Explained: Why do professional poker players gamble?

The whole point of poker is to emphasise the skill side of things, so why do a lot of the best players in the world partake in minus EV gambling?

We have a lot of new players at PokerStrategy.com and we have to therefore remember that a lot of the conversations that experienced players take for granted will sometimes go over their head. So when stories in the poker world come up that only make sense to experienced poker players, I am going to spell out what we are talking about for the newbies.

One area where there tends to be misunderstanding about poker from people new to the game is how much gambling is involved. Either they assume it is almost all gambling and dismiss any notion of skill at all, or they assume that it’s all skill and expect the better player to win every time. When somebody has been around poker a while they are much more in the skill camp and often scratch their heads when they see standard ‘gambling’ from the elite players they assume play like perfect poker robots.

Last week, for example, for the second time Short Deck Poker was all the rage, courtesy of the Triton High Roller Series. This is a version of No Limit Hold’em with less cards, meaning more people make a strong hand, and the skill edge is reduced. Last month we also saw (among other things) Gus Hansen playing for $42k coinflips in the biggest cash games at the WSOP and at the start of the year Jake Cody put his entire £42,000 in winnings from a tournament on a single spin of the roulette wheel.

Why is it that in a game of skill, the supposedly best players in the world give up their edge by gambling?

Poker is still gambling

There are two answers to this question and the first one is obvious - gambling is fun. While these days poker players come from a variety of backgrounds including esports, most poker players historically picked up the game via traditional casino routes like blackjack or sportsbetting. Poker was a relief from the other ‘house games’ because you could influence the action and not be a slave to the unfavourable odds the casino gave you.

The new game in Bobby’s Room - 7 handed 42K flip - 294K in the middle - Very Sick!

A post shared by Gus Hansen (@therealgushansen) on

But that doesn’t mean that traditional gambling, for some, is not a way to let off steam and have fun. Now before you get ahead of me, I am not glorifying this one bit. Gambling is harmless fun if you can control it and afford to lose the amount you are wagering, but for all the funny stories there are plenty of tragedies in this game. A lot of very talented poker players have come unstuck because they were unable to control themselves in the pit or on a racing track.

While I think there is nothing wrong with adults blowing off steam with the odds against them, I am mostly quite glad that poker is becoming less associated with the casino.

You give action to get action

The other, better, reason why poker players give up edge at the tables is because it is often a shrewd long term strategy. In order to survive as a professional poker player you need inferior poker players regularly coming to your games. Being one of the best players in the world is useless if you only play against the other best players in the world.

The problem is that recreational players do not enjoy being crushed by the pros so comprehensively. So they enjoy it more when the pros gamble with them, giving them a chance to win. So fast structures, straddling, prop bets, low edge formats, the 7-2 game and so on. These are all ways to ensure the professionals do not destroy a recreational player and occasionally means that hobby player will win, which means they will come back for more.

This is one of the reasons why Spin & Go is one of the better online formats for a grinder at the moment. The stacks are shallow, so the skill edge is low, but this and the lottery style jackpots means that casual players are attracted to them, and will win enough of them to keep playing (and depositing) for a while. Those same players are unlikely to enjoy 250 Big Blind No Limit cash games against a table full of multi-tabling regulars. In a trade off between more casual players and a lower skill egde, or less casual players and a bigger skill edge, I say the games with more hobby players are the best choice for grinders. 

The higher stakes you go, the more important this becomes, which is why Short Deck Hold’em appears to have begun as an ultra high stakes game. It is almost as if it was created with rich businessmen in mind. Likewise, some of the richest games in poker are private and hard to get into, unless you are prepared to gamble. If you watch the free back catalogue of High Stakes Poker you will see this in action. Players like Tom Dwan didn’t mind giving up some of his considerable egde to get invited back, whereas Phil Galfond famously played tight and was never invited back.

There is an old saying in poker which fits nicely here – “you can shear a sheep a thousand times, but slaughter it only once”. The reason why the disciplined professionals still gamble in poker is because they know that having the skills is just one aspect of a being a winner, and that making sure the losing players enjoy themselves is of equal importance.

What other poker concepts do you hear everyone talk about but you have no idea what they mean? Let us know in the comments:

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Comments (1)

  • Sczcepanik

    #1

    Gamble is a fun thing... Choosing when to + your regular edge is the skill kit.
    Because even A6o has 28% win against KK.
    1 in 3 you will bad beat someone to death.

    Even 34s has 39% win against AK.
    Going all-in with a "40-60" hand as last resource is a pretty damn good "40%" double or nothing attempt, specially if you are already ITM.