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A good friend – who does not play poker – recently gave me a gift of poker books along with back issues of the “Poker Digest” magazine, going back to the turn of the century.

Published by June Field – who many of us will long remember as an important contributor to the poker world – “Poker Digest” was the forerunner of “Card Player” magazine, and offered excellent columns by top players.

Poker expert, John Vorhaus, author of the six-volume “Killer Poker” series, plus a variety of other books, including the novel “Under the Gun,” was one of its outstanding poker writers.

His column in the Jan. 11, 2002 issue was about “gambling.” Poker, he writes, “is a game of skill, not a game of chance.” In that regard, he explains the importance of “edge” – when you have an advantage over your opponents thanks to your superior skills. As a result, you make better decisions than the other players at your table, resulting in your winning their chips.

Vorhaus speaks of a “statistical edge.” To illustrate, he uses a simple example: You and another person are flipping a coin – heads or tails; you pay him two coins when he wins, while you get only one coin when you win. That’s an easy way to explain the use of the pot odds vs. your card odds when making a decision at the poker table.

With a drawing hand, the amount of chips in the pot (now, or “implied” on the River) relative to the size of your call bet, must be higher than the odds against your catching the winning hand (based on the number of outs you have). That is a “positive expectation,” and should assure you of winning in the long run – and it’s not gambling.

Here is a common example: On the River you have four-to-the-nut flush. That gives you nine good outs – the cards of that suit that remain in the deck. (There are no pairs on the board, so a full-house or Quads is not possible.) With only the River card to come, your card odds are about 4-to-1 against making the big flush. There is a bet of eight chips that you must call in order to see the River. The pot now contains about 80 chips. That gives you 10-to-1 (80 ÷ 8) pot odds, well above your card odds (4-to-1) – a positive expectation. That’s akin to making a wise investment.

Some would say you are gambling when you take risk to gain something of value (usually money), where the risk-return ratio is high, or indeterminable. Well, certainly, if you play the slots or other games where the casino sets the odds in its favor – and you have no control over the matter – you are gambling. On the other hand, in poker, when the odds are not in your favor, you can fold and save lots of chips. (The money you save is worth more than the money you win.)

That’s where skill plays the dominant role. The key skills include (1) starting-hand selection, depending on your betting position and other factors; (2) ensuring a positive expectation; (3) knowing your opponent’s playing traits and observing any tells so you can “read” his most likely holdings; (4) using “The Art of Bluffing,” including the Esther Bluff and how best to build the pot when you catch a monster.

As Vorhaus said, your poker skills can give you an important edge over your opponents – more like prudent investing, helping you to avoid gambling.

This discussion has omitted a significant aspect of playing poker in a casino – one few players consider: The Cost to Play! GamingToday recently published informative columns on this. You must win enough to overcome that cost, which amounts to about $25 every hour of play – all the more reason for becoming expert in these key poker skills.

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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