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True pros at poker don't brood on the question "Did you win, did you lose?" They care, of course - not in terms of money won or lost, but of their hourly rate in the game. This concept is based on what is known as positive expectation. In his clever book, The Theory of Poker, now published in a new edition, David Sklansky explains the idea.

Forget, to start with, any idea of poker as "fun". That is not the point. The point for a pro is to maximize his positive expectation. Suppose you have a full house in five-card draw, Sklansky says. A player ahead of you bets. You know that if you raise, the player will call. So raising appears to be the best play. However, when you raise, two players behind you will surely fold. On the other hand, if you merely call the first better, you can be fairly confident that the two players behind you will also call. By raising you gain one unit, but by only calling you gain two. That is the higher positive expectation and the better play.

By making plays which always maximize positive expectation, the pro player hones his edge. It is a matter of skill, judgment, playing cards better, winning more with good hands, losing less with bad hands. His positive expectation determines the return on the professional player's time, namely his hourly rate. This, rather than winning spectacular hands, is the bottom line.

For instance, if in draw lowball, you see three players calling a pounds 10 opening bet then drawing two cards - a very bad play - you can say that every time they put in pounds 10 they are losing an average of about pounds 2. If they do this eight times an hour, it means these three players will between them lose about pounds 48. If you are one of four approximately equal players, this gives you (though you can never be precise) about pounds 12 an hour each.

"Once you have decided what your hourly rate is," Skansky adds, "you should realize that what you are doing is earning. You are no longer gambling in the traditional sense. You should no longer be anxious to have a good day or be upset when you have a bad day... To think of poker as glamorous is very bad."

All this sounds a bit desiccated. I can recall seeing Sklansky severely break his own rules of conduct. Busted out of the world championship at Binion's in Las Vegas, he rushed into the room next door and threw away $1,000 in crazy play at $20-$40 Hold 'em, to vent his feelings. Let's not forget emotion, Dave.

'The Theory of Poker', $45 from Two Plus Two Publishing, 226 Garfield Drive, Henderson, Nevada 8901

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