To be a successful tournament poker player it helps not to care about money.
If you need the money, if you might not drink again this month without a win and can’t afford to take risks, then you’re not going to bet often or hard enough and you’re going to watch yourself die of thirst as the antes go up and up.
Caring had been my problem. I kept going to casinos sober because I wanted all my wits about me to understand the darker possibilities of Texas Hold ‘Em, to reason with the worst that may befall. It took me a while and a few hits in the beer-pot to realize that my wits were a bunch of wimps who hung around in the back of my mind telling each other what a no-hoper I was, moralizing about the bills I had to pay in voices loud enough for me to hear.
I looked at the facts. I had my ex and three distilleries kicking me right in the finances. So my finances had problems of their own. If I kept playing poker then they were in no shape to help me ride-out the inevitable bad beats. I decided to quit while I was behind. If I wanted to win money at poker I’d have to wait until I was rich. When the next poker night came around, I decided getting drunk would be cheaper and more fun.
I finished work and went for a pre-beer beer in the nearest dive. I had another pre-beer beer and then I had another. I suspect I had at least six pre-beer beers in bars I didn’t like on the way to bars I liked where I could have some beers. Tonight, my wits were getting a furlough. Tonight, my reptilian brain could take the con. All he had to do was get me home eventually, somehow. Surely even he could manage that.
Reptilian brains, though, are creatures of habit. They hate initiatives and when they have to deal with one they get sullen and rely on precedents. They assume that things should go as they’ve gone most often in the past, and they ignore recent changes to the standing orders.
That’s the only explanation for why, later in the evening, I came round enough to notice that I was in the casino anyway instead of being at home in bed, without knowing how I’d got there. I was only sobering up at all because, back then, British casinos didn’t allow alcohol at the gaming tables. Not only was I there, I was sitting at the poker table and 10 people including the dealer were looking at me. I had two cards face down in front of me and apparently I was under the gun. Obviously I was holding the game up. As this was an emergency, I mucked the cards without looking at them, or maybe I had looked at them and didn’t remember. In any case, that seemed to satisfy the gawking mob for the moment.
Before anything else was expected of me I did some checks. I had chips in front of me, plenty more than the value of a rebuy, so I must have won some hands in my previous level of consciousness. It was midnight which meant the rebuys were over and 50 of the 60 players in the tournament would start to be eliminated before they called the final table. I had money in my wallet so I hadn’t blown a fortune to get this far. Some poker player that reptilian brain is, despite whatever else I said about him.
It didn’t seem long before the card room had emptied except for ten players and I was one of them. I had made it to the final and I still had chips. This looked promising and I tried to take back some executive control to deal with the situation rationally, but I was still short-staffed. I’d be sharing decisions with the other guy, the reptile, the functionary whose usual job was to stoke the boiler and run the air and water intakes. Only seven of the faces looking at me had to take the walk of shame before I did and I was in the money. This time I looked at my hole cards, or at least I was aware of looking. I liked what I saw. King-crap but King-crap suited. I was a dead cert to hit a flush. One of my dazed wits tried to tell me the odds against this actually happening. The functionary threw him out of a high window. I was unbeatable and I bet the limit although the dealer had to count my chips for me and give me change out of the stack I’d shoved at him. I heard some noises that ranged from extreme annoyance to mere disgust as players folded all the way around to one man who called, looking at me with what looked remarkably like amused, smug contempt. The rest folded too so Mr. Smug Jerk and I were now heads-up.
I didn’t like that look on his face one bit and I was going to teach him some manners. The next cards came. Sure enough, the flop brought two hearts to give me four to a flush. I bet again, as much as the pot would take. He called again, and gave me some more of his look. By the last card he was all-in and I nearly was too. But the last card brought me the fifth heart I needed. I turned my pocket cards over and declared a King-high flush, trying to sound matter-of-fact about it, not too triumphant. There was silence around the table for a short time and then somebody pointed out that there were three hearts on the board but the two cards in my hand were diamonds. Then somebody else pointed out that my crap card had matched two of the black cards on the board to give me trips. I hadn’t noticed that at all. This beat the other guy’s two-pair, pocket rockets plus the board. Well, the cards speak, no matter what you say you’ve got. Mr. Smug Jerk was history, a victim of my masterly strategy, and so, in a short while, were six others. I finished third and took a nice, comfortable wad home in a nice, comfortable taxi.
The next day I wasn’t exactly appalled at what happened, not with that wad still in my wallet. But I didn’t think I’d done much to build a reputation as a cold, calculating killer at the card-table either. I went back sober a few nights later and got some funny looks. One man did seem impressed, “The other night you bounced off the side of the bar three times on your way to the card room. And then you made it to the money!” It was a kind of reputation.
I played a little but the reptile in my brain was sulking. If I wanted full executive control I could have it. I had it and none of these cards looked worth a bet, especially not King-crap suited. I didn’t stay long and I didn’t lose much. But something had changed. When I came round after my next binge I was in bed, as planned. That reptilian brain. He had his own poker reputation now and had quit while he was ahead.