Independent Pursuits: Poker

IT'S THE time of New Year resolutions and all that. I have often set myself good resolutions in the past - such as: don't play when drunk; don't play for more than you can afford; don't lend money at the table. And I have more or less kept to them. Interestingly, I find that these three conditions are likely to be broken simultaneously, rather than any one on its own.

In the old days, the traditional advice to new poker players was threefold. 1. Don't play anyone with a diamond stick-pin. 2. Don't buy insurance from a man called Doc. 3. Don't play two small pairs in draw poker.

I wonder if this advice might be updated for our own times? 1. Don't listen to horse-race tips at the table. 2. Never bluff a man with a higher stack. 3. Don't play short pairs at Hold 'em. If you dismiss this advice as shallow, just think how much money you would have saved last year by observing these rules.

All of which leads me to raise the basic question: why do you play poker? I mean, really, why? It's not for money. If you play in a card club, for an average, say, of four hours a day, five days a week, with a table charge of pounds 5 an hour, your annual outgoings amount to pounds 5,200, not counting tips to waitresses for cups of tea and to doormen for parking.

Most players of my acquaintance haven't got the faintest chance of winning pounds 5,200 in the year. Granted, a few people do. But for the vast majority, I think you will agree, the answer is no way. They win a bit, or even a lot; and feel great; and then lose it back, and feel miserable.

It is entirely different in a private game among friends, where the money goes around the table in a spirit of give and take, and there is no table charge.

So, if it's not the money, what is the motive? I think the answer is that poker is so fascinating that it is completely justified for its own sake. Each hand, each deal, offers a new challenge. Secondly, the interplay of character is endlessly absorbing. Better, I sometimes feel, than going to the theatre, because at poker you can sit down or get out as and when you feel like it.

And thirdly, the social mix. The game offers the chance to meet all sorts of people in that curious middle-ground that exists between close friendship and casual acquaintance. So my toast for 1999 is for more poker, win or lose - though I must admit, if you press me, that winning is better than losing.

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