Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Do The Eyes Have It?


Among the many interesting things I learned during my Las Vegas sojourn, there was one item about myself that genuinely surprised me: I don't much like being watched by people I know while I'm playing poker.

This is completely counterintuitive to me at first blush. Why wouldn't you want your friends and loved ones sweating your action? Wouldn't it be nice to get some (as Rex55 puts it) "rail love?" What could be more flattering than having people you care about follow your every check, fold, or bet (especially if they understand poker)? And how convenient to not have to recount the story of big hands… after all, the people you'd want to tell would witness them for themselves!

Well, it turns out that my assumptions about myself in this matter were incorrect; I don't enjoy this particular kind of attention. It's taken me a while to figure out why, but I think I've got it mostly worked out now.

The first and main reason is this: I am not a good multitasker. If I want to succeed at something complex, I must focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. When I am in the poker-zone, my attention narrows to include the people sitting at the poker table and the clock (if it's a tournament) and just about nothing else. This is how I play my best: the table becomes my whole world and I pay minute attention to the actions of its inhabitants. I'd like to think that an axe-wielding maniac could come screaming up to the table and I would only notice because of the reactions of the other players.

But the problem is, I simply cannot ignore my friends. This is a basic element of my psychological make-up. I am incapable of completely ignoring or blocking out the presence of people who matter to me. The loved one on the rail is a distraction just by virtue of breathing. If I know and care about you, then if you are in the same room as I am, I will pay attention to you. Some portion of my brain will always be actively modeling what is going on in your head and alert to monitor any interaction or potential interaction (past, present, or future!) between us. It is a little bit as if I were a communications center and one of my antennae were perpetually pointed in your direction, whether or not you are actively or intentionally sending a signal to me. And knowing that the spectator's attention is, in fact, intensely focused on me just makes it worse. A thousand virtual conversations can blossom and die in my head every few seconds.

This, as you may imagine, is not helpful to my game.

There is a secondary reason, which is less significant and one I'm more likely to be able to overcome over time: performance anxiety. When someone whose good opinion of me I value is watching me play, I become self-conscious and more worried than usual that I'll make a boneheaded decision and lose a big pot or otherwise bust out spectacularly. If this concern simply caused me to play better, then obviously it wouldn't be a problem. But when it leads me to second-guess myself, play too conservatively (can't make a big mistake THAT way!) or too wildly (hero call! flamboyant bluff!) or spend more time wondering how I'll look to someone away from the table than I do about the people actually sitting at the table, that's no good.

Mind you, it's worth mentioning that there's a key exception to the above. A week or so into my Las Vegas stay, I asked Rakewell if he would sweat me at a few cash games. Things had not been going well for me at all, and I was starting to wonder if my game really and truly sucked. I thought it would be very helpful to have someone whose game I respected watch as I played and give me some critical feedback. The Grump very kindly agreed to do this, and observed and took notes over the course of two sessions of a few hours each. I was very grateful for his patience and attention, and I didn't find his presence at all distracting under those circumstances. (I may add that his comments were both useful ~ when he pointed out some less-than-optimal choices I made ~ and reassuring, in that he was able to say that he hadn't detected any outright suckage on my part.)

Finally, I should say that while I would probably be both willing and able to perform a similar exercise for another player (watching and providing a post-game critique), I myself make a lousy railbird. I find watching poker without being able to see hole-cards only mildly less excruciating than watching a caterpillar in a cocoon for weeks. (Yes, it's lovely when the butterfly finally emerges, but please!) I just don't have that kind of patience. To my poker-playing friends: please do not feel slighted if I do not rail you for hours. I'm just not cut out for it. I will, however, happily fetch you nourishment, massage your shoulders, and provide you with conversation, pep-talks, or a listening ear on breaks if you like.

Mind you, if someone I know goes deep in a major tournament, if there's a seat in the bleachers and you'd LIKE me to be there, I certainly will if I can.

Labels: ,


Blogger BWoP said...

Interesting post here, as I've been trying to pinpoint why I feel that I play so horribly at cash games when I have friends at the same table (and why I've now put myself on a ban from playing at the same cash table with someone who is in my cell phone unless it's a special occasion).

7/14/09 8:05 PM  
Blogger LasVegasMichael said...

A special occasion would have to include when you are OTB in Badugi, cap it and draw three. ;) Those are always special games.

But I digress, Cardgrrl, I know exactly where you are coming from. Though I am completely comfortable with blocking my friends out to concentrate on the game I may have a different opinion if my friends were not poker players; and thus lacked the understanding of the need to focus and concentrate. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), all of my friends and family are poker players, so I was not put into the awkward situation of feeling the need to juggle being a "host" with the need to concentrate on the tournament.

This really applies to tournaents only. I could not tolerate someone perma-sweating my cash game. That would irritate me. I like being in my own little world when playing cash, and that does not include a non-playing sweater. However, playing at the same table with friends is a slightly different story. I have no problem playing friends hard, and exploiting any possible weaknesses that I know they have. I expect my friends to do the same.

Interesting and enjoyable blog post as always. We'll miss ya tomorrow night at the HORSE game!

7/14/09 8:53 PM  
Blogger Rakewell said...

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how your perspective on this changes when a friend is playing at the table with you. It seems to be a situation you deal with all the time, because of playing against the same people in home games year after year. If one of them were standing at the rail watching you, that would be a distraction in a way that isn't so if he or she is a participant in the game--at least, that seems to be the implication of your post. Is that right? If so, can you explain why that difference exists? (I'm not at all trying to challenge or question your experience or analysis of it; it's just that it's quite different from my own, so I'm curious to learn the permutations and variations and ramifications of it.)

Also, you told me in person another interesting fact, which I think you will not mind me sharing with your readers (and if you do, well, just delete this part, or reject the whole comment!): You found at the WSOP that when one of your friends was watching the table as a reporter for PokerNews (specifically, Shamus and F-Train), that did not produce the same distraction as it would if the same person were standing in the same spot just to be watching/supporting you. Something about knowing that they were there to do a job rather than to be railing you specifically seemed to change your internal reaction to their presence. Again, because that is so different from my experience, I thought it was really interesting.

7/15/09 3:25 AM  
Anonymous KenP said...

Well, you take pride -- am sure rightfully -- in your concentration. So, I imagine you can add ignoring friends to your game. All you have to do is tell them you will be doing that. You can do it by making fun of your one-track mind that won't multi-task. Add that it is at times a real challenge to walk and chew gum. They should be understanding and not offended.

I envy that concentration. I used to have it online. But, too many tournaments gave me what I call my boredom tilt. I can only keep it together for the 3-4 hours by doing them on an occasional basis these days.

7/15/09 6:16 AM  
Blogger Cardgrrl said...

@Rakewell: When a friend is playing at a table with me, then they are AT THE TABLE and therefore they are no longer a distraction—they are part of the world I'm paying minute attention to. The only time that might be problematic would be if there were some extra-game consideration that would cause me to not want to play my best competitive strategy against a friend. In that case, I would do my best to avoid the situation in the first place (probably by not playing at all).

As for the "professional observers" who happen to be friends... They are not there FOR ME, they are there to do a job and I am incidentally part of it. Psychologically, I have tagged them for the duration as non-friends busy with their own agenda. (I will say, thought, that the couple of times I did see them and acknowledge them by waving or chatting briefly, it did cause a brief cognitive twinge.)

@KenP: Alas, the "ignore your friends" thing just doesn't work like that for me. It has nothing to do with the friends' expectations, and much more to do with my own wiring. I'm not worried about my friends being hurt because I ignore them while playing; that's not the problem. (They get the need to concentrate.) The problem is that while my overt behavior looks like "ignoring," in my head there's not so much ignoring going on.

When I wrote about friends possibly being offended, it was in the context of ME not wanting to rail THEM.

7/15/09 6:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home