My recent return to Las Vegas was primarily to participate in the World Tavern Poker national finals. Upon registration, every player was given an event t-shirt. There just below you can see what was on the back.
Now, I realize this list is meant to be humorous, not a serious analysis of poker strategy or philosophy. But since I was constantly seeing the same message on the backs of other players for several days, I couldn’t help ruminating about all the things I found wrong with it.
Let’s examine these poker “sins” one by one.
It seems to me that very few people would ever play poker if it weren’t for greed. The object of the game, after all, is to take other people’s money.
I suppose that’s not greed if you give all of your profits to charity, but I’ve never met a poker player who did that. Maybe there’s also an exception for those who play exclusively at free online sites and never gain anything other than bragging rights and imaginary chips.
But for the rest of us, I’d say that greed, far from being a sin of poker, is a necessary precursor to the game working as it should.
It’s certainly true that low-stakes players limp far too often, when folding or raising would be better choices. So I’d concede that most limps by most players are indeed sins.
But like every poker tool, limping has its rightful place. It’s often more justifiable in stud games, for instance, than in no-limit hold’em. But even in the latter, it can be useful if done selectively and sparingly. The classic situation is if you’re in early position with a premium hand and a couple of maniacs to your left. You can limp to induce a preflop raise and reraise, and hope that others call to swell the pot before you back-raise.
I could agree with having limping on the list of poker sins if it were preceded by the qualifier “excessive.”
This is the one that stuck in my craw every time the back of another player’s t-shirt came into my field of view. Bluffing is no sin in poker; it’s the essence of the game.
When somebody shows a successful bluff, I’ll sometimes lodge a faux protest: “Hey, I thought the rule was that all bets have to reflect the strength of your hand accurately!” People laugh because it’s such a preposterous thought.
In “Measure of a Man,” an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is exactly the mistake that the android officer, Commander Data, makes the first time he sits down to a poker game with his friends. As they’re dealing the first round, he says, “This game is exceedingly simple…. The bets will indicate the relative strength of each hand.” Transporter chief Miles O’Brien chuckles, gives a knowing look at Commander Will Riker, and says, “Time to pluck a pigeon.” Sure enough, Riker bluffs Data out of a big pot, leaving Data confused as to why Riker would bet with nothing.
(As long as I’m devoting a column to gripes, this one has been on my mind for 25 years now: Later in the episode, Data says that prior to the game he had “read and absorbed every treatise and textbook” on poker. How could he have done that and yet failed to grasp the concept of bluffing?)
In his book The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King, Michael Craig quotes Mike Matusow as saying, “If you can’t steal, it ain’t poker.” He’s absolutely right.
Mike Caro makes the same point when teaching beginners about poker strategy. Imagine a simple game with two players, two cards — an ace and a king. Each player bets on the strength of his card. The game is pointless, because each player knows what the other must have. But introduce a third card — let’s say a queen — and the player holding a king has to decide whether his opponent is value-betting with the ace, or bluffing with the queen. Now you’re playing poker.
To call bluffing a “sin” of poker is, without exaggeration, to misunderstand the fundamental nature of the game. (Although again, perhaps bluffing too much might be.)
This is a tricky one, because the word has multiple meanings. Michael Weisenberg in The Official Dictionary of Poker: Second Edition gives three definitions for “chase”:
- Make the blind good. That is, if you have the blind, the pot is opened, and you elect to put in the extra chip or chips to play when likely behind or try a longshot, you might say, “I’ll chase.”
- When losing, bet recklessly, often desperately, in the hope of getting of even. “How’s he doing?” “Stuck, and chasing.”
- Try to catch a better hand with a worse holding, usually in a stud game. If you have a pair of kings in the hole, another pairs his exposed ace, and you continue in the hopes of catching another king, you are said to be chasing.
Depending on the exact circumstances, number one can be either savvy or stupid. Number two is the real sin of the trio — and a mortal sin, not a venial one. Number three, like number one, is situation-dependent; chasing in this sense can be a fool’s errand or strongly positive in expected value.
Sucking out is no sin. If there’s any sin to it, it’s in getting your money in bad so that you have to suck out in order to win. But like chasing, that might be an entirely justifiable decision, depending on the game, the size of the pot, the implied odds, the number of outs, and so on.
Okay, World Tavern Poker, I’m with you on this one. Gloating is indeed a poker sin — and a grievous one at that. Its only aim is to make you feel better by making another human being feel worse. If that isn’t a sin, I don’t know what is.
This, too, meets with my approval for the list. Tilting by definition means that you are not playing your best, which is always wrong.
Revising the list of “7 Deadly Sins of a Poker Player”
My conclusion, then, is that greed and bluffing should definitely be off the list. But to keep its length at the traditional seven items, we’ll need to nominate replacements.
I think this is easy. The two I’d put on the list instead are cheating and complaining. I think those probably need no further explanation.
But I also judge limping, chasing, and sucking out to be dubious, or at least in need of qualification. If it were up to me to replace them, I think I’d select angle-shooting, tapping on the aquarium, and playing with money you can’t afford to lose. That would make my seven deadly poker sins…
- tapping on the aquarium
- playing with money you can’t afford to lose
What poker sins would you put on the list?
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.