Saturday, December 5, 2009

Skill vs. Luck; Gambling vs. Game: A Discussion on the Rise of Texas Holdem Poker

Dogs_Playing_Poker I am not a gambler.

I don’t take risks in life and I don’t take risks in games; it’s just not in my nature. While I have won and lost small amounts of money at table -games in Las Vegas – and while I would do so again under the right circumstances – it’s a pit of addiction and despair that I try to avoid.

It’s for this reason (and others) that I remained innocent of Poker for so long, albeit with slightly less disdain than some other forms of gambling because of its inherent social nature. Playing Blackjack with a group of friends is sort of pointless, but with Poker you can get a group of buddies together at your house for a “friendly game.”

For a long time I didn’t understand how a game of Poker could be friendly or fun. I had played before, but it seemed like a silly exercise in playing the odds, and an easy way to make enemies (some like Jack McCall were historically deadly ones). I categorized it as different from other card or board games which I believed invoked more strategy and evoked less animosity.

My poker-loving friends often defended the tactics of bluffing, betting, and folding, asserting their dominance in such “skills” even as they toted them, but I was unconvinced.

What truly perplexed me was the raging global popularity of Texas Holdem, as opposed to all forms of the game. Since 1970, Holdem has been surging all over the world, surpassing the previously decades-long dominant Seven Card Stud in almost every venue. The older generation often scorns this trend, pointing out that there is more control – more playing – in Stud than there is in Holdem, but it seems that this group is outnumbered. Some people suggest that Holdem’s success draws from how easy it is to learn, making it accessible to the widest audience, though this explanation is still thin by itself.

With the rise of Poker on television and on the internet, Holdem is gaining an even stronger foothold, though it’s hard to say which preceded the success of the other. Free Poker software can be downloaded, and ambitious individuals can gamble from the comfort of their own homes and credit card limits. The legality and expense of regulated gambling establishments can be completely circumvented. ESPN’s brilliant executives quickly seized the rights to televise large, high-stakes poker events (I will avoid the Poker is not a sport so why the hell is it on ESPN debate in this particular post), and the World Series of Poker’s Main Event brings in huge ratings each year. Suddenly names like Phil Ivey and Joe Cada crop up in your newspaper, and you start picking them out in bar conversations within the same breath as Tim Tebow and Derek Jeter.

I am baffled. What is it about No Limit Texas Holdem that makes it so widely beloved? There are so many complicated factors that must have driven its rise, creating a perfect storm of luck and high stakes that I can hardly begin to dissect.

I was recently invited to support a local business that specialized in hosting free, tournament-style, no-limit Holdem games in bars. Because there is no exchange of money, the system is legal, and the winning incentive comes in the form of points that can be exchanged for merchandise, gift certificates, or buy-ins to monthly tournaments with cash prizes. Participation is free and open to all skill levels. There are eight other leagues like this in just the city of Portland.

At first I scorned my experience. Sure, I had some fun, but I certainly didn’t love it, and I only really went because as a young, smiling, and personable female I lured the awkward, older, lonelier males out of their hovels, which supported my friends’ business. Now, two months later, I find myself enjoying it, and the relaxed atmosphere of the players combined with the absence of true monetary risk makes it quite enjoyable.

This affection for a card game based on luck and debated forms of skill initially confused me. It still does at times. But I’m beginning to understand that the techniques defended by my friends (calculating odds, guessing your opponent’s motivations, lying with conviction, playing your position in a round-based format, adjusting to new circumstances, stoically hiding your reactions) aren’t unlike the skills and strategies in most other board and card games. In fact, there’s an additional clarity that comes when you stop treating your chips as money and instead think of them as a way to keep score. If you lose all your points, you’re eliminated, and the person with all the points at the end of the game wins. Waiting for cards to be drawn is no different than rolling dice or spinning a wheel or… well… drawing cards.

When I think of it that way, the allure is easier to see. Going out to a bar to play poker with a bunch of strangers isn’t unlike playing Rummy or Monopoly or Risk at a friend’s party (I know, that’s totally what people my age do at parties). Each game comes with an element of luck, and while I can try to defend the purity of skill in Risk, there is no such thing as total control. That’s the way most games are, and in fact, that’s the way life is. Assert control where you can, use your skills when they will help you, but even doing your best and performing flawlessly doesn’t ensure victory, because certain circumstances are out of your hands.

Add in the money, however, and the field changes. I’ve seen friendly games turn into brawls in a heartbeat when cash is involved. That’s the thing about the beast that is money. The thrill of winning it is so rapturous and chemically stimulating (releasing massive amounts of adrenaline and serotonin) that it easily outweighs the utter despairs of losing, thus the addiction.

But then, that’s part of the allure of televising Poker, isn’t it? Watching someone you don’t know or care about lose millions of dollars on one turn of the cards carries a certain thrill. It’s just like watching a game show or baseball, where one bad choice in which Wheel of Fortune letter you choose or one bad bounce on the dirt can change everything. We the viewers aren’t the ones buying-in for $10,000 or blowing hundreds of dollars in online game rooms every month [hopefully], so the darker side of the game is mostly hidden from us.

Why Holdem? I still don’t know. I haven’t dabbled in enough versions of Poker to support an opinion on the topic. But I don’t exactly want to. The day I start driving to Spirit Mountain Casino, defending it with: “It all evens out if I’m good enough!” then it’s time for an intervention. I can’t afford to gamble.