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How Did Poker Get So Hard?

Anyone who has been playing poker for more than a decade knows just how much more difficult the game has become to beat. What happened?

Photo: iStock

On its surface, the game seems the exact same. The rules are the same. The cards are the same.

But, compared to the poker boom of the early 2000s, right after Moneymaker won the World Series and everyone was getting in on the action, the game has evolved in so many ways—and, depending on who you ask, it hasn’t always been for the best.

Psychology takes a back seat

Back in the day, psychology was a key element of poker strategy. Getting a read on your opponent, sizing them up, and maintaining your own poker face was essential. Sure, those are still important parts of the game, but these days intuition seems to have largely been replaced by math.

The days of being able to coast by on pure skill and people reading alone are gone. Now, we live in the age of game theory optimal (GTO) play. Solver software is basically a prerequisite. If you don’t study the game, you’re going to have a very difficult time competing.

The upshot is that today’s poker stars are a lot more like data scientists than the cowboys of yore. A lot of people still dream about and glamorize the big bluff, accompanied by equally entertaining and convincing table talk, but today’s bluffs are a lot more about statistical number crunching than soul reads.

Feeding on fish

There’s not nearly as much easy chips to be scooped up, which means that, when a casual, recreational gambler does sit down at the table, it can quickly become a feeding frenzy.

The regulars, especially the ones who are barely eking out a living at the card table, smell blood.

They’re afraid to tussle with each other too much, but, if they just sit there and pick up the loose change by playing a strong range and prioritizing position and initiative, they’ll come out ahead.

However, without going to war, without really putting in the effort to improve every day and study the math with the same fervor as an applied mathematics PhD candidate, they’ll never be able to climb the ranks to the big stakes.

At this point, playing good poker is only a survival strategy.

Fun game or serious career?

At the end of the day, the tension between fun pastime and serious career is one of the biggest paradoxes of modern-day poker. Sure, it’s great fun to sit down with your buddies around the poker table or on your favorite poker app, and to do so you don’t need to study math all day every day.

The problem is when you want to take it to the next level, when you want to make a run at a big tournament or move up the stakes. Many of the best poker players still have a passion for the game, but ultimately they see it as a serious career and treat it accordingly.

That’s why poker is so hard these days.


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