Why Do We Play Poker? It’s Not to Make Money

An article I ran across recently in a respected magazine began with this:

"The object of poker is to win the most money. That's it - that is your goal. That's why you're playing poker."

Now, of course, this sentiment wasn't just discovered by this particular writer. If you flip through poker books, poker columns, videos, instructional tapes, blogs, you name it, you will see it repeated over and over again.

It has become a mantra, almost like a religious chant, assumed to be true and never challenged. Well, heretic that I am, I'd like to challenge it here because, frankly, it just isn't true.

The vast majority do not play poker to win the most money. In fact, the vast majority do not play poker to win money at all, let alone "the most."

Oh, don't get me wrong - we all like to win, hope we will win and surely anticipate doing so each time we buy chips. But you know, I don't really think that winning money is why so many millions play.

If It's Not Money, What Is It?

So, if it's not the money, what is it? I've been giving this a bit of thought lately and I've come up with five types of people who play poker with reasonable frequency.

Each has a different motivation for playing. You may not like this grouping. That's OK. It isn't meant to be definitive.

It's meant to point out that there are different kinds of poker players out there, with different psychological make-ups, and they're playing for a host of distinct reasons.

Glen Macdonald
For most, it's just fun.

1) I Play Poker for Fun

These folks play poker because they like to play poker. They usually play for relatively small stakes, usually Limit, but a few will venture into No-Limit games.

This category, I suspect (without having any hard data to back me up) represents the majority of poker players. I'd guess that somewhere around 65% or 75% of all players fall into this category.

Heck, it may be even higher. Not for a second do I think that these folks are there to win money.

They are there to have a good time, like those on the casino floor playing blackjack, baccarat or, more often, the slots. They win sometimes, but mostly they lose.

Even those who are a tad better than the others lose because, in the long run, the rake and the tips chew them up. But that's okay.

They view the experience like going out to a nightclub or for dinner. They expect to come home poorer in the pocket but richer in other, meaningful ways.

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2) The "Fun Plus a Bit of Ego" Player

Mike Halioua
For some it's fun plus ego.

These players share a lot with the first group, but there's an added element at work.

For them the game has a competitive edge to it. They appreciate that skill and hard work play a role and they understand, sometimes deeply, that they are only going to win if they study and pay attention.

I don't think these folks are really playing "for money" either. Again, winning is important but the money is just a marker of success.

When they win they feel good about themselves because they have managed to come out ahead of a game they know is tough to beat.

They can be found playing at all levels, from small stakes to the nosebleeds. They are also very much into having a good time and losses are not a problem if the experience was satisfying.

The majority of these players are almost certainly long-term losers. I would estimate that something like 15% or 20% of players fall into this group.

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3) The "Fun Plus a Little Spending Money" Player

This type is more serious about the financial element of the game. They have a clear goal: to be winning players - but not by much.

Tim Frazin
Some are more studious.

They recognize that to begin to think seriously about the money element would mean stepping up their game in myriad ways:

  • Seeking out weak games
  • Playing in a variety of rooms on different nights and at different times
  • Studying a wide range of material
  • Working constantly on strategic elements
  • Trying to stay abreast of the newest angles
  • Keeping careful records
  • Joining discussion groups

This is demanding stuff. For the most part, they have other jobs, families, hobbies and just don't really have the time, nor do they want to put in the effort.

Their goal is to beat the game, make a little extra cash but still have fun.

These are the ones who think that poker is the neatest possible pastime 'cause it's the only one that doesn't drill a hole in their pockets.

My guess is 4% to 6% of players are in this group.

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4) The "Semi-Pro" Poker Player

Phillip Sparta
Next stop: pro.

Now we're getting serious. These players are ones with a core income from some vocation but who need additional funds to make ends meet.

They are playing poker for the money. They study the game and learn every new trick and strategic play they can.

They may tell jokes and laugh at the table but they are always focusing on the game in front of them. They are aware of the impact of rakes and tokes.

They often tip less than average, avoid games with bad-beat jackpots, play in rooms and at online poker sites with smaller rakes and are careful about game selection.

I estimate that no more than 3% or 4% or so of those who routinely play poker fall into this category.

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Barry Greenstein
A small fraternity.

5) The Pro Poker Player

Here, the buzz line that we opened up with is utterly and overwhelmingly true.

This rather small fraternity (I'd put it at no more than 1% or 2% of all players) is comprised of those who make their entire living from poker.

That is what they do. No wins - no rent, no groceries.

Money is everything.

I'm friends with a number of people in this group and, you know what, they don't have as much fun at the game as many in the preceding categories.

Like they say, "it's a tough way to make an easy living."

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Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and co-author of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker DigestCasino PlayerStrictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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