Poker appears to have been derived during the nineteenth century from a variety of different games, which may have included brag, as nas (dsands), post and pair, primero, gilet, brelan, bousilotte, ambigu, and poque. These games merged in the fertile Mississippi valley to form the very popular game we now call poker (Asbury, 1938). Jackpots and stud poker (that is, playing with some cards face-up) were American additions to the game (Asbury, 1938, p. 20). Its varied sources likely explain the incredible variety of games included in today’s concept of poker. Poker is played around the world, and Anthony Holden (1990) estimates that 50 to 60 million people play poker in the U.S. alone. In recent years, its popularity has increased tremendously as a result of the highly publicized huge prizes awarded at the World Series of Poker.
Poker is important in a discussion of gambling problems because it is commonly the first real gambling that a lot of young people engage in. In recent years, poker tournaments have made their way onto television. Due to the large prizes now offered in tournaments, the game is more popular today than it has ever been.
There are probably several hundred different ways of playing poker. Casino poker games can be divided into “house” games played against the casino and true poker played against other players.
There are several variations of poker that have been modified so that the player plays against the dealer (the casino) rather than against other players. As in blackjack, the dealer must play according to strictly defined rules that spell out how to play, given the cards in the player’s hand and those of the dealer, which are face up. The games are designed to ensure a payback of around 95%.
In these games, a player can reduce the house edge by carefully judging odds but, unlike in blackjack, the player cannot eliminate the house edge. Games in this category include Caribbean stud, pai gow, let-it-ride and joker poker. Video poker also belongs in this category, making it one of the only video gambling machine games for which it is possible to significantly reduce the house advantage (see Wong & Spector, 1996).
True poker is played between players. Poker games can be found in kitchens, bars, the backrooms of restaurants, card casinos, poker rooms in large casinos, and on the Internet. Most players learn to play recreationally at home games, sometimes called “kitchen table” poker. In Ontario, home games of poker are legal as long as the entire pot goes to the winner of each hand. That is, no third party takes a percentage of the pot as profit. When poker is dealt in a casino, the house rents chairs to the players either as a percentage of the pot or at an hourly rate. This is known as the rake.
In recent years there has been a rapid growth in the popularity of poker tournaments. The World Series of Poker held in Las Vegas, for example, attracts thousands of players from around the world and offers prizes in the millions.
The most common games dealt in a casino are 7-card stud, Texas hold ’em and Omaha hold’em. Kitchen poker includes a wide variety of games, many of which are some version of 5-card draw poker; usually the choice of the game is up to the dealer.
In 7-card stud poker, a player is dealt 7 cards and makes the best poker hand using 5 of his cards. The player is dealt an initial 3 cards, 2 down and 1 up. Betting occurs after these initial cards are dealt out. This is followed by 4 additional cards, dealt face up one at a time, and the last card is dealt face down. There is betting after the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th card.
Texas hold ’em, often simply “hold ’em,” is played at a table that seats up to 10 players. Each player gets 2 cards face down. These are the player’s pocket or hole cards. After players bet on their pocket cards, 3 cards are placed face‑up in the middle of the table. These cards are called the “flop.” They are community cards that all players can use to make a hand. A second round of betting occurs. A fourth community card (the “turn”) is then dealt followed by a third round of betting. Finally, the fifth and last community card is dealt (the “river”), and a final round of betting occurs. Players make their hands by selecting the best 5-card combination of their pocket cards and the table cards. The winner is the player who can make the best 5-card hand. A player can use 1, 2 or even none of his/her pocket cards to make a hand. If two players have an equal combination of cards, the pot is split between them.
In Omaha hold ’em, or simply “Omaha,” each player receives 4 pocket cards, and 5 community cards are placed in the middle of the table. In Omaha, players must use 2 pocket cards and 3 table cards to make their hands.
In 5-card draw, players receive 5 cards, bet, and then discard some of their cards and draw new cards, followed by a final round of betting. This game is rarely found in casinos anymore, but variations of 5-card draw are often played at kitchen tables. In home games, wild cards are often used.
In most forms of poker the ace is the highest card, while 2 is the lowest, and the players try to obtain the highest hand possible. The rules of each game vary, but the status of the various hands are inversely related to their probability of occurrence and are the same for most poker variations. The hands, ranked from highest to lowest, are a royal flush (ten to ace in the same suit), a straight flush (sequential cards with no gaps, e.g., 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 all in the same suit), 4 of a kind, a full house (3 of one kind, 2 of another), a flush (5 cards in the same suit), a straight (sequential cards with no gaps, e.g., 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), 3 of a kind, 2 pair, 1 pair, no pair with highest card. Two pair is a weak hand in a game with wild cards or several draws, but can be a fairly strong hand in a game such as Texas hold ’em.
In some games, called low ball, the players try to obtain the lowest possible hand. A winning hand would have no pairs, and be made up of low cards (e.g., 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 would be a winning hand). In some low ball games, ace is a high card, while in other low ball games ace is a low card. In other forms of poker, such as Omaha high-low split, players can try to win with either a high-card or a low-card hand using combinations of their pocket cards and the community cards. The highest and the lowest hands split the pot. In Omaha high-low, however, to win the low, a player cannot have a pair and must have no card higher than an 8.
To a large extent, poker is a game of skill, but if the players are well matched it becomes more like a game of chance. Poker is a game of incomplete information. Unlike games such as chess, in which both players can see the position of all the pieces, poker players must deal with two unknowns: the cards in their opponents’ hands and the cards remaining in the deck. Thus players must develop the ability to figure out what their opponent is doing while preventing their opponents from figuring out what they are doing. There are several skills that improve a player’s poker game.
Card skills include knowing the chances of completing a particular hand and the odds of winning with a particular hand, and weighing those odds against the size of the bet and the potential win (the pot odds). Being able to keep track of the cards as they are dealt, rapidly compute the odds of a particular card being drawn and make a decision about the next action based on this information are crucial to being able win at poker, especially in 7-card stud. The optimal play depends on the type of game. In hold ’em, for example, the value of the starting cards and knowing how to play them in different positions is crucial to winning. A person with an ace and 9 might fold if he/she is the first to bet, but might raise when one of the last to bet if it appears the other players have weak hands (see Warren, 1996). The single most important card skill is limiting the number of starting hands the player will continue to play (i.e., not fold) to those where he/she has an above average chance of winning.
Assessing Other Players
Experienced players attempt to determine if there are players at the table they think they can beat. They become knowledgeable about the style and skill of other players and seek to find games where there are weaker players. Experienced players may also attempt to manipulate their own image at the table, sometimes acting as if they are inexperienced and other times trying to ensure that the other players think that they are very good.
Bluffing and Slow Play
An important skill is the ability to convince the other players that one has a good hand when one doesn’t (a bluff) or that one has a weak hand when one actually has a strong hand (slow play). According to the movie Rounders (Stillerman, Demme, & Dahl, 1998), novice players often try to act weak when they are strong or strong when they are weak, inadvertently providing the other players a strong clue about what they have (see “tells” below). The key to a successful bluff is that the other players must not know what one has. Consequently, the bluff must be used sparingly. If overused, bluffing loses its effectiveness or even becomes a trap. For example, if a player habitually raises when holding weak cards, it provides other players with the opportunity to slow play their hands. A somewhat less risky variation is a semi-bluff, used when a player has a fairly decent hand that by itself could win, but also has the potential to improve into a much stronger hand. A bluff is most effective when used against timid players or overly cautious players. Slow play works well against overly aggressive players.
In the film Rounders (Stillerman, Demme, & Dahl, 1998), during the final showdown at the movie’s climax, the main character, Mike, notices that his rival, KGB, always eats an Oreo cookie in a particular way when he has a good hand. The Oreo cookie is a tell. A tell is a verbal or non-verbal clue about what a player is thinking. The Oreo cookie itself is an absurdly obvious clue in the film; usually tells are more subtle. Players identify tells by watching other players’ reactions to their cards and how they bet. The goal is to find telltale signs that give away a player’s hand.
Identifying tells requires carefully observing a player over the course of many hands. Of course, if the other player is a skilled player this is very difficult. In hold ’em, players usually leave their cards face down on the table and only glance at them briefly. If a player picks up his/her cards after the flop has been dealt and then quickly makes a bet, it is a sign that the flop might have given the player a better hand than he/she expected. If a player hesitates before betting, his/her hand may be weak or a long shot. Tells are often unique to the individual, making them difficult to identify. In addition, some gamblers try to fake tells. According to Caro (1986), trying to fake a tell is not a good plan because only good players will notice it, and they are the players most likely to be able see that it is fake.
Another poker skill is the ability to control one’s own emotions, both in order to hide one’s hand from one’s opponents (the poker face) and for long-term survival at poker. Sometimes, when confronted with an unexpected loss (e.g., holding a full house of aces and kings, but losing to a hand of 4 twos), a player might become upset and go “on tilt” (Browne, 1989). A player on tilt starts to play desperately or chases losses. Being upset may make it difficult to hold a poker face. In addition, poker is often predatory. The second author once watched a player put on an act as if he were an obnoxious drunk. He irritated and angered the other players at the table and suckered another player into a large pot. A skilled player must avoid feeling desperate when losing. There is a common saying in poker rooms, “Scared money always runs away.” Conversely, a successful player must avoid feeling too lucky when he/she wins.
Accurate statistics about the percentage of poker players who suffer from a gambling problem are not available. The authors hypothesize that with traditional, live cash poker (either in a kitchen or a casino) fewer players may exhibit gambling problems than for slots or other table games. Hayano (1982) suggests that peer pressure in poker may moderate extreme behavior. Kitchen poker with friends in particular is self-limiting in that excessive gambling is not likely to be encouraged or tolerated. Even in a casino, poker players will criticize foolish actions made by other players or offer advice or playing tips. Both authors, however, have witnessed problematic behavior from poker players, so it is not rare. Basil Browne (1989) found that a lot of players go in and out of tilt, ranging from non-problematic to problematic at different times. Poker can be very predatory, and some players will purposely try to put other players on tilt in order to take their money.
The advent of on-line poker may have changed poker into a much more problematic game. With on-line games there is no longer a social barrier to excessive play because on-line players do not know each other and are unlikely to offer advice. They have no reason to discourage foolish play. In addition, on-line games are much more widely available and the stakes that are available range from bets with pennies up to hundreds of dollars. The low stakes make it easier to initiate a habit, the higher stakes make chasing losses possible. Another distinct feature of poker today is the game that most people are playing: no-limit Texas hold ’em. The very name “no-limit” reveals the main problem with this game. At any point in the game any player may push all of their chips into the middle of the table. (See note 1 below) This particular version of poker may be more dangerous than other forms because the players can either suffer substantial losses very quickly or, potentially worse, substantial wins. (See note 2 below)
Fritz and Horbay (1998) compared successful poker players with those in treatment for gambling problems and found that successful players consider skill more important and luck less important compared to players in treatment. Successful players also reported that they would leave a game if they had won or lost a predetermined amount, if they were tired, or if they felt that they were going to lose more money. Players in treatment reported that they left when they ran out of money or the casino closed. Fritz and Horbay also found that immigrants from cultures where card playing and/or poker is not common are at risk because they appear to view poker as a game of luck and are not aware that poker skills can be improved through reading books or studying the odds.
- In these games the players do have a minimum bet (e.g., 50 cents for the first two rounds of betting, and $1 for the third and fourth round of betting); however, there is no definite maximum on the player’s bet. Low stakes tables on-line, however, do impose a maximum amount that a player can cash in with (e.g., $50) which technically does limit the size of bets.
- A big win early in one’s gambling career is one of the main factors that leads to pathological gambling (Turner et al., 2002).
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