How to get rich playing poker, part 1: The Matthew Effect

How to get rich playing poker, part 1: The Matthew Effect

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A regular reader of my column might accuse me of cynicism. I’m always banging on about how there’s more luck in poker than most people realise, and that everyone should get a bit less carried away with a good string of results. Well, I’m changing tack this month. This time, I’ll tell you the easy way to get rich playing poker.

This is especially relevant right now because poker is a bit in the doldrums. There are a lot of people out there scrimping and searching for some value, and there’s not a lot to be had. However, plans are afoot, regulators are in discussion, and it shouldn’t be long before we hit our second boom. At that point, there will be plenty of marketing dollars ready to be spent on those people in the right place with the right attitude.

Before I do that, I want to tell you about the other way to get rich playing poker. It’s only fair – I’m promising to tell you how to do it the easy way, so at least listen to me bang on one last time about the hard way.

The hard way is called “grinding”. It’s what John Turturro’s character does in the film Rounders. While Matt Damon’s character takes his entire bankroll and uses it to play heads up for the highest stakes possible against the most feared player in town (and promptly loses it with A-9 versus A-A on an A-9-9 board; OMG, FML, etc., etc.), boring old Joey Knish just plays the games he can beat.

The hard way means that when you finally get the bankroll and skills to go up a level, you take a shot at the next level with an amount which, even if you blow the lot, means you’ll still have enough left to grind another bankroll back up at the lower level. It means playing the higher levels for months, possibly years at break even before you have the skills, courage and bankroll to stay there. Then repeat the process for the next level up. All the while taking money out of your bankroll to live on.

Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? OK, so on to the easy way. Phase one is to get incredibly lucky. The most common way to do this is to win one, but more often these days, two or three quite high-profile live tournaments. But that’s only phase one. Phase two is where you exploit the luck you’ve had, and that’s where the real skill lies. What you’re aiming for here is somehow to be paid to play poker – either through sponsorship by a website, appearing on the TV poker shows, or otherwise being bought into tournaments. That way, regardless of whether you win or lose, you’re still a winner. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the people who really made money out of the Gold Rush were those selling the picks and the shovels; the people who consistently make money out of the stock market are those trading the shares – who make a commission whether the market goes up or down.

Before you start worrying about being caught out as a charlatan, remember that the long run is long enough in poker that it is very hard to identify a run of bad live tournament results as bad play rather than bad luck – even if the run lasts a year or so. In that sense you’re protected, so the only people you have to convince that you are value for your salary are the people funding your buy-ins. And remember that this “value” might necessarily not derive from how good a poker player you are (take for example, Shannon Elizabeth).

But that’s not all. The really clever bit is that, in tournaments at least, neither the TV shows, nor the magazines or the online databases such as The Hendon Mob, record how much you lose, only how much you win. Hence, if you’re constantly bought into events, over time you will get some wins in these more high profile tournaments and thereby justify your selection as a high profile player. The name for this phenomenon is the “Matthew Effect”, and it’s been known about since biblical times:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
Matthew, 25:29

In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The Matthew Effect has been observed in plenty of different areas. In academia, for example, eminent scientists will often get more credit than an unknown researcher for their work in exactly the same field. Film directors who have had one big hit are more likely to have a huge following to see their next films and are thus more likely to get big bucks to fund them. Bigger bucks mean a bigger marketing budget and a better polish on the final product (probably better actors and maybe even a better script), all of which will contribute to the director’s continued success.

The Matthew Effect is easy to see in the poker world. Take the WSOP Main Event as an example. Each year, one of the thousands of entrants will be catapulted to poker stardom. However arbitrary the selection of that person is (it’s a last person standing tournament: someone has to win), they will get a seven-figure sponsorship deal, travel the world giving interviews, be entered into TV poker shows and generally live the poker highlife – all courtesy of the Matthew Effect.

Can one deliberately pursue this goal? Well, yes and no. Notice that phase one is to get lucky. Of course you cannot do this intentionally, but maybe you can put yourself in situations where good luck may count and common sense might help here. Although winning the Main Event would be a certified ticket to poker stardom, putting $10k down on a 7,000 to 1 shot when your normal hourly rate is $50 might not be a wise investment. We’re back here to boring old Joey Knish again.

We’ve discussed the “what” of the Matthew Effect. How to capitalise on it is another subject entirely – so I’ll come back to it next month. Until then, good luck with that grinding.

Tags: Pickelman, Strategy