For the next several weeks I am going to take up the issue of 'Problem Poker.' We will cover what heath care professionals say about problem gambling in general and we will take a look at some examples of 'problems' among both recreational and professional poker players. Most importantly, I will attempt to translate the generalized issues of problem gambling into language and examples that illustrate the differences that 'Problem Poker' presents; problems that are unique to the way poker is played and abused by poker players. Psychological and behavioral issues around poker are not synonymous with those issues addressed by the literature on gambling in general. "Problem Poker" is a unique set of personal and social behaviors; recognizing them will be beneficial to your enjoyment of the game and the health and well-being of yourself and your poker playing friends and family.
Before you stop reading this article because "you don't have a problem with poker" I would like you to consider this. Your goal at the poker table is to win money. One way we all know to win more money is to have a read on another player. If there are players with Problem Poker issues at your table, then reading them and knowing how they will play because they have a problem means you can outplay them. I know it sounds mercenary to use someone's problem to take their chips but you will exploit every other tell or weakness to gain an advantage, why not this one? And if you don't someone else at the table will. So you probably don't have a Poker Problem, which means this series of articles can only make you money. No, no don't thank me.
In all of my previous writing on poker, I have avoided any mention of problem gambling and Problem Poker. It has been my opinion, up until now, that there was plenty of literature, enough books, websites and 800 numbers to cover the issues faced by those players who "have a problem." Recently, however, I have changed my mind as more and more people have asked me questions about this dark side of poker. These questions have come from my friends and colleagues both poker players and non players. Very recently the questions have begun to come from the players themselves. I supposed when you put yourself out there as "The Poker Shrink" these questions are inevitable but when a professional poker player whose name is recognizable to the entire poker world asked me some very pointed questions a few weeks back, I decided it was time to address the issue of Problem Poker.
If you do a web search on "gambling" you are going to get a lot of hits for "problem gambling," not so for a search on "poker." We don't hear a lot about Problem Poker. I thought I would start by taking some time to address the unique issues that haunt the dark side of poker today. This will take a couple of weeks to fully explore but I would suggest that if you read these next few articles with an open mind you will recognize a friend or poker buddy in these descriptions. You may even see a bit of yourself in these examples. Poker is a great game, it's social and entertaining. Poker presents a profound set of challenges to a wide range of analytic and social skills. Poker is indeed a game that takes a moment to learn and a lifetime to master. Poker is also gambling and all of the holier-than-thou criticism we all hear from family and self-righteous friends and busy-body do-gooders has some basis in fact. The fact is that human nature leads some people to have addictions of all kinds and poker can be one of those addictions. It would serve us well to not hide from this fact of our nature.
So let's start with addiction.
Addiction is a mental or physical disorder precipitated by a combination of genetic, biological/pharmacological and social factors. Addiction is characterized by the repeated use of substances or behaviors despite clear evidence of negative consequences arising from the behavior.
Notice the terms "pharmacological" and "substances", addiction is too often thought to be only those behaviors associated with drugs, alcohol or other ingestibles, like tobacco. Often other "addictions" are referred to by the less severe term: "dependencies". Many people, both psychology professionals and laypersons, now feel that we should be speaking of psychological addiction in such areas as gambling, food, sex, pornography, computers, work, exercise and even shopping.
If the first step in a "cure" is admitting there is a problem; then the first step in addressing Problem Poker is identifying the behavior. Whether we call it an addiction, a compulsion or a dependency; it is the negative consequences that clearly defines the behavior. You don't have an issue with Problem Poker if you don't have any negative consequences from playing poker. But we all know there are players with big Poker Problems.
Next week, I will take up the distinguishing differences between Problem Gambling and Problem Poker.