenders are keen to point out the role, not only of skill, but also of what skill presupposes: self-control. So, far from encouraging reckless, irrational behaviour, poker, even its online version, demands precisely the opposite: controlled, rational play. Or at least for those who are good at it, it does.
I spoke to Harvard Law School graduate Andrew Woods, executive director of the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, which, in the words of its website, ‘views poker as an exceptional game of skill that can be used as a powerful teaching tool at all levels of academia and in secondary education’. The first thing that becomes clear is that for Woods, poker, online or offline, is a game of immense skill. ‘If you look at successful poker play, it is almost always dominated by skill’, he said. ‘A few years ago, research by an economics student at the University of California, Berkley, compared professionals who played poker tournaments with those who played in golf tournaments – they found that poker players are more likely to repeat success than their golf-playing equivalents. Add to that the fact that poker players come from a far wider field than golf, and the role of skill in poker becomes yet more apparent.’
Woods is not convinced that people still think of luck as the predominant factor in being successful at poker. ‘Popular perception of luck’s role has changed, particularly over the last four or five years, because poker has penetrated in a much wider way into the public’s consciousness [due to TV coverage and online poker]. What people are seeing now is that poker, as a game, is much closer to chess than it is to, say, roulette and the casino games it might have once been more commonly associated with.’
Throughout our conversation Woods was keen to highlight the nature of the skill involved. ‘Just like the stock market or real estate, the skill involves assessing the variables in the game’, he said. I asked for an example: ‘Maths and statistics are obviously very important to understand what the probability is of certain outcomes happening given the limited information you have available to you. For instance, if you’re playing Texas Holdem and you get dealt a pair of aces, you have to work out how strong that hand is versus your opponent’s potential starting hand, and be able to modify the probability and your expected value, based on what happens on the poker board. So, at the beginning, with a pair of aces you have a very strong hand, but say a pair of aces comes on the board, then that would obviously modify the expected value of your hand and you’d have to act accordingly to maximise your potential value. The extent to which maths and statistics are built into the game shows the type of knowledge and skill that informs successful poker play.’
Woods makes a stronger case for the skill element in poker. He suggests that the skills involved can be conveyed into other areas of life. ‘Historically, people have always seen chess as the thinking man’s game. If you look at chess, it has complete information. If you look at a chessboard, every possible outcome is there for you to see. It’s just a matter of your ability to process and recognise [those outcomes]. But chess involves a set of parameters you would almost never find in the real world. When you move into any realm in the world – be it a business or a personal relationship, financial markets or real estate – you almost never have complete information. The skill, which allows people to be more or less successful, is the ability to take in the information you have, but also the information you don’t have.’
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‘And what poker trains you in more than anything else is what you don’t know, and how you can modify your risk accordingly. How do you put yourself in the best possible position? You succeed according to what you don’t know. And I think that that parallel holds very strongly in almost every area of life that you can look at.’ And what about online poker? ‘Obviously, it’s a different situation, given the different interactions, but the core components and strategy remain the same. It just produces a slightly different set of skills that allow you to succeed.’
What about the idea of being addicted to poker? ‘Certainly, you could say there’s a danger of being addicted to online poker’, Woods tells me. ‘But then there’s a danger of being addicted to just about everything we deal with in our lives. You can be addicted to online shopping, you can be addicted to alcohol, you can be addicted to any number of things. We do a disservice to citizens by banning things outright. Instead we should simply tackle specific problems head on, as and when they arise – otherwise you ban things because there’s a danger that a very small percentage of the population will become addicted to something.’
Woods goes even further. He argues that the poker format does not lend itself to addiction. If you’re losing in poker you’re going to keep on losing, he says. It’s not bad luck; it’s bad play. This is different to other games, such as craps, where the random element might continue to draw players in despite a losing sequence. In other words, because of the high skill component in poker, there’s no pay-off to be had from continuing to play. There’s no point in thinking: ‘If I hang out just one more time, my luck will change.’
Woods’ portrait of poker playing seems opposed to the image of the feckless, uncontrolled gambler of online nightmares. ‘Poker is all about self-control’, he states. ‘It’s all about bankroll management, chip management. If you’re playing a tournament, you have to think about how can you manage the resources you have in front of you to acquire your opponents’ resources. If you can’t manage very tight self-control, the other players will take your resources. The term for that player is being on tilt, or being a maniac. In the poker world those people will be singled out as an easy mark, the sort of players from whom you can acquire chips very easily. The idea that poker encourages a lack of self-control is just ridiculous. You couldn’t be any sort of poker player over any period of time if you didn’t have self-control.’
As for whether the companies owning casinos or online poker sites are keen to encourage uncontrolled spending, Woods again is sceptical: why would they want players to do that, he asks? ‘Room owners make their money from a small percentage of each pot. So if you lose your money, you can no longer be their customer.’ And besides, ‘when you lose your money you don’t lose it to the casino, but to the other players. In the poker company’s eyes, the ideal situation is that no one loses or wins very much – they just want you to keep playing for as long as possible.’
So what do you think? Is poker, particularly its online version, a threat to punters’ ability to control themselves? Or is it a highly skilled game dependent on self-control? Join our online debate on the rise of online poker here.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.