Ten Reasons to Play in Your Local Poker Tournament

“Holdem” by Todd Klassy (Credit: Wikimedia)

In the past, I associated poker with gambling in what my mother called “Dens of Iniquity.” Still, gambling never held much interest–I can think of a million better ways to spend several hundred dollars than losing it to chance. However, after I began playing in a local tournament at Studio A64 in Colorado Springs, I’ve developed a different perspective on this American tradition. As a game, poker truly uses a wide range of skills often necessary or at least extremely useful for the modern mind to develop. Poker players concur that it trains life skills. Here’s ten reasons why we all should play in our local poker tournaments.

1. Learn psychology and sociology in a real-world setting. As much a part of poker as any psychology or sociology text book, human interactions and behaviors create tension in any poker game, and every player watches his or her peers for signs and tells. Poker’s gameplay relies heavily on listening to and watching others as a factor for determining one’s own bets, and so it’s a great place to see current theories in action. Even without the book-learning, those who play poker often can develop their skills of discernment.

2. Experiencing and generating empathy and understanding for others. Poker has often been called a “people game played with cards.” Poker requires players to read others and make decisions taking their peers’ reactions into consideration. To be a good player, you’ve got to be able to think of the table from the other players’ perspectives. Poker requires players to gather intelligence on others based on how they play the game. If Billy get’s a good hand, does he bet hard and fast? When he has a bad hand, is he betting the same? How does Joe react to his hand when he first sees it and then folds? Any poker player would tell you that figuring out the rest of the table, how they play, think and bet, is extremely important, and reading people is a skill that can be translated into nearly any situation and still be useful.

3. Developing strategic planning skills. Not only do players need to pay attention to their peers, but they need to be cognizant of their own strategic abilities when betting. For instance, the big blind, little blind, and dealer positions move continuously as the game progresses, allowing players to move to a more strategically dominant position for some hands but not others. When used correctly, players can make larger, more meaningful bets at key times to win more money. Players can also choose to withdraw during times when they have the strategic advantage to save money for a better hand.

4. Having fun. Poker is fun, and having fun is good for us–making time for play can improve one’s well-being. According to the National Institute for Play, having fun and playing games is the best preventative measure one can take to avoid stress-related diseases like heart disease, mental health issues, addiction, and interpersonal or relationship issues. Of course, poker isn’t a cure all, but a few games of poker can relieve stresses after a hard day of work, especially when there’s no real money on the line.

5. Getting comfortable with competition. In our culture, competition is often painted as something undesirable or “wrong,” and we often try to suppress these emotions. However, when we don’t allow ourselves to experience competitive feelings or try to ignore them, we can create cynicism and other negative emotions as an unintended by-product. Poker is by definition a competition, so it can operate as a method to explore our competitive sides in a safe space and context. Often, such practice can allow us to be more comfortable with such feelings in our day-to-day lives.

6. Practicing emotional self-control. While the game is essentially about getting the right cards, the ability to control that thousand-dollar smile when dealt a pair of aces is actually pretty difficult. Even more difficult is pretending to be excited about a pair of twos and actually seeming genuine. The goal is to reach that “poker face,” a space from which no visible emotional reaction seems evident, or to generate emotions on cue to bluff the way into big winnings. Many poker players testify that a calm mind before a poker game will allow the player to think more efficiently during stressful situations and to play longer. This skill can be applied to any situation outside the poker table and help us reflect on our own emotional reactions and handle them when experienced.

7. Dealing with deception. No matter how good we might think we are at reading people, eventually, everyone meets someone who can bluff them under the table. Lying is part of the game, and the final truth may create interesting emotional responses. Often, first time or inexperienced players may get angry when they are tricked. However, everyone understands its all part of the game, so there’s a lot of social pressure to play it cool.

8. Avoiding taking it personally. Poker can expose us to often intense emotional reactions when getting bluffed, outdrawn or sandbagged. Heck, even losing can bring up weird emotional responses, even when playing a local tournament where no real money is on the line. Either way, there’s supposed to be bluffing and other shenanigans going on in poker games, so it’s really not wise to be a sore loser or get all worked up about the game. Whether you win or lose, someone at the table is walking away with all the money, and the rest are all losing. It’s understood in the rules, so players have to find other methods to deal with their emotional reactions to losing and being suckered into believing Jenny has a royal flush.

9. Using math and probability theory in real life. Poker actually forces players who want to play for longer than a few rounds to use math. Players learn how to quickly calculate something called “pot odds,” or how much the player can win versus how much he or she might lose. They also learn to quickly calculate the likelihood of winning and whether the risk is worth the possible payout and make distinctions between 30%, 20%, and 10% probabilities.  Apparently, a dedicated poker player can actually learn the equivalent of a college level statistics course through regular gameplay.

10. Getting an experiential education. Many of us learn best by this kind of participatory process, which some have termed the “school of hard knocks.” Experiencing statistics, psychology, sociology, and the myriad other things one can learn from poker may be a great way to learn. According to Cyril Houle, Professor of Adult Education at the University of Chicago, such learning is an “education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life.” Because we sit across from our peers and spend the entire game trying to figure them out, we’re directly experiencing all sorts of great learning moments.

Poker teaches some truly invaluable lessons, and gambling with real money doesn’t actually need to be involved in the experience. Its a game that can be taught and understood fairly easily while still challenging enough to satisfy even the stuffiest intellectual. The beneficial effects of learning poker far outweigh the negative–some players even suggest teaching it to kids for the reasons listed above among many more. Personally, I concur. I wish that my math teachers in middle and high school classes could have broken out a pack of cards to demonstrate math concepts in action. That lesson would have been a lesson worth some serious attention.