The Beautiful Agony of Online Poker

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The Beautiful Agony of Online Poker

Ask anyone—the game is rigged. You won’t find a soul in the world of online poker who doesn’t believe, either overtly or secretly (to the point of being almost subconscious), that this stuff is fixed. If there’s a straight draw on the flop, the turn and the river will complete it, especially if you have a pair or two. Same for flushes. Full houses? Oh, baby, yes. Full houses happen every third hand, minimum. If you’re holding a pair of kings, god help you—chances are somewhere around 98.9% that somebody else has aces. I’ve even come up with a private phrase for this scenario, after witnessing the abundance of pocket pairs that seem to join the KK hand: “Kings never ride alone.”

Now, most of this is probably bullshit. The perception of injustice is almost definitely the result of playing a high volume of hands online—more than you could ever play in person. With so much variance, weird hands are inevitable, and the weird hands are the ones that stick in your mind. Ergo, you think they happen all the time. It’s the negativity bias in action.

I recently quit poker for two weeks because of my certainty that the whole thing is rigged, or that if it’s not, it might as well be. You see, it happened when my hand was AJ, and the flop came AJ2, no flush draw. My opponent bet very aggressively, such that it would be reasonable to suspect a set, but he had not raised pre-flop, so I felt I probably had him beat. I called a big bet. The turn came, no help, a card lower than J. I checked to him, he went all-in, I had to call, we turned over. He had A2, a worse two pair. In other words, he was completely crushed and I was doubling up.

You know how this goes: The river was a 2. Full house to him. I threw an embarrassing, private tantrum, and then quit for two weeks. The shit is rigged.

Or that’s what I tell myself. And based on my private observations, I am among the least pathological denizens of a strange, insular culture of online poker players who organize themselves on Twitter, become familiar to each other through screen names on the PokerStars app, and generally exercise their psychological demons through a game that is deceptively simple, endlessly complicated, totally maddening, and about as perfect a simulacrum of real life as you’ll get with a 52-card deck.

Let me tell you about us.

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It began for me in a Slack chat room, when I joined a group of friends—some real, some online, some mixed—in playing low-stakes hold ‘em games on the PokerStars app. (Previously, we used a mobile-only app that was so blatantly rigged that we had to stop.) I knew very little about playing good hold ‘em when the pandemic began, but with the instruction of a few very good players, I improved. A lot of us did, actually, and there was a collective urge to take our act to the big time.

But what was the big time? Well, okay, the actual “big time” would be the high-stakes tournaments you can enter in Las Vegas against professional players. Clearly, that was too big for us. Digging around, though, we discovered a burgeoning Twitter culture of people organizing games with buy-ins between $25 and $40. I’m not going to tell you their names, because I have no idea of the precise legality of any of this, but despite the fact that I immediately suspected most of them would steal our money and flee to Mexico, they were on the up-and-up. The registration process was fool-proof, the payouts instant, the efficiency absolute. The organizers made a little money from tips sent by the winners, and sometimes they played for free, but otherwise there was no “rake,” no percentage of the buy-in coming their way. You hate to throw around the word “hero” willy-nilly, but the way these gentlemen filled a need during the height of the quarantine period was downright heroic.

Soon, our little Slack group began joining these games, cheering each other on (but never colluding), and swapping war stories about the players we met at the tables. These tournaments could range from 25 people to over 100, but before long the main characters became very familiar to us. There was the guy with the Ned Flanders avatar. There was the guy with the St. Louis Cardinals reference in his name, who had a fearsome reputation, and who I once took out within the first five hands when I “tanked” (pretended to take a long time deciding whether to call his aggressive bets) and eventually lured him into pushing with top pair, jacks, against my KK. There were players who talked endless shit, including after they’d lost—just hanging around in the chat room, hurling insults. These people became icons to us, their names more familiar than cousins.

It was a cesspool of aggrieved masculinity. I’m not saying there weren’t nice people, but there was a vocal minority of hyper-aggressive maniacs who inevitably got suckered into betting way too much on bad cards, and then raged against the unjust world and all the bastards in it.

I finished fourth in a game of more than 60 people, and it was one of the most intense competitive experiences of my adult life. It could have been worse, but it also could have been better—I went out with 10 10 against AQ. Later, I won even more by placing fifth in a tournament of over 100 players.

What makes for a successful poker player? At higher levels, people are calculating odds at more than an intuitive level, and the numbers are more precise, the plays more calculated, the bluffs less reckless. At our level, though, it’s a little simpler. Not being a moron is a good start, and you have to understand the value of a hand, the value of a bet, and the value of position. But there are two aspects that might matter even more, at least when you’ve got the basics down.

The first is patience. To win a hold ‘em tournament, to survive elimination after elimination, you have to fold over and over again, resist participating in hands that you shouldn’t—good money always seems to follow bad money—and rigorously stick to a game plan.

The second is acceptance. The part of this game that’s so difficult to come to terms with is that, to paraphrase Captain Jean-Luc Picard, you can do everything right and still lose. Luck holds a permanent trump card, and sometimes your patience or intelligence won’t pay off. Remember that 2 on the river? I made an educated guess that I was winning the hand after the flop—I could have been wrong, but I had good reason to believe I wasn’t—and got all my chips in for a potential double-up. When it came to the last card, his odds were about 4%. But guess what? Four percent means that once out of every 25 times, you’re going to get screwed. My time had come.

That’s hold ‘em poker—you need to be willing to be sucker punched, to take a hit and roll with it, and not dwell or complain or believe, deep down, that you have been specially targeted by the universe for injustice. If you start internalizing that bad medicine, you’re psychologically through.

I haven’t decided where I sit with poker. It’s a joy when it goes well, but I’m not as good as I’d like to be at the acceptance part. It’s a brilliant game for how it routinely illustrates your weak points, but at times, it can bring out weak points that wouldn’t necessarily be evident in the normal course of life. At which point, after you’ve—hypothetically—punched an external computer monitor in anger because of that #&*#$ river 2, do you really want to expose yourself to those emotions over and over? Is it worth trying to conquer them, or are they basically conquered already except when being exacerbated by poker?

Deep down, I know the app is not rigged. That’s the rational conclusion, because why would it be? But I’m not sure that I truly believe it….not in my innermost emotional core. Rudyard Kipling once wrote about meeting with triumph and disaster and treating those “imposters” the same, but the fact is that disaster is so much more memorable. Whether you have the tolerance to meet him again and again, even on the small scale of poker, predicts not whether you’re good or bad at the game, but whether you can last.

We all want to be somebody who can last. Ante up.


Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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