You are playing in your regular Thursday-night poker game, dealer's choice, and the game is 7-card stud, high only. You have a pair of Aces showing, the second received as the fifth card. You have been making normal-size bets, and after the seventh card has been dealt, there are still three others in the hand. You find that despite a number of possibilities, your hand has not improved. You consider making a bet to suggest you have at least two pair but decide instead to check. There is $50 in the pot. Duke, sitting to your left, also checks, but Bill bets the maximum allowed, and Ty folds. Now it's up to you. You . . .
Do you fold, call, or raise? That depends on several crucial pieces of information, some of which you would already have as a player, though they were not mentioned above.
First, how big is the bet, and what are the betting rules? On the one hand, if Bill bet $2 because this is a $2-limit poker game, that is a small amount to spend to possibly win $52. Because a pair of Aces or worse will prove to be the winning hand in more than one twenty-sixth of all deals in 7-card stud, it would be foolish to fold in the face of what might be a bluff. On the other hand, if the game is pot limit, and the bet is $50, you would be risking $50 to possibly win $100, and the probability of a pair of Aces being the high hand is far less than one in three. This illustrates one of the guiding principles of playing poker: pot odds are crucial to determining what to do. In turn, this means that you have to pay attention to the relationship among the probability of holding the winning hand, the amount you expect to spend to be in on the call, and the amount you expect to win if you have the winning hand. The last two of these factors depend crucially on the betting rules and the stakes of the game. Anyone who tells you that you should always call or always drop with a given hand can't be right-though it may be sound advice for a beginner if it is usually right.
The second kind of information concerns who the other players are and their styles of play. Even a $2 bet by a very conservative player may lead you to fold if he virtually never bluffs and you know he would never bet into the two pair you may well have. But if your opponent is a regular bluffer, a big bet of $50 may be an attempt to steal the pot with a hand that was aiming for a straight or a flush and never made it. After all, in this situation his only chance of winning the $50 is to have everyone else drop out, and he may judge it worth $50 to try to win $50. This depends, of course, on how he evaluates you and anyone else still in the game. The important principle here is that poker is played against people, and each person plays differently. This being so, your actions and reactions must take into account the nature of your opponents.
The third consideration has to do with what the other players were looking for and how likely it is that they succeeded. After all, they did pay to get sixth and seventh cards even though you had a pair of Aces showing. Your judgment here will depend on what cards the other players are showing, the cards that have been folded, and how the betting has proceeded. There is information in each of these elements. The important but sometimes overlooked principle here is to pay attention to all the information that is available to you. This requires concentration and the ability to use your memory.
Fourth, how you play depends to a significant extent on why you play. While this may seem a relatively minor consideration in how you play a particular hand, it does affect your whole strategy and outlook. I do not agree with a popular book on poker that gives as the first fundamental principle of poker that "The only purpose in playing poker is to win money."1 People differ in why they play poker-why they invest time, and possibly also some of their income and assets, in a game. (People play poker, they don't engage in it, or work at it, or suffer through it.) The motives of the professional poker player are not those of the typical Thursday-night player; those of the compulsive gambler are not those of the conservative family man seeking a night out with the boys. That, you may say, may well be, but these are differences of degree; after all, among adults poker is always played for money, and making money-or at least not losing it-is the objective of everyone who plays poker.2 For many Thursday-night poker players, making money is not their primary objective. Yet poker is played for money. So what, then, is money's role?
THE ROLE OF MONEY
Three considerations suggest why, among the vast majority of poker players, money is not the dominant objective. First, because poker is what mathematicians call a zero-sum game-a game in which aggregate winnings and losings balance out3-most players cannot expect realistically to win money over the long run. Second, even regular winners will have invested time in the activity, and few amateur poker players' winnings will seem significant if reduced to a dollars-per-hour "wage." Third, and most important, the vast majority of amateur poker players play with their friends and do not make their livings that way, nor do they wish to impoverish their opponents.
For many, perhaps most, amateur players, poker is something they do as a leisure activity for a combination of the following reasons: as a form of male bonding,4 as a night out, as a release of aggressions through the legitimatized use of hostile and self-serving behavior that may be frowned upon in everyday pursuits, and as a controlled form of gambling in which skill plays a part while luck remains to explain or rationalize less than complete success.5 It is primarily a form of competition that is both exciting and forgiving, and in which most of the inherent sources of advantage that one human being may have over another are not highly relevant. All poker players are created equal, even if all do not prove equally skilled.6
The role of money as an objective of poker players is implicit in most of the "How to Win at Poker" books, of which there are many. Examined carefully, they assume the reader's objective to be one of the following:
1.make as much money as possible, with virtually no risk;
2.make a sure and steady profit by playing a sounder, less risky game than your opponents;
3.seek to take advantage of the weaknesses, unfamiliarity, or confusion of some or all of your opponents;
4.pursue the strategy of minimax, which is game-theory jargon for seeking to minimize the maximum amount of money you risk.
Because poker is a zero-sum game, the sum of the participants' winnings and losings must balance out. That being the case, the first and second of these objectives suggest that the player must succeed in doing what all players cannot do: be better than average. While we may all want to be that, we cannot all expect to fit in that category. The first goal can be met by cheating (using marked cards, dealing off the bottom, etc.) or being a cardsharp who seeks and finds gullible players and exploits them. The key tactical questions such people face are how to conceal their objectives and methods from their victims. There are such people, and they are skilled in knowing how best, and how quickly, to exploit their pigeons.
The second objective can be more honorably pursued and does characterize some winning poker players. It requires playing a conservative and often boring game. If the rules of the game do not require blind bets or large antes, this sort of player can fold and fold, simply waiting for the hand where the probability of being beaten is very small.7 This tack does characterize some amateur poker players and almost surely characterizes many small-time professionals, but I can't imagine that it would be much fun to be part of a game in which everyone played this way. Moreover, guys who play this way in typical Thursday-night games are neither greatly admired nor welcomed. Most amateurs do not play this way not because they cannot, but because they do not choose to.
The third objective focuses on a deliberate choice of games in which there are a sufficient number of weak players that you are virtually assured of being the winner.8 Another device, all too common in dealer's-choice games in which there are newcomers or infrequent players, is to choose varieties of games with which these players are unfamiliar or inexperienced.
The fourth objective, "minimax," has received much attention because it appears to introduce the highly esoteric theory of games into the game of poker, which is itself by no means esoteric.9 Game theory is extraordinarily pessimistic in its outlook; basically it assumes that the other guys are always smarter than you are, and that you had better be defensive. Strategies built on "minimax" are designed to show you how to break even in the long run. But if breaking even is your sole objective, no complex strategy is needed; just don't play and you'll break even in both the long and short runs!
Being satisfied with breaking even in poker may well be a reasonable attitude, but it must characterize people who derive other pleasures from playing-pleasures that justify their spending time and taking some risks of losing money. The usual way of controlling one's maximum monetary losses is by choosing with whom one plays and the stakes and ground rules of the games played.
IF NOT MONEY, WHAT?
The attitude of most amateurs toward winning or losing money in serious poker games might be stated as: to make as much money as possible, other things being equal. This formulation correctly recognizes money-making as secondary to the "other things" they are playing to achieve. Because these things are important, a player will be willing to pay a price (in forgone winnings) to achieve them.
Money dominates the discussion of poker games not because making it is the dominant objective but because it is the means of keeping score. It is the measure of winning or losing. Indeed, in many Thursday-night poker games the stakes are such that the maximum winnings or losings are no more than the cost of dinner at a moderate restaurant, and even in so-called big games among friends, rarely is the maximum loss as much as 1 percent of the player's annual income.
Are there not other ways of keeping score? Why is poker not played for nonredeemable chips? The answer is that it is necessary to get the players to take every hand seriously. One could not behave in the ways that make poker fun, such as bluffing or manipulating one's opponents, if everyone routinely called every hand. Poker requires that every action be potentially costly. Unlike other games, the typical friendly poker game has no measure that is independent of its monetary yardstick. The board game Monopoly, by contrast, uses money, but the payoff comes in being the winner, not in walking off with bulging pockets.
The appeal of tournament poker, now regularly played in casinos and on the Internet for modest entry fees, is of this kind. (Tournament poker is discussed in Chapter 20.) For most players, it is the competition-surviving to the final tables, not the size of the prize money-that is the motivating force. The World Series of Poker and other large tournaments have high entry fees, often $10,000 or more, and the top prizes are very large.10 Does the size of the entry fee mean that this is really a game about money? The answer, I believe, is no. The big-time professionals (who have a reasonable expectation of making it to the money) can and do make more money in less time in the side games that are always going on at these big tournaments. They are playing for pride, for the love of competition, and for the celebrity of being thought of and labeled "Champion." Tourists can do much better, in a probabilistic sense, at roulette, blackjack, or even slot machines. Those who enter are spending their ten grand in thrills and future conversations, not in the realistic expectation of doing other than losing their entry fee.
Could poker be structured along the lines of bridge, with duplicate tournaments, giving master points to those who performed best relative to the hand they were dealt? The answer is no, because in poker, unlike bridge, the best outcome for a given player on a given hand is never independent of the other players in the game. You play poker with cards, but against people. When played by skilled players, bridge is primarily played against the cards dealt, and only to a small degree against specific opponents. Psychological and interpersonal considerations play a much greater role in poker.
The inscrutable Oriental puffed on his pipe, pressed his five cards close to his robe, and pushed his whole pile, about $45,000, to the center of the table. Bond fingered the $8,000 in front of him, wondered if they'd take his marker, glanced wistfully at his three Aces, and slowly folded his cards."I'd love to stay longer, gentlemen, but I have a pressing affair," he said and rose from the table.
"Well, folks, we're poised for the start of this year's World Series of Poker championship event, $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Holdem. Can we match the excitement of 2004, when an unknown, Greg Rayner, beat 2,576 others to win the first prize of $5 million? We'll know by the end of the week, when someone will have his-or her-picture taken with all the chips and a championship bracelet. Lots of the big-name players are here today, and the room is buzzing. This is real poker."
"Seven-card stud Hi-Lo, with the Joker and one-eyed Jacks wild. Quarter ante, $2 limit, with four raises. Cards speak."
"Come on, Stan, let's play real poker."
There is no such thing as "real poker." There are many different varieties of poker games, played for widely different stakes, and for a variety of motives. There is nothing inferior or superior about one kind of game except in the tastes of a particular individual. Many varieties of poker are interesting, require and reward skill, and can be played for pleasure by persons of varying degrees of talent, wealth, and time to commit to the activity. Two keys to the variety of poker games are the stakes of the game and the nature of the players. They are the focus of this chapter and the next one.
Excerpted from Thursday-Night Poker by Peter O. Steiner. Copyright © 2005 by Peter O. Steiner. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.