The view from the rail

Here is another late post - so it goes. Today I had the opportunity to play poker with some old friends. I've mentioned this in earlier blogs, but a lot of the memories I have of high school are warm spring nights playing poker in a friends garage, pretending that we were all on the verge of being the next Chris Moneymaker. These days I hardly ever play cards, because I've come to the realization that I can not afford to gamble with money I don't have - I realization I hard to learn the hard way - but it is still fun to get together with friends and play for fun. I love the psychology of cards games. You spend enough time with a group of card players and eventually you'll see each of the players ticks, and if you are good at reading paper - a skill that I have never fully developed - you can use these reads to great advantage.

It was around the time I was starting college that the poker boom had really come into full stride. Almost every person I knew had started playing a weekly game, and every time I would go to my schools computer lab there would be two or three people playing poker online with real money. It got to be such a big deal that the school had to block all online poker games, I remember writing my first investigatory piece for the schools paper about how the poker boom was affecting peoples lives. I felt like a qualified person to write the article because, at that time, I was playing somewhere between two and four hours of online poker a day. Every time there was a long break between classes I would go to the computer lab and play, often times I would play in six games simultaneously, trying to win as many hands an hour as possible. Somehow this seemed like a good idea for me at the time.

Like so many people my age, at the time I thought playing online poker was a gateway to a better a life, a shortcut from having to do the hard work that it takes to get ahead in life. I thought all the work that I would have to do is buy a couple books on poker, learn some basic poker concepts like pot odds, implied pot odds, and show down value, and I would be playing like the pros in no time. I wasn't a complete idiot, I knew that the best online poker players were math wiz students, many of which had gone to prestigious universities like MIT and Yale, but with enough practice surely I could build enough skill to make online poker a steady source of income. There was an obsession that set in for a couple of months where I would play every hour that I was not either sleeping or in class. My grades started to suffer because I was not putting enough time and attention into the coursework, and - try as I may - I never really got better at playing online. If I had to guess, I'd say I probably ended up losing somewhere between $400-500 dollars in the months that I played. I just didn't have the traits necessary to be a great player. It was a bitter pill to swallow. What was even worse was how far I had fallen behind in school, playing so much poker during those years probably cost me a years worth of progress in school. It's embarrassing to even think about now. All things considered, however, I think I got away from the poker boom pretty clean.

There were a couple of friends who never got the message. They were not destined to be the next Phil Ivey or Daniel Negreanu, they were just destined to lose thousands upon thousands of dollars, and ruin there lives. There was a person who came to our friends weekly game and would lose hundreds of dollars in a game that must of us would pay $20 to play. I am not exaggerating when I say that I never saw this individual end a night with more money in his wallet than he came in with. I was not there for this encounter, but multiple people have told me that it got so bad his wife drew up divorce papers and told him he could either get help, or he could sign the papers and get the hell out of their house. I haven't seen this person in years but from what I heard they are still playing cards.

Everyone in poker has their "bad beat" story. A tale that usually involves the subject getting unlucky in a hand of cards and losing a large sum of money. My bad beat story happened a couple of years ago at a Casino. My friend and I had been going to the Casino every once in a while as a way to blow off steam. I had learned by then to never play with more money than you are prepared to lose at any given moment. My friend and I played almost all day, and I was probably playing the best poker I've ever played in my life. I was picking up tells on players at the table, to the point where I knew when most of them were bluffing - or lying about the strength of my hand - or when they had a better hand and I needed to fold. I was also getting extremely lucky with the cards that I was getting, which never hurts. After playing for around six hours I was sitting on $700 worth of chips, which wasn't bad considering I had bought in for around $100. The bad beat happened when someone form another table came over to start playing with us. This person had around the same number of chips that I had, and on the third or fourth hand played after he sat at our table, we got ourselves into a heads-up situation - meaning it was only him and I in the hand. I don't want to boar you with the specifics of the and so I'll just lay it out as quickly as possible - in bullet points!

  • My hand was two queens
  • His hand was 4 - 6
  • I made a big bet before the flop and he called, hoping that I would have the kind of hand I had, and would overplay the big pair - which I did.
  • The flop came 3-5-7, giving him what's called the nuts, or the best hand possible.
  • In my overconfidence I continued to bet into the other player, thinking that he would eventually fold whatever hand he had, because it was unlikely that he would have played cards that gave him a good hand with the 3-5-7. In essence, he had trapped me. He had outplayed me.

And just like that, i was out of $700 and a whole lot of pride. I'm not sure why I put all of money on a hand that could have been beat by so many other hands. It never occurred to me in that moment that the other player very well could have been playing two kings or aces, or perhaps could have caught three of a kind on the flop. These are mistakes that I would never make under regular circumstances, but the allure of winning another $700 blinded my better judgement, and it was in that single hand that I gained a whole new level of respect for how dangerous poker can be, especially when played for high stakes. That was the last time I have played poker for for stakes that large.

I don't want to come off as anti-poker in this piece, or make it seem like poker is a game that is just based on luck, and everyone who plays is doomed to lose all of their money at some point. There is a huge amount of skill that is exhibited by professional poker players, and I still find it fascinating to watch them play and discuss the game. Their understanding of high level game theory as well as their ability to make incredibly difficulty statistical calculations in the heat of the moment is almost other worldly. Watching professionals put their skills on display in $500,000 cash games is like spellbinding. They are able to make impossibly hard decisions with enough money at stake to buy several homes, it's almost sociopathic how easy some of these players make it look. I was looking up some information on a high stakes game that is played in Macau, China between elite business owners and professional poker players and I came across an article about a player winning $25 million in one of these games. Twenty-five million dollars! That's buy a yacht or small island next to Johnny Depp's small island kind of money.

Most poker players will tell that the most exciting part of the game are those moments in which you are standing on the precipice of disaster, where one false move could mean a harrowing plunge into ruin. This is not unlike the thrill seeking behavior that is exhibited in many kinds of addiction. It's what makes gambling fun. Even when I was playing for $10 today there were moments that got my blood rushing. Most of the other people at the table were playing with more chips than me, and I knew that if I wanted to keep playing with them there would be a moment where I eventually had to risk all of the chips in front of me. I waited for the moment that gave me the highest statistical probability of success and went all in a couple of times over the course of the afternoon. I'm happy to say that I did not suffer any bad beats and at the end of the day I walked away with double the money I bought in for. The real victory, however, was knowing that I would have had a great time hanging out with my friends whether I had won or lost.

I have a very healthy fear and appreciation for the game now. I realize that there are those people who are able to maximize their chances of winning money consistently at poker, but their skills are on such a higher level than my own that it would be fool hearty to think that I could play on their level. Even the most skilled pros go through streaks where they lose most of the money in their savings accounts, and it's not unheard of for even the best players to have to go completely broke - or bust as they call it. In fact almost all of the big name players have gone bust at some point, sometimes multiple times. To think that even the best pros eventually go bust, is enough proof that I made the right decision by putting all Rounders dreams to bed. I still appreciated all the things that make poker great; the split second calculations, the attempt to read the player sitting across from you, the idle chit-chat between hands, and - more than all of that - the morphine drip thrill of winning a hand in which you put everything at risk. The difference is now I appreciate all of these things from a safe distance, on the other side of the guard rail, safe from the edge of the cliff.