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Matt Matros: Who Gets To Play?

Matros Offers Up Some Way To Increase The Poker Player Pool


Matt MatrosPoker often gets trumpeted as a true meritocracy, and with good reason. The deck of cards knows nothing about a player’s gender, ethnicity, bank account, or tournament resume. The professional poker player will get good hands and bad hands with the same frequency as the weekend gambler. Over the (very) long run, it’s skill and skill alone that determines winners and losers.

This idea of results as the ultimate arbiter of ability, is one of poker’s most appealing aspects. No poker player need worry about having a boss evaluate his performance, or demote him to a non-poker playing position. The game takes care of all that. If you’re not a good player, you’ll eventually lose your money; but if your skills are strong and your money management is sound, then there aren’t enough naysayers in the world to stop you from turning a profit. A purist would describe poker as a perfect allocator of capital. The only problem is, there are some people who don’t get to play in the first place.

In a true meritocracy, everyone would start out on equal footing. Poker players do not start out on equal footing. A person with disposable income, the luxury of free time, and the good fortune to be part of a community (whether online, or at a university, or elsewhere) where a discussion of poker will be taken seriously has an enormous advantage over a person who lacks such things. A new player who can afford to subscribe to training services, buy up all of Ed Miller’s books, and lose a few thousand dollars while gaining her poker apprenticeship has an obvious edge over someone with only an internet connection (to say nothing of someone without an internet connection). A new player who doesn’t have to work long hours will have more time to study and to face live competition, than someone who only gets to read one or two articles in the half-hour before he goes to sleep. Perhaps most importantly, a person with ready access to a poker mentor will climb the learning curve with extreme rapidity, while a person going it alone has a near impossible road ahead.

It’s not a coincidence that those segments of the population who start out at a disadvantage in poker, start out with a disadvantage in many other aspects of life as well. Writers tend to come from affluent communities because it’s easier to write full-time for little or no money if you’re not forever in danger of missing rent. Artists have been supported by grants and patronage since time immemorial. And despite the persistence of the Horatio Alger-like narrative of the young man turning to basketball to get himself out of poverty, an Arizona State study of NBA players showed that among African-Americans, a child from a low-income family had a 37 percent worse chance of making the NBA than a child from a middle- or upper-income family, while poor white athletes were 75 percent less likely to become pros than their wealthier counterparts. The hand you’re dealt matters in poker, but it matters far more in life.

There is no clear solution to this problem—although many people far nobler than I have devoted their lives to try to come up with one—but the problem is very much worth solving. As society at large would benefit by reducing the number of people living in poverty, so too would expanding poker’s player base benefit everyone involved in the game. More players means more games, means more opportunities for serious players and professionals to select the best tables, and more options for recreational and break-even players to find a weekend game and help keep the poker economy afloat. Not to mention that poker strategy itself would only get richer by increasing the number of perspectives, and some of us think it’s to our advantage to constantly have new strategic ideas to evaluate.

While there won’t be a quick fix that brings poker to the masses, here are a few ideas for how we can start.

1) Spread tournaments with very small buy-ins. I’m talking five, two, or even one dollar. These micro events were enormously helpful for online cardrooms to expand their player base, and while brick-and-mortar casinos would see a short-term loss spreading events like these, I believe there’s a long-term coup ahead if they do.

2) Spread faster tournaments. Virtually every event seems to take at least two days in this era, and that’s massively discouraging for people with jobs. It’s so much easier for a casual player to get to the casino for just one day (or maybe just one evening!). As casual players come to the poker room more often, they’ll meet more players, they’ll fall into the poker community, and they’ll be more likely to become lifelong customers.

3) Teach poker at the youth level. Scoff if you want, but there’s a lot to be learned about discipline, mathematics, maturity, and financial planning from this silly little game of ours. I believe that in learning poker, people usually learn other, more practical skills along with it.

My proposals aren’t big enough to solve inequality, but they might give a lot more people a chance to participate in the great American pastime of poker. And in the end, who’s to say that big, societal changes can’t begin with changes on the felt? ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player, and a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. He is also a featured coach for