In keeping with my theme of 'stuff other people had already discovered long ago', I played my first poker game (Texas hold 'em) a few nights ago. I'd decided that I needed to learn at least a little bit of poker to remain a pop- culture-literate citizen of 21st-century United States, and that I was willing to lose five bucks in order to do so. So, nothing too formal; just a friendly game with some friends-- two of which were fairly long-time players (compared to me, at least) and graciously willing to take money from a rank beginner.
About halfway through the night, I realized something:
It's a game.
Put so baldly, it seems like kind of a stupid thing to say. But I didn't go in expecting a game, I went in expecting a narrative. I had only encountered poker in movies, and so was expecting... drama. Tension and conflict. Protagonist (me) and antagonists (everyone else). It turns out, of course, that movies are about as accurate about poker as they are about, well, cryptography. They get the language right, mostly, but they make it seem a lot more dramatic than it actually is. Cryptographers don't all work in multi- billion dollar lairs (well, not all of us). Likewise, poker isn't the high- stakes, life-or-death setting where people get poisoned and the girl gets kidnapped. (I'm looking at you, Casino Royale.) It's just a game. One played for money, but still just a game.
Given this, I have two observations. First: as a game, it sucks. In particular, it has two awful game-design features that bother me every time I encounter them.
- There's a lot of time spent sitting around waiting. On any given hand, it seemed, half of the players would immediately fold wait around for the next deal. Also, we were playing tournament style, which means that it's a last-man-standing game. Everyone but the last two people are going to be spending some time sitting on their hands and waiting for the game to be over with, already. In fact, I saw someone get eliminated on the first hand of the night. They got to spend the entire next hour just standing around.
- Once you fall behind, it's very hard to catch back up. Since you can't win more than you can risk (times the number of players) it's almost impossible to recover from a big loss. If I have 3 dollars, and I'm playing a hand against someone with $100, then my best case scenario is that I end up with $6 and they end up with $97. I have to play a lot of hands, and win them all, to win the tournament. (Remember how someone was eliminated on the first hand? That meant that some other player ended the first hand with more than twice the chips than anyone else left. Guess who won?)
At least everyone gets to play at least part of every hand, so it's not a one- at-at-time game like Monopoly. (Don't get me started about Monopoly. I don't care about the campaign for real monopoly-- Monopoly still sucks.)
The second observation about the game is that I can now see how someone can support themselves playing poker: be playing for money when everyone else is playing for the drama. It seemed like the learning curve for poker isn't that steep, and that I could be halfway decent with only a few days of study. (One friend tells me that studying hole-card statistics is less work than, say, memorizing chess openings.) And it also seems that 'halfway decent' is more than good enough if you're playing the game and everyone else is pretending that they are in a movie. I'm sure that I'd also lose horribly against a good player, who can undoubtedly read people better than I do. But so long as you treat poker like a business, and play against people who don't, I can see how someone could make more than enough to live on.
(Or am I full of it?)