DFS Can Have the Skill Game Label, Let’s Call Poker Gambling

Steve Ruddock : January 20th, 2016

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I admit it, I’m a bit confused.

It’s not Donald Trump atop the polls, or trying to translate Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech into English that has me flummoxed, it’s the current “War on Gambling” being waged by really smart professional poker players, with the same sentiments being widely espoused across poker forums as well.

At some point in time the poker community decided that gamblers, and luck-based gambling, are bad for business. Ditto for all outreach efforts by poker rooms (brick & mortar or online) specifically aimed at attracting gamblers over dedicated poker players. The gist of their point of view is that these games take money out of the poker community and put it into the coffers of the house.

The addition of casinos and sports betting products was vilified, and even poker innovations like the gamble-heavy Spin & Go tournaments are seen as harbingers of the death of online poker – if you’re a regular forum user you know that online poker has been declared prematurely dead many times over the years.

Apparently the general consensus is casual poker players cannot resist gambling games, and given the choice between poker and negative expectation casino games they will almost always choose the latter. There is also a fear that a lot of current poker money will find its way into the casino and sports book, as current players will crossover and use those products – apparently also unable to resist the clarion calls of casino games.

My questions to anyone who holds this point of view (not everyone does) are: Isn’t this potential crossover a two-way street? Isn’t it also likely that people who show up to play at BetStars or in the PokerStars Casino find their way to PokerStars’ tables? Or that Spin & Go players turn into cash game players? And don’t casino visitors have to walk through a sea of casino games and in some cases past sports books to reach the poker room?

The problem isn’t that these alternatives exist (poker has always coexisted with other forms of gambling) it’s that by and large poker isn’t fun, nor is it marketed as a “fun” pursuit. For some reason, the poker community wants to drive a wedge between poker and gambling.

Call it what it is

Because of its tenuous legal standing, coupled with the passage of UIGEA in 2006 and the Black Friday indictments in 2011, poker players are pretty defensive about their game of choice, so it’s not surprising they have made serious attempts to distance poker from other gambling games.

However, this is an argument that should begin and end in legal disputes, and should be kept out of casual conversations in poker rooms, or at the very least rephrased and not used as some excuse for falling numbers.

First, poker is a form of gambling.

Second, poker’s popularity is still really high, but because most current players started playing during the poker boom they use the boom as a baseline, instead of a ceiling. For these people, anything short of boom numbers seems like a failure. They’re not.  They should be thrilled they weren’t in their early 20’s in 1998.

Finally, and most importantly to this conversation, poker relies on being part of the gambling community to thrive. While many people go to the casino specifically to play poker, not everyone in a poker room came to the casino to play poker. And I would much rather be sitting at a poker table with the latter group than the former.

Blackjack, craps, slot machines, video poker, roulette, and every other game of chance has the potential to bring someone who has never considered playing poker in a casino or online into the game’s folds, assuming poker looks like a game they might like to play.

Atmosphere matters

I’ve been playing poker going on two decades now, and I’ve seen many different types of poker rooms, and seen the game’s peaks (2005ish) and valleys (pre-2004) in terms of popularity. Some poker rooms are buried in far flung corners of a casino, partitioned off by a wall. Some are easily accessible and visible from the casino floor. Some are bright and cheery, with engaging dealers. Some are dark and serious, with miserable dealers. Some poker players are slow and deliberate, donning headphones and hoodies, and routinely taking 30-seconds to make decisions. Other poker players are fast paced and outgoing, as entertaining as they are skilled.

Some of the games and card rooms I’ve just described (it should be obvious which ones) have the potential to attract people to poker. Such as someone who just got cleaned out in 10 minutes at a blackjack table for the tenth time in the past four weeks, who happens to wander by the poker room on his way to the ATM and sees mountains of chips and fun banter. This person might suddenly have an epiphany, and think, “I know how to play poker!” Furthermore, and this is no exaggeration, they might sit down and ask, “what game is this? How do you play?” Because to them, it’s all gambling; poker is no different than blackjack, so you just need to know the basics to play competently. Whether you win or lose depends on whether you get cards or not.

If you think this type of player is extinct, think again. Even in 2016 I still encounter numerous people who have to be instructed on how to deal a hand of poker that are willing to pay $50 or more to play in a home poker tournament, and if they have fun they come back week after week. They don’t care if they’re negative EV, and they don’t lose once and swear off poker forever.

Point being, people will still try poker, and the more gambling options a casino or online site offers the more likely you’ll get people who didn’t come for the poker to sit down at a poker table to see if it’s their “lucky” game. And when it comes to the people who migrate from a casino or sports book to a poker room it’s a win for the poker pro because…

… 1 gambler is worth at least 25 lousy poker players

You might think this is me explaining why a gaming company would be more interested in attracting casino patrons or sports bettors than poker players, and while this is true, the heading has a second meaning for winning poker players: A singular terrible poker player is far better for a poker game than 25 mildly flawed poker players. In some case the gambler is worth 100 players.

Think of it this way, in contrast to a slightly losing poker player who bleeds off 1BB/hour (money that is raked to death), the gamblers I’m talking about will happily lose at a rate of 25BB/hour (money that is barely reduced by the rake because they lose so fast)… provided they’re having fun and feel they have some reasonable chance to win at some point in time; by reasonable I simply mean they feel if the cards fall right they can drag a big pot.

I’ve also seen it implied that gamblers, are a lot poker players, and that they have some type of finite funds available to them and once they’ve exhausted this money they more or less disappear forever – which is why poker players seem to be arguing they need to keep as much of this money in the poker economy as possible. What this doesn’t account for is the vast number of people who can gamble (and lose) consistently and responsibly because they constantly replenishing this money through their job.

Whereas 25 average losing poker players might slowly lose $1,000 over the course of a week (and are unlikely to return with more money in the future), a single gambler could lose this in a couple hours, and come back week after week, or month after month, armed with another $500 or $1,000 to gamble with; sometimes they play blackjack, sometimes they play baccarat, and sometimes they play poker… if they had a decent experience.

Not only do they inject money into the poker economy that isn’t raked over and over, they keep doing it.

So, unlike trying to beat losing poker players before someone else does, with your average gambler it’s not just about winning the money they have, or even making sure they always play poker, it’s about making sure poker remains an option on their future visits, and this is done by, as I’ve already stated, making poker fun (or at least as fun as other games), and…

Selling poker as gambling; not as a skill game

As I’ve already implied, to attract gamblers, poker needs to be seen as gambling in my opinion. A fun game where you’ll often lose, but a game that gives you the opportunity to book a big score every now and then.

The way the game is marketed by its best players is important, and this means leaving your ego at the door. There’s really no need to toot your own horn by explaining how tough the game is to beat, and how much time and effort you’ve put into the game.

in 2016 the cat is pretty much out of the bag that poker is a game of skill, but this strange insistence by far too many really good poker players (perhaps in search of some professional acceptance) to not only ridicule bad players and bad plays, but to extol their own skills and brag about how much work they’ve put into the game, and how difficult the game is to beat is not good for business. Nor is who should get a trophy, or be called a “champion,” matter in any way.

For instance, in 1972 Doyle Brunson and Puggy Pearson purportedly let Amarillo Slim win the World Series of Poker Main Event because 1) Doyle didn’t want the recognition, as he thought it would hurt his ability to get a good game, and actually withdrew during three-handed play, and 2) they all realized Slim was the better salesman for poker, which is what the WSOP Main Event was meant to do – sell the game to the masses and get them inside a casino. So Slim called himself the best… who cares?

For 30 years the World Series of Poker Main Event champion was laughably called the best poker player in the world and the people who were actually the best poker players in the world didn’t bat an eyelash at this absolutely ridiculous assertion. The reason: They were able to separate the skillfulness of poker from the marketing of the game.

If you’re a recreational player and you are hearing professionals essentially say, “if you can’t dedicate your entire life to poker and study and discuss strategies and math for hours upon hours, you’re a lousy player and you have zero chance of winning,” are you at all interested in wading into a poker room?

Slim did it different, he made it seem like he and other poker pros had some otherworldly power (powers they honed by playing not studying and discussing) as “gamblers” that allowed them to beat their opponents, and like the need to know a magician’s tricks, everyone who’d ever played poker thought they could be the one to figure it out and get the better of the pros.

This is why, in my opinion, poker players need to stop with all the talk about how skillful and mathy poker is, and the Debbie downer assertions about how impossible the game is to beat in the current climate. Those are closed door conversations best left for poker forums.

The bottom line is, I’m of the opinion we need more gamblers at the poker tables, and the only way to get gamblers to give poker a go is to link the game, literally and figuratively, with other forms of gambling.

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