Expectations and Results, pt 1 of 2

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In the lobby, a few minutes after the bust-out. I love how much less exhausted (and not at all disappointed) Amir seems (and in fact, was) of the two of us – watching for nine hours may have been more nerve-wracking than playing!

In the interview video I posted last week, when Amir is asked about the bright lights and the glory (and disappointment after busting out) of his November Nine status, he responds that he felt lucky to have gotten so far and, regardless, was focused on maximizing his “expectation.” A friend wrote and asked whether he meant purely mathematical expectation. While, I can’t speak for Amir, I feel safe in saying yes, I’m quite confident that was precisely what he meant. It’s also one of the elements that make Player X truly a professional in a world where many call themselves pros but only a select few live up to the term by making their living at poker for more than a year or so before “blowing up” or burning out, cutting their losses and going back to college or a previous straight job (Steve Gee, who nearly made the 11/9 the last two years in a row is the very odd example of someone who left the game and then returned, to great success, no less, years later.) All the psychological, mathematical, game-playing talent in the world have time and time again failed to translate into long-term success in poker for people who don’t have incredibly level heads as well.

Extremely long and odd working hours; the temptation to gamble hard-grinded (ground?) poker earnings on sports or table games (roulette, craps, “the pit,” as gamblers refer to it);  and the beating one’s ego takes in the extreme variance of the game are among the elements that require almost unthinkable calmness, psychological stability, and focus on, yes, maximizing one’s expectation over the course of a grueling poker lifetime.

Amir has combined skill and luck and discipline, mixed with what seems an innate steadiness, to achieve what only the teensiest fraction of really great players can only hope for;  in his first five years or so as a pro, he has become an extremely successful online tournament player, has a WSOP bracelet in a prestigious $10k event (Pot-limit Hold-em, 2011, among other WSOP and WPT final tables and cashes) and has fulfilled the second-to-last step of every tourney pro’s biggest dream by making the final table in (and taking third at) the Big One for a huge seven-figure payday. Expectation maximized. Ultimate fantasy perhaps not quite fulfilled, but all reasonable expectation absolutely maximized.

But the kind of expectations I had for the 2013 Main Event Final Table were something different altogether.

Before the trip, I thought a lot about what my own decidedly un-mathematical expectations were for my trip to Vegas. As November approached, it occurred to me that I was looking for what I look for all too often, and which are about as common as unicorns: what Spalding Gray (and, I’m sure, countless others) call  “perfect moments.”

In the first posts for this blog, I wrote about fandom, about how I’ve always enjoyed being a fan of one kind of another. In anticipation of my Vegas trip, I’ve had a good look at the awkward space between fandom and friendship. Amir and I were somewhere in between friends and acquaintances before the Final Table, but certainly closer to the casual, online acquaintance. In deciding to write about him in this year’s WSOP, I was certainly acting as more of a fan than anything. But, in deciding to go to Vegas and root him on, I certainly tipped, at least from my perspective (I’m not sure about Amir’s, although he seemed happy from the git-go that I was making the trip) toward the friend side. In continuing to write and post about the experience, though, I was still very much the fan/observer. You get the idea.

On Saturday, November 2nd, as the plane touched down at McCarran, I was excited, but also anxious, as is my nature. I’d spent several months gearing up for this experience I was about to have, and now here I was, having the experience! My baggage was the first off the belt, the shuttle to the hotel was deadly slow in Saturday evening Vegas traffic, but it got me there. I was handed a WSOP bottle of water as I entered the Rio, I checked in, and headed up to my room . . . the experiences, the moments were piling up faster than I could appreciate them. It was all just fine . . .  but far from perfect.

Once I got settled into my room as best I could with all those images of Penn Jillette staring me down from table tents and fliers on my desk and night table, I texted Amir that I had arrived, and we made a plan for me to stop by his room and pick up my tickets to the big show on Monday. A few minutes later, Amir ushered me into a room where his wife, baby boy, mother, father, sister, and he were hanging out. Amir’s mom didn’t say much, but his father and I exchanged a few words; Player X, Sr., definitely had an accent, I’m not sure what, but one of the many “Florida” accents from my youth. The Lehavots have been in the States for decades, and Amir is listed as Israeli/American and plays under the Israeli flag, but Israelis, of course, come from all over the world. Amir’s dad reminded me of my grandfather and his brother, Uncle Sol – Russians – and of that first poker game back in Ft. Lauderdale.

(next: Mom, Jews, results)

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How was Vegas? Did your friend WIN?

Here’s an article that sums up the details of Amir’s final table ride. The twitter version would be that he played pretty darn flawless poker, got unlucky at two key moments, then gave an object lesson in short-stack poker, surviving from sitting in sixth with six remaining to take home third in the 2013 Main Event for $3.7 million.

Not bad for eight days’ work. In both the unlucky hands, and in his bust-out hand against eventual champ Riess, both Amir and his opponents played the hands more or less how they had to be played (although one could question one or two loose calls by his opponents and maybe some bet-sizing – as this donk sees it, anyway). The poker gods just didn’t smile on Amir at those moments, although he’ll be the first to say they sure did for the tourney overall.

Since I’ve been home, I run into friends, who ask versions of how my friend did, if he won. My answer is a resounding “YES!” mixed with a dollop (okay, two dollops) of bittersweet “. . . and no.”

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Reporters file stories after all is said and done.

Amir Lehavot, media befuddler, exits stage left

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Here’s Michiel Brummelhuis, doing the requisite Kara Scott interview (which I was calling “the consolation prize”) after busting 7th. Every player took his turn, except one. When Amir busted, the two of them and her cameraman met up at her spot on the side of the stage and started to set up, but there was a lot of hubbub in the house – the night was over, it was down to heads up for the title – so Amir and Kara waited a bit. Then they talked for a minute, and then Amir, undoubtedly the most stealthy third place finisher in the ten years since Moneymaker, left the stage. I didn’t ask him whether he told Kara no thanks, or it was just the last bit of ESPN’s not knowing what to do with the reserved, press averse, rounder, but either way, I’m sure he was happy about it.  I should be happy if he’s happy, but I’m not like him, a big part of me wants him want to be recognized, in spite of his own desire for anonymity. Admittedly, from Hellmuth to Esfandiari to Chad (McEachern seemed almost annoyed with Amir’s reticence, but who really gives a shit what he thinks, certainly not his partners in the booth), the commentators gave Amir tons of credit as a player, but as a person, they just didn’t know what to do with the man.

Below is the lone interview with Amir after the bust out. The audio is horrible at first, but improves about 45 seconds in. For those of you living in Western Mass, finding a video or audio interview with the man sometimes know as Player X is as common as sighting a fisher cat. In the next post, I’ll discuss the decision I faced once I arrived in Vegas – whether to be more friend/supporter or writer/press (with privileged access to a press-averse subject) and why it would’ve been hard to do both – I chose “friend” and my experience was so much the better for it.

During this interview, I was standing off to the side with others on the Fear Amir squad. What struck and impressed me about Amir then, and more so when we went celebrated Tuesday night and at brunch the next day, and what seemed to baffle, even annoy the interviewer, is that Amir was, just a few minutes after busting, genuinely happy, both with his performance and his results. Notice the interviewer’s repeated insistence on the GLORY and the DISAPPOINTMENT and Amir’s on “maximizing my expectation” and “playing poker.

Here are a few quotes that represent Amir and why he’s a lesson in how to succeed in poker, and from what I’ve learned, in life:

On how he feels: “[I’m] feeling very happy, fortunate to get to this spot in the first place.”

On disappointment, and being under the bright lights: “I love playing poker, so it was fun.”

In response to one of the questions about his aversion to stardom: “The spotlight wasn’t the goal, the goal was to maximize my expectation.”

The interviewer (I think it was Andrew Feldman, sounded like him, asked precidely the idiotic questions he’d ask), like the rest of the poker press, is utterly obsessed with that “spotlight,” just couldn’t understand Amir’s satisfaction, any more than they could understand how David Benefield (who, like everyone else but Amir, stood at the WSOP podium in the theater lobby to be interviewed) could possibly want to leave a super-high-stakes poker career to go back to college to study something as useless/zany as Political Theory and Chinese – you know, instead of stuff you’re supposed to go to college for, like hotel management, business, or, just maybe, law – of the corporate, of course or, for extreme bohemian types, maybe entertainment variety.

Money, fame – fame, money: these are the only concerns of the poker establishment – it is gambling, and Vegas after all. It’s an odd place, but also an essential one, for a reserved former engineer and chess player who really likes, makes his living at, and happens to be one of the best in the world at playing poker.

New around here?

Because I’m promoting a bit right now on Facebook (because the November Nine is Monday and Tuesday!!! so if there’s any time to start reading this, it’s NOW – you never know who might turn up in Vegas), I wanted to show any newcomers around. To wit:

Here are the first three posts of the blog, and another post called “This is a stupid game.”

Roots, Annie/Vegas, WSOP/Player X (Intro, pt. 1 of 3)

Mom / The Fan (Intro., post 2 of 3)

Dad/fandom – Big Guns & Regular Joes – WELCOME! (Intro., pt. 3 of 3)

This is a stupid game

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