01/08/2005

The Cost of Winning

Ashley Alterman 'The Poker Cynic'

The craze that's sweeping the developed (that's financially, not morally) world; everybody’s either doing it, watching it or writing about it. No longer is poker relegated to the seedy smoky backrooms filled with denizens of the underworld. Now it is presented as an exciting mental challenge for competitive spirits (also known as paying customers) everywhere.

In the UK, we already had a national gambling profile that makes most other activities seem like part time hobbies; Horse racing, Football pools, Bingo. Then came spread betting on sports and financial markets, the National Lottery, and now, in case there wasn't already a suitable outlet for your gambling needs - Poker. Poker is a game of skill so you don't have to worry about being a sick gambler, you can be a competitor instead. You don't even need to worry about winning, as long as you can afford your habit, the thrill of losing seems well worth the cost of the game. It’s the taking part that counts. No, Alistair Cambell is not working in the Poker Industry, but he would find it a lot easier than his last job if he was. Previously he had to deal with a sceptical public, who could spot the self interest of the government. In the world of poker he would benefit from an undiscriminating community that rarely looks beneath the surface, and is happy to accept every pill it is given as long there is a thin coating of sugar.

A friend told me recently how he had been called up by the makers of a show called The Poker Den. A six handed winner take all tournament with fast rising ante's, each competitor paying £8500 to enter, and the winner getting £50,000 approx (after tipping the dealers). When he asked what percentage of the money he would be able to keep if he won, he was assuming the programme makers would be paying part or all of his entry fee. The reply of course was, all of it, as they were expecting my friend to pay the full £8500 himself. His next question was, what’s my advantage in participating then? The answer was that most of the other players would be weaker, so it was a good opportunity to make money.

This may sound like a reasonable argument, but is of course absolute bollocks, and epitomises the nature of the Industry, and the general disregard that the "House" has for its customers.(I am now awaiting my invitation to play on The Poker Den at the programme makers expense, to show me how wrong I am)

Firstly, the edge you can have on other players in a six handed tournament of this type is very small. If you plan to play one every week, or if you normally play for £8500 in a session , then it is a good spot for your money, otherwise it is a way of increasing your stakes, and risking playing too big - a cardinal poker sin.

Secondly, and even more important, is the expectation by the programme makers, that not only will you be happy to let everyone see your cards with the under table cameras; you will be delighted with the concept, that you fund the TV programme, so they can sell advertising space, and the programme itself. Everybody wants to be on TV, so reality shows and chat shows have no problems finding audiences, and participants. In the world of televised poker, they make the participants pay for the privilege too. You could argue it serves them right, and we all get about what we deserve commercially, but I can’t help feeling some financial contribution from the TV people would be reasonable.

Outside of the televised games, the rest of the Industry is like a private poker game, where the house takes a 5% rake on each pot, usually with a maximum of £25 or so depending on the size of the game. In this scenario, there is one main regular winner, The House. 5% doesn't sound very high, but it is crippling. If the game lasts long enough, eventually most of the money will end up in the dealer’s box. Most people ignore the rake, using the argument that only winners pay, or that the cost is too small to consider.

The 7 to 10% charged for most tournaments makes it impossible for the vast majority to show a profit there either. Like the lottery there will be big winners every week, giving us all hope. Like the lottery it will be financed by the losers. This is understood in Poker, and is accepted, but only because we never get to see the full picture, as we are always right in the middle of it. If we had the vision to see what we pay in "tax" against what we win in the long term, our view of the game and its money making potential would be very different. I realise that most of you are happy just to be taking part, but some poker scum, as we are affectionately known, are always worried about the money. Everyone wants to win, but some of us also want to have more money than when we started. There's no pleasing some people.