April 27, 2008

Poker: It's Not About The Money

The more I play it, the more I become convinced that Poker is the finest card game on the table. It has an unfortunate stigma because of its ties with gambling (which can be devastating when abused), but that stigma us undeserved. Poker is a remarkable game that perfectly blends both skill and chance, and can be thoroughly enjoyed without even one penny exchanging hands.

It's Not About Money
I of course cannot ignore that one of the biggest draws of poker is the high-stakes poker that you can watch on TV. Anytime hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions of dollars change hands within the span of only a few minutes, you have yourself a pretty exciting spectacle.

While the prospect of winning money through some well-played gaming is certainly enticing, my experience has proven that the game can be very engaging without even one penny changing hands. In fact, I've never played poker for money. I prefer it that way. By focusing only on winning the game and not on winning the money, I am able to play my best and learn from my mistakes, while avoiding having to actually pay for my mistakes.

The Mark of a Good Game
I am a game-playing fool. Whether it's video games, board games, parlor games or mind games, you can talk me into playing anything once. And if it's a great game, I risk becoming obsessed with it!

So, what makes a game great? I think it is best defined as the perfect mix of simplicity, challenge and luck. Poker scores high on every measure.

Let's face it. If a game has too many rules, you eventually find yourself spending more time thinking about the rules than about playing the game. Go Fish, for instance, is remarkably easy to explain to somebody (which is why it's such a popular children's game). Many collectible card games such as Magic The Gathering or the now defunct Star Wars game produced by Decipher, however, tend to dilute what are initially simple rules with the introduction of new expansion sets that either update the rules or present new exceptions.

The most difficult part of learning to play Poker is understanding the ranks of hands. That process is dealt with simply by providing newcomers with a list of the relative values. Betting is easy enough to understand, too: when it's your turn, you match the previous bid (if there is one) or increase the bid. It's not Go Fish or 52-Card Pick-up, but Poker is easily learned in only a few minutes.

Learning to play it well, however, is another story. In poker, you learn quickly that even though you understand the rules, there are still volumes of information about the game that you have yet to learn! To play well, you need to develop a number of skills that challenge you to amass the fullest strength of your powers of concentration. Slip up at all and you'll lose to somebody else that's paying better attention to details.

It surprises people to learn that poker is very much a game of skill. Things like understanding probability, remembering what cards have been played, discovering the other player's betting styles and being careful not to keep your own playing style a secret can certainly keep you on your toes!

For me, the allure of poker is that in the end, the actual value of your hand doesn't matter. If you aren't playing well, you could win $10 with four aces, and lose $1000 in the next round to somebody that only has a pair of kings!

But what would poker be without the element of luck? I would argue that luck is that part of the game that keeps people coming back to it. Luck gives a weaker player the hope that he can still win, while at the same time keeping even the most experienced players humbled.

To understand the importance of luck, consider chess. Chess involves no luck whatsoever (unless you count those times when your opponent doesn't recognize that he can checkmate you in two moves). Assuming that both players know the rules of chess, it becomes only a game of strategy versus strategy. If you are playing a significantly better player, you have no chance of winning. And if you've played a significantly better player, you will know what I mean!

With poker, however, it's quite easy to have a scenario where a clumsy player has been playing recklessly throughout the game. A better player then gets it in his head to teach the careless player a lesson and ropes him into betting more and more until finally he's "all-in". But when the cards are turned over, the reckless player takes it all!

The Perfect Mix
So, there you have it. Poker is the perfect card game because it's a perfect blending of simplicity, challenge and luck. And most importantly, you don't even need to risk any real money to enjoy the game (you do, however, have to really want to win).

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