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Consider the source: Poker great, but keep it a game

Illustration by Arnie Bermudez
By Ryan Johnson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 2, 2004
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You're on the button and you peek at your cards. You've got pocket rockets (i.e. two aces). A player in an early position two-bets, and you're trying to decide whether to slow play and raise the turn or to three-bet pre-flop.

After the first round of betting, players have a general idea (or at least a guess) of which players have the strong hands. Now it's time to deal some more cards. The strategies get more complex. A player bets a large stack. Does this player have a flush, or is he trying to "buy the pot" by scaring the other players away? You have four hearts, one of which is the ace. You remember all the previous moves this player made to try to get an idea of his playing style. You think he's bluffing. You call. Now the game becomes about probability. You have four hearts, including the ace, which means that if one more heart comes down, you win. With two cards to go, that means you have a 39 percent chance of getting a flush, plus you have your aces to fall back on if he bluffs, and there are enough chips in the pot to justify staying in.

The fifth heart hits. You've won the hand, and it brings an adrenaline rush. You high-five your friends.

This common scenario in the card game known as Texas Hold'em may sound like gibberish to the majority of people, but to the 41 percent of college students who play card games - according to a University of Minnesota study - it represents key strategic decisions.

Don't call poker a game of luck. This is an intense skill game that's also as fun as beer pong.

It is a game in which everything becomes a source of information. The way players react when they see their cards, their breathing patterns, but above all else, their eyes - unless, of course, they're wearing protective sunglasses.

Ryan Johnson

How many sports can claim eyewear as a strategy?

That is why poker should be played in person. Playing online takes away so many elements and turns poker into something less than real poker, something akin to five-card draw machines.

Played in person, poker is a great game. It has simple rules that anyone can understand, but at the same time offers enough complexities to keep psychologists and statisticians forever studying it. Players can improve dramatically, but can never master it.

Poker players also want their game perceived as something more than just gambling. They shriek at those who put it in the same category as blackjack. And for the most part, it shouldn't be.

Hold'em is quickly becoming one of the most popular games among adults, a sort of grown man's Monopoly. But behind all the TV cameras and million-dollar payouts, is there a darker side? Unfortunately, the answer may be yes. Over five percent of college students become addicted to gambling, according to a Harvard Medical School Study.

Played the right way - meaning tournament-style - with friends, for small buy-ins and in a social setting, Hold'em makes for a fun and intellectually stimulating use of time.

But when it stops being a game and becomes gambling, poker rears its ugly head.

People are surprised at how fast it happens. For them, it may be that $5 buy-ins turn into $25 buy-ins, and then people are looking less to play with their friends and more to find high-stakes games. Now they're playing with people they've never met before for $100 buy-ins. Perhaps they try playing at a casino. And then perhaps they're there until 6 a.m., playing with the exact same 12 people who are there every day. At this point, it has become a problem.

The worst thing that can happen to a new poker player is to get on a winning streak. He wins $100 and says, "that could have been $1000." So he ups the stakes. He loses, and then probably loses some more. Pretty soon he's lost four digits. You can recognize these people fairly easily. They're the ones saying they did "OK," or were "up a little."

Played for high stakes, especially at casinos, poker turns from a game into something more than a game. Casinos actually take out the good parts of poker and replace them with money.

Pretty soon it's not much different than slots, an addictive draw that in the end sucks away all of your money.

What are players to do? Keep the skills and strategy to a maximum, but keep the betting to a minimum. Always play tournament-style, and avoid the casinos.

Bet with friends, bet with siblings. Heck, bet with parents.

But whatever you do, don't turn it into gambling.

Saying gambling is bad, and thus poker is bad is not a good position, but a line does need to be drawn. To condemn poker, it would be like condemning chess.

Tournament-style at my house. $5 buy-in. BYOB.

Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies junior. He can be reached at

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