Poker

Last night I achieved some goals, passed a milestone, broke a ceiling and realised some potential. To poker players my result will be no big deal. Non-poker players bear with me please.

Two and a half years ago I was a non-poker player. Now poker dominates my life.

People like me get obsessed by poker because they try it, like it, fluke a big score, and then, understandably, conclude they must be really good at it. Unfortunately for the debutant, and fortunately for the expert, successful poker is achieved in many fine shades.

There is a film starring Gene Hackman as a basketball coach. He gives a big speech to his team before a game. Although they are the underdogs, they can win by doggedly seizing every single small edge available to them on the court. Although the team is outclassed on paper, the sum of the many small gains will more than compensate. If the other team is less determined to win, or makes mistakes, our heroes will be there to snatch the ball away.

In poker the good players can see and seize the small edges. They are patient, accumulating gains, not getting upset, as the debutant will, at ‘bad luck’, knowing that in the long term all the little good decisions, all the little edges will add up to profit. In the long term luck has nothing to do with it.

The debutant must credit his good play for the favourable cards he receives, and blame his bad luck for the unfavourable cards he receives, or even blame his fellow players for his losses, or better still not acknowledge his losses at all, which is easy to do if he does not keep good records, or record only the wins. The losing player is inclined to turn over another new leaf, opening a new spreadsheet on his computer to record results, keeping it up to date, proudly viewing a graph of his winnings. Then, when things are not going well, he doesn’t find the time to enter every result. There are gaps in the record. Soon the spreadsheet is out of date, and next time he plays he must begin again. All this is natural and necessary, lest he be happy to admit that he loses money playing poker, for the vast majority of players do lose, but the vast majority of these do not admit it, to you or to themselves.

Now the good players are like bookmakers, they sit there with the others, they are gambling at the same game, but they have the better odds. They have accumulated experience, judgement, knowledge and skill combined with formidable discipline. They have an edge and they are determined enough and want to win enough to hold this edge down hand after hand after hand, knowing that one deviation will undo the profit of ten small gains. There are many players who have the experience, knowledge and skill of a good player but lack the necessary discipline. They will either achieve it or remain losing players.

I remember feeling clumsy and uncomfortable and out of place during my first poker tournament in a casino. The next week I went back and won the tournament and £1400. That made me feel a lot more comfortable and of course poker was now a profitable endeavour… or unfortunately not, as I found out during two years of small-stakes internet poker frustration. At times I was genuinely upset – why was I losing? Teeth-gnashingly upset – why was I losing? But one answer, or two answers to this question is not enough. The expert could reach into his stack of small gains and come up with a fistful of answers, and the difference between him and me was a series of fine shades.

So slowly the player becomes more expert as he learns to not repeat mistakes, think more deeply, have better discipline etc etc etc. The great players learn fast and don’t stop getting better. The really bad ones dig a bizarre tunnel of superstition, denial and bitter negativity to let them keep playing. They are addicted to gambling. Merely bad players dig a less nasty tunnel, often assisted by some isolated or misapplied chunks of knowledge garnered from a poker text, or knowledge borrowed from other players. Comically, bad players often complain self righteously about others’ poor play and how it inhibits ‘a good game’. Bad players will focus, they must focus on, crazy irrelevant variables to avoid focussing on THE RESULTS. So bad players will really go to town on little details like the shuffle of the cards or the placing of the dealer button at the start of a game. There are a very few recreational or party players who don’t mind losing a little now and again, but their contribution to the poker money supply is perhaps negligible. For such is the time consuming, compulsive and spell binding aspect of playing poker, that those who play it play it a lot.

Now somehow I’ve managed to push my way into winning ways at poker. F*cking hell it wasn’t easy. Last night I went back to the club where I first made that big score, which for two and a half years I’ve been trying to come close to. And last night I did it. And I played well. And I pissed the bad players off I had them moaning at me. And I’ve been winning for months and have a large and rigorously maintained spreadsheet. And I keep learning and getting better. And I love it.

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