For the majority of people who do not have any experience or exposure into the world of poker,  the first thing they associate poker with is gambling and the depravity which surrounds that world. And sadly, this association is unlikely to ever change. Enthusiasts familiar with the card game could successfully argue that poker is a sport, or, at the very least, a mind game akin to Chess or Go and there is an argument to be made for both views. I am not trying to offer a clear-cut definition of what exactly poker is, that should be left to those more experienced and studied in both the game and philosophy, but I will try to showcase the various aspects and some lessons that can be learned from poker.

To make one thing clear right from the start: Poker is a form of gambling and that will always be the case. Period. And like any casino game, luck undoubtedly plays a factor; however, with poker, with a proper strategy, education and calculated decision making, you can reduce the effect luck will have on a poker hand and your game.

Poker as a game of skill

The more a player knows about Game Theory Optimal (GTO), the more they should be able to make the correct move and be rewarded for it. In theory. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee success. Not everybody has the same knowledge and interpretation, or misinterpretation, of these in-depth concepts, and simply straying from the “perfect solution” will cause variations in the results.

Building this vast understanding of the game requires a significant amount of dedication, study and practice. Millions upon millions of hands are needed to start to call oneself an expert in the variety of poker variants, of which more than two dozen are currently quite popular. Once armed with these millions of bits of information, adequately using it to one’s advantage is a key skill required for success and this concept can be applied to many areas of life. 

It should not be a surprise that certain players continually find success at the poker tables, whether it is on the live poker circuit or at online cash games tables. These poker players dedicate a large portion of their time to advancing their education in as many aspects as possible about the game of poker. Literally spending hundreds of hours to maximize their chance of success. In my years, I have only found one quote that truly encompasses how spending time studying poker will make a difference in one’s play, “In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.“ This quote, which was not originally used in a gambling scenario, was spoken to a renowned gambler and said about a kid who was just starting to learn something new. This quote, uttered by Obi-wan Kenobi to Han Solo, teaches us that In poker you can reduce the influence luck has with preparation, observation and dedication but it will never vanish entirely.

Poker as Mental Sport

When you consider the long “working hours” players spend at the tables and the stamina needed to maintain awareness, you can argue that Poker is a physical sport. While the physical aspect should not be ignored, the mental aspect is the more significant portion of the game. It takes a lot of mental strength to maintain the same high level of play while at the poker table. And to do so throughout a full day session takes a rare type of strength and endurance.

Poker often contains a form of psychological warfare where the cards don’t matter as much as your perception and ability to read and mislead the behavior of your opponents. Tells have become a pivotal part of the poker strategy and have continued to gather more attention as the game evolves.

Being able to play your best possible game can require physical preparation but how do you react when you are the one under pressure? How does your body physically react when the eyes of the entire table are burning down on you? Do you have the poker face to hide all your emotions? Do you need a scarf to hide your pulse throbbing in your neck? Earbuds to block out the sound of the crashing wave as blood rushes to your head? Do you succumb to the small talk during pivotal clashes when your opponent is trying to gather information? Are you able to stare them into the eyes or solely focus on a certain spot on the felt? Does fatigue, at the end of a long session, cloud your mind and dull your concentration?

Major live poker tournaments represent an endurance contest in which only the fittest survive on a consistent basis, regardless if that is physical or mental. Being able to control your own emotions and rightfully interpret the emotional signals from others in the competition will always be an important part of the game, one that many players tend to neglect.

Poker as Form of Entertainment

While poker has become a profession for thousands of players around the world, there is no denying that the majority of participants are recreational players. Many of these players enjoy the game and like to compete against other players but have not spent the years studying like the professionals. For these players, it is the thrill of the moment that often is more important than winning or losing money. This specifically is the case for a home game when it is more about playing with friends and enjoying the evening in a relaxed atmosphere than the money.
Many amateur players will jump into low to high-stakes competitions, with money they can afford to spare, to have a good time. Poker pros can be intimidating and a buzzkill at the tables with their hoodies, sunglasses and headphones, staring into your soul in a three-bet pot without saying a single word. For many of these casual players, that is not necessarily what they consider as a good time, with tension so sharp it would cut through the cards.

Recreational players and rich business people want to have fun at the tables and a jovial conversation will usually ensure they will return for another session at the poker table in the future.

The same also applies to live streams which are available to a broader audience, an audience that is perhaps not as familiar with the finer details of the card games. Imagine being one of these viewers and watching a pro tank for two minutes before the flop. Then when the flop hits, the streamer robotically places his chips into the middle of the table, having carefully considered the entire game tree. For the absolute novice, this is pretty well the worst possible introduction imaginable. 

In order to ensure the growth of the game, it is important to maintain a natural entertainment value for the casual viewer. The staring contests can perhaps be reserved for high-stakes competitions with small fields where the brightest minds are activating nodes that only they are aware of.

Lessons to be Learned from Poker

Poker is a card game like no other and carries sufficient aspects to create a very complex and competitive environment. To consistently stay ahead of the competition requires a lot of studying and practice during the down time and constant vigilance while at the table. These lessons, while crucial at the poker table, can certainly be applied to everyday life. In order to be successful, we have to work very smart and very hard.

Strategic and logical thinking is another natural requirement. Being able to solve the puzzle is crucial en route to success and it is often recommended to not only think of the moment but also the next couple of steps ahead. You don’t have to be a math prodigy to win at poker but it definitely helps.

Having the big picture in mind and being able to put your opponent on a certain hand range are two skills that have synchronicity. While the read may not be entirely correct and can change from one moment to the next, depending on various circumstances, you have to be open-

minded and consider more than one option at all times. Humans tend to be creatures of habit but that doesn’t mean they will repeat the same patterns for eternity.

A good memory and eye for detail will also be of great assistance as the more factors you have for your equation, the more accurate your result will be. Planning ahead and considering in advance what may happen not only helps on the flop, turn and river but also during the various stages of a tournament.

There are so many other poker and life lessons to be learned if you keep your mind open while you are learning any kind of poker strategy, certainly more than the scope of this blog entry. One thing is for certain: Poker is gambling but it isn’t just gambling and it never will be. The sheer

complexity and possibilities do not allow for that; however, many pre-decided prejudices, particularly with regards to the addictive nature of poker, turn it into an uphill battle for professionals and pundits to prove this point across to a wider audience.

About the Author: zedmaster84 is a freelance poker journalist, writer, translator and semi-professional photographer. He has been covering major live poker events all over the world since 2011 and specializes in mixed games with a certain affinity to PLO. He is also heavily addicted to travel, seeing the world and discovering new cultures.