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02/06/2006 No. 50
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Friday June 2, 2006
How to play poker
(How to play has been running from issue 16)

Poker is cruel. It's deceptive, aggressive, antisocial and expensive. Don't get me wrong; I love the game and many of its players. But (even in these days of social poker revolution and home games on Desperate Housewives) money is lost, pride is damaged, trickery prevails and individuality is all. Poker doesn't even have the partnership spirit of bridge, let alone the team spirit of football.

Recently I've been re-reading Jesse May's 1998 novel, Shut Up and Deal. One of my favourite things about May's wonderful book is its honesty about poker's brutal nature. He writes: "People always want to know what's going on, and what's going on is people are going broke." He writes: "There are no guys and there is no peer group, just a bunch of desperate lonely souls trying to make a few bucks for themselves by fucking over others." And don't get Jesse wrong; he loves poker too.

Home games can be even worse. There may be banter, laughs and pizza, but somebody will always get screwed over; and friendship can be compromised by the embarrassment of financial defeat. To paraphrase Woody Allen on sex: is poker horrible? It is if you're doing it right.

Tournament poker, which this column has discussed for the past few weeks, can sometimes seem like a healthier social option. Sure, it hurts to get knocked out - but you're only losing the fixed fee you paid in advance. In cash games, people can find themselves sliding helplessly down the greasy tunnel of uncontrolled loss. I saw this happen a few weeks ago to a charming old Chinese fellow who kept losing his sit-down money and buying more chips because he didn't want to go home.

I saw a flop with K8 and it came down 388. I bet; the Chinese guy raised; I re-raised; he went all in for his last £400. Could he have A8? Could he have 33? While I was thinking about it, he looked at me sorrowfully and said: "I'm losing thousands."

I had to call. He showed 87 and, failing to improve on later streets, found his pockets empty and was forced to go home.

I truly wished that I had folded. I was winning in the game. I didn't need his money. And I didn't need his plaintive, disappointed face fixed in my self-loathing mind. But compassion and pity are weaknesses in poker. And they are disrespectful weaknesses, too. Every adult has the right to put his money at risk and lose it.

But still. It is a cruel game.