What Social Factors Affect Success at the Poker Table?

How many of us have gone through one too many bad beats and ended up at home, perhaps miserable, desperate for the tricks of the trade? How many of us have said, at one point or another, that some poker players are better than others because they are younger, older, men, women, experienced, aggressive, richer, mathematically knowledgeable, more American, or simply, socialized in a culture that values poker more than other games? How many of us have said that others are better at this game simply because they are born under a better sign? Damn those Scorpios!

The reasons for the success of some players over others seem to be many. Believe it or not, but some of the most frequently asked questions on Google that X-ray poker success look at the links between successful players and their previous profession, economic status, or proficiency in other games. After all, what makes a good poker player? Some simply want to know how come Scorpios are good at poker!

Mustafa Ali wins 2008 Deep Stack Extravaganza in Las Vegas - how is he such a good poker player?

It comes as no surprise to say that poker comes in many shapes and sizes: Hold’em, Omaha, five-draw, online, live in casinos, video poker, with friends, cronies, fish and pros. Depending on the who’s, the what’s, and the how’s, the game of poker changes invariably. This article deals with the who’s and the how’s of poker, namely the players and what makes them successful at the tables. I’ll try to find answers for some of the most popular questions regarding poker success, and to acquaint you at the same time with the way researchers in social sciences define the notion of “good poker player”, delineating at the same time the factors that influence players’ success. Because poker is one of the more exotic research topics, don’t expect these answers to be ready-found. The quest is much like playing poker – you never know what you will get.


1. Poker success

Sociologists and anthropologists sometimes find inspiration in the way professional players or wannabe professionals recount, in fictionalized accounts, their experience. Anthony Holden, relating his year as a professional poker player, defines the good player as the “serious” one, his seriousness being explained by knowledge of the game and of the odds as well as the way these are mobilized to one’s advantage. Al Alvarez portrays the good players as the ones who can “read their opponents’ hands with uncanny accuracy from the tiniest clues”: the position they occupy at the table, timing and pace, the way they move the chips to the unnoticeable pulse beats and threads of sweat on their foreheads. It comes down to an old poker saying whose paternity is torn between Doyle Brunson and Tom McEvoy, namely: “poker is a game of people played with cards, not a game of cards played with people.”

These accounts, however, provide a romanticized version of the poker player, whose knowledge is an object that cannot be acquired, learnt or distributed, but it is something that can be felt and embodied. In this vein, Holden’s remark towards the end of the book highlights the impossibility of achieving ultimate success at the tables: “I wasn’t going to win the world championship. Not today. Not ever.”

Despite this seeming impossibility, social researchers have managed (or at least tried) to measure the key to success in poker. David Hayano, the author of one of the few ethnographic researches subsequently published as a book (Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players, 1982) argues that players at the top of their game acquire a set of qualities: (1) bankroll; (2) skillful play; (3) recognition of peers; (4) success in major tournaments. But how does one get there? Is it knowledge? Or style of play?



Knowledge in poker

If success at poker requires extensive knowledge of the game, some argue that this knowledge can be measured by a consideration of both experience and skill. Researchers Jussi Palomäki, Michael Laakasuo and Mikko Salmela tried to disentangle the messy knot of skill in poker through experience, that is, the number of hands, the number of years, and the level of stakes played. Departing from the observation that the majority of online players lose more money than they win, the authors addressed the following question: “What specifically makes someone a skilled player, and what factors contribute to poker playing experience?”

In order to answer this question, the three researchers conducted a study on a sample of 354 online poker players, with the purpose of measuring and comparing the differences in technical skills and emotional characteristics related to poker playing style between experienced and inexperienced players. Taking into consideration three variables (number of poker hands, years played, and the levels of stakes usually played), they constructed an instrument, the Poker Experience Scale (PES), which would presumably answer an age-old dilemma: What makes someone a good poker player? Asking players to engage in two decision-making scenarios, they correlated the results with experience.

Michael Gersitz

The results are counterintuitive: there is no association between PES scores and formal education, age, or players’ emotional intelligence. In other words, there is no significant correlation that can establish for sure that poker success at the tables is determined by age, education, or emotional intelligence. And again, it’s not a surprise considering that poker appeals to people of all ages and education. If you’re not convinced, consider Benny Binion, a man who never indulged in formal education, but is still credited today as being the creative force behind the growth of Vegas poker. Doug Swanson, the author of a biography on Binion, includes a memorable quote from the man who had trouble spending time in classrooms: "There's more than one kind of education, and maybe I prefer the one I got."

Nevertheless, some links can be established between players’ attitudes and their potential losses. Most players know the imperative to disregard tilt, but only a few manage not to get intimately involved with it. Dwelling on the negative side of loss, or self-rumination as the above-mentioned researchers term it, is associated to less experienced players. Self-reflection, on the other hand, or remaining emotionally neutral to tilt, can lead to a better understanding of one’s situation and is an asset of the more experienced players.


Style of play

Ok, so if success is not something acquired independently of play (such as by age or education), maybe it’s linked to how poker is played? Kyle Siler investigates this possibility to see what style of play is most rewarding. Using Pokertracker, the researcher analyzed no fewer than twenty seven million hands of No Limit Texas Hold’Em played online (‘6 Max’, at least 5 players at the table) at every stake.

Siler discovered that tight and aggressive patterns of play are the most financially lucrative notwithstanding the stakes, and that semi-loose aggressive strategies also seem to pay off. However, one important observation may be formulated as such: the higher the stakes, the more tight-aggressive the game. Passive players don’t usually make it to the top and this remark can be articulated by taking into consideration the increased proportion of aggressive players at higher stakes. Interestingly enough, looking at the top and bottom hundred players, Siler finds that there is a consistent overrepresentation of loose and aggressive players, a result that leads him to return to the longstanding divide, namely that “fusion of skill and luck in poker.”

A way to read these results is that winning players’ backgrounds are not remarkably different than those of losing players – education, age or other abilities do not influence players’ success. What makes the difference is the way they position themselves towards the game, as well as their engrossment – how into the game are they? And of course, for some, a bit of chance running in their favor.


why play



Does nationality matter?

Although premature, some questions can be addressed that can reconsider the importance of other personal characteristics for poker success. If formal education is an important variable in all systems of social stratification and a determining factor of life chances and status ascription, in the poker world, previous education doesn’t seem to make a dent. Conversely, since education doesn’t appear to tip the balance in favor of fame or bankruptcy, I raise the stakes and argue that players’ previous professions or economic status might rarely even the score between them. The structure of poker, as an occupational system, one can speculate, doesn’t reproduce structural inequalities. In this sense, poker, as all forms of gambling, is democratic – giving everybody access and means of self-realization.

Moreover, some researchers such as Ole Bjerg have argued that poker is even a “more democratic, honest, just, and pure system for the distribution of value than existing capitalist society.” Following this reasoning, it comes as no surprise that poker has moved from being the “typical American pastime” into a globalized sensation: it took the shape and style of capitalism, and transformed along the lines of the economic and cultural system it somehow emulates.

So, if poker is indeed the game for all, if education, profession, and economic status don’t matter, what makes some players better than others? Why are there more players from the US at the top and so few Japanese? In plain English, does nationality matter?

Yes, it does, but not in the way you might think. Being born inside the borders of a specific nation state is not enough to explain why one player is better than another. It can, however, anticipate an explanation as to why some games are more widespread than others. I suggest, therefore, we think of games and their connection to culture. Following a long-standing line of game theorists, I support the premise that it is in fact the cultural conditions (and not geographic ones) prevalent in a society that make individuals engage in certain forms of play, which, in turn, become enmeshed in culture. If the metaphor “life is a gamble” attaches readily to gamblers as well as across all social strata, for professional players, the distinction between poker and life beyond the cards is blurred, turning the metaphor into a statement about one’s existence. At the same time, poker becomes an idiom through which people talk about uncertainty, political events, and the minutia of the everyday. In other words, poker is a reflection of life.

Many of us come to think of poker playing as one of the definite American traits. However, it’s not playing poker per se that makes somebody more or less American, but sharing a distinct set of values best epitomized by this game: the competitive spirit, a culture of cleverness and cunning, aggressively pursuing one’s goals, and risk taking. Poker historian James McManus walks the extra mile to talk about the American DNA. The alleged gene that marks this people descended from immigrants seems to “express itself [...] as energetic risk-raking, restless curiosity, and competitive self-promotion.” Following this somehow crooked line of reasoning, the argument goes uncontested and uncontestable: it’s something deeper, even genetic that predisposes Americans to play poker and to do it well!

Yet, as one advances through the 600 pages of McManus’ poker history, you can see that over the last decades, it’s the Vietnamese who dominate tournaments and McManus discusses not biology or genetics, but culture to account for their success. Being clever and being lucky are socially esteemed qualities in the Vietnamese culture, and gambling, which best embodies these qualities, is commended and encouraged.


Nonetheless, Americans and Vietnamese are not alone at the tables. The Asian gambling market is booming, with Macau being the heavy-duty competition of Las Vegas, Europeans are also on the rise (notice, for instance, the success that Scandinavians enjoy), and despite events like Black Friday (April 15, 2011), online poker tournaments are still the game to play. All these scattered observations prompt McManus to affirm that “the more an economic system encourages optimism, self-reliance, math skills, and entrepreneurial spirit, the more poker players it breeds.”


Are traders good poker players?

This leads to another frequently asked question, namely: is there any connection between trading and poker? Are traders good poker players? The answer is maybe. Since there is little to no data to support the claim that traders make for good poker players (or the other way around), no definitive answer can be given. Nevertheless, an argument can be forwarded along these lines: trading and gambling co-produce the logic of capitalism that emphasizes speculation and risk as its constituents.

Trading, gambling, and speculation were constant companions throughout the history of capitalism.Ryan Gillespie discusses gamblers and investors as characters that produce speculative capitalism in the Gilded Age, while Karen Wyler observes that trading, gambling, and speculation were inseparable companions in early American fiction. Despite the almost inseparable companionship, traders and investors went to great lengths to separate their public personas from that of gamblers. Otherwise, how could they gain respectability in managing stocks, and shares while dealing with risk and uncertainty? How could finance be imagined as a “morally responsible sphere of thought and action?” Traders closed down bucket shops, the places where middle and working class people engaged in small transactions on the side, and promoted gambling as a form of illegitimate speculation.

At the same time, they took pride in their ability to make informed calculated guesses, thrift being the operative word and assigned jurisdiction by associating gamblers to madness, irrationality, and waste. Traders were scientific. Gamblers were reckless. The emancipated future of capitalist societies was built on the predication of Protestant values such as hard work and thrift, competition and risk taking. Through its very existence, gambling was seen to contest these values, and to threaten, at the same time, the moral fabric of American puritanism.

Are traders good poker players?

During the twentieth century, however, the situation dramatically changed. The global expansion of industry, correlated with the influence of technology and the development of the communication system, transformed gambling into a legitimate industry. Global economy is occasionally labeled “casino capitalism” or “global casino” (in order to express the unruliness of the financial system that bears resemblance to a huge casino) and the notion of risk intervenes in the system, explaining the lack of personal and social security caused by societal transformations. Gambling researcher Gerda Reith debates that gambling, and its institutionalization in casinos, represents an embodiment of modern times while independently creating a micro cosmos of modernity. Gambling carries traits that make it similar to capitalism: it involves decision-making and engaging with risk and, much like capitalism, it carries the promise of immense wins.

Returning to the question at hand, risk and uncertainty are embedded both in the structure of gambling culture and in the culture of finance capitalism. A look into poker and trading can reveal that the two are similar in many ways. Karen Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street offers an excellent opportunity to compare gambling culture and the culture of finance capitalism. A long expected arrival in the anthropology of finance, Ho is pioneering in applying the ethnographic method on her object of inquiry: she immerses into the field by finding employment at an investment bank and experiences first hand the labor regime, etiquette, and the requirements that come with the job.

Ho’s effort to travel from the everyday practices of Wall Street investment bankers and banks to the instability of the economic system is outstanding. The desire for profit accumulation, the culture of liquidity, the embeddedness of risk in the occupational structure (especially poignant when addressing the downsizing and restructuring of the job market) are all stages that come with having a job on Wall Street.

The resemblance is remarkable: the alleged-evil twin, poker, deals as well with a seeming instability. Poker culture and the social worlds it creates are dominated by uncertainty and indeterminacy since players can never know where the next hand(s) will bring them. From boom to bust, players engage risk on a daily basis and bet on their ability to make good (informed, calculated) decisions; after all, this is what, for some, makes for their day-to-day bread and butter. For both poker players and traders, risk is not an analytic category, but a reality engaged and performed, talked about, and embodied.

Gambling is a high stakes activity in terms of identity implication: it’s seen as a form of risk taking similar to making risky financial investments or playing the stock markets. In these instances, gambling can be judged in a positive light in terms of cultural evaluations. Institutionalized gambling (casinos, card rooms, race tracks, poker venues) promotes, as researcher Thomas Holtgraves convincingly argues, an “image of extravagance and conspicuous consumption, while all of them [settings] attempt to promote a carefree, reckless, free-wheeling image.”

So again, even though it’s challenging to provide a definitive answer for those who want to find out if traders are good poker players, it should come as no surprise when they do – both activities use the same tools of the trade but in different social and economic arenas. From the financial scene to the poker parlor, the game is not too different: predicting the future and betting that your judgment is better than the next one’s.

why play



Why are StarCraft players good at poker?

This question originated when Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, a professional StarCraftplayer, switched to poker and ended up winning somewhere in the vicinity of $11 million in the game, ranking him as the highest-earning poker player from France. In an interview for Pokerlistings.com, ElkY talked about the abilities required for professional gaming (notice the transition from gambling to gaming!). In short, professional StarCraft players, says ElkY, have already acquired discipline, the ability to stay focused under pressure, resilience, mental strength, creativity, as well as technical and strategic abilities. At the same time, StarCraft and poker are remarkably similar in their structure, since both games are games of incomplete information.

Are Starcraft players good at poker?


The argument is compelling. Poker, indeed, requires (and I argue, creates) discipline, the ability to make speedy decisions, mental and physical strength, especially if you play longer sessions. Although the two games share a similar ethos, it’s not enough to account for the ease of the switch. I argue that the other part of the explanation has to do with technical ability. StarCraft and online poker players have something in common: they are socialized in using technology, thus making them better equipped to play. Learning poker, or StarCraft, and mastering the necessary learning resources implies mastery over the means to access these resources – using technology to your advantage. Most players who can easily switch from one game to another and make millions on the way are relatively young, in their twenties or thirties. They are used to new technologies partly because they havereached adulthood synchronously with the advent of the Internet and the integration of personal computers in everyday life.

Are chess players good at poker? The connection between that game and poker is another subject which will be fully explored in another article.


Learning to be a player

At the same time, knowing the rules of the game(s) is only the first step in becoming a player. The “high stakes” are ventured in becoming part of the community. In the case of poker, both casinos and online poker sustain a “community of practice”, where learning is not only the result of solitary investment of time and study or merely the result of collaborations between players. Rather, poker knowledge is socially situated and mutually constituted at the intersection between players, their activity, and their world.

There are many ways in which gamblers learn to play poker. Believing that I want to learn poker, one player I wanted to interview brought me a flash drive with almost fifty books and articles that he used to teach himself poker games. The books I skimmed through entailed deconstructing the game into specific components, such as probability calculus and teaching players the value of each hand, while others were superstars’ biographies and recollections of memorable hands. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of similar articles and books, as well as Internet forums that players can access in order to perfect their game.

There is more to learning than the self-contained dimension of individual study. While brushing up on his learning experience, one player became aware that mastering the game is more than a solitary engagement with poker, but an intensely collective one. One player I interviewed in 2012 termed this better: “I thought that I could learn it by myself. I had to be autodidact. Only later did I realize that it matters to play as a team, to have an entourage, this is how you develop your game, you learn a lot from the discussions that you have, which, at one point, become routine.


Are Scorpios good poker players?

If you’ve made it so far and are still wondering whether you’re a better player simply because your folks happened to have you one month instead of another, the answer for you is: Sure, why not?

Investigating a website providing horoscopes I found that: As a Scorpio, you should definitely consider playing poker. Why? Because you are a natural at observing and reading others. Somehow, you can intuit what others are thinking or how they feel. Your friends are sure to be amazed at how you just "seem to know" certain things.

To play good poker, however, is not a virtue you are born with - it’s not like family or nationality. Players accumulate years of play, hours of experience and some have the memory of thousands of hands. Sure, being born under an intuitive, observational sign (such as Scorpio is described to be) might give you an edge, but, at the same time, everything can.

Are Scorpios better poker players?



Photo Credits

Image of Mustafa Ali in Las Vegas (Brausa2014, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Image of stockbrokers - Library of Congress, in the public domain

Jaedong at StarCraft 2 World Championship Series Global Finals (Arkelis, CC-BY-SA-3.0)



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Gillespie, Ryan (2012). Gilders and Gamblers: The Culture of Speculative Capitalism in the United States. In Communication, Culture & Critique, 5: 353:371.

de Goede, Marieke (1995). Virtue, Fortune, and Faith. A Genealogy of Finance. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Hayano, David M. (1982). Poker Faces. The Life and Work of Professional Card Players. London: University of California Press.

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McManus, James (2009). Cowboys full. The Story of Poker. NY: Picador.

Palomaki, Jussi, Michael Laakasuo and Mikko Salmela (2013). ‘‘Don’t Worry, It’s Just Poker!’’- Experience, Self-Rumination and Self Reflection as Determinants of Decision-Making in On-Line Poker. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29:491–505.

Reith, Gerda (1999). The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture. Routledge: London.

Showell, Mathew (2014). Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier: “Starcraft Players Should Give Poker a Try”. PokerListings, pokerlistings.com/elky-starcraft-players-should-give-poker-a-try-35457 on December 1, 2014.

Siler, Kyle (2010). Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26: 401-420.

Swanson, Doug (2014). Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker. NY: Viking.

Wyler, Karen A. (1996). "A Speculating Spirit": Trade, Speculation, and Gambling in Early American Fiction. In Early American Literature, 31(3): 207-242.




Andrada IstrateAndrada Istrate studied sociology at the University of Bucharest and sociology and social anthropology at CEU Budapest. For the past five years, she has researched the Romanian gambling scene, with a particular interest in forms of professionalization among poker players. She is currently working on her PhD dissertation about the Romanian pyramid schemes of the 1990s, focusing on how people produce and circulate new notions of time, hope, value, money, and morality.


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