Poker is a game of skill but don’t forget the gamble

Posted on: January 31, 2023 10:06 PST

Conversations around responsible gambling largely focus on underage and excessive casino play,
especially slots and table games. There’s plenty to be written about bingo and the lottery
too, and most of the existing literature focuses on these types of games of pure chance.

But poker players aren’t immune to gambling problems. In fact, the element of skill and the psychological pressures of the game can actually make poker an inherently high-risk activity.

Depending on whether you’re talking to players or policymakers, poker can either be classified as a game of skill or a form of gambling with cards. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle – it’s a little bit of both.

Poker does have an element of skill that sets it apart from most other forms of gambling, but every individual hand is still a game of chance. It’s important for your impulsive brain to come to terms with this concept, even if your logical brain knows it to be objectively true. What’s more, variance means that some players who might become long-term winners will instead go broke before the element of skill becomes positively apparent in their results. Overestimating the role that skill plays over short timeframes and chasing variance are pitfalls you should take care to avoid.

Poker might not fall into the same category of gambling as slots do, but it’s dangerous to ignore the reality that luck is still part of the equation. Even some players who’d concede that poker isn’t a true game of skill still find themselves underestimating the practical role luck plays in their own outcomes – particularly when it comes to a winning hand or a winning session. Everyone knows they’re unlucky when they lose.

The fact of that matter is that poker players can still be at risk of developing dangerous patterns of behavior. And the same principles that apply to gambling responsibly apply to playing poker too. Don’t bring more money to the table than you can afford to lose. Don’t borrow money to keep playing. Don’t lose your judgment to drugs or alcohol. And most importantly, pay attention to yourself for signs that you might not be fully in control of your actions or your emotions.

Poker playing cards fanned out on the table Neil Stoddart

The demographics of poker create risky conditions

There’s no compelling research to suggest that poker players are smarter as a group than an average cross-section of the population, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that points to a connection between certain types of intelligence and long-term success at poker. The same can be said of chess players, for that matter.

In broad strokes, professionals at these games tend to be above average in qualities like patience, confidence, risk tolerance, and eagerness to learn. Successful players are good decision makers almost by definition, because that’s the part of their game that they can actually control. You can’t dictate the actions of your opponent or the next card off the deck, but your odds of winning at poker do improve as the accuracy of your decisions increases.

There’s a fine line between confidence and egotism, however, the latter of which is objectively bad in a gambling environment. Overconfidence can cause poker players to overestimate their understanding of the mathematical realities of the game, and the consequences can be detrimental.

Taking this idea a step further, some of these traits that are seen as an asset to a poker player become direct liabilities in the larger arena of safer gambling. The game’s most successful players have a muted appreciation for the true value of money, for example, which could be justified as a psychological necessity at nosebleed stakes. But it also happens to be one of the key indicators of a gambling addiction.

The poker community tends to revere this group of players who can post a Toyota Corolla in the big blind without giving it a second thought, sometimes even going so far as to chastise players who stick to smaller stakes. This is another seemingly harmless and acceptable dynamic that would be considered outright irresponsible in any other form of gambling. Be cautious.

High-stakes heroes can skew our perception

Whether it’s sports or poker or any other feats of competition, we all like to watch the very best in the world perform at their craft. They’re not broadcasting rec-league basketball on ESPN, and you won’t find much media coverage of the nightly $40 tournament at your local casino either. We watch the NBA and High Stakes Poker.

So let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that what we’re actually talking about when we say “high-stakes poker” is “gambling for large sums of money.”

If we’re going to accept the notion that poker is a form of gambling, then playing poker for high stakes is a high-risk endeavor. It’s okay to acknowledge that. Most of us can afford to lose a couple hundred bucks at the poker table; we can probably even afford to be irresponsible with that amount every once in a while. Very, very few of us can afford to lose a buy-in taking a shot in the $300/$600 mix.

Even players who are adequately bankrolled to play in the biggest games in the world aren’t impervious to the danger. As observers who couldn’t fathom playing a poker game for that much money, we may lose sight of the fact that it’s not really a game for many of them. It’s their job and their livelihood, and that perpetual pressure to make a living can sometimes lead to impulsive decisions – gambling or otherwise.

Unregulated poker sites could lack sufficient safeguards

Where you play can have an impact on your exposure to risk too.

Most of us would agree that some form of oversight is appropriate for poker and other vice industries, like alcohol and cannabis. These are products that can be safely enjoyed by the majority of the population while also being misused by the most vulnerable, and there’s no incentive for the operators in these industries to police themselves.

And yet, poker players without access to legal online options in their jurisdiction barely think twice about transferring a big chunk of their net worth to a crypto site based in Curacao. We won’t waste too many words harping on the legality and morality of unregulated gambling; that’s not the point here. This isn’t a criticism of anyone who patronizes unregulated poker games, whether they’re online or over-the-felt. But it’s important to be honest with yourself about the risks that could be hiding within this corner of the poker ecosystem.

Poker operators in regulated jurisdictions are obligated to protect their customers as a condition of licensure, including the implementation of basic responsible-gambling tools on the client side. There are obviously no such requirements in the gray/black marketplace.

How many offshore poker sites offer tools to help you set limits on your play, or provide a hotline number to call if you need help? Now… how many of them have a blackjack button in the corner of the window? How many of them have mailed you a questionable payout check from a furniture store in southeast Asia?

Whether we prefer it or not, the regulated environment does provide some guardrails for players that operators might not be eager to provide on their own. Beyond the simple financial and mechanical protections (segregation of funds, randomness of shuffle, etc.), this oversight beneficially extends into the realm of responsible gambling too.

Poker can be a gateway to other forms of gambling

This is another truth that can be hard to swallow, and it sounds like the start of a bad public service announcement about cannabis. But it’s important to be truthful about the fact that poker players really do like to gamble. 

If you polled a random 10-handed poker table, eight of the players would probably tell you they never play in the pits. Six of them would probably be lying to you, and two more didn’t understand the question because they were preoccupied with the DFS lineups on their phone.

Wide tournament shot of the 2022 EPT London NEIL STODDART

Poker players spend more time in casinos than most of the employees do, perpetually surrounded by slot machines and craps tables and cocktails and celebrations and all that comes along with it. Gambling can be good entertainment, and casinos are experts at providing the sort of lubrication that makes it easy for hundred-dollar bills to slide into a machine.

Many players have dusted off a little bit of tilt money playing video poker outside the tournament room. It happens, and it’s usually not a big deal, although we’ve seen a high-profile player spend four days playing brilliant poker at a $10k buy-in event and then lose all their winnings in the pits 15 minutes after cashing out. 

It’s important to at least be aware that you’re violating one of the longest-standing principles of winning at poker. You’re not really being responsible in that moment. Just don’t let it become a habit or a way to save your session. 

Hopefully that’s the gist of what you’re taking away from this piece.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with playing a big-buy-in tournament or throwing down a bet on the football game as you walk through the sportsbook. It’s okay to aspire to be like your favorite high-stakes player. We’re not trying to be alarmist. But you should understand the risks that are inherent even/especially in poker, and how you as a disciplined player might accidentally find yourself in a bad spot. 

Your first instinct might be to dismiss this whole article as something that you, specifically, don’t have to worry about. You pride yourself on your ability to make level-headed decisions regardless of the outcome. You play within your bankroll. You don’t drink or smoke. That’s all commendable. 

But one last word of warning: There’s a long list of players just like you who’ve jeopardized their finances, their ability to play poker, and even their life with poker as the starting point. Be careful out there. The skills you’ve developed that make you successful at poker don’t automatically insulate you from the harm gambling can cause. And the winningest poker player is still a sucker at the roulette wheel.

Play Safer is brought to you in association with  SG:certified, the compliance platform for simple certification in responsible gambling, sustainability, environmental and other ESG standards.