Life Changing Poker Hand

The term addiction is sometimes applied to compulsions that are not substance-related, such as gambling. The term addiction is used to describe a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences to the individual’s health, mental state or social life.

Playing poker is not considered gambling by any true poker player. I will steal a quote from my favorite movie and take an excerpt from the web site Science Daily. These will not prove my point but will lend a shred of credibility to my thoughts.

To quote Mike McDermott, “Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker EVERY YEAR? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?”

Is it luck of the draw in poker? No, says Michael DeDonno, a doctoral student from Case Western Reserve University. His article, “Poker is a Skill,” written with Douglas Detterman, Case Western Reserve psychologist, caught the attention of the journal, Gaming Law Review, which has been examining this luck-skill debate and recently published psychologists’ findings. “This article provides empirical evidence that it is skill and not luck,” concluded DeDonno from his two studies.

Poker is a game of skill that contains an element of luck and an associated risk that correlates with the uncertainty provided. The game is based on making decisions with limited amounts of information. Strategies learned in poker will translate into everyday life for the truly proficient poker player. Decisions are often required with only partial or limited information. Poker players will be far more adept at making these decisions.

The compulsion to play poker is a strong one and can drive people to make decisions which may be harmful to other aspects of their life. The movie makes it seem like the poker player is hard wired to follow a certain self-destructive path. The research is still lacking in this particular area. Most poker players have other vices and problems, making a detailed study nearly impossible. I will share my real world experiences.

I played poker recreationally for about five minutes. I am a competitive person and I immediately wanted to win and I wanted to improve my ability. I looked around the table and right in front of every person was a scoreboard. Look at the stack of chips in front of each person, they must be doing something right. I believed the myth of stack size for a few minutes until I saw a guy buy $500 more chips when he had about 400 in front of him. I watched him repeat the process a couple hours later. Interesting, the guy with the biggest stack is the biggest loser. This was my first discovery at the poker table. First impressions are often wrong. The game involves deception at all levels.

The players themselves are by trade liars that specialize in deception. The deception is so intrinsic to the game that even away from the game the truth is rarely broached. The players have deceived the world into believing things that are fundamentally untrue. The depth of character acting is taken to the extreme and often the deception is universal. They have fooled everyone into believing the charade, including them. The constant lying and chicanery becomes the reality they live within. This altered reality makes it impossible to get accurate information and analysis of this truly fractured group of like minded individuals.

I myself will fall into this trap and describe my own trials and travails as I remember them which includes my own indelible filter. When asked why I don’t play for a living anymore, I have a standard answer. I had a problem. I was a winning poker player. I was a loser in life. Money is not the answer to all of life’s problems. When I played poker I played poker very well. When I played poker I focused on only poker and I did not let outside influences affect my poker game. That is the reason I was hugely successful. That single minded focus and the ability to block out all adversity. I was not alone in that mentality. I do not believe I or any other player makes that decision, I feel it is a psychological phenomenon that happens to us.

My work became a secondary concern and I would think about poker all day long and I would play later and later into the night. I would tell myself that my work was fine and I did not need to sleep. Slowly but surely, I would set aside my beliefs and convince myself that I had a good balance in my life. Over the course of a year, I sacrificed the quality of my work to the point of no longer performing at an acceptable level. I went from being an exemplary employee with all excellent reviews to one that could not meet minimum requirements.

My personal life was in an even bigger nose dive. I can attribute that to the lack of accountability. I wasn’t answering to anyone in my personal life. The very basics of existence at the most primal level were being disregarded; food, water, shelter, rest and safety were all being sacrificed to get a few more hands of poker.

To simplify my life, I eliminated work and that gave me more time to play poker. I would love to tell you that fixed everything and I was able to get back to a normal lifestyle. My work was no longer suffering. My personal life continued to slide down the slope. I no longer had a need to ever leave the poker room. Unless clean clothes and personal hygiene are of any concern. Why would I do anything other than wake up and immediately go to the poker game?

I would look around the room and see all the old guys and a few old women and look at them and realize that was me in another 10 or 15 years. Those guys are all really old, just not as old as they look. They don’t leave the table to use the bathroom. They play for days on end because it is too hard to get up from the table. Both physically and mentally.

Playing at Elk Valley, in May of 1999, I am in the regular $3-$6 game filled with nine other players, all locals. I know them all and have played many hours with each of them. I am the best player at the table and they know it. The old guy at the table is in the one seat right next to the dealer. Eighty three year old Randy is the hard core endurance player with unlimited stamina and can play for three nights and two days straight without missing a blind. I know because I have sat there dying from lack of sleep and that guy is just tough. If Randy and I are in the game, there is a good chance we will go all night. The only saving grace is that Randy will not play me heads up. He will quit and go play blackjack until the next day when a new poker game starts.

We are playing in a full game and everyone is fresh at the moment; as the game is only three or four hours old. I raise the hand pre-flop with AK and I get four callers. The flop brings A95 and Randy leads out with a $3 bet. I am in the four seat sitting right across the table from Randy. I know it is my turn, I am staring Randy down. I know Randy has a little bit of a shaky hand from being old and it gets more pronounced as the night goes on. I also know he is even shakier when he has a big hand. This is a tell that only I can truly distinguish. My buddies that know the tell misread it all the time. The problem I have in this hand is that I wasn’t looking at Randy. I was looking at the far end of the table when the flop was put up. I saw Tim react to the flop and locked in on him for a second. When I got my head turned back to Randy, he had already bet. I spend time staring at him and try to get another tell. He gets aggravated easier when he has nothing, if he has a hand he is quiet and patient. This is the read I am making now. No tell is a tell.

Randy has a hand, of course he does, he just bet. Randy will bet a draw so it is not as easy as he bet therefore he has a hand. I raise. I raise to see how Randy likes it and to eliminate the players at the other end of the table. Hands are folded at the other end of the table. Tim didn’t have an ace with a weak kicker after all. Tim had a 9 and I would put him on J9. Randy wastes no time in re-raising and his hand is in fact shaking and it is shaking a whole bunch.

I am staring right through Randy. I can see everything. His breathing is heavy and labored and he is shaking too much. The color in his face looks bad. He is changing right before my eyes. He begins to slump in his chair and he falls to his right and now is leaning hard against Jerry the dealer. Something is wrong. Very wrong.

Randy is having a heart attack right at the table during the hand. I scream for security and yell “Call an ambulance”. Randy says, “Let’s finish the hand”. Suddenly, I have the all-time best tell. I decide to fold my hand so that 55 doesn’t displace Aces and Eights as the Dead Man’s Hand. I fold and Jerry pushes Randy back up in his chair and he slumps forward onto the table. Jerry pushes the pot over toward where Randy is slumped onto the table. Security gathers Randy up and carry him to the back of the house and start CPR. Sadly, Randy had won his very last hand.

There was quite a bit of debate over where the chips should go when a man dies at the table and what is the call if I don’t fold my hand. Of course, we all thought Randy would have a dead hand. The old timers say when a man dies the chips go to the player on his left, I have never seen it in writing and I have never heard anyone dispute that claim. We racked the chips up and put them in the podium with his name on them. I tipped the dealer a buck from the pot, I know Randy would have wanted it that way. Just as security was taking him behind the wall I heard, “Get a live one in here”. What a classy bunch.

I was still playing that night when word came that Randy didn’t make it. I called the floor over and asked that his chips be cashed and the money be donated to help pay for the funeral expenses. I am sure Randy left this Earth just the way he wanted to.

I think Randy would have rather played the hand out. Randy, if you are looking down on me, sorry I folded that hand. I lost that hand.

A losing poker hand made me a winner in life. This was a life changing hand for two great poker players.

I folded Randy. I have a job. I have a life. Thanks to you.

Sorry Randy.


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