I’ve been watching poker videos lately. No good reason. But there’s something that fascinates me about poker as a strategy game.
First of all, poker is a strategy game. Set aside the actual money values, make the betting with markers or tokens or whatever. Treat them like hit points. Whatever. The point is, while playing with and for money makes poker more intense it doesn’t make poker not a game of strategy. While there are books on the topic, veritable libraries full of information about how to play poker, what to do when you’re playing poker, reading people, the particular generational behaviours of poker eras, all that stuff doesn’t work if there’s nothing to the game but the money aspect.
The money does connect it to a super interesting kind of materiality, but that’s for another time.
There are very few times in Poker where you’re compelled to give up money. Next to the dealer there are two players who have a forced minimum bet – known as blinds. Usually you’ll hear of two – the big blind and the small blind, and these are there so players can’t just constantly sit out of hands until they have something they want to play with. Blinds also mean that if you do have a good hand, thanks to your automatic bet, you can ‘hide’ it in the blind bet. After all, other players seeing you bet don’t know if you’d have bet if not for the blind.
What this means is that you do have to defend small bets (your blinds), you never have to defend your entire pool of money unless you choose to.
Back in The West Wing, Vice President and sex lizard John Honyes remarked that in Hockey, nobody knows what’s going on during the play. In Leverage, Elliot says he doesn’t like any game where you can’t score on defence. In poker, both of those things are true: As confident as you are, you can’t be sure of what your opponent is doing, and when you’re being the aggressor, you can lose everything.
It’s fascinating though, precisely because you can’t lose what you don’t risk. Your opponent can’t go after your bankroll, can’t make you bet. That means that most of the game is about back-and-forth cajoling, jousting with your opponent. Behaviour changes as your bankroll changes, and the game has a back-and-forth to it as chips change hands, but at the core, your opponent cannot control you, and you can only lose when you put yourself in a position to lose.
The game handles this by giving you a powerful incentive to make sure that you sometimes want to put yourself in a position to lose.