Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Double Life of the Poker Player

Leading a double lifeWas chatting with a work colleague of mine yesterday, and we ended up briefly talking about poker. Sort of thing doesn’t happen that often. Talking poker at work, I mean.

We’ve all had some variety of this experience, I imagine. Talking to non-poker players about poker. Vainly trying to impart to these people what poker means to you, as well as the fact that it is meaningful, generally speaking. An uphill battle, usually. Sort of like playing every friggin’ hand from the blinds, over and over and over again.

I’ve spoken with this particular fellow -- Leonard Lapchuck -- a few times before about poker. He’s actually a much more sympathetic audience than yr average non-poker playing conversant. Lenny’s a thinker. Loves to engage you in those big, “what’s-it-all-about”-type discussions. He’s also at least familiar with poker via several family members who’ve played. He told me about how his father played poker a lot prior to marrying his mother, but stopped afterwards. Lenny didn’t spell it out, but it sounded as though Dad had given up cards following some sort of spousal stipulation regarding how the post-honeymoon co-existence was gonna go.

We talked a bit about the extent of my own play. I told him about playing online and whatnot, and at some point in there I advanced the usual poker-really-does-involve-skill argument. Just made the standard moves (poker is not all gamble as with some other casino games; luck is involved, but one can choose less risky, more profitable plays; etc.). Lenny nodded thoughtfully, taking in what I was saying. When I’d finished, he started to speak.

“Tell me something. Could you ever get to the point . . . .”

He hesitated, as if trying to figure out exactly how he wanted to phrase his question. We know each other quite well -- he really could ask me anything -- but perhaps he was about to bring up something potentially touchy. Like money, for instance. Was he going to ask me about the stakes at which I play? How much I’ve made? Or maybe even something about any semi-secret aspirations I might harbor to pursue poker as a career?

“Do you think,” he began again, “you could ever get to the point that gambling became a real problem for you?”

I laughed. I told him that was about as likely as my growing a second head.

As I’ve written about here many times, I’m no gambler. I’m freakishly obsessive about bankroll management, and while I can adopt the loose-aggro role at the poker tables now and then, I ain’t at all inclined to take the unnecessary risk if I can avoid it. Nor do I care much about betting sports or other forms of gambling.

Lenny explained that he thought he had the sort of addictive personality that would make it difficult for him to get involved with a game like poker that involved gambling. I told him that’s a genuine issue for a lot of poker players. I also explained to him how poker can prove especially difficult for some, since it is so easy -- and incorrect -- to convince oneself that it is not gambling at all. All sorts of possibilities for self-denial built into the game, really.

The exchange reminded me once again of how poker is generally regarded by those who don’t play: (1) as essentially identical to other forms of gambling, and, therefore, (2) an activity potentially dangerous to one’s well-being. Most of us who actually play the game know better, of course, but that’s how a lot of the world sees poker.

My conversation with Lenny also reminded me of the interview I heard with Young Phan over on Rounders, the Poker Show last week (the 10/7/07 episode). Phan has been on a tear lately, winning somewhere around a quarter million so far on the tourney circuit this year alone. Seems like a good guy, too.

On the show, Phan related how he spent the first seven or eight years of his career hiding the fact that he was a pro poker player from his family. He talked about how his brothers had all pursued successful careers -- one is a doctor, another a lawyer, another owns a computer company. “I’m the only one in the family who gambled,” Phan explained. After a few years of playing, he realized he could make more money playing poker than working the store manager job he’d had for five years. So he turned to poker full-time, but didn’t tell his family.

In 1999, Phan placed first in a $5K NLHE event at the Carnivale of Poker, netting himself a handsome $370,000 payday. But still he didn’t tell his family what he did. Around that time he was interviewed for a cable television special on poker. The interview appeared on the Discovery Channel -- an apt place for it, as it became the means by which Phan’s family came to discover his true profession. One of his brothers saw the interview, and later he showed a tape of it to their mother.

“For awhile my family almost disowned me because I was a gambler,” Phan said. “Anything having to do with gambling? Forget it. It was not in my family. They don’t like it at all.” It sounded like Phan’s family has finally come to accept what he does for a living, although it is obvious his mother would prefer he had a job more like his brothers’.

A lot of people -- for a lot of reasons -- simply do not look favorably on poker, whether it be an occasional recreation, a serious hobby, or a full-fledged career. That’s one reason, frankly, why the conversation with Lenny was somewhat rare. He’s the only person, in fact, with whom I work to whom I’ve ever said anything at all about my own poker playing.

The fact is, in America, circa early-21st century, anyway, there are a lot of places or contexts -- work, family, etc. -- where identifying oneself as a poker player is simply negative-EV.

Which leads to a curious kind of “double-life” existence for most of us, I suspect.

So how are you handling the balancing act?



Blogger OhCaptain said...

You know, I've actually just stopped bringing it up to most people.

My Mom is convinced it's no different than a slot machine (aka. "A tax on the statistically impared"). My Dad tried playing online and figures I'm just lucky.

I do have some poker playing friends that I can just let it out with. Bodie25 and I chat all the time through IM about poker.

Basically...I blog to get the rest out.

10/17/2007 7:23 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

A very timely post for me Shamus as I was just having this exact conversation with my girlfriend last night. She knows that I play poker and blog about it, but not having played the game herself I find it very hard to convey to her exactly why I play and what the game means to me. She, does however, seem more willing to listen and try to understand than most (she's pretty great like that!).

Generally though I constantly find myself on the defensive when talking to non poker players about poker and therefore I try to avoid the topic whenever possible. Even going as far as to play dumb sometimes if the topic comes up in conversation.

Changing topic slightly it was interesting what you said about your friend Lenny. I had a similar experience with a friend who I invited to play at my home game. He played once, did quite well and then didn't come back. When I asked him why he said "I can see myself getting addicted to this and I don't want to become addicted to gambling".

10/17/2007 10:26 PM  
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10/18/2007 10:09 AM  
Blogger Wolverine Fan said...

Great post, Shamus. I rarely talk about my poker play but had a recent conversation that was about how much golf I play in the summer. The person asked what I did in the winter when I can't golf? (I live in Michigan) I said I play online poker and the first words out of her mouth was, "Isn't that illegal?"

10/18/2007 9:25 PM  
Blogger Littleacornman said...

I really enjoyed the post Seamus.I don't see myself as much of a gambler either and adhere to the same strict BR management rules you do.

I think that attitude can hold me back at times ( not enough shots taken etc) but it also prevents me tilting off my whole roll etc so maybe it's not too bad!

10/19/2007 7:27 AM  

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