the poker dilemma

preface: I wrote the first half of this a month ago, left it in my drafts because I didn’t think it was relevant, and then I got first place in a tournament… It was a new experience for me, and kinda unreal, but drives home the fun about poker a bit more and made me think about this blog again, so I finished it up.

I’ve loved poker since I was a kid. Mainly because I loved playing cards as a kid (lots of Big 2, Go Fish, Uno, Crazy Eights, Bridge), but also because I watched a lot of tv and somehow ended up watching poker whenever it was on ESPN or Sportsnet.

One of the cool things about poker is how big it’s become. Internet poker was actually a small thing when I was in elementary and high school. Serious poker players (pros) only played in casinos and in the huge sponsored tournaments. But some guy in 2003 named Chris Moneymaker qualified for one of those huge tournaments by playing online poker, and won the tournament. Every year the World Series of Poker has a main event tournament for each style of poker (with Texas Hold’em being the most popular) with first place prizes of several millions. And this guy in 2003, qualified from his home playing online, and ended up winning several million. This started a huge online poker craze, and nowadays every Internet player can think like, “if I’m just good enough online, I can be as good as the pros.” So online poker has become a huge community, and that’s how I got started.

I played free pokers games as a kid. It was just a fun thing to do on the Internet and I sucked, but I learned at least the basics about the game. There are two main types of poker games. There’s a tournament style where everyone in the tournament pays an entrance fee, and some of the finalists get a percentage of the total fees paid. There’s also a sit-and-go style, where you pay some amount of cash, and that’s how much money you have in that game, and you play other people who paid similar amounts. Since it’s still gambling, there’s still an element of “shit I don’t want to lose all my money”, so in these styles set limits on how much you want to spend on the game. You have to decide “I’m going to spend $1000 on this game AND THAT’S ALL I’M COMFORTABLE WITH”, and if you lose all of that you need to scale back down to maybe $100 instead of $1000, and so on, until you make up the money you lost.

The whole premise behind poker is probabilities. You’ll need at the very least some understanding of probabilities, and generally people who are very logical and strong with math can do well at poker.

The most attracting thing about probabilities, is that if you can calculate and play your probabilities perfect, you are pretty much guaranteed to make more money than you lose. It’s hard to explain perfectly, but because there are 52 cards in a deck, you have 2 cards, your opponents each have 2 cards, and there are 5 cards on the table possibly, there’s a finite number of hands that could be possible. Because it’s finite, based on the cards on the table and what you think your opponent has, you can give a probability about what chance you have to win. And if you only ever bet less money than that percentage, then over time you will do well because you are underpaying for better odds. I can’t do it justice, but it’s actually a really logical and “by the steps” approach to the game (and making money), and that’s why it’s so fascinating and cool to me, especially now since programming and math (and Starcraft!) generally embraces similar logic and reasoning.

So I’ve started playing a lot more poker, mainly live because it’s illegal to gamble online in the USA, and I haven’t found many places to play in Canada, where I do play online.

As I’m getting more experience, I’m starting to notice a strange phenomenon. Playing poker well is about being very logical in your decision making and choices. There’s a well documented problem players have called tilt, that happens when you become emotional and stray from that perfect logic and make really unreasonable decisions. Usually that happens when you lose a lot when you thought you should have won. But oddly I’ve noticed it happening to me when I start winning.

I’m not a bad player (I hope), so sometimes I end up winning by quite a lot (a bit of luck sprinkled in). But since this is the first time I’ve been playing real games for a lot of money ($50-100 buy-in fee to play), sometimes I’m up by quite a bit, and I suddenly feel bad. When I have good hands, I bluff by pretending to have a bad hand, which makes my opponent think they can beat my hand (which they can’t). And then I win a lot of money.

But later on, I start feeling bad about it. It’s stupid to feel bad about it because it’s part of the game and that’s how it works, but I do anyways. And it messes up my game. I’ll play stupid hands, make stupid bets and kind of like try to give them the money back by being stupid. It’s actually really annoying.

I have this overwhelming need to please everyone I know, and it usually really bugs me when I find out that someone doesn’t like me. So doing something like taking money from someone by tricking them doesn’t really sit well with me. Or that’s what I think is going on. I really want to play poker, and play poker well, but if this happens every time I do well, it won’t go well… It’s a weird place to be at honestly, but I’m sure I can get over the weirdness. Just a small problem I’ve been seeing I want to beat.

one month later I played in a 24 player tournament last week. Everyone buys in for $60, and the top 5 people get money. I played fairly well, and when I got great cards I got a lot of value out of them. I ended up winning the tournament which felt really good. I didn’t feel that weirdness I get from bluffing this time, because in a tournament everyone plays more safely, and it’s harder to win overwhelmingly. Most of my cards were just played solidly and every time I won or lost, it made sense. Still, it’s really fun to play and do well and not be hit with that pang of guilt. :) Hopefully there’s more poker to come.


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