I am playing great cards -- a pair of kings -- on the button. It’s the kind of rare opportunity that begs for careful play. I see people all the time go all-in pre-flop and leave big cards on the table with nothing but the big and small blind to show for it. Ahead of me four players fold and two others limp in. I don’t want to run anyone off so I simply call, now committed to soft playing a strong hand. Small blind folds; big blind checks.
The flop comes, a queen and a smattering of low unconnected cards. Two opponents quickly check, and I begin to fear that my hand won’t earn me much of anything. Then the player to my right bets four times the big blind, a play that says he just flopped top pair. He could have two pair, perhaps, maybe even he's holding a pair of aces and is soft-playing them like me, but I'm comfortable with the odds and call. The other players fold, and now my eyes turn toward my remaining opponent’s stack.
The turn card is a king, and now my hand has become a monster. My opponent considers his options and when he checks to me, I’m more certain than ever that he’s sitting on a queen. His tight play over the past hour belies his fear of the over card. I consider checking back, but that seems too soft. I decide to mix it up a bit and lay out a value bet, just half the pot. I figure that he can’t fold his pair of queens against that, and so he does not.
The river is a queen, and while he’s now sitting on trips, I have a full house. It just couldn’t go any better. He quickly opens big. I go over the top, doubling his bet and he comes back all in. I call. There they are, 3 queens with an ace hole card, but they might as well be a pair of deuces against my full boat.
I have just won $1.37 playing online poker.
It’s pocket change; money that I’d give away to a mall-front, bell-ringing Santa Clause without a second thought, but at this moment right here, it is the prize of a mighty champion. I might as well have won a golden goblet, ever flowing with mead, and the princess’s hand in marriage for the accomplishment. The surge of adrenaline and dopamine is a potent cocktail. Oddly perhaps, I compare it to the sense of accomplishment I get in video gaming from finishing a boss battle.
Online poker is long stretches of boredom counter-pointed by moments of extreme tension, like war or driving through Illinois. It is both exactly like most video games I play and entirely unlike them at the same time. The context and environment are all achingly familiar, as is the occasional rush, but were this a traditional video game I would never put up long turns of the clock where nothing meaningful happens, at least for me. For every pair of Kings, I have seen a hundred 7-3 offsuits. I have watched far more pots than I have actually played.
The game makes the grinding downtime of the most egregious MMO look like a orgy of chaos and joy.
Perhaps it’s the reward, that sense of being able to win and accumulate something tangible, if insignificant, that is the siren’s call. Where I’ll never actually be able to touch, hold or lick that Vorpal Sword of Elven Apathy that dropped of D’nn’rrll, the underworld vizier of glazed doughnuts, this is money I can withdraw and to which I can do any or all of those things — hygiene concerns not withstanding. But, no, in the end I think it has almost nothing to do with the money, at least at this level.
What gives me the rush is not the cash, it's the sense of having risked something, anything, real to beat my opponent. I’m not betting with pretend chips, plucked fresh from the ethereal poker-chip tree whose fruit is always in bloom. With my bet I’m saying to someone real that I’m fifty cents sure my hand beats your lousy queens and if you don’t call then you’re probably nothing more than a dirty mud-dwelling newt with Communist leanings. It is the meaningful competition and certainty that what you risk losing might not ever be regained that fires those happy chemicals.
Even the best online shooter or MMO ultimately forgives the worst or most unlucky play. Wipe your entire raid and you still get to hop back in to give the effort another go. Leap into the line of fire, and it’s at worst a few minutes til the next round begins. but go all in on a river flush draw against what you’re sure is a pair of aces, and this dollar that you might otherwise have tossed casually into a vending machine for a month-old Twix takes on meaning far beyond its value.
I suspect that games like Xbox Live’s 1vs100 are building off this unexplored country of high visibility risk/reward. It will never be about winning a handful of Microsoft space money — it will be about taking stage as The One to match wits and daring against foes in something more meaningful that a scoreboard no one will remember in ten minutes.
For a bankroll of, so far, $10 I have gotten two weeks of something enticing, something a little bit dangerous, something that explores a realm that is like and unlike video games at the same time. My $20 in winnings to date will not last, I know, and I have little doubt that the inevitable string of bad beats will come soon to weaken my resolve, as is the way of things. I have no illusions of taking a permanent position in the rich underbelly of high-stakes poker, which I would classify as any game where a limit is measured in dollars instead of pennies. I am simply buying brain chemicals on the cheap, and while the ride will be short it is one I do not regret taking.