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It is November 6, about an hour into the Partouche Poker Tour Grand Final Tournament in Cannes, France. Of the 764 contestants who each paid 8,500 Euro to enter, eight surviving players sit around the rim of the green felt table. At stake is a purse of 1.3 million Euro. The table is surrounded by stands to accommodate a mass of eager poker fans, but I can only hear the endless click-click of chips being shuffled by the players as I watch the game live streaming over the Internet. My eyes are on the only woman seated at the table: an American with the short brown hair, broad shoulders, and a piercing gaze.
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Vanessa Selbst ’05 LAW ’12 has taken the year off from Yale Law to pursue her poker career. A week before the tournament, sitting in New Haven, Selbst felt the pressure of the upcoming game. “I’ve never played at a final table so big before,” she said. But now, she stares coolly at her opponent, a Frenchman who has just “gone all in.” The other six finalists have played it safe and folded for this hand. “She’s looking straight through him,” one of the commentator quips. “She has x-ray vision.”
The game is Texas Hold’em, so each player began with two “pocket cards” dealt facedown only to them. Now that the players have made their bets, the dealer flips over three cards, “the flop,” which act as communal cards for the entire table. The two players splay their cards: two tens for Selbst, a king and a queen for the Frenchman. The pair of queens made from his pocket queen and the queen in the flop would beat Selbst’s pair of tens if the hand ended at five cards. But the dealer will throw out two more communal cards.
A ten. Selbst now holds three of a kind. Her countenance remains static as the dealer spins the final card across the felt.
The Frenchman drops his head as applause erupts from Americans in the stands. Selbst does not attempt to hide her smirk of triumph as she rakes in the pot. One down, six to go.
In the 1860s, Edmond Hoyle published a popular series of books on America’s favorite pastimes. Of poker, he wrote: “Success in playing…depends rather upon luck and energy than skill. It is emphatically a game of chance.” As I watch the dejected Frenchman leave the table, I cannot shake the thought that Selbst got lucky. After all, she had no control over the cards she was dealt. I’ve always thought of poker as a form of gambling, a product of luck. This impression comes mainly from movies where cowboys deal out hands in a smoke-filled room as they sip whisky. And so, although the idea of raking in a massive pile of chips has always held a certain allure, I have always avoided poker, fearing I might lose at the turn of a card.
When I later learn that Selbst has won the entire Partouche tournament, I cannot help but wonder how she has gotten so lucky. This 1.3 million Euro win has launched her into the highest echelon of poker players. I approach her win with naïve skepticism: this tournament seems to verify that Vanesssa is a skilled poker player, but what hand will she be dealt at her next tournament? Is poker a game of chance or skill? Seeking an answer, I decide to delve into the poker world, trying my hand at the game myself.
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Selbst first started playing poker as an undergraduate in Ezra Stiles. She participated in the infamous Trumbull Game, which took place in the basement of Trumbull College for several years and produced a slew of professional and Internet poker players, including Selbst, Alex Jacob ’06, and Ariel Schneller ’06. Selbst, who joined the Trumbull game in her junior year, became so obsessed with poker that, by the second semester of her senior year, she began to neglect her three courses — one of which she was taking Credit/D/Fail. She played at Trumbull incessantly and even ventured out to Foxwoods Casino once or twice every week. At the end of the semester, Selbst discovered she was earning a distressing “D” in her Credit/D/Fail class. In order to earn the credit, she had to rewrite her final paper for the course at Myrtle Beach. “It was horrible,” she laughs. “But I attribute it all to poker.”
Selbst has parlayed her college poker success into enough money to pay Yale tuition several times over. Selbst funded her way into the Cannes event by winning the $5,000 Main Event of the Mohegan Sun leg of the PokerStars North American Tour, bringing in $750,000 and earning a sponsorship from PokerStars in April. Her total live tournament winnings now exceed three million dollars.
But Selbst and her classmates are not the first group of Yalies to seriously pursue poker. Matt Matros ’99 has been a major player in the poker world since he graduated from Yale. Recently, Matros won the 2010 World Series of Poker Event 12, earning him $189,870. As of 2010, Matros’ total live tournament winnings exceed $1,400,000. He has made his living not only from playing poker professionally, but also teaching poker, and writing — non-fiction poker works such as The Making of a Poker Player: How an Ivy League Math Geek Learned to Play Championship Poker, as well as fictional stories. After I watch Selbst play in France, my own brief foray into playing poker begins in Brooklyn, where Matros volunteers to sit down and teach me the basic rules.
Matros brings out a poker set equipped with heavy casino-style chips for my lesson, and we quickly move to the game I watched Selbst play in Cannes: Texas Hold’em. Each individual player’s hand is made up of five cards — two pocket cards and three of the five communal cards on the table. These cards can arrange into pairs, triplets, straights, flushes, and full houses. Betting occurs first after the pocket cards are dealt, then again after the river (or first three communal cards) are dealt, and then again with each proceeding communal card.
After playing a few hands, I push Matros to try to understand how one can make a career out of playing poker. As Matros shuffles the cards, he explains that while the specific cards I am dealt are a matter of chance, it is purely a matter of skill as to how I play my cards. Still, every poker player has stretches of time where he loses — it’s part of the game. “The difference,” Matros explains, “is when you play professionally, hopefully the losses are kind of blips in the radar of the long term.” Once you have established a certain skill set, you will suffer losses, but you will eventually emerge on top.
Matros admits that he did not play a single hand of poker in his first three years at Yale. When he was a kid, first learning how to play, he lost a couple of times and vowed never to play poker again: “I hated losing so much. It wasn’t until I realized that you didn’t have to lose, and I learned how not to lose, that the game became more fun for me.” This revelation occurred senior year when the movie Rounders reminded Matros how much he enjoyed and missed playing poker. Matros was not alone. The arrival of Rounders coincided with the poker boom in the 1990s. Poker players, young and old, cite the movie as the best poker film in existence, with The Cincinnati Kid as a close second.
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I think I may be able to trace Matros’ renewed commitment to poker to an oft-quoted line from the movie: “Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every year? What are they, the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?” Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, uses this argument to try to convince his girlfriend that poker cannot be a game of pure luck. Though this line may inspire poker players around the world, the girlfriend remains skeptical, and she and McDermott agree to part ways. She has, after all, already seen him lose his life savings.
Edward Norton’s character in the movie — a friend of McDermott nicknamed “Worm” who has recently been released from prison and is looking to pay off gambling debts — bypasses the question of risk by cheating at poker. Such a strategy suggests the primacy of luck in the game. The best way to win is to take control of your fortune, rather than submitting to the dealer’s random distribution.
And the history of poker is indeed riddled with cons. For decades, poker was known as “the cheating game,” a phrase coined by Jonathan Harrington Green, a man who made his living as a hustler before “reforming” in order to make his living by lecturing on the evils of gambling. In his presentations, Green would “prove” that all cards in decks were “marked” by guessing the number and suit of any card he drew from a newly-opened deck. But, in fact, his lectures were hoaxes themselves, as he was using a hidden mirror to identify the cards’ faces.
Green, despite being a fraud, was correct. Cheating was prevalent in the early days of poker. But unlike what Green suggests, cheating in poker tends to depend not upon marked cards, but upon the dealer: the man who controls what is dealt can have, if he chooses, a decisive edge over his tablemates. Often, swindles in poker involve a team of cheaters who depend on the “mechanic,” a card sharp who nimbly and stealthily sequences the deck in his favor while shuffling and cutting the cards.
These hoaxes recall life on the Mississippi River boats of the mid-19th century. Even today, in the age of casinos filled with security cameras, some players still attempt to cheat. Ali Tekintamgac, one of the final nine players at Selbst’s table in the Partouche Poker Tournament, was disqualified for having used fake reporters to signal to him the other players’ hands. But Tekintamgac seems to be an exception: now that casinos, which have a vested interest in keeping the game fair, rotate their dealers every 30 minutes, and now that tournament games are televised, cheating has become more difficult. These days, as James McManus, author of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, tells me, “Pure poker skill in combination with luck is what determines who gets the money at the end of the day, as opposed to the best cheater.”
McManus is a journalist-turned-professional-poker-player who only began to play the game seriously when he was given an assignment by Harper’s Magazine to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker. In order to better understand the game, he used his $4,000 advance from Harper’s to play his way into the tournament, writing as he competed. Although Matros insists that luck had little to do with long-term success, McManus notes that the luck factor in poker does matter, and it is “both beautiful and terrible.” Further, he believes that this luck factor contributes partially to the current popularity of poker.
Poker has indeed become a national phenomenon: the World Series of Poker Main Event, which costs $10,000 to enter, has increased from a field of six in 1971 to 839 in 2003 to 7,319 in 2010. Internet poker played a significant role in the boom; the option to play online is especially popular among young adults who cannot legally gamble in casinos. Today, college students can play online poker 24 hours a day from their dorm rooms and thus are exposed to more hands at an earlier age than any generation preceding them. Televised poker has also contributed to the game’s growing popularity: these days, ESPN covers every major tournament. McManus posits that it is the luck factor in the game that makes it so perfect for television. “The fact that the best players can be beaten by amateurs adds an element of giant killing,” he says. But he agrees with Matros that even though poker can be anyone’s game in the first few hands, “in the long run, the best players will win.”
Poker games have been prevalent at Yale for some time. When Matros played on campus, he gathered a group of friends interested in participating in tournaments and traveled out to Foxwoods himself half-a-dozen times in his senior year. Today, according to Zak Kaplan ’13, a Branford sophomore, a big game rotates around campus, and the group of about 20 people play up to four times a week. (Anyone interested in joining their game should check out their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_166237656742805.)
The trouble with poker on campuses, Kaplan tells me, is that its legality is questionable. Here the question of luck or skill comes into play. The controversy has been debated in courtrooms since the days of that old Mississippi riverboat hand, Mark Twain, who in his short story “Science vs. Luck” describes a trial in which seven boys are prosecuted for playing poker for money, violating the laws against “games of chance” in Kentucky. Their attorney argues that ‘old sledge’ — the type of cards they were playing — was not a game of chance at all but rather one of skill and, thus, exonerates them.
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The argument still resonates today. Ken Adams ’67, a lawyer and professional poker player living in Washington, D.C., explains that though each state regulates its own gambling laws, the definition of gambling in most states incorporates a predominance test: whether skill predominates over chance or chance predominates over skill. Games depending entirely upon chance are outlawed, while those that partially depend upon skill are not. Roulette, for example, qualifies as gambling; there is no skill involved, and the outcome is entirely dependent on the random drop of the marble. Lawyers, led by the Poker Players’ Alliance, have been successful in demonstrating that poker differs from roulette in that it necessarily depends upon an element of skill. These cases have been backed by expert testimony and a plethora of statistical literature. One 2008 study published in Chance Magazine, a publication of the American Statistical Association, used data from high-stakes poker and golf tournaments (golf generally being considered a game of skill) to identify the rates at which highly skilled players are likely to place highly in the tournament. They determined that there was a significant skill component in playing poker: previous finishes in tournaments predicted current finishes.
The gambling laws in Connecticut, however, differ from those in most states. According to Adams, gambling, defined in Connecticut as “risking any money or thing of value for gain contingent in whole or in part on chance,” is prohibited in the state. The key words are “in part.” Adams adds, “I don’t think anyone would argue that poker is not at least partially based on chance.” This law has no age associated with it — even those over 21 cannot gamble — but it does not apply to licensed card rooms like Foxwoods. Connecticut statutes go on to outlaw gambling equipment and devices, a factor that brought down Morse and Stiles’ notoriously fun Casino Night, even though no real money was ever at risk in the event.
However, the poker games on campus are safe under the law: there is an exception in the statute that the prohibition on gambling does not apply to individuals whose activity is “incidental to a bona fide social relationship.” Poker games around Yale are not run by any organization for profit and thus fall within this exception. In fact, Adams says, a return of Casino Night sans craps tables, but including poker, would be legal under state law.
Assuming that the statisticians, the lawyers, and the poker players are correct — that poker is more a game of skill than a game of luck — I wonder, can I make it as a poker player? The rules, as Matros explains them, seem straightforward. But what are the skills I would have to acquire to become one of the elite who can depend on poker as a source of income, to know that in the long-run, I would eventually come out on top?
My first hurdle is the math. I tell Matros that I am what you would call a “humanities person.” Math is not my strong suit. Matros suspects that “a completely math-illiterate person would have a tough time with poker because it is important to understand risk versus reward.” Math is especially essential to online poker, which is almost exclusively focused on people’s betting patterns (due to the absence of actual people whose reactions can be analyzed). To determine these patterns, one must know the basic odds and stats behind each hand dealt. But in addition to the math, the skills of logic and strategic thinking are essential. All the poker-playing Yalies with whom I spoke also love playing other games that stress strategy and logic. If I manage to master the math, I may have a chance of fitting into the poker world: I, too, enjoy strategy games.
The aspect of poker that I find most intriguing is psychology; it holds a lot of appeal because there is something fascinating about sitting down with someone else at a table and trying to figure out what they are thinking. Selbst tells me that in comparison to online poker, “live poker is much more about gathering all the information that is available to you.” Selbst and other great poker players bluff, deceive, look for tells, interpret other players’ stories, attitudes, and tics. Selbst thrives in this type of game, telling me that her preferred game is No Limit Hold’em: “In No Limit Hold’em there’s a lot more bluffing and psychology because it’s a lot more about putting your opponent under pressure.” It seems that this aspect of poker is similar to reporting: in both realms, reading people is essential and, for me, enjoyable. I must also admit that I get a thrill out of “bluffing” and think this aspect of the game would come naturally.
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A great poker player must also understand her own strengths and weaknesses as well as recognize those of her opponent; the real challenge, then, is to apply this information to the game — deceiving others while simultaneously forcing them to reveal their true character. I use Selbst as my model. One of her jobs in the Partouche Tournament was to maintain a “poker face” while deciphering the poker faces of others. Selbst applied pressure to one of her opponents by demanding, “Why did you do that?” while he raised. He did his best to ignore her but I noticed he began shuffling his chips a little faster. Selbst firmly believes that to be a successful poker player, one has to be excellent at reading other people. When asked if she is a good evaluator of character, she fires back her answer without hesitation: “Definitely.”
Aggression seems to be another key factor in poker. The word “poker” itself is derived from the German word pochen, which means “to beat or pulverize.” From its very origins, aggression has been at the heart of the game. Selbst tells me that she is known for being “crazy and aggressive” in the poker world. “People don’t like to play with me because I’m so aggressive, and it puts a lot of pressure on them,” she concedes, with a hint of pride. Selbst’s self-analysis is confirmed as I watch her play. Within a few hands, one of the commentators has already made the crack, “We don’t have the balls of Vanessa Selbst,” alluding to the fact that she is the only woman seated at the table. She stares down her opponents, goads them into discussing their cards, and raises the stakes, creating an ominous presence at the table.
But aggression comes in all shapes and sizes. Kaplan uses Yale’s name to strike fear in the hearts of his opponents. “Whenever I go to the casino [in Minnesota, where the gambling age is 18], I always wear a Yale sweatshirt because I don’t like to slip under the radar,” he says. “I want a strong image at the table.” As Kaplan describes his strategy to me, I can envision myself at Mohegan Sun, touting my favorite Yale hoodie, hoping the symbol will force my opponents to take me seriously.
Finally, poker takes discipline and patience. Matros finds this to be the most important skill of all. First, the game necessitates the discipline to sit at the table for hours at a time, persevering through both wins and losses. Second, the hands themselves demand self-control. “You have to be disciplined enough to not just know what the right play is but to actually do it,” Matros says. Many players understand the concepts, but when they are sitting at the table, they react emotionally and play the wrong hand; they are naturally too timid or naturally too cocky. He concludes that any good poker player must “have the stomach to get through the bad runs.” Because poker is a game where players will inevitably go through periods where they don’t do well, Matros says, “you have to have the discipline to be able to get through and come out of it as a better poker player.” This is where my poker career may fall flat: patience is not one of my virtues, but perhaps, with Matros’ guidance, I can learn.
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I win my first hand of poker. Matros made a disclaimer at the beginning of the game that even though he is a professional and has been playing for years, I could beat him. And I do. After a succession of decent hands, I take the entire pot. Elated, I leave Matros’ house feeling particularly lucky. On the train ride back to New Haven I replay the game in my mind, trying to determine when the cards fell in my favor. I realize that I cannot pinpoint the moment — I do not know enough about poker to actually figure out when I had a good hand, let alone the probability that I held better cards than Matros did. He let me win. It would have taken extraordinary luck to compensate for my complete lack of skill. I am smart enough not to return to Matros’ table. After a few more games, he would have me bleeding chips.
Poker Hands: From Best to Worst
Royal Flush: five cards in a row and of entirely one suit, with the ace as the highest card
Straight Flush: five cards in a row of entirely one suit
Four-of-a-Kind (Quads): four cards of the same rank
Full House (Full Boat, Boat): three-of-a-kind and a pair
Flush: five cards of the same suit
Straight (Run): five cards in a row
Three-of-a-Kind (Trips, Set, Triplets): three cards of the same rank
Two Pair: two cards of the same rank and another two cards of the same rank
One Pair: two cards of the same rank
High Card: when you don’t have any of the above, your highest card determines your hand
All in: having all your chips in the pot; the act of betting all of your remaining chips is “going all in”
Blinds: mandatory bets made by the player to the left of the dealer (the small blind) and the player sitting two to the left (the big blind, usually twice the size of the small blind)
Board: cards dealt face up in the middle of the table for use by all players
Button: disk that rotates clockwise and indicates which player is the dealer
Check: passing when it is your bet and no one else has made a bet in that round
Check-raise: to check when it’s your turn to bet, then increasing the bet after someone else bets
Cowboy: a king
Flat-call: to call when a raise is expected
The Flop: the first three community cards, exposed simultaneously
Marked Card: a card that is tampered with, or “marked,” on the back so a cheating player can identify it
Mechanic: a card cheat who specializes in sleight-of-hand manipulation of the cards
The Nuts: an unbeatable hand
Pocket: the two cards dealt face down to each player, also known as “hole cards”
The River: the fifth and final community card, also known as “fifth street”
Satellite: a small preliminary tournament in which players can win entry to a major tournament
Set: three of a kind
Spike: when a card appears unexpectedly on the board, and gives one or many players a big hand
Tell: a detectable change in a player’s behavior, verbal or non-verbal, that gives a clue to the player’s hand
Texas Hold’em: poker game where each player receives two cards face down, followed first by three community cards dealt simultaneously in the middle of the table, a fourth community card, and then a fifth and final community card. Betting follows each round. Players make the best five-card hand from the seven available cards.
The Turn: the fourth card dealt to the middle of the Board, also known as “fourth street”