Sunday, February 11, 2007

Poker and Gambling


Poker to me is just another card game. Like other card games, I used to play this as a child.

We would play for poker chips. Each player would start the game off with a large stack of white chips, some reds, and some blues. One kid actually had yellow chips, which we would use for 50s. We would play until one of us ran out of chips, or until our parents had to leave, and we with them.

One of my best memories from my first trip to Israel when I was six years old was playing poker around a kitchen table with my brothers and cousins using sweetened cereal as chips. That's the type of poker game where, at the end of the evening when the "chips" are counted, it turns out that everyone has lost.

There are hundreds of variations of poker, and I must have played a large chunk of them: five card stud, blackjack, acey-deucy, high-low. Cards laid out in crosses or boxes, stars, or patterns, one handed, two handed, with wild cards and without. And so-on, unto the limits of our childhood imaginations.

Poker as a Game, Good and Bad

Like any other game, the game of poker has good and bad qualities.

  • Ability to catch up and win at any time as long as you're still playing.
  • Low learning curve.
  • Cheap components.
  • Many variations.
  • Balanced play for all players, regardless of seat position.
  • Accommodates from 2 to many players with ease and little downtime.
  • Each round is very short.
  • Players can enter or leave the game between rounds.
  • The game's tactics are straightforward, but just difficult enough to keep things interesting.
  • There are gradated winning opportunities.; while not all players can win, more than one can, and winning is not an absolute "yes" or "no", but measured in relative terms.
  • The opportunity to "play your opponent" and "bluff" are both interesting mechanisms.
  • The card mechanics are rather trivial as far as tactics goes, if you're basically good at math.
  • There is a whole lot of luck, which can be annoying.
  • Rounds are short, which leaves little room for strategy.
  • There is early player elimination if you run out of chips.
  • Without adding a special rule limiting bet sizes or allowing borrowing, the rich can easily leverage out the poor from ever winning.

Note what I left out of the bad column, which is Poker's biggest drawback: "played for money". Poker played for money is not the same as Poker played for chips, regardless of using the same basic mechanisms and components.

We never played for money. I have a religious objection to doing so, so I never will play for money. If gambling is about winning and losing money, then it's not really fun. As Robert Heinlein said, "There is no such thing as 'social gambling.' Either you are there to cut the other bloke's heart out and eat it -- or you're a sucker."

People who actually try to make a living out of gambling are serious; the more serious, the more they have to forget that they are expending a great deal of effort to accumulate wealth without actually doing something constructive for the world.

Most people get paid, at least allegedly, for building something, contributing, producing, helping, or in some way passing on lasting value to people. Even entertainers fall into that category, since they know that they owe a good time to the people who are parting with money to see them perform. Gamblers don't think of themselves as entertainers, however; if they did, they would owe the people from whom they take money a better show.

Gambling as Entertainment

Poker for money can still be fun, but only if you treat it as entertainment.

If I went to a casino and wanted to play a game of Poker, I would figure out how much money I wanted to spend on this type of entertainment, just as I would if I went to watch a game of football, or to see a movie.

Let's say a hundred dollars is the price that I'm willing to pay. I would take a hundred dollars out of my wallet, leave my wallet with my wife, and bet on the cheapest table there was in the house, allowing me to play for the longest period of time. If I come out having spent less than a hundred dollars, great. Otherwise, I received my entertainment for the price I was willing to spend.

But I know, as everyone else reading this also knows, it's not that simple.

Gambling and Addiction

I can blithely say how I would approach gambling as entertainment because I am not addicted to it.

It's the same way that I approach drinking. I want to drink a glass of wine, I drink a glass, and then I'm done. I understand that there are people who want to do this but can't. One drink, or one gamble, and they can't stop. The fact (or supposition, perhaps) that I am not addicted to gambling means that I am blessed. I realize this.

Gambling and the Law

A strong libertarian opinion asserts that governments should not interfere with people's addictions; that people should take care of themselves. If addiction is really a sickness and not simply irresponsibility, I find this opinion somewhat lacking in moral authority.

Gambling, alcohol, and so on are legally restricted to adults, but beyond that no controls are enforced. There are laws prohibiting these activities in certain places, but nothing prevents people from binging, or from enabling others to binge. Which seems kind of strange to me.

Wouldn't it be logical for limits to be suggested for certain activities? For instance, a limit of no more than X grams of alcohol should be consumed in any 24 hour period. Based on body weight, or what have you. Shops could sell bottles based on this suggested drinking limit per day. Similarly, it would be suggested to not spend over a certain amount of money per day on gambling, or accept or entice others to do the same.

Voluntary enforcement would recognize violations on these limits not as criminal, with fines and so on, but as sickness. Violators would be counseled. This wouldn't force people to comply, but would allow helpers to keep tabs on, and possibly intervene for, abuse situations.

You couldn't really enforce these suggestions as laws without seriously violating privacy issues and fueling criminal activity. Proactively checking people would force people to illegally gamble and drink at home. And think of the cost of legal enforcement.

Some people argue that all gambling should be illegal because some people become sick when exposed to it. That was the same argument made about prohibition of alcohol consumption in the early twentieth century. While not without a small amount of merit, I don't think such a position is warranted.

Gambling and Blogging

I bring up the subject of gambling as I have been receiving an increased number of contacts from people to host ads on my site, which is flattering. One of them was from the site Learn Texas Holdem.

LTH isn't itself a gambling site, although they link to gambling sites and earn a cut from doing so. They have an excellent collection of articles about Texas Holdem, which I think would be interesting to people who play the game. Owing to the quality of the articles, I was prepared to accept an advertisement from them.

Only then did I learn two things: The first is that Google Ad-Words may not be displayed on any site that "contains or displays adult content, promotes gambling, involves the sale of tobacco or alcohol to persons under twenty-one years of age, or otherwise violates applicable law." The other is that my wife objects to my hosting ads having to do with gambling (something about a reckless relative from her family's past).

With regards to Google's restriction, is it illegal to promote playing Poker to people under twenty-one if not encouraging them to play for money? Isn't it more immoral to promote gambling to people who are over 21 who are addicted? Do children who start playing cards for chips at an early age become more addicted later in life? Or do they learn the lessons of gambling early on?

Gambling and Gaming

Gaming was once synonymous with gambling, and in some blog-site listings it still is. Other sites variously link games with toys, sports, or entertainment.

Gambling is a gaming mechanism, and apparently a popular one. I don't like it as a mechanism when I'm playing a strategy game; I prefer my longer games to be less about player psychology and luck, and more about deep thinking and inspiration.

Playing Poker for "chips" takes a lot out of the game. For one thing, it is easy to bet 500 Cheerios without experiencing any real tension should you lose, especially on the last hand of the night. You can't do that with real cash.

But as a play mechanism, it's still fun. Especially when played with sweetened cereal.



Gerald McD said...

Excellent article! I've played Poker since I was a teenager, in the game Michigan Rummy. But, I've never played it for money. I have gambled for entertainment, in Reno and Las Vegas, but never spent even $100. I played BlackJack, since there is some semblance of player control (decision-making, at least), while I ignore the slot machines as a total waste of time, and I've never had the incentive to learn Craps.

My son is an excellent player of Texas Hold'Em, doing well in some local small competitions, but I think he is playing less these days.

A number of board and card games we play could be considered a form of gambling, if the exchange of money were involved. We very clearly draw a distinction between "gambling" for entertainment and gambling for money.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Thanks, GG.

People play Chess for money, too, but that's not gambling. I wonder if that's because the length of the game or the amount of luck involved.


Gerald McD said...

I guess I have a different definition of "gambling." For me, gambling is risking money to gain money, but in a game-type or sport-type of setting. I think you can gamble on non-chance games, such as chess, in which you are gambling that you play better than the other player, for money. Whether something of material value changes hands at the end of the game is the deciding factor for me, as a definition of gambling (might be something other than cash).