There’s a popular stance in the poker world, usually taken among optimists campaigning in favor of the game’s legal status, is that poker is not gambling. This view, when stated as a simple matter of fact, is wrong. Making a blanket statement that poker is not gambling shows a bit of naivety for the reality of one specific form of poker: tournaments. Specifically, large-field multi-table tournaments. This is one form of poker that one sometimes has no choice but to call gambling.
I’m a tournament player. So I guess you could say I like to gamble. I’ve been playing multi-table tournaments for around eight years now. In that time, I have played my fair share of cash game hands along the way. But not too many. I don’t really like cash games. They’re a grind. One does not need a particularly large sample size, a few ten thousand hands will do, in order to justifiably say that their participation in poker cash games is not gambling. Because it’s really not. In the long run, and it doesn’t take that long to establish a “long run” in cash games, the players utilizing the best strategic approach will come out ahead. This is not as true for large-field multi-table tournaments.
In order for the variance of one’s participation in large-field multi-table tournaments to play itself out, they need to play a lot of tournaments. It takes literally years upon years of playing these tournaments to start to see the “long run” picture. For this reason, poker large-field multi-table tournaments (let’s say 1,000+ entrants) are more or less a form of gambling.
I enjoy playing the massive-field tournaments offered at PokerStars. I generally only play on Sundays as I am busy with other commitments the rest of the week and am less appealed by the smaller fields (and thus smaller prize pools). According to one stat-tracking website, the average field size of the tournaments I play is 4,500. That’s a lot of people.
Part of the appeal of these tournaments is the soft competition you’ll find in them. One weekly tournament at PokerStars, the ‘Sunday Storm’, an $11 buy-in with a $300,000 guaranteed prize pool (that’s at least 30,000 players every week), is delightfully soft. Probably only something like 1,500 or so of the participants in that tournament play it from start to finish without really making any type of a “significant” mistake. I like to think I am one of those people. That’s the objective of tournaments really: play solid, don’t screw up, and hope to be in the right place at the right time when other people punt away expected value. In the Sunday Storm, there are a lot of people punting away EV.
However, here is why the Sunday Storm is gambling and nothing else: even if I thought I would win it five times as often as an “average” participant would, that would still mean I will only win it once every 115 years! And that I assumes I play it every single Sunday. In other words, it’s safe to assume that I will never win that tournament in my lifetime even though I am much better than the average participant in the field and even if I played it every single Sunday for the rest of my life. It will take nanotechnology enabling me to live for hundreds of years in order for me to reasonably expect to win the Sunday Storm in my lifetime, and that assumes it holds a field-size of 30,000 players and never grows (and that bots never destroy online poker beyond repair which is another discussion altogether).
An unfortunate truth is that a very large part of one’s expected ROI in poker tournaments comes from outright winning them. Such a large percentage of the prize pool is awarded to a very small handful of players at the top, that anything short of a win is a failure in a certain sense. As PCA winner Galen Hall says, “you’ve got to win the games!”
I might have an expected return on investment (ROI) of around 200% in the Sunday Storm meaning I could expect my $11 investment to yield me a profit of $22 on average. If you’ve ever played the tournament, you would know that is not an unreasonable estimate for a capable player to make. But due to “long run” issues of large-field online tournaments such as these, that ROI will never be realized in a realistic amount of time. There is no long run. It’s just a gamble. Most people’s lifetime ROI in the Sunday Storm will hover around -100% to 100% while a few people will have an ROI of something absurd like 43,000% just from one fortuitous deep run.
This is the reality of large-field multi-table tournaments. Even if you play thousands of them a year (not easy to do), you’re still looking at upwards of a decade or more before you can expect the variance to begin to level out. As a result, this form of poker should be regarded as gambling. Humans do not have a long enough life span for everyone in the poker world to expect their variance in multi-table tournaments to even come remotely close to leveling out. A few players get most of the money while the rest are left with empty pockets on a gamble that didn’t pay off. And make no mistake about it, poker tournaments are, for all intents and purposes, just another form of gambling. But lest any Republican politician read this and use it as fuel to go on a self-righteous freedom-banning binge, it’s worth remembering that all of life is a gamble. In this crazy world, poker tournaments fit right in.