Column - The Evolution of a Game and a Player

7 September 2006

No-Limit Texas Hold'em captivated a small audience in the late 1990's when the cult-classic movie Rounders made it to DVD. This group of mostly college age players became hooked on the game and the draw was obvious. In a single hand, a person could lose everything they had on the table or could take enough from shady Russian Mafia types to buy into the World Series of Poker and win millions.

The movie produced a small spike in No-Limit Texas Hold'em play, but the real surge didn't occur until Chris Moneymaker turned a $40 online satellite win into mountains of cash at 2003 World Series of Poker. Combined with the rise of the World Poker Tour on television, No-Limit Texas Hold'em soon became an American obsession and people everywhere were hooked on the newest form of the lottery.

Unlike baseball and football, poker does not require incredible size or steroids. From the physically infirmed to the hottest female models, any player can conceivable become a world champion.

No-Limit Texas Hold'em requires a combination of smarts and creativity and unlike the limit version of the game, people can go bust at the blink of an eye. Millions began playing this variation of poker because of its Wild West appeal and I am one of them.

I didn't have the skills to be good at No-Limit Hold'em, but I started playing anyways because it was fun. Combining the attributes of nerdy bookishness and that thing my girlfriend calls "being stubborn," I read all the books, refused to believe I was terrible, and crafted a game good enough to be enjoyable as a hobby.

There is one problem. The legion of new poker players, a group that includes myself, only cares about the variation of poker that hooked us - No-Limit Texas Hold'em. To me and the other "New School" players, it was better to try and be really good at No-Limit at the expense of all the other disciplines.

This poker tunnel-vision has produced several problems. Good players continue to learn all the disciplines, crafting a solid mixed-game that allows them to make money no matter what game casinos and tournament directors spread. Some No-Limit Hold'em specialists have done well, winning millions in live and online tournaments, but there are so many No-Limit players today, poker fervor has stalled. It has become a gluttony of one-dimensional players that swell big tournament ranks and make hallowed contests like the WSOP Main Event a crapshoot.

Another problem is that playing the same game day in and day out has become boring. For many players, the thrill of winning a big pot has been replaced by tedium. I spend most of my time at the table complaining about suck-outs and wallowing in a self-doubt that comes from wondering why WSOP and WPT titles are still out of my reach.

As little as two-months ago, loyalty to No-Limit Texas Hold'em was still a sticking point for me. I laughed at the cranky reporters who complained about "kids" who didn't know who the world's best Omaha players were. I was a member of the "New School," the players who went to casinos without cartons of cigarettes. Stud was for the grumpy old man who went to card rooms to flirt with the cocktail waitresses. I played poker with sunglasses and made bets without limits.

For me, the turning point was the WSOP $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event this summer. According to my reporting colleague Aaron Todd who was there to cover the event live, that tournament was amazing. A final table that had the Grandfather of Poker (Brunson), the Tiger Woods of Poker (Phil Ivey), and a slew of the best players in the game was too intriguing to ignore. It made me think, if these players are all world-class No-Limit Hold'em competitors, yet, they still swear by competing in mixed-game events, perhaps they're on to something.

So, I swallowed my pride and started broadening my horizons. I entered a few Seven-Card Stud Sit-n-Gos tournaments and played in some low-limit Omaha and Razz cash games. I was terrible, facing constant berating from players who clearly knew what they were doing. I loved every second of it and for the second time in my life, I was hooked on poker. It was fun to play something different. Every Razz pot I dragged was a victory, especially since I didn't get the concept of "low" hand for quite some time (Thank you Aaron). I found I had some skill in Omaha High, probably a translation from reading dangerous boards in No-Limit Texas Hold'em. Stud continues to mystify me, but I continue to happily fire raises regardless.

No-Limit Texas Hold'em is still my favorite game and I don't think that will ever change. But playing in mixed games has improved my game. Limit-ring games have taught me the value of an extra bet and added to my ability to value bet in No-Limit. Omaha cash games have taught me the power of drawing and added to my ability to read boards. Even Stud, a game completely different than Hold'em, has taught me that bluffing is a valuable tool, especially when board cards look dangerous.

I'm a "remember my roots" type of guy. The No-Limit Texas Hold'em scenes in Rounders introduced me to poker and watching the game on television made me think I could play. Every poker book I've read was about No-Limit Texas Hold'em play and when I dream of cards, I picture having Aces in the hole and flopping monsters. I will not forget the game that brought me into the poker craze, but I admit I was wrong about mixed games.

All of the top professionals agree that the youthful surge in poker players has ensured the game is here to stay for years to come. But in order for the game's popularity to continue to grow, we all need to continue to evolve and do things that make the game appealing. The game changed when the number of players began to swell and now that poker is starting to peak, it needs to change again.

Like the great Rocky Balboa said at the conclusion of Rocky IV , "If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change" (I can't believe you convinced me to write that Aaron). Poker needs to evolve and I'm ready to carry the banner. Look for me in the H.O.R.S.E tournament at next year's WSOP. I'll be the one who's still smiling as I head to the rail in last place.


Mucking McLane

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