Until I began working on my doctorate and coding URR I was intending to play online poker for a living for the rest of my life. A surprising number of people do this – no clear statistics exist, but based on my three years of playing the game semi-professionally and the research I did into making the “jump” to pro, I would guess there are perhaps around fifty thousand people around the world, in-person and online, tournament and cash game, who play the game as their primary source of income, and earn enough to “make a living” from it. When I quit, I was making enough to survive on full-time – not enough to fly off to Vegas every year and play in the World Series, not by a long margin, but grinding enough to get by. Along with roguelikes, poker was my first experience of playing something where there was something “at stake” every time you play – not the three minutes of a Counterstrike game or the rankings of a 1v1 competitive ladder, but many many hours of focus and concentration, effort, study, and (in poker’s case), money. The experience informed my contemporary opinions about game design, the value of roguelikes (and other games with an “arcade mentality” such as shmups), and the importance of being able to lose. This is thus the story of the most crushing defeat I suffered in poker, why after that hand – now three years ago – I haven’t played a single hand of poker since then, and also the benefits (and risks) of taking play a little more seriously than normal.
I started playing poker around my eighteenth birthday. I’d been playing it a lot in person and was the strongest player among my friends (though in hindsight I was a very poor player, but none of us had any idea what we were doing). I’d seen poker played on TV, and (in what has become a cliched story) thought this could be an interesting way to earn some money, and potentially a living. I started playing; I was awful, and lost my initial deposit to a poker site ($200, I think). I deposited again, and played fractionally better, though again in hindsight I recognize I got very, very lucky over the course of several weeks here which biased the young me to thinking he had some idea what he was doing. As time went by I continued to just about break even and started joining strategy forums, watching poker videos, discussing the game with players better than me (i.e. the majority of the planet). I got better, and started to profit, and profit more, and move up stakes. Once I was into my second year of university I was making enough that, without the degree consuming some of my time, I could easily make a living from the game. I thus decided that once I finished my degree I was just going to do that. Making a living from a game seemed like the absolute dream – yes, poker was sometimes frustrating, upsetting, infuriating and tedious, but it was also the deepest game I’ve ever played, challenging, enticing, and fascinating.
There are basically two types of poker game – cash games and tournament games. I was always a tournament player. The sense of building towards a conclusion, of “winning” a tournament rather than simply leaving the table with more money, and the structure of a tournament and the specific strategy concerns that needed all appealed to me. However, tournaments are notoriously “swingy” – the prize pools for tournaments are crammed into the top 1/2/3-place prizes, meaning that the graph of the average tournament player looks something like this:
Lots of tiny losses from paying the entry fees to play tournaments, and a few big wins (this is the graph from one of my side accounts). To mitigate this, I normally played tournaments of around 300-500 players. I found that was a sufficiently large field that the prizes were significant and worth actually competing for, but that the field wasn’t so absurdly large that you could play brilliantly for months or even years without a big score. This was the kind of game I made a consistent profit from, of the sort shown in the above graphs – 99/100 tournaments would go nowhere, but that tournament I made it to the end of would yield the serious income (for comparison, eSports tournaments are generally structured the same way, and I assume physical sports are too, though I have no idea if that’s the case).
All poker players above a certain level have specialisms. Some are great heads-up players (two player matches), some are great at sit-n-gos (small one-table tournaments), some at different games (holdem, stud, PLO, draw, whatever), and so forth. My specialism quickly became “final tables” – the point where there are only 9 or 6 people left in the tournament (depending on the structure) and all the remaining players are put on one table to play down to a winner. I had roughly a 25% winrate on final tables – this might seem low, but that’s actually a pretty insane record. Most people consider 20%+ on final tables to be a very, very solid result, but there was something about the structure and psychology of the final table that always played well with me. Other players suddenly become easy to exploit, easy to see if they were playing for the win or playing to creep up the pay ladder, and if I made it to the final table I always knew I had a fantastic shot of taking the entire thing down.
One day at the end of my final year of my degree I decided to play a bigger tournament than normal, not knowing this would be the last poker tournament I ever played. If I recall correctly there were around 6000 players, vastly larger than normal. I just fancied doing this tournament for fun, mostly, not for profit – I wasn’t seriously expecting to cash (finish in the top 10%), but I just wanted to see how a huge tournament played vs tournaments of the size I was more used to. I started this tournament at around 12am UK time.
…Twelve hours later, the 6000 players were down to 30, and I was 3rd in chips. It had been transformed from a silly passing diversion into, potentially, the most profitable tournament of my life. If I reached the final table I was guaranteed to make from that one tournament more than I would in several months; if I won, I’d make roughly as much as I’d made in the last three years combined, and basically a full year’s living wage. In one day. It was insane… the feeling of being so late in such a big tournament, with so much on the line, was like nothing I’d experienced before, even when final-tabling and winning smaller tournaments. However, there was a catch. If I went out of the tournament in 30th place, say, due to the top-heavy structure of tournaments I’d make a pittance, barely worth the time investment of the twelve hours. The extreme dichotomy between 9/6000, say, and 30/6000 was striking (as was the gap between 1/6000 and 9/6000). But I had a lot of chips, I was playing the best poker of my life, winning risky hands where I needed to, and on track to hit the final table, where I knew I had the best shot of almost anyone there.
Then… came the hand.
If you play a lot of poker (I played roughly 1,500,000 hands across my career), you get bored of “bad beat stories”. These are tales where the teller made a good play but someone else got lucky and won. There’s nothing more tedious to listen to if you’re a semi-pro/pro, as these happen a million times a day, and it is these players we profit from. Those who make mistakes, and rely on luck to win, are those that in the long-term will lose, infuriating as losing from time to time to these players may be. So I’m not going to whine about a “bad beat” here or bore everyone with the details – the fact I played a hand for all my chips, got my money in way ahead and lost, wasn’t the point. That happens a hundred times a day. But I remember the chips flying towards my opponent, the popup informing me I was out of the tournament, and the instant and almost epiphanic realization that I was never going to play poker again.
It wasn’t that I’d taken my shot and missed. I’d taken my shot, it had been perfectly on target, and some bastard had stepped in front and taken the bullet. The emotional investment I’d built up in the tournament entirely subconsciously hit me harder than I can describe. I remember I just stared blankly at the screen for about ten minutes then wandered into the living room of the house I was sharing, where I informed the person there (who I am once more moving in with next year as part of my full-time development year) about what had happened. That I’d (as it felt to me at the time) been on course to making a year’s income in one night, and I’d made the right play, and busted out of the biggest tournament I’d ever played. I then got a coat and went for a midnight walk for about three hours, trying to process what had just happened – how close I’d been to such an insane win, and that it had been taken from me.
I realized, as I wandered, that it takes two things to play poker for a living. One of those is the skill at the game – that I had. Even today I’m confident I could teach someone to play the game for a living. But the other, which I’d never truly appreciated until this night, but something like emotional stability, or ability to take losses and just move on. As I walked I came to understand that I didn’t have this – this loss was just too painful. It wasn’t the loss of money, or loss of time, but the loss of potential, the loss of what might-have-been. It was as if, to paraphrase an Iain Banks line of dialogue, I’d been cheated out of a birthright. The tournament was mine to win and it had been taken from me, just as if my internet had cut out, or the power had gone, or I’d suddenly been rushed to hospital. It’s hard to describe the feeling of playing a game perfectly, or near-perfectly, until you’ve experienced it, but I had it that night. It felt as if everyone else was playing with their cards face up and I just couldn’t make mistakes. I think anyone who’s played any game at a high level must have experienced this once or twice; the feeling of being so perfectly in tune with the game that you just can’t make mistakes. Again, in hindsight, this feeling of invincibility from the level I was playing contributed to the crushing weight of the unjust defeat. I no longer had it in me to play a game that could do this to me. The bad beat didn’t bother me intellectually, but the way it made me feel did, and I just didn’t think I could run the risk of feeling so dire ever again.
I returned home eventually and logged onto all my accounts on all the different websites and withdrew every dollar I had. Since that day I don’t think I’ve played the game once. Whilst trying to process how this had made me feel, I realized I needed a new career path and settled on academia. In hindsight, I also realize that there was something very William-Gibson-esque about the entire situation. An algorithm in a server somewhere in Florida had spat out a number; that number had resulted in an entirely virtual card falling; and the falling of that card had fundamentally, instantly and irreversibly altered the career path of a young man in England. The deeply weird global interconnectivity of the thing would have probably struck me more deeply at the time were it not for the emotional impact, but at the time I was too busy trying to come to terms with what had happened.
As time has gone by, though, I have developed something akin to a kind of pride in what happened, though pride is perhaps not the best word. I came to realize that the only reason something like that was able to happen was because of two things, the first of which was my skill at the game. I was able to play in such a huge tournament and push through to the absolute end, and even though I lost the fatal hand, the play I made was the statistically correct one. I was only there because I played perhaps the best poker of my life that day…
…but also because, in a way, I had opened myself up to be hurt by something like this. Not just the money but the time and the emotional impact were all things I had, knowingly or not, put on the line. I’d put all of myself into the game and allowed the game to do what it would with me. I’d had to transform a game, a thing of “play”, into something I cared about enough that it could have this impact on me. And as time has gone by, I realize that this has always been the case in whatever games I’ve taken seriously. Poker may be the most extreme example, but the same is the case in EVE Online (which I played for several years), where losing a ship can mean losing hours, days or weeks of money and work; the same case in roguelikes; the same case now where I’m pursuing bullet hell world records and the feeling I get every time I just fall short. But I’m putting myself out there – I put everything I have into these games. Maybe I will sometimes fall short, either through my own lack of skill or the cruelties of random number generators, but at least then I fail pushing my own limits as a twitch-reflex gamer or gaming tactician. If you can’t have a crushing defeat, so the wisdom goes, you can never know the true feeling of victory. I was denied it that day but I’ve had it in other games since, and I know before too long I’ll have a world record (or two) to put up on this blog.
To conclude, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Johan Huizinga. As painful (and surreal) as this experience was, this quote helped remind me that when one plays at any kind of serious level, you have to accept the possibility of loss, severe loss, and in the final reckoning this is really what play is. And that the only reason I was able to experience this kind of crushing event was because I’d managed to learn and study a game to a high enough level that enough was at stake for such a thing to happen, and put enough of myself into the game that something could hit me this hard. In hindsight I really have no regrets. The ride, ultimately, was worth it.
“There is something at stake” – the essence of play is contained in that phrase.
– Johan Huizinga