In 2018, New Yorker writer and psychologist Maria Konnikova took up poker as an experiment on luck and decision making. Within a year, she’d turned pro, won more than $200,000 (£161,312) and showed that you don’t have to be a sweaty incel to be good at the game.
As Maria says in the book she's written about the experience, The Biggest Bluff, "the clickbait headline almost writes itself". She's right: "I Quit My Job Because I'm Great at Poker" is exactly the sort of thing I'd click on, hoping to learn some secrets of the trade. But how hard is it, actually? Can I ditch my journalism career and get rich playing cards?
With barely any poker experience, my chances of quick success might not seem that great, but all my hard graft on Red Dead Redemption 2 has at least given me a basic understanding of the rules of Texas Hold'em, poker's most popular format and the one I'll be playing.
Although Maria began with even less experience than me, she had a couple of aces up her sleeve: a psychology PhD specialising in self-control and risky decision-making, as well as personal mentoring from Erik Seidel, who's widely regarded as one of the best poker players in the world. Speaking to Maria over Skype, I wonder if she can give up some of Seidel's secrets to help me on my way. "Nobody can be Erik," she says. "I'll do my best, but just know it is an impossibly high bar."
For pandemic-related reasons, I'm going to stick to online poker. Maria suggests low stakes games, which makes sense, as I don't have a lot of money to throw away when it all inevitably goes tits up. She also says I should play fewer hands than I first think, and be conservative to avoid falling into bad habits early on.
Be patient and play good cards – so far, so easy. I sign up to 888 Poker and play a few hands on small stakes cash games with Maria's advice in mind. I hold my own for a bit, risking less than a quid each hand, but I soon find myself bored and frustrated, and betting just to see which cards the other players have. This is a terrible way to play poker.
"Remind yourself over and over that none of this is personal," Maria says. "The cards don't care about you. The players don’t know who you are. It’s not like someone’s out to get you – and if they are, use it."
Although I lack Maria's self-control, solid temperament, attention to detail and PhD-level understanding of psychology, I do have something going for me: an insatiable appetite for grifting. To give myself a better chance of finishing the month in profit, despite being absolutely shit at poker, I try to take advantage of sign-up offers. Like matched betting with sports bookies, most poker rooms offer a cash bonus or free tournament tickets when you make your first deposit, and I aim to use these to kickstart my bankroll.
I get lucky in a free game of "twister" poker early on. Twister is a turbo-charged version of Texas Hold'em, where three players face off with a small number of chips, and whoever ends up with them all bags a randomly generated prize between £2 and £2,000. I go "all-in" on my first hand in one game and sweep up an easy £10. For a few smug, glorious seconds I feel like a proper card shark, but it's short-lived. I manage to win some other small prizes on twister games and last an hour or so in a couple of longer tournaments, but the measly amount I make isn't worth the hours I'm sinking into it – and that’s not just because of my terrible luck and lack of talent.
Online poker is not the free-for-all that it used to be. The game experienced a huge boom in the early-to-mid 2000s as amateur player Chris Moneymaker's $2.5 million (£1.9 million) 2003 World Series of Poker win catapulted Texas Hold'em into the mainstream. Its sudden jump in popularity meant poker companies had to fight for customers with lucrative sign-up offers. On top of that, all the new players throwing money around were easy targets that even moderately skilful players could take advantage of. But interest in poker has dwindled, and gambling laws in the US are now much stricter.
The general level of online play has also risen, as fewer new players enter the scene and technology has made cheating easier than ever. "The standard is very high nowadays," says Jack Taylor of Profit Accumulator. "Lots of bot traffic and people playing along with simulators as well – it’s one of the main reasons the bookies don't give out offers on it so much anymore. The average player value has fallen."
So, without the patience or aptitude to beat all the Russian quantum mathematicians hanging around online poker rooms these days, I turn to more nefarious methods and download a shady-looking poker bot to play for me. The website I get it from looks like its going to give my computer hepatitis, but the bot's easy enough to use and even comes with different profiles depending on the style of game you want to play. "You just need a consistent philosophy," Egor from BonusBots.com tells me. "Let the bot play and it’ll grind its way ahead."
I begin by using the bot in some small stakes cash games on Bet365. Progress is steady – it doesn’t seem to be doing amazingly well, but it's not making stupid bets like I did. I double my £10 deposit after a few hours and peak at £60 a couple of days in. Then the losses start. Egor had told me the bot is best for tournament poker, which requires a different tactic to cash games, but I didn’t really listen when it was winning. Once my profits are halved, I finally decide to change strategy.
"The software is attractive to online poker enthusiasts,” Egor says. “Not that many people buy it because they think it’s some kind of magic money-making machine, although we do get a few of those customers who are usually disappointed.”
Undeterred by Egor slagging off his own product, I enter a few tournaments. Down to my last fiver in one account, I buy-in for a £1 tournament and half-watch as the bot plays. A couple of hours pass and it's still plugging away. I’m hovering around tenth place – easily in the money once a few more players drop out, but still miles off the top. And then it just… keeps going. I win a couple of big hands and soon I'm in fifth place, then third, then second. Then there’s just two of us left. I’m still way behind the first-placed player and pretty content to take the £150 second prize. But the other guy goes all in on a few bad hands. He’s rattled. The bots keep winning until eventually the other guy has nothing left. I bag top spot and take £220!
In hindsight, this article should have stopped on the win, really. But quitting while you’re ahead is easier said than done. And the more I spoke to people about online poker, the more I kept hearing about a new generation of apps that have pushed the action into a semi-underground system of private clubs. Poker's boom days might be long gone, but apps such as PP Poker and Poker Bros are opening up the online game to countries where it has long been banned.
The apps do this by presenting themselves as free-to-play, providing a legal loophole to players in countries with strict gambling controls by allowing the creation of private clubs. Chips used in these games are assigned monetary value by the clubs, who use agents to recruit players and handle deposits and withdrawals via e-wallets or bitcoin. This has opened up the game in many countries where it was impossible to play before – and apparently some of these clubs are absolutely stacked with novice players who aren't scared about wasting money.
"You know, you get into one of these clubs, and from what I hear, they are just terrible poker players," says Egor. "It’s like back in the early days of online poker."
To play for money on PP Poker, you first need to find an agent who will let you buy into a club. It takes me a little while, but I search a few poker forums and find one based in the Philippines that’s accepting new players. I exchange £30 for 1,800 chips for one last blowout with the bot – then quickly wish I'd never bothered. No matter what I try – low stakes, medium stakes, tournaments – the bot loses. My chips soon vanish and it's time to call it quits.
After all that, I'm not going to sack off my day job for a life as a card hustler. But at least I managed to score an easy £200 with a little help from our future robot overlords.