Friday, December 04, 2015

The Game Without the Game

Not get overly abstract here on a Friday afternoon, but I was mulling over this kind of half-formed idea this week and thought I’d share it before signing off for the weekend.

With poker -- and many other games and sports, for that matter -- you often hear references to the “game within the game.” You can think of specific examples of what I’m referring to; most of them will probably fall under the category of “metagame” considerations whereby players think in broader terms about setting up future plays, cultivating and then playing off of table images, and so on.

Certain recent discussions about poker and in particular the online game got me thinking about how poker itself operates as a “game within a game,” and that in some ways the “outer” or “contextual” game actually resembles poker itself. (I warned you I was going to become abstract.)

Online sites obviously want to attract and keep players, ideally encouraging a significant percentage of them to continue depositing the money which serves as a key element to the games themselves, and which importantly helps contribute to the rake taken from every cash game hand played and the fees charged for every real money tournament. The rake and those fees ensure that more money is lost than won overall, which thus helps ensure the rooms profit.

Theoretically speaking, it doesn’t have to be the case that more players lose than win. It could work out in such a way that a smaller percentage of players actually contribute most of the money that goes to the site -- that a higher percentage of players actually profit by playing.

But in practice that isn’t how it tends to go. I recall studies from several years back (during the “boom” years) pinpointing that in fact only something like 7% of online poker players tend to be profitable. Even if it were considerably more than that, it seems more likely than not that most who play do end up losing money they deposit rather than consistently profit and only withdraw. And that some percentage of those who lose are encouraged for various reasons to deposit again.

Stepping back from all of this, it’s hardly that insightful to point out that online poker sites are not unlike brick-and-mortar casinos where the effort to encourage gamblers to play games in which the players’ actually have a negative expectation. Some players will win at those games, some will lose, and in the end the casino will earn a profit. The same happens in poker, but the game’s skill element tends to influence who is doing the winning and who is doing the losing (more often than not).

Think for a moment of the pool of online poker players homogenously -- that is, as a single player rather than a bunch of individuals. As a group, they’re going to lose money and the room is going to profit. The more they play, the more they’ll lose and the more the room profits. The room, then, is trying to encourage this group -- this entity, if you will -- to do something that isn’t really in their interest (collectively speaking, that is).

As I say, it’s not that far removed from the way a casino tries to get players to play roulette, or a state tries to get its citizens to play the lottery.

There’s a “game,” then, going on between the sites and players, one that involves things like image, bluffing, “representing,” and other forms of indirect communication and/or deceit (depending on your point of view). The parallel from poker itself would be a player doing whatever is necessary to get an opponent to do what is not in that player’s self-interest -- e.g., checking or folding when holding better cards; calling, betting, or raising when holding worse cards.

Just something that occurred to me amid discussions of late about sites’ relationships to players, and the sometimes challenging to decipher “game without the game.”

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