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Obviously, all games may be played with an ante, but it is often not mandatory for the game itself to be fun.

I've long wondered what makes poker so different from everything else: poker, when played without real money, instantly becomes boring and random. And what's even more curious is that even a very small amount of money in play (say, 1€ per player on an 8-player table) is sufficient to turn the game into a very interesting and very disputed battle.

Do there exist out there some other games that are meaningless when not played for money? I'm told that old timers always play backgammon with an ante, but I've played backgammon many times without, and found the game pretty interesting by itself.

So what's the big deal with poker?

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I realize that my question is very related to that one: boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/2076/… However, I'm more curious about what within the game rules is so different between poker and the-rest-of-the-world (and I'm completely OK with gambling at poker, as long as I gamble small amounts :-) –  Gyom Jan 7 '11 at 18:33
    
I've really enjoyed playing poker without real money. I don't feel at all that betting real money is "necessary" for poker to be fun. If anything, I think it can add a bit of a thrill, since now there is an actual risk involved. But that's an adrenaline thrill, not any more actual fun. –  Andrew Vandever Jan 7 '11 at 18:38
    
Sure, but still, from the comments of the question linked in my previous comments, it seems that some games (poker obviously, but to my surprise, "Uno" as well) kinda lose (some of) their interest when played with no "risk" at stake. –  Gyom Jan 7 '11 at 19:18
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From what I've observed serious Backgammon requires gambling to be an interesting game. Without gambling in Backgammon a major element of the game when played between highly skilled players is lost - specifically the doubling cube and the decisions about when to offer it. Between skilled players backgammon is as much about when to put the other player to the test by extending the doubling cube as it is about the "luck" of the dice rolls. Skilled backgammon players play a rather different game than what more casual players play. –  Shannon John Clark Feb 17 '11 at 23:43
    
The chips in a poker tournament don't represent real money, do they? They don't seem to be boring and random. –  DJClayworth Oct 27 '11 at 19:18
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9 Answers 9

up vote 23 down vote accepted

When you fall behind in a "for fun" game, the best strategy becomes to make high risk yet high reward choices. Essentially, if you are sitting in last place, you've got nothing to lose so you might as well risk it all for a shot at the top.

In real life poker, you are always in a situation where you have something to lose: your money. Every dollar counts, so players will not change their strategy.

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thanks for that crystal-clear answer. I think it pretty much sums up everyone else's. –  Gyom Mar 16 '11 at 15:51
    
It depends on the form of poker. In a tournament, then the loser might take this approach, regardless of whether they are using real money or not. But in a game where one is entitled to cash out, then a losing player might sensibly get out of the game when they're not doing well enough. –  Aaron McDaid Dec 5 '11 at 22:50
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Poker is a game that really isn't very complex. Once you have a basic grasp of some of the probabilities, you can sit down and start winning hands even against good players. There aren't very many ways to improve your odds of winning a given hand, important though it is to know what they are. For boardgaming types like me, who like a complicated tangle of rules and factors in which it's possible to maximize one's chances, poker in and of itself does not seem to be a particularly interesting game.

However, the very basic-ness of poker is actually what makes it a great game. Once you've established that the major appeal of the game is not in its rules, it's pretty easy to see what poker becomes about: you're playing the other players, not the cards. Poker is all about the psychology of reading, bluffing and intimidating the other people at the table, free of the need to master a really complex set of rules.

Now I (and, I see, others) would say that this sort of thing can be fun without the introduction of real money to the equation. But I can also see how real money does add something. If there's nothing substantial at stake, then the players are basically jollying along and not taking the game very seriously. If they lose concentration, go all in, and lose all their chips, so what?

I'd therefore suggest that real money poker is "more fun" insofar as, if you're pitting yourself against other players in a battle of deadly psychological warfare and stamina, you want them to be as focussed on the game as they possibly can be. A real money stake sharpens the experience for all involved. Makes the outcome actually matter.

If, as I've posited, there's not much more to poker than the psychological duel element, it will be highly unsatisfactory to play against people who are barely paying attention! Whatever else you want to say about money, it sure gets people's attention...

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The money raises the stakes beyond simply winning or losing a meaningless game. This is what makes the game. +1 –  Erick Robertson Jan 7 '11 at 20:56
    
Yeah, that's the point. Without money, you walk away from the game exactly as you were before sitting. With money involved (even if very little; we usually play 5€) you know what you do will matter (even if very little). –  Lohoris Jan 11 '11 at 13:44
    
Regarding other people are not paying attention, it also helps in that you don't really mind stopping someone flat when you are getting paid to do it. –  MrHen Mar 2 '11 at 21:39
    
There is an old saying that if you want to get good at a game, play it for an amount of money that will "hurt." –  Tom Au Jun 21 '11 at 20:19
    
When real money is on the table, the Kelly criterion and implied odds actually matter. I've found that you only start getting fiscally-correct betting when the returns cease to be trivial in terms of time (accrued fake chips) and money (accrued wealth). -- But then, I find Poker theory fascinating, so I've actively sought out answers to this question myself. –  MrGomez Dec 28 '11 at 3:01
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Aside from what others have said, certain variations of poker also take on very different aspects depending on the wagering structure and if there are stakes to back it.

A clear example would be Texas Hold 'Em, as played in one of three variations: Limit Ring Games, No-Limit Ring Games, and No-Limit Single Table Tournament.

A ring game is a "sit down, buy in for some chips, and play" kind of game. Each chip has a real, 1-to-1 correlation to a value of money. In a tournament game, sometimes called a Sit-and-Go, players all pay a set wager (say $10 flat) and get a set number of chips (say $10,000 worth of chips). Players compete until only one is left holding all the chips, and then the last few out (usually the top 3 players) get paid a percentage of the total stake. In a tournament, the required bet (the blinds) will increase constantly to add pressure to the game.

The way that each game is played, and the psychology of the players, varied quite a bit from each game type. In a Limit Ring game, top players will tend to be very technical in play. Since there is a limit to how much a bet can be, the correct play (check, call, fold, bet, raise) can be evaluated purely on a risk-vs-reward basis.

In a No Limit ring game, any bet amount is allowed at any time, but this actually makes most players very cautious. Since each chip is equivalent to real money, most feel an attachment to it and are afraid to bet too much, lest they risk a lot of money. Good players can use that restraint to "steal pots" by wagering a large amount and scaring people into folding. In contrast to the methodical play of Limit games, No Limit games require a bit of savvy in knowing how much to bet. Too much and you over extend yourself or scare off players. Too little and lots of players call your wager, and you risk that one of them will luck into a better hand than you.

Finally, in contrast to both the Ring game types are tournament games. A tournament still has the allure and risk of real money, but diluted into a large number of chips. It can almost feel like play money at times, and the play reflects this. Weak players will often wager all their chips on a long-shot, basically hoping to win a coin toss and win a big pot. A typical tournament game goes through stages: an early game where good players play safe while loose players bust out, a mid game that resembles Ring play, and a late game of high-stakes bluffing and luck to try and be the last one at the table.

Sorry, that was a bit long, but what I'm trying to express is this. It's not just the notion of real money being at stake that affects the way a game of poker is played, but also the structure of the game and how much "per chip" value the players have.

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Real money (or a real stake of some kind) makes poker more fun because it adds a basis for you to predict and interpret another player's actions.

When no real money is involved, a player's bet will not be based on any real risk and thus will not tend to reflect the strength of their hand. Their bet is correlated to their hand much more loosely, giving you less information.

Likewise, you are less able to influence the other players with your own betting patterns. If you make a big raise, there is very little reason for the other players to care - they can call your raise without any real risk, so they will tend to do so more often. That is, their responses to your actions are ALSO correlated to their hand more loosely.

Ultimately everyone at the table has less information to work with, so everyone's actions are more random and skill matters much less, making the game less fun for most people.

It's not much fun to discover someone stayed in the pot with a ridiculously lousy opening hand (like 2/7 offsuit) just because there was no risk involved. This kind of thing happens much more with the absence of real money.

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As wdypdx22 points out, the stake here doesn't HAVE to be money. There just has to be something at risk that the player cares about so that they behave in a self-interested way. –  lilserf Jan 7 '11 at 22:18
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Poker requires a "wager".

–noun 1. something of value risked or staked on an uncertain event; bet: to place a wager on a poker hand.

So, for poker to be fun or interesting at all, one must wager something with some sort of value. Usually it's chips or money. Could be anything, but it must be valuable in the context of the game.

Here's an example of a zero money holiday poker game. It's a holdem-tournament where all family members start with 100 chips. Basically, the top two winners get 1 week free from chores; and the bottom two are doing many dishes, shoveling snow, and taking out garbage. Believe me, the 10 and 12 year olds don't go "all-in" with crappy hands.

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Poker is a single game played with a cumulative score over a lifetime. It becomes boring without money because the score=money distinction has been seared into a poker player for years.

Hustling (losing small to win big later) applies strongly enough to a "play money" game, that it's never possible to determine someone's true skill when money is not involved. This also reduces the enjoyment.

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+1 for the interesting point re hustling. I'm not a big fan of poker generally, but that seems like a really interesting extra tactical layer - pretending to be worse at a game than you are so you can pounce later on - that's possibly missing from other games that I play. –  thesunneversets Sep 22 '11 at 9:27
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To add a bit to thesunneversets excellent answer, any individual game or table of Poker is not interesting in and of itself to matter with fake points. If you held a long standing leaderboard with fake points you could easily find a group of people who started taking the game seriously. Turning the fake points into money makes them matter again and succeeding a Poker becomes a long-term strategy over many, many games played.

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Poker, like Chess, is a lifestyle game. Most of the people who play it with any frequency rarely play anything else. This distinction is coincident with different mindsets in the majority of players than from players of other games. If you get a table full of "poker players" to play Puerto Rico together, the game will be very uncompetitive and random unless you add a money factor to it. Similarly, get a table full of modern board gamers together and you can have a very intense and challenging game of poker with no money involved.

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If your goal is to make money, and you are playing a game for nothing, the optimal strategy is to convince your opponents that they can beat you. You can accomplish this by playing poorly, winning but publically mis-analyzing why you won, or against better players by playing well but building in a few inconsistancies you think astute opponents will know and attempt to exploit in future games. This is why the game will be uncompetitive and seemingly "random", in my opinion. –  Cory Kendall Mar 2 '12 at 6:44
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the goal being to make money (which is a form of metagame) is a unique trait to "poker players". –  Sparr Mar 9 '12 at 5:55
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Poker doesn't need money, it just needs a way of keeping score, and money is a convenient way of doing that, although it has other advantages as well.

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