Poker’s great illusion revealed

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Bluff magazine.

Poker is illusion. You should learn to be the magician performing tricks more often than you sit in the audience. Even the definition of poker is illusory when the words “a game of cards” are included.

The qualities that make poker unique have no relationship to cards. What does make poker unique, then? It’s these four elements:

  1. There is something of value worth fighting over before anyone knows the strength of a “hand”;
  2. The strength of what you hold is your secret;
  3. Every hand results in a single winner;
  4. If you make a wager that no-one voluntarily accepts, you win no matter how puny the actual strength of your holding.

You might quibble. There are a few other obscure games that share those traits – but I still call them poker. Sometimes, you’ve seen me combine two conditions into one and describe poker as having just three elements – but today I chose the four-element description. You might also complain that there isn’t always a single winner of a pot. Players can tie, and – more importantly – there are high-low split games. Don’t be confused. If players tie, they’re really sharing first place. And in high-low, there are conceptually two separate pots with one winner each.

Cards, you see, are just an old-fashioned invention that is conveniently used to provide random strengths of poker hands. We could use something quite different to comprise a “hand” and it would still be poker. In my beginning poker courses at MCU, I sometimes explain it this way…

Poker at the farm

Suppose I’m at a farm house with eight girlfriends and we’re all bored beyond belief. There’s nothing to do.

“I have an idea,” I venture. “Let’s play poker.”

“Poker?” Sally scoffs. “We don’t have a deck of cards.”

“We don’t need one,” I assure the women. And then I explain that each of us will put $1 in the center of the farm house table, which satisfies the element that there needs to be something worth fighting over before we start. Then we’ll take a brown paper bags into the pasture, spread out, and each put the biggest cow chip we can find into our bag, fulfilling the requirement that we hold something secret. Next, we’ll come back, sit at the table, and wager regarding who possesses the biggest cow chip. Whoever wins will take all the original “antes” and all the additional wagers. See, the pot goes to just one winner, in accordance with the third element. Finally, if anyone bets and all other players are too unsure about their cow chips to match that bet, the wagerer wins without a fight. And that satisfies the fourth element.

So, I bet $20 and none of the women call. I take the $9 worth of “antes,” providing me with an $8 profit. At that point I open my brown paper sack to reveal that it’s empty.

“Wowee!” sighs Sally, “Mike sure knows how to play this game!”

“I can’t believe he has so much courage,” seconds Wilma.

“Let’s play again,” all the ladies cry in unison, now that I’ve proven to them conclusively that what makes poker poker has nothing to do with cards. The necessity of cards is just another poker illusion.

The great poker illusion

And there are other poker illusions. The greatest is one we hear over and over: “What’s the use of playing correctly when some idiot usually wins the money by playing poorly?”

It actually happens! It not only applies to one-night sessions at poker, but also to poker tournaments. It’s more likely that a weaker player will win a tournament than that a pro will. The reason a poor player usually wins is because there are many more poor players than experts. To simplify, let’s say you have a tournament with 480 weak players and 20 pros. The field is so easy that the pros can expect to win five times than their “fair share.”

There are 500 competing, so if each player won once in 500 tournaments, everyone would have one win. That would be a fair share. But, I’m supposing that the experts have five times as great a chance in this weak field. That’s significant, and if means that if this were a winner-take-all tournament a $10,000 buy-in would instantly be worth $50,000, on average. Yet each expert could only expect to win once in 100 tournaments. Cumulatively, the odds would be 4-to-1 against an expert winning, despite their significant edge. Most often, a weak player would win.

The illusion isn’t that weak players win, because they do. The illusion is believing that because weak players win, they’re playing profitably. All of these weak players lose in the long run. Watching poor play succeed night after night, you’re apt to lose faith in your sophisticated strategy. Don’t!

Broke and begging

Here’s what’s happening: Weak players are winning again and again, but it’s not the same weak players. Overall, the weak players are losing. And although the experts don’t usually win the most money in a given tournament or session, overall they do win the most money. In life, it’s the same way. Often people rise to the top by playing poorly. They take illogical chances. Most crash and burn. But some break through and you’re left wondering, how come that person has all that money? Then journalists falsely report that the person got rich by making the right moves and having great vision. But the truth is he made bad moves and got lucky. He may be “successful,” but his group of like-minded decision makers is mostly broke and begging.

In poker and real life, you’re sometimes seeing an illusion of success. Don’t let it discourage you. Keep plodding. Keep making correct decisions. If you do that you’ll leave most of the weak players far behind – and you’ll keep gaining on the lucky ones as they begin to falter. — MC

Published by

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.


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  1. Every hand doesn’t end with a single winner– sometimes you have to chop the pot.

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