Ancient wisdom for the Good Life….delivered poker style

At a poker table there are some things you control and others you don’t. You don’t control how your opponents bet (though you can influence them sometimes). You don’t control what hands your opponents get and what hands they decide to play. You don’t control the hands you are dealt either. You don’t control what comes on the flop, turn or river. You don’t control the cards in any way.

[But] you control which [hands] you play. You control your betting decisions. And you control your behaviour.

As a poker player, you are only responsible for what you can control.

The above comes from one of the first books that I ever read about poker – Ed Miller’s Getting Started in Hold’Em. It’s a classic text and remains an important introduction to the fundamentals of the game.  But the reason why I start this post with the quote above and more importantly, why it has stayed with me ever since the first time I read it, is that for me it is the perfect example of how poker is never just poker. At least,  it doesn’t have to be if we have the ears to hear the deeper lessons which can speak to our lives away from the table.

I would argue that what Ed is talking about here is actually a piece of wisdom – albeit phrased slightly differently – which can be found within every major spiritual, philosophical and therapeutic tradition. The sort of lesson which provides an answer to the question first posed by Aristotle and subsequently taken up by all and sundry – how do we live the ‘Good Life’? Or as the great thinker would have said if he’d been living in Atlantic City not Athens, how do we play good poker? For I am sure he would have recognised that the two are mutually dependent.

Why? Because what Ed describes is exactly what theologians, philosophers and therapists have made their business for thousands of years – how to deal with the changes and upheavals of an uncertain world in which so much of the circumstances of our lives are beyond our control. How to remain happy and stable in an essentially unstable and chaotic environment?

Our lives are filled with so many ‘uncontrollables’ which is why the passage above is so important for not only our poker but everything that we do in that it reminds us to focus on that which we can control and let the other stuff just be. Obsessing over any variable about which we have no control will always bring us suffering in the end.

I remember reading recently a quote from a Tibetan Lama who said something like, “Letting go is always the easiest option and in the long term will bring us huge relief. But in the short term it’s often the hardest thing to do and with which we struggle the most.” But the more we can let go of our fears and anxieties about those uncontrollable factors, the more of course we can then use our energy to concentrate on those elements which we do have control over and therefore which should be more important than ever to us.

Ever since reading the passage above, I summed it up for myself in a simple form which I often say to myself, whether playing poker or when faced by any difficult situations in my life. I call them the Three Miller Controllables of Poker&Life 🙂

I remind myself that I can only control the three following things…

  • The hands that I play.
  • The money that I bet.
  • My mind.

Obviously it’s already clear the meaning of the above as far as poker is concerned. But how we apply this in a wider sense to the way we live our lives?

Well, take the first Miller Controllable and the question it poses to you – look at your own life with brutal honesty and clarity and ask yourself, what are the situations in which you allow yourself to get involved which you know intuitively are not good for you? Which are going to lead ultimately to unhappiness of varying degrees of severity. It could be something as benign as eating that second piece of cake which – and I’m looking at your shapely waistline via your hacked webcam as I type this – you really don’t need. Or it could be finding yourself in a sticky situation which you are going to regret in the morning. Damn those 3am booty calls!!

In other words, what are the KJ hands of your life? Or the JTo after a raise and so on? Basically the hands that look SO good at the time but in spite of the fact that you know you’re supposed to fold them, you still cling on. You still ignore all the ancient wisdom whether it be from Oracle at Delphi or its modern day equivalent, Pokerstove.

What are the hands in your life that you should be saying no to? And most of the time, you have the power to say no to it and refuse to let yourself get involved. Note though that I say ‘most of the time’. Because of course, just as in poker, there are the Blinds of life to be paid. Situations which we cannot escape due to duty, obligation, responsibility etc. The trick is to discern the position we find ourselves in – just like at the table – and whether we are truly obliged to get involved or whether that’s just the story we are telling ourselves to rationalise our bad decisions. Rather like the man I once saw playing who every time he lost with an incredibly dud hand would say “I had to play that! It was my mother’s birthday!” Somehow I don’t think with that strategy he’ll be giving Dan Colman a run for his money for a while….

And leading on from that, we have the second Miller Controllable – how much money we bet. Again, the whole issue of bet sizing is clearly an important subject and one that wiser heads than me will never cease debating. But how do we interpret that in a life sense?

When we find ourselves in any situation – whether it be one we were initially wise to undertake or not – we never stop having the choice as to whether to continue and even more importantly, how much of our time, energy and indeed money we wish to invest in that project.

Just as in poker, life never follows a set 100% predictable course. The volatility of events mean that at the flop we have the nuts but by the river all is lost. And the fatal mistake of any life is clinging to what used to be and the hopes and expectations that we had back then which are now redundant. And unless we are vigilant and recognise when the situation has turned against us and then make our escape, we store up even more trouble for the future. Or as the late Lou Krieger of blessed memory used to say, “It’s ok to fall in love at first sight with AK. You just don’t have to get married”.

So even if it seemed like a good in the beginning, if we recognise that we are on a losing or self-destructive path, we must be able to withdraw. Stop investing our valuable time, energy and resources in something that will not benefit us. We must again find the power of no. Which I believe was the title of a self-help book a few years back and which I seem to remember a friend once taking a little too conscientiously to heart. He ended up saying no to absolutely everything and became something of a running joke, so as with all things, moderation!!

Finally – and I believe the most important of the three Miller Controllables – the Mind. And this is the point at which I imagine Guru Ed sitting on his zabuton cushion in his poker chip adorned monastic robes issuing the sort of wisdom that swamis on mountaintops are pontificating on all the time.

The mind. Behaviour. Attitude. Mindset. Psychology…call it what you will. It’s a subject that is more than ever at the forefront of debate about successful poker play. And of course life. Tilt may be a word unique to the poker world but its meaning and manifestation is as old as humanity. The frustration of dealing with circumstances that are beyond our control and the suffering that undesired results bring are the biggest challenge that we all face as human beings.

And the quicker that we can wrest control and see through the lie which tells us that we are ruled by our emotions, then the more we can create a stable internal environment in which the best decisions can be made…for our poker and our lives. Yes, in the storm of bad beats and busted draws (just as in the storm of broken dreams and destroyed relationships)  we can feel like we have no choice but be buffeted by our rages and passions. But we always have a choice. And we always have the ability to control our mind.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.

That was a quote from Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor, writer, philosopher…and although it hasn’t been confirmed yet by antiquities experts, something of a card shark….

Either way, he was definitely a man who could see the power that comes from maintaining self-control. Of course it’s not easy. But then if there’s anything that a life of poker practise teaches us is that nothing worth while doing is easy. And just as we often make the most basic of poker mistakes again and again, we just have to get back in the saddle and try again. While never losing hold of the wisdom that is out there to support us in our quest.

And in the past few years on the subject of controlling tilt etc, there has been some great additions to the poker canon including The Poker MindsetThe Psychology of Poker and more recently the sterling word that Jared Tendler and Barry Carter have done in their two volumes, The Mental Game of Poker.

All of which focuses on something that – to return to my original point – is not just good for our poker but for our general well being and emotional, psychological and spiritual health. Apply the lessons of the Three Miller Controllables away from the table as much as at it, and it can surely only have beneficial results. Both for our game and our way of life.

I don’t know whether Ed Miller was aware or not at the time of writing that he was imparting a deeper wisdom than what you would normally expect from a beginner’s poker text but I do know that I will always be grateful for the imparted insights.

And if you happen to see him passing down the Strip in Vegas on a fluffy white cloud, after this you won’t think it’s because he’s joined Cirque du Soleil. And if next time he walks into a casino, he’s heralded by a sudden unexplained shower of lotus petals, well you know why now….

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Confessions of a Nitbitch

So I was standing at the upstairs bar at London EPT – a scene of many late night drinks over the course of the events – and was chatting to Ian Simpson. He of much recent poker success including of course Irish Open Champion 2013.

In spite of this, I managed to become the poker equivalent of that person who doctors at parties dread. The one who starts pulling off various items of clothing and saying, “Do you mind just taking a look at this funny patch? I’ll hold your vol-au-vent while you do…”

And although needless to say no literal undressing occurred in the Grand Connaught Rooms, I am afraid I couldn’t resist exposing to Ian my game’s answer to the weird looking verruca. And alas, after a brief consultation on his metaphorical poker examination table – involving some distasteful probing into a shocking fold of JJ in LP in a tournament the night before – the harsh diagnosis came that I was (according apparently to the esteemed Dr Jason Somerville’s criteria) a nitbitch.

Not a rock. Not Mr ABC.  Not a conservative steady-as-she-goes careful player. Not even just a nit. But a nitbitch. I must confess I found the ring of it quite charming at first and in another world, it might have ended up the title of this whole blog….I’m a nitbitch…loud n proud! Or something equally sassy…

But then, in the end, who wants to be a nitbitch for the rest of their life? I somehow don’t think that when the eventual winner of the November 9 lifts up the much desired bracelet next month, he will say to the cameras, “God, I knew being a nitbitch was the best strategy….”

But allow me to at least say a word in the defence of nitbitches (nitbitchery?) before we completely condemn the condition as terminal and beyond hope. And although I won’t go into the full gory details of what I did to deserve such an accusation, suffice to say I was in a position where I knew that if I called the shove to my right – along with the subsequent shove that I expected would then follow from my left – I would face of course the possibility of my little fun tourney coming to an abrupt end.

But that’s poker, I hear the cry! You go for it when you have it. When the edge is there, however fearful, winners go for it. They take those risks and they seize the mathematical moment to thrust forth.

Yes, yes Professor Sklansky thank you for reminding me of that. But can I make the suggestion that sometimes, there are other concerns that may dominate? Yes, we of course want to play our best game and hopefully with that win through. But the joy of poker has always been the way in which it can be accessed, experienced and enjoyed in a whole multitude of ways and at so many different levels. And for me, one of the massive discoveries of being at a huge event like UKIPT/EPT was seeing what a social game Poker can be even at those serious stakes. The interactions and connections were a good reminder of the huge fun that we can have whenever we sit down together at the poker table.

So the context of that particular hand was that I was having so much fun at the table – not to mention copious drinks and food thanks to the wonderful hospitality of GPI – that I really did not feel ready to get up and go.

And at this point, I call as my main witness for the defence, Mr Lee Jones, he of Pokerstars PR fame. It just happened that a couple of hours before playing, I heard him commentating with Mssrs Hartigan & Stapelton and he said that there comes a time in a tournament when you go so deep that you just don’t want to get up from the table ‘because it’s so much fun!’ Just sitting there, chatting and laughing, you know you’ll feel sad to be away from that environment. And as with every decision moment in poker – as in life – context is all. The position we find ourselves in, both relative and absolute, will influence how we act.

So yes, such thoughts were in my head as I was playing and as yet another plate of canapes went by, another glass was filled, and laughter rang out…I folded my JJ. And yes, you guessed it, I would have won nice and big and busted two players. But, at least I stayed at the table longer…

Besides, what can I say, Harrington never wrote a section on the canape situation!

So has this helped me to feel better about being a nitbitch? Actually, not really. Especially when I tell you that I managed to reach the final table and then busted out at 4th place. So needless to say, the nagging thought is there….if I had just had those extra won stacks to back me up, who knows….?

I guess the moral of this sorry tale is that however much short term relief the path of the nitbitch may bring, it can only store up much regret for the future. All of those couldve-beens!

I accept my diagnosis. I must take the cure, however bitter a pill! But in the meantime, pass me that vol-au-vent will you….?

The Meaning of Life, Poker…and this blog.

As my previous post touched upon the psychology of poker, it reminded me of why I wanted to set up this blog and the sort of things that I would like to explore. And if someone – anyone! – comes along for the ride and finds something of interest then all the better…

I guess I would like in my own humble way to explore some of the deeper lessons, thoughts and revelations that a voyage through the poker universe has already opened up to me. And hopefully to some of you too. A kind of commonplace blog with some of the odds and sods that have fascinated me along the way. With a touch of psychology here, a bit of philosophy there…even some theology and esoterica thrown into the mix to make for something a little more quirky, a little more off the wall.

Which means rather than discussing when to play AQo or how to size our bets – however important those things surely are! – in this particular blog, I am more interested in looking at what poker does to us as human beings. How does it resonate with us in the challenges and obstacles of life outside? Does it make us better people? If poker is the game of skill that we insist it to be, how does it affect us psychologically, emotionally, spiritually….and if you want to join me in going that little bit further and getting really deep here, then how about we ask those biggy questions that maybe we don’t always have time for – What is the meaning of poker…if of course there is a meaning! Although I am guessing that if like me, poker has become a huge part of your life then you would agree that if it doesn’t have meaning then God knows what we are doing spending so much of our time on something meaningless.

No, I will strongly preempt anything I might say with the firm affirmation that yes, poker does have meaning. Or as I always say, poker is my life now. And life is poker…

Or to use a concept that the rabbis of Israel were fond of in the time of the Temple of Jerusalem – for a devout Jew there was only two states of being…at the Temple and on the way to the Temple. Which meant that everything that happened on the way would essentially be seen through the lens of the question – how does this help for the supreme quest? What does this mean? Is this useful? So if you’ll forgive me transposing that in a potentially sacrilegious way to our own beloved poker, then you could argue that for the committed and indeed devout poker player, there are only two states of being for us….at the poker table and on the way to the poker table.

And I would argue without doubt that since starting to learn and play poker, I have not only learnt many valuable lessons about psychology, intelligence, rational thinking, logic and my own emotions – ahhh the joys of tilt!! – but that working with those many challenges thrown up by the game make me a better man. And will continue to do so. For I would go as far as to say that the qualities of a good poker player are qualities that we want to see at large in human society. Big statement huh? Only if I were not talking in the main to poker players maybe. Cos surely, here of all places I’m preaching to the converted when talking to this flock, right?

And even if you don’t agree with the above assertion then you will surely agree with the bleeding obvious statement that it’s not easy. If there’s one thing that marks out the fool, it’s when he suggests that anything about poker is easy! For all of those qualities that I praise above are in a sense utterly unnatural. Only a weird and wonderful lucky few are innately born with those strange habits that make up the psyche and mentality of the the truly able poker player.

For as one of the great experts of poker psychology, Dr Alan Schoonmaker writes in The Psychology of Poker the mentality of a successful poker player – the classic TAG style – is not a natural human attribute. Aggression is of course part of our primordial DNA but the ability to switch that aggression on and off in a very controlled and tightly focused way is not something that is naturally present in human beings. It has to be learnt, nurtured and trained and does not come easily. As Dr Schoonmaker suggests, the only people who display it in their regular life are elite soldiers, police and other professions where long periods of calm are momentarily interspersed with explosions of sometimes violent reaction.

Or as he memorably puts it, a successful poker player must become the stone cold killer. For presumable a professional assassin would make a fine shark. Although if there do happen to be any hit men hanging around on this site, let me just say you’re very welcome here….just don’t come and play at any of my cash games.

And aye, there’s the rub – one of the wonderful contradictions that I love about poker: the fact that on the one hand we will argue the virtues of learning this game as a way of improving ourselves while on the other, we accept that our goal is to become stone cold assassins who annihilate anyone who stands in our path.

Which is why I always take as my role model the Japanese samurai as the perfect example of how those two states coexist. The way that a samurai would strive to be a refined, civilised, educated warrior – constantly improving himself as a human being while also always being ready in an instant to call upon that wisdom and judgement in the service of brute force and aggression. Surely the ideal template for the perfect poker player?

And then there is all the other bodies of wisdom that will speak to our experiences in poker. Wisdom that belongs to what we sometimes clumsily refer to as the “Eastern Traditions”. Teachings about the nature of action and of not attaching ourselves to the results of those actions but rather focusing on doing the right thing. Accepting that in the long term, everything works out how it should and how – contrary to what those bad beats will make us feel – that there are certain laws of the universe that cannot be denied. Even if you are a fish who insists on playing J2o to the river and hitting your full house! The Buddhists will say “Karma is.” to which the poker player will reply “EV is.” 🙂

I was watching a video by Boomer (one of Pokerstrategy’s coaches) the other day and he spoke about his ‘favourite subject in the universe – awareness’ and it’s comments like that which I love as it’s the sort of thing that could come straight out of the mouth of a Buddhist monk or Hindu swami. Whether Boomer looks good in saintly robes sitting crosslegged on the top of a mountain is something that I will leave to the imagination of those who know him…

But this is a classic principle of the synchronicities that you will find in any moment of truth. And what boomer says, applies to any form of mind training just as much as to the specific example of poker. To be aware, to be fully present in the moment – that’s a vital foundation for any improved way of life. It is as a Catholic theologian once called it, realising the “the sacrament of the present moment.”

Or to put it in a more earthly way that will be familiar to us, as a billboard in Vegas once said, “You have to be present to win”.

Again, that’s the sort of message that would have the Buddha nodding strongly in agreement…while he riffled his chips 😉

Anyway, that’s a taster of the sort of thing that gets my mind working. Phew! Yeah, who said that less is more huh?! So, I understand that it’s not necessarily a take on the game that’s shared by everyone but if you’ve read this far – and well done Sir/Madam, you’ve already earned karmic merits just for that! – and it’s the kind of quirky talk that you like then maybe now and then we can explore this sort of thing a little further together.
The Buddha always said that one of the essential things for the path is gathering together noble friends to walk with you. And I am sure that if Lord Gautama had happened across his local cash game, that’s exactly what he would have said as encouragement to the players.

So if it’s a journey that you fancy joining me for from time to time, I’d be happy to have the company while I witter on about whatever weird philosophical thoughts that occupy me at the time.

In the meantime, I hope that you go out there and be the civilised, refined, calm….and utterly ruthless killers that you are called to be!

Are You a Psychopath?

Are you a psychopath? As opening greetings go, it’s perhaps not what you’re normally used to hearing. That is unless you’re the person that I read about recently, who thought it a good idea on a blind date to excitedly offer to show the girl his ‘impressive collection of knives and axes’ that he had apparently spent years collecting. Although I gather she hurriedly left before even asking the all-important “Are you a psychopath?” question….

No, the reason why I am thinking about all things sociopathic, is that I was reading a while back an article about Andy McNab – a kind of celebrity ex special forces operative here in the UK – who has co-authored a new book called The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success.

In the article, Robert Crampton of the Times undergoes with McNab the sort of neurological test that supposedly can determine a psychopathic character. This involves sitting in a cubicle wired up to various machines monitoring brain functions while watching a succession of scenes: some neutral, some pleasing and then at unexpected moments, images of extreme horror – victims of accidents and murder, dismembered bodies and all sorts of gruesome gore. And throughout this – with the added stress of sudden blasts of white noise through headphones – the electrodes measure how the brain is reacting.

It’s what is known as the emotionally modulated startle-response test or as the co-author of the book, Professor Kevin Dutton calls it, the gold standard for testing psychopaths. It is by monitoring how a person responds to moments of visual or aural stress that it can be judged to what extent they may have psychopathic tendencies.

Well, not surprisingly however much Crampton tried to stay calm, his brain reacted with the appropriate levels of stress and anxiety. But McNab on the other hand, the highly trained soldier and indeed killer, showed no noticeable change. As the journalist writes…

His physiological response….bore no correlation to the image in front of him at the time. He flatlined. “I didn’t care” he says. If anything, his results suggest the trees and lakes stressed him out marginally more than the dismembered bodies.

So perhaps not the man you want to invite out with you for a nice quiet walk into the forest…

But needless to say it got me onto the subject of poker and how the psychologist Dr Alan Schoonmaker had written at length in books such as The Psychology of Poker about how TAGs should emulate the “stone cold killer”. So with that in mind, it could be argued that what we think of as the perfect poker attitude, clearly reflects some psychopathic tendencies.

It’s that ability to not only be able to unleash aggression but even more importantly to know the exact moment when it is appropriate to do so; while never allowing the inner calmness and emotional balance to be affected by what is unfurling before your eyes. To be able to say at any time in the heat of the battle, just like Andy McNab, “I didn’t care”. It means being utterly unaffected by whatever gory horrors may result from our actions. Of course in our case, withstanding gruesome images is probably best represented by the mental terror of seeing an opponent river quads with his deuces while we watch our AK full house collapse. But gore is gore, in whatever form it comes…

Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should approach our game with an air of indifferent nonchalance. I don’t know much about armed covert operations but I can guess that McNab didn’t stroll into enemy territory while whistling a happy tune. Rather, like any warrior, he would move with stealth and poise, patiently waiting in a heightened sense of awareness until the moment is right for the lethal attack. Viewing each new development in the light of cool logic rather than allowing emotion to affect the decision as to when to act.

And it’s that ability to determine between what are valid opportunities for action and what are situations that are a waste of energy and/or potentially dangerous which for most of us does not come naturally but must be developed. And it’s clearly a quality that all poker players can appreciate when for example they find themselves caught up in the maniacal mood of a table and start getting involved in hands which they have no rational business being in!

Knowing which battles you should fight and which more importantly are the ones you have the right odds to win, is something that every tactician from Sun Tzu onwards has rightly regarded as essential for victory. It all starts with conquering the enemy within, the inner demons who stand in the way of our success. As Lao Zi says, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”

And like the ‘good psychopath’, we must remain placid and unmoved, especially in the face of the many elements beyond our control. Indeed, it’s the way that a person handles these ‘non-controllables’ that really shows how much he or she is instead in control of themselves and their actions. As Crampton writes about McNab, “If he can’t influence an event, he simply shuts off from it.”

So next time the flop hits magically the hand of the fishiest opponent on earth and you’re about to declare all-out war, remember those words. You can’t influence the event so shut yourself off from it and – as difficult as it may be – strive to remain unaffected by what is clearly beyond your control. For by definition, a true psychopath will not go on tilt. They may coldly plan out the downfall and destruction of their enemy but it will never be with an unbalanced mind or erratic play. Which brings us back to the textbook definition of a successful TAG.

Of course as the journalist showed in the article, it’s not something that comes easily to a ‘normal’ person. But hey, nobody ever accused poker addicts of being normal so all the more reason why we should strive to develop this all important poker – psychopathic! – mindset.

Anyway, you must excuse me now, I have to go and clean my knife collection. I find the machetes are particularly hard work and I have a fish to gut for dinner tonight…

Five-a-Side vs Poker

An analogy I often use when asked about what it means to be a recreational – and very much an amateur – poker player is that of 5-a-side football. This works both as a comparison but also as a contrast.

For example, I was asked the other day a classic question that I think is often posed by non-players. “So how much money do you make from poker?”

When I gave my humble answer, the look  was a mixture of derision and confusion with a  “Is that all?” Talk about kicking a boy when his bankroll is down…

But I quickly rose to the defence of all recreational players and responded, “Would you ask the guy who spends a lot of his spare time playing with his mates in a 5-a-Side team when he plans to turn professional? And why hasn’t he made a fortune and moved to some blingy mansion?”

The point is – breaking news! – I along with a huge amount of players, play poker because I enjoy it. Because the game is satisfying on many levels whether that be emotional, intellectual or social. And yes sometimes it can mean a financial profit, however small. Which of course actually contrasts it with the 5-a-sider for whom there generally is never going to be any sort of monetary gain. But I am under no illusions – however much I may like to daydream about being the next undiscovered Moneymaker, the truth is that this will always just be a hobby. And there’s no cooler hobby in my book.

Yet it’s at this point that there is actually a real contrast to be made between poker and past-times such as 5-a-side. Whereas the middle aged man kicking the ball around his local municipal pitch can happily dream that he’s scoring a goal at a FA Cup final at Wembley, he’d be a fool to think that that is ever going to happen in real life.

But for us poker players, it’s not quite as depressing. That dream of holding up the WSOP bracelet or EPT trophy is always within our grasp whatever our age, physicality or even present skill. Yes, the probabilities may be tiny and our chances bare but the possibility is still always there. It’s never utterly beyond our reach. The dream is always alive and we have as our patron saint for that endeavour the aforementioned Chris Moneymaker to keep our eyes on the potential prize.

And this is something that the poker media should always keep in mind. At various moments during the EPT, I enjoyed chatting with luminaries from the media community such as Marc Convey and James Hartigan about how the importance of what they do comes from not just being commentators. Unlike other sports fans, we don’t just watch passively. There is always going to be a didactic element to what the Conveys and Hartigans of this world do. We watch and learn. And although we may struggle to imitate perfectly the style of Ivey or Colman, we can still always take lessons from what we see and hear. Which is why poker media dwells in a very different place to the conventional style of sports reporting.

So again, whereas our dear mate on the amateur pitch can never hope to learn how to kick like Ronaldo, we are always dogs that can learn new tricks.

As I always say, while other men may stand in front of the mirror in the dark night of their mid-life crisis stricken souls air guitaring or lifting world cup trophy aka shampoo bottles, we can hold up our two cards into that same mirror and imagine….just imagine…

Limping into the blog pot with a handful of randomly coloured EPT chips…

I guess it’s fitting that my first ever post on this blog begins with what is arguably the biggest event in the UK poker calendar – EPT London. Especially as it’s thanks to my experiences there that I ended up deciding to launch – at last! – into the world of tweeting and blogging. Nothing like poker to encourage foolhardy behaviour the most sensible course of action…

I was fortunate enough to receive accreditation and attend EPT to cover the event. It was my first ever major poker event and my chance to see close up some of the world’s greatest players. And seeing that the whole experience was a total assault on the senses – and suiting my completist’s love for classification – I thought that I would detail a few reminiscences accordingly.

So, poker players, here is my EPT version of the 5 poker senses….

Smell

It’s the first thing I noticed although couldn’t work out what it was exactly for a couple of days. And no, I don’t just mean the overwhelming smell of testosterone soaked adrenalin raised raw power infused sweat…and that was just coming from the massage ladies. No rather, it was a somewhat more delicate fragrance that hung in the air which my sensitive schnozz detected and then grew to love.

A sort of artificial yet fresh smell which seemed to come in waves. And then it hit me – it was the combination of new packs of cards and chips being broken open and riffled at each table. Surely for a player nothing but poker pheronomes?! Ok, a bit strange but hey, I’m one of those weirdos who spends a slightly too long amount of time sniffing new books so I guess no surprise there.

Sound

This obviously links to the previous sense and is something that everyone remarks upon on their first visit to any relatively large scale poker tournament. The sound of chips being riffled is instantly familar from TV but magnified to a louder yet strangely soothing level. And it might sound like a bizarre comparison – but then I do love a quirky tangent! – but it reminded me of accounts of visitors to medieval monasteries where the first sound they would hear as they walked through the cloisters was that of the monks murmuring and whispering in their cells as they read aloud the scriptures and prayers. Each individual susurration combining to create a chorus like that of birds in the forest. And when was the last time you heard poker players being compared to medieval monks eh?

But more than the obvious sound of the chips not to mention the packs of cards being ripped and riffled, there’s the hubbub that you can dive into whether walking around the tables or even better, standing at the bar – not surprisingly a spot where many delights awaited a poker soul. Sometimes I think top level professionals may forget how solitary a path the average poker player will often walk, especially if our experience is mostly online based. As with any relatively niche interest, it’s not always easy to find someone to discuss and consider together the vagaries of our game. So what a delight it is to be in a place of like-minded individuals and have people who get ‘it’ at every turn. And as happened one evening, eavesdrop on a very vociferous group discussion on the merits of ATo in EP. It didn’t quite get physical but my how it lifts my poker heart to see grown adults nearly come to blows over an offsuit hand…

Sight

Well, apart from the stunning sight of table after table filling up the grand ballrooms of the venue with 100s of poker players, there’s of course  that thrill of seeing one’s poker heroes strolling by, chewing on a burger, smoking a fag, snogging…oh wait, I’ll draw a discreet veil over that last one..

But this is probably a good time to make some confessions about a couple of poker faux pas that I managed to commit. Although I tend to be very good with faces, names often escape me. And there were a couple of times when a complete brain fuzz descended. So my apologies to Jamie Sykes to whom my initial greeting was, “Are you Norwegian?” which is not as strange as you would think considering the strong Norwegian takeover of the bar at that time.

But even more embarrassing than that was standing outside the venue with a couple of Kevin Killeen’s entourage and assuming that the very charming preppy looking young american who came up was probably just a visiting student at LSE or something equally academic. Rather than being Ike Haxton stepping down from Poker’s Mount Olympus.

Then again, in my defence half of the young men who play at EPT look like they’re preppy types from Ivy League universities. While the other half look like they stole the lunch money of the preppy types from Ivy League universities…..

Touch

No, I’m not returning to the snogging theme…I’ll wait for the late night version post watershed version of the blog for that. Rather, I”m thinking of touch in a much more general and I hasten to add, platonic way. The camaraderie, the conviviality, the mutual celebrations and commiserations. Connections were made and strengthened with people who perhaps had only been known online until that point. And new friendships were established.

I overheard over the week at least 5 conversations where mutual usernames were discussed and it was realised that these were players who had been encountered many times over the months and yet were – until now – just names in PokerTracker. Suddenly the word became flesh as it were and real living human beings were doing what we were always meant to do….snog

Actually no! Well, yes. But not just snog. Talk, interact, communicate. Be!!

I had a great conversation about this with Howard Swains of Pokerstars Blog fame. About how coming to EPT reminded me that the relationship between online and live forms of poker is much more fluid and less distinct than I had originally assumed. I am the classic recreational player that forms I guess the main bulk of your average Pokerstars customer base. By no means a professional but hopefully striving to improve my game. And online has given me the freedom and security to learn, explore and make a ton of mistakes without too much fear or embarrassment. Apart from a couple of trashtalkers in the chatbox but which unlike IRL,are easily deleted.

But EPT reminded me that poker is – as it always was since the dawn of its creation – a social game. Duh! Who knew? Talk about stating the bleeding obvious! But actually really easy to forget when sitting in the comfort of your room clicking away and seeing avatars instead of fellow human beings. So when I sat down at my first ever tournament last week, the sensation was that of utter bewilderment and at times sheer panic. Where’s my mouse?! Who are all these people sitting in my room? Where is my screen?! Why am I not in my underpants?…. Thankfully – for all concerned – I resisted the temptation to make myself suitably comfortable….

But even without playing a hand, just walking around and seeing the interaction of players and the palpable energy in the room showed how poker offers us all so much more than the virtual. Indeed, there is more truth in the old PS strapline than I ever imagined. Yes, we really are poker!

So my new poker resolution is to play a lot more live poker, to return to the traditional roots as it were. Yes, online is a wonderful means by which to improve one’s game and without it, there is no way as an absolute beginner I would have ever had the courage to walk into a venue. But there must come a point I believe in a poker player’s journey – whatever their skill or level – when they need to revisit the faith of our fathers as it were. I am sure that Bishop Brunson would approve 🙂

Taste

And with that, I finish on the taste of a nice snog…no, dammit! Enough of the snogging…well, it could be argued that I never get enough snogging but this is no place for my relationship woes…

Instead let’s finish back at the EPT bar where I spent many a happy hour over the course of the event. And not just drink! I will not forget the wonderful evening of drinks and canapes laid on by Alexandre Dreyfus and his splendid team at GPI talking about the sportification of poker. There are many exciting developments ahead for poker which no doubt will be of great interest to players of all levels.

But in the meantime I will leave with you a memorable image from the tourney that the attendants at the GPI seminar played and yours truly demonstrating that even in the midst of battle, it takes nothing more than a glass of champagne and a tray of canapes to distract even the most concentrated of players…

Oh how good poker tastes! Poker canape