Sympathetic Vibrations

diamond_whiteThe opera singer slowly strokes the rim of her crystal glass. The glass rings a pure tone. The singer stops and fills her lungs. The glass waits. The singer softly sings a certain note. The glass sings along in unison. The singer’s voice crescendos. The glass wiggles. The singer reaches top volume. The glass, not fond of opera in the first place, cannot take it anymore, and shatters.

Classic physics teaches this phenomenon as sympathetic vibrations. Uniformly shaped objects have a built-in natural frequency. The inherent pitch is easily sounded if the object was designed to produce one, as with a guitar string or a drumhead. Sympathetic vibrations can be disastrous, as when howling winds caused a Seattle suspension bridge to sway and snap. Or they can be pleasant amusements, as when a glass sings. This is a peculiar usage of the word “sympathetic.” It always makes me feel a little sorry for the glass.

People have natural frequencies as well, emotional ones, which can ring true when stirred by like emotions in others. When someone tells me a regular-life hard-luck story, I often share the tone. The vibrations I feel could rightly be called sympathetic. But like the glass, I have a tolerance threshold: no matter how I try, I cannot lend a sincere ear to bad-beat poker stories. There is no sympathy. This selective dispassion grew from a specific event in a poker game in Las Vegas, over ten years ago.

I was a full-time low-limit grinder in the house games back home. A few times per year I’d get a thousand or two together and head off to Vegas for another brutal lesson. I almost always went belly up, but I rarely returned with my head down. I knew the lessons would pay off, eventually.

It was during the 1992 World Series at the Horseshoe. My bankroll for the trip was $2000. After two days of $10-$20 I moved up to $20-$40 with $3000. Another day and I was up to $4000. Two more days and I had over five grand, a new Vegas record.

The bigger games were in the tournament room in the back. I spotted a green-chip game, $50-$100, one seat open. I was gripping that glorious gob of hundreds in my pocket. Everything inside me said to run away. But my legs were on the outside, and they sat down.

I bought in for $4000, eight stacks. This was my shot. I was leaving that night for sure. One more winning day and I could take home eight grand, maybe more, enough to coast, enough to finally relax. I was over my head and headed for trouble, dangerously thinking I knew how to play.

Four hours later I was down to $400. I was beaten in every way. It was only a matter of who was going to finish me off. Everyone knew it.

That was when it happened. The Asian fellow next to me lost three tough pots in one round. First he had ace-king and flopped an ace, then pocket jacks and flopped a set, then pocket aces, losing to a two-outer. All three hands drowned at the river.

My luck had not been nearly so bad. I was going broke because I had played like a wimp, frozen by the high stakes. Yet I was the one sighing and crying, not him. I was just doing it how we did back home. He was losing with style.

After his aces went down, I eyed him closely. Not a peep. Not the slightest uncomfortable movement or gesture. He looked like a man by a campfire, reverent and calm. Right then I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted no fear and no pain.

After ten years of practice, his way has finally become my way. It is not inherently better, or more profitable, than outwardly expressing the inevitable frustrations of our game. However, the gradual transition I went through does shed light on my surprising disinterest in bad beat stories.

Just as a borrower is obligated to lend, so too, a complainer is obligated to listen. A chicken-and-egg scenario unfolds. In fairness, if I don’t want to listen to bad beat stories, I must not tell them. Likewise, if I don’t tell bad beat stories, I am not obligated to listen to them. It doesn’t matter which comes first.

Concerning most any hard-luck story, my sympathies still vibrate. But when it comes to bad beat stories, I am like a crystal glass under a draped towel. No matter how loud the song, I cannot be shaken or stirred.


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