Frank Floor Talk: Examining the skill of the poker player

September 26, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports
September 26, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports

During my exploration of casino gaming floors through the years, this columnist has always been fascinated by poker rooms and the individuals which inhabit them. There have been many opportunities to speak with and interview poker luminaries. Selected nuggets of insight and wisdom some of them have shared are included at appropriate intervals throughout this treatise.

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Playing live poker is gambling to be sure. For those who do not take the game seriously and just play for recreation, that is all it is and probably all it will ever be. Which is fine.

Those who have taken the time to not only study the game but incorporate the many aspects of scientific and empirical input that are essential to play successfully are quite apart from mere “gamblers”.

Established poker pro Matt Graham put it this way: “If you’re talking about any given day, (poker) is mostly luck.  But the longer period of time you use as a sample, the more it is pure skill”.

Sports competition in the purest sense implies physical dexterity, which would exclude poker players. Yet the combination of skill, strategy, endurance, competitive spirit, resiliency, and cognitive input it takes to play at a top level consistently can indeed make poker a sport.

A critical skill that a professional poker player must possess in order to be successful puts the game in a category all of its own: The ability to play a known quantity (your hand) against unknown quantities (your competitors’ hands). Easier said than done, right?

Every single hand that makes up a poker game is a competition all its own with a beginning and an end. There are many, many hands, consequently many winners and losers.

The famous quote widely attributed to NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi – “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” – may be one quality that separates poker from traditional sports.

Ultimately, winning a poker tournament is the only thing, but along the way there has to be some losing to set the stage for the outcome.

It is the combination of those decisions which determine the results, yet because there are so many strategic layers involved in getting there, the correlation of poker to sports becomes complicated.

Or as Annie Duke explained: “Poker is really like peeling an onion. There are the most basic levels, then you go deeper. Even if you are an advanced player there are some extremely advanced concepts”.

The mechanics of the game create the tempo for the playing experience. The subtleties which revolve around timing and decision making are what give it life as a sport.

Joel Casper had this perspective: “It helps to be emotionally stable because in this game there’s going to be ups and downs. I’m not going to lie to you; I’ve had days where I’ve lost a lot of money. It comes with the territory. It takes a strong-willed person to come back from losing a couple days in a row and be able to keep your head up and start winning again”.

One skill (more of a science) that successful poker players master is learning about and identifying behavioral indicators, an advanced field of study revolving around “body language”.

People reveal behavioral indicators involuntarily because they are incapable of being physiologically suppressed. A vast majority of the time we are unaware of them, such as tapping your foot while seated at your desk, or twirling a lock of your hair.

This columnist received much insight from Joe Navarro, who is regarded as one of the leading experts in the world on non-verbal communication.

Navarro, retired from a 25-year career as a special agent with the FBI, co-authored a book with Phil Helmuth a number of years ago, “Read ‘em and Reap”, sub-titled “A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells’.

He acknowledged that everyone exhibits readable behaviors, and that successful poker pros have mastered the ability to mask some of those behaviors. Here is the technique he recommended:

“Sit at the (poker) table in sort of a ‘perched’ position from which you bring your hands together in front of your mouth and your thumbs hold up your chin. Your elbows are on the table and you’re looking down. It is from that position you make all your decisions and it is the position you use to view others. It makes for a very tough read because you are blocking most of your face, you are blocking your neck, and you are controlling your hands.”

Blocking your neck? Yes, observing an increase of blood flow through your carotid artery to cause it to become more prominent is a behavioral indicator.

The late, great poker legend Doyle Brunson had been at the top of his game for decades when today’s stars of the game were still learning how to play Old Maid and Fish.

During a conversation, the one and only “Texas Dolly” revealed to this columnist that he had a PhD in human behavior and probably didn’t even realize it.

“I think you learn more about a guy in an hour playing poker than you do in a day outside the poker room,” he said. “I think his true emotions come out in a poker game, his inner self kind of surfaces.”

In tournament poker, just as in team and individual sports competition, success seems to feed on success.

Being in a position of strength is a huge factor. The bigger your stack of chips, the more daring you can be. The damage created by mistakes is minimized by the cushion you enjoy over your opponents.

Conservative play, or playing with “scared stakes”, dilutes the disciplined, tactical behavior that is required to succeed consistently under tournament conditions. One mistake can spell defeat.

Failure in poker feeds on impulsiveness and desperation. When you are compelled to gamble big on one hand to get back in the game, hoping that luck will pull you through instead of skill and strategy, your game goes downhill.

As Greg Raymer put it: “Because poker involves playing against other people, it’s always a work in progress, you might say. With a game like chess that has no luck, you’re going to play differently against different opponents to take advantage of their weaknesses and counter their strengths.

“With poker it is a lot more. I actually call poker one of the few games that is one hundred percent reactive. Even if you are not reacting to what your opponent just did, you are reacting to how you expect them to respond.”

So, the next time you happen to walk past the poker room, take a moment to appreciate the unique place the game holds in the gaming industry.