Poker and culture


Games and culture

In 2003, as adjunct research professor, I thought one M.A. course at NPSIA, Carleton University. It was about multi cultural management. In one section, I used games as a mean to explain the difference in perception, life expectations, tactics and strategies imbedded in the games played by various cultures: Awele in Africa, Bagachal in South East Asia, Go in Japan, Poker in the USA, etc. In one group a student had to teach the rules of poker to fellow students from very different cultural background.

In an attempt to understand better the dynamics of inter-state conflict, two high-ranking French civil servants, Pingaud and Reysset (1995), wrote an insightful book comparing alternative approaches to what we might call « strategic games. » Their analysis compares the Asian game of Go, the European game of Chess and the African game of Awele in terms of their implications for strategic behaviour. They argue that these games exemplify the values, goals and behavioural patterns that characterize the strategic cultures of the societies whence they emerged. They further maintain that the ensuing « game strategies » feed back into and inform a strategic mind-set that prescribes the behavioural propensities of the countries concerned, thus further reinforcing their characteristic strategic cultures.

Here are some of the lessons learned from the art of poker .

Poker, most fundamental laws

The object of poker is to win maximum money. Poker is not a card game; it is a game of money management. Cards are merely the tools for manipulating money. From the smallest penny-ante to the largest table-stake game, all money goes to the good player. His key weapons are his mind and a license to use deception (within accepted conventions).

It is not a game of luck, although chance does play a significant role that must be taken into account by the good player. Probabilities as opposed to shear luck characterize the distribution of cards, and probabilities over the long run are evenly distributed among all players.

Bluff is one of the accepted deceptions used in poker. Bluff essentially means you may invest money on a poor hand hoping to incite other players, with potentially better hands, to abandon the pot by dropping out. Bluff is an essential component of the game: if a player never bluffs, then other players will know with certainty when he has good hands and they will drop out; in other words, if a player never bluffs, he will not be able to make money on good and very good hands.

Poker’s basic rules

From a normal deck of fifty-two cards each player is given five cards at random. These five cards provide the relative strength of his hand according to the table below.


The odds per pat hand and the ranking of hands in poker

Number of hands


Hands possible


Total hands possible





♠A, Q, 9, ♣4, ♠3,



One pair

3, ♣3, 10, ♣J , K



Two pairs

♣7, 7, 5, ♠5, A



Three of a kind

7, ♣7, ♠7, 5, A




2, 3, ♣4, 5, ♠6




♣K, ♣10, ♣8, ♣5, ♣4



Full house

♠7, ♣7, 7, 5, ♠5,



Four of a kind

♠7, ♣7, 7, 7,K



Straight flush

♠J, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7




Players are then allowed to place a bet on the chance of their hand to be the highest, starting with the first player after the dealer. His choices are to pass – not to place a bet, or to open the betting by placing money in the pot. The next player is then confronted with three choices: he may drop if he believes the bet is too high or his hand is worthless, he may follow, i.e. bet the same amount, or he may raise the bet. This goes on until all but one player have dropped out of the game leaving this player alone to take the pot, or players have equalized the bet.

Players who have not dropped out are then offered to change up to four cards out of their initial five, in order to improve their hand. The ranking of cards remains the same, however, this allows for increasing the odds of holding better hands. For example, if in the first round, a player was issued two pairs, say a pair of eights, a pair of queens and a seven of club, he stands a chance to  trade his seven with either an eight or a queen, thus transforming his two pairs hand into a Full house ( a very strong hand).

The betting starts afresh. The opener of the initial hand has the chance to open to pass. The next player may drop, follow or raise. This goes on until all but one player have dropped out (leaving him with the pot) or two or more player have made equal bets. In this case, they show their hand and the highest hand wins the pot.

·         Please note that hands are ranked according to the highest cards in each category and never by colour. For example, a two pair hand made of two kings, and two fours will beat a hand made of two queens and two 10. If the two hands are identical, (they both contain two kings and two fours), then the fifth card will determine the winner.

·         Also take note that you are seldom dealt a high hand on the first draw (or Pat Hand): as a matter of fact, 50% of hands contain nothing, not even a pair. And 92% of hands contain a pair or nothing. It is therefore important to factor into your strategy the changing of cards.


My 10 commandments of poker


No 1: Hazard does not exist in poker. Probabilities and many poor whining players are the only real things. He that says: “I’m a lucky player” is a solid looser (invite at your table) or a subtle bluffer (beware).

No 2: The first three elements to consider are: position, position and third, position.

No 3: A solid player is prudent but never sheepish, courageous but never reckless.

No 4:  Every bet is a new event that must be analysed as such. He that says: “I’m in so deep, I can’t let go” is a solid looser (invite at your table) or a subtle bluffer (beware).

No 5: Each bet is a fresh investment that must be relevant to the probability of winning.

No 6: Poker is a complex system based on three related elements: “Money management”, “Marketing psychology” and “Marketing tactics and strategies”.

No 7: A bet is a way to elicit strategic information. It also allows spreading information and manipulating players in order to limit the number of opponents in the pot and/or determine their state of mind. He that says” I made a small bet to keep everybody in” is a solid looser (invite at your table) or a subtle bluffer (beware).

No 8: A bluff occasionally allows winning big money, however bluffing is essentially a way to hide future good hands and make them pay. He that says “I always make big money at poker because I bluff a lot” is a solid looser (invite at your table) or a subtle bluffer (beware).

No 9: At straight bluff, he that enters with the best hand is likely to have the best hand after card exchanges.

No 10: Variants of poker such as Chicago, Spit in the ocean and other games, increase incongruity and chance; they promote solid and knowledgeable players who understand well the technique and probabilities of each variety. Beginners should be wary of so-called “dealer’s choice games” unless they are among beginners learning to play.


One student, of Asian origin, wrote these interesting observations after spending morning learning and playing poker with fellow students. This is reproduced without his permission as I have no way of reaching him.


Poker and Liberalism by Nan Feng


My impression of Poker game was that the fundamental principles behind the game seem to intersect with some intrinsic beliefs of the liberalism, which has prevailed American culture. I perceive that there are certain philosophical notions in Poker, such as capital management, individualism and legitimate deception that could find their prototypes in liberal market economy, though they experience a few subtle variations.

First, rather than a game of pure speculation, Poker is a game about careful planning of investment. It puts a particular emphasis on the players’ ability to pass judgment on the relative strength of his own hand and manage his bet accordingly. The chances of getting strong hands may vary across individual sets and across individual players. However, the average strength of hands in a long run remains governed by the law of probability and tends to equalize among the players. Therefore, the ability of an individual player to cumulate and maintain wealth in the long run does not rests with his gifted fortune but rather his discreet planning of when and how much to invest and divest his betting capital.

This in a large part is parallel to the investors’ reactions to the boom-bust cycles that keep repeating themselves in the market economy: investment would only be made in proportion to the likelihood and rate of return. A one-time windfall is possible but long-term prosperity of an investor hinges only on his persistence in rational planning.

Individualism is another salient feature of the liberalist paradigm, which believes in the cumulative and wholesome effects of individual “invisible hands” on the movement of the whole economy. By a great resemblance, the players in Poker game are encouraged to pursue their stark materialist ambition: to maximize the wealth of oneself as much as possible. For example, any individual player is given the freedom to enter and exit the game at any time point, without necessarily having to disrupt the progress of the game. This coincides with the concept of “leveled-playground” raised in liberalist paradigm, which advocates the removal of all barriers to entry and exit.

The liberalist paradigm and the philosophy of Poker diverge, however, when coming to the issue of cooperation. By contrary to another card game Bridge, Poker casts away the slightest sense of team collaboration. Cooperation among players, even under the pressure of a strong hand from a common opponent, normally does not generate any public goods and, therefore, becomes a less likely option. The “zero-sum” game, which increases the well-being of one single winner by reducing that of all his opponents, yields no incentive for players to share the benefits of cooperation. The liberalist paradigm, however, encourages cooperation among competitors, in the belief that the exchange of their specialized resources can lead to mutual well-beings.

Finally, the commonality between the liberalist paradigm and the Poker game also rests on their acceptance of deliberate deception as a legitimate tactic. While cheating is always strictly prohibited and seriously penalized in both cases (the foul players will be ousted), certain levels of deception is ethically acceptable and even becomes a legitimate tool to win the game.

“Never judge a book by its cover” is a cliché, but it is a good one. With some plants and animals, looks don’t just deceive, sometimes they kill. Poker is a game where it pays to make opponents feel all warm and fuzzy and comfortable when they are actually in great danger, and fearful for their mortal souls when they are actually safe as can be. Deceiving, tricking and outmaneuvering opponents can lead to their defeat. By the same token, a market competitor can and does legitimately mislead its rivals’ perception to the opposite of the reality by deliberately feeding him with the selective factual emphasis and uneven information disclosure.

Poker is America’s best known and most popular card game. “It became exceedingly popular in America in the mid 1830′s, spreading from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the east via the railroad.” If the historical context has any value in explaining the emergence of a certain game, then the fact that the game rose in the era and the nation became to be dominated by liberalist paradigm could partially confirmed my conjecture about the linkage between the poker and the liberalist paradigm.


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