The WSOP has just started so I thought I would write this:
Basically anyone who knows me well knows that I’m an avid poker player/geek who has dedicated huge amounts of time in the last 6 years to both playing and studying No Limit Holdem (I also play Pot limit Omaha, Omaha 8 or better most other variations of poker but that’s just confusing the issue). I grind up to 8 games at a one time and sessions can last anything from a few minutes up to 16 hours. I specialise in multi-table tournaments but also play cash games and the occasional sit n go. You can click on this table that I got from an internet database for some of my recent good money tournament cashes:
Before the time of this table I also won enough to go to Las Vegas for 10 days with the lads in the summer of 2010. I’ve played in hundreds of professional level tournaments against everyone from previous World Champions to Ben Affleck. I cannot stress enough though my winnings are very, VERY pale in comparison to MANY players and I’m still very much a student of the game. People my age and younger are millionaires to put it bluntly.
Getting to the point however, there are very few people in mainstream society that either understand the science and math of Poker or appreciate the skill involved in the game. Even people close to me just think I’m gambling in the same way one would on a roulette table or slot machine. So I thought I would try and explain a few things the best I could.
Firstly, Poker is a skill game with a reasonable element of luck. Many people simply do not choose to believe that its skill over luck but it’s like in anything skilful, if you’re good enough simple math suggests you will win in the long run (hence the thousands of professional poker players world wide). Courts in Holland, France, Sweden and U.S.A have all ruled in favour of poker being a game of skill in cases where people are being accused of illegal gambling. In fact it’s a tax deductable occupation in the US even though online gambling is banned. Don’t get me wrong, courts in Switzerland and some in America (North Carolina) have ruled in favour of it being a game of luck but in most cases the ruling is overturned or suffering from negligence and bias. Additionally, a company called Cigital conducted a study involving more than 103 million hands of cash game poker on the website Pokerstars. They found (as did almost all studies) that Poker consisted of roughly 70% skill and 30% luck. These studies have been used in court as have Maths professors and statisticians alike.
Some of the most successful players in history are hugely intelligent individuels who have distinguished University and business careers. For example poker pro Andy Bloch has two electrical engineering degrees from MIT and a JD from Harvard Law School. He was also part of the MIT blackjack team made famous by the film 21. He has more than 4 million dollars in life time earnings and gives generously to charity. Why would someone with that sort of pedigree decide, “yes I will play a game of chance to try and earn a living.” I could literally give thousands of similar examples.
So where is the skill in poker?
Millions of people know how to play and I’ve lost count to the amount of people who tell me how amazing they are at poker because they won £5 off their mates on a Friday night. Someone asked me the other day if he could get away with sitting down at a pro table. No, no he wouldn’t. They would know almost immediately!
What people don’t realise is that it takes thousands and thousands AND THOUSANDS of hands to develop the instinct required to compete regularly. It can take just as much time studying strategy and conversing with peers to develop some of the basic principles that Pro players take for granted. For example if I was to sit down in a random Friday night house game and started talking about 4-betting light in the hijack 50bb deep against a TAG or the intricacies of the Independent Chip Model people would think I’m crazy. What about E.V, implied odds, floating in position, narrowing the range? What about…actually I’m just going to stop there I could go on and on. It is possible to make the grade without study and rely on playing hours alone but you still have to know the basic strategic principles and have an exceptionally rare, innate, natural ability to play the game.
A beginner would now argue “oh but I won a tournament for $500 the other day.” Firstly, if you are that naive to think you are shit hot at poker without having put in the hours then you should take a long hard look at yourself. Secondly, of course anyone can take down a tournament or win big in a cash game. Most of the time it’s unlikely but if you take roulette for example, how likely is it there will be 15 red spins in a row?? Well in fact it’s a statistical certainty! It may take a while but it will happen. In the same vein, someone can get amazing cards and run very hot in a poker game. Take an example when you are dealt two cards. The best hand you can be dealt is A-A and the worst is 7-2, but A-A only beats 7-2 88.74% of the time if you get the money in there and then. So roughly one in ten times you are going to lose in that position no matter how well you played the hand and how badly your opponent played the hand (that’s just one example, percentages differ with the variety of hands). I lost with all of my money in the middle to a 1% chance once then punched a door and broke my hand. The bone still sticks out the top of my hand to this day. You have to remember, if you are a novice and you sit down at a table in a casino you may win big to begin with but a good player will eventually suss you out and take all your money. Having said that, if you’re a novice playing against other novices than anyone can win. This is a common occurrence, especially in some casinos.
In the modern game it takes years of dedication to the cause until you can start taking on the pros. When I wasn’t playing 13 hours a day during the Uni holidays, (often during term as well) I was watching or reading about poker. One of the reasons I left my Masters degree was the amount of time I was spending on Poker. In the 5 months I spent enrolled in the Masters degree I had turned $150 into $10,000. By that point I felt the Masters was holding back my poker and not the other way round (I was wrong at that point).
I’ll finish with this. Someone once asked me: “if Phil Ivey is the best player in the world why does he not win all the time?” Well, why did Chelsea win the champions league and Barcelona didn’t? Why did someone who has never had a Golf lesson in his life win the US Masters. It’s the same with anything involving skill; there is an element of luck or simply having a good day. In poker the element of luck is just slightly larger.