Always a favorite hobby, poker has become something more to me now that I'm in my late seventies. It's the one competitive activity I can still do with men and women a third my age. Can't do it in sports -- in golf, the only sport I can still play without tearing myself apart, I have to use the senior tees. Can't do it professionally -- I'm retired from all that. Only in poker can I still sit down with 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds and match wits for hours in a contest whose criterion for success or failure is wonderfully clear: when I get up from the table, have I won their money, or have they won mine? All serious poker players know this is what finally counts.
But they also know they'll often lose. So much of the game depends on luck (I'd say about eighty percent) that everyone who regularly plays accepts losing as an unavoidable fact of poker life. For me, the key to managing loss is limiting how much I let myself lose in a single day -- two hundred bucks. This past weekend I was careless. On Friday, at the newly-opened poker room in Perryville, Maryland, I won $200, then came back Sunday and lost that $200 plus $200 more. I've kicked myself ever since for not quitting when that first $200 went missing.
On the other hand, if your cards are good you ought to take advantage of them as long as the run lasts and stop only when you're sure it's over. Two weeks ago during Easter weekend I played on Good Friday at the Delaware Park poker room, had an exceptional run, and quit when my winnings throttled back from over $700 to $600. Two days later, Easter Sunday, I played again, this time at Perryville, and by following the same plan came away with $400 more. The Perryville win doubtless helped me lose there this past weekend, encouraging me to overplay several hands I normally fold and to drop that Sunday $400. Winning can make you do that until losing clears your head and sobers you up. The only comfort I take from the Sunday loss is that it suggests my Easter win the weekend before was probably not the result of divine intervention.
Until the 1980s, when casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, I played only home-game poker. But Atlantic City gradually taught me to prefer casino poker, mainly because casino poker never leads to the wrangling, bullying, and other frictions home games sometimes do, especially when considerable money's at stake. At the casinos, play is overseen by expert referees, and quarrels over rules or etiquette are quickly settled. Of course playing with strangers carries its own risks, but on the whole I've found casino poker at least as friendly and pleasant as home poker.
It's different from almost all other kinds of casino gambling in that it pits the players at the table against each other rather than against the house. Unlike slot machines and table games like blackjack, craps, or roulette, a casino's only profit from poker come from a percentage skimmed from each pot, usually ten percent up to a maximum of $4, called the "rake." Since poker pots often amount to hundreds of dollars, this rake is regarded by all knowledgeable players as trivial. Over time it provides the house with a steady, risk-free income, but everyone knows that poker is a casino's least profitable form of gambling. No one begrudges the house its poker rake.
I play only cash games, as opposed to tournaments, because I find tournament poker too macho, feisty, and undisciplined, with way too much bluffing. In cash games, your chips have exactly the dollar value you pay for them. In effect, you're playing with real money rather than the funny-money used in tournaments, where your chips have little relation to what you pay to enter or what you get if you win. Nowadays, both tournament and cash-game poker is overwhelmingly played in the form of no-limit Texas holdem.
The rules of no-limit Texas holdem are simple. Each player's dealt two cards face down that determine a first round of betting. Then the dealer turns up three common cards in the middle of table called the "flop," followed by a second round of betting. A fourth common card, the "turn," and a third betting round follow, then a fifth common card, or "river," and a final betting round. Any player can at any point go "all in," meaning he or she can bet all the chips in front of them on the table, usually anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds. The so-called big and little "blinds," or antes, precede the dealer's button around the table, insuring that a different player begins the betting every hand and each pot contains some money.
For oldsters like me, an important side-benefit of casino no-limit poker is the mental and emotional self-control it demands. You have to calculate the fresh risks and variables you face with every new hand. Most of the players at a typical ten-player table are in their thirties or forties, and their mental sangfroid and quickness makes someone in his late seventies like me really sit up and take notice if he wants to keep his shirt. Since I'm prone to overplaying my cards, I have to fight the impulse to call or raise large bets with good but beatable hands. Risk lurks everywhere.
On the other hand, age has its advantages. Older players generally do fairly well, mainly because they tend to be more patient, risk-averse, and non-combative than their younger rivals. A surprisingly large number of septuagenarians and even octogenarians play casino poker almost every day, doubtless in part because they have the time, and many play well enough to make it modestly worth their while. I put myself in that category so long as I can resist the urge, for example, to overbet kings in the hole against an ace on the board.
Poker was for me an amusing and exciting recreation long before I thought my way through to philosophical materialism. It still is. But now it also squares well with the naturalistic, non-religious worldview I settled on when I became a materialist and an atheist thirty years ago.
At a deeply speculative level, I see poker's ordered randomness as mimicking the ordered randomness of material reality itself, which of course for a materialist is the only reality there is. A new deck of cards contains fifty-two spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs identically sequenced from one-or-fourteen value aces to thirteen-value kings. In poker this deck is mixed and shuffled before play begins, and certain cards are "burned" (removed from play) during every deal to assure the game remains as random as possible.
The material reality of our cosmos resembles a mixed and shuffled poker deck. It too has intrinsic, arbitray patternings like a card deck's thirteen-card sequences of four suits. But at the quantum level the patternings of material reality manifest themselves as randomly as the cards dealt from a shuffled deck. They're probabilistic rather than deterministic. For example, a holdem player with an ace and king of spades as his hole cards knows that, after a flop with a six and eight of spakes and an ace of diamonds, he has nine "outs," or chances, that a spade will come up on the turn and give him an all but unbeatable "nut" (i.e., ace-high) flush. He also has two more outs to get a third ace and three outs to get another king. In other words, with fourteen of fifty-two chances to improve an already strong hand, probability justifies his betting aggressively.
Atomic decay, wave-particle indeterminacy, and a host of other quantum-level phenomena exhibit the same random probability and are "bet" by nuclear scientists in a somewhat analogous way, although their deck of cards -- the sum total of all the subatomic particles in the cosmos -- is so much larger and more mathematically predictable than a deck of cards that quantum oddsmaking has proven to be the most successful in the history of science. Quantum mechanics is the surest scientific bet there is.
Yet like poker it too rests squarely on probabilistic chance. Furthermore, quantum indeterminacy suggests that some kind of material flux or chaos is the essence of ultimate Being, or what I term the All. If so, human thought and feeling should be seen as aberrations in an essentially inhuman material order. They appear to have randomly evolved out of the All's infinity of possiblilities, none of which is basically human. In other words, humanness is not a fundamental characteristic of ultimate reality and in no way survives the resubmersion in inorganic nature that we call death, even though human beings, like all other percipient organisms on earth, have an instinctive hatred and fear of death built into their viscera by evolution. With luck, our aversion to dying will help us survive long enough to reproduce. Without luck, we're apt to die at any moment.
Such chanciness is the stuff of human existence and of poker. Mortality resembles losing at poker because both seem so arbitrary and unfair to those who experience them. On the other hand, the joy of being alive or of winning an all-in pot can make the losses and frustrationsof life and of poker seem very worthwhile, at least temporarily.