We’re breaking the first rule of Fight Club. Bluff Europe now has its very own Poker Academy, ever more training sites are springing up on the web, and there is now an established profession of “poker coach”. Opportunities to improve your game have never been so prevalent.
Old timers grumbled if you discussed poker strategy out loud at the table. An earlier Pickleman article exhorted players not to “feed the fish”. At the time, I thought that if you did so, the fishy players would quickly discover that poker is actually a skill game, start learning about it, and before you could say “donkament” there’d be no more fish left in the world. On further reflection, this is nonsense.
Yes, increased knowledge among poker players will make the money tougher to get, of that there is no doubt. But is it educating the fish that has caused the games to get tougher over the years? No.
For one thing, the average fish is happy in his ignorance: he’s come here to play, to blow some cash, to show you some bluffs and make himself feel superior. You know the type of person I mean – certain players’ very view of themselves and their play is their downfall. In that sense, the fishy-factor of the pond you are swimming in has nothing to do with the information content, it’s more to do with how comfortable it is for the fish. So one of my observations from that previous article still holds: castigating fish for bad play is heinous – it makes them stop enjoying their experience and leave.
The more important reason fish leave requires a thought experiment. Let’s imagine we have a poker environment (like an ecosystem) which is in equilibrium. In it we have a number of sharks and fish evolving in perfect harmony. There aren’t too many sharks, so the fish regenerate at a rate such that they don’t go extinct, and the existing number of sharks don’t go hungry and die.
Now let’s simulate the effect of the internet boom on this ecosystem. All of a sudden the pool gets much bigger, and perhaps to extend the metaphor, much warmer, more pleasant and with a lot more plankton to feed the little fishes (rakeback, sign-up bonuses, playing from the comfort of your own home, etc.). In other words, the environment gets a lot better for the fish, so they proliferate.
What happens next? Just as the environment becomes more pleasant for the fish, so it becomes more welcoming for the sharks. The sharks numbers don’t increase from fish being fed and growing into sharks – most players who are money-making are not former hopeless players who are reformed characters. Far from it, the sharks come from elsewhere.
So where did they come from? Before the internet boom, nice middle class boys and girls who would otherwise be accountants and office managers didn’t really play poker. The prejudice that existed outside the game kept them at bay. Then, the sudden ease of access, combined with the high-profile TV coverage gave poker mass appeal, and more importantly, legitimacy. Poker players were no longer degenerates. Poker rooms were no longer iniquitous.
Under these conditions, in our model, the shark numbers increase such that the fish begin to get dangerously depleted. This mirrors the real evolution of the game over the last decade or so: games were soft but relatively hard to come by back in the day, then they became soft and abundant, then they became abundant but tougher to beat.
Of course, being an ecosystem, the thing will self-correct. If there aren’t enough fish to feed the sharks, the nice middle class boys and girls will have to swim back off and become accountants and office managers again.
Meanwhile, education in poker does continue to have a negative effect on everyone’s hourly rate. However, it is not educating the fish which is reducing their numbers. That’s just a natural corollary of the changes which made poker more accessible and much more lucrative a career path for those who would not otherwise have ended up “poker degenerates”.
In an interview about his new venture, Black Belt Poker, Neil Channing lamented the lack of interaction between poker players in terms of discussing and analysing hands. Rather than keeping people ignorant, he wants to improve people’s play. Of course, at the Bluff Europe Poker Academy, we’re trying to do the same thing.
In other words, we’ve evolved away from the notion that poker is a clandestine club where all those on the inside shush those who would let our secret out. As I said last month, perhaps poker is best considered now as a sport, with much of the money coming from spectatorship and corporate tie-ins, and many of the professionals within supported by money from coaching and earnings around the sport, rather than from the sport itself (not dissimilar to golf or tennis).
Just as Tottenham learned to their horror that what might have clinched Man United the cup was an ipod full of their penalty-taking tendencies – so the future poker stars might well have to be fervent students of the game to reap major success. In that sense, the explosion of education in poker is not only inevitable, but welcome.