Pure Poker Player

I’ve written about my friend YoYo-Ma, most recently about how he folded pocket kings preflop in a no-limit hold’em game. There are a lot of great things about this cat, but I recently stumbled across one of the best ones, at least regarding his poker playing.

He asked a question in our hand discussion group about a hand he had played in a 1/2 NLHE game. Nothing unusual about that. But 30 minutes later, he posts about another hand he’d played.

In a 10/20 NLHE game.

I had to chuckle. YoYo, he’s the purest kind of poker player there is – unlike many of us, he doesn’t define himself by the stakes he plays. He just thinks of himself as a poker player. If there’s a poker game going on, you’ve got his interest.

And it was telling (and instructive) that he was asking about hands from two games an order of magnitude apart in stakes. That is, he takes both games seriously.

Most of us have a narrow sweet spot for the size of poker games we play. If we’re playing too small, we just don’t take the game seriously – we play hands we know we shouldn’t, we make/call bluffs that we’d never do for bigger amounts, etc.

On the other end of the spectrum, if we’re playing too big, we seize up. We don’t make big moves we know we should, we don’t go for thin value, we allow ourselves to get bullied around.

I remember when I first started playing no-limit hold’em, back in the early 90’s. I was playing at friends’ houses for 0.05-0.10 stakes, and was nervous as hell because I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve now gotten beyond that, and to be honest, I don’t know that I could take a 0.05/0.10 NLHE game seriously now.

Which brings me to the second half of this discussion. What if—what if—I didn’t know the stakes of the poker game I was in? Now, I’ve written about this idea before, maybe 15 years ago. It got zero interest, but it’s a great concept so I’m bringing it back. Pay attention now or wait another 15 years to get another offer.

Here’s the deal: you collect the correct group of poker players—you’ll see in a second why it has to be the right bunch. You then drop some poker chips in a hat. Each poker chip has a different denomination. Maybe you drop 1-, 5-, 25-, and 100-unit poker chips in the hat. Then you pass stacks of chips out to everybody and start playing poker as normal.

But here’s the catch: nobody actually buys in. All you do is keep track of how many chip stacks each player has been given. If I bust my chip stack and decide to rebuy, then I am handed another stack of chips, and a notation is made that I’m in for one more buy-in.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

When the game is over, we account for how many chip units each player won or lost. Like any good poker game, it should be zero-sum. Now, somebody closes their eyes, reaches into the hat, and pulls out a poker chip.

That is the value of one chip unit in the game.

So when we are playing, we don’t know if the big blind is 0.01, 0.05, 0.25, or 1. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Poker Game. Once the game is over and we know the value of one chip unit, everybody settles up in real money.

But the beauty of this game is not in the settling up. No, the beauty is that during the game, we are playing the purest form of poker. We can’t think about any action or choice in terms of real money, because we don’t know how much it is. We are forced to make pure poker decisions; how many big blinds to raise, what pot odds are we being offered, what probability does my bluff have of getting through?

Divorcing the chips from dollars forces us to think about poker decisions the way they are meant to be considered—without real-world baggage affecting those decisions.

Sadly, I’ve never found a quorum of people willing to give this poker game a try. But I’ll tell you what, my friend YoYo-Ma—he’ll jump at the chance if we ever make it happen.


Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.