Who Really Wins at Poker?

Every poker player is a winning poker player ... to hear them tell it. But how many of these players are telling the truth?

Winning. It's a drumbeat theme on Web sites and poker blogs and in chat rooms and discussion groups. I'm active on a couple of these and have invested a lot of time and energy on this topic.

My fellow poker junkies are a knowledgeable and successful gang. A good bit of what follows comes from our discussions, although the opinions expressed are mine.

I expect that not everyone will agree with me. If you take issue, leave a comment. There are few better ways to learn than by having legit, solid disagreements.

Who Wins at Poker?

First, the stakes being played for are critical. This feature so overwhelms all others that we need to break the discussion down into levels - where "level" refers to cash, not skill.

You can find excellent players at the lowest stakes and truly horrible players at the highest.

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Not a lot of winners down here.

Second, private house games are different from games in licensed cardrooms, live play is different from online poker play, and short-handed play is different from full-ring games.

For this essay, I'm restricting myself to ring games played live in a brick-and-mortar casino or cardroom with a dealer hired by the house.

The other settings have a host of basic differences that force a different kind of discussion - which we can have some other time.

The Limitations of Low-Limit Poker

Here I'm thinking of the lowest stakes routinely played, from the 50¢/$1 Texas Holdem Limit games (although games this small are rare), through the more frequently spread $1/$2 Limit, to the popular $2/$4 games.

An awful lot of folks play at this level of poker. I suspect that maybe as many as 80% to 85% of all regular poker players never venture above it.

There aren't any No-Limit games spread these days that, in my mind, qualify. The least costly that's commonly found is $1/$2 with a maximum buy-in of $100, which is certainly not at the "lowest" level.

I am quite certain that, among these legions of regulars, there are no long-term winners. None, ningunos, net, keine.

This game essentially cannot be beaten on anything like a long-term basis. The problem is the natural variation in the game (i.e., "luck"), plus a host of other factors.

These include the rake - usually between $3 and $5 (although some rooms are now raking $6) per hand - the dealer's toke and, as is often the case in these lower-limit games, a "bad beat" jackpot.

Combined, these costs mean that up to $8 is taken out of every pot. In a $1/$2 game this amounts to 4BBs an hour.

Winning 1 or 2 BB/hour under these conditions would be a glorious but essentially unreachable goal and, even if you were sufficiently skilled to pull this off, the gas, food and waitress tokes will flatline you.

These lowest-level games are for recreational players only. If you play here and are only losing a little, which I interpret as 1SB an hour or less, you should be very pleased with yourself and happy.

You're having a great time playing a fabulous game with friends and compatriots, and it's costing you less than dinner at a decent restaurant or a movie for two at the local Cineplex.

Life is good.

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Low to Mid-Stakes: The Five Percenters

Here I include Limit games from $4/$8 up to $10/$20 or perhaps $15/$30, and No-Limit games with blinds of $1/$2 provided that the maximum buy-in is no more than $200.

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Rare creature.

At these levels it is possible to be a long-term, consistent winner, but it is a tough row to hoe. As in the above games, the rake, tokes and bad beat jackpots present a nearly insurmountable barrier.

It's difficult to see how one can play with +Expected Value at this level. My guess is that fewer than 5% of the people who routinely play at these levels in legitimate cardrooms are making money.

Yes, a few whose skills are near to top of the game, with good bankroll management and nonexistent tilt factor, are clearing 1 or perhaps 2BB a hour. But they are rare creatures.

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Mid- to Semi-High Levels: The True Pros Emerge

These games run from $20/$40 to $80/$160 Limit and $ 2/$5 to $10/$20 No-Limit.

At these levels, things change. My estimate is that between 10% or 15% of regulars in these games are long-term winners (it could be a tad more; it's hard to tell).

The impact of the rake is lessened at these stakes, but the critical factor is that it is at this level that you first find regular "contributors" - folks with a lot of money and a lot of gamble in 'em.

Regular gamblers who routinely shoot craps with black chips and play blackjack with purples like to play poker too, but they don't get any zip out of playing at lower levels.

They are rarely sufficiently skilled to present much of a problem to the experts and, as a result, provide the profit margin. Not surprisingly, it's at this level that the true poker professional first shows up.

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High Stakes Poker: Preying on the Rich

I'm counting as high stakes anything above the previous levels. Here, things shift once more. My educated guess is that well over half of the players are longtime winners.

As with the preceding category, this is mainly because they feed off a (smaller but reliable) stable of well-heeled contributors. There are a lot of millionaires who love action - you would likely recognize some of their names.

They are often good players and might do well at lower levels, but prefer to play with the very best. Without these folks, the top players would just move money around and around the table.

A common guesstimate is that only about 5% of all regular players are long-term winners. This is probably correct, but you need to appreciate that these players are distributed unevenly throughout the levels at which poker is played.

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