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A friend of mine is an avid poker player. That would be an entirely unexceptional hobby, except he makes money at it. He studies the game almost as intensively as he studies for flight school, always reading one book or another about its theory and practice. I was skeptical of his claims that he’s made a few thousand dollars at it since 1 January until I watched him one day as he played. He pulled down about $150 in seven hours, which wouldn’t be too bad working a regular job. He said it was a pretty bad night, but that sometimes the cards just didn’t work in your favor. What really convinced me that he was honest, though, was when he cashed in his chips, and I saw him add his money to a thick wad of hundred dollar bills entirely separate. At that point, the notion that poker is in fact a winnable game became less unlikely than the idea that he was staging an elaborate charade in an unlikely attempt to take my money.

That conclusion was the one he’d been advocating from the start. It was enough to get me to create an account at an online poker site and try my hand at the fake-money games which you can play for free. As expected, I started by losing horribly. However, it wasn’t long before I was actually increasing my fake-money bankroll. My plan was to continue to practice on fake money until I’d built up a sum significant enough to convince myself that the winnings weren’t just statistical noise; that I was in fact winning at poker. My friend would have none of this: he noted that I was starting to make money, and sent ten real dollars into my account to use at the penny blind tables.

That was two days ago. As of right now, I have something over $20 in my account–it took me a lot less time than I expected to double my money. I’m not making nearly the amount of money that my friend does, but he’s been playing for years, and is willing to put far more money on the line. Once I double it again, I’ll pay him back his seed cash; my bankroll should be self-sustaining by that point.

It’s fair to say that I’ve picked up a new hobby. I’ve been playing games combining various amounts of strategy and luck for the majority of my life, now, but I’ve avoided card games in the past. When played without stakes, they were simply uninteresting; when played for money, I always developed atrociously high burn rates. This variant of poker–no limit texas holdem–avoids both pitfalls. I can’t claim yet to be a good player yet, but I expect eventually to be. Even on the lowest-stakes tables, taking real money that I could take out and go buy lunch with carries a thrill that few other games can match.

I’ve already had people express concern to me about the possibility of incurring a casino’s wrath if I get too successful. They’re thinking about blackjack. In blackjack, the house awards the prizes from its own coffers to any successful player; it makes its money because it has a statistical advantage. Skilled card counting teams have been able to profit from the casinos, but the casinos do everything they can to prevent that. In poker, players exchange money with each other; the house supplies none of the winnings. Instead, it takes a small percentage of each pot, known as the rake. The house likes poker players to win big as much as the players do; big winnings imply big pot sizes, and big pots increase the house’s profit.

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Comment by kadath
2008-03-06 09:01:39

Poker is the only winnable casino game, because the house charges for a seat at the table, and thus they don’t have any interest in rigging the rules. It comes down to knowing the odds, and when you’re playing face-to-face, being able to read tells and conceal your own.

Comment by anonymous
2008-03-07 10:47:36

Don’t overlook structured-limit games (instead of no-limit) – they’re much easier to calculate the odds for, in my experience, since you don’t have to deal with variable bets.

Comment by frankg
2008-03-07 10:48:19

(that was me, I guess I wasn’t logged in)

Comment by coriolinus
2008-03-07 23:13:11

You’re right, they’re easier to calculate the odds for. However, they’re harder to manipulate the odds for, and manipulation of the odds in your favor through betting patterns that minimize the potential gain for your opponents is key to maximizing your own profits.


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