April 15, 2010

The Absurdity of Poker

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

—Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"

Once upon a time, I was a philosophy major, spending my days thinking deep thoughts (my nights were mostly spent drinking beer with friends at the recently closed West End Lounge, thinking less than deep thoughts).  Strangely, when I read my friend Poker Grump's post today, one of those deeply buried philosophy neurons fired across a synapse that escaped those college Jagermeister shots:

Last night I played there [Excalibur]--for the first time in six months--for 5 1/2 hours. The best hand I made was two pair. No trips, no straights, no flushes, no full houses. I had two pair twice, never even top two, winning with it once, losing to a straight the other time. As for starting hands, the only big pair I ever had was K-K, and of course that lost to A-Q when an ace flopped.

I don't even know how one might begin to calculate the odds of that sort of run of near-nothingness, but it seems astronomically improbable.

There's really no way to describe to a non-poker player the feeling of incredible frustration that can build up when you are folding junk hand after junk hand, and when you do get a hand, you either miss the flop or you flop a draw that doesn't get there.  There's a reason poker players refer to "grinding" when talking about long poker sessions, and why they talk about being "card dead" when faced with Poker Grump's situation.

I recently did some random calculating when I was in a card dead slump of my own.  Let's say I average five eight-hour sessions per month (40 hours/month, or 480 hours/year), and four Vegas trips where I average fifty hours per trip (200 hours/year).  Just to be safe, let's round it up to 750 hours a year spent playing poker.  Now, let's assume I see an average of 30-35 hands per hour, which means I probably see roughly 24,000 hands of poker every year, or 2,000 hands per month. So, using the odds for hitting various poker hands, I should expect to see roughly the following hands during the course of a "typical" month:

  • Pocket Aces:  9 times, and one set of aces.
  • Pocket Kings:  9 times, and an ace will flop 2 of those times
  • Pocket Yaks:  9 times, and an overcard will flop 5 of those times (and Yaks will lose every time)
  • Pocket pairs: 118
  • Flopped sets or better (assuming all pocket pairs see the flop): 14
  • Sooooted cards:  480 times
  • Playable sooooted cards:  160 times (estimated; your mileage may vary)
  • Flopped flushes:  4
  • Flopped flush draws:  17
  • Made flushes:  10

The numbers don't lie—poker is going to be a Sisyphean task most sessions.  So why bother playing?  Why go through the tedium, not to mention the agony when your rare good hands lose?  To me, poker is is rewarding precisely because it is a struggle—a struggle to improve your skills, a struggle to beat good opponents, a struggle against your own emotions and doubts, and yes, sometimes, a struggle against Fate itself.  Sitting down at a poker table, winning hand after hand, session after session, might be every poker player's dream, but in reality no player would ever enjoy the game of poker if it were so easy.  Card death, missed flops, bad beats, and suckouts are certainly agonizing, but they make the hot streaks, well-timed bluffs, hero calls, and monster pots all the sweeter.  To enjoy poker, one must suffer.

All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.

—Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"

For better or worse, poker is my thing.  Because I love the game, I must learn to love the boredom and the painful losses that are part of the game.  Of course, I don't wish too much poker suffering for myself or my poker friends!  As for Poker Grump, when he finally breaks out of this card death slump, I hope he takes the opportunity to rebrand himself as "Poker Zombie" ("Poker Jesus" probably risks a trademark lawsuit or a playing card thrown through the carotid artery).


  1. I think I've been eternally card dead when playing in brick and mortar rooms, but love the breakdown. My problem, since I play very little is continuing to fold it.

  2. And as Camus noted, "we must imagine Sisyphus [Grange, PokerGrump, et al] happy."

  3. Well, a day after this post went up, my buddy Poker Grump posted this on his blog: Poker Grump: Fed up.

    Grump has clearly hit a bad patch of variance, and let's be honest, we've all had points where we've thought about giving up the game. Heck, we probably all know people who have actually walked away. Anyway, my post wasn't intended to be a glib way to say "suck it up". If Grump, or any poker player, gets to the point where the game is no fun, is always a grind, then for their own sanity I hope they walk away and find a new endeavor that brings them happiness.

    As for Grump, I hope he takes a short break, reevaluates his game, and comes back strong, both in the game and on his blog. But if not, I wish my friend success and happiness in whatever new challenges he undertakes.