Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
The essence of sport is not triumph but tragedy. Every year, 128 men take part in the Wimbledon Men’s Singles, and 127 end their journey gutted, trying to smile while their insides are churning. For most of the 219 men racing the Tour de France this year, there will be more heartbreak than glory, and much pain along the way. Sport is not just the Spanish celebration of the recent World Cup, but Asamoah Gyan holding his head in his hands—not just after one missed penalty, but for the rest of his blighted life.
In poker, that tragedy is about the bubble. While most sports fans are detoxing from the football or following cycling or cricket or golf, a bunch of us have our eyes trained, through the lens of internet updates, on the main event of the World Series of Poker—the de facto World Championship. 7319 players entered this year, and 747 people were in the money. (747th prize is US$19,263—the winner will take home US$8.9 million.) The player who comes 748th is considered to be the ‘bubble boy’—or ‘in the bubble’.
Two hands of sporting tragedy. First, Angel Guillen, with all-powerful pocket aces in the hole, shoved all his chips in the middle, and was called by pocket jacks. Guillen had an 81% chance of winning the hand and surviving. The 19% held up, a jack came on the flop, and a dream was over. Guillen was 749th out of 7319 people, and had been busted with the best hand. In a parallel universe, the dealer did one final shuffle of the deck, Guillen got 27 offsuit, folded the damn thing and survived.
And then there was Tim McDonald, who went all in with pocket queens against A2 suited—at 68% to win. But life is cruel. When the hand was done, Pokerstars reveals, McDonald “stood there like the loneliest man at a bachelor auction.” Let me tell you something: there isn’t a poker player in the world who doesn’t know that feeling.
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Poker is an amazing game. It astonishes me sometimes that it is considered by some people to be a form of gambling. Friends of mine who play both bridge and poker often assert that poker requires more skill. Indeed, as a former chess player, I find it a far more demanding sport to master. In chess, all the action is on the chess board in front of you, and there is an objectively correct move for most complex positions. In poker, you’re not just playing the cards on the table, but also the players around you. Every situation is unique and filled with imponderables, and it is often impossible to ascertain the right move at the time.
The most popular form of poker is Texas Hold ‘Em, and in a nutshell, here’s what it’s about. Each player is given two cards face down at the start of the hand. After this, five community cards are dealt, in groups of three (the flop), one (the turn) and one more (the river). Of these seven cards—the five everyone shares on the board and the two in his hand—each player has to make a five-card hand. (Here’s the hierarchy of hands.) The best hand wins. There are four rounds of betting—after the hole cards are dealt, at the flop, at the turn and at the river—and, sometimes, a showdown at the end.
At its most basic level, the game demands maths. Say I am dealt AJ, both spades, a fairly strong hand. I raise, an opponent calls, and we see the flop. It comes 72K, with the 7 and the 2 being spades. My opponent, who has a short stack, goes all in. My sense of the situation is that he has a king in his hand, probably AK, and therefore the best hand at the moment. There are nine spades left in the deck that give me this flush: thus, I have an 18% chance of completing my flush on the turn, and a 36% chance of completing it by the river. Because my opponent is all in, there will be no further bets, so 36% is the key figure here.
Now, whether or not I should call the bet depends on what is known as pot odds. Assume there are 1000 bucks already in the pot, and my opponent’s all-in bet amounts to 800 bucks more. That means that to enter a pot of 1800 bucks, I need to pay 800—or odds of just over 2 to 1. As my odds of hitting the flush are 2 to 1, slightly better than the pot odds, I should make the call. However, had his bet amounted to 2000 more, that would have meant investing 2000 to enter a pot of 3000, at odds of 1.5 to 1. My chances of ending up with the best hand would have been worse than that, thus mandating an automatic fold.
Every decent poker player develops an intuitive sense of pot odds, so we don’t even need to calculate them. If a poker player consistently gets his money in the middle when the pot odds are in his favour, he will make money in the long run. In the short run, he will suffer what poker players call bad beats, losing hands he is the favourite to win. Indeed, he may get all his money in the pot six times in a row when he is 70% favourite to win and lose each time. Such swings happen. But as long as he plays with a small percentage of his total bankroll (look up ‘bankroll management’), he can tackle these swings (look up ‘variance’) and come up a winner. Chris Ferguson, the former world champion, described the role of luck in poker thus: “On any one given hand, it might be 99% luck and 1% skill. Over the course of a tournament, it might be 30% skill and 70% luck. Over the course of a month, maybe it’s 30% luck and 70% skill, and over the course of a year maybe it’s 90% skill and 10% luck.”
But the maths is just one part of playing the game. It is a hygiene factor, something every good player must master, just as every batsman needs to learn how to keep his elbow straight while straight driving. But maths involves just the cards on the table, while every competent poker player will tell you that in this game, you play the people, not the cards. You need to be able to deduce, from betting patterns and physical behaviour, what kind of cards your fellow players are playing with, what cards they think you have, what cards they think you think they have, and so on. At that level, the cards you have often don’t matter—if you can get into the other guy’s head better than he can in yours, you win. As a recent Economist report revealed, a 2009 study analysed 103 million hands played at pokerstars.com and found that more than 75% of them never even reached showdown. So much for the cards.
While this incredible sport has become hugely popular in the US and Europe—the Economist piece I linked to earlier has more—it is just beginning to boom in India. Sadly, the gambling laws in the country make playing poker for money effectively illegal in India, which is why tournaments here have to be organised on one of the two offshore casinos in Goa. (I came fifth in one of them a few weeks ago, and am headed to another one tomorrow.) I have two issues with this: One, despite the short-term element of luck, poker is not gambling in the traditional sense of the word, but a game of skill. Two, in any case, gambling should be legalised. Even if you do not grant me the second point, the first should be indisputable to anyone who’s played the game.
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I can’t end an article on poker without a bad beat story now, can I? Yesterday, my run of 12 consecutive winning sessions came to an end when I received one bad beat after another in a session with friends. The worst moment: I had AQ suited, and the flop came 7J2 rainbow (different suits, so flushes ruled out.) The turn came Q. In my estimation, from previous betting and the expression on my opponent’s face, he had a lower pair—probably the 7. So, confident that my top pair was the best hand at the moment, and that he would call any bet because he was playing that way, I went all in. He called and showed K7 offsuit—my read was correct, and the math was on my side: my opponent had an 11% chance of sucking out on me. Well, yes, you guessed it—the river was one of the two 7s left in the deck, my opponent had trips, and I was busted. It was the last straw in a haystack full of them in a day filled with suck-outs, and I stood up, threw my cards on the table, and uncharacteristically exclaimed, “F*** man, f***ing river.”
That sentiment united me with Angel Guillen, Tim McDonald and every poker player who’s ever seen a hand through. F***ing river. But we come right back and keep on playing, because in poker, the right decision sometimes leads to the wrong outcome, and vice versa. You just need to think of the long run and keep on doing the right thing. Indeed, that’s something the Bhagwad Gita could tell you. The lessons we learn in poker are lessons we would do well to apply in life—so shuffle up and deal.
Previously on Viewfinder
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)