Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Professionals

When I was in Atlantic City last time, I met two professional poker players. The differences and similarities between them—and me—were striking and, I think, instructive.

The first I met playing at the 2/5 table. I took immediate notice of her, as I usually do, first and foremost because she was another woman. We are still rare enough, especially at tables above the lowest stakes, that there is almost always a mutual acknowledgement of some sort, a lifting of eyebrows, a meeting of glances. She was dressed in Manhattan black, wore a stylish cap, and her hands were well decorated with quite impressive bling. She was Thai, either an immigrant at an early age, or first-generation American. I couldn’t be sure of her age, and later found out that she is around thirty years old.

I was sitting two to her left (the young luckbox who chopped the runner runner boat hand with me was between us). As part of my persona-building misdirection, our end of the table was playing the “guess Cardgrrl’s occupation” game, which started when someone asked if I was a professional player (ugh), which I immediately and emphatically denied. Earlier someone had asked to look at the ring I was wearing. It featured letters of the alphabet, but appeared quite abstract from a distance. (To my great dismay, the ring became a casualty of the trip. It fell off my hand somewhere on my way back from AC. I’m quite cranky about that, as it was handcrafted and a special present to myself from a few years back.) I told the table that the ring was a partial clue to my profession, and this led to guesses like “teacher,” “stenographer,” and the like. The young woman ~ who I’ll call DK ~ asked if I were in medicine.

This turned out to be an interesting projection on her part. It emerged that she herself had trained, all the way through her internship, as a medical doctor. She had quit to play poker full-time (needless to say, to the great initial consternation of her family) a couple of years ago. Since then, she has experienced significant success playing both online and live. (I looked up her stats when I got home and was extremely impressed by her results. Not to say downright envious.) She has also written and thought a lot about the game and about the life of a professional player.

I thoroughly enjoyed sitting along side her and watching her work. Her most salient skill was the ability to make the hero call and pick off bluffs or weak hands. I watched her do it over and over again, in situations where I was quite sure that I would have laid down my hand. I also saw, however, the one time she made the hero call and was felted by a stealth set of fours. Her skill at hand reading was not perfect, and was clearly a high-risk/high-reward proposiiton.

I was both intrigued and surprised by her forthrightness in revealing her professional status at the table. Why would anyone do that, I wondered? Now, clearly, in a circumstance where she is playing with the same regulars over and over, it’s not a big deal. But when fish (such as myself, of course) sit down at the table to gamble it up, why would you put them on alert by letting them know you play poker for a living? There are obviously a subset of fish (like me!) who would enjoy the challenge of going up against a self-described pro. But there have to be just as many, if not more, who will play more cautiously and hence less profitably against you if they have reason to believe you have mad skillz.

The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with since is the simplest: loneliness. As I’ve noted before, poker-playing, despite taking place in a social environment, is a solitary business. I think DK decided to trade off a bit of EV (expected value, a term of art that denotes the profit you expect to make, over time, in a given circumstance) for some camaraderie. She somehow mentally categorized me as “peer,” and was simply enjoying the opportunity to exchange relatively candid views with someone she saw—accurately, I might add—more as a potential pal than a threat. (I considered briefly whether it might have been a meta-move of some kind, utterly Machiavellian, and have ruled that out. We have remained in touch since our meeting, and I can think of no way in which that would serve some kind of venal motive on her part.) Curiously, this puts me in somewhat iffy ethical position, since: a) I actually lied about my status as a poker player and 2) I’m now writing about her (albeit having altered some identifying features) and not linking to her or letting her know about it.

I am coming to appreciate more and more how having some professional poker-playing friends, with whom one is not primarily competitive but rather collegial, can be extremely valuable. With whom else can you talk shop? Who else will really appreciate the peculiar challenges and joys of the poker life? And who else can offer advice that is actually born of relevant experience?

DK apparently has a knack for developing and sustaining this kind of friendship, as the other pro I met was her friend Frank, who had traveled to AC with her. They are not a couple, but their closeness leads many who see them together to think so. Apparently the floor at Harrah’s has asked them not to play at the same cash table together for appearance’s sake! (I can only offer my own intuitive assessment: these are two people who would never in a million years soft-play each other. They are way too fierce competitors and too zealous about the integrity of the game.)

Frank presents a very different personality from DK. Where DK has a laid-back, slow, wry way of speaking, and a languid but elegant table presence, Frank is an in-your-face New York wit. He majors in banter, needling, and table-talk. When he’s at the table, you will pay attention to him. He is a genius at getting people to talk about their hands: their holdings, their decision-making process, their perceptions of others (including him). He is a kind of snake-charmer, but it’s not all sweetness and light, there’s definitely an edge to his humor and his temperament. One suspects that there’s a short fuse there, and it’s clear that suffering fools is a skill he’s still working on, in the interest of his profitability.

Frank is probably the least passive table presence I’ve ever encountered. From the moment he sits down he is shaping his image and working to mould the table’s action to suit his game. He is equally effective in tournaments and in cash games. The intelligence was practically visibly boiling off him like heat waves off the blacktop of his charm. It was a frightening combination of psychological street smarts, mathematical precision, and tactical and strategic savvy.

Honestly, I’d like to just follow Frank around for a week to watch him at work. I don’t think his style is one I could ever directly emulate, but there are definitely things I could learn and incorporate into my own. He riffs very effectively off his individual brand of charisma, for example; that’s something I have occasionally managed to do, more by accident than on purpose, which I’d like to deliberate cultivate as a tool in my arsenal.

If I had to guess, I’d say Frank was in his late thirties. His background? Well, it is to laugh. Frank and I went to the same prestigious Ivy League college. He then went on to Harvard Law School and a high-powered legal career. Which he quit to play poker full-time.

Do we detect a pattern here?

These are really, really bright people. They can and have prospered in highly demanding professional fields. They were both perfectly capable of making plenty of money in mainstream occupations. They gave up security, societal approbation, and the normalcy of the “straight” economy for a life of uncertainty and total self-reliance in the marginal, shadow-world of professional gambling.

I haven’t yet heard the full stories of how they arrived in this life. I am sure each of them has a unique trajectory. But I’d wager I can identify some of the features they’re likely to share in common.

I bet they both have something to prove to themselves and are fiercely competitive. They don’t like being told what to do. They dislike having routine schedules and externally imposed deadlines and goals. They are bored when not faced with fresh challenges and new lessons to learn. They feel that they are outsiders even when they are doing the most insider-y kind of professional work. They have finally lost all patience with the expectations of others, whether actual or internalized, but they have cultivated extremely high standards for themselves to replace them. They want the consequences of their choices to redound to them and to them alone. They are very interested in the motivations and decision-making processes of others. And they have a strong addictive or compulsive element in their personalities.

Does that sound like anyone else we know?



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