But this is not the same game that once was America's Friday-night kitchen table staple -- a group of guys and gals gathered over chips, beer, cigars and swaggers, laughing and bluffing. Poker now bears little resemblance to serious cash-game poker once played in a dimly lit Las Vegas backroom by a Damon Runyon-esque collection of high-octane gamblers, bookies, off-season oil riggers, rodeo champs, denizens of the underworld and slumming celebrities who gave poker its color. That was a time when the best players were those who knew both cards and people, sly self-promoters like Amarillo Slim and Stu Ungar who lived off their wits and cunning, including peddling the romantic image of the professional gambler.
Back then, those of us who loved poker would fly to Las Vegas to learn the game from the best, patiently watching and gathering experience, studying how Johnny Moss or Jack Strauss played a particular hand, until we had our personal memorized database of what was thought to be optimal play. Experience was considered a form of wisdom; improving one's game required much face-to-face poker playing, observation of players' styles, patterns of betting, tells, and sharing of stories and strategies. Poker was a social game; good playing required an understanding of probabilities and psychology. Equally important were the social skills that would attract lesser (losing) players.
Not anymore. The vast majority of new young players have primarily learned to play poker online. They have honed their skills with the aid of computer simulations and data mining -- complex software programs that monitor the play of their opponents and provide a detailed categorization of each style of play. This new breed of successful players comes from the virtual arena; they are likely to spend most of their playing time either alone or with similarly inclined computer geeks. As people do in the digital community Second Life, players develop virtual personas, fictitious avatars and cartoonish social skills, and are seldom accountable for their behavior. Other players aren't colleagues, comrades in crime or even casual social acquaintances; they are obstacles to be overcome on the way to the big score.
The massive popularity of tournament poker has irreparably altered the tenor of the game by introducing the lottery aspect of the big win. Unlike cash games in which you can quit whenever you want, in tournament poker, all entrants pay a single entry fee. You cash out only by beating at least 90 percent of the field; only the top 1 percent of participants get a significant payout. To create exciting megaprizes, tournaments are structured to pay huge sums to the top few finishers, while leaving the rest empty-handed -- a sharp contrast with traditional poker games, in which a single table can host multiple winners.
Last year, in bed delirious with the flu, I entered and won a $39 online satellite tournament to the 2006 WSOP main event. A couple of days later, still feverish, I found myself at a table with nine strangers. No one introduced him- or herself. Few bothered to make eye contact, preferring dark glasses and baseball caps, as though hiding in plain sight. During the first day -- 15 hours of grueling play -- I did not hear a single joke, an engaging story or even collegial banter. Once, when a player was criticized by another for endless badmouthing, the player responded by saying, "Hey, I'm not here to make friends. This is all about money."
Today, in casinos and card rooms across the country, the social dimension of poker has been dismissed in favor of computerized playing strategies. Consider the following: In a live game at a casino, a dealer will deal 30 to 40 hands per hour. Online, where the cards do not have to be gathered or shuffled, hands are dealt at a much higher rate -- 80 to 100 hands per hour. Because there is a lot of downtime in poker (you get relatively few playable hands), most online players play multiple games simultaneously. The result is a dramatically compressed experience; the number of hands you might have played in a 10-hour live session can easily be played in one hour online. In a few months you can see combinations of hands that it would take years to see in person.
One of the most popular software programs, Poker Tracker, can keep track of every hand that you and your opponents play. It can provide detailed statistics on how the hand did against other hands, and even how it did dependent upon your table position when you played the hand. It will tell you how well you did with a pair of eights when you are the first player to act, versus playing the hand after several players had already folded. Quickly, you can build up a set of algorithms that determine optimal starting hands dependent on your table position and the playing characteristics of your opponents. Such programs also give you extensive information on what hands your opponents are likely to play. You can set the program to project your opponents' statistics directly over their screen icons, and players soon become known by their statistically determined playing habits rather than by their first names. You do not need to see a player's facial expression or how he or she shifts in the chair; you already know from your data analysis when he or she is or isn't likely to call or raise a hand.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and say, "Yeah, poker sucks now because I have to wade through all of these amatures at the World Series, I tell you!" but this article still does speak to me in a profound way that I can't quite put my finger on. It's worth thinking about - I mean, we all like to win when we play and you can't win if you don't take every advantage that you can get, but the internet game is just so much different than the beer poker we used to play in college and even after college just 7-8 years ago. I remember that I would look forward to poker night not because I might win - but because it was fun to get everyone together and have some beers and order some food and socialize. Hell, even the Friendship Social Club was kind of social, and I hated talking to 90% of the people there.
Now, it's just lingo and mouseclicks and flashy people trying to score something - read all of the big blogs and they are are a bunch of discussions about playing 8 hands at a time on Party Poker and trip reports going to Vegas to look for fish at Caesar's Palace.
I also think that the comparison to Sklansky's "experiment" described in his tournament poker book is very shrewd, too. (Talk about the game being different, Sklansky and his books are practically artifacts these days... esepcially when it comes to all of his advice on beating a middle limit cash game game...)
But yes, I think the point is made and I do indeed agree that somewhere along the way poker has lost a lot of its social aspects. It's just not the same.