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Gamer vs Gambler Theory
January 5, 2005

Happy New Year Everyone!

Well, I'm hard at work on my New Year's Resolutions! I think I'm already doing well at getting better at Poker, having won my first tournament online of 337 players!

Yeah, yeah yeah, I know it was a freeroll, but you fight through 336 other newbs to earn the rank of top newb!


While I was playing in this tournament, I noticed a pattern in the way some people bet and played that helped me in deciding what to do against them in heads up situations. The more I looked at it, the more I realized this pattern of behaviour is applicable to Magic playing as well. While I keep reading about Magic players turning to Poker explaining how the lessons they learned in Magic helped them do well at Poker, I seem to be doing the opposite, go figure.

The theory I came up with is the gamer vs. gambler theory. It basically really comes down to analyzing the amount of Risk your opponent is willing to take for the reward. Poker has a number of variations of this in terms of Pot Odds, Implied Odds, Pot commitment, and willingness to All In, or call All Ins, which is where this came from.

While sitting in the tournament, I noticed that when someone would go all in against me, my first instinct was always to fold. Even if I had top pair, post flop, I'd bet on my opponent having two pair or a set, and lay it down. If I bet into someone, and they raised me all in, I almost assuredly would fold. Am I a chicken? Possibly, but I see very situations where I want to put all of my chips at risk, when I am positive slow and steady I can win the race.

On the other hand, I see people going All In in the weirdest situations with the worst hands. At one point in the event I had pocket jacks, the flop was j92, and someone across from me went All In. I called, not seeing anything that my opponent could beat me with, and he flipped over 10-9 off suit. He went all in with middle pair when I raised preflop. Ironically, the last two cards were 8-7 giving him a straight, but I was still astonished at this guys willingness to risk all his chips on a marginal hand.

A Gamer looks at the math, analyzes the odds, and plays a more conservative game. They want to play longer, because it will be more fun, and they like their odds over a longer game. A Gambler is willing to risk it all early and often, and the highs and lows for them are much greater, but the potential pay off can be much quicker.

How does this apply to Magic? It's the same kind of scenario. The best example to use is with blocking. You and your opponent both have untapped Grey Ogres, at are at equal life. Your opponent is tapped out. You attack with yours, does your opponent block? What if you also have a wall to block their Grey Ogre? What if your 2/2 is a  morph instead? What if it's a morph AND you are tapped out?

Using any of these situations, you can get a feel for their Gambling Level. Do they block, gambling that you don't have a trick to save your attacker? If so, at what times? If they are untapped, do you even attack? After all, you need to get a feeling for your Gambling Level as well. Once you can get a feel for what kind of risks your opponent is willing to take, you can understand what you can get away with when playing them.

If they're unlikely to block in situations where you have the possibility of tricks, they're playing it safe, and you can normally sneak in some extra damage when they are loathe to block because they hate to trade. You can sometimes push this even further, attacking a 2/2 into a larger creature and they won't block for fear of a combat trick that can both save your creature and kill their larger one. Keep in mind that they can do the same to you. If you seem conservative, they're throw in those creatures hoping you think they have a combat trick. Just like Poker, you can solve this best by changing up your game on a regular basis, throwing them off. I'll often let a lower power creature in once, then block the second time. It makes the player also second guess, thinking I may have drawn something to help me, and that I haven't really changed strategy.

The part at which this idea becomes the most valuable is during the Alpha Strike, or All In portion of the game. How often has your opponent swung in with everything, knowing you can then swing back and win, provided you survive his onslaught and still have enough to swing back with. What do you block? Do you block anything at all, as maybe he doesn't have that combat trick to kill you? Or maybe he has something to stop your retaliation strike. Was he playing reckless, and did he just over commit, or does he really have you? This is when your “read” of your opponent is the most important. If he's been reckless, likely you can let everything through knowing he doesn't have a trick to kill you, and you can swing back for the win. If he's conservative, you want to be very careful, and do what you can to stay alive, worrying about killing them later. If they've been mid-level, you probably want to block based on them having a trick, and retaliate only if the next turn doesn't mean you'll be dead no matter what.

Look at the top screen, which is the last hand of that event. How did I know this was the hand to go with. He had raised small preflop, and I had called. On the flop, I bet small and he called. He was a conservative player who would be scared out easily, and although he was big stack for most of the tournament, he never really knew how to use his stack. On the turn I bet small again, and he called. How did I know he didn't have anything? Because he had always bet when he had something. He would have raised me. He was unlikely to slow play, so I put him on an Ace, and sure enough when an Ace hit, he quickly went all in, assuming from my small bets I had at best a pair.

In Magic, the same kind of traps are easy to make. It can be as simple as playing the smaller creature first to try to eat a removal spell before laying your big guy, or on the other side  “throwing away” a burn or removal spell on a smaller creature while holding one for the big guy, making them think you are out of spells, and forcing them to over commit.

So, how do you use this idea? First, you need to watch your opponents a lot better than you may be now. You need to understand when they take risks and why, and then you can catch them by knowing what decisions they will make, and trapping them into making a bad decision in your favor. In addition to paying better attention to your matches, I strongly suggest you watch other matches, specifically the end of the games. As I mentioned earlier, the Alpha Strike portion of a game is the time when you are most likely to be able to pick up “tells” on players and how they act, and determine if a player is likely to play conservatively or “go for broke” for the win.

Second, you need to understand what kind of player you are. Go back through this article and answer the questions yourself. Determine how much of a Gamer or Gambler you are. Once you've figured it out, make sure NOT to stick to it. I'm not saying you need to alter how you play all the time, but go out of your way to make a decision that you normally wouldn't make, hopefully early on in a game. Make your opponent think you play differently than you do, then catch them on it later on.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into the psychology of players, and it improves your game somewhat. As I play more Magic and more Poker, I expect the two to collide more often as things I learn from one game leads into the other. Meanwhile, if you want to try one of the freerolls or play on the place I'm playing, you can sign up for the World Poker Exchange through Use that link so I get a referral because we all know I could use the extra five cents or so affiliates get.

Hope your New Year is great so far! See you next week!

Copyright 1998-2005


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