WHAT POKER IS: An Exercise

Tell me what poker is. I am serious. Put the book down. Try and do it. Write it down if it would help you.

This is a wonderful exercise because it helps us answer our in-laws and friends when they’re confounded by our new passion. It also clears up many misconceptions we have with the game. I can attest to this hypothetical’s effectiveness. When I was 19 I was asked to explain what poker was and I had no idea what to say. The person I was trying to explain the game to was a good friend of mine. He was from Taiwan, where no one in 2005 played poker. He’d never seen it before. He was from a very religious family. He was worried that I was gambling away my future. Pretend you’re sitting across from young Keoni. What would you tell him?

Here was how I explained it, after many failed attempts: imagine we are in a park. In the park is a young gambler at a newspaper stand. He has plenty of money, and he is willing to spend some money to pass the time between periodical sales. He sees you and says, “Hey young man, I have a deal for you! Let’s flip a coin. If it comes heads, you have to pay me $1. If it comes tails however I will pay you $2.” Of course, you saddle up and get your dollar bills ready. You’ll probably wish you’d left the house with a whole roll of them. Even if this gentleman wins eight flips on you in a row you don’t get mad at him, because you know he’s made a horrible deal, and over time he will be paying out a great deal of money.

Many of you are nodding your heads mumbling, “Yeah, I know this already.” This is a lie. Many of you don’t. You know how I know this? I go to live tournaments. I read internet forums. I see many of you complain when the newspaper vendor gets a string of heads. You sometimes berate him, which makes him want to quit the game. This shows you don’t truly understand what is going on.

Now, this is still a profitable endeavor even if the ratios change. Even if he offers to pay you $1.01 for each tails instead of $2 you’ll still be making a profit, albeit a much smaller one. We know this is true because the probability of a coin flipping on either side is 50%, assuming a fair coin and flip. Since you both have the same probability of winning the game you both deserve to be paid the exact same amount. Since your opponent is offering you additional money he is actually paying a premium you do not deserve mathematically. This is your profit.

Every profit in poker comes down to a transaction much like the one you just

hypothetically made with the newspaper vendor. The only difference is oh so sweet: poker is more complex. There are 52 cards, not just one coin. There are chips. There are free drinks. There’s felt. There are separate betting rounds.

We need to thank God poker is more complex because if it were as simple as our hypothetical coinflip, no one would play. Blessedly, the luck aspect allows the recreational player to win on occasion, and the varied elements of the game make the unprofitable investments too intricate to untangle for a common person. Numerous scholars believe poker was created to be complex enough to fleece riverboat gamblers on the Mississippi who otherwise understood normal games. By the time cabin crews were banning cardsharps on the Titanic the game’s deck size had grown from the original 20 card French version to 52 cards. Many believe this was to further confuse the more educated “marks.”

Let’s examine the game’s evolution and also deepen our understanding of poker with another few hypotheticals. Imagine you’re playing a new game with the newspaper vendor. In it you get one of four cards. The cards have a number on it: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Every single time he gets a card he bets $1. Your options are either to call the $1 or fold. There is no raising. You also lose nothing if you fold. The obvious strategy is to only call with a 3 or 4, when you’re winning most of the time, especially when it costs you nothing to pass off.

This is an especially profitable situation, even when calling with a 3, but few could tell you what their exact expectation is on a call. This is more complex than the earlier sample, where the discrepancies were obvious. It requires some 7th grade algebra. When you call with a 3 you win two-thirds of the time and lose the other third. You win $2 to every $1 you lose. That’s an average of $1 in profit for every three times you play. Divide by 3 and voilà! You’re expected to make 33 cents per “3”. Don’t worry. I nearly flunked out of math. The first time I read the above math I had to go through it once or twice (or four times). Just make sure you go through it and understand how I came to those numbers.

Now imagine we’re not drawing from four cards but from 52 cards. Also imagine, we’re not just grabbing one card, but we’re grabbing two that we must combine for a new value. Then imagine that you’re going to combine these two disclosed cards with five community cards, which then adjusts their value again.

But oh wait, there’s more! You don’t get all of these cards at once. You get the two initial cards first, and then there’s a wager. Then you see three community cards, called the “flop,” and there’s a new betting round. After that is an additional community card, this one referred to as the “turn.” Then everybody is allowed to bet again. After that is a final community card, which is referred to as the river, and with it comes the last opportunity to put some dollars up on your particular holding.

Oh, and you’re not just facing a static opponent who bets every single hand. He is human and evaluating his probabilities as well, and his goal is to save his money and fleece you of yours. There are also eight more of him, all with the same profit-hunting motives. They’re all also allowed to raise you if you ever decide to take the initiative and put a bet out there. And one last thing, you’re forced to put money into the middle, so you can’t just wait around for the best hands. You’re forced to do something, often with hands that have a confusing value.

You see why so many people get fed up with poker’s complexities and just give up? Actually, many don’t even give up. I respect the people that go, “This is not for me. I’m going to go put the same amount of work into my job at McDonald’s and become a regional manager with a six figure salary.” Most poker players find out what obvious combinations make them money, and assume for the rest of their life they’ll make money using the same hands they discovered in their first few months in the game. Even more confusing to many is that sometimes two players in a hand can each make decisions that makes them money. On average, both will turn a profit. It just comes down to who gets more of the dead money. Who wins in this particular instance is largely determined by the luck of the draw.

We’ve now deconstructed poker by discussing its roots. As you can see, it was a bit of a hustling game to begin with. We can continue to make it profitable for us by understanding each play we have. In poker we have three options any time the action is on us: bet (raise), fold, or call. Since the raise and bet are performing the same action of raising the wager we are going to group them together into this section underneath the umbrella term “bet.”

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