Playing Responsible Poker
Playing responsible poker is not just a matter of winning. Players that win, players that lose, and players that break even all have the potential to play poker responsibly or recklessly. Playing responsible poker is more of a matter of approaching the game with the right mindset.
This is a message to both current and prospective poker players for informational purposes. It isn't legal or medical advice. What follows is mostly common sense. You may already know some or all of it. Yet, everyone loses some common sense when under stress or emotions, so even the most seasoned poker players can use a reminder from time to time.
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Follow the law
Play poker only if it is legal for you to do so. In most places in the world, a legal poker game is just a short drive away. There is no reason to break the law to play poker. It simply isn't that important.
Don't bet against the house
Some people like to play blackjack, roulette, video poker, sports bets, and all sorts of games where the player bets against the house ("house-banked games"). This is different from multi-player poker, where players play against each other, with the house taking a rake.
Personally, we're not fans of house-banked games. There's nothing wrong with playing these games for fun (i.e., small stakes), as long as you understand that they are all negative expected value (-EV) in the long run. Surprisingly, even very smart people sometimes fail to realize this, or they realize it but don't act on it. More than one famous poker pro is rumored to have lost his poker fortune at the craps table. Unfortunately, there aren't any "craps pros" to return the favor.
There are people who claim they have gambling systems that can beat these -EV games like roulette and craps. These people are generally either deluded, fraudsters, or both. If a game is inherently -EV, it cannot be beaten in the long run, no matter what.
Avoid -EV poker games
You may have taken the previous guideline to mean that all poker games are +EV. That would be a mistake. The EV for any given poker game depends on the game and the player. It is possible for the EV to be positive, because poker is not a house-banked game. You should seek out games that are +EV for you.
Don't play above your head
Finding +EV games may mean swallowing your pride and playing at a lower limit than you'd like to. Even a +EV game can be the wrong game to play if the stakes are too high, for many reasons, including the possibility of tilt or blowing one's entire bankroll.
Some players try to "strike it rich" or "get lucky," which is a bad idea. Even if they are lucky and win that night, the luck eventually evens out, and they generally end up donating back all their winnings plus some. In the long run, poker is a game of skill, and if you play better than your opponents by a large enough margin to beat the rake, you will win money in the long run. Otherwise, you will lose money. It's as simple as that.
Keep track of your winnings or losses
Record how much money you win or lose at each session, as well as the time spent. There are web applications, such as Check Your Bets, that will help you keep track.
By tracking your statistics, you can stay realistic about what you are putting into and getting out of poker. Also, good records will come in handy at tax time (if you live in a country where gambling winnings are taxed).
Don't play with money you can't afford to lose
Don't play with money you need for other purposes. Also, you should never borrow money to play poker. If you play online, many sites allow you to limit the amount of money you can deposit. We encourage you to take advantage of these features. If you think you have a gambling problem, you should stop playing altogether. You can find software to block access to these sites.
Some people become addicted to poker
It's an unfortunate reality, but some people do become addicted to poker. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (US), 1% of US adults are pathological gamblers, and 2-3% would be considered problem gamblers. These percentages may be different in other countries, and these totals are for gambling as a whole, which include many other types of gambling in addition to poker.
We personally believe that house-banked games are far more addictive than poker, because there is no skill factor to provide a negative feedback to players who don't understand EV. For example, in roulette, there is always a small percentage -EV which adds up over time, but results are highly variable in the short run. In poker, "bad players" (players who do not understand EV) are much more likely to have a larger percentage -EV, and reduced variability of feedback. They experience a much higher percentage of negative outcomes, which makes continuing indefinitely less appealing.
Keep in mind that this is our personal opinion and not backed up by any medical research, to the best of our knowledge. And this theory does not imply that poker is "safe". People have become addicted to poker and lost more money than they can afford.
Some winning players are addicted to poker in the sense that they neglect their other responsibilities. Sure, a person might be a winner at $1-$2 limit. But if this same person hasn't showered in a week, is performing poorly at work, and is neglecting his friends, this $1-$2 winner is likely viewed as a loser at the game of life.
If you think you have a poker addiction, there are places to seek help. They include:
National Council on Problem Gambling
Poker is for adults
Playing poker successfully requires maturity, which teenagers often lack. If you are not of legal age to play poker, don't. Those not mature enough to play poker are often quick to neglect their other responsibilities in order to just play another few hands.
Playing professionally is a bad idea for most people
Few people become successful full-time professional poker players. Some moderately-skilled poker players decide to become full-time "professionals" as an excuse to play poker all day and neglect other aspects of their life. Many of these players end up being permanently staked by others and are the laughingstock of the poker community.
Going professional entails greatly increased risks. Behaviors that are considered "problem behaviors" in most people will be harder to identify in the professional, who might consider playing ten hours a day to be normal, and who necessarily must play for significant stakes. This is one reason why we believe that most players, even winning players, should not become pros.
It is possible to win money at poker, while still maintaining a balanced lifestyle. For most people, this is probably the best goal to shoot for.
Keep poker in perspective
Poker is just a game. If you find poker to be negatively affecting your life, consider taking a break. If you find this difficult, that may be your first sign that you need to stop playing.
Most people play poker responsibly, and some even become winning players. This article may not have made poker sound very fun, but hopefully it highlighted the importance of enjoying poker as a healthy form of entertainment. It's just a matter of having the right perspective.