It Depends…

When that  fateful moment comes when we all go to the great poker room in the sky, they could do worse than inscribe on our tombstones this epitaph – “It Depends”. Because let’s face it, poker players seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in life giving it as a reply to every question so we might as well spend eternity mulling over it too…

It’s definitely an answer that you can’t miss whether you watch training videos, read textbooks or forum posts. And as I’ve been trying to upscale my study levels recently – hence my blog neglect of late! –  many is the time during my evening sessions that I spot these classic words. But I was watching last night a video that James ‘Splitsuit’ Sweeney did for the Red Chip Poker site (shout out to all my wonderful fellow Red Chippers!) in which he put a slightly different spin on the traditional ‘It Depends’ mentality.

I have a a particular fondness for James and his famously dulcet tones. As anyone who has used PokerTracker will know, his is the voice of all its various in-program help videos. And as I acquired PT4 almost as soon as I started learning poker, he has been for me right from the start, quite literally the voice of wisdom. It’s not quite divine tones booming from a burning bush but close enough 🙂

So I was watching his video from the RCP July Archives in which he talks about the aforementioned much loved ‘It Depends’ while in relation to “Always” and “Never” and how those three answers form a sort of structure which can help us as we analyse and study our play. Obviously he explains it a lot better than I can but basically he suggests a lens through which we should examine  every action we take at the table and then ask ourselves how it is placed within that ‘always, never, it depends‘ paradigm. What are those situations when we can say ‘I never call here’ as opposed to ‘This is always a raise’ etc.

But instead of me just regurgitating clumsily his thoughts on how we apply this concept to our game, instead it got me thinking – as of course poker often does! – about how it very much goes beyond the intricacies of hand analyses and in fact is what governs the way in which we choose to live our lives. For in the end, hopefully everything we do in some way helps us to work towards that classic ideal of all philosophers, ‘The Good Life’.

I know it’s very easy for us all without really thinking about it to fall into something of a post-modern mush in which we spend our wholes lives saying things like ‘It depends’ when faced by any problem. Or we mutter about how ‘everything is relative’ and how we ‘each have our own truth’. Nothing can be known and we just have to be nice to each other and polite and accept that everything is built on the shifting sands of ‘It Depends’…

And it’s true that much of life is not comfortably yes or no, black or white. Indeed, those of us who are not superheroes, live for better or for worse, in the ‘grey’ where all sorts of potentially dubious moral and ethical judgments are made according to the circumstances of the moment.  Pragmatism is often for good reason seen as an attractive quality and a flexibility in the midst of ever changing events is something to be admired.

Although I do still smile at my ultimately failed attempt to try to explain to someone once why her statement ‘There is without doubt no such thing as absolute truth!’ was perhaps somewhat self-contradictory 😉

But as Splitsuit explained in his video concerning poker (and so I would argue for life) there are times when it is useful to identify those moments when we can define clearly what actions we must take within a certain context. No wishy-washy prevarication but a strong affirmation of what is right and good. Which reminds me of something that I heard a rabbi say once…

 “Don’t be too much of an ‘ish’ person in life. The sort who says they’ll meet at 5-ish. Or describe things as ok-ish. Drop that ‘ish’! Don’t let it pollute your thinking so much that nothing is certain and everything ambiguous. The ‘ish’ mentality will dull the soul and brings a bland taste to everything. Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’. And if you agree to meet at 5 then meet at 5! And don’t allow your mind to fall into a state of ‘ish’…

Obviously he wasn’t just referring to people saying what time they would come to a party but rather, he was admonishing that wider lazy mentality which avoids taking a stand for anything while preferring that easy path of no resistance. But as both the good rabbi and James would argue, before we set out whether pre-flop or in life, it’s essential that we have a clear plan as to how we will act when faced by certain challenges rather than just hoping to aimlessly muddle our way through.

This is a vital skill if only to save time and live/play efficiently but even more importantly so that we can enjoy that happiness which  – as St Augustine argued – comes from the freedom in knowing that you are doing what is correct and right. And as all good poker players will know, the results should never matter. Satisfaction lies purely in knowing that we chose the best action with carefully applied thought and reason. The rest is beyond our power and therefore, to put it bluntly, not of our concern.

Of course as we get older, there is a danger that we get more and more set in our ways so we have to be careful we don’t impose red lines that must not be crossed on situations that would benefit from a little more flexible thinking.

Still, I feel there is a lot to be said for affirming and sticking resolutely to one’s own defined ‘dealbreakers’ especially when it comes to the vagaries of human relationships. I hope that I won’t incur Cupid’s wrath if as witness for the prosecution I offer as evidence this sorry (but very funny)  list of First Date Disasters to prove that sometimes, he’s just not right for you 🙂

So here is an impromptu selection of some of my ‘always, never, it depends’ guidelines for life. Totally arbitrary. Utterly personal. And arguably closeminded. But I have found that having them prepared and ready in my emotional toolbox  has on the whole meant that without too much wasting of time and energy, I’ve avoided all sorts of potentially ghastly situations and people.

The one that always comes to mind first and which I believe really is a good way of assessing a person quickly:

Never have anything to do with someone who is rude without reasonable cause or provocation to a waiter.  If they deride and treat such staff badly simply because of the job they are doing, it is a clear mark of unsound character.

Or there’s my own personal tip that I give to anyone checking out a prospective date or partner:

Never date anyone who is incapable of a good old fashioned belly laugh. If you can’t imagine them helpless with delirious tearful laughter then it’s doubtful you will ever be helpless in love with them.

Then there’s my father’s advice – in stark contrast the earlier piece – which has always put me (and my stomach) in tremendously good stead…

Always be good to the chef. Treat well those who bring you food, and they will look after you well. Be nice to those who feed you. Along with those who shelter you, they are the most important people in life.

Or if you want someone a little more illustrious to give you a rule to live your life by, I find this comment by George Bernard Shaw very useful. Particularly whenever I’m foolishly tempted to get embroiled in online discussions….

Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

And finally on a more serious note, I am reminded of the advice that a columnist I was reading the other was given by her father. Apparently he was never one to share any sage wisdom with his daughters apart from the one time when he asked them to sit down as teenagers and he said…

Girls, I want to tell you something very important that you must never forget for the rest of your life. If a man that you are with ever lays a hand on you, you must leave him immediately. And never go back. He will say sorry. He will say that he’ll never do it again. It will be a lie and you must never believe him.

I think that albeit on a much darker note, that last piece of advice is as good as it gets when it comes to an example of a rule that is very much not under the heading of ‘it depends’. Yes, there are many ambiguities and grey areas in life but as much as possible, we must strive to maintain a firm intellectual and emotional foundation upon which we can stand for what is right and true.

And of course it’s important that we maintain flexibility and that we are not stubbornly attached to pre-conceived ideas about how to tackle particular challenges. One of the marks of a good player is needless to say that ability to adjust to an opponent and/or table conditions and change accordingly. The goal though for us whether in poker or in life, is to be able when necessary to call upon past experience and learnt wisdom – while not allowing it to unduly cloud our judgment – and so make sure that we have a strong and stable framework of correctly defined responses to each potential situation facing us.

Whether I can manage this successfully in my own life? I guess you could say….

It depends…


Happy Poker Day

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot

What do you mean, you didn’t know today is Poker Day? You missed the memo? You didn’t see it marked in big red letters on your calendar?! Ok, don’t panic. You can still keep your poker license, you haven’t missed anything. It’s just another of those totally arbitrary and subjective things that I like to do.

But for the record February 2nd is – at least in my quirky little world – the auspicious day when I celebrate the first time I ‘came out’ as a poker player to some of my non-playing friends. It was when I realised a couple of years back that this was a game that was going to become very much a part of my life. Feb 2nd is also the Christian feast of Candlemas, marking – as it’s 40 days from 25th December –  the end of Christmastide but even I would struggle to squeeze an analogy out of that one! But hey, I never say never so something may come to me in the future 😉

And on this year’s Poker Day, I plan to mark it in the same way that I did last year. And it’s something that I would suggest to anybody as a useful psychological exercise, especially if you’re in one of those periodic slumps in your game and your confidence is being hit. I dug out the very first book on Hold ‘Em that I bought and flipped through it again. And as I did that I marveled at how what seemed like at the time incomprehensible pages of strategy and advice, was now perfectly clear. It all made sense. Now, that’s not to say that I am managing to apply it all perfectly but rather than that feeling of bewilderment, it was wonderful to realise that I had gained a familiarity with concepts that were once so mysterious.

So I would suggest that if you’re worried about whether you’ve actually managed to improve at all – which is a classic reaction during for example a bad downswing – look back at how far you’ve come. Find the first book or online article that you ever read. See how much you understand on a deep level now. Rejoice in what the game has given you. And in spite of the losses and downswings and hits on the confidence, remember well all that has been opened up to you by this amazing gift of Poker. Give thanks and although in one sense, we must never rest on our laurels and relax, it is also good to mark our progress and see how far we have journeyed.

And I hope that it’s obvious that such an exercise does not only apply to poker but to every element of our lives. If we can look at what we have done, what we possess along with all the experiences and people that are special to us and then celebrate all such blessings, we will surely look at life in a much more calm and satisfied way.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we just sit back and see it as an excuse to do nothing. Rather, it means we don’t allow our desire to better our situation to cloud our view on how good that situation already is.

And there’s no doubt that for me, poker has brought so many wonderful experiences, intellectual challenges and particularly in recent times with my venturing into the live game, a whole new social angle – all of which on this day of days I would like to celebrate.

So allow me to wish you a very Happy Poker Day. A most arbitrary of celebrations and unlikely alas to ever be a public holiday but I hope that you will at least take a moment to remember all that this most captivating – and utterly frustrating! – of games has given you.

And I leave you with the words of an old Dorothy Fields song that has been running through my head as I type this out. It’s a neat reminder that none of us are born experts or professionals. We all start with the same blank sheet. What’s important is not our origins but the goal to which it all leads…

It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
It’s not how you go, it’s how you land.
A hundred to one shot, they call him a klutz —
Can out-run the fav’rite, all he needs is the guts.

Regrets? Oh I’ve had a few….

I was at a dinner party recently when one of the guests proclaimed, “You should never regret anything! Regrets are poison to the soul! Drop them and be free!”

Clearly the person to whom he was giving the advice seemed pleased with this thought. But as with any absolutist statement, I felt uneasy about this definitive “truth”. Really? You should never feel regret? They serve no purpose at all?

Unfortunately the conversation moved on before I could properly tackle the subject – and thankfully before he could launch into his impersonation of Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien – but on the way home I had, while I’m throwing around random Frenchisms, that classic l’esprit d’escalier moment and wished I’d asked him if he would say this to a rapist. Or to the woman who had just stolen a pensioner’s life savings? Would he say to them that they did not need to regret their actions?

OK, those are extreme examples but even in normal daily life, isn’t it the case that we need to regret some things or else we would never improve? Not to mention the fact that without regrets, we end being dreadful companions to those around us. Because surely the only people who truly have no regrets are psychopaths – those who care nothing about how their actions might affect others and feel no sympathy with any distress caused. Without regret, how could ever understand the true consequences of our actions?

So how does this apply to poker? (A question which I fear readers of my posts will often ask!) Well, this results directly from from the end part of a tournament I played a few weeks back  Don’t worry, I am not going to labour you with my bad beat story although excuse me while I wipe my tears off the keyboard for a moment…

Suffice to say, I made some terrible decisions, allowed myself to be ridiculously outplayed and saw lots of what Sklansky calls clinically “mathematical catastrophes”. And boy, considering how my head was spinning with self-recrimination afterwards, if the Red Cross had a special Poker Emergency Response Team then I would have been calling upon them. And just for the record, with an acronym like PERT, how can there not be such a team?!

But as I calmed down, that feeling of doubt from the party then shot into my mind. Really?! No regrets? You don’t want to regret this? You don’t want to remember this pain? Because how else am I going to avoid doing it again? I can read all the books in the poker universe, but nothing can equal the visceral power of experience. I’d read about mathematical catastrophes hundreds of times but now, oh now, I really did get what it meant. And however much victory is memorable, surely our greatest moments of learning come from those times when we say from the depths of despair, “I wish I hadn’t done that….and I must make sure I will never do it again!”

Now of course, I am not talking about those times when we fold correctly some trash hand which then before our dismayed eyes turns into a full house. The constant advice to every poker player is rightly to keep focused on the play of the hands and never the results which means that we can never regret a correct course of action. However much by the vagaries of luck, it may have won in that particular instant.

But the moment that we try to nullify the pain of regret that comes from doing something we know to be wrong, then we already stunting the potential for our future growth. Even if I think about that session now, it causes me anguish when I think about how badly I played. Hell, I didn’t sleep a wink that night, running over and over again in mind all the ways in which  played badly. But at least that means I can  rest assured in the knowledge that if I do find myself in a similar situation, some sort of Pavlovian poker response should kick in.

There’s that great story about the actor and avid poker player, James Woods, being interviewed during some tournament where he talked about needing a rubber band around his wrist which he could ping “every time I feel tempted to play KJo from EP”. For without that short sharp shock, he’d be liable to forget the greater pain of those past mistakes.

Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the resonances with a very old tradition found mostly in England and Wales called ‘beating the bounds’. It was when a whole village would go en masse to the boundaries of the community and they’d take along with them a boy of an age approaching adulthood. And at each physical marker of the limits of the village, they would whip the child. Charming custom huh? The idea being that it was the only way for him to really know and feel deep inside the limits of his existence. He had to feel the pain to truly understand how far he could go. It was in a sense a form of aversion therapy – teaching in the most visceral of fashions what were the boundaries that should not be normally crossed without caution.

Ok, so I am not suggesting that any of you should be getting the whips out every time you sit in front of your monitor. What you do in the privacy of your homes is very much your own business, just as long as you clean up properly afterwards of course. But there will always be times when we need to mark hard those times when we stray from what we know to be the path of poker righteousness.

Human beings learn from experience. From when we were babies, we learn that certain actions lead to pleasurable results and thereby we decide to stick to those actions as much as possible. It only takes a couple of bursts of such pleasure for our neural pathways to cling stubbornly to the idea that that is what we should be doing from now on.

But of course poker is dangerous territory for this process, it being a game in which in the short term at least, the right course of action does not always lead to a favourable result. So much pain can come from what is in fact the right thing to be doing. So our experience must be analysed and tested constantly in the light of what is objectively the correct action rather than what our emotions might tell us. (A heartfelt shout-out to the blessing that is Pokertracker is required here!) How many times do we play in a certain way which intellectually we know is not logical but which perhaps won us a huge pot once or twice in the past and which we are loath to drop? How many times do we avoid action which our head tells us is clearly +EV but which due to some unforgettably cracked disaster at the hands of a villain’s trash holding, we hesitate to follow?

The trick is knowing what to regret and what not to. So I suppose we could argue that our friend at the dinner table was partially right. You have to drop the regrets about the bad beats, suckouts and all those catastrophes beyond our control. But on the other hand you must never stop regretting the missed chances and the lost value. For how else are you ever going to learn? You have to feel the pain and regret so as to not forget. It can be the spur to future action. For the best response to any grief or regret, is to use that as a foundation for a renewed dedication to further self-improvement.

Or it may just spur us on to write something, to help others in a similar bind while getting it off our chests. Which of course is exactly what I am doing now. So I could argue that I definitely shouldn’t regret what happened at the table that fateful night as in response, it got me thinking about what it means to regret and the ways in which something positive can come of that.

As to whether you regret reading this post all the way to the end, that’s a whole different matter which I shall leave for you to now decide 🙂

The Undiscovered Country

I was at a launch the other evening for the new book by Charlie Morley. Charlie is an expert on Lucid Dreaming which as you may know is the phenomenon whereby while sleeping, you become aware within the dream that you are dreaming and actively shape whatever course of action that you then choose to take.

It’s a fascinating subject and although Charlie comes from a Tibetan Buddhist background, it’s definitely not something which is restricted to those of a – to use the dread word – ‘spiritual’ bent. It’s nothing ‘woo’ and certainly doesn’t have to be anything weird or esoteric. It’s just the brain with all its mysterious power and untapped potential. And is yet another example of how little we understand about what is often referred to as being akin to an undiscovered country.

And although I don’t have as much personal experience of becoming lucid within my dreams as I would like, it’s happened enough for me to understand the varied benefits that it can bring. It is as Charlie says, a chance to ‘meet’ with one’s own mind and explore whatever desires and more importantly issues – psychological, emotional, intellectual etc – which we may wish to face and tackle in a totally safe environment. For what could be safer and more comfortable than within the ultimate virtual reality that is your own mind?

I am just glad to report that one of the most memorable ‘encounters’ with my own sub-conscious demonstrated the sort of humour that I would hope to find there. One of the techniques for encouraging lucid dreaming as part of a pre-sleep practise, is to ‘ask’ the sub-conscious to manifest itself as some form of guide or teacher within the dream. This can often be expressed as someone who we personally regard as a trustworthy voice in our lives.

Again, I must emphasise, this is not something magical. You’re not asking for help from an exterior force or being. Instead, this is simply addressing one’s own brain as you drift into sleep – rather like the process of hypnosis – to encourage a particularly receptive state of mind as you enter the deep sleep phase.

So when I did this, you can imagine my surprise and amusement on becoming lucid, I should find James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton of EPT fame floating into my dream. “What are you doing?” they asked.

“Um, lucid Dreaming?” I replied hesitantly.

“Sounds like a load of rubbish,” mutters James.

“I’d just stick to poker if I were you,” adds Joe. “Much more EV than lucid dreaming…whatever that is!?”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in the end, my brain will always suggest poker as the best course of action 🙂

But the reason why I mention the other night’s book launch is that it got me thinking again about this deeply mysterious and still vastly uncharted territory that is the brain. I say ‘again’ as it’s been a subject that has been particularly on my mind – as it were! – since my last post and the reason why to some extent, I have rather neglected this blog lately.

Around the beginning of December last year, my mother had a stroke and with that, she – along with all of us around her – were forced to contemplate in very real terms those aforementioned mysteries and complexities of the human brain.

As I said to my mother when trying to reassure her in the midst of her distress – “It’s like all those problems you had with Windows 7. Your operating system has gone haywire and the reboot is going to take a while… ”

Or for a slightly more scientific perspective on what a stroke feels like, if you have a little time, I strongly urge you to check out this amazing and very inspirational TED talk describing a stroke from the inside.

Which all served to remind me of what should be obvious to all of us – what an incredible and amazing asset our brain is. Something that in particular we as poker players must give thanks for. As I touched upon before in my comparison with Five-a-side Football one of the great virtues of poker is that it’s a past-time which at no point does the dream of success ever truly die. It may become more and more unlikely but – thanks to our potentially ever inquisitive minds  – the possibility of reaching the top is always technically within our grasp.

I was playing at my local pub tourney recently and there was the World Darts Championship on the TV. And the guy next to me nodded towards the fine figure of a man on the screen and says, “Look at that! Isn’t that great?! What other sport can you think of where you can be unfit, old, lead a degenerate lifestyle and still be a world professional…?”

I paused for the appropriate effect while gesturing around us…”Er, poker?”

“Oh yeah…Ha, forgot that!” came the sheepish reply.

I guess in my innocent poker buddy’s defence, in recent times there has definitely been more of a movement away from that classic bad boy lifestyle that was the norm for poker players. Although as I have touched upon before in this blog, there are enough Bilzerians out there to make sure the stereotypes don’t totally go away. But it’s much more common now for professionals to argue that poker is as much about the physical as it is about the mental; and the likes of Eugene Katchalov and Jonathan Little have been vocal advocates of the benefits of health and fitness for their game.

But of course, although physical stamina definitely plays a vital role especially for tournament players, in the end it’s the ability to maintain concentration and phenomenal levels of psychological equilibrium that really distinguishes the top level players. Although needless to say, the two are often linked in the sense that with physical fatigue, mental fatigue will soon follow.

Either way over the past few years there has been a lot more awareness of the necessity of mind training and a healthy psychological approach to the game. In fact just as I wrote that sentence, I note a tweet from Daniel Negreanu with a link to his article on the Buddhist Practise of Mindfulness and how it can help your game.

It’s fitting then to this discussion that just before Christmas I won in a  Red Chip Poker competition a copy of a book by Dr Patricia Cardner and the aforementioned Jonathan Little: Positive Poker which is at the forefront of recent texts detailing that push to recognise the importance of the mental aspect of the game.

Granted there are those who are always going to be cynical about something that can look a little bit too ‘new age’ or esoteric. And I am aware that even just in this post, I have used both ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ interchangeably when admittedly, the two words don’t necessarily point to the same thing, depending on where you stand scientifically, psychologically, spiritually etc. But I don’t think I have the space, time or for that matter intelligence to do justice to that whole debate as to brain vs mind so I hope you let me off that big philosophical hook for now!

Suffice to say, at least from a spiritual point of view, the nature of ‘mind’ and what that means is something that Buddhists have been exploring for centuries before science joined the discussion. So I will leave those finer points to such higher authorities 😉

Instead, to return to Charlie Morley, I am reminded of something he said at the book launch. “When I tell people about some of the benefits – even physical – that lucid dreaming can have, they say to me dismissively,  ‘Ah well that’s just the placebo effect.’ And I say to them, Just?! Just the placebo effect?! Don’t you realise how amazing the placebo effect is? It’s never just!! It has the power to change and heal in ways that we are only just beginning to understand!”

His point being that saying something is  ‘all in the mind’ is not necessarily a way of dismissing a result. The fact that it is all in the mind – whatever we may decide the ‘mind’ is – may be the very reason why it’s changing things for the better in someone’s life.

For example, as someone who volunteers at a hospice and so naturally has an interest in issues around pain relief, I love some of the studies that have been done with gaming and how patients need less pain medication when engrossed in a game. Which will come as no surprise to any gamer not to mention poker players for whom all sorts of discomfort and urgent bodily functions can be totally ignored for hours at a stretch 🙂 And what is that but the power of the mind to choose what should be worthy of attention at any given time?

After I wrote the above paragraph, I am reminded of the following quote from a professor of clinical psychology Paul Salkovskis, that I stumbled across in a newspaper article discussing depression.

Pain is an almost entirely psychological phenomenon, What is happening in your life will impact on pain. A fine example is soldiers in wartime getting a finger shot off and being carried off the field in a state of euphoria, laughing. For most of us, if our finger was shot off, we wouldn’t be laughing. Pain is made worse or better depending on your psychological state.

This is something that Buddhists were telling us long before any scientific studies had been done into the placebo effect and/or the ability to through suggestion,  train the brain to ‘switch off’ its pain receptors. Not surprising then so many poker players now realise that mindfulness and meditation practises are perfect answers to the problem of the ‘pain’ of tilt not to mention the challenge of maintaining concentration over long periods of time.

Indeed, the core teaching of the Buddha was concerning the unlimited power of the mind to shape and change the environment both within and without. The only restrictions are those that we choose to place upon ourselves. The horizon of opportunity is vast if we can only wake up to that reality.

So to finish, I want to leave you with one of my favourite images from that stressful period as my mother began her road to recovery. It was around two weeks after the stroke and although she had been discharged from hospital, she was going through a difficult time adjusting to the situation at home. But with some tough love – and a fair bit of nagging from me and my sister – we called upon those impressive reserves of mental strength, positivity and willpower that  we knew my mother possessed. With that, we got the promise that the next day she’d put on the make-up and her glad-rags and show that in spite of any physical debilitation, her mind was still ready for the fight. So you find below the proof of that determination to not be bowed by circumstance. And I know she will curse me for saying it, but for a woman of 82 – not to mention the stroke – I think she certainly showed herself worthy of that battle…

fruity lady

A reminder again that our mind’s power is boundless. That all of us can go wherever our imagination chooses to take us. And we are only limited by the limits that we have decided to attach to our thoughts. So here’s my belated New Year toast looking forward to a mindful year ahead with all its possibilities and opportunities. And as we celebrate that incredible muscle which is our brain, let’s put it to work and discover ever more of that undiscovered country.

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.


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…