The following column about the true object of poker appeared in The Gambler magazine in 1999, and was based on a similar column from an earlier issue of Card Player magazine
If you get great cards, you get great cards. If you don’t, you don’t. So what else does anyone need to know about poker? Plenty. In fact, I’ve spent the last 20 years analyzing sophisticated poker strategy with computers and without them. I’m obsessed. And beyond cold strategy, I’ve delved deeply into the psychology that is – at the highest level – poker’s signature trait. I even wrote a book packed with 179 photos showing when opponents were bluffing and when they weren’t, based on their mannerisms. And I explained why these powerful clues were so reliable. Fine. So, poker is a game built on both chess-like strategy and psychology. So what?
I’ll tell you so what. So, isn’t it about time that poker received the same respect from people with functioning brains that chess receives and bridge receives? But aren’t those games more complicated? Nope. Poker is much more complicated. When I first programmed Orac (me spelled backwards) to play heads-up, no-limit hold ’em on a glorified Apple II computer in the early eighties, it was able to compete at a world class level. But, it wasn’t easy. In poker there is not necessarily a "right" choice for every situation. It’s more profound than that. It’s not whether you should call a bet or raise, but how often you should call a bet and how often you should raise with the very same hands in practically the same circumstances.
Making the right move
You see, poker isn’t like the great game of chess, where you struggle to see far ahead and find the right move. In the great game of poker, there is not always a right move to find. Each hand is a continuation of all the hands that came before and a contributing element of all the hands that will follow. Opponents – if they’re alert or even unconsciously influenced – will tailor their decisions to what you’ve done in the past. Raise too often, they can beat you. Call too often, instead, and they can beat you.
Poker has complexity build upon complexity, logic layered atop psychology, image married to imagination, and your need for discipline tugging against your need to be deceptive. Yes, poker is hugely complicated, if you want to play correctly all the time. Fortunately, you don’t have to play correctly all the time. Nobody can do that. Nobody can sit at the table, in the heat of poker combat and make the best decisions always. But you should strive to play your best game all the time, even though your best game can never be a perfect one.
Fine. Where is this leading? I’ll tell you where it’s leading. It’s leading back to a reporter who asked me a simple question years ago. It was at that moment that I realized just how thoroughly most people misunderstand poker.
The reporter’s question
The reporter, who was assigned to the story and didn’t seem particularly interested in the subject, said, "So, when you’re in a poker hand, what are you looking for? What’s the object?" Then he shrugged and added, "In addition to winning the pot, of course, which is obviously the main object."
"First of all," I responded politely, but assuredly. "Winning the pot is never the main object. In fact, it isn’t the object at all."
He seemed confused. "But how can you win at poker if you don’t try to win pots?"
"You win pots whether you try to or not. But there’s just as much profit in losing a pot, if it would cost you too much to pursue it. When that’s the case, folding is the profitable decision."
He didn’t seem to get it. But that’s because he wasn’t like we are. He wasn’t a gambler. It was all mystical in his mind, and I gave up trying to make him see. But you will understand, so let me explain it to you.
The aspects of poker
In the future, we will talk about many aspects of poker. Odds. Psychology. Tactics. How the flop influences your hand in hold ’em. What it means when your seven-card stud opponent makes a pair on the sixth card. How to make sure an opponent with a weak hand calls. What important tell comes into play when an opponent mildly shrugs his shoulders and bets. Who knows what we’ll talk about.
But, it wouldn’t make any sense to talk about any of that until we look each other in the eye and agree that the object of poker isn’t to win pots. We must start with that. I’m going to prove this concept to you in a way you’ll never forget.
Let’s say the object of poker really was to win pots. Then, I could just decide to win more pots than anyone else. Hell, I could become the world champion of winning pots. All I’d have to do is keep betting, raising, calling. I’d always see the showdown at the end of the hand.
Then what? I’ll tell you then what. Then I’d win every single pot I could possibly win. I would never throw away a hand that might have won a pot. I’d just keep piling the money into the center of the table. Repeating: I’d win every single pot I could conceivably win. I’d be the all-time world champion at winning pots. Maybe they’d give me a trophy as big as a house. Who knows. But how would I do in money? Think about it. And what if you decided to compete against me, because you wanted to be the world champion at winning pots? — MC