The Nice Ones Don’t Always Come Last…

I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, ‘I am going to bury you’.
– Seve Ballesteros

I was reminded of this quote recently when reading about a rather flamboyant figure from British gambling history – John Aspinall. He amongst many other adventures in his life, ran during the 60s one of the most exclusive casinos in London  – The Clermont Club. This establishment was particularly well known due to its connection with the notorious Lord Lucan who (after allegedly murdering his children’s nanny) went on the run and having never been seen since,  is now – officially at least – presumed dead.

But this is not about ‘Lucky’ Lucan – a man who depending on how you judge his gambling exploits not to mention his life – had arguably the most inappropriate nickname you could possibly imagine. Rather, it’s Aspinall that appeals and his approach to gambling in general but in particular poker. He started playing when he was at Oxford university but soon moved up from low stakes there to games populated by the very wealthiest of London’s gambling socialites.

And with their love for high stakes in mind, it was in  the 50s that he ran an underground game in of all places, a room at the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly. So if you ever find yourself in London and staying at that most famous of hotels, then do make sure you ask for Room 505 where said game used to take place. On condition of course that you invite me around for tea…

But what distinguished Aspinall was not only his love for poker but also the absolute charm and charisma with which he played. It was said that he “used his will to win” and as his biographer Brian Masters wrote, “He seemed possessed of a microscope to look into the soul of his opponent and understand his psychology”. Yet in spite of the huge amounts that he managed to extract, it was always done with such warmth and ease that he made sure it was a relatively painless operation. Indeed, it was often remarked that the players ended up feeling positively grateful that it was to Aspinall that they had lost their cash.

And this, I think, provides a lesson for us all regardless of the level at which we play. Whether you’re sitting at your local pub tourney or at the final table of the WSOP, I think that John Aspinall is a role model to consider.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am new to playing poker live and the great appeal for me of getting away from online play, is that element of human interaction. And as poker attracts such a diverse range of people, most nights at my local tourney leave me sitting at the table marvelling at how truly ‘all human life is here’.

On the whole, the atmosphere is friendly. People are there to have a good time, a drink and a laugh. Of course, we are all – like Ballesteros quoted above – intending to bury our poker buddies and the bonhomie of the evening never gets in the way of that ruthless desire to crush all who stand in our path. Yet it fascinates me to see those players who clearly think it wise to show such aggression and coldness in all their interactions even away from the table. Something that I find intriguing to say the least, considering the particularly low stakes at which we’re playing.

One of the bartenders – continuing that long tradition of what I call ‘set-em-up Joe’ wisdom – remarked to me the other night: “What is it with some of these guys? Looking so serious in their headphones, hoodies and glasses?! Don’t they want to have fun? And don’t they realise they’re not on TV….”

It was a good question but clearly to them, they believe it to be an effective strategy, even in a back street pub in North London. Yet I would argue that the example of the Aspinalls of this world would suggest otherwise especially in a context where new and inexperienced players will be present. Yes, you may think that intimidating the fishes is a great move but if you scare the whole pond away and make them feel unwelcome, then how will you ever get their money?

Mike Caro tells the story of a classic table bully he saw in action once who didn’t limit his aggression to just his style of play but also did everything he could to threaten, humiliate and abuse the other players. Which Mike could see, was having a disastrous effect on the atmosphere and thus the potential money to be won at the table. He describes how he caught up with the bully during a bathroom break and tried to reason with him, explaining that if he wanted to make money off these people, he needed to be nice to them or else very shortly they were going to get up and never come back. Not surprisingly, the man dismissed this as weak and pathetic talk and not in keeping with the hard image to which he was so stubbornly attached. So sure enough, the game soon broke up and all those juicy players went somewhere that they – and more importantly their chips – would be made to feel much more welcome.

We should never forget that we need those bad players. They are, as I always say, the long lost best friend that we have been searching for all our lives. Besides, poker – like any other game – needs a constant supply of new players coming to it to further its own existence. So we must always be welcoming to those who want to dip their toes into the (albeit shark-infested) waters.

If a player is worse than me, surely I want to do everything to keep them there at my table. I must make them feel welcome and definitely want them to enjoy themselves so much that the last thing on their minds is leaving. So that even if they lose, they have had such a fun time that they won’t feel a thing and will be back for more. And if they give me a few bad beats in the process then I must rejoice that there are still people in the world who are happy to chase a backdoor flush with 53o while I congratulate them – admitedly through gritted teeth – on their ‘nice hand’.

And conversely, if they are better than me, then I would argue that I still need to be friendly and get to know them better. I need to butter their ego, ask them questions, talk about strategy. Find out the way they tick. And learn from everything they do. Nothing says humble more than ‘Please show me how fabulous you are’ while studying every chink in their armour while you do.

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve been given recently is ‘always be very friendly to the person on your left’ as whatever their style of play, if they are enjoying your company while sitting next to you then it will often affect how they respond to your raises. It’s actually not too difficult to knock someone off their concentration by simply putting them at ease rather than trying to smash their walls down.

Barry Carter – the co-writer of The Mental Game of Poker – was asked in an interview on SkyPoker if he thought it good strategy to purposefully do irritating things during a game to put other players on tilt. His answer was that although granted it could have a short term +EV effect if it succeeded in disrupting concentration and so on; in the long term creating a tense and unhappy atmosphere is not going to be beneficial if it causes players to sit out or tighten up their weak play. Whereas, needless to say, a happy chatty comfortable table is one where the money can be flowing easily and without anyone necessarily noticing the pain too much.

Recently I was reading again an obituary for the much missed Barry Tannenbaum, a man whose poker wisdom continues to be relevant long after his death. He was by all accounts a much loved figure on the Vegas scene and as Linda Johnson wrote,

 He earned a reputation as being one of the toughest players in the game. Even though Barry was a big winner, players liked to play with him because he kept things fun.

“He kept things fun” – not the sort of thing that some poker player would hope for on their tombstone yet clearly it worked well for Barry. As it did for John Aspinall and I would hope for you too. Especially if you’re sitting on my left…

A Chip And A Chair

I was reading a tweet earlier by Ian Simpson about how he had been 10 bigs away from busting out but managed to spin it back up at the WPT. And in response I wrote my favourite poker mantra – Chip n a Chair!

And so I felt inspired to write this. But it’s going to be short and sweet. Yes, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that the one thing I don’t do is concise. I do long and broad. Short n sweet does not come easily. But for this simple mantra, that’s what’s required and what is deserved.

Chip and a chair – The poker player’s final refuge. And not only for poker, but for all of life itself.

It’s about hope. It’s about never giving up. It’s knowing that as long as you’re at the table, there’s no throwing in the cards while they’re still gripped in your hand.

It’s holding onto that dream. However weak and vulnerable it may be. However fragile and disheartened you may feel. It’s not over yet.

It’s rejoicing in the fact that everything that has happened – however bad – is long gone. It’s all over and in the past. Anything can happen. The future lies undiscovered and is up for the taking.

The cards have no memory.

Aye, there’s another mantra that I love – the cards have no memory. Each shuffle brings new opportunities. New flops. New horizons.

New hope. New dreams. New chances to grasp and win the future.

So it’s not over until it’s over. Until the final showdown.

A Buddhist went to Las Vegas (no, it’s not a joke – true story!) and he saw when he arrived a huge billboard on which was written…

You Have To Be Present To Win

To win you have to be here. In this moment. Nowhere else. The past is dead. The future is yet to be born.

All you have is this present moment. The NOW. Use it. Grasp it. Win it!

So it’s simple. I told you it would be. But I’ll say it again in case you didn’t hear me the first time….

A Chip.

And

A Chair.

Ok dealer, come on, shuffle up and deal!

We are ready to go….

Polar Opposites of Poker

Face Down Ass Up

One of the delights – and indeed horrors – of social media is the way in which people you’ve never had any particular interest in or moments of pop culture that you’d rather wish you’d not witnessed, are nonetheless thrust forcefully into your consciousness. The sensation being even more visceral when accompanied by a photo like the one above. For this gem from the world of Dan Bilzerian popped up in my timeline with the accompanying tag…

Face Down Ass Up

How very charming.

I couldn’t help contrasting this with a pic sent out recently by the man of the moment, Martin Jacobson…

jacob mount

This had been  tweeted in the days before his triumphant win and in one fell swoop not only sums up his winning philosophy but also – if I may add my own subjective critique of the photo  – invites us to see through his eyes the world that he sees. We are encouraged to take his perspective and become one with a landscape broad and wide, everything in its natural place. A glorious vista open to opportunity yet not there to be dominated or used wilfully. Rather, we are inspired to simply ‘be’. To sit and humbly ponder, to be at peace and in perfect harmony with the environment. To meditate on the natural wonder all around us. He – and in turn we – are at one for a sacred moment with a universe that stretches out before us.

And not an ass – of any sort – in sight.

For this photo, Martin attached the following tagline –

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Now naturally I am aware that it’s arguably not fair to compare what are clearly two very different individuals. Poker – like any other major activity – does not by any means demand a homogenous identity from its players. Also I recognise that Bilzerian is to some extent a self-created parody of the party animal. A manufactured image that is as much about branding as any other aspirational product (depending of course on whether it’s actually something you aspire to in the first place). And judging by the gushing tributes that his photos usually invite, clearly it is an image that appeals to a huge constituency of both men and women. Although admittedly the most fervent words of support seem to come from the sort of young men for whom this hi-octane brand of testosterone soaked bling is utterly intoxicating.

You only have to look at the faces of adoration and envy to see what an object of desire Bilzerian and this imagined life is for those who grasp – quite literally in this particular moment – after him. The posing, the posturing, the stylised pornography of an enhanced vision of hyper masculinity – it’s all there in the midst of the whoops of admiration and clamour. Read the retweeted messages and you will find a litany of devotion tagged with all the #booty #banter #yolo ‘s etc that a stud could ever hope for. All ending with of course the requisite #NoHomo. What I call the ‘methinks-ye-doth-protest-too-much’ hashtag…

I know though that it’s dangerous to harp on too much about role models and examples. Poker will continue to attract its fair share of dubious characters as will any sport that offers the huge payouts and all the requisite glamorous lifestyle choices that comes with that. And our game has always had its ‘dark side’ which famously Daniel Colman has been particularly keen on highlighting in recent times. But for those of us who believe very strongly that poker’s positive benefits – both to the individual and society in general – can potentially vastly outweigh the negative, it is not surprising that we would want to celebrate and laud those who embody what we regard to be the best examples of those beneficial attributes.

One of the things that I love about poker is how very mixed up its demographic is in reality. On the one hand, there’s the ultra masculine aggressive player of the popular imagination. A modern descendant of the sharp shooting (sometimes literally) cardshark of old demonstrated by the language and imagery we use to describe our game. But that is obviously not the full picture. Poker is also a game in which the geeks have truly triumphed and where the maths wizard can reign supreme. A world in which the nerds really are the cool kids to be admired for their success and ability at the table.

And it’s  perhaps good to add the slightly superficial note that although Jacobson may have the face of a Soho hipster, he has the toned body of a muscle Adonis. This is no weedy geek who will ever have his lunch money stolen by the classroom jock. His dedication to attaining a high level of physical fitness and strength is as pronounced as his commitment to his poker training. So it could be argued that he is in himself the physical embodiment of those contradictions that poker posits.

In recent years especially we have seen more of a push to accept poker for the physically demanding game that it can be  and recognise that the sort of health regime that players like Eugene Katchalov and ElkY – and now Jacobson –  have been espousing for a while is arguably as important to success as all the other more obvious forms of poker training.

But it’s the way in which Martin takes that goal of self-development and improvement even further, into the realms of emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity which I think offers such a positive message for other players. It’s the assertion that to be a good poker player doesn’t mean – to put it crudely – you have to be a thuggish asshole. You only have to watch the charm, class and composed manner with which a man like Jacobson plays poker to see that there are other routes to the summit. And it goes without saying, that there lies very much an alternative to the Bilzerian path.

Yet, in the end, we must accept that in the ‘house of poker’ there are many rooms prepared for all of us and there are many social and cultural tribes that gather under its banner. There is space for all of us. So we are of course free to pick whoever we want as our guide for that path ahead;  and for many, Dan Bilzerian offers a vision of a lifestyle that is the stuff of poker dreams:  a land of bottomless drinks, endless laughter and perpetually pert booty where your aces are never cracked and pleasure is always on tap.

And perhaps in this world of free choice and unlimited opportunities, that is as valid a dream as any other. Although if an impressionable young – or for that matter old! – player asked me which I thought was the better role model to emulate, I suspect my answer would be pretty clear. At least, I know which one is less likely to put a person on the path to ruin if not at least to rehab.

There’s an old Buddhist saying that the three great curses of life are fame, beauty and wealth  because of the troubles that human beings often end up with when trying to handle such ‘blessings’ in a healthy way. And clearly both Messrs Jacobson and Bilzerian possess all three attributes in spades. But I think of the two, I know which one I would put my money on being truly up to that task…

Playing to Play….while never letting go of the dream!

I was chatting to my good friend Karl the other day and as is usually the case when someone asks me how I am, the subject of poker came hustling into the conversation as brazenly as a Vegas cardshark. Karl doesn’t play poker but seeing that he’s the nearest thing I have in my life to a maths genius, he’s my go-to-guy for all the calculations and statistical problems that get me scratching my discalculic head.

Thanks to Karl, the deep dark secrets of EV, odds and fractions etc have been made a whole lot clearer over the past couple of years on the back of a cafe napkin or two. Oh and if by any chance Karl you’re reading this, next time we meet I fancy having a cosy chat about the pleasures of Std Dev. Oh what joy to look forward to!

So in the course of our conversation, he asked me a question that I found very interesting – “Charlie, do you play to play or do you play to win money?”

What I found rather intriguing was that contrary to what I would have imagined if I had had time to think up a measured reply, my instant response was that I play to play. Not to win. Which is odd considering the fact that I probably spend – for a totally recreational player at least – a sizeable amount of time studying and thinking about strategies which – duh! – are all about winning.

And if every time over the past two years since taking up the game I had sat down to a session and lost then I doubt I would be here today waxing lyrical over the delights of poker. I think even the most zen of mindsets would struggle to maintain a love for the game with that long a downswing.

Yet, that phrase – playing to play – stuck with me as it still sums up how I approach the game. Now clearly I write this as the true amateur poker player. It’s a hobby, a fun pastime, something I do to lighten up the winter nights of life. And so my experience of it is going to be very different from the professionals for whom this is a career choice and who need it to put food on the table. They certainly don’t have the luxury of saying that they play to play. Just as a professional writer would have a very different perspective to their craft than say, a humble waffling amateurish old blogger like….well, I’m sure you can think of a few examples 😉

Nonetheless, I don’t think there’s necessarily a Berlin Wall standing between the two perspectives. (And that may be my clumsy attempt at a topical segue but more to the point, damn is it really 25 years since The Fall of the Berlin Wall?! How to make a man feel old…)

Rather, I think that just as clearly professional poker players are endlessly giving us amateurs guidance, advice and examples of how to play, it’s not necessarily a one way street. And although what we offer to them is never going to be as directly useful to their game as the teachings we receive in return*, I would like to think that we can still now and then remind those wizened old grinders about this amazing game at whose altar they officiate daily.

For all of us, from day one of our poker studies, there are many invaluable lessons to be learnt – which hands to play, when to raise, never play against a drunk man with a short temper and big fists…(the last one being particularly important recently but that’s another story for another post…)

But for me, one particularly useful piece of poker wisdom was ‘never play with scared money’. That if you’re sitting at the table and every decision causes you to come out in a cold sweat because you’re worried about the amounts being bet and what it might mean for your bankroll then clearly you’re playing at the wrong stakes. For the obvious reason that you’re out of your financial depth but furthermore, following on from my earlier point, I would also argue that it’s not good for your emotional and psychological health. If there is no enjoyment whatsoever in playing then that is needless to say, a stressful situation and why put yourself in that for no good reason?

Now again, I accept that this is different for those looking to actually earn their crust from poker. But for the majority of recreational players, it should always be an enjoyable pastime. And we need to examine and question anything that gets in the way of that enjoyment.

But the truth of the advice concerning ‘scared money’ in one sense applies equally to amateur and pro alike. In that it recognises the importance of feeling at ease and comfortable in your ‘poker skin’ as it were. I can see looking back that the best games I have played in are those where I am happy in the place that I find myself. And not just because I am sitting next to Mr C.Station 😉

For when you can view the ups and downs of your stack with total equanimity, then with that comes a fluidity and flexibility that allows you to move with a graceful confidence rather than rigid fear. And as always the point is that as with poker, so it is with life. As many philosophers have taught us over the centuries – the more we move in fear, the more limited our actions become. And conversely, the more we relax and loosen up – watch those ranges though!! – then the more agile and adaptable we can be.

But before I end up sounding like the total Poker Pollyanna, I have to of course accept that the winning is a pretty crucial part of it. Or else as I said, I’d be looking pretty sad and monetarily rather pathetic if I’d never managed a win yet. As the old saying goes, poker is a game of money played with cards not a game of cards played with money. You only need to try the play money tables to know that it never feels the same. So don’t worry, I am not going to try to argue for a land of pink clouds and fluffy animals where Phil Helmuth never goes on tilt and Mike Matusow sings sweetly of his losses.

Perhaps though it’s my recent experience of live tournament play that partly caused me to give that answer to my friend Karl. The fact that regardless of result, the enjoyment of just being with a group of poker buddies is a reward in itself. Especially as you can stretch out your time at the table in tournament play, with just a normal conservative style, to a fair length so you can really soak up the atmosphere. Definitely more of a marathon than a sprint which as I always preferred long distances when running, it’s makes sense that I would prefer that. But considering how I write, are you really that surprised that’s what I like?!

But whatever game we play – as I mentioned before in my 5-a-Side analogy – the thing that distinguishes poker from so many other hobbies and pastimes, is the dream however small that we can always carry with us. And for this we have as our patron saint, St Chris of Moneymaker. The ordinary Joe, Mr Normal, the poker mate with his beer and chips who manages to win it all. That’s the dream for all of us.

And it’s why I always insist that it makes perfect sense that poker is the American game. Because this is the American dream manifested in a card form. Anyone can do it. Anyone can make it to that final table.

It’s why by the way that I never like playing in anything but dollars. It feels like blasphemy. Euros? A federalist sacrilege! And the Queen’s face is far too majestic for the hard-nosed business of buying them poker chips 😉

So it will always be THE American game. Indeed, it is by all accounts the  most popular and participated indoors activity in the US. Yes, even more popular than that one you just thought of….

Poker is the American Dream…but again, before I slip into Pollyanna mode, we must accept that like any mythology, the reality is always more nuanced. Yes, that’s what people say – anyone can make it! – with all the lashings of apple pie and stars and stripes forever that a fervent heart would want. But as in every strata of life, there are limits and challenges and massive obstacles in the way of many.

But – at least where poker is concerned – there is at the heart of it this fundamental truth that the dream is always possible. That we are never totally deluded when our minds drift off into a reverie imagining ourselves posing with our cards for the big win. I even have the soundtrack sorted, provided by the wonderful British band Elbow. Whenever I hear those forceful strings of my Fantasy Victory Song then I can already see myself lifting that trophy up 🙂

Daft imaginings? Yes, most likely but never beyond the bounds of possibility, It’s why when I had my first ever win at a live tournament the other night – as you may have seen with my very silly piece of tweet showing off – I couldn’t resist doing the classic pose for the camera. It may have been a tiny pub tourney but for me, it was a piece of that dream made real. And anyway, you never forget your first. As the show girl said to the dealer…

It’s why satellites are such wonderful blessings  – as Mr Moneymaker would no doubt agree – as they again extend the possibilities more and more. I thought about this last night when I won a satellite for one of the Micromillions tournaments and although I didn’t win the actual event – don’t worry I’d have told before now if I had! – the fact that I was able to get a seat at the table and taste that excitement and yes, the dream, was a wonderful experience.

So whenever I sit down at any table,  there’s always the knowledge that with determination, hard work and a bit of luck, success can come our way. And thinking about it, you could argue that those are indeed the three pillars of the aforementioned American Dream.

And to finish, there’s another classic American treasure that I am reminded of here. The US Constitution famously starts with an affirmation of the self-evident truths among which is the fact that we are all endowed three inalienable rights –

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

And it’s that last one that I always think is interesting: that assertion that we don’t have a right to be happy but we do have a right to pursue it in whatever way we see fit. And in the context of this current discussion, I would argue that I don’t have a right to win at poker. I am not entitled to any pot even if I do have pocket rockets firing. This is what Jared Tendler and Barry Carter call ‘entitlement tilt’. All those times we get angry because we feel we had a right to a particular win are not based in logical thinking.

So of course none of us have the right to win anything. But we do have a right to play poker – at least in my world we do  🙂 – and we have a right to enjoy it. Which means that if we do win a seat at the table in our cheeky satellite, and find ourselves wedged between Hellmuth and Colman, however much they might try to trash talk us, we have as much right to be there as they do. Whether we can stay there is another matter though and as always is in the lap of the poker gods…

So let this be my shout-out to all the recreational players out there who realistically may never give Negreanu a run for his money but who love the game nonetheless. And I guess a shout-out equally to those who have the talent for whom it’s more than just a dream, who have some realistic prospect of actually managing that one day. If so, never lose sight of the beauty of the game even while striving for that goal.

And all such limitations notwithstanding, all of us can still hold in our hearts the tiny flickering light of that dream. Weak at times, discouraged and vulnerable, but it should never stop burning. A dream of poker happiness that as long as there are cards to be shuffled and chips to be riffled, we can always pursue. While always hopefully remembering to enjoy the process along the way, right up until the last ever showdown.

And that’s one draw that even the nittiest of players shouldn’t mind chasing from time to time….

[*Of course I know what some people are shouting at the screen – the one thing that amateurs give to the pros which is extremely useful is our money at the table but that’s another matter 🙂 ]

Poker goes Pop! (B Side)

And as promised – threatened?! – the album has been flipped and the needle is about to be laid down on Side B….

6. Write down your ideas I have a stack of note cards sitting by my piano. The bottom half is blank and the top half has song ideas: titles, lines that rhyme, a staff with a guitar riff on it and so on. When I work with someone I’ll draw on these and it starts something. I made most of my solo album with the help of the cards, often beginning with something I might have written years earlier.

Well, I guess considering the medium that I am writing this blog in, this tip is pretty self evident. All of us who tap out our thoughts online or elsewhere are trying to follow this advice. Many is the time that my daily timeline brings me the most amazing tales of poker mastery which leave recreational players like myself openmouthed with admiration. Some will detail deep thinking and strategic thinking that proves that this game is truly one of the great intellectual pursuits of humanity. Others share their trials and tribulations, bad beats and downswings. And yes, they definitely have their place too!

But whatever the content, there’s always something here that will inspire, amuse, stimulate or help someone out there. And dare I say it, if you’ve managed to stick with me this far, I hope that in some tiny way, I can manage to share something worthwhile in the midst of my witterings smile

So let this be an impetus to anyone who feels like writing down their thoughts or ideas but for whatever reason has felt reluctance – there has never been a better time than now! As a well known sports manufacturer shouts at you on every piece of merchandise….Just do it!

7. Study the greats, get it wrong, go on your own journey For a while I would try to be inspired by songs I listened to obsessively, but what came out was completely different. That’s because the good thing about someone is the thing that’s impossible to replicate. So you end up doing your own thing, almost by mistake. I can never be as good as Duke Ellington, but I’ll get closer to it if I study his best work.

Sometimes I like to imagine my fantasy time machine transporting me back to the original golden age of poker’s emergence as the great American game. Wandering the dusty roads of the Wild West, hanging out with the likes of Poker Alice in Deadwood or white suited sharks on Mississippi riverboats. OK, there’s limits to that fantasy especially when I consider the absence of flushing toilets not to mention Wild Bill Hickok’s tendency to shove a gun in an opponent’s face if he didn’t get the cards he wanted. But still, imagine hanging out with our poker forefathers?

But just like the musical greats that Dan Wilson references, we are blessed in the fact that we have access to the wealth of knowledge that all the greats of poker history have left to us. And yet, we must ultimately call upon that knowledge while doing our own thing. Because in the end, we are the ones sitting at the table not Doyle, not Amarillo, not Sklansky. The buck – or more to the point, the chip – stops with us. And although we can have our heroes and role models, we have to walk the lonely path alone. Yes, we will fall and make huge mistakes and take massive diversions. But with the map provided by those heroes in hand, we can chart our own unique course. And as the Duke would agree, create our own Jazz riffs that suit our natural playing style.

Or as my mate Gav would say, it’s no use playing the drums if you have the lips for a trumpet. Which even if that doesn’t apply to your poker, it’s damn good advice if anyone ever asks you to join a jazz band smile

8. Don’t do it for the money Some kind of universal force has decreed that every time I’ve demanded upfront payment from a label, it’s been a bad experience. You have to take it on trust that a session will produce that piece of magic that will pay off somehow one day. This is a disastrous way to make money because so few songs do become hits, so you have to do it because you love it. It’s the only way.

Now I suspect that this tip is probably the one most likely to have you go ‘huh?’ Or other colourful expressions to that effect….

So yeah, am I mad for even including this one? The whole point of poker is surely to do it for the money, no? As it’s often been said, it’s a game of money played with cards not a game of cards played with money. Right?

Well yes, of course. I’d be a weird player if I suggested that winning money is not a major goal if not the only reason for playing. But I still come back to that perhaps idealistic belief that we play poker because we love this game. And that there are many pleasures that come from it which are not always related to the money. But hey, it certainly helps wink

For what is at the core of all the advice and strategy that is given throughout every teaching resource? The insistent belief that we are not results oriented. That it is all about the correct course of action in a given situation. That if the decisions taken are valid then it does not matter what the outcome was. That EV will out. And that it’s all about doing the right thing regardless of what happens afterwards.

And there is surely pleasure to be derived from that? From knowing that we have obeyed the laws of mathematics, probability and logic. That we have followed a perfect strategy and plan. There is a pristine beauty in that…even if we have to find it in the midst of the horrors of a bad beat. I can’t be the only one who looks back over a session and even if I’m down, be happy in the knowledge that I could not have done any differently and remained true to all that I have learnt.

So yes, I recognise that this advice may seem counter intuitive. Especially to those of you who are striving to make a living from poker and for whom as professionals, the advice “don’t do it for the money” might contradict the rather more pressing need to pay this month’s bills. But even if it’s your working life, I would still argue that there’s much value to be found in making sure that you never stop loving the game. As the old chestnut goes – “Do a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life”.

With that in mind, as much as you can, try not to lose sight of what it is about this game that first captivated you. And hopefully that’s not just the sound of all those chips scooped up. Although as I say, it certainly helps.

Which reminds me, there’s a wonderful concept in Judaism called lishmah – which means doing something just for the sake and pleasure of doing it. Not worrying about the results or whether you can get anything out of it. Just do it because you love doing it. And with that openminded and almost innocent attitude, all sorts of new discoveries can be made along the way.

9. Nobody said it was easy . . . Occasionally I console myself that any artistic thing I love was a huge process. There’s no great album, novel or film I love that was easy to make, even if they seem like they were, just like a great footballer makes it look easy. It’s the same with songs.

And do we need to be reminded that nobody said it would be easy? Didn’t that first book or intro article we ever read say that this is a game that can be learned in a few hours but will take a lifetime to master? But be honest – deep down, didn’t you think that maybe, just maybe that wouldn’t apply to you? That maybe it would all come easily. That you would be different. That you would take to this game in an instant and that all would come easily? Actually what am I saying?! Maybe you were different and judging by some of the stratospheric graphs I see online, clearly for some it was that easy path.

Well, that’s as maybe. But I know I am not the only one for whom it has not all been easy sailing. And nor does it continue to be. It’s a hard struggle at times and it’s taken a while for me to recognise that yes, they weren’t lying. At least not to me they weren’t! It’s not easy and nor is it going to be. It requires lots of work, striving, studying, playing and thinking. And I still need to remind myself of this fact especially when things are going just a little bit too smoothly and that poker demon voice says inside, “Hey Charlie, you shark you! You’re getting the hang of this at last!” And with that, oh what penance does ensue!

And how the poker gods like to punish such hubris!! If only to remind us that good things may come to those who wait but you have to work hard for them first. And let’s face it, the best things in life are always those riches that are only attained after great struggle. For nobody ever treasures the easy win. The best victories are those that come after much blood and toil. Just please don’t stain the cards while you’re at it…

10. . . . but it is easy when you’ve got it right The build-up to writing a song can be difficult. Finding something you care enough to write about is complex, you can find and lose your inspiration from one year to another. But funnily enough when you are in the moment, when you are at your best, it sails by. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ahhh that journey to Poker Nirvana! The mountains and valleys that we walk through in the quest to find our A game and be in the zone. For when the cards are running just right and position is perfect and the fish are swimming merrily and the chips just seem to flow effortlessly in the right direction towards us – doesn’t it feel amazing? Isn’t that the Promised Land that we all yearn for? It is after all the reason why we love this game so much. OK, those highs cannot be there all the time and sometimes their memory is an all too distant thing. But even when it’s just a faint recollection of a glorious upswing, it’s always enough to keep us coming back for more. For it really IS a beautiful thing. And we must never lose sight of that beauty.

OK, as always that was something of a quest! And again, as always I apologise for the long winded journey. But if you managed to get this far, I hope at least that Dan Wilson’s thoughts will resonate in some way or other. Whether that be in terms of your poker or just wherever your life may be leading you at this time.

So with the lyrics of an upbeat pop song ringing in your ears, may your poker always be top of the charts!

Poker goes Pop! (A Side)

I was planning to make my next post here a hopefully illuminating tale about a samurai and a zen monk…but all you Japanophiles will have to wait a little longer as I go on one of my tangents inspired by an article I spotted ages back in the Times. It was an interview with the song writer Dan Wilson, the man responsible for Adele’s worldwide hit Someone Like You and who was promoting his album, Love Without Fear

In the article, he gives his top ten tips on “how to pen a pop classic”. What has that got to do with poker, I hear you cry? Well, seeing that I never miss a chance to crowbar the game into any lessons of life then it won’t surprise you that I spotted some resonances. But I think you’ll agree that the advice he offers is actually pretty salient for whatever level we are at in the game.

So, here’s his top ten with my own humble offering of some added poker footnotes…or at least the first five as I recognise that even by my verbose standards, it may be a lot so here’s Side A of the vinyl first….

1. Write a lot of songs Write songs without concern of whether they are good or bad. Finish them and move on. Don’t worry about quality because once you’ve written 12 bad songs you’ll write one good one and when you write a hundred bad songs one of them will be really good.

Now obviously we all care about playing quality hands – although I do tend to forget that important point when the devilish charms of KJo UTG are too much to resist wink – and we want to play our A game at all times so we wouldn’t necessarily argue that it’s ok to play ‘without concern’ as to whether our game is good or bad. We see plenty of players like that at the table (or at least we really hope to!) so we know to what disasters such an attitude can lead.

But, there is definitely something to be said for getting out there and just playing. Especially at the beginning when finding your feet as a poker player. Get those hands – good and bad – under your belt. I can still remember vividly that panicked feeling when I first opened up a table and saw my first flop….and feeling utterly bewildered. Everything I had read, every inch of Sklansky Strategy went flying out of my mind and it all became a blur of colours and pretty pictures. A total information overload which could only be solved by getting into the deep end and splashing around wildly in a deluge of hand after hand. And after drowning many times, finally managing to float….not to mention smooth, flat and whatever other type of call you care to mention.

So yes, put the necessary work into study and theory while needless to say, staying within your limits and keeping an eye on that all important bankroll management; but in the end, experience is all. And that learning curve, even if it takes the decidedly depressing direction of a downswing, requires us to get out there and get dirty. For as Dan Wilson would surely agree, play 100 bad hands and one of them will be really good…

2. Get in front of an audience Figure out a way to play your pieces to people because when you do that there is an instant internal feedback process. You don’t even need people to say anything; you’ll know which one is bullshit and which one is really great. It takes the audience — and the terror — to tell you what works.

This is the first of the tips that definitely apply to every community – both online and IRL – which has at its core the study and discussion of poker. I don’t think I have ever read a strategy article or book where the advice does not include the suggestion that to improve we need to share, discuss and analyse together our game. It’s the great contradiction that poker is a pastime which can be at the same time intensely solitary – a shout out to all those valiant grinders out there in darkened rooms! – but one that brings us all together in one big weird, sometimes dysfunctional but always beguiling community.

But I would also suggest that the above advice also applies to those of us who play in live games. Knowing “which one is bullshit and which one is really great” is a skill that is even more important when you have your opponent sitting in front if you. And that unique ‘terror’ that can come from poker in the flesh – which I wrote about in earlier posts – will be a great educator as to what works. And again, the ‘internal feedback’ that he mentions is something that we all know is vital to improving at any level of poker play. The cards may speak their own absolute language but it’s the judgement of our peers that will help us become the players that we wish to be.

3. Forget about getting the number of that famous pop star. Cultivate your friends instead Help people move house, let someone cry on your shoulder, set up a gig with them, write a song with them. Every time someone tells me, “It’s about who you know,” I reply: “Yeah, it’s about who you know now.” Don’t try to find some big dude who will help you. Work with the people around you.

I love this one as surely it’s great advice for whatever we are doing in life? Instead of always thinking “If only I could hang out with that person, things would be SO much better…” we work with what we have here and now and find the treasures that can be discovered in this moment rather than some fantasy other-world. And that is definitely the case when we consider the resources and huge reservoirs of poker wisdom that we all now have access to.

Sure, it would be great to have Esfandiari, Negreanu et al on speed dial – “Eugene, I’ve told you before – stop ringing me when I’m busy!! “ – and pick their brains but again, as Dan W says, you must ‘work with the people around you’. Which means I guess that I should give up hoping that one day a certain pro will ask me out for a drink…<sigh> Ok, I’m too much of an optimist to let go of that particular fantasy just for the moment but that notwithstanding, I am perfectly happy to talk to the rest of you 😉

And let’s face it, although the idea of the “big dude” who comes along and helps you reach your goals is great, it’s all those “little dudes” who are with you every step of the way that truly deserve the thanks and appreciation for helping you get where you are today in your game.

4. Put in the hours, but get out there too After I take my girls to school I come back home and play piano for an hour, then I’ll start trying to come up with something. Songwriters spend hours staring at a blank page, despairing, but once you have a way in, all your history and experience comes into use. And once a week, have a beer with a friend. Force yourself to have a life because it all feeds in.

“Force yourself to have a life because it all feeds in” – I suspect that for many of us, this mantra should be carved into the wall above our computers. And above our office desks. And above anywhere else that takes up an inordinate amount of our time and energy. For this is a piece of advice that most human beings at some point in their lives should take to heart.

It’s easy to lose perspective especially when we are engaged in a lifelong pursuit of such power and attraction as that of poker. But the message is clear – that we are often strengthened and improved as much by our time away from the table as when we are playing. This is in a sense a counter balance to the advice given by the first tip but the key is to find the happy healthy medium between the two.

I note that increasingly throughout the poker world there is more of an emphasis on the importance of a good fitness regime showing how much the mind – and so in turn our game – can benefit from everything from a gym workout to just getting away from it all with a brisk walk or chilling out with mates. And indeed, as every bodybuilder knows – it’s in the recovery periods where the true muscle growth occurs. The guy who insists on training hard every day will soon find that all he gets is lots of injury, stress and not much progress compared to the wiser individual who knows when to rest and simply do nothing.

5. Feed your mind Input is really important. Culture is set up as a gigantic gift that you can then feed back into, which is why I’ve just been to hear an organ recital and have a look around the National Gallery in London.

Again, it’s all about what we feed ourselves with. Whether it be our body or our minds, we do not work and play in hermetically sealed environments. It’s all part of one big holistic picture and our poker being something that calls upon both physical and mental stamina, cannot be placed separate from everything else we are doing. Just as feeding ourselves with junk will have consequences for our physical training and well being, we must be aware of how we focus our minds and the resources that we call upon to strengthen our emotional and intellectual muscle.

Over the past few months, I have seen various poker players mention how for example meditation has helped their game. This should not be a surprise at all as any mind training can only help improve the sort of skills that are vital at the table. And we are not talking anything woo here. It’s not magic or calling upon higher powers. It’s the simple realisation that the greatest and most powerful tool that we have at our instant disposal is our mind. And that’s something that should be obvious to any poker player who sees this game as one of the ultimate tests of its power. So feed it well and see what that power can do!

And with that, I ask you to wait while I flip the album (extra bonus points to those who actually remember doing that) and put on Side B. Hoping that is, that you actually want to hear the other side….

Beware the Tilt Terrorist

I thought I’d share a personal experience concerning one of those subjects that poker players have talked about since the dawn of time. Or at least since when Doyle Brunson bought his first Stetson which is more or less the same thing anyway….

Yes, tilt – the potential bane of all our lives whether you’re the newbiest of beginners or the latest King of the WSOP Hill. Either way, it’s lurking out there ready to feed you a dose of that bitter tilt juice. And my, how some of us like to sup from that cup!

But for this particular cautionary tale, I wanted to talk about tilt from a slightly different angle. First though, I’ll set the scene with a clear ‘don’t try this at home, kids!’ warning. For before I even started playing the other night, I had already broken all the cardinal rules of a healthy poker mindset – I was tired. I was in a bad mood. I was a little bit drunk. I was expecting the game to cheer me up. I had a fixed idea of a particular amount of cash that I hoped, no, wanted…no, even worse than that, believed that it was my poker god given right to win. I came to the table with so much dangerous baggage that I might as well have saved time and just asked everyone for their bank details and where to send the money.   The only thing wrong that I didn’t do was pick a table full of coke fuelled Russian maniacs. Oh wait, judging by some of the action, I think I managed to do that too…   All in all, I was not in a good place in poker terms. The sort of place that means even when in position, I was SO out of position mentally.

So sure enough, a couple of hands got a bit messy and then it was all going to be downhill from there. The fatal spiral of mental anguish and frustration leading to the wild and wonderful plays that you know are wrong and yet feel so good. And which your now silenced voice of reason will tell you always ends in stack destruction.   But then something happened. If I wanted to get all esoteric about it, I’d almost call it a moment of grace. The Argentinian guy to my right took to the chatbox with a deluge of trash talk. This man was steaming. The abuse was torrential. And it took me a couple of moments to realise that it was all directed at me.

There in full-on high definition quality was every sort of colourful language and vitriol to make a fainthearted soul quiver. And mostly the F word. Yes, gentle reader, he was using that most offensive of words. The ultimate taboo. The thing that makes our poker hearts tremble with hurt. Yes, he called me a fish.

Clearly he was upset about something. It’s not as if we had played directly against each other much so far in this session and when I checked Pokertracker, the last time we had played was almost a year ago. So either this man was one to hold a grudge for a ridiculously long time or my play was really getting under his skin.

But here’s the interesting thing – his words were like a bucket of virtual ice cold water. The blast of his abuse literally woke me up from my stupor. It was like in the movies when someone’s screaming with shock and the doctor strides forward and slaps them across the face. (Tangential note – am I bad for always wanting to get the chance to do that? Just once? Um, ok don’t answer that…)   Well, I definitely had no longer lost control now. The last thing I wanted to do was prove him right so I instantly tightened up. Everything shut down as I was determined to not be the fish at the table. I concentrated on my play and although I didn’t really win back any of the money lost, the key thing is that I didn’t lose any more. And every time I laid down a mediocre hand, I looked at it and knew instinctively that 10 minutes previous it was one that I would have played. And probably be slaughtered by.   And it wasn’t just me who was affected. A couple of others at the table who had been the sort of valuable weak passive players that are gold dust for keeping the money flowing seemed to freeze up and then subsequently soon left.

The guy had managed in the space of a couple of minutes to poison the atmosphere and change the whole dynamic of the table including crucially of course my own path to self-destruction.   So this is why I said that this post was not about how dangerous tilt could have been for my own play. However valid of course that warning is for all of us. Tilt can of course seriously deplete our bankroll if we allow ourselves to steam off into the land of trash hands.

No, instead I wanted to focus on how my opponent allowed his lack of self control to ultimately result in a loss of money. The Argentinian guy was clearly tilting. He was angry about something and not necessarily just me. Perhaps he’d had a few bad beats or maybe like me earlier, he’d come to the table in the wrong frame of mind. Whatever the reason, his blowing up was disastrous for his win rate in this particular session. But not because tilt led him to play bad hands or bet size wrongly. Rather, his tilt stopped us from giving him our cash.

I dread to think of all the money that he could have won off me – and the others at the table – if he had remained quiet and had allowed the dangerously seductive friendly atmosphere to continue. Instead for the sake of some short term pleasure that no doubt came from getting all that vitriol off his chest, he basically killed the golden egg laying geese. And I certainly don’t want to be a goose never mind a fish.

And in stark contrast with him, I think of another player I see regularly at the tables. A guy who never fails to compliment an opponent on their winning, how ever ridiculous the play, how ever awful a suck out. He’s always there with a ‘nice hand’ or ‘well done on that draw’. To the extent that sometimes I think that even Mother Theresa would probably be screaming by this point about these goddamn lucky fishes!!!

But of course it shouldn’t come as any surprise that although he seems to have the patience of said saint smiling as he sees a big chunk of his stack taken by another 72o hitting their full house, in the long term he’s a formidable winner. And I have no doubt that every time he’s writing ‘nice hand’ in the chat box, at the same time he’ll be writing yet another note to himself about the ridiculous play that he just witnessed. While knowing – as we too should never forget – that the very existence of poker relies upon such players. And we should do nothing to scare them away.

So there’s the moral of the tale. However tempting it may be to lay into the fish who just rivered that magic card; however satisfying it may be to show the resident sucker your superior grasp of the game and however much you want to teach the aquarium the error of their ways, just remember the economy that drives our poker society. Remember the flows of money and where it all comes from and why it pays to be nice.

Of course I am extremely happy that he lost control in such a way. Not only because it saved my skin but as a reminder to myself to never stop welcoming those who in the short term may do me wrong but who are in the long term the dear friends that I never knew I had 😉

Oh and just in case by some weird cosmic coincidence, a certain Argentinian is reading this, I would like to take this opportunity to say….

“You cold called a UTG raiser with J6o and you call me a fish?!”

Thank you. I already feel a lot better now I’ve got all that off my chest 🙂