Understanding Pro Poker

Author’s Note: I know, this isn’t about religion. I don’t care to hear any comments about its departure from topic, as it’s much quicker and easier to just skip over it.


I tell people that I play poker, and they ask “Where do you play?” I tell them “Online poker rooms (Full Tilt, usually),” and they ask “Do you bet real money?” And when I answer “Yes,” they ask “Really???”

I’ve had this conversation so many times, and it has never varied. My friends and family have such a hard time understanding how anyone can make money playing poker (isn’t gambling always a losing proposition???) but that’s because they are unaware of pro poker players such as Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, and of course Doyle Brunson. And they also don’t understand the crucial difference between poker and other forms of gambling – you aren’t playing against the house.

Poker is happily offered by casinos because, unlike other games of chance, the house always wins. Poker players will play against each other to take the pot (the chips in the middle that everyone is fighting for), but the house rakes it (takes a small percentage of each pot). So no matter who wins the pot, the house makes money off it. Because the house makes money no matter what, it doesn’t have to cheat the players or offer unfavorable odds.

Instead, it is up to the players to make money by playing smart. How does a person play smart? You have to get a positive expected value from each hand that you play. Because this is such a complicated concept (frankly, I don’t think Wikipedia clarifies it at all), let me give you an example.

Let’s say you’re betting on a coin flip. You win 1 dollar every time it comes up heads, but you lose 98 cents every time it comes up tails. Is this a good bet? Of course it is! If you play 100 times, the odds are that half the time you’ll win (and gain 50 x $1 = $50) and half the time you’ll lose (50 x .98 = $49). So over the course of 100 flips you’ll gain $1, on average. Is it still gambling? Well,  technically yes. You can lose the first 10 flips and be down $9.80 immediately. But statistics average out in the long run, and the obvious answer to a losing streak here is to just keep playing… eventually you’ll get ahead (you have the same chance of a winning streak as you have of a losing streak). A streak of bad luck is not only probable, it’s inevitable… but so is a streak of good luck. The important thing is to focus on the long-term profit/loss rather than short-term. It’s only a gamble in the short-term.

How does this apply to poker? Well, in my favorite version (5-Card Draw) you can choose to draw to “come hands”… that is, 4 cards to a flush or 4 cards to an open-ended straight. The odds of making a flush are roughly 1 in 5 (there are 47 cards in the deck you haven’t seen, and 9 of them make the hand, so 9 in 47 to be exact). The odds of making the straight are 1 in 6 (8 helpful cards in 47). If the pot offers you 5 or 6 times the amount that you’re putting in then you have a positive expected value. Since this game is played with 6 players, it’s impossible outside of the blinds to get enough people into the pot to have proper pot odds. Therefore, drawing to “come hands” has a negative expected value, and will lose money in the long run. It may not screw you immediately, but eventually it will make you poor.

Smart players like myself don’t draw to come hands, and make money off of those who do draw to them. This is just one example of many. The fact is that you can make money playing poker, and there’s a right way to do it. Most of it is math-based, and some of it involves reading opponents. Even if this doesn’t always lead to winning (bad luck streaks are inevitable), it does lead to winning in the long run. Even if still don’t understand how, please accept that it is a fact. Otherwise, I’d recommend further research.

-Supernova, a.k.a. Starcrash (on Full Tilt)


About starcrashx

I love statistics. They drive my poker playing, my reasoning, and my research. As Penn Gillete said "Luck is probability taken personally". There's no such thing as luck... but I wish you positive chance. View all posts by starcrashx

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