Five-point-five – Fan/Dad
While my mom and her five-years-gone-iversary were more on my mind when I thought of this blog, my father is fundamental to my fandom in general and to my love of poker. I grew up sneaking peeks at (and wishing I could play in) his weekly game with colleagues. When I finally did get to play with him and his friends, about a decade ago, I don’t think any of them realized what an honor it was. My pops also taught me most of what I know about adoring/despising athletes for no particular reason beyond what we glean from games on TV. In fact, one of our longest running arguments is about Patrick Ewing, whom I love and think never got the supporting cast he deserved, while my father can’t stand Ewing and blames him and his “little hands” for over a decade of Knicks woes. He and I have also watched poker on TV together since—well, I know it started well before some 24-year-old punk named Hellmuth took the Main event from Johnny Chan back in ’89. And not only was Mark Berger there when I won my first MTT at Lucky Chances (outside San Francisco), but I even busted him out of the tourney. Looking back at a short piece I wrote for McSweeney’s online about that day, I can’t believe it was only nine years ago – it feels like a zillion poker lifetimes ago.
Six – Big Guns, Regular Joes
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been blessed (as my friend Hearty White would put it) to know a few people close to the game, and through them, now and then I’ve been able to indulge my fandom from a suffocating proximity. On TV, for more than a decade, I’ve watched each year’s poker Icarus (more than any other pursuit I’ve ever seen, that luck factor leads to meteoric rises and flame-outs) over and over, trying to figure out why on earth I’m rooting for some of these guys (and it nearly is all guys, white guys), against others, and vacillating on a couple more.
I’ve sat at felt-covered tables trying to trick other people out of their money, and been thrilled when I’ve succeeded. I’ve never rooted for people like these before, much less wanted to be one of the “best” of them: the rich, debauched, and clever, who thrive more or less stealing from those less rich, debauched, and clever. In fact, in all my life outside of this game, I’ve rooted and often worked for those without advantages of wealth or genetics or dumb luck, to get their fair share.
Poker geeks (often a very different group from those who are actually any good at the game) tend to root for established pros, as if pros deserve to win. Someone who plays with his pals in the garage once a month and catches a few episodes on ESPN now and then might well root for the nice-guy trucker on the roll of a lifetime, but the pros and the geeks definitely don’t, although perhaps they should.
The ultimate example of the regular-Joe-on-a-tear that poker insiders were rooting hard against (but clearly shouldn’t have been – he spawned the exponential influx of money and players to the game over the next decade) is Chris Moneymaker. The ultimate crushing of the Main-Event dream of an exalted pro came right before the final table of that 2003 WSOP, when Moneymaker eliminated the player nearly unanimously called the greatest poker player in the history of the game, Phil Ivey, in 10th place (out of a mere 893). In ’03 , the geeks were disgusted by Moneymaker’s loose calls and suck-outs. And they were crushed by Ivey’s loss. But that loss, and Moneymaker’s win, even though it probably means Ivey will never have another chance at that ultimate prize, has meant millions and millions of dollars to him and other pros. For our first video segment, here’s that legendary ’03 hand,
Back then, I too was crushed by Ivey’s demise, and hated the seeming donk/cracker who took him down. In fact, though, while no one would ever mistake Moneymaker for a poker genius, and he hasn’t had much success on the felt since that incredible run, his decisions were sound more often than not, and his play improved markedly as the tournament progressed – he absolutely rose to his moment. (see that Grantland history for more on that – it’s a great read for even the most cursory fan).
Until this year, I too, tended – as I thought myself more and more sophisticated about the game, if not necessarily successful at it – to root for a big gun to take the Big One. This year, though, that started to shift for me, as I found myself rooting for Nebraska farmer Phil Mader, a player who was clearly an amateur (although not nearly the rube ESPN made him out to be, with several five-figure cashes to his name, including 453rd Main Event in 2009 for $25k).
Besides cliquey insider-ness, the reason the poker community roots for pros is that the pros grind it out every day – they suffer for the game, so they deserve to win. Grinders and their fanboys feel it’s somehow unfair that the odds against them have risen as more and more “donks” (unskilled amateurs) take their shot at the big one. The flaw in this logic is that these pros are often an arrogant bunch of punks (strictly objectively speaking) who already make damn good money sitting around feeding on fish (amateurs, tourists . . .) at cash tables, and besides, what’s more exciting than a farmer from Nebraska having a life-changing experience, and winning a life-altering amount of money?
The chance of any of the top pros making the final table of the Main Event in their lifetimes is thousands and thousands to one, against. Multi-table Tournament (MTT) poker, is, many argue, as much as 90% luck. But, as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design, and a winning lifetime percentage (or, as the more mathy poker geeks put it, ROI, return on investement) comes from honing that remaining 10% (logic, math, memory, focus, psychology, endurance, discipline, White Magic) as finely as possible, to combine with great luck at perfect moments.
Up against 6,000+ opponents, one week a year, that 10% skill (or even if it’s 20, or even 30%) isn’t going to get even the best of the best to that final table, not in one person’s lifetime, no matter how good he or she is, not without a whole lotta luck to boot. Hellmuth, the all-time leading WSOP bracelet leader, is infamous for saying, “If it weren’t for luck I’d win them all.” But if it weren’t for the, as poker players like to say, sick luck skill and modest skill a Georgia accountant brought to the table ten years ago, the Hellmuths of the world wouldn’t have a fraction of the cash they have in the bank now, and certainly not even a tiny fraction of the media attention that they, and he in particular, so crave.
Seven – Welcome!
The November Nine starts four weeks from this past Monday, and there’s a lot to catch you up on, starting with the first fourteen TV episodes. My crispy-clear iphone-camera recordings of and commentary on a hand or two per episode will begin next post. I’ll be looking at this year’s Cinderellas, the legends, and the quirky, faux real-time nature of the coverage itself. And eventually, we’ll follow Player X on his potentially career-making run.
This isn’t going to be a pro-gambling blog. Nor is it an anti-gambling one, a story of recovery, an addict’s nostalgia trip. I will cover some obsession and regret – as a Foxwoods tourney grinder I’ve gotten to know a little put it, after an awful beat knocked him out of a tourney we were playing: “That’s the cruise we signed on for.” A few years, back, a long-time Gamblers Anonymous member (is “member” the term? ) and friend, said to me, about my teaching and tutoring and nonprofit work, “See, isn’t this just better, more satisfying, than poker?” The question, as he saw it, was rhetorical. But a straight yes was definitely not my answer, and it never will be. They both satisfy, and frustrate, in utterly different ways. And while I have opinions on gambling in general, the legalization of online poker, the growth of casinos, as I’m sure you do too, that’s not why I’m here.
This is a blog for people who love poker – who play, watch and fantasize poker and/or follow professional poker but aren’t looking for wise-ass twenty-something strategy tips and are sick of Nate Silver making you feel stupid. I kid, of course, Silver is great. If he’s such a mad genius, though, why doesn’t he play and crush poker tournaments? We’ll get to that, but it definitely has something to do with it being a lousy way to invest your money.
But this is also a blog for those who are just kind of curious. It’s about how poker culture has infiltrated pop culture. It’s for people who are interested in digging around to figure out why they are obsessed with poker, or why others of us are to the extent that we’ll not just sit at a table playing cards with strangers for hours and hours and hours on end, we’ll watch others do so on television. (“Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,” the saying goes).
I hope you enjoy it. I’m awfully excited, myself!
(next: The 2013 Main Event!)