Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Give The Bottle The Boot

I was reminded by this article in the Washington Post that I've been meaning to write a non-poker-related rant on the subject of bottled water in casinos ~ and for that matter everywhere ~ for some time now.

Those of you who want only poker content may cease reading right now.

I have long found it absurd that people will actually pay money for water in a plastic or glass bottle. Seriously? Here in the USA we have an extremely safe and reliable source of water in public systems throughout the country. If you don't particularly like the taste of your municipality's tap water, you can buy an inexpensive filtration system and render it entirely palatable in a matter of seconds.

An awful lot of fancy-pants bottled water is just plain or slightly doctored tap water with a snazzy label on non-biodegradable packaging, anyway. Why pay for that?

In a casino, they will give you bottled water for free (okay, you'll tip the waitress a buck if you're a decent human being). Does the low cost make the scenario any more acceptable?


There's just no excuse for bottled water in a country with a good public utility infrastructure. The resources that go into packaging and distributing bottled water are a complete waste of energy at every stage of the process. Manufacturing the bottles takes energy. Transporting the bottles takes energy. Disposing of or recycling the bottles takes energy. The whole chain is rife with waste and pollution.

At the Venetian in Las Vegas they proudly serve Fiji Water. Now, I will not argue the point that Fiji Water is delightfully refreshing. It is probably the nicest still bottled water there is. And it is absolutely execrable from an ecological point of view.

Think about it: they are shipping artesian water from an island in the South Pacific to the desert of Las Vegas. How can this be anything but obscene? Each bottle of that water must have a carbon footprint a mile wide. If you go to Fiji Green you'll see that the company itself acknowledges that it will have to work overtime to compensate for its negative impact on the environment. (And Fiji Water is probably one of the more responsible vendors of its ilk.) But honestly, no amount of carbon offsets makes this product sensible.

Please folks, consider filling up your own washable, reusable sports bottle with tap water. Don't participate in the ludicrousness that is the bottled-water industry. You'll save money and do one less thing to contribute to the degradation of our ecosystem.

(And while you're at it, ask for your casino beverage in a glass instead of a plastic cup. As far as I know, Las Vegas has no city-mandated recycling requirement or governmental recycling services for businesses or residents. All that plastic is headed straight for an incinerator or a landfill.)

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Kindness of Worthy Opponents

One of the curious features of moving in circles that are ~ for all practical purposes ~ "underground" is that the social mores tend to mimic those of any other such group or movement. So, despite the fact that when we meet over the felt we are diehard enemies striving to take one another's money without mercy, away from the table we often treat each with special courtesy and consideration. We have each others' backs.

Last night I took refuge in yet another free WIFI-offering dining establishment. I won't say which one, because I don't want to get the manager in any kind of trouble. He's a poker player I've encountered numerous times at the Crime Scene Game. (I took a shine to him immediately when we first met. Just a very likable guy, a fairly good player, and incidentally cute as a button.) He was nice enough to comp me a really decent glass of wine, just because. He allowed as how he'd give me a break any time I came in.

Totally unnecessary, but appreciated nonetheless.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Not a Blog About But Politics, But...

...tomorrow is election day.

I am not going to tell you for whom I'm going to vote, or for whom you ought to vote. We're a poker blog here.


This is an election that positively, absolutely matters. So take a page from the poker book, and go practice making the best decision you know how on something that is actually very important.

And if, on Wednesday morning, you feel you have suffered a bad beat, take ANOTHER page from the poker book and play on anyway. There is no game if we do not participate and play by the rules. The same is true of our civil society.

Be a good citizen tomorrow and vote. Be a good citizen the day after by continuing to engage in dialog with people with whom you disagree and by working peacefully and positively toward the goals you believe in.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

On Being Bad

Most mainstream religions frown on gambling.

There’s definitely something unholy about putting one’s (or, ideally, someone else’s) hard-earned money at risk — subject to the vagaries of chance — rather than to work. Should you be squandering the precious resources entrusted to you for mere entertainment? Furthermore, gambling just doesn’t seem like a godly activity; Einstein, for example, was offended by certain aspects of quantum theory, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Gamblers come in two flavors, the superstitious and the scientific. The first subscribe to the magical property of luck and the second ascribe to the propositions of probability. Those who wish to mix luck and religion find themselves in the dubious position of asking their Deity to help them be lucky (we may pause to recall the unseemly spectacle of competing prayer-wars at the final table of the 2007 WSOP Main Event). This is particularly awkward for those who believe that God has a master plan, and all is fore-ordained. What is it you’re praying for in that case? “Let me turn out to be the one predestined to win!”

Those who are die-hard probability fans may start to wonder where God is in the grand scheme of things. If it’s all chance, given enough time and the laws of physics, pretty much everything that can happen, will happen. Why bring God into it all? There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are plenty at the poker table. (Believe me, run bad long enough and you will start to question the existence of a loving God.)

Poker, with it’s skill component, brings some further concerns into play. Now, in addition to the gambling, there’s the matter of using your presumably God-given talents to take other people’s money. Specifically, to take other people’s money by means of deception, aggression, and by taking advantage of their weaknesses. You are to feed on your opponents as the wolf feeds upon sheep. The apparent lack of sharp teeth and overt bloodshed should not mislead anyone: poker is a predatory pastime. This is not the stuff of saintly behavior.

The wish to exercise the cardinal virtues of compassion and generosity, the commendable impulse to heal the sick and nurture the helpless, the desire to educate and enlighten the ignorant, and the natural human tendency to bond and form groups for mutual aid — these are all deprecated to the point of being out-and-out liabilities when playing poker. Poker is a caricature of Darwinian competition, “nature red in tooth and claw,” survival of the fittest. It’s a bit like capitalism, except without the productivity part. It’s hard to see how this is a good thing.

Various people have tried, in my view completely without success of any kind, to make a case for poker having some socially redeeming value. The closest that I, personally, have ever been able to get is the notion that poker facilitates the redistribution of wealth from stupid people to smarter people. This seems like a pretty feeble proposition (on a factual basis) to begin with, and I’m not sure that it would represent much of a social good even if it were proven to be true. I see no evidence that people who are good at poker are, in fact, any more likely to do worthwhile things with money than their less-skilled counterparts.

Does boxing have any socially redeeming value? Two people get into a ring. There are certain rules that govern their behavior, which are intended to ensure that the fight is fair. The combatants bring differing levels of preparation, skill, stamina, experience, intelligence, aggression, discipline, and desire to the competition. And then they hit each other. A lot. Let’s face it: somebody is gonna get hurt.

It has always baffled me that some people find watching boxing to be entertaining, and I am stymied even more by the fact that there are people who actually like to box. I don’t like to see people fighting, and I really don’t like to see people hurt. (I especially abhor the idea of hitting or being hit, myself.) Then I wrote the previous paragraph, and now — although it still doesn’t appeal to me — I think I may have an idea why they enjoy it.

Poker is like boxing, without the physical part. The key to both activities is that the participants come to the table voluntarily. 1

When you climb into a boxing ring, you accept that you are going to get punched. Repeatedly. Hard. When you belly up to a poker table, you accept that everybody there is going to do his or her best to TAKE ALL YOUR MONEY. There are rules and referees, it’s not a free-for-all scrum. It is not the case that “anything goes.” If you don’t abide by the rules, you won’t be allowed to stay, and you may even be sanctioned. But within the magic circle of rope or felt, you are permitted to — nay, encouraged and rewarded for it! — exercise all your faculties to prevail. Hit as hard as you can, float and dodge, outwit and baffle. It may not be nice, but it cannot be described as unethical.

In a word: compete. Bring out your bad self and go medieval on their asses. As the teenage son of some dear friends asked drily the other night, over dinner, “You’re not going to trot out the catharsis argument, are you?”

(Smart kid. Let him write the damn book.)

Where was I?

I was raised to be a good girl. I was brought up to be nice. I was taught not to be selfish and to tell the truth. I wanted people to think well of me.

Enter the poker table and Enter the Dragon.

At the poker table I am not nice. I am utterly selfish. I am devious. I am aggressive. I am ruthless. I lie my ass off. I don’t care if people think well of me or not. In fact, if they think I’m stupid, it’s good. If they fear me, it’s good. If they like me, it’s good. I can work with whatever they think. At the poker table, I am not a good girl.

And that’s really, really good. It’s the thrill of defying a taboo. It’s satisfying, on the level of an inchoate itch that you didn’t even know required scratching until you dug in your fingernails for the first time. I can reinvent myself however I please. It’s fun.

But part of the reason it’s fun is because, on a very basic level, it’s safe. I’m playing poker. There are rules. It’s a game, not my whole life. And although, while playing poker, I may not be a good girl, I am always an honorable girl. My integrity remains intact, and it is important to me that others know and can rely on that.

I despite cheaters. They blur the boundary between the game and the rest of life in a destructive way; the “bad” that should be confined to the context of the game leaks out into the world, where it absolutely does not belong. That decompartmentalization is a breach of the poker-player’s social contract, and it undermines the very nature of the undertaking. It renders the game unconstrained, unsafe, and therefore not fun. In the context of a poker game, cheating is sociopathic behavior.

1 I set aside, here, the case of those addicted to gambling. This a topic that deserves separate consideration.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Day 27: Untethered

The other night I stopped into my local Whole Foods Store at about 8 pm to hit up their excellent salad/hot food bar before the evening's cash game. I was standing in the check-out lane when I noticed that the woman behind me looked awfully familiar. Because of context-shock, I couldn't place her at first.

Then I realized that it was my primary physician, whom ~ I'm embarrassed to say ~ I haven't seen for quite some time now.

We struck up a brief conversation. At one point she gestured to my take-out and asked, "Long day?"

"No," I responded, "actually my day is just starting. I'm headed to the office right now."

She gave me a look of commiseration, and I smiled back and said quite truthfully, "I don't mind. Really."

As Week Four draws to a close, I am starting to appreciate just how utterly unconventional the way I'm spending my time actually is. The essential difference, for me, is that I'm now doing intentionally what I was doing anyway, by default and with feelings of guilt, previously. That turns out to be quite a big deal in terms of my mental outlook, and has delivered a major improvement in my overall quality of life.

It does come with a price tag, however, and I don't mean a monetary one (although there is that, as well). I've always been a bit of an outlier on whatever normal curve you'd care to distribute the population along. I'm something of an oddball; I admit it, I'm used to it, and mostly I'm okay with it. But with this change of profession, such as it is, I'm really living into my differences these days. I am out-there.

Sometimes, driving the blissfully empty streets of my city in the wee hours of the night, I feel so detached from the everyday lives slumbering in the darkness around me that it's a little scary. I have stepped out of mainstream of the economy, for example, in a fairly definitive way. My day-to-day activities don't bear much resemblance to most other people's. And I spend a lot of my time thinking about stuff that many people find either ridiculously arcane, of dubious morality, fundamentally frivolous, or otherwise objectionable.

As it happens, probably the most socially-acceptable way I can answer the ubiquitous question, "So, what do you do?" is by saying "I'm a writer." And, inevitably, that just generates a whole barrage of follow-up questions, which I'm more eager to answer some days than others.

I will say, though, that once I start explaining my project, people generally express interest and even guarded enthusiasm. The unconventionality of it appeals to them, vicariously anyway. There's an inverse sort of glamour to it, and it's so different from the way that they organize their own lives that there's a great deal of curiosity and occasionally some well-sublimated envy too.

The latter sentiment is probably misplaced. Very few people would truly enjoy this life for any length of time. In fact, it remains to be seen if I am even one of them!

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day 7: A Secret Society

Are you on a bus or in a subway car? Look around. You'd be surprised how many of your fellow passengers are members.

In your office, if it's of any size, there are certainly at least a couple of them. If you don't belong to the secret society, you wouldn't even know that they sometimes hold meetings there, after the last workaholic has gone home.

How do they recognize one another, the members of this underground group? Sometimes it's an inside joke, certain words spoken in a special order, or phrases with a double meaning that outsiders wouldn't catch. But among the true initiates, more often it's the mention of a certain location, or the name of a guy (usually it's a guy), and the promise of an introduction.

You had better come into these groups carefully, selectively, and honorably. Because in many environments, the secret society is perceived as ~ well ~ not quite thoroughly legitimate. Its meetings may or may not be fully sanctioned by law. It's a secret society, because the revelation of membership might cause marital strife, consternation amongst one's fellow churchgoers, or concern in one's employer. It might. Or maybe not.

Above all, for the true believers, the hardcore practitioners, it's a secret society because they themselves are embarrassed to admit how important membership has become to them. There is a whiff both of shame and of covert pride. There are very few who bring an unmixed mind and a serene heart to their participation in this community.

And this holds especially true among the members of that particular lodge within the secret society of gamblers who call themselves poker-players.

In any fringe activity, even one as widespread as that of playing poker for money, personal reputation and group ethos end up being incredibly important. The greater the stakes and the more established the group, the more significant a role that both individual and collective responsibility for self-policing play. If you want to see old-fashioned personal integrity in action and as the governing principle in community membership, go hang out with a bunch of people who've played poker together for a long time.

You can bet that any new person coming into the group is going to very quickly be made aware of both the stated and unspoken rules that govern conduct in the community. The consequences for infractions vary among poker subcultures, but they start with overt cautioning, and escalate quickly to ostracization or ejection, and in some cases (extra-legal, of course, and not in my circles) quite dramatically and unpleasantly beyond.

There may be no honor among thieves, but there definitely is honor among poker-players. If they want to keep playing in a given community, that is.

For those who prefer to play in person rather than online and who don't have convenient access to a licensed casino or cardroom, the only options are home games (what counts as legal varies by jurisdiction, if permitted at all) or illegal formal or informal games (including highly organized and profit-making cardrooms). If you're looking for a game, networking is everything.

You need to network to find the game. You need to network in order to learn what kind of game it is, whether the other participants (both organizers and players) are trustworthy, and how to present yourself to the existing culture. If you do not already have a trusted network of fellow players, you are walking into these situations blind and unprepared, presuming you can find them at all.

And rest assured, one way or another your reputation will proceed you, so you'd better make sure you have a good one.

I care tremendously about my poker reputation; I consider it a vital asset and a key element to my long term success in the game. This is why I am scrupulous about playing by the rules, why I work hard to establish that my word is my bond, and why I am never, ever in the slightest bit tempted to cheat. No short-term gain is worth jeopardizing what a spotless reputation will earn me in the long run. (I feel obligated to add that my own personal moral value system would keep me from cheating as well, even if I were sure that I could go entirely undetected forever. But that's a separate point from the one I'm trying to make here.)

I have also had to learn how to nurture and sustain a network. It's not a skill that comes naturally to me, as I'm not much of a joiner of societies, secret or otherwise. I am now constantly looking to find and connect with players whose commitment to maintaining their own reputations is as strong as mine, and whose ability to assess character is demonstrably reliable. Those people are the strong nodes on any network. It's a quality that others naturally recognize, and it is the chief building block of mutual trust and respect.

I don't play in every game to which I'm invited (and, needless to say, I completely avoid anything that is illegal; life is too short and I have too much at stake personally to mess around with that). I rely on my network of resources to help me evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of every new context I explore, and I also put very large stock in my own instinctive reactions to any given scene. I have no difficulty cashing out and leaving the moment I sense something the least bit shady going on. I have no interest in being associated with anything that I even suspect may be dubious in any way. There is always another game to be had on another day, if it comes to that.

Our daily lives are filled with these kinds of communities, subcultures, and affiliations (Kurt Vonnegut called the meaningless ones "granfalloons"). Many of them are out in the open and widely acknowledged and accepted. Many go unspoken, unseen, or unacknowledged, but are nonetheless powerful influences shaping people's lives. Some of them are self-aware and deliberately organized, others are ad hoc or just a case of birds of a feather that find themselves unwittingly flocking together. It is an important part of our identity structure as human beings to know which of these public or secret societies we belong to or wish to belong to (or not!), and an important part of our self-image and self-esteem to be aware of our standing within those entities. The explosion of social-networking software is demonstrating quite clearly just how important this stuff is in our lives.

When my mother died, I discovered the existence of a secret society, a bizarre kind of club that I had never had any reason to know about before. It was the unheralded, largely unrecognized cohort of people who had lost a parent. Suddenly I had something vitally in common with total strangers; we shared something fundamental, something life-altering. While I never formalized my understanding of this new community (through joining a grief support group, for example), becoming aware of my membership opened my eyes to the vast web of unlabeled commonalities that are woven through human society. It was my first step toward learning to value them as well, because I quickly realized that acknowledging and sharing with others my membership in the Society of Half-Orphans was actually helpful to me.

So look around you. Learn to see the ties that bind people together. Make conscious decisions about the ones you want to cultivate and participate in. And prune away those links and connections that conflict with your own sense of honor, that don't reinforce your idea of who you really are or wish to be, and that fail to respect the fullness of your personhood or that of others.

Because your networks are not separate from who you are.

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