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…