It’s been fifty years since baseball could fairly be called America’s national pastime, though it did retain the title for well over a century, from roughly 1830 to 1972. If the damaged brains and shortened lives of football players ever get too much to stomach, baseball could reclaim the crown, though futbol and basketball, and martial arts fans will have plenty to say about that.
In the meantime, no serious person would deny that our national card game is poker or suggest that spades, hearts, bridge, or gin rummy might challenge it any time soon. Money is the language of poker and its means of keeping score, which makes it a faithful expression of democratic free-market values—or as actor Walter Matthau once put it, “Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.” That folks of any size, shape, age, or sex can play makes it more democratic than any physical sport. Watching football from the couch is one thing, but if we compare the number of people who pass their time playing poker to those playing any single sport, poker would be our national pastime. Again.
Having evolved aboard southern riverboats from French poque and English brag in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, poker’s popularity continues to grow in this country while emerging in the twenty-first as the planet’s favorite card game. The World Series of Poker in Las Vegas has now crowned champions from 66 countries, including Tunisia, Peru, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Iran. WSOP Circuit events are contested on every inhabited continent.
Baseball’s not going anywhere, either, not when it’s played in two dozen countries and counting. My grandfather played in and reported on games in Scotland in 1918 while serving in the navy, and other American servicemen have played pretty much wherever they’re stationed. The 2023 World Baseball Classic features 20 teams competing in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, with the final series played in Miami, the capital of Latin America.
Baseball emerged from British bat-and-ball games soon after poker took hold, though the rules of baseball weren’t codified until 1845 in New York’s Knickerbocker Club—unless it was in 1837 by William Wheaton of the Gotham Club. The 1845 edition of Hoyle, the bible of card games, still spelled poker “poke,” an effort to Anglicize poque. The provenance and rules of baseball and poker are impossible to pin down precisely because they often developed ad hoc, in numerous places, and were not written down. We do know that variants of both were played in most states and territories by the 1840s. Both were popular in Union and Confederate camps, with the boys in blue naturally favoring baseball when they had enough open flat ground, the graycoats their homegrown bluffing game, whose cunning stratagems their generals deployed to startling advantage on battlefields, especially during the war’s early campaigns. The South eventually lost that war, but by 1875 the New York Times had declared: “the national game is not base-ball, but poker.”
The power of luck
Baseball is a physical sport, poker a mind sport, but they still share many characteristics and factors, the predominant one being luck, which causes their best players to lose surprisingly often. Economist Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, notes that the most skillful poker players have modest percentage advantages strikingly similar to those enjoyed by the best MLB teams. Using stats from the 2010 World Series of Poker, Levitt found that “high skilled” players took home 30% more money than they bought in for, an average of $350 per tournament, while all other players lost an average of 15%, around $400. The highly skilled players won money in 54.9% of tournaments, almost exactly as often as MLB playoff teams win during the regular season. Since 2007, he found, “teams that made the playoffs the previous season win 55.7 per cent of their games against teams that failed to make the playoffs the previous season”—a difference in skill advantage of less than 1%.
Strong baseball teams and poker players want the luck to break even so their skill can prevail, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly how and when luck does or doesn’t tip the balance. Soft ground balls trickle through, especially now that extreme shifts have been banned. Three-run homers get knocked down by wind or miss a fair pole by inches. Just as no one gets dealt pocket aces exactly once every 220 hands, no hand develops without luck as a critical factor. Timing in poker, as in baseball, is everything.
Poker pros don’t win, or make lucrative final-table cashes, even 20% of the time for a variety of reasons, the main one being that worse players routinely “suck out” against them—make minus-EV (negative expected value) decisions, mistakenly calling bets when the odds are stacked against them, before spiking a dumb-lucky card to swipe a big pot from their plus-EV opponent. Pros suck out too, against amateurs and fellow pros alike, but suckouts by all players are common enough that the best hundred players can’t come close to winning even 10 % of the thousand-player tournaments they enter.
Optimistic amateurs will keep risking their buy-in money against pros because they understand the luck factor gives them a legitimate shot to cash deep. To cite one of the more notorious examples: on May 18, 2000, in the first tournament yours truly ever played, I finished fifth out of 512 entrants in the $10,000 WSOP Main Event, cashing for a quarter of a million dollars. Similar examples abound. The lines to play chess grandmasters for $10,000 are short or nonexistent, as they are for all games of pure skill. In poker, the lines to play the best are blocks long.
Luck, the utility player
Let’s look at some stages of fortune in a typical hand of no-limit Texas hold’em, by far the most popular variant of the last 30 years. You’re lucky to be dealt pocket jacks, the fourth- or fifth best possible starting hand, but unlucky to have an opponent find queens. She raises, you call, and the flop comes 2-6-10 in three suits. You’re apparently lucky that no straight or flush draws are possible and no overcard to your jacks is out there, but in fact, you’re quite unlucky that the texture of this flop encourages you to bet or check-raise into her queens. You weren’t unlucky a jack didn’t flop, by the way, because pocket pairs flop sets only one time in eight; you just weren’t lucky enough. Yet if a jack and a queen had flopped, your luck would have been freakishly bad, because set-over-set flops occur only 1% of the time. When making a worse hand would have led to a better result, we say that your timing is off.
The rhythms, valences, and even some incidental features of our national games are also quite similar. They’re the only two games with an annual World Series, or in which players wear billed caps, sateen jackets, and sunglasses. Both are contested nine- or ten-handed but pay a huge premium for individual success. It’s the whole ballgame, in fact, at the poker table. And while baseball teams compete for a pennant, it’s the sultans of swing and of K who make the long money.
But the most basic shared feature is tactical: both games are dominated by probability. Managers deploy pinch-hitters and shifts, seek or avoid lefty-righty matchups, alter rotations and batting orders; poker players factor in pot odds, randomize bluffs, fold when their hand is an underdog, raise when they’re getting the best of it—or when they have nothing. In both contests, position, aggression, and stealing are crucial, but patience can be just as important. Baseball and poker players spend much of their time picking up signs, moving into position, and working the count, but once every nine chances or so, on offense and defense, they really do have to come through. And more than in most competitions, luck becomes pivotal. While the best football teams win 80-90% of their games and basketball teams slightly less, division-leading baseball teams prevail only 50-60% of the time. Why? Because the luck factor keeps them from winning more often.
Imagine there are two outs, bases loaded, late in a close game in a pennant race. With a full count, the setup man unleashes a nasty cutter in on the hands of a .900-OPS hitter. The hundreds of possible outcomes include the batter taking a close pitch for ball four—or strike three. On a perfect pitch, after all, a lot of luck (in the form of the umpire’s often-wrong verdict, not reviewable by video replay, controlled by neither pitcher nor batter) is involved in getting, or not getting, the call.
The batter also might swing—pull in his hands and skillfully make hard contact, driving the ball (a) just over the left field wall; (b) to nearly the same spot, where the left fielder makes a snow-cone catch; (c) an inch to the left of that spot, where the fielder gets the top of his glove on it before it caroms away for a bases-clearing double. The wind, the temperature, the humidity, the lights, the sun, the liveliness of that particular baseball, a fan’s reaching hand—all these and more will, at least as much as hitting skill, determine the outcome.
Or the batter could make feeble contact, haplessly producing (a) a popup on the infield; (b) a swinging bunt, driving in a run; (c) a “duck snort” that finds grass between rapidly converging infielders and outfielders, clearing the bases; (d) a seeing-eye or bad-hop grounder for a two-run single; (e) a two-hop grounder the shortstop fields easily; (f) a foul tip caught, or dropped, by the catcher. And so on. These and hundreds of other inflection points decided by random factors, not skill, keep dominant teams from winning more than two-thirds of their games. During the playoffs, against other strong teams, even a steep edge in skill often isn’t enough to overcome the variance. Just ask Mariano Rivera and the Yankees after Luis Gonzalez fisted a little duck snort just beyond second base to win the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks.
Poker luck is more egalitarian. The genes of almost none of us produce Henry Aaron’s wrists, Randy Johnson’s seven-foot left-handed wingspan, or Ted Williams’ 20/10 vision and swing, but every poker player has the same chance of being dealt a timely monster when the money is on the line, and of not being dealt one. An average player will lose to better players in the medium and long run unless he improves, but in the course of a three-day tournament, average players routinely “run good” enough to outlast every professional. And a seven-figure cash for first place makes up for years of #runbad in a hurry.
Baseball lifer Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers, said luck was the residue of design, which may well be true, but even Rickey was caught way off base when he said, “Luck is a fact but should not be a factor” in baseball. It is.
In one of the best poker novels around, Shut Up and Deal, Jesse May wrote, “People think mastering the skill is the hard part, but they’re wrong. The trick to poker is mastering the luck. That’s philosophy. Understanding luck is philosophy, and there are some people who aren’t ever gonna fade it. That’s what sets poker apart. And that’s what keeps everyone coming back for more.”
An even better novelist, Cormac McCarthy, wrote what might serve as the motto of White Sox fans forced to think about owner Jerry Reinsdorf: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”
No, Cormac, you just never do.