A Confederacy of Deuces

Chess was the very first game I ever played online. This is going back years now, to when I first got the Internet at home. (When 576kbps was considered broadband!) Almost the first thing I did was head over to Yahoo! Games, and played chess against some random person. It was all very new and exciting.

But I have never really warmed to ‘proper’ online gaming. I played CounterStrike intensively for a few weeks (who hasn’t?). I played EVE Online for a few months. For a year or so I was even one of the top 50 players on an online snooker game. For one reason or another, I drifted away from all of them.

So why poker—why do I like playing poker online, but not any other game? It’s a number of things. Poker is something that materially rewards me. It’s a deep, decent game. I’m not saying that Call of Duty 4, Warhawk, and even Pro Evolution Soccer aren’t decent, deep games in their own ways. It’s just that, well, I’ll say it: the likes of poker, and chess, are more in tune with my temperament.

Poker is a game of decisions and instinct and timing. It’s not gambling, as any of the books will tell you from the start. Playing a single-table tournament the other day, I was dealt this for my first hand:


Pocket fives. It’s always a great feeling to see a pocket pair pop up as your hole cards. But you have to be careful. A low pocket pair looks good, but you have to see the flop, and you have to see how other players will bet, and it all depends on your position, and the chip stacks, and…

I was in good position—on the dealer button, the best place to be with a small pair. The player to my immediate right raised the pot to 120. We all still had our starting 2000 chips. I called. Everyone else folded. It was me versus the player who’d raised. I’ll call him Steve.

I needed a good flop, otherwise I was probably folding. I’m nowhere near good enough yet to nurse an unimproved small pocket pair through a hand and win it. This was the flop:


YES! I’d made trips on the flop and was a huge favourite for the hand. That’s just about the best possible flop you can hope to see with a low pocket pair.

Steve bets the pot,and I call. The only thing I have to fear here is pocket Aces or tens. Steve’s pre-flop raise could have been with those hands, but somehow I don’t think so. I don’t know precisely how I don’t think so. I’m not good enough at this game yet for my reasoning to be anything more that hopeful instinct. I know nothing about Steve, but most players in low-limit online poker are maniacs, and so I think that he would have raised to more than 120 with Aces or tens. I think he’s definitely got one Ace—I hope he’s got one Ace. If he has, I’m probably going to win big here.

The turn came:


I’ve made a full house. Three five, two tens. If Steve has Ace-10, I’m screwed, but as Dan Harrington says in one of his excellent books, you’ve got to win your chips sometime. You can’t always be scared of what the other guy might have.

I decided to go all-in, figuring that if he had an Ace he’d most likely call anyway, thinking he must have the best hand. My wish came true—he called. Both of us were now all-in on the first hand of the tournament for all our chips.

Before the river card was dealt, our hole cards were revealed to each other. I imagined his dismay as he saw my pocket fives. I saw his cards, which were:


Ace-Jack, eh? I was right, he had an Ace. The Jack is better than I thought, but still not good enough. Only an Ace on the river could save him by making his own full house. If it came, it came. Bring it on. The river card dropped:


The second Jack was scary, but it only gave him two-pair. My full house was the easy winner. Steve was wrong to call my all-in bet.

I went on to finish second in the tournament, winning about $5 for a $0.90c buy-in. Whenever I finish in the money, it’s nearly always in second place. My heads-up play (1 versus 1, at the end of a tournament, to decide 1st place) is a massive weakness in my game right now. I’m still a heads-up dunce. I nearly always get it all wrong. You’re supposed to loosen up in heads-up play, but I remain tight, and the other player always cottons onto this and steals my blinds. Then I panic and go all-in with rubbish, and he calls and usually wins. I’m working on it.

MONDAY ON PES CHRONICLES, we’re back to FIFA09. I’ll save the poker talk for every now and then.

Updated: 13th March 2009 — 12:45


  1. Haha, absolutely fascinating poker hand. You were lucky on that one and yet you are convinced poker is not gambling. As they should the best poker books remind players that it is gambling, but measured and with a degree of skill. In terms of skill, what you will get better at playing poker is obviously not changing your luck but calculating your odds quicker, taking your chances, trusting your gut, beefing up your poker face, accurately reading your opponents, and bluffing. That’s quite a list there maybe poker is a game of skill after all. But how does online poker compare, I’m not exactly sure.

  2. I would call poker gambling! Any other type in the bookies is gambling- and yet there is elements of skill there, which professional gamblers show. I knew someone who made himself a millionaire gambling, and lost it that way too.

    That post was a different language for me, poker is NOT my thing. I’ll stick to COD4……. by the way add me on 360! Do you have a copy of COD4? Even just for a few quick games? My GT is exactly the same as my PSN except theres no dash.

  3. steph_wheeler—poker definitely isn’t gambling! You’d have to read something like The Theory of Poker, or indeed almost any poker book, to see where I’m coming from on this. One of the common themes at the start of any poker book is debunking the widespread notion that poker is gambling. The arguments are persuasive, and watertight. The whole idea of success at poker is to gamble as little as possible, i.e. reduce the role that luck plays in your game.

    I wasn’t lucky on the hand in the post at all. I had the best starting hand and I only improved it on the flop. I was never behind at any stage. My opponent made a serious mistake by going all-in with just a pair of Aces. No luck involved at all—unless you count the non-arrival of another Ace on the river as luck for me, but again that’s the crux of poker: making those percentage calls and living with them. In this case, the % chance of him beating me was small enough for me to justify going all-in.

    Not Given—Maybe I should define what I mean by gambling. To me, gambling is any cash wager where the outcome is completely or mostly beyond my control. Roulette and betting on horses, football etc., are gambling in my definition. Poker isn’t gambling because you decide what and when to bet after the process on which you are betting has started, and you can withdraw from the process (fold) if you judge that’s the best thing to do—and it’s almost always the best thing to do.

    Poker is about waiting for certain situations—sometimes waiting for a long time—and then manipulating them to your maximum advantage. You have no control over what cards fall and when they fall, true. But there’s a predictable level of probablility over the course of a long enough period of time, and there’s paying attention to your opponents’ betting patterns and so on, and making decisions accordingly. That’s the core of poker, right there: decisions, decisions, decisions, all based on so many factors that it’s not possible to go into them here.

    Oh, and I only have COD4 on PS3, sorry… It has received approximately 15 minutes of multiplayer action. I logged on one sunny evening last summer, months after first getting the game, to see what all the multiplayer fuss was about. I didn’t like it. I got a few kills and was killed a few times, then packed it in and I’ve not been back since.

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