On the last Sunday before Christmas, I drove to Blackpool to play poker. You wouldn’t have got me there for any other reason. When I was young, my family used to take day trips to Lancashire’s beach resorts. Each of them – Fleetwood, Cleveleys, Lytham and Morecambe – was desolate in its own way, but none provoked so many tears as Blackpool, all that giddy anticipation disappointed by damp amusement arcades, flea-ridden donkeys, filthy beaches and filthier seawater. I arrived in the mid-evening, and parked at the southern end of the Golden Mile beneath the silhouette of the Big Dipper. There were no signs of life. Most of the hotels and restaurants were closed for the season; the rest were boarded up. The illuminations were switched off; the only sound was the incessant thunder of the sea. This part of town is currently rated one of the most deprived areas in the country. An eerie, desperate place. The perfect place for a casino.
The poker room in Blackpool is at the back of the casino, as it has been everywhere I’ve played, from Barcelona to New Orleans. In poker the players win money from each other, so the casino’s cut is limited to the hourly rate it charges players to sit at the tables, or to the small, capped percentage (the ‘rake’) they take from players’ winnings. Casinos are arranged so that poker players have to weave their way through the blackjack, craps and roulette tables on their way to and from the exit. In these games, the house has a small, irreducible edge: players can beat them in the short term, but in the long term the house will win. Poker brings prestige, new customers, perhaps even television coverage, but the game itself is fundamentally against the spirit of the casino, in which people are supposed to have fun losing their money to the house, not to each other. Most casinos do without it, having decided that the space would be more profitably filled with slot machines, but even if they do have poker rooms, casinos try to lure players away from the game on their way in, or tempt them into spending their winnings on the way out.
I haven’t played a hand of blackjack in my life, and the hopeless flirtations with chance in roulette and dice don’t interest me. There may be a thrill to be had playing those games in Monte Carlo or Las Vegas, but it requires some suspension of disbelief to feel the glamour ‘doing your money’ amid the plastic fittings and bus-seat upholstery of a casino in Wolverhampton or the Edgware Road. For every person you see having fun playing roulette, you will see two more unsmilingly handing over one £20 note after another until all their money is gone. I try to avoid casinos whenever I can. Until just a few years ago, that would have made it difficult for me to play poker in London, unless I had an introduction to a private game; for a long time, I played all my poker either in a room above a pub on the Farringdon Road, or in a side street in Tooting, where twenty strangers would turn up to play every Saturday night at the green baize tables a couple had set up in their front room. But in recent years, an explosion in poker’s popularity has made it possible to find games on the high street. In 2004, a restaurant and internet café called Gutshot opened in Clerkenwell. The name was as unappealing to outsiders as it was transparent to those in the know – a ‘gutshot’ is a particular kind of chancy play in poker. The only people eating were the people who turned up in scores to play the poker tournaments laid on in the basement every night.
Other clubs followed, scattered across London in Walthamstow, Purley, Stanmore, Royal Oak, but Gutshot was the biggest and the least hole-and-corner. I played there, week in week out, until the club closed at the end of last year. Gutshot had always been operating outside the law, and everyone knew it. The gaming laws made no distinction between poker and other games of chance; anyone who wanted to make money by laying on poker games would need a prohibitively expensive licence, which the authorities in London are, in any case, very reluctant to grant. The police and the Gambling Commission turned a blind eye for a while, but their hand was forced when Rank, the owners of Grosvenor Casinos, commissioned private investigators to play undercover at Gutshot and report their findings to the Commission. In September 2005, one of the club’s owners, Derek Kelly, was charged with offences under the 1968 Gaming Act.
I was with the poker players who filled the public gallery when Kelly appeared at Snaresbrook Crown Court four months later. Kelly didn’t deny what he’d been doing, just that he’d been doing anything wrong. Poker, he argued, was not a game of chance, but a game of skill, and shouldn’t therefore be covered by the Gaming Act. The case was hopeless, and not just because the only people who knew anything about the game were either in the gallery or in the dock (at one point on the third and final day of evidence, the judge interrupted to ask for clarification of one of the most basic rules of the game). Under the 1968 act – and even less ambiguously under the Gambling Act of 2005 – games of chance are defined as also including those which combine skill and chance. Given that even a game like chess, which most people regard as a game of pure skill, involves an element of chance – the players draw for the white pieces, an enormous advantage between two players of similar ability – it isn’t clear that the law’s definition of a game of chance defines anything at all. But the court didn’t see it that way. The prosecution contented itself with pointing out, over and over again, that the cards were shuffled before a hand of poker, that the distribution of cards between players was therefore dictated by chance, and that that should be the end of the matter. The jury saw no reason to disagree, and found Kelly guilty; the judge, evidently sympathetic, declined to send him to jail or even to fine him, requiring only that he pay £10,000 towards the prosecution’s costs. London’s remaining unlicensed cardrooms, meanwhile, have been keeping their heads down.
If the only time you’ve seen poker played is in The Cincinnati Kid, you’ll have watched Steve McQueen lose everything to Edward G. Robinson in one hand of five-card stud; if your family played around the kitchen table when you were a child, it’s likely the game was five-card draw. But if you have played poker for real in the last five years, it will almost certainly have been a variation called Texas hold ’em. In hold ’em, each player is dealt two cards which no one else sees (their ‘hole cards’). The two players to the left of the dealer make small forced bets (‘blinds’), and each player in turn must decide whether to fold their hand, match (‘call’) those bets or raise them. Next, three cards are dealt face up in the middle of the table (the ‘flop’), then another card (the ‘turn’) and a final one (the ‘river’); there is a round of betting at each stage. Players must make the best five-card hand they can from their two hole cards and the ones in the middle, which they all share; the quality of your hand can change dramatically as the flop, turn and river are dealt. A hand doesn’t always reach the river – if every player but one has folded by then, the last player standing takes all the money in the pot without showing his cards – but if it does, the remaining players turn their hole cards face up and the one with the best hand wins.
Ten years ago, you would have struggled to find a game of hold ’em outside American casinos; now, it is probably the most popular card game in the world. It isn’t surprising that the poker boom has coincided with a time in which speculation has been so recklessly encouraged, but few cultural phenomena gather this amount of momentum unless they can be cut to the cloth of television and the internet. I first played with friends in 1999 after seeing Late Night Poker on Channel 4. By putting cameras under the table so that you could see the players’ hole cards, the programme demystified the game at a stroke: the commentators would explain how players’ betting, their actions and their table-talk related to the cards they held; crucially, you could tell when they were bluffing. It was an education. Now, after a certain time of night, it can be difficult to escape poker on television; there is coverage on all three commercial terrestrial channels and a dedicated poker channel on cable; you can watch novices play celebrities, celebrities play professionals and professionals play one another in high-stakes cash games. Hardly any of this is at all educational, though there’s nothing like watching a soap stars’ poker showdown after midnight on Five to make you realise how thoroughly a game once confined to windowless rooms and the tough-guy part of men’s self-imaginings has been democratised under the sign of cheap entertainment.
Around the time Late Night Poker began, internet entrepreneurs also came to see what a dream opportunity poker presented. Simple software has made possible a proliferation of online cardrooms in which players’ avatars meet at virtual tables to play poker for real money. At peak time on the biggest site, PokerStars, late enough in the evening for American players to have returned from work but not so late that the Europeans will have gone to bed, there might be 200,000 players at 30,000 tables, playing for stakes ranging from a few cents to hundreds of thousands of dollars. PokerStars takes a very small ‘rake’ from each pot won, and last August it dealt its twenty billionth hand; the market value of the site has been estimated at $2 billion.
The game is much quicker online: you don’t need to know any of the etiquette or worry about body language, you can play at any time of day or night and you can play at as many tables as you like without leaving your sofa. An online professional might play as many hands in a year as a grizzled veteran of the live game will have played in a lifetime. Quite a few of them write blogs: some to set down their thoughts on strategy, some to write their Bildungsromans as poker players, others to chart the daily rollercoaster of wins and losses. The numbers can be shocking. I have followed ‘Milkybarkid’s Poker Blog’ since 2004, when its author, Ben Grundy, started out as a small-stakes online player. Three years later, this is the sort of thing you could find there:
$100/$200 6-handed no limit hold’em on Betfair. I have $60,000. I make it $700 to go with AK. One caller in small blind. Loose aggressive player with big stack. Flop AAK. How does this become a $120,000 pot? Ridiculous. He checks . . . I check. Turn 5. He checks . . . I bet $1600, he calls. River a Q. He leads for $2000. I make it $8000. He makes it $24,000. I push all in expecting a split pot. He calls and mucks. Yikes.
A few clicks, a few hundred grand. In Grundy’s latest blog entries, you can see graphs tracking his winnings for 2008 – more than $3 million – and a photo of his new car, which isn’t a Volvo.
Few successful online players are happy to remain superstars in their own bedrooms; they are hoping to gain access to the celebrity and crazy financial rewards of the live game at the highest level. At the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the main event is a $10,000-entry Texas hold ’em tournament, in which each player starts out with the same number of chips and play continues until one player has all of them. The collected entry fees are divided between the players who survive longest – usually the top 10 per cent of the field – and the winner takes the biggest prize, about 30 per cent of the total. For a long time the stiff fee for the World Series meant that only the very serious and the very rich would step up. But in 2003, Chris Moneymaker (the jokes have all been made) beat 838 other players to become the champion. He had won his ticket in an online tournament that cost him $39: his prize for winning the World Series was $2.5 million. Three years later, there were 8773 entrants, the overwhelming majority of whom had qualified online; the top prize that year was $12 million.
I tried playing online for a while, but it felt too much like data processing. The few desultory attempts I made ended in failure: fits of undisciplined betting provoked by boredom, and pique at what I was too quick to see as my bad luck or someone else’s bad play. The future of poker no doubt belongs to the adolescent millionaires of the online game, which means that I belong to its past. ‘Pass me the cards young man,’ one of the older players at the table said to me at the beginning of the game in Blackpool. ‘He doesn’t look so young to me,’ growled another. The streets may have been deserted, but inside the casino a hundred people had gathered to play a cheap hold ’em tournament, just £30 to enter, the winner of which would get about £900 for six or seven hours’ work. I hadn’t played in this casino before, but felt completely at home. The tactile pleasures and protocols of the game – drawing for seats, the ritual of the deal, the riffling of chips, the feel of the baize, the rhythms of the game and the rise and fall of tension – are the same everywhere. So is the strained sociality, the banter that insulates the players from the game’s inherent aggression.
In time, these things become second nature: while you are at the table, the world falls away and the game is all that remains. For some, it can come to replace the world altogether. I have left games on Friday night and returned to find them still going on Sunday afternoon; the players have been eating at the table and sleeping at the table. Perhaps they play poker for a living: this is a workplace, too. Such players live a harsh second life. The elements of poker are those of a tough negotiation. Someone bets as an announcement of strength, you raise to tell him he is weaker than you; he bluffs in an attempt to deceive you, your call tells him he’s a liar. It can be salutary to discover how poorly, or how well, you are able to adapt. Unless you have it in you to change your persona at will – a useful asset at the poker table – your playing style will be inextricably bound up with your character. In theory, any style – passive or aggressive, straightforward or devious, quiet or flamboyant – should have its strengths, but at the higher levels of the game, the will to dominate is indispensable.
I played tournaments for years, but my career ended abruptly one night in August 2006, when I came up against a player called Dave Shallow. The entry fee for the tournament was £500, which I’d won in a smaller game; Shallow, a high roller with a notorious contempt for money, had bought in for the fun of it. He sat on my left, stared me in the face and held a handful of chips over the table whenever I looked as if I might bet, and speculated constantly, with unnerving accuracy, about the cards I was holding. The experience was crushing: I couldn’t think clearly, and in the end lost the capacity to make decisions of any kind; after just two hours of a tournament scheduled to last three days, Shallow had taken away my dignity, my will to survive in the game, and every chip I had. Usually, losing is a sickening feeling; that night, it was a merciful release.
Shallow was schooling me in the importance of being able to play poker not only as if the game were a simulacrum of the real, but as if the money were too. These days I play in very few tournaments, but I do play in cash games, in which the chips, like notes or coins, represent real money: you buy chips to sit down in the game, and cash out your chips when you leave. Whoever invented the poker chip understood that it is considerably easier to take risks with money if, each time you throw £50 into the pot, you aren’t thinking about the rent or your children’s Christmas presents. Poker players have to distance themselves from material concerns if they are to make cool decisions. Television commentators on high-stakes cash games repeatedly invoke the real-world value of the bets made – ‘$60,000? That’s a new luxury sedan for you or me . . . $150,000? That’s a down-payment on a condo in Boca Raton’ – but the players think of the money merely as a way of keeping score, no more real than the sums shuffled about by futures traders. (I know one trader who got his job after producing a printout of his online poker records at his interview, which perhaps throws as much light on the degeneracy of the City as it does on the economic rationality of poker.) But like traders, poker players know, or should know, that losses can become all too real when they cash out at the end of a session. I felt I was seeing signs of the financial lull last autumn when the loose money (players who have fun gambling and are happy to lose) and the dead money (players who aren’t any good, and will lose whether they’re happy about it or not) began to dry up. The faces I see at the moment are all familiar; we’re passing money around among ourselves.
The cash games I play in are small: each hand begins with blind bets of £1 and £2. Even so, single hands regularly generate pots of hundreds of pounds, and players will typically sit down in the game with at least £200. However, even to play in a game this small, you should be drawing that £200 from a bankroll – the money you keep aside just to play poker – of, say, two or three thousand. The reason is what statisticians call ‘variance’, which measures the degree to which the possible outcomes of a given event are dispersed around the expected outcome. If you pick a ball, blindfold, out of a bag containing three white balls and one red one, your chance of picking white is 75 per cent. But what if you hit the one-in-four chance and get red? You would be happy to get your money into the middle in a poker game as a 75 per cent favourite, but one in four times you are going to lose, and to continue playing you will need more money. The more times you pick a ball out of a bag containing three white balls and one red one, the closer the overall number of times you pick white will tend to 75 per cent. But along the way there will be points at which you pick two red balls in succession: that’s two lost buy-ins to the game. Occasionally you will come up with red three or four times on the trot. The odds of picking red ten times running are one in 1,048,576, but keep picking for long enough and you will see that happen too.
The point is that even in a normal probability distribution, there are sometimes clusters of unexpected results. In poker, you could make the correct decision every time and only ever invest in winning positions, but until your opponents have folded or the river is dealt you will remain exposed to the risk that the next card will spell disaster. Consistently making the correct decisions will win you money in the long run, but you need the £2000 bankroll to play even in a small game so that when a cluster of bad results comes along, you can ride it out. Play with too little behind, and you increase your ‘risk of ruin’. To go broke as a poker player is to have to play with money drawn from the real world, from your wages or savings, or loans from ‘backers’ – with all the real-world anxieties that brings. (Players try not to think too much about the effects that losing might have on their opponents; I was once at the table when, oblivious of the roomful of men watching her, a woman came to plead with the cardroom staff not to let her husband play anymore.) Needless to say, only a tiny proportion of players have any kind of bankroll at all, which means that even the smallest game in town is too big for most of the people playing in it.
Nonetheless, once players have a little success, the temptation to ‘move up’ can be irresistible. The higher the stakes, the larger the potential rewards, but since bigger games require bigger bankrolls, the risk of ruin remains about the same. The sense of risk is one of the pleasures of poker, but also a necessity: unless you have something at stake, it is difficult to take the game seriously. In the Big Game at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the blinds are typically $2000 and $4000, and the players buy in for hundreds of thousands of dollars, drawn from bankrolls of millions held in the casino’s vaults. But these amounts are just as vulnerable in that game as a few thousand pounds are in mine; no player could ever be comfortable living off his bankroll because it could always, suddenly, be gone. And although, after just one good day at the office, any of the players in the Big Game could retire and live off the interest, they don’t, because this, after all, is the only life they know.
Hold ’em is an easy game to pick up, and its simplicity is seductive: there doesn’t appear to be much to master, so there should be easy money to be made. But poker is a zero-sum game: whenever one player wins, another loses, and while an inexperienced player may do well at first, over the course of an evening the money will tend to drift towards the skilful. Every player of any experience knows the basic arithmetic of the game: how to weigh the probability of any given outcome against the cost of investing in a hand. More advanced players might use mathematical modelling and game theory to confound orthodox play and to insulate their decision-making from their emotions. Others put great store in their ability to ‘read’ other players, to pick up from their betting patterns and their physical ‘tells’ how confident they feel about their hand, whether they are bluffing, how likely they are to fold under pressure. What such players call ‘instinct’ is, no doubt, mostly a matter of accumulated experience: they are recognising situations they have been in many times before.
There is an irreducible element of chance in poker, but the skill lies precisely in minimising the role it plays in the outcome of your decisions. You can play poker as a gambler – chase every longshot, enjoy the glory when they come off, moan about your luck when you run out of money – but you can also play it as a mathematician, a strategist, a psychologist or a logician. The ceaseless restaging of the encounter between reason and chance, the struggle of intelligence and imagination to overcome dumb luck is, for me, the chief pleasure of the game. Not that I’m much good at it. In the last two years, I have put a total of about £25,000 in play (I keep careful records), over more hours than I care to count, and turned a profit of less than £500. That makes me a break-even player, solid enough and canny enough to stay on top of the variance, not single-minded or gifted enough to make real money. If this were a job, it would be a stressful way to earn slave wages.
Poker, fundamentally, is a game of representation: what you have in your hand is one thing; what you represent yourself as having – in the way you behave, in the way you bet and the way you respond to other players’ bets – is another. You need to think not only about what you have or what your opponent has, but also about what he thinks you have, and what he thinks you think he has. The skill in the game lies in finding your way through this hall of mirrors, while misdirecting your opponents so that they bump into their own reflections. Good players sometimes entertain themselves by seeing how many hands they can win without even looking at their cards. This is one of the many things the jury in the Gutshot case was given no opportunity to understand. An inexperienced player may do well when he first sits down at a table full of old hands: since he doesn’t know what he’s doing himself, he is difficult for anyone else to read. But to last an hour at that table, still less survive a whole evening, he will need to get lucky. I don’t use the word casually. You hear a lot about luck at the poker table. Players take pride in their luck; they would ‘rather be lucky than good’; they curl their lips when other players ‘get lucky’; they like particular dealers because they have been lucky for them in the past, and protect their hole cards by placing lucky charms on top of them. I like to be at the table with players who let superstition cloud their reasoning. Luck isn’t a commodity, or a quality that people possess. What looks lucky or unlucky is just a cluster of unlikely events, an effect of the variance.
Half an hour into the game in Blackpool, I was dealt two nines, a good starting hand, but not so good that you would want to risk everything to defend it. I raised, and was called, falteringly, by a blushing boy of barely twenty. I watched him carefully as the flop was dealt; he looked at his cards once more, then expectantly at me. The flop was perfect, a two, a seven and a beautiful nine, giving me three of a kind, the best possible hand at that stage. I bet; the blushing boy raised; I pushed all my chips into the middle of the table. He looked at me once more, less sure now than he had been; but eventually he called and turned over his cards: two kings. He had made the novice’s mistake of falling in love with a good hand, without thinking hard enough about what his opponent might have. With only the turn and river to come, I was a 90 per cent favourite to win: only another king could beat me. It came immediately on the turn, a one in ten shot – just part of the variance. ‘This is my first time,’ he said as he raked in his winnings, ‘I only came with a mate.’ The game is full of fresh humiliations. I tapped the table and left quickly so as not to meet the peculiar mixture of sympathy and embarrassment you sometimes find in the eyes of the remaining players. But I needn’t have worried: they’d forgotten me already.