I think most casino gamblers would be well served to at least add poker to their repertoire. In many cases, I think a casino gambler might be happier playing poker and leaving casino games behind.
In this post, I explain why I have that opinion. I look at the difference between poker games and casino games. And I also analyze what those differences might mean (in a practical way) for the average casino gambler.
How I Got Started Gambling
I started with poker as a teenager, but we just played silly games with pennies and nickels. It didn’t even count as real gambling. The stakes were too low for it to matter. These poker games were mostly an excuse to tease our buddies and listen to Eric Clapton cassettes.
My first real experience gambling was at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas. The first game I ever played was roulette. And I learned something important:
Roulette might be the easiest game in the world to learn how to play.
Anyone can figure out that a bet on red (or a bet on black) has a good probability of winning. And it’s hard to be confused about the action at the table when you’re making those outside bets.
I didn’t learn until much later that the house edge – the casino’s mathematical advantage – was higher at roulette than at most other games.
I spent a little time playing blackjack and video poker, too, and over the course of the next decade, I spent a little time (and money) playing casino games in various casinos.
Then I learned how to play Texas holdem.
Learning How to Play Texas Holdem.
I learned to play Texas holdem on the internet. Before that, the only serious poker I’d played was seven card stud. Admittedly, I was a pretty good stud player, too, but holdem just hadn’t interested me until a bunch of gambling webmaster buddies wanted me to play in a weekly game with them.
I started off on Party Poker, back when they still accepted real money players from the United States.
One thing I learned about real money Texas holdem early on was that, in the long run, my success depended on how well I played. In the short run, Texas holdem (and all poker games) are games of chance, but in the long run, they’re games of skill.
The Advantages of a Game of Skill
Some casino games are arguably games of skill – blackjack might be the most notable example, although video poker counts, too.
Under normal circumstances, though, being skilled at these casino games only means you’re minimizing the house edge. You don’t really have a chance of putting the odds in your favor.
Sure, if you’re counting cards in blackjack, you can put the odds in your favor. But most people talking about skilled blackjack are just talking about playing your hands correctly in every situation. That’s called blackjack basic strategy, and you should certainly memorize basic strategy and use it.
Even basic strategy blackjack players are playing at a mathematical disadvantage compared to the house, though. They might reduce the edge from 2% to 4% to less than 1%, but given enough time at the table, they’ll still lose all their money.
Other casino games – most of them, in fact – offer no opportunity to use skill to improve your chances at all. For example, no matter what machines you choose or how you manage your bankroll, you can’t beat the slot machines in the long run. They’re entirely random, and your decisions just don’t matter.
Really, the only decisions you can make when playing slot machines is which games to play, how much to bet on them, and how long to keep playing. Changing any of those factors doesn’t amount to “skill,” though – unless you consider playing a flat-top game instead of a progressive game a “skill.” (I don’t.)
In poker, though, you can be the master of your destiny – at least, in the long run.
Understanding the Skill Element in Poker
In poker, you get to make a decision every round. And you have multiple decision to choose from:
- You can check.
- You can bet.
- You can raise.
- You can fold.
- You can call.
Each of these decisions has a distinct mathematical effect on the game. Some of that effect relates to what cards you hold and the probability that they’ll win. Most of that effect, though, comes from the difference between the skill level your decisions demonstrate contrasted with your opponents’ skill levels.
Let’s look at an absurd example to illustrate:
Suppose you’re playing in a low stakes holdem game with a type of poker player who bets and raises preflop on every hand. At first, he might pick up a few blinds from timid players at the table who fold in the face of his aggression.
Eventually, though, the other players realize that he’s betting and raising with every hand, so most of the time, he’s bound to have an “average” hand.
Such a player is easily defeated. You just have to fold in the face of his aggression and call and/or raise when you have an above average hand. Usually, you’ll take all his money.
Sadly, not all poker situations are this simple.
Different Skills Levels and the Rake
Take eight players and put them at a poker table. Now, assume that all those players are of exactly the same skill level. After 12 hours of play, most of them will have the same number of chips in front of them as they had at the start.
Since this example assumes that the players’ skill levels are all the same, the determining factors for who’s going to win how much is pure chance.
Now, suppose you take the same game and add a 5% rake. That’s what casinos do when they have a cardroom – they collect 5% of every pot. If every player at the table is the exact same level of skill, they’ll all lose their money gradually as they play.
Winners at poker must be better than the other players at the table. They must pay more attention and make better decisions on a consistent basis.
And long-term winners in real cardrooms must be good enough that they not only beat the other players consistently, but they also beat them by enough to overcome the 5% “tax” on every pot.
Poker Is a Game of Never-Ending Complexity
Since poker has both a random element and a human element, the game is never-endingly complex. There are no perfect mathematical decisions in the game because it’s a game of incomplete information.
This and the random nature of the game are the two things that distinguish poker from a game like chess. The latter is a game of perfect information – you know everything there is to know about the status of the game at every decision point.
There is no more information at the chess board other than which pieces are in play and where they sit on the board.
But in poker, you don’t know what cards your opponents hold. This is where the biggest skill element comes in. To win consistently at poker, you must pay enough attention to your opponents’ tendencies that you can “put them on” a range of hands.
You make your decisions accordingly.
The Differences Between Real Poker and Casino Poker Games
A lot of novice gamblers incorrectly label poker a “casino game.” It’s not a casino game, even when played in a casino, because the house isn’t competing with the player. They just take a tax off the pot – the 5% rake we talked about.
What makes a real poker game distinct from a casino game is who’s bankrolling the action.
In a Texas holdem game, you’re competing with the other players at the table for their chips. This makes it a real poker game.
There’s nothing you can do about the house edge in a casino game (for the most part).
But there’s SO much you can do about whether you have a mathematical edge at the poker table.
Real poker is so much more satisfying than a traditional game that it’s not even funny. In poker, at least some of the time – to an extent – you’re master of your own fate.
You get to make important decisions that affect the math behind your outcomes.
If you’re good enough, you can earn a long-term profit.
And you can even do so without angering the casino.
You can’t do that in casino games like blackjack – count cards in a blackjack game and watch what happens to the casino’s goodwill.