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Why We Play

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 11, 2018

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This article is more opinion than fact, intended to generate more questions than it answers. But it’s an important topic I think, not just to understand poker, but also to understand games in general. The question is simple. Why do we like poker so much?
What is it about poker that works so well as a game? Why was it so popular in the 19th Century among American frontiersmen and also so popular in the 21st Century among some of the most mathematical people from all over the world?

If you think about that, it’s sort of remarkable. This game has appeal across centuries and among wildly different demographics. It’s a rare characteristic for any game. Chess has it. I can’t think of too many other games that have had both the longevity and widespread popularity of poker.

What is it about poker that’s made it successful? And what does this tell us about what forms of poker might succeed the most? Here’s what I think the most important factors are.

Strategic Depth

I think it’s fairly obvious this is the top factor in poker’s success. It’s a strategy game. But like chess, the strategy has depth to it. You can learn a little about how to play the game well and get better results. But then there’s more to learn. And more yet. And so on. No matter how good you are at the game, there’s always something new to work on. But you also don’t have a to be a genius to get this process started.

This property I think is the top reason people come back again and again to poker. People like the game because there’s always something new to learn about how to play the game well—and the reward for learning something new is better results.

This is actually a fairly rare property for games. Most strategic games are considerably simpler than poker, and once you learn the best strategy, you more or less have the game mastered.

And of the games that are as complex as poker, many of them feel very complex the first time you play them. Those games are harder to get into in the first place. Poker strikes a great balance.

Variance

Poker is a gambling game, and in general I think a gambling or random element keeps people coming back to games. Chess succeeds despite lacking this, but most game designers these days I think would agree that a random element tends to improve a game’s chance to catch on.

The random element is good because it helps weaker players sometimes beat stronger players which keeps the game interesting for both parties. It also often increases the complexity of the game because it forces players to explore parts of the game space that they otherwise might not.

On top of that comes the emotional rush we get from winning and losing money. I think it’s clear that the variance is an integral part of what makes poker successful.

Surface Simplicity

So another strong feature of poker is that it’s really a pretty easy game to pick up and play. Here is a case where I think some forms of poker have an advantage over others. For example, I think this is a big reason that Texas Hold’em caught on several decades ago and has survived in popularity through the huge explosion in poker’s popularity. It’s a simple game to play and understand. You have only two hole cards. The community cards are all face up. There are no discarded cards.

Omaha with its four hole cards is definitely more complicated. You have to train your brain to adapt to the “use two and only two cards” rule. And this rule arguably makes preflop hand selection more important in Omaha than in hold’em.

Hi-lo split pot games are obviously more complex than hold’em. Stud is also a fairly simple game on its surface, but in stud you have to memorize the face-up cards that have been folded—at least you do if you want to be competitive. This is more mental work than many players want to do in a game that’s meant to be casual or recreational.

Draw poker was the dominant form of the game for a long time, and I think the reason it succeeded for so long is its surface simplicity. There’s scarcely a poker game that’s easier for a beginner to understand than five card draw. The game doesn’t offer the strategic depth of some of the other games I just mentioned, which I think is why its popularity eventually waned.

Whenever I hear someone say, “Such-and-such is the game of the future,” I always think about how the game balances its surface simplicity with its strategic depth and compare it to hold’em. Usually, when I do this I tend to think hold’em is still the better game.

Self-Sorting By Skill Level

Another underappreciated fact about poker is that the game self-sorts by skill level. Because the game has such strategic depth, there is a huge range of skill levels from the typical recreational player to the most elite players in the world. I think many players do not appreciate how large this gap is. If you pit the very best players against typical casual players, the best players would win very quickly and consistently.

Also, for the most part, poker is open. If you want to play in a game and you have the buy-in, you can play. But a sort of magical property of poker is that it self-sorts so that if you are a casual, recreational player, you really have no fear that a group of world class players will invade your game and take your money. Why? Because it’s not worth their time.

The time spent playing the hands is simultaneously the reward for recreational players and the cost for professional players. This is really a gem of a quality for game design. High level pros don’t want to beat you up in your $2-$5 game because it would cost them too much time. Low stakes players therefore can consistently find games against others of roughly their skill levels—and they can buy the enjoyment of playing poker hands for a relatively low cost.

Other games like chess have to enforce sorting by skill level using external rating systems. There’s no rating system for poker, nor does there need to be. Everything mostly just works on its own.

Final Thoughts

In recent years I’ve been very critical of the design of some new, non-poker gambling games that have emerged. In most cases, the reason I’ve been dubious about these games is that they lacked one of these critical things that has made poker so successful. It’s the surface simplicity combined with the strategic depth. It’s the right amount of variance. It’s the fact that the skill gap between the best and worst players is huge—but the skill gap between players who typically play against one another is much smaller. Poker as a game is an incredible success, and I think it’s well worth thinking about exactly why we play. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.