Why I Play Poker

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What mighty contests arise from trivial things. ~~ Alexander Pope

Throughout the whirlwind of my life during the last several years has been one constant, the game of poker.  I admit it, I’ve become a poker player and in a big way.  Here’s a few of the reasons why.

I liked poker professional Annie Duke when I watched her second-place finish during season 2 of the TV reality show Celebrity Apprentice.  It was the spring of 2009 and a disappointing loss to the totally classless, foul-mouthed comedienne Joan Rivers.  I knew very little about poker, not even the difference between a full house and a flush. But it was Duke’s example and how she held up to the ridicule of her profession that would influence my decision to learn more about her game.  It would turn out to be a life-changing event.

I know what some of you are thinking.  Poker?  That disreputable game of degenerate, down on their luck, addicted gamblers?  Those sad souls hoping for that one big score, playing in smoke-filled backrooms full of dog kickers and child molesters?  You’re just another gambler wasting your life in a loser’s game!  How unfortunate it is that poker in the minds of some is so misunderstood and regarded as a socially unacceptable way to pursue competition.  A game likened to visions of zombie gamblers glued to slot machines.  It’s true people are mostly down on the things they’re least up on.

You’re a poker player?  A poker player?  That’s beyond white trash.  Poker players are trash darling, trash! ~~ Joan Rivers

Pokers history is woven within the very fabric of our country dating back to the Civil War.  It has a long-storied past.  One ripe with American folklore and colorful characters with their rough edges and a prowess and aptitude for women, hard-drinking and guns.  But poker has come a long ways from the deadly “Wild Bill” Hickok hand aces and eights of 1876 in old west Deadwood, to the Chris Moneymaker effect of modern-day Las Vegas in 2003.

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Baseball is said to be our country’s national pastime but poker has been our national game for decades.  True, more people watch baseball, but many millions more play poker.  It was a common pastime in World War Two for our American soldiers and for many of the politicians and others who led them through the conflict.  General Eisenhower learned the game as a boy and often played clandestine games while a West Point cadet.  He played throughout both World Wars, including twice-weekly games with his friend George Patton.  Winston Churchill played both Roosevelt and Truman in regular games in the White House.  Poker bankrolled Richard Nixon’s first campaign to Congress.  Even Barack Obama enjoys its competitive allure, hosting his own home games and describing himself as a “pretty good poker player.”  He is the first poker-playing president since Nixon 40 years ago, but because poker is a political hot potato the president downplays his participation in it.  “American Puritanism,” it’s written “has turned playing poker for tiny stakes into radioactive information.”*

It’s estimated 60-million people play poker in the U.S. and more than 100-million worldwide.  It includes a diverse community from doctors, and lawyers to police officers, gangsters, magicians and IT workers.  Teachers, accountants, construction workers, mechanics and great-grandmothers compete with the best of them.

In poker its players become accepted members of a long-standing fraternity.  All of us who play seriously are drawn together by its uniqueness, its social aspects and its fierce competitive spirit.  Some would say it’s the greatest game ever devised but it is not for the faint in heart nor the weak in spirit.  Poker is ruthlessly predatory, it is cutthroat, thrives on weakness.  Poker is war while people only pretend it’s a game.  It is instantly unforgiving.  One minute we’re celebratory while the next we’re suffering the other extreme that this fickle pursuit deals to us.

There is a democratic fairness to poker and its most like the free-market system, an equal opportunity game where, unlike every other casino game, the house has no advantage.  The poker table is the perfect meeting place, a social gathering but also a brutal battlefield. Despite how different its competitors, our backgrounds, how rich or otherwise, our education, our social standing or our athleticism, poker is the great equalizer.  None of those things matter.  No other arena is as all-inclusive. Its biggest event, the annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), is a case in point.  There you will find men and women of all ages — 21-92 this year — and every race and background competing as equals.  World champions can be seated next to housewives and truck drivers, Muslims next to Southern Baptists.

Tomorrow November 4th begins the final two days of the WSOP.  The 2013 Main Event reconvenes with the final table of the “November Nine.”  The first place prize is the richest of any competition.  This years $8.3-million is at least 50% larger than the first place prize money awarded at The Masters, Wimbledon, and the Daytona 500 — all of them combined!  More than 79,000 players from 107 countries entered this years 62 tournament events of the WSOP.  The total prize pool was a record $197-million.  And all that money came exclusively from the players themselves.  The World Series of Poker is an annual affirmation about the strength and global appeal of the game that is as all-American as apple pie.

Joe Cada

2009 WSOP Main Event Champion Joe Cada

To the uninformed poker is deceiving.  It’s simple yet there are countless subtleties and variables.  There are card combinations and varying skill levels players are constantly up against.  Opponents can represent their weakness or their strength, whether real or fantasy, using irrational behavior and mind games to bluff, to confuse and to annoy their competitors.  Poker demands flexibility and uncommon, multifaceted situational analysis.  Computer programs have proven that software and computational power can be used to humble and overwhelm the best world chess champions.  But not so with poker, for it is far more complex and never transparent.  No computer, despite its perfect poker face, has been able to beat above-average human competitors in the typical multi-player game.

Poker strategy involves aggression, passivity, guile, probability, psychology, mathematics and monetary considerations.  With every turn of the cards, with every bet, every subtle yet revealing movement or look it is brain vs. brain.  Poker is the ultimate mind sport, a game in which the best often play the player more than they play the cards.  Because of all these factors the game is ripe with useful life lessons about sociology, patience, perseverance, commitment, reason vs. emotion, human nature, even money management and much more.  Our American lexicon is full of pokerisms from “the new deal” to “the buck stops here.”  Business, political and legal negotiations rely on “calling their bluff,” “showing his cards,” “playing the hand you’re dealt” and making them “fold under pressure.”

For me poker is more intellectually stimulating and rewarding than any other game I’ve ever played.  It is pleasure, it is fun, it’s stressful, raw competition and it is controversial.  It requires study, skill, discipline, fearlessness and mental toughness to enjoy long-term success.  The challenge of out-thinking and outplaying your opponents; the psychology, the manipulation, the deceit — all weapons of the game — make it profoundly and uniquely gratifying.

The poker table is a great place to meet interesting people from all walks of life and among its surroundings I’ve come to know and make some great friends..  It’s an opportunity to challenge myself among all-comers and to sit with the absolute best of them.  I mean really, what’s not to like about poker?  And by the way… thank you Annie Duke.

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There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker. Why, I have known clergymen, good men, kind-hearted, liberal, sincere, and all that, who did not know the meaning of a ‘flush.’ It is enough to make one ashamed of one’s species. ~~ Mark Twain
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2 comments on “Why I Play Poker

  1. LeRoy Bloom says:

    Haven’t played poker in almost 50 years.

    • Rick Gleason says:

      It’s changed a lot from those days but if it was seven-card stud you played, you’d have a big advantage to win in the WSOP. It’s still part of the competition but few play it anymore. Always good to hear from you Lee. I’m hanging in there!

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