Playing the Long Game

Basic math is a wonderful thing. Entire industries are built upon convincing people to ignore basic math and probability.

Take the DC Lottery for example. Your odds of hitting all five numbers of the Powerball are 14 billion to 1. (They’re actually slightly worse, but the exact number is unwieldy) This means that if you played it for $1 several quintillion times (impossible in your lifetime) you should win 1 in every 14 billion times. And, you should win $14 billion each time if you expect just to break even.

But you won’t. You won’t because the game is rigged. When you actually hit all the numbers you’d only win $50 million, or in a busy week, $100 million. Over time you’d chew into your winnings in order to keep playing and right about the time the sun burned out and the planet froze over, you’d be broke. Broke and freezing to death while clutching your losing Powerball ticket. Of course when the Sun goes out, all the money in the world ain’t gonna help you.

This sort of analysis is what gamblers mean when they talk about The Long Game.

When you eliminate all the skill from a betting situation and you’re just looking at raw probability, you’re analyzing the Long Game. You need the Long Game analysis to come out at least even (or near even) if you want to be a winner. Then you hope to add some sort of other enhancements (cheating, skill, etc) to guaranatee yourself a profit.

To analyze the Long Game, you have to be able to ask yourself, “If I made this bet for several lifetimes, would I win money or lose money?” In almost all casino games, the answer is usually “lose money”.

Poker is significantly different. If you were just playing the one-card game “War” for money, over time it would be an even proposition. But in poker, you can outplay other people. Your opponents have decisions to make and when they make mistakes, unless you’re not also making the same or worse mistakes, you can take their money. It helps when they’re drunk, too.

That’s not to say it’s an easy win. There’s plenty of evidence that most poker players don’t keep careful enough records to be able to know they are “winning” players, and so they think they’re good, when they’re not.

Online I keep a record of every hand I play. And in casinos I actually do write down most of the hands for later perusal. And I track every session. On the off chance that I became a profitable player I would need to do it for IRS purposes, but I do it to be able to tell if my game is improving or not.

On the left side of my homepage you’ll see the latest tally. I started playing poker daily last August, when Sarah left for Harvard. Now that she’s back I’ve arranged my schedule to still be able to play daily, just at odder hours.

I am, like most casual poker players, a losing player. Most poker players don’t know that, or erronously think they are winners over the long term.

I have joked with several people about ditching everything to become a professional poker player. Apart from the obvious dangers of taking something fun and turning it into a miserable grind, there’s something else: at the moment, I’d make more at McDonalds than playing poker.

For the month to date I’m only really up $150. And year to date I’m down about $1,600 and change. That’s not a living. Guys who panhandle on the street make more than that.

So today, Monday morning, I go to work. But I’ll see you tonight online.