Imagine you were a librarian and whenever you told anyone you were a librarian, they looked at you bemused and distrusting and asked you if that meant your house was made of books.
Anyone who’s ever played professional poker, or even had poker as a serious hobby knows of the confusion and worry a serious dedication to this game elicits from the uninformed. I’m pretty lucky at the moment. Everyone around me understands or at least accepts that what I do is a legitimate and a reliable way of making an income. This is partially to do with the fact that much of my time is spent teaching others how to play poker and not just playing poker myself these days. In any case, it hasn’t always been this way and I, like all poker players, have experienced many a bewildered look when telling people what I do. What follows this look can vary from scorn to fascination to awe.
At a house party around 4 or 5 years ago, a friend of a friend asked me how I was spending the summer in between years of university. I replied that instead of finding a summer job in a cafe, supermarket, or bar, I was playing online poker full-time just as I’d done part time to generate extra income during term-time. The response I got was an acute spearing of outraged laughter followed closely by a patronising apologetic wave as she tried half heartedly to undo the damaged portrayed by my blatant look of dismay. When she’d composed herself enough to speak, the first words out of her mouth were something to the effect of ‘I’m sorry it’s just that….but what if you lose!’
Lots of you reading this will no doubt not know the first thing about poker. This is pretty normal. There are lots of sports, activities and professions I know nothing about. I know absolutely nothing about prototyping bionic legs. I have a fresh slate of ignorance about such a profession and this is largely because there are (at least to my knowledge) no films about bionic leg developers, in which they’re badly or shallowly portrayed. This is the problem when it comes to poker: there’s an army of terrible poker movies or poker scenes where 8 gangsters sit in a smoky room each with one of the 8 most difficult hands to get dealt, all at the same time. Bond-like character has the royal flush while bad russian cigar smoking guy has four nines. Some blonde haired student kid wins the lottery and loses all of the money in one unlucky hand of poker. As offended as I was at that house party, upon later reflection I realised that it wasn’t this girl’s fault that she’d exploded with uncontrolled laughter at me. What else was she to think? After all, I was planning to enter a room full of gangsters and place all my money down on the table hoping to get dealt that Bondian royal flush.
What follows is a FAQ guide for those of you whose perceptions of the poker profession are limited, confused and/or based on almost nothing of factual value. The following questions should resonate well with other poker players – we’ve answered them year in year out for the last however many years and will be answering them for the rest of our poker careers no doubt – or for as long as they continue to make James Bond movies.
There are countless people who approach poker as a bit of fun or as something to do after a few beers on a Friday night. There are people who have ruined their financial status through poker or treated the game like it’s no different from the spin of a roulette wheel. These people are not poker players, they’re just people who have played poker at some point. I’ve bandaged my finger before, that doesn’t make me a nurse. A poker player plays poker as a serious hobby or profession and seeks to make money in the long run from doing so. The following answers refer to how poker players approach the game.
1. But what if you lose all your money?
We don’t ever risk all of our money at the same time or even close to that. We use the term ‘bankroll’ to refer to the chunk of money we have kept independent from our day to day finances solely for the purpose of poker. This money is our investment in the game of poker. A winning professional will withdraw money from this float into real life funds, but never the opposite. Although there is an element of luck in poker, we never risk enough of our bankroll at the same time for this luck to ruin us in the short term. If we have a reasonable skill edge in the games we play, and play stakes that only constitute a tiny amount of our bankroll, our risk of losing this whole bankroll even in the long term is insignificantly small.
2. But surely it’s just the luck of the cards?
It’s not just the luck of the cards. Poker is a game that has an element of luck and an element of skill. The luck comes from the fact that you can’t control what cards will fall where. The skill comes from the fact that you can control what actions you take in any given poker situation. Better players make more logically correct choices that lead to a higher expectation of money. This expectation will be positive in a good situation and negative in a bad one, but the trick is to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives. If you roll a dice infinity times, you’ll roll as many 6s as you do 5s, 4s, 3s, 2s, and 1s. This is called the law of large numbers. When you play poker you’ll encounter as many good situations as bad ones in the long term (or pretty close to that since we can’t play infinity hands) We can’t win every hand, but we can win overall by having a significant skill advantage over our opposition.
3. Poker is gambling though right?
There’s no black and white answer here and I think the best response is ‘yes and ‘no’. ‘Gambling’ is a taboo word in many societies and to many people. If you type gambling into google in search of a definition you’ll find: ‘1. playing games of chance for money; bet.’ and ‘2. taking risky action in the hope of a desired result’ Neither of these two definitions fit very well with the game of poker and here’s why. Although we do play a game of chance for money, we know that this chance only affects our results on a short term basis and that’s why we use the large bankroll described in answer 1. Poker is also a game of skill, so if a game of gambling is one of purely chance, then no, poker is not gambling. We certainly don’t take risky action in the hope of a desired result. Although we may take micro-actions in the game of poker that are ‘risky’ in a sense, we do these based on logical calculations that they are the most profitable thing to do in the long term, not on hope that it will all work out. Our decision to play poker for income in itself is not risky provided our skill and bankroll management are sufficient.
4. How can you possibly play poker online? You can’t see the players to read what they’ve got!
Inferring information from body language and physical demeanour is the most prominent part of poker decision making portrayed in the movies. They like to pretend that poker is just an art of psychology and person reading, and that anyone that’s good at these things makes a poker hero. In reality these aspects account for about 5% or less of the skill in live poker and someone who was well versed in this alone would get massacred in a game full of professional poker players. The other 95% of live poker prowess comes from a deep logical, mathematical and strategic understanding of the mechanics of poker. I won’t go into detail here, but a quick search on poker strategy online will begin to unearth the monstrously deep complexity to this game. We can make a living online because we are better than our opponents at making decisions in this complex technical realm using information about betting patterns, what cards are out, opponent tendencies and much more.
5. So are you a good bluffer?
To bluff in poker is to bet with a hand you take to be the worst hand in an attempt to make your opponents fold a better one so that you can win the pot. Knowing when and how to do this is a result of being well versed in understanding poker situations and your opponent well enough to recognise good opportunities. Bluffing is just another technical part of the game and is nowhere near as massive a part of it as the movies make out.
6. So do you know what everyone’s got?
Most of the time we don’t, but what we do is draw upon all our poker knowledge and the information present in the situation to deduce what range of hands we expect our opponents to play in this way. We can then make a decision based on what we should do against the types of hands our opponents are mostly likely to have when they take X, Y or Z action and play accordingly. This is called hand reading and is a far cry from the soul reading you’ll see in the movies when Bond’s psychic intuition allows him to fold a straight flush.
7. What’s the most money you’ve ever won in a hand?
Far less than is glamorous or mind-blowing because in the real world we manage our bankrolls to make sure that we’re only playing the stakes, and therefore, sizes of pots that we can handle losing many of in quick succession. The upshot is that people who have won a $10,000 pot, are either extremely successful high stakes poker players, or degenerate gamblers.
8. You lost money today? I thought you were supposed to be good at poker?
Poker has something called variance. Variance is the normal fluctuation that occurs on a short term basis due to the luck element in the game. Variance causes even great players to lose over a small sample size like 5000 hands (that’s much smaller than it sounds!) Another thing variance does is it causes bad poker players to win over small samples. This is what keeps the games profitable for us. We have to lose a lot of the time, this is par for the course and it keeps weaker players interested. Why would the average person play chess for money against a grandmaster? They wouldn’t because chess is a game of skill and their expectation of winning a single time would be less than one in a few hundred. Casinos lose lots of the time. It’s the fact they have a long term edge over their punters that keeps them in business. Life is no different for the poker player, short term luck is what makes poker profitable in the first place and is unavoidable. Me losing today is normal.
9. So it’s all maths and odds and stuff isn’t it?
No. While mathematical calculation and knowledge of the chances of certain things happening are an integral part of being a solid poker player, having a strong faculty of reasoning, problem solving and being able to make logical deduction using the correct variables are more important. Becoming a decent poker player requires lots of practical experience and is more of a skill than something you could just cram knowledge for. The mathematics of the game is just one of the basic tools in the hands of a skilled player.
10. Do you not want to get a real job?
I’ve heard this one a fair bit. It comes from the fact that poker has an unstable and dangerous reputation. Poker players have no boss, no structured working hours outside of those they set for themselves and no restrictions as to how they live their lives. They can take holidays whenever they like as long as they can afford it and decide what time to wake up in the morning. Nevertheless, being a professional poker player can be one of the most challenging and stressful professions in the world. If you work in a supermarket, you can turn up hungover, disinterested and still make the same amount of money at the end of the day, as long as you can avoid being fired for your lack of enthusiasm. In poker these things equate to financial suicide. A poker player has to constantly work on his game to stay ahead of competition, structure his working day so that he doesn’t slack, have the correct balance of study to play, manage his bankroll and select the best games to play in and loads more. This is a profession that has a lot of pros and cons. I could write seven articles about them. The point is that those of us who play full time for a living and succeed generally work very hard, learn a real skill to a high level of competency and deserve the benefits of freedom we get from that. There are definitely moral objections to choosing the life of the poker player and I can understand why some people who work hard in more widely accepted fields feel like poker players are in some way cheating the system. More about all of that in another article though.
Girl at party: I forgive you. Non poker playing audience: I hope this has helped you to better understand what we do and why we do it. Next time you meet a poker player you can start at question 11 whatever you want that to be. We love it when people take a genuine interest in what we do and most of us love to talk about it as we’re a little obsessive by nature! People are usually really curious about my line of work and like to ask more. I love this, and take pride in the fact that it’s a little unique and mysterious. If you meet one of us and want to know more please ask away! Just try not to assume you already know what we do based on a film you once saw. Librarians don’t live in book houses, but we only know that because it’s common knowledge and Bond never dated such a librarian.