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Evolution of Poker: Predator or Prey

“It sure was easier to make money during the glory days of poker”

English: Chris Moneymaker at the 2006 World Se...

Chris Moneymaker at the 2006 World Series of Poker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This era of the “glory days” refers to the early years following the Chris Moneymaker 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event championship win. What occurred in unlikely and near miraculous circumstances is an amateur hobby player, whom was an accountant by profession, parlayed a $39 satellite tournament win at online poker site PokerStars into a $2.5 million dollar pay day in 2003 at the world’s largest stage. As a result this publicity provided the catalyst for tremendous growth in poker and especially online poker, because it validated the thesis that anybody could potentially win poker’s most coveted prize and that it was no longer regulated to professional poker players only. In fact, this era was even coined “The Moneymaker Effect”.

During the post-2003 boom many new, casual players entered the field and most of them did not understand even the most basic fundamentals or strategies for achieving solid, winning poker. The result was huge profit growth in the incomes of experienced veterans, also known as “sharks”, and even any player who developed an aggressive betting strategy likely did extremely well with regards to profitability. The bulk of the new players, who were relatively clueless about winning poker fundamentals, ended up losing their money and are referred to as “fish” in reference to the analogy of them being prey to be devoured by the stronger predators.

But what naturally occurred through evolution and was rapidly faciliated by the Internet was the explosive growth of teaching and instructional books, tools, blogs, and videos that focused on mentoring and coaching to improve one’s poker game. Fast forward one decade later and what you will find is that the majority of players at any poker game are extremely likely to understand basic poker concepts and fundamentals at the minimum. The net effect is that the pool of weak players in poker has shrunk significantly and the reality is that most players actually exhibit a much stronger level of competence relative to the 2003-2005 period.

That explains why it so common to hear many players complain about lower profitability or how difficult the games have become lately or in the extreme case, turned into a losing player after many consecutive years of being profitable. Thus, the field has degenerated into one of scarcity where the majority of players actively seek out weaker competition by intentional table selection or they might decline to even sit down and play a game that is populated by experienced regulars.

If poker could be considered a sport then it likely is the only one where the majority of its players actively seek to play against weaker competition instead of striving to improve by playing against tougher competition. That one underlying theory, if everyone actually adopts such a strategy, results in a doomed future for poker and specifically the future livelihood of those players that actively seek to play against bad players. There are numerous reasons to justify this premise with the most glaring example being the failure to improve your skills as a player if you never play against good or great opponents.

The sporting analogy would be the college student who intentionally remains at Bantam hockey (if it was even allowed) and is more skilled and stronger than his peers and scores multiple goals in every single game that he plays. Could you even begin to imagine the ego of such a player at the end of every hockey season? He must think he is the next Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby in waiting! And how can one argue with the results if he compiles statistics such as 200 points in 40 games played. But the bottom line is that he unlikely improves his skills or compete level and never develops as a player because success comes too easily and naturally playing against weaker competition. Contrast that with the winning poker player who wins thousands of dollars by selective “bum hunting” at his poker games. Such a poker player also never learns anything by playing against bad players.

Now as alluded to previously, the trend in poker is a rapidly growing knowledge and sophistication among poker players including even the new players that can now get up to speed on winning poker tactics and strategies with the many resources available. Poker players who previously delighted in preying on the “weak fish” will likely find fewer appetizers available. The inevitable outcome is that those players who do not adapt and change their overall philosophy into one of actively seeking higher level competition will end up becoming either the prey, or worse, extinct like a dinosaur.

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  • Alex

    Nice article Steve. Don’t forget to mention that the rake has a large impact on the games and combined with the zero-sum game mentality, fish have absolutely no chance these days on even low stake games.

  • Gary

    Good read but I must a make a point that although seeking to become better by playing better opponents is a natural progression, the number 1 goal is always to make the most money. If that happens to be always playing in the weakest fields/tables/tournies, then so be it. Another thing is to not worry about the dreaded “no more fish” theory. Yes, there are much less fish now than before (in all forms), but I am confident there will always still be many. This is evident in any casino I go to, and even online. Of course not as lucrative as it once was, but there will always be enough fish simply because most people are dumb. Thank god for that.

    • Ivan Y

      I agree with Gary that the bottom line in poker is to win money…whether it’s a cash game or a tournament… you gotta try to play against weaker opponents to give yourself the edge. I definitely agree with the article that there are fewer fishes now than ever (especially online), but they are still around. It’s survival of the fittest. You have to be willing to improve and learn.

    • Steve Tang

      One thing I neglected to mention in the article that also touches along the Internet theme is that new and inexperienced players are now able to play many hands of poker in a very compressed time frame due to online poker. That is also another reason why so many new players do not remain at a complete novice level for too long and become quite experienced even after just several months. It would have never been anything like that even possible in the distant past.Sure, there will always be the odd bad player regardless if he was just a table games gambler relaxing for a moment with poker, or the drunk dude who just finished clubbing, or the middle aged guy who just likes to play to socialize. Such types of “fish” will always exist, but make no mistake in that the trend is rapidly escalating towards significantly less weaker players in future games.Gary and Ivan, you both sound like professional “bum hunters” 😉