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The Only Immutable Law of Life is Change

The world of poker has changed

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Jun 11, 2008


When I was 22, I won significantly more money playing poker than my dad, an engineer with a master's degree who died in his 50s when I was 15, earned in any year of his life. It was not much money by today's multimillion-dollar tournament standards, but it was more money than I ever thought I'd see. Life rocked! Guys like me were rare. Most of the players beating up on poker back in the '70s were either wily old rounders or slick hustlers, not 22-year-olds.

At the age of 23 and 24, the drug dealers of Seattle knew me well. I wasn't mature enough to handle my own success! At 24, broke and freshly out of rehab, I borrowed $200 from an ex-girlfriend. I bought into a $2-$4 hold'em game at the Hideaway Cardroom in Seattle. I won $125 in a 12-hour session, and haven't looked back since. At 51, I'm a conservative, upper-middle-class guy, living a white-picket-fence life, and much more likely to vote for John McCain than either of the Democrats. Happiness is a bogey round of golf, followed by talking to my daughter about cheerleader practice over family dinner, my Welsh Corgi begging for food at my feet.

I've surely changed, as has poker!

Today, numerous hotshots in their early 20s can play. And because of the Internet, where they play four, eight, or more tables at once, getting 70-plus hands an hour at each, some have played more hands than I have in more than 60,000 hours at the tables! I'm lucky to play 4,000 live hands in a month; some youngsters play that in a day.

One big difference is today's prevalence of no-limit hold'em poker. Back in my salad days, the Texas Rounders -- Doyle, Sailor, Puggy, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, and their compatriots -- had cleaned up every no-limit hold'em game in the country, making limit the more prevalent game. In no-limit hold'em, money moves from bad players to good players much faster than in limit. One modern variation of the game that has kept 21st-century no-limit hold'em healthy is the institution of maximum buy-ins at many poker venues, stabilizing the economy of the game.

I have long held that the most important poker decision you make is what game you choose. You don't need to be the best player in the world to perform well, just one of the two or three best at your table, in most situations.

Nowadays, game selection transcends assessment of the field. You must pick a form of poker that lends itself to your strengths. Live or online? Online, should you play two, three, four, eight, or more games? Public or private games? Heads up, shorthanded, or full ring games? Cash games or tournaments? Sit-and-gos, satellites, or multitable events? Limit or no-limit? Hold'em, stud, Omaha, or mixed games like R.O.E. and H.O.R.S.E.? And innumerable permutations and variations of all of the above.

Each of these variations lends itself to different skill sets. I know one fellow who plays $2-$4 no-limit hold'em online on four screens, and averages $23 an hour in each game, for a $96 an hour earn. Another plays two $330 sit-and-gos at once, and is averaging about $50 an hour. These are respectable results for most poker players. One friend plays $10-$20 through $50-$100 no-limit hold'em, live and online, and earns more than $300 an hour. You must explore the game's variations, honestly assess your strengths, and select the best niche for yourself. It is significantly easier to excel at one form of the game than to try to excel at many.

Thirty years ago, few quality books were available. Game theory was in its infant stage. I owe much of my early poker success to David Sklansky's first book on hold'em, which, then, was pretty much the only book out there. I was one of the few in the cardroom where I played who had read it. It provided powerfully good knowledge for the game as it then existed. Today, there are thousands of books from which to learn. If you aren't reading Harrington, Gordon, the Full Tilt book, and Sklansky, you are giving up edge to those who are. If you don't visit forums like those at, you must hate money.

One of the modern learning tools is online video analysis. There's some at I have had to adapt to the modern age to survive. I compare the kids of today who use these tools with where I was at 23, and am awed by what they have achieved and what they know.

There is a caveat to all poker information. Prominent 1950s sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon was once asked if 90 percent of science fiction was crap. He responded, "Of course it is. Ninety percent of everything is crap." There's a lot of crap out there, and you must learn to separate the gems from the cubic zirconias!

Change never stops. Some of today's best action can be found in Oklahoma, Arizona, and even (though very restricted) Florida. Pennsylvania and West Virginia are opening up, and show great promise. Eventually, it's likely that New York, Illinois, and Texas will legalize the game. The UIGEA will eventually be repealed, reinvigorating the online game. Change, change, and more change.

A philosopher friend of my collaborator John Bond once said, "The only immutable law of life is change." He was right. And if you want to continue to beat the game, you must adapt to its changes -- as must I. If we don't, those who do will take our money -- and neither you nor I would want that.

Roy Cooke and his collaborator John Bond have written for Card Player since 1992. They have four poker books in print, including their most recent, How to Think Like a Poker Pro. Please see Roy's real estate ad on this page.