Why Play Poker? The Reason Why it is the Best Game in the World

why play poker?
I don't know about you but I haven't watched poker on TV in years. Something about it had just grown stale to me I guess.

But when I heard that a few big name online pros had made a deep run in this year's World Series of Poker Main Event, I decided to check it out. You can find every episode here on Youtube by the way.

Not only has the poker been highly entertaining but there has been one unmistakable character who has dominated the coverage and perhaps altered future live poker strategy forever with his "speech play" and ability to tilt the entire table.

But what struck me the most, especially as they played down to the final 9 (who are all guaranteed one million dollars), was the raw emotion involved. The unmistakable exhilaration of the victors and the crushing despair of those who made it so close but fell short.

It brought me back to something almost primitive about why it is that I still play poker. That is, the thrill of simply winning, no matter what amount of money you are playing for.

This Game Isn't For the Weak

Poker can at times be one of the most frustrating endeavors possible. You can play thousands of hands, study the game for hours on end and still hit a soul crushing downswing that will leave you questioning why it is that you even play this game in the first place.

It isn't fun to lose for weeks or even months on end but it will eventually happen to even the very best players in the world. Indeed, as I talked about last week, it is very possible from a mathematical perspective for a solid winning player to lose over a sample of 200k hands!

And with the lower edges in today's games it is even more likely to happen. Therefore, even over very large samples you can do far worse (or far better) than your actual long term results indicate.

The variance in this game is simply crazy at times. Poker is not a game for weak willed people. In fact it actively weeds them out.

I think the only thing that has saved me during some of my periods of darkest despair in this game is remembering what my "why" is. That is, why is it that I actually play poker? What is my motivation? What is the point?

And the only way to find out the answer to this question is to go back to where it all began.

Discovering Poker For the First Time

When I first found poker some 12 years ago it was like love at first sight. I was absolutely obsessed with the game. It totally absorbed every waking moment of my life for many years. This is still the case to a large degree.

What was it about this silly little card game that was so attractive to me?

Well, I think part of my answer is probably similar to many of you. I loved the thrill of the game, the excitement, the pressure and the psychology of it.

I was captivated by high stakes tournament poker on TV and the massive bluffs and all ins at the final table with a million dollars or more on the line.

I loved the fact that you could potentially turn a small amount of money into a very large amount very quickly by winning one of these as well.

But I think on a deeper level it was always about the competition for me. After years of obsessing over video games and playing sports competitively what I loved the most about poker was the simple act of out-smarting somebody else at the table.

I still see poker as more or less a video game that I get paid to play. The money is just a way of keeping score. I actually played for fake chips or "play money" for the first year of my poker career and I took pride in the fact that I was one of the first ever to hit 20 million (the limit on Pokerstars).

20 million basically worthless chips. I spent incredible amounts of time achieving this though. It was like reaching the top of the Starcraft ladder back in the day or being the first kid on the block to beat Mario 3.

There is no prize at the end. It is all just a sick obsession to be the very best.

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You Have to Step on a Few Heads

You can go ask any big name online or live pro why it is that they play this game and they will probably give you a similar answer to what I gave above.

You have to have an almost borderline obsession with being the best. You should know that you are the best player at the table or else what is the point of even playing?

The money is actually like the 18th most important thing. This is why I always kind of inwardly laugh when I see yet another forum post from somebody who wants to know "how much they are going to make" in poker.

These are almost always the least likely people to succeed because they are in it for all of the wrong reasons.

For the truly elite players poker is almost like a Darwinian survival of the fittest contest. Everybody at the table is the enemy and the goal is to bust every single last one of them.

I created a life like this by crushing somebody else's dreams at the poker tables (on many occasions):

It might sound crude or barbaric but poker is the ultimate form of human competition in my eyes because it is almost a straight zero-sum game with a clear winner and a clear loser in every single hand.

You should never hold anything back. You should always try to bust them for every last chip and what's more, you shouldn't feel bad about it either. You should totally and unapologetically enjoy the thrill of victory.

Indeed, as Daniel Negreanu once said, getting to where he is now required him to "step on a lot of heads."

By the way if you want to know more about what Daniel really means by this he actually goes into it a lot deeper in his new poker training course.

History is Written by the Winners

No matter how you look at it, nobody cares about the losers in poker, war, business or otherwise. Only the winners matter. Years from now we will only be talking about the person who ends up winning the 2019 Main Event, not the guy who came 3rd, 7th or 15th.

And the most beautiful thing about poker is that you can go and start writing your own success story whenever you want. There is a completely level playing field. The cold hard math of the game does not bend for anyone's will.

Sure bad beats and misfortunes will of course happen. But this is life. Nothing is fair here. Some will get the lucky breaks at the right times. But some will simply choose to work harder and make their own luck.

This is basically how I have always approached the game. I wasn't born with any special innate hand reading abilities. And as I have stated many times on this blog and elsewhere, I am not particularly good at poker math either.

Where I excel is in outworking my opponents. I play more hands than them and I put more hours into studying and improving my game. This is why I succeed.

Of course I have taken countless bad beats and coolers. I love it when people say that I am just lucky or that I "run good." I have played something crazy like 5 million hands at just the two lowest stakes online.

You know, the ones with the biggest donkeys on earth who will call you down with any two cards. I am not joking when I say that I have possibly taken more bad beats than anyone in poker history!

But what you won't see me doing is whining about it somewhere online or trying to blame some "rigged" site when things don't go my way. Again, this game has a habit of quickly weeding out people like that anyways.

I have instead chosen to focus more on the things that I do control such as improving the quality of my poker decisions and my work ethic at the tables.

Final Thoughts

I play poker because I love the thrill of winning. But more precisely it is about outplaying somebody else at the poker table because we all know that the pot doesn't always get shipped your way.

This is why I started playing this game and this is what carries me through when things are not going my way.

Sure I have been able to make large amounts of money by playing the game and also by teaching it in recent years. And this has allowed me to turn pro and even travel the world for many years now.

But that was never my primary aim when I first got started. In fact all I really ever set out to do was conquer the play money tables! Everything else came as a byproduct of my passion for the game.

I just wanted to win. I don't play poker for 2nd place. I don't play to make friends or to be liked either. In fact I have been called every name in the book over the years often as I am raking in their chips.

I think that is why Will Kassouf was such an interesting character to me at this year's Main Event. He truly does not care what anyone else thinks of him at the poker table and has a deep desire to win. I love it.

If being successful in poker is something that you truly want then hopefully this article might be that spark that finally gets you going. Go all in on your success or don't bother if you ask me.

And the best thing about this game is that it doesn't require much to get started. Just a simple strategy at the tables, a bit of table selection and some tilt control. How far you go is totally up to you.

And that is why poker is the best game in the world.

Lastly, if you want to know how to consistently make $1000+ per month in low stakes poker games, make sure you grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Why do you love poker? (or hate it?)

why play poker


  1. Nice words Nathan, couldn't have said better myself!

  2. Thanks again Nathan. I am in a point in my poker career that after a long time putting the hours(on/off tables) that i am questioning if i should continue or not. It is hard to study all aspects of the game taking it seriously, having done all the right things(or at least i think) and still feel that the game is beating me. It needs real courage and passion to continue. As you said in a previous article, it is really hard to get beaten countless times and still keep on trying.

    1. Hey jason,

      Ya you just need to assess what your goals are in the game. I write these articles for people who are serious about winning and going pro or semi-pro. But a lot of people just want to play for fun on the side too. Whichever category you are in, you have to decide whether poker is worth your time or not. Because it is a big time commitment either way.

  3. Great article Nathan. I've been thinking along the same lines in the sense that poker may be one of the last true meritocracies left. You get what you put into it and success is far from guaranteed. I wonder if you've read "Mastery" by Robert Greene. I think it would appeal to you; you might find parallels between his thoughts and some of your writings.

    1. Thanks Dennis! Haven't read that one but I am always reading something so I will keep it in mind.

    2. I just sent you the audiobook version via email to your dragthebar address. If you have time for it, I think its a really worthwhile book

    3. Great thanks Dennis!

  4. actually, poker is a negative sum game, not a zero sum game.
    due to the rake in both cash & tournament play, less money comes out of the games (to the players) than what goes in.
    back in the day, I played in weekly private tournaments on P* for $1, $5, $10.
    when we stopped playing & I reviewed the the history, the biggest single winner was the house.

    1. That is definitely true ekw. The house always wins the most in poker live or online.

  5. Anonymous04 November

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Poker is awesome. TO day i am playing very aggressve and stepping on some heads. Play time is over..lol. Thanks for sharing your story

  7. Very good indeed. A true 'Poker Manifesto'. Hey-ho, poker go!