Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How Playing Poker for a Living Ruined My Favorite Hobby

I love playing games.  I really do.  It's something I've always loved.  I played cards and board games with my friends when I was a child, I met many of the people in my high school social group by playing Magic: the Gathering, and some of my best friends in college were made spending long nights playing Axis and Allies, Risk, or any other strategy board games we could get our hands on (except Settlers of Catan, a game I really enjoy but one in my social group hated passionately).

Fast forward past college graduation to when I was teaching in Seoul, South Korea.  While I was there I discovered three things related to playing games:  First, that I am pretty decent at poker.  Second, that most people are really, really bad at poker. Third, complete lack of skill and understanding doesn't stop people from playing poker for money.

Now don't get me wrong, I love teaching and I loved being a teacher.   I loved all my students, even the ones that tried their hardest to make their teachers hate them. But this was a chance to do what just about everyone dreams of doing:  turning the hobby they love into a profitable profession.  I put in a ton of hours - often getting up at 5 a.m. to play poker online before work, then playing e late into the night after I got home - until I started actually making money.  Eventually I was making enough to replace my teaching income.

It's been a few years now of being a professional poker player, with enough intense ups and downs to fill a blog of its own.  Now that I've played millions of hands of poker, play daily for several hours, and have written articles for prominent blogs, poker magazines, and online poker sites, and am now a genuine expert at poker, there's a problem:  Playing games is frustrating to me.

I don't want to spoil anyone's fun here, but every game with a chance element (so we're excluding chess, checkers, go, etc.) comes down to something very boring:  Math.   Whether it's poker or Risk or Settlers of Catan, it's pretty much all just math.

In poker, you make and call bets based on the size of the pot in relationship to the likelihood of winning the hand.   In Risk, you can see how many armies you have and how many armies they have, and use those numbers to make an estimate of your chances of success.  Then you compare that number to the likelihood of winning or the game if you succeed or losing the game if you fail, then smash all those numbers together to decide if the move is a good one.

In Settlers, you plan your placements and building routes to receive the resources possible relative to your opponents.

Yes, you can ignore the math and gamble, but most of the time, you'll lose to someone who is paying attention to the numbers.  Sometimes though, your gamble will pay off.  You'll make the incorrect move, and win the game anyway.   That's part of what makes games fun:  It's a lot easier to enjoy a game when everyone has a chance of winning, even if some have less of a chance than others.

When your rent is on the line though, it can get pretty frustrating to watch a player ignore the strategic underpinnings of a game and win anyway.  It's easy to laugh it off when all that's on the line is who gets to pick next week.  When more is at stake, it gets harder to ignore.

I accept that's part of playing poker professionally, but what I've noticed is that this frustration is now bleeding over into games where the outcome has no impact on reality.  I see someone make a poor move in a casual game with nothing on the line, and it frustrates me.  Sometimes it frustrates me a lot.  It shouldn't.  It takes away my ability to enjoy the game.

I successfully turned my hobby into my career.  I made a modestly impressive amount of money doing so.  After three years, however, it's clear that I really need either a new hobby, or a new job.  Maybe both.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    


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