Cheaters, Addicts, and Pros and the Professionalization of Poker

Posted by Andrada Istrate, July 29, 2014

If you’re part of the poker community, you have inevitably bumped into various definitions that frame poker as either a game of chance or one of skill. A look into the way gambling was legislated in the United States shows that this debate is deeply embedded in the history and structure of the game: as poker historian James McManus reveals in Cowboys’ Full: The Story of Poker, all gambling games were outlawed in 1891, only to have the ban lifted in 1911 for draw poker only. The US attorney at the time argued that poker was “a game of science rather than chance.” So how come, roughly a hundred years later, are we still arguing on whether poker involves more skill than luck or the other way around? A quick Google search shows that this debate is still going strong: gambling analysts and gambling students, poker aficionados, experts or professionals, let alone newspaper columnists writing for first hand publications delve into the age-old question: is poker more about chance or skill? Interestingly enough, talking to poker players (not only professionals, but even regular punters) reveals that inclining the balance in favor of skill rather than chance is at the heart of their game.

Professionalization of poker


Rather than adding to the dispute, I aim to give a hopelessly partial explanation as to why this controversy is still thriving. My argument runs as follows: on the one hand, there is something in the puzzle of “chance or skill?” that should be preserved as unanswerable, as it is constitutive to poker experience. By simply reenacting the puzzle, new participants are constantly caught up into play. Initially an invitation (if not downright advertisement) to see for themselves, the chance – skill debate becomes a way for players to make sense of their game. At the same time, the puzzle serves as a device used for internal differentiation among players: sharks and fish, pros and punters. On the other hand, while some of us, sitting comfortably in our proverbial armchairs have figured out what’s the deal with luck, chance and skill in poker, there’s still something we haven’t asked ourselves: which poker are we really talking about? Nineteenth century poker? Casino poker? Or is it the one practiced online? Poker played in casinos and especially online poker have brought about an intense acceleration of rhythm of play as well as a democratization of access to learning poker. In turn, the object of the chance-skill puzzle has been refreshed by players’ claims to professionalization. I discuss the way practice has transformed poker, as well as the forms of professionalization that came along with it.


Poker is a combination of competition and chance

Gambling students start their analyses by considering whether their subject of inquiry falls into a category pertaining to chance or skill. Games are usually placed along a continuum from the ones which involve the most amount of chance (like roulette or slot machines) to the ones that eliminate chance altogether (take chess, for instance). Poker, they argue, is somewhat in the middle. French writer and philosopher, Roger Caillois, in his Man, Play, and Games (1959), advances a useful typology. Games, he proposes, should be categorized by taking into account competition (agon, such as football or chess), chance (alea, like roulette, for instance), simulation (mimicry, in plays such as Hamlet) and vertigo (illinx) pertaining to each. Poker would stand as a combination of agon and alea, competition and chance. Indeed, poker is a competitive endeavor, as equality among players is assumed from the very beginning. It is a game that requires training, attention, discipline, perseverance and is built upon a desire to prove superiority claims: may the best player win. At the same time, the element of chance is still an integral element over which players have no control.

"The Poker Game" by Félix Vallotton


Although appealing to such categories might be a quick fix for the social scientist as well as for the casual observer, a comment must be made: these categories deal with the form, rather than content of the game. In other words, there is a long way from accounts on poker to the actual work that players do. By interviewing professional poker players I noticed a far more interesting facet of the chance versus skill debate, namely, if and how players accommodate a notion of luck or chance in their game and how this is integrated into the lived experience of individual players. Do they put their money on chancy results? Sure, an outside observer might respond. A pro, however, might argue otherwise.


Professional players seek to win consistently and constantly

Professional poker is not limited only to those referenced, talked about and sometimes-glorified poker champions and superstars. It designates an occupational group that prides itself by making a living out of playing poker. Professional poker players spend their time in the casino or in front of their computers and manage to find a way to win consistently and constantly. They develop discipline and bankroll management skills, learn how to survive bad beats and minimize the breakdowns of the “goin’ on tilt” moments. Despite the swings and variations, the pros are those players who rely only on poker to earn an income, and integrate the game into their daily existence that they have come to define themselves as professional poker players. For them, poker is more than a game: it’s the part of their self-presentations that might happen to come before their root occupations or professions (university graduates, engineers or whatnot).

So how is it that poker players are still having a hard time justifying their daily livelihoods? Part of the answer, I argue, has to do with the professionalization of poker, that is, the sequence of more or less routinized steps in the establishing poker playing as a legitimate profession. Historically, for poker to establish itself as a profession, two divergent discourses must be addressed: (1) the one that ties poker to illicit activities and (2) the one that connects the dots between poker and problem gambling.


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The somewhat scandalous history of poker

From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the history of poker was written along the lines of hoaxes, scams, frauds and other forms of deliberate deceptions. Tricksters and cardsharps were the first characters to be associated with the game while cheating at cards was legitimate practice. Dealing from the bottom of the pack, marking cards, double-dealing, switching cards, using mirror rings or colluding are just a few of the countless (and some quite ingenious) ways of cheating at poker. Along with the emergence of institutional gambling in casinos, cheaters gradually left the stage.

While access to gambling was democratized, doctors, psychiatrists as well as a handful of social scientists drew the attention to the allegedly deviant, pathological and even immoral character that all gambling games (poker included) had. A great deal of the literature on gambling depicts the gambler as a problematic figure – he is either half-witted or delusional. Gamblers are seen as two-time losers, they lose money on one hand, losing touch with reality on the other. Defining gambling as an endeavor that sides comfortably outside the realm of vice or sin, but in the field of medicine, mobilizes an entire therapeutic community to come to the rescue of the ill, as well as arming the gambler with an entire vocabulary of motives and practical justifications to explain her behavior.

"Affengesellschaft beim Spiel"


Out of the obscure cable-lit basements with improvised poker tables, straight off the psychiatrists’ sofas emerges a new type of profession that demands public acceptance and recognition. The ties of association between poker and pathological gamblingas well as those between poker and marginality make professional poker a difficult profession to establish. Some might even argue that the inclusion of poker playing in a system of professions could be a bit extravagant. Why is that? In his System of Professions (1988), Andrew Abbott makes the case of automobile repair and its blatant denial of the status of profession: “for many writers, calling something a profession makes it one. People don’t want to call automobile repair a profession because they don’t want to accord it that dignity. This unwillingness probably has less to do with the actual characteristics of automobile repair as an intellectual discipline – which are conceptually quite close to those of medicine – than it does with the status of the work and those who do it”.


Speed bumps and limitations on poker's road to recognition

The road to professionalization is full of speed bumps and limitations. The entire discussion seems to be standing on quicksand, and let me explain why. The supporters of the “illicit poker” side seem to miss the forest from the trees, that is, they spotlight the easy-going cheaters while completely overseeing everything else but the dupe. And one reason is that we might be in a cultural blind spot: popular gambling literature and movies frame swindlers to look more seductive than the grinders. More than that, most of us are happy and quite vindicated when the charming Paul Newman out cheats Robert Shaw in The Sting (1973), translating the con into moral retribution.


The other side doesn’t do much justice to professional poker either. Problem gambling proponents focus mostly on consequences: they see jobs and opportunities lost to the “vice”, chasing of past losses as well as broken families coupled with the impossibility to cut on the time and money spent on gambling. Including poker in the same category with pathological gambling overshadows the actual work that players do. In order to adjust the balance, one must actually take into consideration what professionals have to say, the labor involved as well as the practical knowledge that poker entails along with the channels to achieve it.


The smarts of playing poker

Players' craft entails an ad-hoc theory of practical knowledge. Let’s take a look at how learning works in poker: situated in a community of practice, players share a similar vocabulary, they do research (most of them read poker books and frequently access Internet forums and podcasts), talk to each other, share game experiences, discuss hands, and sometimes even advise each other on how to bet in particular game situations.In many ways, poker knowledge is not an object of thought that one can acquire, but is first and foremost about practice. It does not come as a set of instructions, but it is embodied as new game situations and more hands are played. As one Romanian pro tells me: “there is stuff you can’t learn, you have to get talent and experience, and always improvise on the spot, come up with something new with each moment. You can’t learn this, no matter how much you try. You have to be smart at playing poker. I haven't seen stupid successful players so far.”

The more players advance in their game, the more they begin to approximate a practical game theory: the more advanced they are, the more they try to eliminate the element of luck inscribed in the structure of the game. Becoming a professional means redefining the game from an interactional to a probabilistic one, accommodating at the same time two guiding principles: (1) poker is no game of chance, and (2) on the long term, the better player wins.

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This approach is more visible when players discuss online poker, which is sometimes described as the purest form of game. What does this mean? Well, simply put, since individual roads to professionalization are materialized on the long term, online poker brings about a compression of the long term: the same number of hands played, but in way less time. See, for example, this difference between live and online poker: a hand in played live in three to five minutes. Online, it takes about thirty seconds. The hyper and super turbo SNGs, the possibility of playing several tables at once, as well as the round-the-clock tournaments give players the opportunity of encountering more game situations and playing more hands than they would traditionally. A pro I interviewed in 2012 terms this better: “In the long term the difference is played upon how good a player is, if you play a great volume of hands, chance doesn’t intervene so much as if you play a smaller one. And, as long as you manage yourself well, like in any business, you have real chances to win.”


Andrada IstrateAndrada Istrate studied sociology at the University of Bucharest and sociology and social anthropology at CEU Budapest. For the past five years, she has researched the Romanian gambling scene, with a particular interest in forms of professionalization among poker players. She is currently working on her PhD dissertation about the Romanian pyramid schemes of the 1990s, focusing on how people produce and circulate new notions of time, hope, value, money, and morality.


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