Poker players are not immune to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, but their skills from the game make it easier for them to survive in such uncertain situations.

Not only have they been surviving in a closed world, but they have also been having a grand time for the past few months, competing day after day against players from all around the globe in the first-ever World Series of Poker online. (I got a tiny taste of it, that will come later; this is not to create suspense, I lost bad)

This process of playing poker for hours and hours is what the community refers to as the grind. Hard, dull work is one of the definitions that pop up when I triple-click the word. I can’t grind for more than two-three hours — well, anyone can play more, but the right thing to do is stop when you are no longer making optimal decisions that you’d usually make if you are not tilted (tilt: your mind is in some sort of emotional turbulence because of the outcome of the previous hands).

Poker is a simple game that takes a lifetime to master.

Two things worth knowing before embarking on the journey: it’s all about good decisions, that’s all you can control, and acceptance of the existence of variance that no one can control.

Variance in poker is a way to express uncertainty, luck if you like. To a layman (vague) luck is easier to understand than (precise) probabilities; it’s laid out neatly that going in with your favorite hand, let’s say pocket AAs will win 80.56% against pocket TTs, so when your aces lose, your decision was right, just the outcome wasn’t in your favor, because of variance. Next time, you should still make the same decision, because, in the long term, short-term losses will be compensated by profits. Every poker pro knows this, but you will still see plenty of them losing their cool when their Aces fail to win, they are raging against the bad luck.

The endless debate of poker being dominated by skill or chance is not going anywhere, but it appears the community, without doubt, believes it is more skill than chance — that doesn’t mean you have to buy it too, because plenty of people, lawyers, judges, intellectuals, and I’d like to imagine some poker players as well believe it’s more chance than skill. For me, the beauty of the game lies in this fragile balance of skill and luck.

Also just because plenty of people believe something to be so, doesn’t mean it has to be. God, myths, the earth is flat, etc. have a vast amount of believers, that doesn’t mean it is true. The point being, even if the entire poker community believing it is a skill game, you don’t have to believe that to be true. Figure it out for yourself.

The argument made in the 1998 movie Rounders in favor of skill is that why do the same players reach the final table if it is all luck? That doesn’t seem to hold anymore as far as I can see from the past few years. Did it ever hold, or it was merely an exaggeration like the overemphasis placed on reading tells and not on calculating odds. Nonetheless, it’s a fun movie that every poker player can learn a lot from.

Poker players balancing skill and luck
Skill v Luck

I had a lot of fun watching the GGPoker’s Main Event twitch stream*, but the end was slightly disappointing. As if China’s Wenling Gao lost all her patience and wanted to gamble all her chips instead of trying to outplay the opponent Bulgarian champ Stoyan Madanzhiev; noobs like me often do make such mistakes in the early years — overplaying Aces on a wet board (straight/flush draw heavy board), as if you want the cards, the luck to do all the job, and don’t want to use the skills I’m sure she does possess. It was somewhat similar to the famous Johny Chen, Eric Seidel's final hand shown in Rounders, that repeats towards the end of the movie. Perhaps I’m suffering through hindsight bias here, having seen the hands open, but I had to say what I felt then. Now, a few months later, I don’t think it was as rash a decision it felt then, but, ideally, she should’ve waited for a better hand. After all, being able to let go of your best hands is what differentiates the best from the rest. Earlier in the event, Stoyan folded a nut flush, a Hero fold, against a full house, which I’m sure most amateurs wouldn’t have managed to fold, including myself. In her defense, she is a twenty-five-year-old who finds herself at the online main event final table; she played solid, disciplined poker but fell short during the heads up.

Truth be told, I might never make it as far as she did, so remember that before considering my commentary anything more than jest — one of the titles I considered for this blog was Poker Jest.

A great thing about poker is nothing is stopping you from competing against them. If you have the money and the guts you can play against the best. If you don’t have the full buy-in money, you can still make it there via step satellites — days of grind and multiple steps, something like $0.50 step gives you chance to wins a $5 ticket, $5 step gives you chance to win a $50 ticket, and $50 ticket gives you chance to win $10k ticket to the main event. If you are like me, that path seems simple and lucrative, but let me tell you they are crazy minefields; takes a different set of skills to navigate them and earn a ticket. Pure poker is no longer sufficient in the online world at least. Anyway, time to bring the focus back to me.

Earn your buy-in.

Just because you have money in your bank account doesn’t mean you should get yourself in the big buy-in events. I think of it as burning money. You need to master the fundamentals, discipline yourself, learn to lose with grace before you can actually compete against the best.

In this principled way, I began early July with a simple goal of making $100 for the first online event on 19th July. If I make it, I will play in WSOP else I won’t. Turns out making $100 is much, much harder than I expected it to be. On the event day, I resisted my urge to burn money and held onto the principle, it didn’t feel good — why am I earning money writing software if I can’t spend it as I see fit, kept circling in my head. I set up a new goal, a smaller one this time, $50 for the Big50 event with more than a month to earn my buy-in. A week before the event, I had made it, and it felt good. Now, I could stop playing for the rest of the week in fear of losing it all, or I could continue playing trusting my skill. And I manage to lose half of what I earned and was $25 short. I felt ready this time unlike the first time; should I still stand on principle, it’s just 25? Two days before the event I was still short. So I decided to crack my way through a satellite.

The satellite story is crazy and funny. Having played some good and risky hands at the beginning I was well within the bubble (example to follow), so I could just fold all hands now. I hadn’t understood the edge cases of theory I had read, where it gets tricky. The theory is if the number of players between you and the bubble is more than the number of players outside the bubble, then you can relax. Losing a premium hand is reckless, so some suggest you should even fold your Aces. e.g. if 100 tickets are to be earned and your rank is 60, and the remaining players are 130, then you will win the ticket — most of the time, except when you will be on the other side of the bubble. Why? Because 40 players will have to make a move before you have to. 30 players will try to get inside the bubble. I was enjoying witnessing the ugly tricks for the first time. Players on my table started wasting all their time banks before folding their hand. If your table plays fewer hands, then the blinds and ante you will pay will be less. So, I sat there laughing at all this, hoping the theory will take me through. I was cursing myself for folding premium hands like AQs and now I am dangling on either side of the bubble with 1–2 BB, why? It’d be really sad to bust out now. The big blind comes to me and I’m all in without having clicked any button, smiling seeing the pockets 55s coming at the right time. They won’t hold I’m sure K9o of the opponent would pair up. It did hold and in the next few seconds, I earned a $50 ticket to the big 50. It was my lucky day.

I have to confess though that watching the main events or famous players playing just like me and other amateurs playing at the micro stakes makes me feel I can play the big tables as well. It appears not to be different at all. I understand that I don’t make optimal decisions all the time, keep repeating rookie mistakes, but everything feels the same. This is the repetitive element of the game, the grind, the countless hours, the ladder up the stakes. If you look at the famous poker websites or Wikipedia stats pages, you will not see the duration of the events — how long did they play — you will only see the millions and big numbers of their earnings. I think that’s intentional to lure more people into poker. These more people become the fish of the game, because of them the game continues, that’s how the circle of poker flourishes. Remember that your buy-in is going into pockets of winners, in the hope that someday you will be on the other side looting money from other fishes — presuming you have become a shark by then.

That’s why I like to call it Gambler’s Grind.

If the image of a Gambler in your head is a reckless guy holding an alcoholic drink in one hand and smoking a cigar with another then I’d like you to change that for poker professionals. Because sincere students of the game don’t like anything in their system that could potentially affect their optimal gameplay. That doesn’t mean you won’t find poker games with all those things like they show in high stakes games that Molly Bloom organized for famous folks. It merely means the players who indulge in distractions aren’t aware of the negative impact alcohol has on their decision making and how it lowers their observation capabilities. Either that or they rely on their cards, their luck more than they should. More the skill, less the luck you need.

Having said that you will still find all sorts of personalities at the table, egomaniacs, talkative extroverts, silent introverts, in all sorts of diverse clothing: hoodies, black shades, and whatnot. Some say each element provides them with a potential edge and data, but I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

I should end the first post by sharing my losing hand (how I busted from the Big50) and telling you why poker is more than a game for me.

When I overestimated my middle pair 74s

There are plenty of wrong decisions I made in this hand.

Firstly, I shouldn’t have played 47s with my small stack. Secondly, shouldn’t have called his check-raise on the flop. Thirdly, shouldn’t have called his all-in on the turn with my marginal middle pair.

Root cause analysis: lack of patience hence played the hand, got carried away overestimated my middle pair, momentary misbelief that I’m ahead and he is bluffing, trying to push me off with nothing.

Bluff catching is the most pleasurable element of poker for me, so I tend to try it more often than I should without having objective reasoning to defend my decision.

Finally, winning in poker is all about detaching yourself from the hand. Stopping and thinking, letting go, and not allowing emotions to dictate your decisions. That, in essence, is a test of Stoic and Buddhist principles; I believe they are philosophies worth practicing if I want to be good at the game and even if that doesn’t happen they are values worth inculcating if I want to live a good life in our universe of uncertainties.

But for all its costliness and dangers, no better education for life among men could be devised than the gambling table — especially the poker game. (The Gambling Impulse, 1902)

*GGPoker twitch stream — I can’t seem to find the link. Perhaps a future business model to offer it to their paid subscription customers.

A writer in progress | A programmer for a living | And an amateur poker player