Sunday, May 11, 2008

You Deserved It, Part 1

One thing I've noticed in my long, middling side-career of playing poker is that most gamblers, me included, tend to think that it's bad luck when they lose but terrific skill when they win.

If you're playing well and winning and some donkey makes an obviously ill-timed bluff and your clearly superior hand takes down the pot, you might think to yourself, you deserved it. And you'd be thinking of both yourself and your witless opponent. Running bad, though – let’s say the same donkey makes the same play with his same lousy hand, but somehow catches the miracle river card that gives him the pot – and you think a version of the same thing: You deserved it (meaning, this time, that you deserved to win, although you didn’t).

That a poker player can think both these things without any sense of irony is probably the central delusion that keeps this game running. The one constant so far on our trip across this vast land is that winners are geniuses and losers are unlucky. Just ask them.

As we began this trip a few weeks ago I was deep in a long losing slide. Some of it, despite all the throat-clearing above, really was bad luck. I’ve had this uncanny run of flopping a set – that’s a pair in my hand matching a card on the board for three-of-a-kind – only to lose to two crazy, improbable running cards that make my opponent a straight or flush. I’ve had big pairs lose to smaller ones, and even full houses lose on the end to bigger ones. It can drive you crazy.

I also know, though, that not all bad luck is bad luck. Sometimes, as my brother-in-law Manuel likes to say (though not about poker), “You brought that shit on yourself.”

So back in Seattle I did some hard thinking about my game and made some adjustments. Maybe I’ve allowed myself to get too loose, I thought for a while, so I tightened up, playing fewer hands, taking fewer chances on straight or flush draws, and getting out of the way when another player showed a lot of strength. No help. If anything, the changes marked me as a weak player and I started getting pushed around in hands I ought’ve played much stronger. So I went the other way, raising a bit more liberally, reraising on the come, representing strength even sometimes when I didn’t (yet) have the goods. What the hell, I figured, if the donks can suck out on the end maybe I can too. And in the meantime I’ll pick up a few pots when they fold to my aggression. And if they do call and I make my hand, so much the better. As my poker mentor Mike Stahlberg always coached me, “The less you bet, the more you lose when you win.”

Again, though, no good. The better players figured out what I was doing; the marks didn’t notice, but their hands held up anyway. Session after session I’d get behind and then struggle, usually unsuccessfully, to come back. Occasionally I’d start out strong but inevitably give back my winnings.

I asked my friend David McCumber, pictured above, to clock my game. We’d play together at the Muck, I suggested, and he could give me an honest appraisal afterward if he was able to spot something I was doing wrong. Which he sort of did; he said I’m most effective when I’m aggressive and that I had seemed a little passive the last couple of times we played. But being McCumber, the world’s nicest guy, he wrapped it all up in a bow so pretty it was almost hard to see anything else:

“The last two times I've gotten to play with you you've been a little more passive than usual, which I put down to bad cards,” he said in an email after our game. “Your play is so solid and good that I've tried to model my own game after yours. You'll do very well.”

When we got to Eugene on the first day of Pie in the Sky II, after dinner at Mom’s Michelle and I went over to visit the Stahlbergs, Mike and Karen, pictured below. I explained the dillio to my guru.

“Ever read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’?,” Mike said. “It sounds like you need a little more Zen in your game. You’ve got to roll with it.”

Good advice, surely. But as we began the trip I didn’t feel Zen. I felt like a baseball player who has tinkered with his swing so much he can’t remember how to hit the ball.

Plus my bankroll was hurting. I keep a separate stash of money for poker, trying not to borrow from it for luxuries like a dinner out or the movies – to say nothing of the essential bills – and also trying not to add to it from the “real money” in my bank account. The poker bankroll goes up and down. It was seriously depleted when I treated myself last July (with major help from my “Team Mark” backers) to an entry in the $10,000 main event at the World Series of Poker. But it went up by several thousand last fall during a successful trip to Los Angeles card rooms, and it fluctuated normally back at home in the couple months after L.A.

This spring, though, as I said, the long slide has taken its toll. I began Pie in the Sky II with a stake of only $1,100 – not enough, really, to play my normal $4/8 game comfortably, let alone to take shots around the country at World Series satellite tournaments, which generally cost several hundred bucks each.

So I left Seattle with biggish goals but conservative expectations: I’d still like to play in the World Series come July. The main event seems ridiculously out of reach, although a smaller event – they have some tournaments with a $1,000 or $1,500 entry – may be doable. Also, you never know, I could enter a satellite for a couple hundred and get lucky.

My plan was to start off playing in my normal low-limit hold 'em games and hope to move up in limits or tourney entries as my bankroll grew around the country.

Coming up: My results so far, including some memorable poker characters across the Southwest and the South -- Walnut, Pleasant, Pro, J.R., Hurricane Hero and Hollywood.


Rita said...

A very interesting post! It ended, though, like American Idol going to commercial break before annouoncing the big winner. Can't wait for the next installment.

kateco said...

curled up inside this post is the reason i can't play poker with the M&Ms anymore ... but you make the spectating so much more fun than losing my quarters .. may the road, and the air conditioned Holiday Inns, rise to meet you ...

David said...

Hey, man, if you expect people to read this stuff, don't scare 'em away with a picture of an old bald guy.

I can't wait to hear how you're doing...somewhere on this trip somebody is gonna do a john malkovich imitation and say, "give the man his money."