Conventional wisdom tells us that we should do everything we can to avoid educating the fish. This seemed simple enough to understand, and for the first six and a half years of my career I accepted it as gospel. If they don't ever play any better, they can't ever beat you, right? In an online session where you can always find a good game and might never see the same face again, I couldn't agree more. But what about giving away a few gems in a live setting?
Back when I played baseball as a freshman in college, my team ran an annual fund raiser called the “Night at the Races” at the local Elks Lodge. This was a rather embarrassing affair where we had to name a small wooden low-rider horse and then "ride" it by sitting on it and peddling our feet as drunken rednecks gambled on the outcome while bellowing out condescending vitriol in a smoky, cramped space. As if this wouldn't have been memorable enough, it was also the first time I had ever received gambling advice that was just dangerous enough to get me into trouble. Besides the veritable humiliation, the Night at the Races also spread notable sucker games such as Beat the Dealer and Parish-style blackjack. Though Beat the Dealer was fun enough at first, I was eventually drawn to the illusion of control blackjack offered that other games did not. Even though I was failing to exercise this perceived control at the time, the fact that you could handle your own cards and order the dealer to give you more cards seemed good enough. I knew so little about this game that I didn't even care what the dealer was showing, I just thought that the goal was to get as close to 21 as possible without going over, much like games of paper football in after-school detention.
It wasn't long after I sat down that I found myself in a tough spot. I had a hard 15 and the dealer was showing a 6. Though I didn’t care what the dealer’s up card was, I did know that hitting a hard 15 meant that I was likely going to be watching my dollar bet sliding into the dealer’s tray. A couple seats next to me was Paul Burke, our junior catcher and one of the team captains. He was a great player who would later go on to sign a professional contract with the Atlanta Braves and a person that all the freshmen looked up to. When Paul noticed my hesitation, he said, "Yelly- you have to expect that the dealer has a 10 for his down card, since there are more 10-valued cards than anything else in the deck." His basic credibility combined with some quick common sense told me that he was right. After thinking for a few seconds I decided to do something that I would never have done before- stand on 15 so that the dealer would bust. To make a long story short, the dealer did just that, I felt like a genius, and thus began what would surely become a very profitable career as a professional blackjack player. Of course, this would have been lovely, except for the fact that it never happened. Intermittently over the next 5 years, my little bit of "helpful" knowledge was enough to get me to keep going back for more at our local riverboat casino and bled me to the tune of about $80 a session, which was my average daily take as a waiter at Applebee's. How strange, I thought. Why don't I ever win when I am as good as I am?
In the stores of every casino lobby, for $1.99 you can purchase a small card that contains the correct basic strategy for blackjack. Ask yourself why a casino would sell such a useful item at such a low cost. Surely the players would play worse without it, leading to a greater short-term profit for the casino, but is allowing them to do this better than earning their long-term business? Does this card actually accomplish anything? Yes. It allows the owner to feel that he is smarter than his fellow tablemates, even though he is certainly not going to follow the instructions on the card 100% of the time (he’s psychic, too- don’t forget that). This concept is not lost on the casino. They understand full well the value of making that player comfortable within the game while still possessing an unbeatable, albeit smaller edge. They would rather keep the golden goose alive and hatching than to slaughter it for its meat.
But what about the complete novice poker player? Is he any different? Does offering this player (read: potential customer) a bit of sound advice or perhaps recommending a good book really hurt your bottomline? Should we really take the fly-by-night mortgage broker approach and punish them as harshly as possible on the first confrontation for merely being ignorant? Much as getting a hot stock tip hardly makes you a solid day trader, no green poker player has ever immediately started crushing the games after being taught that 92o sucks. Though Paul had no idea what he was doing when he gave me my first good tip about blackjack, he was definitely on to something...
Clearly, helping the semi-competent player who regularly wins the annual perfect attendance award at your local cardroom hardly makes any sense, but creating a long-term customer out of the curious gentleman who strayed a little too far from his regular craps game is sheer brilliance. Though his motivations for wandering into the unknown might not be entirely clear, two things are for certain: he wants to enjoy himself and he doesn't want to look like a complete fool. Obviously, berating this man's bad play is such a horrendous breach of good business policy that it warrants no further discussion. Likewise, being courteous and sportsmanlike should be so obvious that it also need not be mentioned further as well. But how about the heretical example of offering up a quick tip about something as remedial as pot odds or schooling him about the long odds of drawing to an inside straight and ask yourself which of the following it is more likely to accomplish: creating a dangerous adversary or potentially igniting a long-term interest into a game that on the surface seems so simple but is actually highly complex? How about recommending a good introductory read such as Winning Low Limit Hold’em by Lee Jones or Getting Started in Hold’em by Ed Miller? Will this man immediately stop donating to the Average Joe Poker Pro Fund or will this game instantly become more interesting than its upstairs 3-card variant on the blackjack felt?
From where I stand, I can only see the upsides to taking this approach. After all, these novice players getting their feet wet in the game for the first time can never usurp your knowledge when you are the source of that knowledge. You now know what they know, but they will never be able to grasp the depth of what you know and what it took for you to get where you are. The next time they come wandering through and there are several open seats around, don’t be surprised if they choose to sit with you for being the helpful and kind soul that you are. That tiny bit of knowledge that you drop on them will probably never be particularly helpful, but like Paul’s little blackjack tip, it might get them to keep coming back for many years to come. After all, as we all know, you can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.