And Know When to Run

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.

So far.

Comments

So, where are you playing and how did you get your money in?

Pokerstars.com (not .net)

So, where are you playing and how did you get your money in?
There is a loophole where you can purchase Visa gift cards and use them to fund your account. So I've heard, anyway...

Great piece, Sean. Not much to add except that the online poker players I've known have been crazy-nuts competitive. I've never understood it.

I also applaud any reference to "The Gambler."

There will be a follow up post of equal verbosity and wit when you lose that $20 and rage quit, right? Those brain chemicals work both ways you know.

I played some 5 Card Stud back when I was in the military; but I never dove very deep. I've certainly allowed the rise of Texas Hold 'Em style poker to just pass me bye with nary a glance. Most of what you wrote in the first half was incomprehensible jargon to me. But I understood some of what you were driving at: the proposition of having skin in the game elevates the experience.

A tangential point that strikes me about this is one of the things I like about games like poker and that I would like to see in more games, is this: putting real value into coming in second (or third, or anyplace better than someone else). Coming in second and taking a marginal lost to win bigger next round is akin to the long term strategy taken by politicians and military commanders the world over. Unfortunately, in most games, once a winner begins to emerge, there can be little incentive for the remaining players to negotiate, bluster, bluff, cajole, and fight their way to a respectable finish. This is a problem when you aren't playing over a number of rounds, wherein your results from prior games factor in to the current or upcoming game. If you have something 'real' on the line, though, that begins to change. Not sure if that's necessarily the answer, but it's one way.

I'm surprised that it sounds like the fact that they're the penny-ante games doesn't seem to hugely encourage aggressive play "hey, it's only a 50 cents more, let's see if I can bluff this one out" etc.

Interesting. They've end-run around the laws governing online casinos by having the players play only against one another for cash.

"Small blind," "big blind," "check," "tight play," "over card" ... I didn't understand one word you just said. But I'm glad you had enough confidence in your learning-hungry readers to speak it anyway. The videogame that comes along and makes me learn a thing or two seems rare as well. I can think of Mass Effect's Codex as one example. Tech tree write-ups in Galactic Civilization is another. And I *think* there were some teaching moments in the Witcher's scary alchemical concoctions, but they were lost on me.

How has online effected your play? I have never ventured to play online but I play a lot around town. I have heard that it is tough to bluff and play the person and you are more reliant on your cards online. Are you experiences similar?

I have the software downloading.

I used to play online a few years ago, back when they actually let you. It became too much of a pain to get money into the account.

The Visa Gift Card idea intrigues me.

Does Poker Stars have a friends list?

adam.greenbrier wrote:

Interesting. They've end-run around the laws governing online casinos by having the players play only against one another for cash.

The Justice Department disagrees with this legal theory, and is continuing a long campaign to prevent Americans from playing online poker. Recently they took the aggressive step of seizing many players' real-money stakes.

Buncha fascists.

EDIT: for pedantic accuracy, the recent action was taken by the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of NY, which while technically part of the Justice Department have broad independent authority to make their own policy.

What gives me the rush is not the cash, it's the sense of having risked something, anything, real to beat my opponent. ...

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. ... 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'll mention the whole debate about the meaning of words like "real," "time," "waste," and "risk," that MMOs supposedly destabilize, especially given the gold-selling market etc. etc. However, we've all been around that block several times through the years, and your article makes a more intimate turn. This experience feels much more personal. If I fail a raid in an MMO, I may feel like a fool for wasting my time or transfer that blame onto the pixelated bodies in my group. I don't, however, relate that failure directly to my greater wealth, family and well-being. Online poker resembles a real-world risk much more closely than walking a gnome through a colorful world populated by angry plants and giant wolves. It's not as simple as the difference between $70 and IMAGE(http://img170.imageshack.us/img170/9292/golds.jpg) but that simple change starts the process.

Anyway, thanks for the article!

Playing poker with nothing on the line - even chump change - is a worthless endeavor. If you don't care about losing your share, wagering becomes an exercise in ridiculous grandiosity.

The fiercest poker I've ever played was betting with slices of pizza, where none of the players had eaten in six or seven hours. In the middle of a hand I absentmindedly ate the piece I needed to go all in (which I would've won; like Elysium, I held the boat). The hungry losers had to walk to 7-11 and get those nasty hot dogs after the game.

grobstein wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:

Interesting. They've end-run around the laws governing online casinos by having the players play only against one another for cash.

The Justice Department disagrees with this legal theory, and is continuing a long campaign to prevent Americans from playing online poker. Recently they took the aggressive step of seizing many players' real-money stakes.

Buncha fascists.

EDIT: for pedantic accuracy, the recent action was taken by the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of NY, which while technically part of the Justice Department have broad independent authority to make their own policy.

Goverment just want their cut. If they all gamble online then no one will go the the casinos and they'll lose a revenue stream.
I played a ton when I was out of work and cashed out about 5k in 2-2 1/2 months.
Glad I didn't have this problem back then or the landlord might of been pissed.

I'm surprised that it sounds like the fact that they're the penny-ante games doesn't seem to hugely encourage aggressive play "hey, it's only a 50 cents more, let's see if I can bluff this one out" etc.

The stakes don't really change the fact that those people pretty quickly lose whatever money they bring. I let a player like that change how I play, because I know that when I have "the nuts" they're basically going to call whatever I go after.

How has online effected your play? I have never ventured to play online but I play a lot around town. I have heard that it is tough to bluff and play the person and you are more reliant on your cards online. Are you experiences similar?

The environment is definitely different than live play, but you can still get a read on how your opponents play, particularly if you are on the same table for any length of time. You don't get the visual cues that you do in person. You have to be willing to risk a lot more to bluff online, but it can be done. You aren't necessarily just playing your cards in an online bluff, a lot of times you're really playing the flop, turn or river cards. I know for a fact that I've been bluffed out of plenty of pots when an ace showed up on the turn and I was out of position holding middle pair.

Not much to add except that the online poker players I've known have been crazy-nuts competitive.

You can't always tell it, but I am very clearly crazy-nuts competitive.

"Small blind," "big blind," "check," "tight play," "over card" ... I didn't understand one word you just said.

It wouldn't have felt right to explain every nuance and, frankly, I find a kind of poetry in the language of poker. There's something delicious about saying pre-flopped bullets or check-raising a flush draw on the turn.

There will be a follow up post of equal verbosity and wit when you lose that $20 and rage quit, right?

I'd be willing to bet I'd be ready to write that as early as next week. In fact, I'd bet thirty-seven cents on that. You game?

WiredAsylum wrote:
How has online effected your play? I have never ventured to play online but I play a lot around town. I have heard that it is tough to bluff and play the person and you are more reliant on your cards online. Are you experiences similar?

It depends on the limits. There are a lot of calling stations at the micros; but at the higher levels one can get away from the standard TAG style.

Hmmm and now I'm downloading and installing the game, and it wouldn't be any fun to play without real money. . . .

It depends on the limits. There are a lot of calling stations at the micros; but at the higher levels one can get away from the standard TAG style.

This is probably true. I'm surprised how many people just call on the button when maybe only one person has limped in.

Hmmm and now I'm downloading and installing the game, and it wouldn't be any fun to play without real money. . . .

Might I recommend spending a couple of bucks on the frequent low stakes on a tournament. You really avoid the risk of just opening up into the public tables, you have a set amount spent, the top prize is usually a couple of hundred dollars at least and frankly it's not that damn hard to end up in the money -- at least washing out even. It's how I introduced myself into the comfort zone of spending some pocket change on poker.

My bank is not cooperating.

Buncha fascists.

I am this close to applying for an off-shore bank account.

I have no idea what is going on in the first four paragraphs.

I have several friends who are crazy deep into poker. Once they started telling me about calculating odds and pot percentages, it started sounded to me like people talking about maxing out DPS in a MMO. For me, poker is about hanging with friends and drinking great quantities of beer. When I have to start doing math, it becomes work. That's why I never jumped on the online poker bandwagon. I'd be one of the people funding the winner's bank rolls.

Funny. When I saw the post was about cards I would have sworn it would have been a treatise on Magic the Gathering:Online. What happened to all that "digital heroin" Rabbit injected you with that he reported on the latest Conference Call?

He still hasn't played with me, and I can wrap my head around poker where I can not with Magic.

Out of curiousity, have you run into any PokerBots?

Out of curiousity, have you run into any PokerBots?

As the article points out, most of the time a player shouldn't really feel threatened by a bot. It's probably easier to beat than most humans, and in the long run it's really probably just breaking even at best.

Clemenstation wrote:
Playing poker with nothing on the line - even chump change - is a worthless endeavor. If you don't care about losing your share, wagering becomes an exercise in ridiculous grandiosity.

Yeah, this is why I stopped playing on Facebook with pretend money. I don't think the low blind tables had bet limits.