Dear reader: Alfonzo and Charlie are characters in my book, Painless Poker. This story is not from the book. It comes after.
Alfonzo Calibri threw an aggressive question at Charlie. “What, precisely, is a bad beat?”
Charlie replied in his usual non-combative tone. “A bad beat is when you lose with a hand that at some point had a high statistical probability of winning.”
It was our annual meeting at Starbucks, at the World Series of Poker. Alf and Charlie both live in Vegas and we like to shout at each other for an hour whenever I am in town.
“I don’t think a bad beat is defined by odds,” I said to Alf, “but rather, by pain.”
“You are correct,” said Alf. “All bad beats have a statistical component, and an emotional one. And unfortunately, a long reach. The agony brought on by a bad beat is not confined to the injured party. I am speaking now of the most annoying sound on earth: Bad beat stories.”
By day, Alfonzo designs museum exhibits, and his evenings are for poker. He prefers to be called Alfonzo, but I think of him as an Alfie.
“So, Alfonzo,” I said. “Should I assume that you never tell bad beat stories?”
“You most certainly should,” he said.
“Not even to yourself?”
His head tipped sideways. “Recall that I said it was the sound that I object to. The vocalization. The intrusion. I am not calling it unreasonable to bemoan the loss of an exceptionally unlucky pot. Nor is it unreasonable to not want to hear about it.”
“I must admit,” said Charlie, “I do tell my share of bad beat stories.”
Charlie multi-tables $2/4 and $3/6 no-limit hold’em for a living. He wore a snug long sleeve T-shirt on a doughy body.
“But then, I live with two other online grinders, and both of them are big bemoaners, so it seems only fair that they should have to listen to my bad beat stories too.”
Alf said, “You and your roommates are propagating a pathetic habit, simply out of habit. And without nuance, I might add. Without flair. Your bad beat stories cannot compare to those of live poker.”
“Pardon me?” said Charlie.
“A bad beat online is merely a statistical event.” Alf raised the pitch of his voice. “Oh boo hoo. I was a 45-to-1 favorite to win, but I lost. Oh boo hoo. The inevitable happened.”
The three young men at the next table looked over at us. Alf snarled at them with his eyes and they looked away.
“I can see Alfonzo’s point,” I said. “I don’t hate all bad beat stories. Just the boring ones. I like a story with extenuating circumstances that heap on the hurt. One-outers and runner-runners won’t hold my interest. But if there’s a spilled drink or a dealer mistake or some other calamity, I’m all ears, and that stuff can’t happen online.”
Charlie stiffened up. “Let me ask you this,” he said. “Have you ever heard of anyone playing way over their head online and losing a $10,000 pot because they couldn’t call the final $50 all-in raise because their internet connection was lost in mid-hand because a storm blew a tree down and knocked their cable out?”
That disaster actually happened. Alf and I heard every brutal detail when Charlie told us the whole story at the Painless Poker Clinic. That’s why he gave us the truncated version now.
“I take it all back,” I said. “That is a top notch bad beat story, and it did happen online.”
“I agree,” Alf said.
Charlie and I eyed him suspiciously.
Alf adjusted his leather flat cap with both hands, but the hat didn’t move because it was already precisely where it belonged. It was a tell. He was having some Alfie fun.
“Yours was an exquisite bad beat story, Charlie,” Alf said, “in that you told it quickly.”
Charlie and I rolled our eyes and Alf remained persnickety. Behind them, the wide hallway filled up with hustling poker players. A major tournament was about to begin.
“I have a question for you, Alfonzo,” I said. “What is it that you don’t like about being told bad beat stories?”
“It’s a sensation of, of… rudeness, and embarrassment. As if someone had lifted their shirt to show me a scar. If I wish to view poker scars,” he touched his hat, “I can look under my shirt.”
“Which leads me to my next question,” I said, “about the bad beat stories you tell yourself.” Alf shifted in his chair and I continued the interrogation.
“If you lose a brutal pot, and your mind keeps telling you how unlucky you were, then aren’t you really just telling and re-telling a bad beat story to yourself? And is that any less annoying or pathetic than someone else dumping their bad beat stories on you?”
Alf paused. “You make a valid point, Angelo, in theory.”
Charlie twirled his neck-length hair. “Do you really think we can just decide what to think about?”
“More accurately,” said Alf, “He is suggesting that we can decide what not to think about.”
“Bingo,” I said.
“But I must review hands,” said Charlie, “to study them, and learn what I did wrong and what I could have done better. And that includes painful hands.”
“Yes and no,” I said. “Yes to reviewing hands. No to pain. Reviewing hands where you were unlucky or played bad doesn’t have to hurt.”
“If I understand you correctly,” said Alf, “You are saying to reflect on the strategy, without the tragedy.”
“Double bingo!” I said. “And online or live, it’s all the same. There’s the hand. And there’s the story you write in your head after the hand, about what happened. A bad beat story is just that, a story. And you are the writer. Which means you can revise the pain out of the story. You can strip it down to just the facts, a commendable bit of editing. Or you can just wad the whole story up, pain and all, and chuck in the trash, never to be thought of again. Bad beats be gone!”
“I do wish I could do that,” said Charlie. “I guess I’m not a writer.”
“You are most definitely a writer of bad beat stories, Charlie. And a good one at that. What you haven’t learned yet is how to edit yourself. You need a red pen.”
I looked at Alf. “You too.”
He sat up straight. “But I do not tell bad beat stories.”
“But you did say that you have poker scars.”
“The red pen has magic powers,” I said. “It can make your scars disappear.”
“Are you saying that I can rewrite the past?”
“Well duh. What do you think the past is? It’s all stories, all the time. Stories we tell each other. Stories we tell ourselves. Your mind is writing and editing and deleting stories all the time. All I’m suggesting is that you do some of your writing on purpose.”
“But what happened is what happened,” Alf said. “It cannot be changed.”
“Actually, it can only be changed, and if—”
“Hey!” Charlie got up quick. “My next tourney is starting.”
“Masochist much?” I said.
“Live cash games are no less painful than tourneys for me,” Charlie said. “The slowness. It unhinges me.”
“Then why do you—”
“Bye guys!” And Charlie was gone.
“What’s next for you, Alfonzo?” I said.
He stood up, so I did too.
“Home, to work. My current primary project is an exhibit for the airport.”
“Let me guess. Something about Vegas?”
“But of course,” Alf said. “An 80-year-old collector of casino chips died, and his spouse donated his collection to the city. It’s a gapless lineage, extending back to the first Flamingo chips.” He tugged his shirt taut. “And I have been tasked with transforming them into airport art.”
“I’ll look for it next time through.”
And off he strode.