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Nolan Dalla Asks, Has Poker Become Unbeatable?

Nolan Dalla

Talk to poker players who have been around for a while, and most will tell you the money isn't as easy as it used to be. The games are getting tougher.

Sound familiar? There are several reasons for this.

Stagnant Growth

First, poker isn't growing fast enough to provide a steady influx of new players. Inexperienced players almost always donate to the poker economy initially (though unwillingly, of course), at least during the learning phase. The boom which created millions of new poker players all over the world between the years 2003 and 2008 has slowed down considerably. Players who benefitted the most financially during those boom years are now finding games that were once profitable much harder to beat. Many players who were steady losers have dropped out, while the survivors have improved. As a result, many professionals have seen their margins shrink dramatically.

Improving Players

Playing ABC-style poker might have worked at popular sites like partypoker a decade ago when there were so many sub-par players online, but today, those same elementary strategies no longer cut it. Everyone has access to information. There are books, training sites, online forums and an open exchange of ideas and critical thinking about the game unlike anything that existed in the past. It's no longer that difficult to become very good at this game relatively quickly, especially if you're willing to put in the hours. As a result, the very best players in poker have seen the ranks of their rivals swell to the point where there are now many more sharks at the top of the pyramid. The super-elite class of players who seemed to know most of the secrets, those on the cutting edge of poker thinking a few years ago, have found the information gap between them and the rest of the field ever narrowing, which has resulted in tougher games and lower profit margins.

The High Costs of Doing Business

One other factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that, for casinos, the cost of doing poker business is always going up. Rakes and tournament registration fees keep rising to offset those escalating operating costs. For the players, taxes on their winnings also siphon off money from the poker economy, something that will become even more of an issue as online poker continues to gain a foothold in the United States. Add to that the continuing inflation of other poker expenses — namely travel, hotel and food — and the vig on poker is getting dangerously close to the point, literally, of no return.

Which begs the question: has poker become unbeatable?

When you add to the vig, the fact that we are close to the point where there is an optimal playing strategy for the majority of table decisions (in some forms of poker, at least), and that more and more poker players are reaching that Holy Grail of poker knowledge, it seems possible that we may arrive at a place where no player has a discernible edge over any other, at which point the game basically becomes an exercise in pure chance, unless one is convinced psychology alone is exploitable.

Of course, poker isn't blackjack or chess. An optimal strategy isn't possible in a pure form, given the infinite number of decisions that come up in a typical poker game. Every decision is impacted by every other, and therefore, there will never truly be a "perfect poker player" because every game is unique and unpredictable in its particulars and it is not possible to control or predict all the variables.

However, adding advanced strategic concepts like hand-ranging, bet-sizing and a myriad of other terms that weren't even part of the game 20 years ago, means we're inching ever closer to poker's intellectual summit. At some point, we might not be able to go any higher, which means there's a finite end to what's humanly possible for a poker player. Some insist there actually is an optimal strategy for heads-up play (in limit hold'em, for example). Others can debate this, but the bottom line remains that as one goes higher, the margins of talent between players becomes razor thin.

This has happened before. If you look at poker history, fifty years ago, the two most popular forms of poker were five-card draw and five-card stud. Now, they're both basically extinct. What happened? Well, other forms of poker seemed to be more interesting and therefore gained in popularity, replacing the old games. But also, the best players figured out the basics to winning and stuck to it, then once everybody else started catching on, profits dried up and the games died out.

That phenomenon continues to this day. What's happening now — particularly at the game's highest limits — is what I call a "bunching factor." The number of top poker players in the world used to fit inside a single room. Now, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of poker players scattered all over who might rightly belong in that super class, at least on their best playing day. Accordingly, these elite players have come up with new and creative ways amongst themselves to see who is best — namely by introducing the mixed-game concept.

The biggest cash games in the world are no longer no-limit hold'em. That's so mid-2000s. Now, the games of choice are a mix of five or six, sometimes eight or more, different games. Badugi, badeucy, badabing, badaboom — what's next? Okay, so badabing and badaboom aren't poker games yet, but some other bizarre game will be invented once the best players all figure out badugi and baduecy and start looking for the next way to gain an edge.

The days of Doyle Brunson and "Amarillo Slim" Preston and Brian "Sailor" Roberts and Puggy Pearson running the poker universe aren't just dead, they're a black hole. Now, there are hundreds of players light years better than those legends ever were on their best day. It’s almost like the National Football League, where athletes today are bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than anyone who ever played the game before. We can romanticize the good old days all we want, but we're living in an era when, purely from a technical standpoint, the game of poker has reached a high-water mark.

This discussion began with a question about the future of poker and whether or not games might eventually become unbeatable.

The answer depends on who you are, where you play regularly, and what options exist. Certainly, high-stakes poker games are likely to always provide opportunities for the very best players as long as they keep devising new forms of poker, then take advantage of the weaker players who are slower than the rest to learn the new games. Furthermore, high-stakes poker will always be an attraction for some outsiders, even when they know they're outclassed. Consider the many wealthy amateur players who strive to sit in these big games, just so they can say, "I sat in the big game." So long as there's an open seat at Phil Ivey's table, someone somewhere will want to sit in it. Crazy as it sounds, those are the perks of being in the super-elite class.

But things aren't as easy, nor as clear, for low- and mid-stakes players. They don't enjoy the luxury of inventing new poker games and then trying to outfox everyone else. They're stuck playing no-limit hold'em most of the time, or perhaps pot-limit Omaha if they're lucky.

Fortunately, low- and mid-stakes players enjoy one advantage that's not common at higher stakes. The best players in this more casual setting have many more options in terms of game selection. That is to say, there are many more $2/$5 no-limit hold'em games than there are $400/$800 mixed games. Practiced judiciously, game selection at the mid-level is the key to profit.

Low-and mid-stakes players also enjoy another advantage: namely, they get to see their opponents when they're not playing their best. There are many more intoxicated, doped-up, on-tilt, psychologically messed-up people in pedestrian poker games, and there always will be. And we should remember that most profit at the poker table comes not from our own brilliance, but rather from the mistakes of others.

The truth is, the vast majority of low- and mid-stakes players will keep on playing mistake-riddled poker because in the final analysis the vast majority of them aren’t professionals and don’t have the time or incentive to take their game to the next level. This fact guarantees poker will continue to be beatable at least until the rake exceeds the better players' edge on the game.

That said, everyone's long-term prospects will be improved considerably by working towards new ways to create another poker boom, which in turn will trigger another influx of new and inexperienced players into the game, providing substantial opportunities for those who survive long enough to be the beneficiaries.

Although we are at odds when at the table, in the end we are still all linked by a time-honored and common purpose, which is to keep the poker tables full and cards in the air.

Nolan Dalla has been involved in poker as a full-time player, writer/reporter, author, consultant, and casino executive for more than 20 years. He's best known as the longtime Media Director of the World Series of Poker. Dalla writes a popular daily blog on a variety of current topics which can be read at: This marks his first-ever contribution to PokerNews.

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