I have a friend who is a professional poker player. His biggest win was at the European Tour Main Event in Dublin. He limped his way all the way to the final table and then the final two, a middle-aged guy matched up against a woman who came on the poker scene when she was 15, Annette Obrestad, and still had yet to hit her 20th birthday. She had a huge chip lead and everyone expected her to take out the old man.
“She was utterly fearless,” he told me afterwards. There was a break just before the final two contestants would play to conclusion. “I had to pace around outside the hotel and talk myself into playing with no fear of losing,” he said. “I had to find my balls.” His reward was over a half million euros.
One of the things I’ve noticed about myself as I head towards my 50th birthday is that despite talking a big game about being fearless, I really am not. I’m fighting paralysis, trying to find my way back to the courage I used to have in my 20s and 30s.
In that search, ironically, I have become obsessed with poker. I often fill a spare hour here or there with a game against the microchip in my iPhone. No money changes hands but it helps me refine my rhythm and strategy. I’ve gotten to the point where I can beat my phone consistently, as long as I am actually paying attention and play aggressively. The challenge it to keep that same level of courage when there is real money on the line.
Last year I made my one and only pilgrimage to a Las Vegas poker table. The pros saw me coming and beat whatever mojo I had developed on my simulated games out of me in a matter of minutes. I was hemorrhaging hundreds so fast that within an hour I had shuffled off to the Black Jack table where I could lose money more slowly.
Since taking that beating, I’ve focused my cash poker on a monthly game with friends here in Boston. Last night’s game was my life in microcosm.
We play $500 buy-in Texas Hold ‘Em with blinds of $5/$10 (you can buy back in if you lose all your money as many times as you want). The first few times we played I had won, but recently I had been going down big early and then fighting my way back to even. We start at 6 pm and the last hand is dealt at 10:15. The guys are mostly finance types. Good guys who I enjoy spending time with. But I do care about the poker. More than I probably should.
Last night on the second hand, I was dealt a pair of nines, a good but not great hand. The pot was a couple hundred on the flop (when three community cards are turned over). Two of those three cards were nines. That meant I now had four nines (“quads”), an absurdly good hand. I don’t’ ever recall seeing anyone getting four of a kind over several hundred hours of playing. I slow played the hand to try to suck as much money into the pot as I possible could and finished with a very nice-sized chip pile literally 30 seconds after sitting down.
During the next hour I blew all that money and then some, having to reload with another $500 buy-in. Twice I was dealt pocket queens, which I held onto with grit and determination while the five common cards failed to improve my hand. I bet heavily into a buzz saw of straights, sets (three of a kind), flushes and, in one case, a full house.
Ninety minutes into the game I was down almost a grand and, worse, completely bored. I kept looking at the clock on my iPhone as I got dealt nothing but garbage and drank yet another diet coke.
A crucial factor in playing this kind of poker is that only two players ante. So at a table with 10 players, 8 of the players can look at their cards, fold immediately and lose nothing. That means patience is a premium. Especially when your cards suck. After being way up and then going way down, I wasn’t about to stick my neck out any more. So I hunkered down to fold away the night and just try to survive.
Recently, I have been trying to remember my passion. Sometimes in my middle-aged malaise I forget who I am, what I love, and the things that stoke my fire. Passion has nothing to do with what anyone thinks or even the outcome of my actions. It’s about the thing itself, the joy of engaging vigorously in activities that touch my soul. It’s a right brain, non-verbal kind of thing.
When I was younger, passion came easily. Over the years, it’s been covered over by layers of crud. I have to get in there and strip away the dirt to rediscover the innocence of my younger years.
Something happened around 9 pm last night. I have no idea where it came from, why or even how.
Another crucial factor in poker is table position. Betting last is a huge advantage as it allows you to force others to do things they otherwise would prefer not to. The person who in on the “button” (representing the dealer — even if you have a professional who is actually dealing the button gets passed around the table moving one person each hand) is the last to act.
Table personality also matters a lot. People try to read each other to see who is bluffing and who actually has good cards. So how you behave is crucial to tipping your hand, or not. When it’s going good I make a lot of noise to distract the other players. I’m a loudmouthed irritant. It’s part of the fun. And it keeps them off balance and often causes them to bet overly aggressively just to try to shut me up. I’m happy to take their money.
But when it’s going bad, I’m very quiet. I text and sip my soda in dejected silence. It’s the middle-aged me I don’t like much.
I was still sulking off in the corner with my streak of shit cards when a crazy thought occurred to me. I looked up as two guys bet heavily ahead of me. I had the button, as I had any number of times before during my slump. But this time I perked up. I fingered my remaining stack of black hundred dollar chips and threw them on the table as I laughed out loud like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The two big bettors groaned, looked back at their cards, and sat in silence trying to figure out what the heck I was doing. For a moment they seemed to forget how full of shit I generally am as a player. I had been sitting there doing nothing for so long that they each came to the conclusion that for me to bet differently I must have stumbled on a huge hand. One and then the other folded. I laid down my crap face up just to rub salt in the wound as I collected my winnings. And to set the trap for when I actually did get some cards.
My bet had been so absolutely stupid it had been brilliantly smart. And fearless.
From that point on, as if as some cosmetic reward from the poker Gods, I got amazingly good cards. My bluff worked to my favor at first as the chips flew fast and furious to take me down. But pretty soon it didn’t even matter. Twice I went all in with hands that were good but by no means unbeatable and emerged with an even bigger stack of chips.
All poker players have their own nervous idiosyncrasies. Mine is the way I stack my chips. When I am up I like to separate my “bait” (the amount I have purchased in chips) from my winnings. This is a mental game I play with myself to hedge against my propensity to lose courage. I figure with the chips I have won I can bet freely with no chance of ending up under water. Once I dip into my bait pile it better be a damn good hand. Which is why being down a grand and constructing a monster bluff was not something I would be capable of without some weird out-of-body inspiration.
Soon my pretty little stacks of chips, carefully counted and divided, had completely degenerated into one massive mound of green, red and black money. Once I even had the “nuts” (an unbeatable hand) and didn’t go all in because I began to feel badly about my loud antics which included comparing shoe sizes with my buddies to convince them that my manhood could not be beaten (I do wear a size 13) so they shouldn’t even try.
In the end I went from down a grand to making that thousand back plus two grand more including a $500 check from a guy I had never met but ran out of cash in the carnage.
I have often pondered the relative roles of luck and skill in my life. There have been times when I was so randomly fortunate that I felt it like it must be pure luck. At other times, I have endured such acute pain that I had to cling to the notion that the suffering I was going through had to be part of some grander scheme that would play itself out in a manner that was beyond my ability to comprehend.
But in poker, and in life, I have come to the conclusion that courage goes an awful long way in determining how lucky I am. I can go through long dry spells where it seems that the world is dealing me unsuited number cards that are of little use. But truly, it’s all in how I look at it.
Nothing changed during the two hours I was getting shit cards last night. I just decided, finally, my luck had changed. And bet without fear of losing. I managed to, as my buddy the champ put it, “find my balls.”
I will not often have as successful a night of poker as I did last night. But I hope I can carry with me the moral of the evening. I have no reason to be afraid of losing. My truest self is still there if I just take the time to go find him.
And sometimes my lack of courage is an essentially part of its return. Sometimes it takes a couple hours of limping along in the corner to set up a heroic bluff that changes everything.
image: my winnings when I got home last night