(Dear Reader: This story took place in 2004 when I was grinding limit and no-limit full time.)
My buddy Alex offered me $22/hour to play poker with his money. I took the job. Then I quit after one hour. Here’s how it all started, and ended.
It was a typical Wednesday afternoon with Alex. Lunch at a restaurant for breakfast, followed by popcorn and malt balls at the movies. We were headed back to Alex’s place for backgammon and pizza, when Alex’s phone rang. It was our buddy, Will Chase, calling to say that he was at Lucky Chances Casino, currently in possession of the money he owed to Alex, and we’d better hurry because it was going fast. One screechy U-turn later and we were on our way to the poker room.
This was not good. In the past, whenever we went to the casino in one car, it was trouble. We almost never wanted to leave at the same time. After the last fight, we vowed to never do it again. But here we were.
We entered the poker room with Alex walking fast on tiptoes. He found Will and they did their business while I stood at the coffee stand and prepared two. Alex joined me and we surveyed the smorgasbord of opportunity. There were two tables of $1000 minimum buy-in no-limit hold’em going, and two tables of $20-40 limit hold’em, plus a long list for a $40-80 hold’em game that would be starting soon.
I was ho-hum about playing, partly because the sun was up, but mostly because I was in a poker slump and I was thinking about taking a break for a while. The way it goes is, when I get pumped up, I take a break. And when I get beat up, I take a break. I take a lot of breaks.
Alex was itchy, checking out the situation, looking at the no-limit must-move game, and the sign-up board. There was one seat open and five call-ins, which meant that the game would be full soon, with a list. If Alex was going to play no-limit, it was now or whenever. I was fixated on the transportation issue so I blurted out an idea. “Hey Alex. I think I have a way to avoid a conflict later about when to leave.”
“You mean, like, leave now?”
“Naw. Something else,” I said. “Let’s review. The reason we don’t manage well with one car is because we almost never want to leave at the same time, usually because one of us gets ahead and wants to quit while the other one of us is stuck and wants to stay. Right?”
“Then how about this? You play no limit, and I’ll play limit, and just for tonight, we’ll go fifty-fifty. I’ll take half of your action and you take half of mine. That way, with both of us playing out of the same bankroll, we’ll always be ahead or stuck the same amount, so it should be easy for us to agree on when to quit. Ya think?”
Alex was not talking, but he was moving, straight for the self-serve high-section sign-up board. I tagged along in his ear. “Are you in on this or what?”
Alex stopped and turned. He sipped his coffee and eyed me. “I’m in, I’m in. Of course I’m in. Like what choice do I have? If I say no, then you’ll claim that you should get final say on when we leave because we came here on my behalf, and you’ll say let’s leave right now, and we both know I want to play.”
Alex shook his head, doing a bad job of acting like he was upset. We touched cups and sealed the one-session partnership.
After signing up we sat down at an empty poker table. It was the same table where I had blown two racks at $40-80 the other night. That painful memory met with the present comfort of sharing a bankroll with Alex, and I found myself drawn to the notion of risk dispersal.
“Hey Alex,” I said. “How would you like to take 20% of all my action for a while, starting next session?”
He lit up. “Sure! You can make it 50% if you want.”
“You’d take that much?”
“Yup, I’d take that much,” he said. “Heck, I’d take all of your action if you’d let me.”
“All of it?”
“All of it.”
“But if you had all of my action, what would I play for?”
Alex paused. “Good question. I guess I’d have to pay you on the side, for your time.”
With neither of us believing we would really follow through with this, Alex and I tried to grok me as a wage-earner, playing poker with Alex’s money. Alex decided out of nowhere that my life costs $40,000 per year and that he would pay me at that rate, converted to hourly. In other words, he was willing to bet that I would make more than 40K playing poker during the next year, and his payoff would be the extra.
I lobbied to get two weeks vacation and a 36-hour workweek, and Alex eventually gave in. He did the numbers in his head and my pay came to $22.22 per hour.
“And the clock starts when I walk through the casino door,” I added.
“And you must play $6-12 and $9-18 while waiting for the bigger games,” he re-added.
I came over the top. “And I will pay for my food with your poker chips.” Alex frowned at that one. “Tell you what,” I said. “I won’t even ask you for gas money.”
“Oh gee thanks,” he said. “Just for that, I am rounding your pay down to $22 even. “That’s it. I’m all-in. Are you calling or what?”
Somehow we had sped our way to the brink of an absurd yet viable arrangement. I was reminded of camping in Colorado with my buddy Moe. It was dusk and we were rooting around on the side of a hill. Moe tossed something down to me, maybe five feet, and just before it arrived, he shouted, “Catch!” So I catched. The projectile ignited the nerves in my palm. It was a short stack of pancake cactus. While Moe laughed at my pain, I realized two things. First, pancake cacti have needles small enough to detonate capillaries. Second, trust is a beautiful yet dangerous thing.
The full faith and backing of Alex was at once appealing and repulsive. If I accepted his offer, I’d have a jjj. A jaahh. A job. There. I said it. But at least I’d always make rent. And I’d still get to play the game I love. But would I still love the game I play?
A voice from a speaker announced: “One seat open. $6-12 limit hold’em.” My raised fist caught a floorman’s eye from across the room and my seat was locked up.
“Okay Alex,” I said. “I’ll do it. I’ll take the job. But how about this? Instead of going fifty-fifty tonight, let’s start my new career right now, at the $6-12 game. This works out great for you because as company owner, you will decide when I quit. The good news for me is, no more transportation crisis, or confidence crisis.”
That last thing gave Alex a pause, but soon he said okay. We touched knuckles and the deal was on. I was working for the man at twenty-two per.
I took my seat in the $6-12 game and I was overwhelmed by the resurrection of my accounting skills. After exactly one hour, the chip stack in front of me was stuck exactly $85. There had been $16 in blinds, $12 in collection, $42 lost with pocket fives and a 7-6-5 flop, plus fifteen bucks for a prime rib dinner and tip.
Yeech. Just listen to me. I am so not into keeping score. I can go weeks without counting what’s inside my rubber band. But now, on the Alex plan, I would be forced to count every last dollar before and after every last session, plus I’d have to take note of when I started and stopped and oh my, this was not going well at all so far. So I looked for the bright side. I thought of the security. I imagined how great it might feel to finally step back from the cliff. But strangely, the flatlands looked even scarier.
The next hand it was my big blind. I had 7d-2c. No one folded or raised. The flop came 8-7-2, all hearts, giving me bottom two pair. The small blind checked, I bet, the next player raised, the next player made it three bets, the next player called three bets cold, and as the action dominoed back to me, I got to thinking.
What does it mean, really, to be a professional poker player? One could say that some number of years of joblessness is required, and another could say that certain standards of behavior must be met, and I could add to the top of the heap that professionalism at poker exists only in the mind of the professional, and in the minds of his player pool.
Isn’t it odd, the way the poker world uses the word “professional?” Normally, when that word precedes an occupation, such as “professional musician,” or “professional football player,” it is used to indicate a subset of all musicians and football players, namely, those who are paid to play music and football.
But something here does not jibe, when it comes to the word “professional” in front of “poker player.” Take me. By any commonly understood meaning of the phrase “professional poker player,” no matter how general or specific, I am one. Yet I don’t get paid to play poker. That is, until now. Sitting at that $6-12 table, with Alex’s hands in my hands, I was, truly, a professional poker player.
I looked again at Alex’s 7-2 and the 8-7-2 monotone flop. I watched the pot swell, and I imagined I was playing $20-40, or $40-80, or no-limit, with my money on the move. I wanted it back. I needed it. The pressure. The buzz. The struggle.
It was two-cold back to me on the flop. I laid it down and racked up and cashed out. Alex was playing no-limit. I pulled up a chair behind him just as he folded a hand before the flop.
“Never mind on that job thing,” I said. “I quit.”
Alex smiled. “I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did.”
“Long enough for you to get stuck $91. Plus you owe me $22 for one hour’s work. That’s $113 total.”
Whenever one of us thinks he is getting over on the other one, the getter customarily allows the gettee a chance to detect and recover. My overtly suppressed grin cued Alex. He got louder. “What did you have to eat?” he asked. I was all teeth. He got louder still. “Prime rib?” I couldn’t look at him. He was screaming now. “No way am I paying for that!”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Just give me $100, and we’ll call it even.”
Alex exhumed his bankroll and slid off a bill and handed it to me. He turned back to his no-limit game to watch a big pot. I looked around the table. There would be many big pots this day, as the makers of big pots were sitting behind tall stacks and on deep pockets. And Alex looked good, like a man without a hurry. At a nearby table, players were locking up seats for a new $40-80 game. I shined up my armor and decided to stay and play some consequential hold’em into the night. But Alex didn’t know that yet, and this presented me with an irresistible opportunity to yank his chain.
I tapped Alex on the shoulder while I stood up. He recoiled slightly. I sensed that he was in dreadful fear of the words that I couldn’t wait to say. “C’mon man, let’s go.”