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Is poker gambling?

When you first start out the question always seemed to arise whether poker is a game of skill or a game of luck.  Of course, from playing the game you soon realise there is more to it than 'Johny got lucky tonight' and that in fact skillful play can lead to winnings.  But then there is the added dilemma of keeping this success to yourself and not being able to share it with your nearest and dearest, for fear of them finding out about what they may regard as a 'gambling addiction.'  Might be different for some.

If a total newbie enters a table at the Bellagio full of world class pros, that would be silly, and inevitably over time his or her winnings would be frittered away or janked away because they would just be up against far better players.  However, while he or she may as well throw their money down the drain by entering the totally wrong table, full of sharks, and yet still the newbie does have an opportunity to 'get lucky' and win big.  But in the end, their money will be lost because the world class pros know exactly what better moves to make and what not.  But despite these huge advantage of skill versus the green horn is this still gambling for all the players involved?

Poker isn't gambling .... yes it is!!

Ed Miller, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth in Small Stakes Hold'em argue the case: "Poker isn't gambling."  'You are better off not abbreviating though, because the second statement is true, while the first one is not!  Poker is gambling.' (Page 19)

University play versus taking it more seriously

Playing poker in the dinghy kitchen of University student rented homes, we were all in full knowledge that it was gambling, but as I progressed to individual online poker play, I was in a bit of a denial.  I regarded poker more as a skill game or a sport when playing against total strangers, rather than a bit of fun with my mates.  To think that it is anything but gambling, according to the 3 authors mentioned, is counter product for the typical winning player.  

According to 'Small Stakes Hold'em', the writers suggest 'that denying that poker is gambling can cause you to make systematic errors.'  They add 'Professional poker players with every decision they strive to maximise their overall expectation, much like the casinos or bookmakers do.'

To be a winning player you've still got to sometimes chase those gut shot draws or two pair to a full house on the river, at the correctly chosen moment. Without risking money there isn't any reward. Welcome to the world of gambling, and that includes the game of Texas Hold'em Poker.

The writer, David Sklansky actually made most of his money through betting on the sports in the bookies or through playing poker of course, as well as writing 14 books on the subject of Poker.  At 71, Sklansky still plays the game and still makes World Series of Poker appearances.

Folding gives you negative expectation to win...

'Likewise, to win at poker you must make as many plays with a positive expectation as possible, while avoiding those with a negative one.' (Page 23)

'Quantifiying your expectation for calling and raising isn't often difficult, but folding is easy: it is always zero when you fold.'  'If either calling or raising has a positive expectation, you should not fold. Fold only if calling and raising have a negative expectation.'

Players in denial

'Some people deny that poker is gambling.' 'In their view, losing players "gamble" while winning players "avoid gambles".  To them gambling means risking money on a long shot with little hope of winning.  They bet and raise only when they usually win, and they fold whenever they are a significant underdog.'  'Some days you will consistently make the plays with the maximum possible expectation, but your cards will run worse than average, and you will lose.  Other days you will make mistakes and sometimes choose plays with an inferior expectation, but still win because your cards run better than average.' (Page 25)

So this way of thinking means that if you do lose money you will feel better about it if you know you made the right play with a high expectation of winning.  This clarifies the murky waters between whether poker is gambling or not.  By the law of averages, you are going to lose sometimes money.  Just make sure you get yourself in more winning positions through good decision making than not!  The overall idea is that by playing your best as much as possible, along with dealing with the emotional swings and turmoil included, if you can stay focused and disciplined, mathematics will prevail and you will make money in the long term.

You can make money from poker by picking the right spots and making the right plays. The trick is to put yourself into situations where you are most likely to win and with the highest expectation. Luck has a funny habit of making its way to you when things are going well, and rarely she turns up when the tides have turned against you. You've got to factor it all in. Weigh it all up.

*Much of these ideas have once again been taken from the text, but this time in Sklansky, Miller and Malmuth's book Small Stakes Hold'em.

Hope you enjoyed reading, I'll be heading back to the tables to play some more cards a bit later!

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I have been playing poker for about 15 years. I play online currently and I've played poker in casinos, card rooms, local games and with friends. I play NL hold'em tournaments and cash games and can also play Pot Limit Omaha, a game I also love.
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