It's Time To Clean Up Poker (Part 3)
by Dusty Schmidt | Published: May 02, '11
I’m a professional poker player.
But I’m not a gambler.
Does that sound funny to you? It doesn’t to me. I consider gambling to be laying money down on an event in which I have no hand in the actual outcome. That does not describe poker.
Prior to this season (when I laid down a few well-documented bets on my Oregon Ducks), I’d only gambled on one game in my life, which resulted in three of the most gut-wrenching hours of my life. It was much like that night in high school when you first drank to excess, then spent the night on the bathroom floor saying, “God, if you just get me through tonight and I don’t die, I swear I’ll never drink again.”
I did manage to get through that night, and swore off the gambling life forever. But I didn’t give up poker.
When I first moved to Oregon seven years ago, I was in the relative infancy of my poker career. I was 24 and a year had experienced a heart attack that effectively ended what I thought would be a career in professional golf. Having taken up the online game as a way to fuel my competitive desires as well as pay my bills, my good friend Matt Amen, who was then attending University of Oregon, said I should move to Eugene so I could have a lower cost of living (relative to Southern California) and really give a poker career a shot. He also suggested that I live next door with a guy who was looking to rent a room in his house.
That guy was Casey Martin.
Casey, who has a painful congenital condition in his leg, was at the time a professional golfer who was most famous for successfully suing the PGA Tour for the right to ride a golf cart during competition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He’d been something of a hero of mine; in fact, I wrote my final high school paper on him.
Casey is a wonderful guy, very good poker player and a devout Christian, living by a very strict moral code that I admire greatly. After I came to live with him, he started catching some grief from people around his club who admonished him for living with a gambler.
His response went something to the effect of “How is what he does different from what I did for a living? We both have a unique skill. We both put money down as an entry fee, and that money is held by someone we trust. We match skills with other players who we hope are not as up to the task as we are. We both get paid for the outcome.
“We’re really no different. If you have a problem, you should have a problem with me.”
If we want online poker legalized in America, we need to help our fellow citizens see the game as Casey does. This is going to be a huge part — if not the biggest part — of getting the game legalized here. Too often, when asked why our government should sanction poker, our default is either A) Because we like it and this is the U-S-of-freakin’-A, so live and let live, baby; or B) Because the U.S. allows gambling on horses and the lottery, so to not allow online poker is a hypocrisy.
Now, I agree with both of those points, but neither is going to hold water legislatively. What we need to articulate is that while there is risk involved, skill is the ultimate arbiter of who wins and who loses in poker.
The truth is we are far more like chess masters than gamblers. In fact, it was an American chess champion who is also a great poker player who helped me learn about poker when I was new to the game. I recall a conversation we once had where he described to me that he felt poker was every bit as intellectually challenging as chess. Despite this, while chess masters are talked about in reverent tones and thought to be brilliant, we allow ourselves to be portrayed as punks and social pariahs for the simple fact that money is present in our game.
As I wrote in Treat Your Poker Like A Business, defining poker as a game of skill is actually quite simple. To do so, you just need to forget about winning at poker and think for a moment about losing. Is it possible to intentionally lose a poker game? Yes, of course. But is it possible to intentionally lose a game like roulette or craps. No, it’s not.
In games of chance, the participant cannot control the outcome. Whether your intent is to win or lose the lottery, your odds remain the same. The superstitious may disagree, but no matter how many times you pull the handle on a slot machine, your odds remain the same each time you put your coins in the slot.
But in poker, your actions can influence the outcome of a hand. You will absolutely lose if you choose to fold every single hand no matter what cards you hold. If you call bets with a hand that cannot win the pot, you will also lose every time. This is the difference between a game of chance and a game of skill.
It’s common knowledge among poker players that chance is a factor in any given hand, but over many hands poker skill will even things out, with the more expert players making a profit. At the higher stakes games I play now, I win approximately 55 percent of the time. If I play 20 tables at once, I expect to show a profit at 11 and lose at nine. This is a slim profit margin, but a profit nonetheless. If I were playing quarter games, my win-loss ratio would be about 80-20, meaning that if I played 20 tables, I could expect to win at 16 of them and lose at four.
There are some games that are skill games, but are not necessarily profitable. Take blackjack for example: It is most definitely a skill game because the outcome can easily be influenced through your actions. You can lose every single hand to the dealer if you just keep on hitting until you bust. Conversely, you can play mathematically perfect blackjack and do much better; however, the odds are stacked against any person who doesn’t count cards, and the game cannot be beaten in the long run.
In poker, we’re competing against other people in what I feel is the perfect marriage of chance and skill. A poker player is frequently all in with a card or two to come (and possibly several more cards to come if there’s an agreement to “run it twice”). There’s certainly a rush that comes when you are all in, especially given the aspect that chance will ultimately dictate in which direction the chips slide.
But if you’re a skilled poker player — or at least more skilled than the opponents you’re facing — you’ll more often than not have a mathematical edge on your opponent because you’ll have a hand or run a high percentage bluff that will have a better chance of winning the pot.
If you continually make good poker decisions and risk chips with the best hand more often than not, skill will be the primary factor in whether or not you win or lose money. Games of chance cannot make that claim.
In this sense, poker is very much like other quintessentially American businesses. Take insurance, for example. Their job is essentially to make plus-EV bets. Their internal calculation goes something like this: “According to his age and driving history, Dusty Schmidt has a 10% chance of getting in a wreck this year that would cost $10,000 out of pocket. We should therefore charge him $83.33 (12 x $83.33 = $1,000) to break even, but in order to make a tidy profit, we’ll charge him $200 per month.” The insurance company might have an inordinately bad day where an inordinate amount of insured motorists are in a huge pileup) perhaps a major earthquake occurs, for example), but because they have millions of insured cars and drivers across the country, there will be very little variance. Their existence, like the existence of poker players, is predicated on making right-sized bets and adjustments so that income (premiums) exceeds expenses (claims).
I could go on and on comparing online poker to day trading, being a salesman or being a three-point specialist in the NBA. The point is that we are allowing ourselves to be misportrayed if we are unable to state this argument clearly.
Can you think of any other industry that is $40 billion and 175 million participants strong, yet cannot get out of its own way when it comes to marketing?
Much of our issue in portraying ourselves as skilled practitioners has to do with how horribly poker is being depicted on television these days.
A typical PGA Tour golf tournament and the World Series of Poker final table draw roughly the same number of viewers, and far more people across the world play poker than golf. Yet the PGA Tour is in complete control of its product. And their advertisers (who are all Tier 1) pay a massive premium for this scarcity. And who is the presenting sponsor for the WSOP? A beef jerky company.
Augusta National golf club, who puts the Master’s Tournament, legislates that the attendees must be called “patrons,” the rough is called “the first cut,” and the event is not a championship, but a “tournament.” Meanwhile, over on ESPN we have Norman Chad and Lon Mccarron playing court jesters. (Having Chad doing analysis is the equivalent of having Carl Spackler provide insight at the Masters.) We’ve got Hellmuth throwing chairs, Scotty Nguyen dangling a cig saying “You call and it’s all over, baby”, and Ted Bort barking like a dog.
In short, we’ve become bad reality TV. Is Cadillac ever going to sponsor us at this rate? Much more importantly, is our government going to respect us if we don’t even respect ourselves?
We need a governing body that galvanizes all the parts of poker that are presently disparate and turns them into marketing leverage. By governing body, I do not mean a players union. I mean a commissioner’s office like they have in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball. As commissioner we need a Mark Cuban-type who can innovate and think of things no one’s thought of yet; who can see the game as it relates to the gaming market as a whole.
This office would oversee how we’re portrayed on TV, and make sure we’re represented as skilled and talented practitioners rather than the lucky ingrates of the week. They’d make sure the WSOP features analysts who know one hand from another, and that the broadcast doesn’t play to sub-moronic behavior.
One of the big reasons I chose to serve as an analyst at the recent Party Poker Big Game V is because I am thinking about the big picture for poker. I have long complained that the people networks hire to serve as commentators for the various poker shows are awful for the game of poker (or perhaps the direction they are getting from the network is awful). Most don’t have any clue what the players are thinking and rather than simply describing the action, they make pathetic attempts to describe the player’s thought process. The recent Poker After Dark that came with such anticipation when they announced arguably the best line up ever assembled on television, was so bad with Andy Bloch serving as analyst that I had to mute the television.
So when I was offered the chance to announce the Party Poker Big Game V and provide high level analysis that would lend insight into what the players at the table were really thinking, I jumped at the chance. I think poker needs that. It doesn’t need my analysis necessarily, but it needs an analyst that can accurately portray what is actually going on in the player’s heads. And if people are tuning in to poker and being presented high level thinking, they are going to be much more inclined to see us more as they see chess players. After all, not all of us are barking at our opponents and throwing chairs across the casino.
We’ve created a $40 billion pie despite ourselves. Imagine what we’d accomplish if we could explain how we did it.