I used to keep track of my finances like an accountant with OCD. Well, all that got drop-kicked after I started playing poker. Remember how anal retentive poker players are about their play stats? The big irony is that they're anal about their play, but nonchalant with their money. Kind of like the morbidly obese dieter who's anal about his Diet Coke, but nonchalant with his bacon.
"Can I get a shot of rum with my nonalcoholic beer?"
You see, in poker, there's something called variance. Variance is the stats nerd's way of saying that, in order to generate an average profit of, say, $100 an hour, you have to tolerate swings of thousands and sometimes even tens of thousands of dollars. Let's say you start a session with $10,000 and end up with $11,000 five hours later. Hey, you just had a great day, averaging $200 per hour in profit over five hours. But, during those five hours, you may at some point have been down to $1,000 and at another point been up to $20,000. That's variance.
Sure, he missed one step, but he went down the other 20 like a champion.
My buddy Matt once got into a 50-hour-long heads-up (one-on-one) match with another pro. Well, the other guy took Matt for over $70,000, at which point Matt decided to take a break from poker for a few months. When I commiserated and pointed out that taking a break was probably a good idea after such a big loss, Matt replied that it wasn't about the money. He didn't give a shit that he lost $70K. What he cared about was that he got outplayed for 50 hours straight. And that's why he was taking a break. Because, due to variance, what matters in the long run is how well you play, not how much you win or lose in any given session.
The same could not be said for strip poker.
And since becoming numb to losses is part of the game, that extends beyond the poker table. Matt recently went to dinner with a bunch of poker friends. They decided to play credit card roulette for the $2,000 dinner tab -- everyone tossed their credit cards into a pile, and the server picked one at random to charge. Matt's card got picked, and the only reaction it elicited from him was an annoyed chuckle. And it wasn't because $2,000 meant nothing to him. It's just what poker does to you. You get desensitized to losing huge gobs of money due to random chance.
When flirting with fate, it's best to assume the position first.
And in fact ...
Don't get me wrong: despite the downside, Matt and Jake love their job. They love it because it's technical and analytical, and because it's a unique lifestyle and because they enjoy the ups and downs.
And because this guy is just asking to be shaken down.
Poker teaches you humility, emotional control and, most of all, patience. You realize that life in general is one big game of chance that you can kind of sort of control, but often is subject to just plain dumb luck, and that life is about how you react to that luck. To use an obnoxiously tired metaphor that's actually appropriate here, you learn that life will deal you a shitty hand every now and then (sometimes one after another for months on end). But when it does, you just have to toss the cards aside and wait for the next hand to come your way. The game goes on.
That's why gamblers tend to be a philosophical bunch.
When your car breaks down and you need a $700 emergency repair ... oh well, shit happens. When your credit card gets hacked and thousands get charged on it ... whatever, it's just a minor annoyance. When your girlfriend dumps you ... fuck it, you'll meet someone else. They've felt all of these ups and downs before, at the table. Poker takes the kind of dramatic ups and downs you'd normally experience over the course of a decade working in an office and plays them out in one night.
One day, you're hitting up Vegas nightclubs and plowing through four $500 bottles of Grey Goose at a VIP table. The next day, you're wondering if skipping breakfast will leave you enough money for dinner. That's life, and you learn to accept it.
Not that it's for everyone, either. One thing you don't pick up on when watching the glamorous pros is the fact that ...
Sometimes when you have a shitty job, bonding with your coworkers is what gets you through the day. Well, in poker, you have no coworkers, because everyone else is the enemy. That's the thing about poker: it's not like a business, where a customer gives you money and in return you give the customer a car or a TV or a hamburger. Poker is a zero-sum game, which means that every dollar you win was lost to you by another person. So, if you're pulling in $100K a year, that means that people collectively lost $100K to you over that year.
"Hey honey! I lost half our house deposit but ended up with another guy's pension!"
This has led to professional poker players being compared to drug dealers, because sometimes your best source of income is the degenerate gambler who's so addicted to poker that he's willing to risk his entire life savings. As a poker pro, though, your job isn't to be the addict's conscience and cut him off. Your job is to feed his habit and give him the gambling high that he craves.
"This is awesome!"
I still remember the moment I realized I could never be a poker pro long-term: I was playing at the Orleans in Las Vegas. Everyone at the table was friendly, and I was having a great time just chatting up my tablemates. Two seats to my right was a retired-looking old man who didn't say much, but always smiled whether he won or lost. After a few hours of play, he was down to his last $40 or so, which he committed to a hand I was in. I won that hand, and as the dealer pushed the pile of chips toward me, I looked up to see the old man slowly push his seat back and stand up. He even managed a sort of goodbye nod toward me, but his body language gave away his dejection as he plodded away from the table.
Now, I don't know if he was playing with retirement money or extra spending cash. I don't know if my busting him out meant that he would be short on money for the rest of the month. And, as I noted above, it wasn't my business to care. If someone is going to risk his money against me, I have a right to win it -- the players know the rules when they sit down.
There's no mercy in this game.
Still, as I watched him walk away, this feeling of uneasiness crept over me. I had done what I was supposed to do -- win money -- so why did I feel so guilty? Right then and there, I knew I didn't want to play professionally for much longer.
Dennis would like to thank "Matt" and "Jake" for their stories (they know who they are). Check out more of Dennis' personal stories here.
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