What Motivates People to Play Poker?

Steve Ruddock : February 16th, 2016

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There is a specific poker topic I see brought up every so often, and in my opinion it’s the key divergences between the poker industry and the professional class of poker players. The debate usually goes something like this:

The problem with this argument is both camps are right.

Michael Josem is right because a lot of people play poker for small amounts of money just to play poker. They don’t study the game, they don’t try to move up in stakes, and if they do win a little bit they tend to cash that money out and repeat the process.

Marc Kennedy is right too, but only from the point of view of what first attracted a lot (maybe as much as 50%) of people to poker. The allure of money was a big draw during the poker boom and it remains a big draw to this day, although I suspect the number of people making their first deposit because they harbor dreams of becoming a poker pro are on the decline. Regardless, at some point (usually very quickly) the people who started playing poker with dreams of swimming in a mountain of gold coins a la Scrooge McDuck, realize they just don’t have the ability or drive to be a professional poker player and reality sets in.

Yet despite this reality, a number of these people continue to play poker. And this (the moment we shift the focus from why they started playing to why they continue to play) is where Kennedy’s argument really loses steam.

Bringing a player into the mix is important, and the allure of money is one of these drivers, but keeping them active is just as important, actually more so in my opinion as it applies to all players, regardless of why they initially signed up.

Motivators

Since it worked so well in a previous column, let me hearken back to my decade-plus of working in health clubs to explain the different reasons people might play poker, and why the reason they continue to play is often a very different reason or reasons.

In my previous gym/poker analogy I wrote:

“hardcore lifters also harbored the belief that they inspired others to greatness. There was also a pervasive theory in the gym world that these muscle-bound men attracted females to the gyms. I never believed this theory to be true, and I’ve never seen any evidence it was.”

As the theory went, these females would in turn attract other men to the facility (this is very true), and these “average” male gym members would be motivated by the hardcore lifters and aspire to be one of them (by and large this is untrue).”

Extrapolating on this idea, hardcore lifters thought a lot like Marc Kennedy, why else are people going to the gym other than to lift heavier and heavier weights and get stronger? What’s the point?

Actually, just like there are a number of reasons people start playing poker, there are a multitude of reasons other than getting big and strong that people go to the gym:

  • Health concerns ranging from high blood pressure and high cholesterol to diabetes
  • weight loss
  • training for a race or sport
  • Their friends go
  • Their spouse or even children are making them go
  • Their job requires it (often the case for firefighters and police)
  • to meet people

Along with getting big and strong (a dream, like that of being a professional poker player, harbored predominantly by young males) these are just some of the reasons people first step foot in a gym.

Why they continue to go is often a very different reason.

Just looking at our focus group, the young (let’s call them 16-24 year olds) males who joined the gym to get big and strong, the transition from why they joined to why they keep going happens relatively quickly.

Within the first year, unless they’re genetically gifted, most of these people realize they’re not going to be 225 lbs with a washboard stomach and 18-inch arms  without putting in a ton of effort, busting their ass in the gym for one to two hours a day five days a week, eating clean meals six times a day, and spending a lot of money on supplements or even PED’s.

The hard work it takes to transform yourself from a normal 160lb kid to an NFL linebacker physique is similar to what it takes to go from being a new poker player to a professional – years of hard work and sacrifice. Most people are simply not going to dedicate their lives to accomplishing this, regardless of the eventual payoff – and if you want to argue making money is a bigger motivator than having a body like Channing Tatum to a 20-year-old, I’d take that bet.

This doesn’t mean these people stop going to the gym, but rather they adjust their workout goals to fit in with the reality they live in. As Kennedy notes, this remains a motivating factor in the back of their mind, but as Josem notes, other things start to trump it.

When people stop trying to play poker for a living

I’m sure a disproportionate number of young poker players first start playing the game harboring dreams of making millions. But like a teenager who picks up a basketball or a baseball bat, or a scrawny 18 year-old walking down to the bench press for the first time, the reality of becoming a pro become apparent rather quickly. At this point, most either move on to something else, or find something else about the activity (basketball, baseball, weightlifting, poker) that they enjoy.

As noted above, it becomes readily apparent that becoming a professional poker player isn’t easy. Anyone really looking into it will find the bankroll management requirements, modest expected win rates and moving up through stakes, and time and energy spent studying and learning the game massive barriers.

Furthermore, for most people, playing poker professionally is not only a pipe dream, it’s a downright scary proposition. The notion of winning or losing thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars (your dollars, dollars that you owned just minutes before) in a single night might seem really cool until it actually happens, and this “sting” (usually a college kid losing a few hundred bucks) is more than enough to dissuade them from playing poker as a profession – especially players who have a job and have come to respect the value of money, or have responsibilities that require steady income.

Finally, poker doesn’t always offer someone the best living, or even a satisfying living. From the odd hours, to the mental fortitude required to overcome the swings, to the sketchiness one will eventually run into in the poker world, professional poker can be quite off-putting to some people.

I was never a world-beater when I played, but I did pretty good, making a little bit more than I do now. Yet given the choice, I wouldn’t even entertain going back to poker, even if someone guaranteed I’d make more money.

As I responded to Marc Kennedy:

I think a lot of decent poker players who don’t play poker professionally would agree with me that it can suck the fun out of the game, and that the reason I play poker has little to do with money and more to do with my enjoyment of playing poker. That said, when I play I try to win, because I like to play my best.

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