"'Stones'? You little punk. I'm not playing for the thrill of ****in' victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase cards, action, or ****in' pipe dreams of winning the World Series on ESPN."
"If you're too careful, your whole life can become a ****in' grind."
"You just look like you could be a poker player," said the guy across the hall from me, a guy whose name I hardly knew, despite having sat for several years no more than twenty feet away from him in the maze of cubicles that we low-level engineers, with only the barest hint of restraint to our bitterness, referred to as our "office". It was late 2003, in a Wisconsin town of no particular significance, where a tiny ripple in the poker boom launched in part by Moneymaker's run resulted in the creation of a weekly home game sit and go, for the engineers at my company, with the massive, earth-shattering buy-in of $10. It was for this game that I was being recruited. "You've got that look," he emphasized again.
College had cured me of most of the insecurities of my childhood, but the awareness of the possibility that you're being made fun of is the sort of thing that never really goes away; it remains to this day, a vestigial caution to be wary of random compliments, of fast friends. Intellectually I assumed that that was what was happening: looking at my face in the mirror, I decided I looked about like the furthest thing from a poker player that you could possibly imagine. I was a nerd: the sort that built his own computers (plural) and whose primary form of entertainment since the age of three or so has been video games. I read fantasy books. Poker wasn't a game for people who read fantasy books. Somehow I didn't think that Wild Bill Hickock would have cut his teeth on David Eddings as a kid.
Underneath that superficial analysis, though, the paranoia seemed a little crazy. The guy giving me the invite was fifteen years my senior, with a son that was in college and, as it turns out, already making decent money playing poker online. I would later learn that that's where his assessment came from: he was relatively early on the curve of learning that poker was, at its heart, becoming a game for geeks, for obsessives, for smart people that knew numbers, that had a rational view of the world, and that were intellectually capable of trusting theory over short-term results. I decided to go to the game, because hell, it was only ten bucks, and a way to be social, which is something I often need an excuse to do. I went bust in about five hands, running AQ into KK on a Q45 flop and shipping my 50bb, and for that one and only week in my life I was a lifetime loser at the game. (The next week, armed with the knowledge contained in a book of poker strategy and a truly ridiculous run of cards, I took the tournament down).
Such was my beginning, inauspicious as it was. Just another engineer, programming Human Machine Interface for machines used in automated manufacturing of personal care products, killing time on a Thursday night, risking the vast sum of $10 for a chance to take home as much as Five Times That! So Totally Baller. It wasn't such a terrible existence, though: the job paid good money, and didn't require horrible hours, though it was the sort of life where Dilbert cartoons felt like they were written for you personally, and "Office Space" was as close to perfection as a movie could get. I realized that Roger Ebert was a genius when I read his review of that movie and compared it to, of all things, the Book of Job. "It is about work that crushes the spirit," he wrote. My life wasn't quite so dramatic as to warrant the comparison, and the problems in it were of the First World variety (Boo hoo! I don't have a girlfriend! Boo hoo, the ice maker on my refrigerator stopped working!), but that didn't stop us from complaining, and poker became a sort of outlet for setting aside those problems for one night of the week and focusing only on the task in hand: crushing souls and taking money. Even with the money involved being miniscule, it still seemed worthwhile, and it seemed healthier for the body (and wallet) than the people that would spend their weekends building up their resistance to alcohol poisoning, and healthier for the spirit (and wallet) than those that found their release at the strip clubs, passing twenties to dead-eyed nymphs in return for gyration and one-way contact. The purpose was the same, though: a controlled way to abandon the complexity in their lives and reduce it, if only temporarily, to the id, away from their emasculating day-to-day routine with the suggestion, the illusion, of something more primal and basic.
I'd never gambled before, strange as that may sound. Having something of an addictive personality, I think I always secretly feared that I would wind up as a cautionary tale at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. But this wasn't gambling, not in that sense. It was gambling in that it fit the textbook definition, investment of money in a game with the possibility but without the guarantee of a return. But gamblers spoke of the rush that they got from wagering, from winning, and worst of all, from losing. $10 wasn't quite enough to nourish that cancer, and while over time I would experience that rush, and confirm its existence, it never became the point. Poker became an intellectual exercise, a quirky and surprisingly difficult mixture of applied mathematics and psychology, and figuring it out became something of an obsession. And so began the journey: dominating the home game, against poor opposition (how is it that so many engineers, allegedly smart, educated people, could stand being so terrible at something? I could never figure that out), and making my first forays online.
While my counterparts at the table seemed to arrive at a ceiling of their knowledge and be content at their (relative) "competence", for me it became an itch that I could never quite scratch, a problem I could never quite solve, a testament to the universal truth that the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. A small percentage of my income was transformed into a shelf full of poker books, and I studied them all, learning from them, understanding the underlying philosophy, and even, from time to time, as I grew in knowledge and skill and confidence, learning where I disagreed with them.
Even then, if you'd told me that five years later I'd be filling out my tax returns and listing my occupation as "professional gambler", I'd have told you that you were crazy. Then if you'd have told me that just a few years after that, I'd be employed as an engineer again, but be typing up this story while killing time waiting for the time to head to the airport, where I would be flying to Vegas with $10k in cash and hoping to put a substantial portion of that in play at a poker table, I'd have just laughed. Everywhere but the table itself, I've always been a nit, when it comes to my money, poker bankroll or otherwise. The risks that I take at the poker table, calculated as they are, cause the people around me to look at me like I've grown a second head. It seems so very much unlike me: so conservative with my cash, so measured and calculating at my overall existence. And yet willing to put not-insignificant amounts of money into the middle on a complete, stone bluff.
That's why I opened this up with quotes from "Rounders", despite the neophyte appearance that will give me to the experienced and cynical crowd here. ("Oh look! He's writing about poker! And he's quoting Rounders! Because that's a movie about poker that every poker player has seen! How ****ing original!") To me, though, that movie was not about poker so much as it was about risk: the ones we take, and the ones we prevent ourselves from taking out of caution. Mike and Knish were the two sides to that coin, the angel and the devil on the shoulder. Hollywood, of course, loves to glamorize the risk-taker, the gambler, the person that is willing to put all their eggs in one basket because, goddamnit, they believe
in that basket. After all, that makes for some of the most dramatic success stories that we read in real life. So-and-so succeeded because they believed
, and look where it got them! Heh. Of course, that's the same mentality that drives people to play the lottery, to bet obscene amounts of money on red or black: the most dramatic real-life success stories are the ones where the "heroes", metaphorically bet everything on Red 25 and hit. Mike, in the movie, is just that sort of degenerate: the sort of cautionary tale that I always wanted to avoid becoming. The kind of guy that's willing to risk his whole bankroll in a single hand. "You don't hear much about people who take their shot and miss," he moans. "Yeah, no ****," I think, "but if you needed to lose your whole bankroll in one hand to learn that you could miss, you're an idiot".
Knish is of course on the opposite end of the spectrum, grinding out his living, day after ass-chafing day, at the same stakes, against the same players, patiently playing ABC poker and content with his place in life. He works to minimize his risk, and for my time as an online pro, I found a great deal of inspiration in that line of thought: when I quit my job (which after a transfer and a new role had become a ****ing nightmare), when I decided not to look for another one right away, when I decided to see what I could make if I devoted myself to poker, it felt like such an insane turn of events that my only way of balancing could be to absolutely minimize the risk that I assumed when it came to the actual poker. I didn't take shots, I didn't ever buy into tournaments for more than $200 (except for a single $500 shot, which was the only potato chip I offered myself after a $12k tourney score), and then only rarely played tournaments to begin with, and I never once played when I was drunk, angry, overly tired, or otherwise tilted, if I could help it.
That philosophy helped to stablize my life for those three years, but simultaneously, of course, nullified any real chance of making an actual dent. I stuck mostly to $1-2 and never ventured higher than $2-4 online, and for the most part only wandered up that high if I spotted (or was told of) a mark or a generally soft table. There were times when I spotted fish at $5-10, even more than one at a table. I never got onto the waiting lists. Wasn't worth the risk. I never wanted to put myself into a position where there were immediate life consequences to my losing a single hand.
That philosophy kept me afloat, in the financial sense, for my three years as a pro. It was my lifejacket.
I no longer need the lifejacket.
I've got a job, again, doing engineering work. A job that pays for my life, that pays for its not-particularly-excessive expenses, and that keeps me afloat and allows me to stock a little extra on the side. Of course the poker didn't entirely stop, and for the past 9 months I've been building up a bankroll, fold by fold by mind-numbing value-bet, in my spare time: there's a local Indian casino that's less than an hour away that spreads 1-3, the competition is whiffleball, and the $1k that I allowed myself to start with has seen itself grow tenfold, and with relatively minimal effort. There are good players that wander to the table from time to time, but by and large it's the softest regular game that I've found, and augmenting my income by a projected five figures per year is nothing to sneeze at. But what for? I realized something, a little while back, that I was in a position to adjust my outlook on risk, if not to become a Mike, to at least inject a little of that adrenaline into my life, to jolt me out of the numbness of safety for safety's sake.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I have both the poker skill to beat a decent game, and the life situation to be able to lose and be OK with it. To me, that warrants a moment's consideration.
So that's what this is about, and over the next couple of weeks, as time, consciousness, and Internet access allows, I'll be posting the details of my 11 day trip to Vegas and the poker tables within. Other than the flight that I'm taking (leaves in a couple hours now), the hotel that I'm staying ("slumming" it at the IP, paying for location), the research I've done as to what casinos will carry the games I'm looking for (Bellagio, Venetian, Wynn, Aria), and the bankroll limitations I'm setting on myself (max stop-loss of $3k at 5-10 before moving down), I don't have much of a tangible plan except to play a crapload of poker, write about it, and see how I react to a philosophy that's a bit more ambitious while being content not to descend into complete recklessness. Expect a ton of poker content, and, one can hope, an epic tale of risk, reward, of owning souls and taking rolls - at least insomuch as the mid stakes allow.
Off to the airport. Time to dance.