As we face the sun falling over the beautiful day that was online poker, I have to wonder how the hell the whole craze got to be so big. Some people simply say that gambling is a degenerative thing and people, particularly young college students, were given infinite access to gambling. It would be somewhat akin to putting a casino in every city, town, farmhouse, or anywhere that a phone line or satellite link could reach. But I wonder if that had been the case, and not the online version of the trend, would we really have reached the hysteria that online poker created?
After about midnight, most television channels with anything sports related now run (for a brief while more at least) ads featuring either phone sex and/or online poker. Names of people like Phil Helmuth became commonplace, and the number of asinine poker references by coaches and newscasters began going through the roof. But was this really all because of an intrinsic desire that many, many people had to gamble?
I truly don’t think this craze would have gone down in such a hysterical ball of all-in madness had it not been for the unique aspects of online poker. If you ask most people who have ever deposited money playing online they’ll tell you they are pretty good at poker. They’ll probably also tell you that the reason they lose is because of bad beats and crazy players getting lucky against them when they play. Basically, they’ll think and espouse that they can do no wrong. But why then are these cats the ones who have made the boom possible? If they represent the majority of online players, and all that happens is they lose cause of bad luck, why do they keep coming back? Hasn’t gambling always been around, and isn’t there always a poker game you can play in if you really want to? So what makes online different? I don’t doubt the seductive allure of online sites and their marketing has been responsible for a decent chunk of the craze, but I don’t think it’s the primary or only reason.
Why do (did) all these people play? I think it’s because there is a safety of hiding behind a computer screen. Yeah, I know, the fat ass world champions of poker will tell you exactly that in their ads trying to get you to join their “free” site. Make a mistake and nobody will yell at you is what they say. But there’s something more than that. Being online offers you the advantage, and disadvantage, of being able to bet and play, to interact with others, all with the veil of secrecy. No matter how new or bad you are at poker, everyone has dealt with other people in their lives. When you hear the tone of someone’s voice, or see their body posture, your brain takes in information. Malcolm Gladwell would say that we take all that information and subconsciously reach conclusions and determinations about the message and worth of what is being sent to us. Do we think they mean what they’re saying? Even if you don’t know what a tell is, if you play live poker, you’re processing information at a rapid and incredible rate based on a lifetime of experience of interacting with people (as an example, if someone makes a total deadpan sarcastic remark to your face that could be taken the wrong way, your senses can usually pick up on the sarcasm from other sensory clues whereas that same comment couldn’t be deciphered easily if you just received that comment in writing). One famous poker player has written time and time again about how we all live our lives trying to present an image that we think we’re supposed to put forward, and that when we play poker we have to scatter that image as much as we can and act differently because we think we must hide our intentions. Essentially he says that we’re all full of shit in our daily lives, and then at the poker table, we think we have to be full of shit there as well. But that’s all talking about sitting at a dank poker table with drinks spilling and uncomfortable closeness to the dude or chick on either side of you.
Yet none of that information processing or social interaction is there with online poker. You are reduced to numbers. Yeah, there’s the occasional chat blurb that pops up (my screen name used to include below it the city I lived in, San Francisco, so anytime I beat someone in a hand they usually let me know where they stood if they disagreed with Gay Marriage), but for the most part you play the game online according to your bets, and your bets only. Basically you get all the degenerate gambling you can ask for without the requisite self-worth questions that come along with the posturing and deception that accompany a live game, or as that poker author would put it, with our lives. There’s nobody sitting across from us asking themselves, “is he lying? Is he strong? Do I believe him?” Or, at least if the person online facing your bet is asking those questions, they don’t get to look at you or hear you to make a judgement about you while determining their answer.
Online poker then is a reduction. Unlike the casino where you have to look or not look someone in the eye or walk away in a moment of shame from a table full of people that beat you for all your money, online poker is simply a chance to represent yourself in competition with no chance of social judgments being made about you. And I think that’s why the boom was so great. That’s why when you ask anyone that’s played online how good they are they’ll usually tell you that they are “all-right” or “pretty good.” Almost nobody will tell you “I suck,” and I think in part they play online because no matter how bad you lose, it’s a place you can go where nobody is going to tell you that you suck, at least not while looking at you (usually if they do inform you that you are the biggest fish ever it will because you got lucky and won some money, thus giving you a plenty of validation to overcome the pissed off dude typing his fingers off while calling you a homo). Throw that in with the occasional win, the hope of a big score and/or some sort of fame, total convenience, and you get the boom we had.
Now that I’ve got my poker-psycho-babble backdrop out the way, I plan on writing several columns about how to play poker beyond simply looking at your cards and playing by the book, the way most people play. In fact, I think that’s the reason why texas-hold ‘em was the game of choice for this craze. It’s not that you can bet anything (there’s been no-limit five card draw games forever) that makes hold ‘em so sweepingly popular. It’s because anyone can sit down before a game with a complete novice and tell them “any ace with a ten or better is a good hand, any pocket pair, and any two cards bigger than a ten are playable. Raise with nines through aces, raise with ace-queen or better and limp with anything else, fold to a raise before you with hands you just would limp with” and all the sudden you’ve got a novice using most players’ basic playbook. Yet even decent players hear Mike McDermot’s (Matt Damon) statement in Rounders that he could play the game blind and win to mean that he has such a deep understanding of tells that he always knows the cards his opponents hold. That’s really only partially true. Mike McDermot’s skill (or any good player’s skill) was also that he could figure out how other people were going to play. And it’s not all that hard. Yet the basic player wouldn’t ever really attempt to play blind (without looking at one’s cards) because they think that their cards are the most important factor in the game and would be totally lost without their two little signposts every hand. With
Texas Hold ‘em, it’s really pretty easy to know where you stand and what the basic play is.
Texas Hold’em is treated fairly simply by most people. Get your cards, look at them, and play your hand from there. It’s kinda the same way that most people treat life. But if 95% of the hands people get dealt suck ass, then you pretty much know how they’re going to play most of the time: weakly unless they catch a break. Hence why you see guys like Gavin Smith and Daniel Negraneau on television playing every hand they can. If their opponents are predictable then most of the time they will fold, and Gavin and Daniel have a lot of easy pots to pick up. That style takes a lot of skill and can’t be employed against people who aren’t capable of folding (true novices). But basically, that style of play is like the pushy person complaining at the airport who gets the free night at the hotel while everyone else standing in the customer service line walks away from the desk with a meal coupon and a ten hour wait in an airport seat to look forward to.
I believe that most of the people who made the poker craze huge, the ones in your class (to generalize) who play some online and think they’re “not bad” are guaranteed to lose money. They don’t mind it. They may live pretty boring lives, they take what comes to them and try not to fuck it up too bad. The “better” ones from that cut have gone to college, are in grad school or have decent jobs, have read a few poker books and know basically what you’re supposed to do with most hands. They may break even, or eek out wins when the competition is really weak. But they aren’t creative, and even if they make money at the lowest levels, they lose it when they move up to bigger games. And these players, the meat of the whole boom that happened, are more than happy to say they’re above average, that they get unlucky, and they’re happy to believe that they will always be just that. They’ll have a nice house in the suburbs one day, I’m sure, just not from poker winnings.
So next time we’ll talk about how to apply these abstract thoughts (cough) about your opponents in a way that may let you get creative, or at least enjoy the game on a level beyond the mundane repetition of looking at your cards, waiting for the flop and then betting or folding. I’d like to take this discussion beyond the all-in moments of TV and the bad beat stories everyone likes to tell so much, and actually talk about little interesting things that you can do at any poker game that will make you more in tune to beating the shit out of your opponents…
To be continued.