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 🙂 ]

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