As usually happens with these articles that try to summarize a discipline-specific study for a wide audience, the USA Today piece boils Siler’s article down to one simple, easy-to-digest claim, essentially announcing that it shows “Poker wins often lead to bigger losses.” In other words, the USA Today article makes it sounds as though Siler’s exhaustive study of a large sample of online poker hands proves that players who win a little tend to lose it back and then some -- confirming, in a way, the fears of those who object to poker and/or gambling as an inevitable road to ruin, regardless of one’s short-term successes.
The USA Today article is accompanied by a picture of 2009 World Series of Poker champion Joe Cada, who does not actually figure in the piece. I suppose there could be some implication here being advanced about the possibility of Cada’s not holding onto his winnings, but I think it more likely this was the first available poker-related photo that came up following a quick search.
I was curious to read the study, especially because the way it was presented in the USA Today article seemed more than a little sketchy. Took a little bit of work to get a look at it, but I did manage get a copy and have now read it through.
Siler speaks knowledgeably of poker and the online game, and as far as I can tell seems to be operating within accepted expectations for sociological research and argumentation. He also shows an understanding of economic theory and applies some of those ideas when appropriate. Siler additionally brings in many references to “poker literature” -- both to strategy texts and to narratives -- which help ground the study within conversations about theory and practice with which we poker players who have read those books are versed. Those references to people like Sklansky, Caro, Harrington, Brunson, and others also make the article more fun for poker players to read than probably would be the case with most dry, academic treatises.
All in all, I think Siler’s article is smart and interesting, and while its findings mostly confirm ideas we already had about what strategies are most successful his study is nonetheless useful for its having found support for those ideas in the data. I also think it is obvious that the USA Today writer probably only skimmed the study, coming away with a vague, uncertain understanding of its findings.
Here, let me take a shot at summarizing this sucker a little more carefully...
“Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker” by Kyle Siler appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies. Using Poker Tracker, Siler examines roughly 26.9 million hands of online poker played over a five-month period at different stakes in order to try to determine “which strategies are conducive to winning at these different levels,” and therefore perhaps draw some conclusions about the “social and psychological challenges” the game presents. The game on which Siler focuses is short-handed (6-max.) no-limit hold’em, and the hands he’s looking at come from games played at NL50, NL200, and NL1000. In all, he was able to gather and analyze stats on around 295,000 different players.
After crunching the numbers with Poker Tracker, Siler reaches a few conclusions which he does a good job explaining, also using charts and graphs to help him further illustrate what he has found. Those conclusions include his having discovered that
It is this last item that I think caused the USA Today writer to stumble a bit. The point there is that in no-limit hold’em winning a lot of pots doesn’t mean one wins a lot of money, and, in fact, when one looks at millions of hands like Siler did, one discovers that the big winners tend to win fewer (though bigger) pots relative to the rest of the player pool. That correlates with the first finding, namely, that the tight-aggressive strategy has the best return.
“tight and aggressive strategies have the best return across all levels”; one finds “an increased proportion of aggressive players as one moves up stakes,” where also “the number of passive players decreases”; there is an “overrepresentation of loose and aggressive players” among the biggest winners and the biggest losers at all stakes; “None of the biggest winners at any of the levels were even close to being in the top hundred win rates,” having made their money via higher volume (the “grinders”); “a high win percentage (i.e. the percentage of total hands won by a player) is negatively correlated with win rate.”
The USA Today writer took that point and mangled it into a declaration that “players who played a lot of hands and often won ended up losing more money than others.” He then quotes from Siler’s study in a way that makes it sound like Siler is agreeing with that somewhat vague claim, but he’s misrepresented Siler’s findings.
Siler does conclude the study with some thoughts about how moving up in stakes presents players with new challenges, and does a nifty job relating how the stress of adapting one’s style -- necessary to succeeding at the higher levels -- presents especially difficult “social and psychological challenges” to poker players. He ends with the point that “the biggest opponent for many players is themselves,” an idea familiar to any poker player who has struggled to improve his or her game.
Like I say, a smart study that I recommend if you can somehow get access to a copy. And I’m sorry to see it somewhat misrepresented in USA Today the way it was -- that is, as seeming uncritically to confirm fears about poker as just another unhealthy avenue to degeneracy and self-destruction -- and thereby soliciting further misinformed, unrelated comments like “this is the reason why the house always win[s]” and “that is why they call it gambling.”