Why Do People Play Poker? (And Why Does It Matter?)

by Joseph Harris
on July 18, 2018
12

Minute Read

Understanding your motives and your competitors’ motives at the poker table can help you win more money. A lot of times, your motives at the poker table conflict with the goal of making money. If your goal is to get the most profits for your time at the table, you need to eliminate all of the motives on the below list except for #2.

On the other hand, you might be willing to trade some of the potential money for some of the other benefits of playing poker listed below. I don’t judge. I think your own definition of winning is just fine, as long as you know what it is. Just understand and except the consequences of having goals other than making money.

If you recognize some of your opponents’ motives, it can help you get “inside their heads.” This can earn you more money if you’re willing to take advantage of that knowledge—and you should be. Often, the most successful poker players are the most ruthless poker players.

I read a book about Walmart a few years ago that described the company in an unflattering light. But the authors were impressed with one thing about the company—its relentlessness. In fact, the word “relentless” was used multiple times throughout the book to describe the company.

That’s a quality I’d like to encourage you to develop within yourself as a poker player. You should be relentless.

1. People Play Poker to Compete

Almost half the reasons on this list are related to feeding your ego. Competition can be a healthy reason to play poker. After all, for many of us, competing athletically in this stage of our lives is out of the question.

There are few opportunities to compete in something as pure as poker, though. At the end of the day, the money winds up in the hands of the best players. That’s just how the game works.

Since the cardroom takes a percentage of each pot, you don’t need to be just above average to generate net winnings over the long term. You need to be WAY above average.

Think about it this way—if you’re sitting at a poker table with 9 other players, and all of you play at exactly the same level of skill, you’ll all eventually break even.

Except one thing prevents that—the rake.

Since the cardroom takes 5% of each pot, you need to be so far out in front of the other players strength-wise to come out ahead that it’s not even funny.

Winning poker ain’t for wimps.

If you came to compete, then compete. Get your head in the game. Pay attention to everything that’s going on at the table. Fold often. Bet and raise aggressively.

I’ll talk more about ego, competition, and tournaments soon.

But first, let’s talk about the other of the 2 big reasons—making money.

2. People Play Poker to Make Money

At its most basic, money is how you keep score at the poker table. If you walk away from a poker table with all the other players’ money, you’re obviously the big winner.

You’d almost think that the money is the biggest reason anyone plays poker, but you’d be wrong. Consider this. 90%–maybe even 93%–of poker players lose money in the long run. Only 7% to 10% are long term winners.

If everyone’s goal when playing poker was to make money, that breakdown would be much different. You’d still have winners and losers, just as you would in any competition, but you’d see a higher percentage of people winning money long-term from poker.

In fact, almost all the other reasons people play poker listed here conflict to a greater or lesser extent with this one. It’s perfectly okay to have goals other than making money at the poker table.

What’s not okay—at least in my book—is deluding yourself into thinking you’re a winning poker player when you’re not. It’s not even okay to describe yourself as a break even player.

Be who and what you are.

If you want to be a winning poker player—one who wins money consistently in the long run—then get ready to put in the work. Start studying. Develop your self-discipline. Get ruthless.

Making money at poker requires ice water running through your veins. It requires insane amounts of patience. It requires a compulsion to win that borders on obsession.

You might have to sacrifice some fun or some opportunities to socialize to become someone who wins money regularly at poker. It’s worth it if you do.

You might not be willing to make those sacrifices. That’s okay, too. Just understand that the 10% of the players who are winning love to play with people like you.

3. People Play Poker to Mingle with Other People

You can meet new people and chit chat at almost any kind of gambling game, but few games lend themselves to the kind of socializing that’s available at the poker table.

Mingling can be hazardous to your bankroll, though. For one thing, if you’re spending a lot of time flirting or chatting with the other players, you’re probably not paying as much attention to the action as you should be.

Also, some players are good at manipulating you. If a pretty woman with a sob story is flirting with me at the poker table, I’m going to play differently against her. She knows it, I know it, and the American people know it.

The more you talk with the other players at the table, the likelier you are to give away some kind of information that could help them and hurt you.

You don’t need to sit there like a stone cold statue to win money at poker. But if your goal is to get to know other people, I’d suggest there might be better, less expensive ways to do so.

Just a thought.

4. People Play Poker to Improve Themselves

Self-development is a great goal for anyone. And poker can improve any number of skills that are useful in other real-world situations. Being able to read people, analyze risk versus reward, and persuade people to do what you want to—often in subtle ways—are all skills that anyone can use.

Some people just enjoy taking a skill and honing it to where they’re better now than they used to be. Since poker is a zero sum game, it’s an obvious choice for someone who wants to realistically improve himself. You can track how good you are and how much you’ve improved in black and white—just keep up with how much money you’re winning or losing in the long run.

Of course, some people can take this too far in other directions. If you’re obsessed with getting good enough to take down Phil Hellmuth, you might do things that aren’t as +EV as you would otherwise. You might play beyond your bankroll. Or you might pass up a great lower stakes game just so you can play in the big leagues.

Ego is a dangerous thing. I have a lot more to say about playing poker to feed your ego in the next section. I’m a fan of having healthy self-esteem, but ego trips are –EV.

5. People Play Poker to Feed Their Egos

At one time, the only ego massage you got from poker was the satisfaction of beating other players. This enables you to feel better than those others. But since the poker boom in 2002, you have all kinds of new ways to feed your ego at the poker table.

For one thing, the opportunities to compete in tournaments are far more numerous than ever before. Sure, the World Series of Poker has been around forever, but many cardrooms only started offering tournaments after players got excited about the ones available on the internet.

And of course, the number of tournaments available online is almost infinite.

There’s a lot more ego boosting in that kind of competition than there is playing in a cash game. Yeah, there are winners and losers at the cash table, but no one gets a trophy (or a bracelet).

Of course, there’s an element of winning money involved in any poker tournament. If you win the World Series of Poker Main Event, you’re a millionaire. Of course, you might have a better probability of winning the lottery.

The people who are really making money during the World Series of Poker are the ones capitalizing on the egomaniacs joining the cash games just because they’re in town for the big show and busted out early. Also, when someone gets lucky and wins a tournament, she often wants to get into the big cash games with the famous players.

The famous big stakes players love these guys, because they get an opportunity to make crazy amounts of money with little effort.

It’s okay to want to feed your ego as a poker player, but that’s not the optimal way to make money. Someone who gets his ego fed by poker worries about things like how bad it will hurt his reputation if he goes down in limits from $30/$60 to $15/$30.

Realistic poker players who care about winning don’t care what other people think. They just want the best possible edge. If that’s at the lower stakes tables, then great!

6. People Play Poker to Pass the Time

Poker players who just need something to do are less focused on profits than the kind of ruthless, relentless, aggressive players I hope all my readers are. Often they’re also motivated by the desires to mingle and have fun.

But when I’m talking about passing the time, I’m mostly talking about people who are just bored and need something to do for a little while.

These can be the best of all possible opponents.

Recently I played in a limit game at the Winstar Casino in Oklahoma, and I’m pretty sure one of my opponents was just there to pass the time.

He had a funny way of doing it, though.

He bet and raised every hand he was dealt preflop, regardless of what cards he had. He generally did the same thing on the flop, too.

He got lucky for a while and built up a huge stack of chips.

But in less than 2 hours, he’d lost all the money in that huge stack along with his buy-in. He didn’t seem bothered by it.

I’m sure he was just there to have something to do while his wife played golf or something.

7. People Play Poker Just to Have Fun

Here’s the thing about playing poker just to have fun:

It’s usually a losing proposition. Most players who are focused on having fun play too many hands and stay in those hands longer than they should. This isn’t hard to understand.

After all, how often do recreational gamblers say they want to go to the cardroom to fold a few hands?

Never, right?

They always say they want to go to the cardroom to play a few hands.

Sometimes playing against bad players is fun, but it can also suck some of the fun out of the game. I don’t know any poker players who enjoy bad beats, but if you want to win at poker, you must be able to accept that bad beats mean you’re playing better than your opponents.

But suffering a bad beat is no fun.

Weak players also do dumb stuff like taking too long to act, or acting out of turn, or holding up the game in any of a dozen different ways. I used to play with a buddy, Todd, who never got irate about anything—except when someone slowed down the action at the table.

Of course, the games you choose might be less profitable if they’re more fun. One example is the bad beat jackpot game. Since you’re sacrificing extra rake to fuel that jackpot, you’re liable to make less money at that table than you would at a game without that jackpot—at least in the short run.

You might really enjoy tournaments, too. But every financially successful poker player I know is convinced that there’s more money to be made in the cash games than in the tournaments.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have fun, but decide how important fun is compared to making money. Then get okay with that decision.

Conclusion

Recognizing and understanding your goals at the poker table can help you improve your game tremendously. Observing what seems to be your opponents’ goals can also help you decide how to best compete with them at the table.

Understand that most of these reasons for playing poker are not mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly natural to want to play poker to make money and to have fun, for example. It’s just that sometimes one goal might be more important than another, and when there’s a conflict, it’s helpful to know what priority you place on these.

If I had to choose one theme for all the gambling blog posts I write, it would be this one:

Understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and own it.

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