Updated on 09/17/2011 11:45PM

A game right up horseplayers' alley


NEW YORK - A generation or two ago, Daily Racing Form readers could find an occasional diversion from the Thoroughbred game within these pages through reports from the worlds of show business and boxing. Today's horseplayers do not appear inordinately interested in Broadway musicals or prizefighting, but more and more seem to be playing poker or thinking about taking it up.

So welcome to DRF's new weekly poker column, which will be written by an assortment of poker pundits, gambling theorists, and poker players trying to improve their game and yours.

It is no accident that almost every casino that has both a race book and a poker room has situated them next to each other. There is plenty of crossover, because poker and horseplaying are the thinking man's two gambling games of choice. Unlike other casino offerings, both are winnable through proficiency in the long run, not just via luck in the short run, for one simple reason: Both are games of skill where you are playing against the other customers, not against the house. If you play well enough and your opponents do not, a profit can be made despite the host's raking the pot.

Of course it's not quite that simple on either the turf or the felt. Both games are subject to random events that can temporarily negate even a significant edge. Just as a horseplayer's brilliant play goes up in smoke when a horse dumps his rider or bolts when his bridle breaks, a poker player holding aces can always be outdrawn by a nitwit playing a 5 and a 9 who stumbles into a 6-7-8 flop for an inside straight.

When any of those things happen, good players can go bad quickly in both games. A poker player who takes a bad beat often goes on tilt and begins playing 5-9 himself, just as the horseplayer who comes out on the wrong end of a photo often retaliates against cruel fate by betting on crazy longshots he knows in his heart can't win. Surviving adversity and losing streaks are cornerstones of success at either pursuit.

So are patience and discrimination. Decent hold 'em players throw away their cards four out of every five hands. How many horseplayers skip four out of every five races, or even two out of every five, even when confronted with inscrutable form that is the equivalent of holding a deuce and a seven?

Bankroll is a crucial and underrated factor as well. While both games can be played with either modest or massive buy-ins, an astonishing number of players choose the inappropriate card table or betting pool for their means. Someone with a maximum of $100 to lose in a poker or horseplaying outing should not be putting $48 into the pick six or playing in a $10-$20 hold 'em game. Some $1 pick threes or a $2-$4 game would be much better choices.

On the bright side, both games offer real opportunity for the analytical player who understands the rules and the odds. Both games have less to do with "good things" or "good cards" than they do with knowing when you're getting the best of a proposition. If you have a promising hand but you're getting pot odds of 2-1 when you're only 4-1 to complete your hand, you're supposed to fold. Smarty Jones may be your favorite horse, but at odds of 1-5 you're supposed to bet against him when his actual chances of winning the Belmont Stakes cannot be rationally held at better than 50 percent.

The next two installments of this column will be written by Pete Fornatale Jr. and Steve Davidowitz. Fornatale, a dual-game enthusiast, is currently working on the forthcoming book "Six Secrets of Successful Poker Players," and as part of his research is conducting in-depth interviews with many of poker's most successful tournament regulars. Fornatale will chronicle the lives and methods of the game's biggest winners.

Davidowitz, a pioneering handicapping author who has come to poker only recently, will share his experiences navigating the new worlds of online and tournament poker with an eye to a horseplaying audience. Other writers will join the rotation thereafter, in order to present as wide a range of voices, opinions, and strategies as possible.

If you're just not interested, feel free to turn the page. There's probably a race going off somewhere - and there's always the prizefights and "Fiddler on the Roof."