Requiem for a poker game

Poker has been spoiled by TV tournaments and players schooled online. In the battle for the big payoff, wit and camaraderie have been trumped by computer logic and greed.

Published July 28, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

A week and a half ago, Jerry Yang, a 39-year-old Southern California psychologist and social worker, won the 2007 World Series of Poker championship -- and $8.25 million. A pretty impressive feat, considering that Yang has played poker for only two years, and won his $10,000 entry fee via a local Indian casino $225 satellite tournament (a spectacular parlay in which winning a smaller tournament provided the entry fee for the larger tournament). Like the other winners in the past four years, he was a relative novice who honed his successful aggressive style by playing online poker.

Winning the World Series of Poker championship is every poker player's dream. When you have outplayed over 6,000 players, you are, if only until the next tournament, "the world's best." Unlike soon-to-be-anonymous lottery winners, the WSOP champion is guaranteed a life-altering series of financial arrangements, ranging from online poker site endorsements that have paid millions per year, to $50,000-a-day corporate guest appearances, to a free Las Vegas penthouse condominium in return for plastering one's face on Vegas airport billboards. Tournament-winning players like the notoriously self-marketing Phil Hellmuth have become household names, hustling everything from poker video games to instructional DVDs on how to beat other players selling similar DVDs. In the few years since poker has been prominently televised, major U.S. poker tournaments have become the third most-watched "sport" on TV, trailing football and NASCAR.

But this is not the same game that once was America's Friday-night kitchen table staple -- a group of guys and gals gathered over chips, beer, cigars and swaggers, laughing and bluffing. Poker now bears little resemblance to serious cash-game poker once played in a dimly lit Las Vegas backroom by a Damon Runyon-esque collection of high-octane gamblers, bookies, off-season oil riggers, rodeo champs, denizens of the underworld and slumming celebrities who gave poker its color. That was a time when the best players were those who knew both cards and people, sly self-promoters like Amarillo Slim and Stu Ungar who lived off their wits and cunning, including peddling the romantic image of the professional gambler.

Back then, those of us who loved poker would fly to Las Vegas to learn the game from the best, patiently watching and gathering experience, studying how Johnny Moss or Jack Strauss played a particular hand, until we had our personal memorized database of what was thought to be optimal play. Experience was considered a form of wisdom; improving one's game required much face-to-face poker playing, observation of players' styles, patterns of betting, tells, and sharing of stories and strategies. Poker was a social game; good playing required an understanding of probabilities and psychology. Equally important were the social skills that would attract lesser (losing) players.

Not anymore. The vast majority of new young players have primarily learned to play poker online. They have honed their skills with the aid of computer simulations and data mining -- complex software programs that monitor the play of their opponents and provide a detailed categorization of each style of play. This new breed of successful players comes from the virtual arena; they are likely to spend most of their playing time either alone or with similarly inclined computer geeks. As people do in the digital community Second Life, players develop virtual personas, fictitious avatars and cartoonish social skills, and are seldom accountable for their behavior. Other players aren't colleagues, comrades in crime or even casual social acquaintances; they are obstacles to be overcome on the way to the big score.

The massive popularity of tournament poker has irreparably altered the tenor of the game by introducing the lottery aspect of the big win. Unlike cash games in which you can quit whenever you want, in tournament poker, all entrants pay a single entry fee. You cash out only by beating at least 90 percent of the field; only the top 1 percent of participants get a significant payout. To create exciting megaprizes, tournaments are structured to pay huge sums to the top few finishers, while leaving the rest empty-handed -- a sharp contrast with traditional poker games, in which a single table can host multiple winners.

Last year, in bed delirious with the flu, I entered and won a $39 online satellite tournament to the 2006 WSOP main event. A couple of days later, still feverish, I found myself at a table with nine strangers. No one introduced him- or herself. Few bothered to make eye contact, preferring dark glasses and baseball caps, as though hiding in plain sight. During the first day -- 15 hours of grueling play -- I did not hear a single joke, an engaging story or even collegial banter. Once, when a player was criticized by another for endless badmouthing, the player responded by saying, "Hey, I'm not here to make friends. This is all about money."

Today, in casinos and card rooms across the country, the social dimension of poker has been dismissed in favor of computerized playing strategies. Consider the following: In a live game at a casino, a dealer will deal 30 to 40 hands per hour. Online, where the cards do not have to be gathered or shuffled, hands are dealt at a much higher rate -- 80 to 100 hands per hour. Because there is a lot of downtime in poker (you get relatively few playable hands), most online players play multiple games simultaneously. The result is a dramatically compressed experience; the number of hands you might have played in a 10-hour live session can easily be played in one hour online. In a few months you can see combinations of hands that it would take years to see in person.

One of the most popular software programs, Poker Tracker, can keep track of every hand that you and your opponents play. It can provide detailed statistics on how the hand did against other hands, and even how it did dependent upon your table position when you played the hand. It will tell you how well you did with a pair of eights when you are the first player to act, versus playing the hand after several players had already folded. Quickly, you can build up a set of algorithms that determine optimal starting hands dependent on your table position and the playing characteristics of your opponents. Such programs also give you extensive information on what hands your opponents are likely to play. You can set the program to project your opponents' statistics directly over their screen icons, and players soon become known by their statistically determined playing habits rather than by their first names. You do not need to see a player's facial expression or how he or she shifts in the chair; you already know from your data analysis when he or she is or isn't likely to call or raise a hand.

Now factor in game theory -- the study of how to play optimally assuming that the other players are also playing optimally. Few of us had heard of game theory when we started playing poker; today it is everyday jargon. In a recent interview in New Scientist, the 2000 WSOP winner, Chris Ferguson, a Ph.D. in computer science, said that game theory has shown that the best hands to bet are your best and worst hands, and that you should bet your bad hands approximately one-third of the time. This statement makes no sense without a thorough grasp of both statistics and game theory yet, once understood, can be seen to be the optimal strategy employed by most successful tournament players. In a description of Yang's recent WSOP victory, an online poker site commentator indicated that Yang raised about one-third of his hands. Given the small number of good hands that you get in Texas Hold'em, it's apparent Yang is well versed in proper betting strategies according to game theory. Yang's knowing exactly when to raise or fold was less important than his knowing that he needed to do so a certain percentage of the time. What looks like utter magic is game theory unveiled.

In his book, "Tournament Poker for Advanced Players," David Sklansky wrote that a novice could essentially negate many of the attributes of the skilled tournament player by going "all in" (betting all his chips) with any decent hand. Counter to what was once considered good poker, this all-in strategy has been become one of the most successful methods for negating the superior playing skills of the best players. Watch any TV tournament and you will see "all-in fests." Players find a playable hand and shove in all their chips. This isn't poker as once played, but tournament poker as it is now played.

For old-timers, poker is about great bets, great reads of other players and the well-timed bluff -- all of the psychological elements that distinguish poker from games of pure probability, such as blackjack or craps. But where's the game in shoving in all your chips and daring your opponent to call? Remember "Rebel Without a Cause," where James Dean played chicken (two cars accelerate toward each other; the one that swerves first is the loser)? Although chicken might seem like a game of nerve or psychological one-upmanship, one of my more whimsical poker buddies has suggested there is a game theory solution to it: Make your opponent see you detach the steering wheel and throw it out your car window. Once he knows that you are "all in" (can't change your mind or your bet), he has only two choices -- a head-on collision (confrontation) or avoidance (fold). The odds are clearly in your favor.

A compounding problem of all-in bets is OPM -- other people's money. It's common knowledge among poker insiders that many of the most successful tournament players have backers, individuals and corporations that pay for entry fees in return for a percentage of the winnings. Many poker sites provide sponsorships in return for promotional services. Although seldom discussed, those players who have private backing and can play in a large number of tournaments without risk of personal capital are at a huge advantage. They can readily make the risky calls and bets that someone playing with his or her own hard-earned money is far less likely to make. (In stock market parlance, OPM is how slick fund managers can make outrageous profits. If they lose all their money, they just go on to another venture. They aren't burdened in risky decision making by having to personally absorb a large loss.)

To put this in perspective, let me briefly relate a hand that I witnessed in Las Vegas in the early 1980s. Stu Ungar -- perhaps one of the best poker players in history -- was playing heads-up (one-on-one) with one of the other great players, Bobby Baldwin. Both put up $50,000. On the first hand, both went all in and turned up their cards. Before the dealer turned up the remaining cards to complete the hand, Baldwin was a slight favorite. He offered to take a small profit on the hand rather than risk all of his money on a nearly even proposition. Ungar refused. Baldwin then offered to split the pot. Ungar shook his head. The next card made Baldwin a 10-to-1 favorite. Again, because of the size of the pot, Baldwin offered to negotiate -- take some profit and give Ungar back some of his money. Ungar ordered the dealer to "deal the cards," a miracle card that won the hand for Ungar. He scooped up the pot and left the table. At the time, I did not understand Ungar's logic. Baldwin's offer had been more than fair; I couldn't imagine a sensible poker player turning it down.

And then I saw the answer. Ungar slipped behind a row of slot machines and handed the money to his sponsor, who, in turn, gave Ungar some of the winnings. The game had not been conducted on a level playing field. Baldwin, who would become the president of Mirage Hotels, was an intelligent, conservative player who was playing with his own money. Ungar was a reckless player with nothing at stake. Watch a few TV poker programs today and you will see certain players who make extraordinarily risky calls or bluffs. We wonder how they do it. Well, if you're not calling or betting with your own money, what's the risk? Imagine how different the TV shows would be if we were told which players were playing with their own money and which weren't.

Until recently, most tournament players believed that they had an edge over other players and could overcome the vigorish through skillful play. But this was before optimal game strategy became more universally employed. As poker moves from seat-of-the-pants play to easily available complex mathematical strategies, the likelihood of great players emerging from the mass of entrants will dramatically decline. More and more tournaments will be decided by a succession of "coin flips" (competition between two hands of nearly equal value), with results becoming increasingly random. Given that tournament poker is a zero-sum game (all the money comes from the entrants), and the casinos take 6 to 10 percent (or more) for hosting the events, the likelihood of being a long-term consistent winner is quite low. Unlike golf or tennis, where skill is a major factor and the best players inevitably rise to the top, it is now unusual to see a poker player, no matter how skilled, booking repeated wins.

And yet poker is being presented as a potentially life-changing opportunity. A generation of young kids is being seduced into believing in the easy life. Many drop out of school to pursue a misrepresented dream. In the process, they ignore productive careers in order to chase a mirage, an illusion that is in the process of unraveling. Meanwhile, cloistered in their virtual worlds, they are becoming social misfits. Walter Matthau once said that poker combined all the worst aspects of the capitalism that made America great. Perhaps his quip should be amended to say that poker now combines all the worst aspects of virtual existence that threaten American culture. Too bad. For those with a good memory, poker will have been a great pastime. For those who are new to the game, it will be a sorry disappointment.

By Robert Burton

Robert Burton M.D. is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and the author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" and "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind." A former columnist for Salon, he has also been published in the New York Times, Aeon and Nautilus, and currently writes a column at the Cambridge Quarterly for Healthcare Ethics.

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