While the game forever changes, the pain remains the same.
This book is about you, and me, and what we be—as poker players. It opens with the most painful story of my poker life, and the tortured drive home. That was in 1995, in St. Louis, and it happened.
Then we go to the Painless Poker Clinic. This is a fictional setting, with a self-stocking kitchen and the world’s most perfect poker table. At the clinic, the modern-day me leads a two-day seminar, with seven poker players who were magically transported to the clinic during their moment of greatest poker pain.
Those characters are totally made up, except that they aren’t. We know these people. We are these people.
There’s Charlie Archer, an innocent online grinder. And Mr. Lee, a big loser at Commerce Casino. And Alfonzo Calibri, a persnickety artistic type. You’ll meet Sonny Moon, a live-pro stoner. And Victor Salvo, a lawyer-with-family who plays at Foxwoods every chance he can get. And then there’s Mick Stanley, a famous high-stakes cash-game pro who is kind of a dick. And my favorite of the bunch, Babs McDerty, the grizzled battler.
We tell stories at the clinic. We bicker. We laugh. I lecture. They push back. I am there to offer up everything I know about painless poker. It resembles the coaching I do in real life, except that none of these people volunteered.
The seven chapters alternate between details from my real life—such as how I play poker, how I became a meditation coach, and how I hope to die—and the goings on at the clinic. Then, in the final chapter, aptly titled The Showdown… well, you’ll see.
When Babs came to the table, she hung her jean jacket on seat seven...
When Babs came to the table, she hung her jean jacket on seat seven, took a sip of coffee, sat it on her drink table, and came around to the dealer chair. She was wearing a black tank top with AC/DC in big black letters that you could barely see.
As she positioned herself, Charlie and Alf evaluated the latest version of Pokerstove. When she used the thumb and forefinger of her right hand to lift one of the two decks of cards from its slot in the chip tray, the conversation between Alf and Charlie faded off, and Mr. Lee looked up from his magazine. When she barely fanned the deck, just enough to see that it was sorted by suit and rank, Victor took notice. When she split the deck into two bricks, one in each hand, Mick did too. When her right hand began far to the left and swooped clockwise across the gray surface, leaving behind an arch made of 26 cards, face up, overlapping and evenly spaced, first the spades, then the hearts, in order, from king to ace, Victor and Mick abandoned their devices, and all eyes were on center stage.
Babs transferred the remaining half deck to her right hand and drew another arch, below the first, this one made of diamonds and clubs.
After scanning the card’s corners to assure all were present, she swept them up, squared them into two 26-card bricks, and turned them over so that the backs were facing up. She fanned the cards again, for all to see. The two parallel arches even more precise than before. We gazed at the backs of the cards, not expecting to spot marks or creases, but searching anyway, in the spirit of the old saying that says, Trust everyone, and cut the cards.
Her hands fell onto the cards with fingers spread, and the entropy dance began. She swished and swooshed the cards in big, messy, circular motions, and then, with randomness restored, in a flurry of thumbs and fingers and wrists, Babs gathered the cards and squared them into a single brick again faster than seemed possible.
She placed the deck in front of her and performed two riffle shuffles, one box cut, and another riffle. She slid the cut-card to alongside the deck, and gave the cards one final single cut, outward, onto the cut card, in two motions, with one hand, as is proper.
She picked up the deck and held it in her left hand. The butt of her right palm bumped the back of the deck and angled it into a rhomboid shape. You could almost hear the clacking sound of a machine gun accepting a fresh magazine.
We the congregation had come to a full stop during the sacred ceremony, mesmerized by the ritual, by the precision of it. We were at mass and Babs was the priest and this was the Eucharist portion of the program. If I had had a bell, I would have rung it.
“Whadda ya’ll wanna do now?” she growled.
``I extract maximum pain from my numbers,`` Charlie said. ``I'm a masochist, a mathematical masochist.” “That would make you a mathochist,” said Alf...
“I extract maximum pain from my numbers,” Charlie said. “I’m a masochist. A mathematical masochist.”
“That would make you a mathochist,” said Alf.
I had to write that down.
“Okay then, Charlie,” I said. “Since you are the world’s first, it falls upon you to tell us what a mathochist is.”
“I can do that.” Charlie puffed up. “A mathochist is one who always knows which segments of his history will fulfill his need to feel victimized.”
“I can do that too. Month one, I lose $5,000. Month two, I win $4,000. If you ask me at the end of month two how poker is going, I will never say that I just won $4,000. I would tell you that I lost $5,000 last month, and I’m just now climbing out of the hole.”
“Because that’s the story you tell yourself,” I said.
Alf said, “And if you win consistently for a year? How do you lament then?”
“I just shorten the time frame as needed,” Charlie said. “If I’m ahead for the month, but I’m behind for the week, then I think of the week. If I win for ten days straight, but I lost yesterday, I think only of yesterday. If I win for ten days straight, including yesterday, but I’m stuck for the last hour, then I stew on the last hour. I might be the only person in the world who makes steady money at poker year after year while feeling like a loser the whole time. It’s a special talent I have, to create pain based on data.”
“Data-based pain,” Alf said.
I clapped my hands four times at half-second intervals. Then wrote it down.
“Aha!” said Sonny. “What about right after you win a pot that puts your net worth at an all-time high?”
“You mean like before I’ve even put up my blind for the next hand?” said Charlie.
That stopped Charlie cold. “In that case, you’re right, I’m pickled. There’s no bad news to be had.”
I can no more own a sofa than I can own a galaxy...
“And what is this view of yours that your wife does not share?” Alf said.
“That I can no more own a sofa than I can own a galaxy. That everything everywhere and everywhen is just more and more of the same stuff that we are all always part of. That separation is an illusion, and that our notions about property and ownership are a reflection of that illusion.”
My tone had turned aggressive and Alf replied in kind. “But without ownership, societies could not function. Chaos would rule.”
“Agreed,” I said. “So my mind toggles between the two views, as appropriate, to keep pain to a minimum. When I talk to my neighbors about crime prevention, I believe in property. But when it’s just me, I don’t. Like the day someone took a pepper from my garden. My garden? What does that mean? To me it means a borrowed patch of soil. It’s mine to maintain, for now. But really, it’s ours, it’s everyone’s, so I felt no pain over the pepper. And I’m not telling you this because I think it’s righteous. All I’m saying is that my new view is less stressful than the old one, with no cost to me that I can think of.”
“I can think of one,” Mick said en route from the couch to kitchen. “Suppose someone sold a thousand of your eBooks without telling you, and they kept all the money.”
“That would not bother me one bit,” I said.
“I find that difficult to believe,” Alf said.
“I don’t,” Victor said.
It felt good to pass the Victor test. I latched onto the next exhale and rode it to completion, with the fingers of one hand resting perpendicularly on the fingers of the other.
“Talking strictly business,” I said, “there’s a good chance that bootlegged books earn me more than they cost me, by generating word-of-mouth sales through the channels that do pay me. As to being robbed, this is where not owning anything, including my thoughts, comes in handy.”
“Never mind,” Mick said to Andy. “Just forget I said anything.” That was surely not going to happen...
“Never mind,” Mick said to Andy. “Just forget I said anything.”
That was surely not going to happen.
Ten hands later I got pocket queens on my small blind. Mick opened for $80 and everyone folded to me. I made it $260. The big blind folded and Mick called the $180 more. We were heads up going into the flop. Mick had his sunglasses and hood back on. I palmed four white chips.
The flop came Q-7-4, rainbow. I had the nuts with a set of queens. I dropped my chips into play, thus deploying a bit of sophistostrategy I latched onto long ago: Seeing as I have to bet the flop many times with crap, I’ll be damned if I’m going to check when I finally flop huge.
“$400 is the bet,” said the dealer.
Mick called quickly, using four white chips as well.
What could get us all-in?
He could have 77 or 44, or a straight draw.
Or AA or KK. How could I get those hands to commit?
Just watch out for straights. 65 is your prime danger, plus some gutshots if he started with a one-gapper.
The turn card was a deuce. I still had the nuts. So I bet out again.
“$800 is the bet.”
Mick did the tiniest hitch. During which he changed his mind. I saw the whole thing. Then he called my $800 bet, using two stacks of $20 chips, slid out slowly.
What did he change his mind from? Had Mick’s first instinct been to raise? Or to fold?
He was going to fold.
How do you know?
Because if his first instinct was to raise, then the deuce must have improved his hand, and the only thing it could improve him to is two pair.
Or possibly trip deuces if he floated the flop with 22.
True. The point is that if he did start with Q2, 72, 42, or 22, then a 2 on the turn wouldn’t make him hitch, because that’s what he’d be hoping for.
Here’s what really happened. The thought in Mick’s mind when he called our $400 bet on the flop was the classic, “But if I hit my hand on the turn, I have him. If I miss the turn and he bets again, the math will make me fold.”
Mick hitched because he was prepared to fold if he missed, and he did miss. He missed what he was aiming for. But he also picked up more outs, enough outs to turn a fold into a call. It just took him a split second to see it. Hence the hitch before he called.
You’re right. The story is complete. So, what does he have?
The stacks were right for him to call on the flop with a gutshot, planning to fold the turn if he missed. Then the deuce gave him four more outs, so he called the turn.
And with this board, Q-7-4-2, there is only one holding for which that is true: 53.
Correct. He has 53.
The future was determined. If an ace or six came on the river, I would check, Mick would bet his straight, and I would fold my three queens and think hey, good for him, he got there.
The river was a six. I checked, Mick bet $1,000, and I folded, as scripted.
Good for you, Mick. Not that it matters, but I would have played it the same as you, except for the hitch.
“How many yoga poses are there?” Charlie asked...
“How many yoga poses are there?” Charlie asked.
“I read the number 1,300 somewhere. But really it’s 1,301. Because I made one up. When someone visits me in California, I make it a point to introduce them to the redwoods. Most Ohioans do what I did, and still do. They go right up to the base of the tree and stare straight up the trunk, like this.”
I stood up and tilted my head back as far as it would go. “I call this the redwood pose.” No one seemed amused. Apparently they’d never met a redwood.
I sat back down. “I’ll tell you an awesome meditation. It’s called the body scan. It’s just like it sounds. You focus on one part of your body, a wrist for example, for some number of breaths, and then move to another part, and you scan your whole body like that. It’s typically done in corpse pose, but you can do it anywhere, like during poker.”
“Another of your secret agent moves,” Babs said.
“For sure,” I said. “And it’s a great tool for pain relief. Like if you stub your toe, or strain your back. You can give your injured parts attention, when they need it most, at the moment of injury. The body scan trains you for noticing what you feel, while following your breathing and remaining still. The result is less panic, less shame, and faster recovery.”
“What is secret agent move?” Mr. Lee laughed and I did too.
“Clandestine poker yoga,” I said. “We’re talking deep under cover. I can be sitting there playing poker and little do they know that I am relaxing my sternocleidomastoids. Or that under my chair, I am alternating between tiptoes and flatfooted, once with each breath. And when I put my hands on top of my head, no one suspects yoga in their midst, as I stretch and relax my torso far more thoroughly than it looks like.”
Basically, there’s nothing I want to do before I die...
When I am flying in the morning, I pack the night before. It’s a trick I learned from Kay the business traveler.
“If I’m already packed when I wake up,” she said, “then I have nothing to do but shower and eat and get to the airport, the same as if I was on vacation.”
Now I’m a huge fan of packing the night before. And that’s what I’m doing with my meditations and contemplations. I’m packing for death the night before, so that I’ll be ready to go when it’s time to go, whenever that is, and I can play my banjo right up until it’s time to get in the cab.
One thing I had to do, to really be ready to die on short notice, was empty my bucket list. And I did. My bucket list is now empty. But not because I did the things on the list. Instead, I erased the list, item by item, while sitting on my bench. It took a few years. And now there’s no list. If I were to find out today that I had one month to live, or one hour, I would feel no urgency. There’s nothing I long to see. No conversations I need to have. No projects I need to finish. Basically, there’s nothing I want to do before I die.
Except for one thing. Before my flame goes out, I would love to be interviewed by Stephen Colbert. So if any of you know Stephen, would you please pass along my final wish to him? That’d be great. Thanks.
“One time I got so tilted playing online, I threw my mouse at the wall as hard as I could.” Charlie thrust both arms out. “Ka-PUSHHH!” “That’s the sound of money being saved,” I said...
“One time I got so tilted playing online, I threw my mouse at the wall as hard as I could.” Charlie thrust both arms out. “Ka-PUSHHH!”
“That’s the sound of money being saved,” I said. “I’m a big believer in mouse smashing as a stop loss strategy.”
Charlie showed surprise, and then laughed. “I guess you’re right. It could be a big EV win, depending on how tilted you are.”
“I have to tell you guys what my buddy Alex did,” I said. “When I started coaching in ‘04, I had some poker chips made that were red and black, like a $100 casino chip, with the word TILTLESS in the middle. I gave one to each client. And one to Alex. He was playing mostly online at the time. There was one spot on his keyboard, off to the right, where there weren’t any keys, and there was just enough room for his tiltless chip to nestle in. He kept it there to remind himself to keep his cool, something he has been known to lose.
“One day he went into one of his rages and he smashed his fist down onto the keyboard. The keyboard died, but that was a predictable casualty. Even more impressive was that he broke his tiltless chip clean in two.”
“Exquisite irony,” Alf said.
“I forgot the point,” Victor said.
“The point is that pain happens,” I said. “It’s inevitable. And unavoidable. And the only way to end it is to die.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Babs.
“Dang, Tommy,” Charlie said. “And you too, Babs. You guys are hardcore.”
“Just being real,” Sonny said. “Shit happens, and then it continues to happen. That’s all they’re saying.”
“It’s like there’s this gigantic bowl of pain soup,” I said. “My problems, and everybody else’s problems are like… alphabet pasta. In the soup. The bowl contains not only all human pain, but all pain experienced by every organism on earth, ever. Wow. That is a lot of pain. Think of it. Countless conscious creatures starve or get eaten to death every day. It’s like the surface of planet earth is nothing but a pain factory. And that, my fellow earthlings, is the environment in which we live.”
Mick was vibrating in his chair, agitated. “So what you’re saying is, we’re fucked.”
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