on becoming a poker player

here’s another article written by my husband, glenn, reflecting on his thoughts, feelings and motivations around playing online poker.

Poker is something that I’ve long had a mild interest in but it was pretty rare that my friends and I would get together and play. Back then it was “dealer’s choice”; whoever was dealing would pick a form of poker to play. One of my favourite choices was the game where the first card dealt to you goes on your forehead so that everyone else except you knows your card. The game itself wasn’t exciting but it was great for its entertainment value.

These days Hold’em poker is big, and online poker makes it easy to sit down at a game any time of day or night. It’s a big money maker for the popular sites, and a few have good play money economies for beginners to have fun with. It’s becoming more and more difficult for US players to play online for money, but here in Canada we’re not too restricted yet.

The basics of poker, like that of many good forms of entertainment, is not too difficult to learn, but the game has many layers of complex subtleties mixed with pure randomness. The randomness of the cards makes it possible for beginners to win big, but the complexities make it likely that the experts will come out ahead in the long run.

The randomness has another downside; the positive reinforcement of the randomized results encourages repeat attempts. Like any form of gambling, it has it’s addicts.

So, that’s poker.

What I wanted to write about is my personal reactions to playing because I find my reactions intriguing and somewhat unexpected. The rest of this entry uses some common poker terminology without offering definitions. If you’re not familiar with the terms or phrases, there are many internet resources that will help, like this one here.

There are a number of ways of viewing poker, all of them containing various elements of truth. Some of these views are:

1) Poker can be viewed as a game, for fun or for competition. But unlike chess or checkers, there’s money involved, even if it’s play money.

2) Poker can be viewed as a form of gambling, like betting on sporting events, playing slot machines or buying lottery tickets. However, with the aforementioned activities you are not competing directly with someone beside you. My father plays blackjack and one of the reasons he doesn’t play poker is because when playing poker you try to take money away from the other players. I guess this is different from the camaraderie that blackjack players might feel as they all compete against the casino.

3) Poker can be viewed as a wild form of investing, where you bet on the value of your hand, now and in the future, against other unknown hands and their future value. Not the kind of investment I’d put my RRSP into though.

4) Poker can be seen as a form of social interaction. Not that you are trying to connect on some personal level with the other players, but you do have to interact with them. The communication is not a language with words for everything, but nevertheless it is a form of interaction and communication with other humans. This was very apparent to me when I started out. I felt somewhat uncomfortable and out of place. It was a bit like culture shock because I felt that there were rules and procedures beyond the actual poker rules that I didn’t as yet understand.

When I play poker I feel as if I am sparring with someone. Years ago when I took karate we would do kumite, which is karate sparring with a partner, a chance to practice attacks and blocks. Poker feels very similar to me.

Every poker hand feels like a struggle, a fight. Every time someone bets or takes a “stab” at the pot, it’s like a jab, an attack. If you call his bet, you block. If you re-raise, you’re counter punching. When you fold, you’re running away and giving up on the fight. When someone doesn’t bet when you expect them to, you label them as “weak” and you attack, trying to take advantage of their weakness. But watch out for the check-raise, when a player counts on you being aggressive and feigns weakness because they’ve planned a counter-attack.

Poker books say to play aggressively. Bets/raises/re-raises are challenges that you throw out. These moves require aggression to make. It’s easier to check or to call, but poker strategies advise against this. The default choices of action are to bet and to bet big, or to raise, or to just fold.

But aggression makes it hard to back down or to fold when you’ve got something but aren’t confident that it’s the best hand. Especially when you’re giving up on money that you risked earlier that’s already in the pot.

No wonder most poker players are male.

And all of this within the context of a social interaction.

Sometimes when I’m driving I wonder if people view driving the same way I view playing poker, as a series of interactions, struggles, and personal challenges issued by other drivers. That might explain some of the incidents of road rage we’ve all witnessed at one time or other.

Anyway, once I started to clarify for myself how I am viewing poker, it helped make sense of how I am reacting to playing poker.

Sometimes when I get a bad hand I find myself relieved because I can just throw it away, I don’t have to get involved.

I find myself under pressure when I get a playable hand and then, following the advice of the books, I raise preflop and then miss the flop. Do I continuation bet? If I do, I feel like I’m on shaky ground because I feel as if I’m telling a lie, representing a hand when in truth it’s still a drawing hand with nothing more than high card to stand on. If the other player(s) call, what does that mean? They’ve got a hand, so at the moment I’m beat? Or are they drawing too?Maybe the worst is when they come over the top with a reraise. Then I feel like a kid with a hand in the cookie jar, accused of lying or trying to steal. If I fold I feel like I’m admitting that I was lying with my bet on the flop. Should I cover up my first lie with a bigger lie? On the other hand, players will come over the top with nothing too, just trying to chase the original bettor out of the pot. The bigger liar may very well win the pot.

There’s more pressure is when I get AA or KK. I’ve got to make the right moves preflop to show strength but not chase everyone away, and then evaluate the flop to see if it’s time to try to get all my and my opponent’s money in the pot. And, I’ve also got to keep control and be able to fold. This is tough as some people will see a big bet as an attempt to steal the pot and will reraise with a mediocre hand.

On the other hand, they may have hit two pair or a set in which case I’m close to drawing dead. At this point I’m often not thinking clearly and my mouse hand is already sweating. I can feel my heart rate go up and the adrenaline starting to pump.

But probably the most tension is when I feel the other person and I are both overbetting our hands at the same time, both trying to out-aggression each other. It seems that we both have a hand, but how does it compare to what the other has?

At what point do I back down? How much money am I willing to risk on my guess that he’s being overly aggressive as well? Hands like these can make my pulse boom in my head and my hands start to shake from the adrenaline. I think because of my uncertainty regarding the value of my cards can I get even more revved up than when I have a monster hand.

The odd thing about these hands is that they sometimes turn out to be situations where we have the same cards. Maybe we’ve reacted the same way because we’re both not confident where we stand relative to the other player so there’s a lot of jostling, a lot of prodding, a lot of jabbing.

I don’t think that I’m an adrenaline junkie. As a musician I know that a touch of adrenaline is very useful for optimizing performances, but anything beyond a minimal level adrenaline will interfere with my thinking and with my performance. Too much adrenaline and I don’t think clearly, and if pushed I might lash out to protect myself; the old “fight or flight” response. In poker this means big bets leading to big losses.

I’m still relatively new to the game, so newness is a factor for the adrenaline trigger as well. Sometimes I try some nervousness-controlling techniques, like looking away or settling my breathing, but the speed of online poker doesn’t allow very much time for such techniques, and it certainly would be counterproductive if I played in a live game!

So why do I play? To some degree I enjoy the gambling. To some degree I enjoy the social non-verbal interaction. To some degree I enjoy playing games and even enjoy the sparring.

But mostly it’s because I’ve found something that I enjoy right now which also offers many levels of practice and learning and further development for me before I become comfortable with my level of understanding. I’m enjoying the process of “becoming” the poker player that I one day might be.

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