Dutch Boyd has a fun discussion of poker quotes in his 2014 book Poker Tilt written with Laurence Samuels.
Boyd talks about getting interviewed for ESPN’s coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and how one particular moment ended up getting used to open one of the episodes. You probably remember it.
“Poker is lot like sex,” says Boyd. “Everyone thinks they’re the best, but most people don’t know what they’re doing.”
It’s a great line, and as Boyd explains, not necessarily his to claim. He says he probably first encountered a version of it in Andy Bellin‘s 2004 book Poker Nation, and that Bellin probably heard it from someone else, too. He references Richard Feynman saying something similar about physics and Virginia Woolf about writing.
“Quotes are, by their very nature, formulaic and unoriginal,” notes Boyd. The best ones get repeated… a lot. So much so their origins become less clear, and credit less certain.
Speaking of uncertainty, the origins of Texas hold’em are uncertain, too. In Poker & Pop Culture I write about the historical debates over just when hold’em first appeared. Some point all the way back to the 1930s or even before, while most target the 1950s or 1960s as more reasonable starting dates.
Whenever the first hand of hold’em was dealt, it is safe to say both draw poker and stud poker came first. That is to say, in the grand scheme of poker’s history, Texas hold’em is a “younger” game, even if it has been around for many decades.
No-limit hold’em has produced some truly terrific quotes, though. Here are five of the best and most memorable quotes about no-limit hold’em. All five could be called formulaic, and some are perhaps of uncertain originality. But each one is nonetheless eminently repeatable thanks largely to the kernel of wisdom it contains.
In fact, these five might well be the most quoted lines about no-limit Texas hold’em ever uttered. But don’t quote me on that.
Doyle Brunson shared this line in his 1978 book Super/System: A Course in Power Poker, originally published with the title How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker. By the late 1970s, no-limit hold’em had already established itself as a favorite of high-level players. Having just won back-to-back WSOP Main Event titles in which no-limit hold’em was the featured game, “Tex Dolly” was ready to take a position on the game’s superiority as a true test of poker skill.
At the time, the Cadillac was considered the ultimate luxury vehicle. That might not have been the case so much 20 years later when Mike McDermott quotes Brunson’s line in Rounders, and it’s certainly even less so today. But the point was still clear enough. No-limit hold’em, as Brunson goes on to explain, is “truly a game that requires very special talents in order to play it at a world-class level.”
Brunson’s massive section on no-limit hold’em in Super/System proved especially influential, and produced at least a couple more much-quoted lines about the game. One is when Brunson identifies what he believes to be “the key to No-Limit play as far as I’m concerned.”
“I want to put my opponent to a decision for all his chips,” he says.
That’s where Brunson also famously declares “No-limit hold’em is a game of position — and people.”
Here the “Grand Old Man of Poker” Johnny Moss provides a similarly memorable endorsement of no-limit hold’em. Like Brunson, Moss collected multiple WSOP Main Event titles during the 1970s — three of them, in fact, with two coming from wins in no-limit hold’em tournaments.
The line appears in The Biggest Game in Town, the great 1983 book by Al Alvarez. The book covers the 1981 WSOP where Alvarez spoke to many top players of the day, including Moss, to produce one of the all-time great poker narratives.
The context helps clarify Moss is speaking of the no-limit variety of hold’em, the one featured at Binion’s Horseshoe and the WSOP.
“It is a game of wits and psychology and position, of bluffing, thrust, and counterthrust, and it depends more on skill and character than on receiving good cards,” explains Alvarez by way of elaboration on Moss’ line.
The point is clear enough either way. While stud players may wish to argue otherwise, the analogy nonetheless persuasively argues for the complexity of no-limit hold’em.
This one also appears in The Biggest Game in Town, shared by Crandall Addington who like the other four poker poets on this list is a Poker Hall of Famer. Like Moss and Brunson, Addington was one of the original WSOP stars. He never won a bracelet, but made the Main Event final table seven times, finishing runner-up twice.
The quote makes two different observations, both insightful. Describing limit games as a science suggests the importance of math and probabilities, that is to say, observable and unchanging facts about the games such as a scientist might collect and interpret. No-limit, meanwhile, requires a different sort of creativity, here styled as art.
The second half of the quote presents a different analogy, though one just as memorable and inspired. There Addington likens the fixed betting in limit games to shooting on a range. Your opponent can “fire” back, of course, but the range of action is restricted. Meanwhile in no-limit your opponent’s freedom to bet whatever amount he or she wishes makes things less predictable. The “target” is less “fixed,” in a sense.
Some might note how Addington doesn’t specifically reference hold’em here, but again the context makes it clear that’s the game being discussed. Sandwiched in between the Moss and Addington quotes is another good one from yet another Poker Hall of Famer, Jack “Treetop” Straus: “No-limit is a test of intestinal fortitude.”
Many know this one from the late great Mike Sexton, one of poker’s all-time great ambassadors. You’ve probably heard different versions of it, including from Sexton himself on World Poker Tour shows. Sometimes hold’em takes five minutes to learn, other times ten. But this is how the line appears in his his 2005 book, Shuffle Up and Deal: The Ultimate No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Guide.
Even when reading the line silently to yourself, you can hear Sexton’s enthusiasm about the game coming through. “Trust me, folks. No Limit Hold ‘Em is the most exciting poker game in the world,” he goes on to say. “At any time, you can literally win or lose everything in the deal of a hand.”
The first half of the quote fits neatly with Sexton’s ambassador role. No-limit hold’em really is a game you can learn relatively quickly, which is one reason why the game has become so popular and (not incidentally) works so well and better than other games when televised. Here Sexton is emphasizing the game’s simplicity, at least in terms of the rules and order of play.
Meanwhile sentiment of the second part echoes that of the quotes listed above, endorsing no-limit hold’em as a significant intellectual (and emotional and mental and psychological and analytical) challenge. Sexton’s words also serve to remind poker players to remain humble. No one “masters” no-limit hold’em right away, and even the greatest players need much time and experience to reach a level where they might even entertain the idea that they have.
Anyone who has played no-limit hold’em more than once is familiar with the point 1983 WSOP Main Event champion Tom McEvoy makes here. We nod in agreement, remembering those times when we had to fight nodding off during a long stretch of inaction when playing no-limit hold’em. The line almost seems a companion with another oft-used expression when describing a big hand finally coming along: “I woke up with aces.”
The line also well exemplifies Boyd’s point about the most memorable quotes being both formulaic and not necessarily wholly original. Accounts of the First World War produced a number of variations of the phrase “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” The idea has been applied to other wars, too, as well as flying a plane or playing the outfield.
The line turns up in McEvoy’s 1995 strategy book Tournament Poker. In fact when it does, it shows McEvoy champ was fairly consciously using an already-known “formula” and applying it to poker.
“‘Hours of boredom and moments of terror’ aptly describes no-limit hold’em,” is how the line actually appears at the start of McEvoy’s chapter on NLHE. “Sometimes you will play for several hours without entering a pot when, suddenly, you get a hand and shove your entire stack into the middle.”
If you think about it, winning poker strategy often involves exactly this sort of borrowing and repurposing. You take something someone else has used to positive effect and try it yourself, adapting it to the situation before you. You imitate, then you innovate….
Feels like there might be a quote in there somewhere.