Poker Isn’t Golf, it’s a Combat Sport

Alex Weldon : June 30th, 2015

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Probably the best piece of journalism to date on the Brian Hastings multi-account scandal has been Lee Davy’s interview with James Obst. In many ways I’m in agreement with Obst, his weird digression about women poker pros and their selfies notwithstanding. At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that his ideal vision of professional comportment in the poker world is unrealistic.

Obst would like to see poker professionals behave more like golf professionals. He points out that not only are cheating scandals rare in golf, players routinely call penalties on themselves for small infractions that would probably have gone unnoticed by others, because reputation and sportsmanship are more important in golf than saving a stroke. Furthermore, golfers don’t go overboard in talking themselves up, and rarely put their opponents down.

It’s nice to imagine a world in which poker players could behave like this, but the fact is that they can’t, and never will, because people are complicated and poker isn’t golf.

You are what you do

A person isn’t either a sportsman or a scumbag, a gentleman or a troll. All of us are all of those things at one time or another. Meanwhile, most activities – be they games, sports, professions or hobbies – have characters of their own, and tend to bring certain aspects of our psyches to the fore, while forcing us to repress others. Personally, I’ve worn a lot of different hats over the years, and although my true, complete personality has remained more or less unchanged, what I show to the world depends heavily on whether I’m studying physics, or teaching kindergarten, or playing poker, or writing for a website.

To an extent, you are what you do, so it’s unfair to hold poker players to the same standards of behavior as golfers. The two activities call for different traits to be brought forward, so to understand the difference between golfers’ and poker players’ behaviour, you have to understand the nature of the two activities.

A question of blame

Golf is essentially a solitary sport, more like skiing or gymnastics than like basketball or tennis. Certainly, the performance of the opponents will affect a player’s strategy, causing her to take a safer line while winning and to attempt riskier shots while trailing, but on the whole, a player’s performance is only indirectly related to what anyone else is doing. A player is not going to blame an opponent when he hooks his tee shot into a bunker. That’s not because he’s a gentleman, but because it would make no sense to do so. If the opponent shoots a birdie, there’s likewise not much to do except congratulate him or remain silent. The players are making their shots independently, so there’s no chance of one player’s decisions interfering with the other’s.

The role of luck is also very different in the two games, because results in a poker hand are essentially binary – a player generally either wins the pot or loses it – while they fall on a spectrum in golf. In poker, then, the role of luck is such that it can turn a very bad play into a very good result and vice versa – one player gets it in as a 5-1 favorite, but the opponent catches a lucky card and doubles up instead. In golf, by contrast, luck tends only to magnify or mitigate the quality of a shot: a great approach shot might roll either into the hole or onto the fringe, while a ball which lands in the rough might catch a better or worse lie.

Thus, once again, you don’t hear golf players complaining about bad beats and lucky fish simply because such complaints would rarely make sense. Flukes do happen, but not with the regularity they do in poker. Generally speaking, a terrible position in golf results from a bad shot plus bad luck, while a great position results from a good shot plus good luck. Some of the credit or blame usually has to go to the player.

The mindset required

Poker is inherently predatory. Except for rare cases of a freeroll or overlay, it is almost always a negative sum game, because the house is taking a cut. Any winnings achieved by one player come directly from the losses of others, and those losses must always exceed the winnings. Although poker players often wish one another “good luck” at the start of a game, such formalities ring hollow, because good luck for one’s opponents implies bad luck for oneself, and no one truly wishes that.

The nature of poker also means that you don’t really want to have close matches and narrow edges, especially in cash games. A hard-fought, back-and-forth heads-up battle might be satisfying in a tournament, but you’d still rather win on a great soul read than on a 52/48 race. In a cash game, meanwhile, no one would ever say they would prefer to edge out the rest of the table for a few big blinds than crush for several buy-ins. The game of poker is all about identifying the weakest competition and beating it as thoroughly, as reliably and by as big a margin as possible. Even when strong poker players do seek to battle one another for reasons of prestige, they aren’t hoping for it to be close, but rather to establish their dominance as thoroughly as possible.

In golf, by contrast, there’s no reason to want your opponents to do poorly, unless you’re betting by the point. Since the players’ results are independent, it’s more satisfying to win when your opponent is playing well and you’re just a little better. If you’re going to shoot a birdie on the 18th, would you rather do it in a situation where one stroke makes the difference, or when you were already up by five and going to win anyway?

Poker players want their peers to play badly and get unlucky, at least when they’re in a game together. They don’t even want their opponents to be feeling good about themselves, because a tilting opponent is more profitable to play against. Mean-spiritedness is in the nature of the game. That doesn’t mean that players must necessarily be mean-spirited away from the table, but when you’re used to interacting with your peers in that context, some spill-over is inevitable.

A better analogy

Rather than looking to golf for role-models, the better comparison for poker is with the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) and other combat sports. I mention MMA specifically, because it exploded into the mainstream at around the same time as poker and so both have a public image which is a work in progress. Like poker, it’s a predatory activity, in that one fighter’s win can only come by way of the other’s loss. Fighters also want to beat the other as thoroughly as possible – winning by knockout is better for a fighter’s career than a decision, and there are bonuses to be had for spectacular finishes, but these performances necessarily come at the expense of the opponent who is left lying on the canvas.

Likewise, aggression is extremely important in both poker and MMA, but it’s more apparent in the latter. The poker world has, for better or worse, encouraged players to try to play nice with one another away from the table, but it would seem farcical to see two fighters smiling and having a friendly chat mere minutes before attempting to render each other unconscious. Rather, sportsmanship in combat sports tends to follow a cycle of tension and catharsis. Trash talk, boasting and personality conflicts are not just accepted but encouraged prior to a fight. The tension builds and then the fighters let it all out in the ring. Once the fight is done, so is the aggression; often, the fighters embrace and the victor typically shows humility and respect for his opponent.

The explicit nature of the luck factor in poker makes it inevitable that it is sometimes hard to be humble in defeat. If one player makes a strong hand and lures his opponent all-in, only to have the latter hit a one-outer on the river, it would seem insincere for him to say that the better player won. Still, I can’t help but feel that it’s precisely our expectation that poker professionals handle the variance well which leads to bad blood and bad behavior. Bottling things up is never healthy, so maybe it’s not professional attitudes which are out of whack, but rather our conception of what professionalism means when applied to an activity like poker.

Appealing to the casual player

That said, it’s clear where the difference lies between poker and MMA, which is that combat sports pit professionals against professionals, whereas the poker ecosystem is reliant on an influx of casual, losing players. In that regard, it’s no surprise that top-level players want to put on a nice-guy image. After all, what amateur gym-goer really wants to get into the ring to be punched in his jaw by Chris Weidman or have her arm torn off by Ronda Rousey? Bleeding off (figuratively!) to a smiling Daniel Negreanu seems like a much more appealing proposition, no question.

What I’m saying, then, is not that poker should seek to emulate the stare-downs, intimidation and boasting of combat sports, but that the public image of poker would be more honest and possibly more appealing as well if we acknowledged its cut-throat nature and the fact that not everyone is going to walk away happy from any given table. Top players would likely be psychologically healthier in the long run if they were not shamed for venting, airing out grievances and carrying out rivalries in public, and meanwhile, many casual fans would actually enjoy the drama. After all, primal aggression is present in everyone’s psyche to some extent, and those who don’t have much of it won’t like poker much anyway, even if convinced to try it.

It’s not a game for everyone, and for those who don’t like it, there’s always golf.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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