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by David Downing |  Published: Sep 01, 2009


The classic analogy is to say that poker is a mirror. In the same way as other activities reveal your true nature unalloyed, so does poker, leaving you stark and staring into a truer reflection.

I don’t think this is true. Rather, poker is a prism. You shine the light of your poker playing through it and your character is smashed into its component parts, making up the spectrum of the kind of person you really are.

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One of the most obvious of these streams, right smack in the visible spectrum, is are you a winning player? This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. One of the great joys for winning live players was the simple fact that losing players simply did not keep good enough track of their bad habits. I can think of one infamous fish in my old school who even now believes he is a winning player.

Unfortunately, the Internet brought to an end this happy delusion, through the simple fact that credit card statements do not lie, in the same way as cash in your pocket can. You can pretend that the cash went elsewhere, the human race has a long history of blind stupidity in the face of incontrovertible evidence. But you cannot pretend that on your Amex bill is anything other than what it is.

Even for so-called winning players, the wavelength of this spectrum can be hard to find. Many use pretty basic statistical tools to calculate win rate and bankroll requirements, without really understanding quite how basic they are for the task. For example, most of them use statistical methods derived from the maths of sampling. This is where you want to measure the characteristic of a population, say the size of peas, without the laboriousness of having to measure each and every one. But here is a question for you: in poker what are you actually measuring, and in what way is the hand played a sample of that seeming population?

Here is another even scarier question: what happens when the whole population changes? This may seem far-fetched, but this is exactly what you would have seen happen if you measured from the Internet boom to now. There are certainly players who are losers overall on the games now, but were significant winners in those halcyon days of nearly unlimited bad players with the cash to prove it.

A related wavelength exposed by the prism of playing is: how do you cope with these changes over the long term? There is no doubt in my mind that I did not maximise my earn during the boom years. Although I earned a healthy amount for an amateur, I didn’t break through to the serious earning potential and I foolishly frittered away my bankroll. The opportunity cost of this kind of mistake is enormous, hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long term. Although I am still winning, in comparison, it is chicken-feed. I won the battle, but lost the war.

One of my favourite elements diffracted by poker is one beyond the visible spectrum for most players. Morality. This is beyond ultraviolet and needs a space telescope for some players to even recognise what we are discussing. I am not referring to cheating, but rather the mentality of “if it is in the rules, or not explicitly outlawed, I can do it”. One example would be the idiotic and pointlessness of live players insisting on seeing a folded hand, just because they can. Often they do not know how to apply the knowledge they get, and they do not realize that the metagame factors they create far outweigh the advantage they were trying to gain in the first place. If they so annoy “the provider” that they make him leave, now knowing one or two extra hands he played is completely pointless.

Online, one of the great, “it’s in the rules so it’s okay” concepts is stalling in tournaments. This is the practice of delaying every action hoping that someone else busts out before you, moving you up in the payout schedule. Many sites have tried to put in place mechanisms to frustrate this, but it is pervasive. One of the galling things about this, is that if every player did it, tournaments would cease to function. It can only work when some people have a higher moral standard and act normally. When you confront the evil-doers on this, they tend to look at you as if you have demanded black is white, or turned gravity off. And this is the ultimate problem with not being able to see this spectrum. You stop seeing other things too, and a corrosive light of “well, but” starts to burn through, laser-like, other aspects of your life. Once you have crossed a line, other lines become very easy to cross.
“We do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” John F. Kennedy Spade Suit

David has played poker all over the UK for the better part of a decade. Originally a tournament player, now focused on cash play and almost entirely on the Internet for the last three years, he makes a healthy second income playing a wide range of games. David is also an Omaha instructor for, a leading source of online poker instructional videos.