Shocking poker truth – all players get screwed!

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. Originally published (2007) in Bluff magazine.

Okay, it’s time for some tough love. I can’t keep teaching you winning poker techniques unless you grasp the ugly truth that governs every bet. I’m talking about this: Every time you make a wager against an opponent, the net outcome for both players is negative. That’s true in poker and other forms of gambling pitting player against player. In a minute, I’ll explain why.

First, we need to discuss a related topic. Money you don’t lose is just as important as money you win. I’m guessing that you immediately agree with that statement. Money is money, you reason. But in the heat of poker combat, hardly anyone grasps the significance. Night after night I’ve seen players get behind and begin to break down emotionally. When the original buy-in was $500 and they find themselves losing $4,450, they stop caring about whether they end up cashing out $4,300 behind or $4,600 behind. It feels the same. Same emotional result. Same agony.

All that matters for most players at that moment is getting even – or, at least, recovering to a point where pain is diminished. Common sense strategy collapses. But you should play poker with exactly the same critical decision making, whether you’re winning big, about even, or buried. It matters equally in each case. Here’s the proof…

Rewriting poker history

Suppose you’re fairly new to poker and decide you’ve acquired enough skills to play professionally. You test yourself for a year, but things don’t go as you’d hoped. Your adventure has seen you lose $200,000. Okay, now I pop up and say, “I can rewrite poker history and make you even for the year.”

You seem stunned and unconvinced. But then I explain that I’m the god of poker (which, for the record, is actually true). So, you listen as I continue: “There’s only one thing I need to know from you. Would you rather I rewrite your poker history by adding a little extra to each win you had last year, so you’ll break even? Or would you rather I subtract a little from each loss, so you’ll also break even?”

And you blurt, “Either way. What difference does it make?”

Now, there’s the point. It doesn’t matter whether I add to each win or subtract from each loss. The year-end result is the same. So that’s why you need to understand, not just intellectually but emotionally, that money you don’t lose is exactly the same as money you win. And you need to start playing accordingly.

Frightening concept

Fine. But today we’re going to examine a frightening concept that says that money you don’t lose is actually more important than money you win. In order to understand this, you need to imagine that you were offered a coin-flip bet by a friend. Each of you had a $1,000,000 bankroll, a substantial sum gathered over 20 years of dedicated poker play and representing your entire worldly worth. Your friend, Paul, says, “Let’s flip a coin for $900,000.”

Suppose that, on an impulse, you accept this wager. Since there’s no expertise involved in the coin flip, you correctly reason that the outcome is fifty-fifty and both players, you and Paul, are equally skilled. You might also think that this is what mathematicians would call a “zero-sum game.” That means that every dollar lost is exactly balanced by a dollar won, so there is no net win or loss. But I believe there is a net loss!

In order to see this net loss, you must look beyond the dollars exchanged. You must ask yourself what the effect of the wager will be. If you lose the coin flip you’ll have only $100,000 and Paul will have $1,900,000. Your future will have been brutalized. Paul’s future, though, will have been enhanced nicely, but not overwhelmingly. The point is that in the real world, any wagers among equally skilled opponents invariably cause net harm.

Significant edge

Although it’s occasionally okay to hone your skills against tough opponents, this is a costly endeavor – even if you have a small advantage. Remember, rakes, table rent, dealer tips, travel expenses, and other costs will factor against you. You’ll also be wasting time that you could use more profitably. Income taxes also mean that money won never equals money lost, unless you can fully deduct the loss from money already won. Put it all together and you usually don’t want to wager unless you have a significant edge.

Think about it and you’ll see why halving one bankroll to make another 50 percent larger is a bad gamble for everyone. That’s one reason why you need to seek the best games with the biggest edges if you want to succeed at poker. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


10 thoughts on “Shocking poker truth – all players get screwed!”

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  1. I have never heard much said about the “table rake”, I believe if you played a while with no new money, then all the money would be in the tables can. everyone loses, the winner loses part of their winnings to the table. Then on the other had the house must be paid.

  2. not true – typical illogic – “you will agree immediately”

    biggest edge is not against worst players, there are multiple bad ones thus reducing your edge with even AA against 2 players. only heads up does it work anymore

    your stuff is old hat

    1. Hi, Bob — I’m a bit puzzled by how your comment above applies to my article. Just to be clear about what you said, whether it applies or not, your biggest edge really is against the worst players. That may seem “old hat” to you — whatever that means in this context — but it’s also true. — Mike Caro

  3. Seems like this should apply to every hand you play as well. Not a shocking concept, but avoid coinflips for large sums of money even if there’s a chance you have a small edge.

  4. Mr. Caro,
    Like many (probably all) poker players, I have an incredible amount of respect for you and your work. I hope you won’t take offense, then, if I challenge the assertion that poker comes with a net loss.

    The example you gave makes sense, but I believe that there are also situations where poker can result in a net gain. For example, the Main Event at the WSOP last year had some 6000 people, all paying $10,000. Presumably, no one sold his house or quit his job to be able to play in this event; the people there could justify posting the entry fee, so even those who failed to cash took an acceptable loss. Joe Cada won the event, and took home over $8 million. Surely this monumental gain changes his life more than the entry fee effected the many participants! I believe under the right circumstances, poker can be at least a zero sum game before skill is factored in

    Incidentally, I avoid in tables with less than 6 people as much as possible.


    1. Hi, Joseph —

      I overlooked this comment a month ago, when you added it. But I’ll reply to it now.

      You’re right in suggesting that a large win can positively affect one person’s life in excess of the negative affect on all combined losers. That’s why I’ve written elsewhere that it might be too early to jump off a bridge if you have a dollar in your pocket that could buy a lottery ticket. (Just so you know, I’ve never personally purchased a lottery ticket.)

      But that’s not the concept under discussion here. We’re talking about whether equally skilled players risking like amounts end up with a zero sum of gain-loss, measuring it as it affects their lives.

      They don’t. The net result is a loss — with one player coming out ahead, but the other losing more than the other gained, if examined practically in regard to life stature.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  5. new at poker , have exp. threshold of misery , ive only played , on net , 3mos. i desperately wish i could become a winning player . a life of hard drugs and jail im 38 , have the sweetest girl ever mustve been a gift from god , i so badly wish to become proficient not for ego – just so i can have success at something i love to do (play cards), a second chance . try applying for a decent job with no exp and 75 convictions and 10 yrs custodial sentences . DO NOT FEEL SORRY _ these are just the facts . i want so bad to provide for my woman . humbly asking for any help you can offer .just read ‘most profitable holdem advice ‘ awesome .rsvp . i can offer transparency , respect ,and dedication .im a card player playing poker not a gambler . can you help me?

    1. Thanks for joining the Poker1 community. I can imagine just how difficult it can be, trying to change a negative lifestyle into a positive one.

      Others may comment and disagree with this, but here’s my opinion:

      Poker is too volatile to recommend, in your case, for a main source of income. There isn’t a single world-class player I know who didn’t suffer many severe setbacks on the road to poker excellence. And at 38, until you acquire a stable income and can afford the risk — which is obviously going to be a huge mountain to climb — poker shouldn’t be your primary dream.

      Setbacks are part of the poker experience, and I don’t believe that would help you on your mission to change your life for the better.

      I hope others will post helpful suggestions.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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