Daniel Colman refused to be interviewed following his $15 million win in the Big One for One Drop tournament (he did do a brief interview with ESPN where he fielded questions about the One Drop charity only), later taking to the 2+2 poker forum where he called poker a “dark game” with an “ugly side.”
Considering his comments came after a very high-profile victory the poker world seems to be doing a little soul-searching, and far more players than I expected are agreeing with Colman –a point of view I also wrestle with on a constant basis.
*Warning! The following column paints poker in a negative light. It’s a one-sided take on the paradox of beating other willing people out of their money. It doesn’t represent my complete feelings on poker (not at all) and is meant simply to show that there is in fact an underbelly to the poker world that we often turn a blind eye to. Personally I think poker is worth promoting, but I also think we have to be honest about what we are in fact promoting.
This column is also meant as a warning toward players who want to be professional poker players, and not people who play the game recreationally –poker has very few negative consequences for the latter group.
I love poker. I love the strategic aspect of the game, the theoretical aspects, the emotional and psychological elements, I love everything about the game. Well, almost everything. I don’t love the way people play the game for stakes they simply can’t and shouldn’t be playing, and how we try to sell poker pros as fun-loving, free-wheeling people with the world at their fingers.
To be clear, I have never degen’ed my bankroll away, or even thought about doing such a thing. When I had bad sessions I usually tilted a bit like everyone does, but the idea of jumping up in stakes to run it back up never crossed my mind, and I usually quit playing after the next beat –whether it was a bad play on my part or a bad beat.
Basically, I tried to never take the game personally.
But what I’ve realized since I stepped away from the poker tables as a full time player is that plenty of people do think along these lines.
When I stopped playing professionally I realized that my perspective on poker was very biased and mostly viewed through rose-colored lenses.
The illusion of your opponents
It’s hard to notice this when you’re wrapped up in the poker (counter)culture.
When you’re playing poker day-in and day-out your waking thoughts are consumed by making EV decisions, hourly rates, and you MUST make a concerted effort to separate your opponents from their human cords.
What I mean by this is you must be apathetic (and sometimes antipathetic) to the real world implications that the exchanging of money at the poker table is causing.
As a poker player trying to make a living playing the game I had no interest in whether or not the 4-seat just lost the $200 that was supposed to be their daughter’s new bike or if he was an independent wealthy business owner who could burn through $2,000 without a care in the world.
I didn’t care if the min-buying senior citizen who for whatever reason requests a seat change button the moment he sits down every single day was losing money he needed for prescriptions to keep his diabetes or cholesterol in check or if he was collecting a massive pension every month without a care in the world.
Nowadays when I play poker I am acutely aware of these things. I wonder where the money is coming from and whether or not it was set aside for poker (disposable income) or if it was supposed to serve some other purpose.
I no longer see the looks of dejection, guilt, embarrassment, and anger as the sign of a tilted player and easy money, I see it for what it is in the real-world, not the poker world: a person who probably just made a very bad decision.
Yes, it is their bed and they have to sleep in it (nobody forced them to play poker), and the poker mantra of “they were going to lose it to somebody so it may as well be me” certainly rings true, but like Daniel Colman stated on 2+2 after his One Drop victory:
“… if someone is dumb enough to gamble with money they cant afford to lose, that’s their problem. Im not really buying that though. “
This aspect of the game, this apathy towards your fellow human beings (perhaps why we tend to refer to them as villains and opponents in poker parlance) is even more pronounced online, where you don’t even have to pretend to ignore the look on their face, and some players openly mock the fish, perhaps hitting closer to home than they realize with their taunts about the person losing their rent money.
When I played poker all the time these thoughts never crossed my mind, now they do.
Essentially what Colman is saying, and what I’ve definitely started to believe over the past several years is that the bill of goods we’ve been sold about the game is full of a lot of false promises (to be fair, so are many life pursuits).
Anyone can play poker, and you could be the next Chris Moneymaker!
Poker isn’t gambling, it’s a game of skill, a competition of wits.
Implement these strategies and you’ll be better than 90% of your opponents.
The illusion of skill
We keep calling it a game of skill, but trying to quantify the skill element is quite difficult and an impossible exercise for most players to undertake. Sure, you can quickly learn to play poker better than 90% of your opponents, but only about 5% of poker players win in the long run, and only about 1-2% win enough to survive on.
What being better than 90% of your opponents does is give you the false hope that you’re actually good at poker; that you can make a go of it and win in the long-run.
As another 2+2 poster put it:
… poker might be a strategy game in theory, however for most player it is just full blown gambling. They are guaranteed to lose their money in the long run, with a higher rate compared to typical gambling games.
Secondly, poker might be even worse than typical games of gambling… losing players might have is that it is indeed a game of strategy… this leads to them blaming variance/luck… Most people don’t realise they suck, they blame luck in poker.
One time I talked to someone who told me he earned $2000,- a month, and deposits $700,- a month to pokersites. I busted him, he of course blamed luck, told me to wait so he could wire some money from his savings to his normal bank account and from that to the poker site…
Not only will most people in a poker game lose money at a faster rate than they would at say a roulette wheel or even buying lottery tickets (where they at least have a chance to get lucky and book a big win) but it’s even worse for players who have some skill, but not enough to beat the game.
Realistically, could anyone observing a game tell the difference between a player who wins 1 Big Blind an hour and a player who loses 1 Big Blind an hour?
Does the player losing 1 Big Blind an hour even realize he is losing player and not just running below expectation? Does he or she fudge their win/loss amounts to fool themselves they are winning (maybe forgetting that one big loss) when they are not?
Poker is a skill game, but being skilled at poker isn’t enough to make you a winner. You have to be among the best. And you have to be emotionally stable, avoid leaks, practice strong money management, and so much more.
The life of a poker pro is also an illusion
I’ll begin this header with another quote from Daniel Colman’s 2+2 post:
“It is not a game where the pros are always happy and living a fulfilling life. To have a job where you are at the mercy of variance can be insanely stressful and can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits. I would never in a million years recommend for someone to try and make it as a poker pro.”
It’s also a rough life, full of cheaters, scammers, hustlers, flat out criminals, degenerates, and hangers on, all looking to part you from your money.
The casinos themselves are little more than a cornucopia of attractions designed to lure you into placing a bad bet or spending money on some product or service you don’t need and probably can’t afford.
It’s not just about not losing either. When you win you must disregard the devil on your right shoulder telling you to go take that $5k you just won and live it up a little bit in the bar or buy that Rolex you always wanted. After all you deserve with how good you played tonight!
And the casino is there with all the right lures.
It’s bad enough you have to navigate a minefield of players trying to take your money, but then you must resist the lure of the casino and its vices, and guard against the scammers and criminals.
It’s a stressful existence.
The illusion of stakes
Don’t get me wrong, poker is an excellent game. It can teach us many life lessons and sharpen our wits. But I feel that advertising and promoting the game as a career choice is probably not the best idea. Promoting it as a fun, enjoyable game, that you COULD win at is a much better idea.
What is even more troubling is the smoke and mirror show we sometimes use. Such as the idea that the One Drop tournament is a $1,000,000 buy-in tournament.
Remember in the opening when I said Colman won $15 million? Well he didn’t. Colman had 10% of himself in the tournament, and when you stop and think about it, it’s a bit sickening that we are essentially lying to the viewing audience about what is possible in poker, and what these players are really winning and what the stakes are they are playing for.
The best pros cannot afford this tournament (most tournament pros are staked for every tournament they play), yet we are casting an all-enveloping illusion that they can.
We are selling a product and a way of life that doesn’t really exist, and perhaps leading susceptible people down a path they shouldn’t travel with false hopes of being a poker pro and making millions, while sleeping until noon and partying at night.
My advice is this: If you want to play poker do what most of us do and play for money you can afford to lose, and more importantly play for money that win or lose you will have fun and enjoy your time at the poker table.
If you do, you will see the beauty and majesty that is poker and see why so many of us love the game, and who knows, maybe you’ll be good enough to beat the stakes you play. If you’re in it only for the money… good luck to you.
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