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 🙂

Make a Stand for the Human!

Make a stand for the human! It’s a phrase that over the years has become something of a personal mantra which I will throw at bemused friends and strangers alike. And although I’m not quite at the stage of standing on a street corner with it written on a handmade sign there’s still time yet for me to become a total evangelist against the virtual. For it’s a piece of unsolicited advice that I regularly share with those who I fear are unduly attached to all things social media…like er, twitter, blogs, online poker…              [edit: you have permission to throw back at me the equally valid admonition – physician, heal thyself!]. 

I think the first time that I ever said it was when talking to someone on MSN Messenger  – how about that for a blast from the past?! – and after about half hour of soulless tapping away at a keyboard, it suddenly occurred to me…we lived less than a mile away from each other in a city like London which offers, as no doubt the spirit of Dr Johnson was reminding me, “all that life can afford”. Cafes, bars, parks, casinos, lap-dancing clubs…you get the metropolitan drift. And yet, here we were reaching out across the virtual waves while sitting in our hermetically sealed isolation pods. How very Brave New World.

So I suggested that we ‘make a stand for the human’ and meet up IRL as it were. And so we did at which point I remembered what an irritating man he was in person and why we usually stuck to online chats but let’s move on from that particular example in case it destroys the whole argument of this post before I’ve even started…

I was thinking about this on my way yesterday to what is clearly set to become my regular local poker night*. As you may have seen in an earlier post, I experienced during the recent EPT London for the very first time live tournament play with – to put it mildly – somewhat mixed results. Or to put it slightly more bluntly, it was an absolute car crash of panic and bewilderment.

I had heard that the transition from online to live is a testing one but nothing prepared me for the shock to the senses that is sitting at a table peopled by real life human beings without a screen, mouse and instant pot calculation to shield one’s vulnerability. I managed to cling on to about the 6th level of Blinds by simply descending into such a state of paralysis that if I had got any nittier, I would have ended up with a minus VPIP. My brain felt rather like my laptop on being updated to the latest Windows but without even at least the ability to make a nice plinky plonky starting up sound.

And yet, there was something in the experience that I found wonderfully exhilarating. Something new and fresh. An awareness that I was catching a glimpse of a whole undiscovered vista of poker, a world of real people, laughing and talking together rather than avatars and cursors and trash filled chatboxes.

What? Poker is a game played by living breathing human beings? Who knew eh? Bet that’s a shock to all the internet kids…

And that’s the irony of course. We’re talking about poker –  a game that according to some theories about its origins may be more than 200 years old of which only around 15 years has been dominated by the internet. And yet for many, particularly the young ‘digital natives’,  say to them the word poker and it’s only ever viewed through www tinted glasses. For many – myself included until very recently – poker was in one sense very much a solitary activity mediated by clicks and taps.

And undoubtedly, the internet has brought huge benefits and opportunities to the game. A whole generation of players who would never have had the nerve to step into – and more importantly stay – in a casino have found an easy and safe route into learning and improving their game. In the same way that people who would have never dreamed of placing a bet on horses or football in a bricks and mortar bookmakers can  now access such gambling portals from the comfort of their own home. It has been a huge bonus both for the industry but also for those who have discovered – hopefully in a sensible and healthy way – such pleasures.

Furthermore, the internet has opened up new avenues of profit for the legion of hardcore grinders for whom poker is a serious career path. A choice of profession which would be much harder to maintain if play was limited to the physical realm where playing 25 tables at once is rather difficult without the handy power of bilocation.

But still, that voice demanding that we make a stand for the human can be heard crying in the internet wilderness. A voice whose clarion call I really noticed on that fateful night during my EPT tourney experience. A voice which compelled me to not simply give up on live play – as was I must admit partly the temptation – after having such a bewildering time.

It helped that I got to speak during EPT to some great professionals whose primary experience is still very much rooted in the live play scene. Namely, Ian Simpson (he of Irish Open winning fame) was a huge inspiration with his obvious love for playing live and the aforementioned enjoyment that comes from being in the same room as your opponent. Yeah, totally rad 🙂

So thanks to such encouragement, clearly I wasn’t prepared to give up just yet on live play. I did some research and discovered much to my pleasant surprise a weekly tournament in a bar ridiculously close to my home, geared more to beginners – beginners in the sense of those transitioning from online to live, rather than to the game itself. Yes, yet again, those poker gods were smiling on me!

And that is where I was heading again last night and it was on the way to it, after receiving a text from my mother that I thought about writing this post. She said in her message “Enjoy your evening!” rather than ‘good luck’ or ‘hope you win’ etc. And that got me thinking how I actually wasn’t really bothered about winning, that it was all about just enjoying the experience.

In fact I was of course fully aware that with all the various tugs and pulls of variance, even with good play it would be perfectly possible for me to be busted out relatively quickly. But that truly didn’t matter because nothing was going to change the fact that I was going to be hanging out with other poker players watching and learning how they play while getting used to all those practical issues that had befuddled me before. And that was enough to excite and appeal to me.

This was an opportunity whatever happened to immerse myself in a poker environment. And with a beer in my hand while hanging out with a great bunch of people who I could talk hand ranges with – could it get any better than that for a poker nerd!? Ok if you read the footnote below then maybe yes 😉

And what a great night it turned out to be again. It was my second visit there and in that time I’ve met everyone from  diamond dealers to trainee journalists to yesterday’s Carlton and Abdoulie – two clearly up and coming actors who brought as you’d imagine a great vibe to the evening. And as we all sat at the table, sharing wit and wisdom – while making light fun of couple of the more serious types in shades 😉 – I felt like I was discovering anew what a wide and varied range of delights this wonderful and frustrating game can bring us.

Still, I find it somewhat ironic that I am writing this today after the reported news of planned changes to payment structures etc by  Pokerstars which clearly are of great concern to many online players. And in spite of my paean to the joys of the live game, I understand the disastrous implications that such changes may have for the livelihoods of many players and I share their concern as to what it will mean for them.

But reading some of the comments today, I was a little bemused by talk that ‘poker is dead’ or ‘there is no future for poker now’. Yes, I can see that the future of internet poker – particularly with the added confusion of varying regulatory regimes around the world – is problematic for those at the relatively higher levels.

Yet, in a sense it only goes to underline further my point about the live side of the game. It’s rather like when football at the professional level is criticised for various excesses and people will try to argue that football is dead. Well, that might be the case at the premier level etc but regardless of what happens up at those hi-octane heights, down here at the foot of the mountain, as long as there is a patch of open space and a ball then people will kick it around and have a damn good time doing so.

Or to think of it in another way, the music industry has over the past ten years faced many challenges and continues to struggle with how to monetize what it produces. Which explains the famous ‘Bowie Doctrine’ in which David Bowie over ten years ago predicted that musicians would have return to touring and concerts in order to make money. In other words return to their live roots which of course is what is happening now. People may be unwilling to buy music but are more happy than ever to go to gigs – from huge stadia to tiny upstairs venues – and rediscover the enjoyment of sharing that social experience.

Likewise, whatever happens in terms of professional players – and again I share the concerns of my friends at those levels –  it will always be a very different situation for recreational players like myself, for whom this very unlikely to ever be a career path.

And looking back over the long history of poker, it’s clear that that has always been its beauty. From sharp suited card sharks on a Mississippi steamboat to grizzly workers in a Manhattan backstreet bar to refined ladies in Macau – the game is there to be experienced and enjoyed in whatever way people choose to access it.

Of course this being said,  I will continue to primarily play online. It will likely always remain my my main ‘venue’ of choice just for reasons of ease and comfort. But I am glad that my experience of the game has been opened up even further in a suitably old school way 🙂

For underlying it all, is my point that we as human beings are social creatures and what has set us apart from the rest of creation are the myriad ways in which we can connect and cooperate with each other, whether that be hunched around a fire discussing where the best mammoths are or shooting the breeze over beer and cards. And as long as we walk this earth then there will always be a place for poker in creating and maintaining those connections.

So as someone who on the whole likes to be optimistic about life and feel positive about the future of humanity and even more importantly, loves poker more than anything else, that’s more than enough reason to continue making that stand.


*As a footnote, in case you hadn’t already seen me tweet my shameless piece of self-congratulatory egotistic promotion (hey, it’s Twitter – such things are written into the T&C!) then perhaps I should mention that I ended up winning the tourney last night. Ok, not exactly WSOP and it was a fun night so we were all out to enjoy ourselves and not necessarily play totally seriously but still, if there’s a moral to this tale – apart from keeping it human  – it’s the old classic wisdom: if at first you don’t succeed…. 🙂

身の程を知れ!! (Know Your Position!)

I started my studies of Japanese nearly 30 years ago and the very first phrase that I ever learnt – for reasons that are rather lost in the mists of time – was the one above: 身の程を知れ!! Mi no hodo o shire! 

It’s normally translated as Know your place! but needless to say in the context of a poker blog, I think that ‘position’ is a much more apt choice for the phrase. Either way, they were words that back in the days of feudal Japan you wouldn’t necessarily want to hear especially if you were a lowly peasant that had committed the fatal error of getting in the way of your friendly neighbourhood samurai warrior.

Within the strict restraints of a heavily hierarchical society like that of say, 16th Century Japan, your place was what defined and limited your entire life. You were never allowed to forget from the moment of your birth to your death where you fitted in and what you were allowed to do and say. And a phrase like 身の程を知れ!! was an ever present warning to those who might contemplate stepping outside of the normal bounds.

So it wouldn’t take much of a breach of protocol for these to be the last words you ever heard as the aforementioned samurai – who was naturally at the top of the hierarchy – angrily brought his sword down upon you.

And although faux pas in Japan will still suffer various levels of opprobrium, thankfully the sword has been packed away. But the belief in the importance of knowing your position in life still remains very much at the heart of Japanese thinking (as it is elsewhere in East Asia). Always keeping within the set limits of your position and knowing what you can and cannot do is still viewed as vital for a prosperous, happy and efficient society.

It’s for this reason that whenever I have taught anyone Japanese in the past, Lesson One always begins with 身の程を知れ! as the basis for everything that is to follow.  And no, that’s not because I fancy myself as a sword brandishing aggressive brute of a warrior…although now that you mention it….

No, rather it’s an excellent way of summing up all the stuff that you need to remember when speaking Japanese right from the most basic words and grammar. Always being aware to whom you’re speaking and what your relative position is to them. And I hope that by now – if you’ve read any of my other stuff – you won’t be surprised that I would wish to link to this poker and then in a wider sense to how we all live our lives.

Ironically one of the very first pieces of poker advice that I ever heard was exactly about this. It was in an interview with Jake Cody and he was asked what was the most important thing for players to remember: “Position. Never forget the importance of position!” was basically what he said. So already we now have the image of Jade Cody as Rochdale’s answer to a samurai warrior….

And of course the importance of position should already be clear to all poker players. Whether we actually keep it in mind at the table though is another matter as we can all confess to a litany of committed OOP sins during those times when we have been in a suitably revolutionary mood and decided to cast off the shackles of position…with the usual subsequent results as many a downswing graph will testify.

But as always, what interests me here is what are the deeper lessons that we can draw from this away from the table and in our lives in general?

I am reminded that one of the most fundamental and ancient pieces of wisdom in history was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi – Know Thyself. Phrase it however you like – Know yourself. Know your limits. Know what you can do and what you can’t do – an eternal admonition which will remain a good piece of advice for as long as human beings continue to be the gloriously messed up confused creatures that we are.

Or as the Souda, the Byzantine encyclopedia of the 10th Century explained it –

The proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are.

A good one to remember when you need an apt if rather unexpected riposte to the trash talker who rages about the bad beat of his cracked aces. For we all must never forget that there are no total sure things in life apart from death…and showdowns. Just as there is no such thing as a 100% equity hand pre flop. Everything can change in the twinkling of a dealer’s eye and in the turn of the cards.

Which brings me to my moment in the dentist’s chair a while back. Fear not, this little tangent is not going to involve any drilling sounds or root canals although it does contain a rather irritating misunderstanding about our game. I’m lying back, mouth stretched open awaiting nervously whatever implements Dr L is about to prod me with when he does that thing that dentists love to do which is strike up a conversation when we are at our most orally challenged. I say conversation but of course it’s very much a one-sided affair with him opining and me answering with an inarticulate ‘Urrrgh….aarg…innngg’.

Noticing my copy of Harrington on the chair, he launches into something that clearly he’s thought about for a while, “I just don’t get it, this poker lark. What is there to do?! You either have the cards or you don’t. You have a winning hand and that’s it! Where’s the skill in that? Sounds like a waste of time to me…”

Now I have always gone by the classic rule in life that there is a whole section of society that it’s usually wise not to annoy and irritate. These include people who bring/prepare your food, tattooists, hairdressers and anybody who performs intimate internal examinations. Needless to say, I was not in the mood to start arguing with the dear Dr L. Besides he gives me a great price 🙂 So I went for the much safer and compliant option of just ‘uuuuuurgh aaaargh….enggh’

But if I had had the time and desire – not to mention the actual ability to form words – then I would have tried to patiently explain that poker is always about relative hand strengths never absolute. That it’s always about position and how that relates to the other. And if he didn’t get that then I would have pointed to the fact that it’s just the same as in life – that it’s all about context and our current situation. That what we can do successfully in this particular  place may fail miserably somewhere else. It’s never just about what we have but where we are when we have it. As in poker, as in life.

Years ago, I had an argument with a friend who had clearly watched far too much Oprah or some other inspirational TV and was going around saying, “I can do anything that I put my mind to. Nothing is impossible!” Now that is of course a wonderfully positive outlook and I applauded his can-do attitude. But as I tried to explain to him – and in the process sounded like the old grinch killing joy wherever I saw it – you still have to know your limits. You still have to look honestly at yourself and know what is within your capabilities. Or to put it in poker terms, you have to know what is EV+ and what is chasing after a draw without the right odds.

Or as I said to him, however fetching I might look in ballet tights, there is no way at 43 that I could ever dance in the Royal Ballet corps. Not with my knees! And please, for your own sake, try to keep that image out of your mind for the rest of this post, it will only distract….

I volunteer at a hospice once a week and during my time there I have never ceased to be educated, amazed and humbled by the myriad ways in which human beings accept the inevitability of their situation and come to terms with, as it were, the final hand that they have been dealt.

But I have noticed that sometimes the patients who struggle and suffer the most are the ones who ironically led the most exciting and/or successful of lives. The ones who were always in control and strong in whatever they did. The ones who – to think of it in poker terms again – always had the button, always had position. But even for them, of course the time must come when Fate is in position, is raising them hard and strong and all they can do is sit in SB having to accept what comes. Just don’t expect me to tell you what Death’s 3bet range is, that’s stretching the analogy even further than I can go!

Yet, as ironically the Samurai of feudal Japan would surely be first to tell us, true strength comes from always having a total and clear awareness of what our  true situation is and thus know realistically what the best course of action is rather than just clinging to fantasies and chasing dreams.

Ultimately we do have to accept our position in whatever we do. We have to know our place in the end whether we like it or not. And work with that to the best of our capabilities right up to the very last showdown. So let’s do that with all the grace and composure that we can muster. For that, more than anything, is the true way of the warrior.

How was your first time?

I was chatting with my dear poker buddy Nighty (Atrocious Nightmare to you!) earlier telling him about my first ever experience of live tournament play during the recent EPT London. And how utterly bewildering, exhilarating and at times terrifying it was for a recreational online player like me.

So to say welcome to this blog and thank you to Nighty for already enhancing it with his insightful and intelligent presence,  I dedicate this little piece of whimsy to him and indeed to all online poker players who feel fear and trepidation at the thought of sitting down at a real live table with real live breathing human beings without a screen or a mouse for protection. Not to mention the fact that you can’t play in your underpants…well, not in most casinos  😉

This is my summary of how the evening went with a suitably chaotic stream of consciousness that perhaps sums up well how I felt….

Ok, deep breath. Look confident Charlie. Walk into the room as if you own it…

Um, lots of people. Lots of tables. Lots of very confident looking people. And me! What could go wrong?! It can’t be that different to online. Can it?! Right, they’re saying we need to find our seats. Take a card. Any card. Seat 7? Hmmm where’s that again? Oh sorry, I’m in the wrong seat. Ok this…oh sorry, how embarrassing, I’m in the wrong seat again! Ha! Ah yes, thank you. Oh, stranger to my right talking to me…hello, my name’s char….What? These are my chips? Thank you. Read the values on them. Get used to the different colours.  Ok, stack them right…oh, here’s my cards? Look at them…still need to stack chips! Oh,  what’s my hand again? Was it hearts or diamonds? How many chips have I got? Damn, I’ve forgotten what my cards are again…

What? Two people have already bet?! I was still stacking!! Er, what’s my cards again?! Oh, you’re waiting for me…two people bet, was that a raise or a call? How much is in the pot? Everyone’s looking at me. Waiting. Watching. Am I giving away too many tells? Dammit, I’ve got enough tells to keep Mike Caro in business. Stay cool. Poker face Charlie! Er, what’s my cards?! Ok fold…

Yes, as I was saying my name is Char…what do you mean it’s me again? I’ve not looked yet. How many chips to call? Um, fold! Damn, I still haven’t stacked right. Yes, as I was saying…what?! Oh er, a beer please…how much was that bet did you say? Yes I bet! What, it’s already been raised?! I fold. Don’t look at me like that, I’m getting there, I’m getting there!

Oh damn, what’s the pot…what are my cards?! Ha! Yes, I’m laughing because I think that man over there just said a joke and I have no idea what it was as I wasn’t concentrating and am now laughing to be polite but I. Just. Want. To. Know. The. Pot!!!!

So yes, what were we saying? Oh how did you guess that it’s my first time. Well yes, as it happens it is. But…what?!!! My turn again! Fold!! Ah yes, I’m Big Blind…what? The level went up? Which chip is that again? How much has he got?! Damn, how did they all manage to get so many and um, I have so little? Talking of which, how much do I have again?!

People getting up. Sitting down. Getting up. Chip racks. I’m being moved. New dealer. Sit down. Antes!! New person next to me. What? My turn again. My name? What’s the pot?! My name? What’s my name?!?! Who am I?!!?  Where am I?!??!

AAAAAARGH! I want my mouse!!!!

Oh, look Queens! Yay! I know what to do. All in! Oh….busted….

And so the maelstrom ends.

Thank God it’s all over. Utterly terrifying and confusing…

When can I do it again? 🙂