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20/01/2006 No.31
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Friday January 20, 2006
How to play poker
(How to play has been running from issue 16)

A sceptical reader from Glamorgan has emailed to ask: "How can anybody with any sense bet real money in a card game where skill is minimal and sheer luck is at a premium? It's not unusual for a player who starts with a nothing hand to beat a player with a good hand, simply because the common cards go his way."

This follows neatly from what I was explaining last week about "fast structures" in televised poker tournaments. It is these structures (small chip stacks and big blinds, encouraging players to go "all in" before the flop) that have given poker a reputation as a game where "sheer luck is at a premium". And not just on TV - the craze for tournament poker has seen small competitions springing up around the country, which are conducted at fast speeds because the organisers don't want people cluttering up their club or casino (or home) for too many hours.
When two players are all in before the flop, with five communal cards to come, no single hand is a huge favourite over another. In a cash game or slowly structured tournament, a professional would rarely commit all his chips at this stage. When three or four communal cards have come down, a good player is much better placed to consider the strength of his hand, and how likely he is to win. He will also consider the history of the betting, and what his opponent might therefore be holding. He will think about what types of hands this opponent likes to play. He will work out whether he can make somebody put the best hand down, or pay more money with the worst hand. And he will bet an amount which is finely calculated to achieve one of these objectives.

Luck is still a factor, of course. But, in a structure that gives space for "hand narrative" to develop, there is skilful calculation. If you want to play real and thoughtful poker, look for slow structures or cash games. Conversely, if you find yourself playing against people who are better than you, just stick it all in before the flop, and take their edge away.