Thursday, September 19, 2013

The toll of playing poker

It's funny how cliches are sometimes so spot on they seem "tailor made" for the situation.  It's funny how other times, they couldn't be more wrong.  The cliche I have in mind today is "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," with regard to parents and their children.  In a lot of ways with regard to my life, there's truth to that cliche.  I do share a lot of habits and traits with my parents.  On the other hand, in a lot of ways, I could not be more different.  Let me share:

My father used to play poker.  I remember growing up in my parent's house and he'd host a game every few Thursdays.  They'd play 1/2 NLHE - he had just about every walk of life in the game.  There was a car salesman, a degenerate small business owner, an unemployed rounder (or so my 8 year-old self thought of him), and everyone in between.  My dad was the insurance salesman.  Mind you, this was in the '80s, so I guess a 1/2 home game was a decent sized game.  I remember they used to open a new deck of cards every game to ensure against marked cards.  I remember my dad telling me stories about a guy who used to cheat the pot every once in awhile, but they all tolerated it because the guy was a losing player.  (As an adult, it reminds me of the opening scene of The Wire where the thug tells McNulty, "This is America, man.")  I was enamored with game, and my dad telling me how much he'd win every time.  Since my dad was naturally my hero back then, it only elevated his status to me that he was Robin Hooding his way through life to help our family be better off (this is an 8 year-old's view of the world, after all).

Fast forward to ~1993.  My dad's insurance business has declined significantly.  He's lost interest in sales, lost interest in being a good dad, lost interest in being a good husband.  Or maybe he never had that interest, but only had the appearance of that interest in my 8 year- now turned 17 year-old mind.  My dad is more or less a loser.  He's a loser at life, he's a loser at his job, and most importantly, he's a loser at his family.  My mom has always consistently worked as a teacher for what would be in 1993 ~25 years.  The roles have changed in that she's the bread winner of the family, cooks, cleans, and mothers, while he wallows in his own depression, working when he wants and leading the princely life he feels the world owes him (when the reality is that it's my mother paying the life tab).

My father hits what I thought was a low in that year; he tries to commit suicide (which was not a real attempt but more a cry for help).  He gets the help - seeks psychiatrists, though the financial situation remains static.  The psychological help he receives seems to do nothing, but I'm out of the house at college; family life is ~300 miles removed and I'm having a good time!  My poor sister is left holding the bag for the next 3-4 years until she can finally get out from under that roof.  I think I return home for one summer, but that's the last time I live at home.

Transition a few years later to the man who is now my father.  He has decided that his home games and limited casino action are good enough to make him into a full time poker pro.  Over a series of visits to Atlantic City, he comes away (I imagine) a big winner.  As the frequency builds (he has more time because he works fewer and fewer hours), I suppose he keeps winning.  He decides to spend days at the tables down in AC, giving it the ole' college try (he never graduated college).  He checks in with me periodically (I'm away at school during this period) to tell me about his exploits and frequent wins.  I play casually with a few buddies at penny stakes - the limit to my poker interest.  However, he continues to win and win and win - or so he tells me.  One day, a few years after graduation - it must've been around 2001 - my mother tells me that they're having major financial problems - they're going to cash out some of the equity on their house to pay off some "debts" my father has collected along the way.  Apparently, he's run up a credit card to shell game his way into "winning at poker."  This credit card debt is large enough that I'd assume he owes $50k+ - probably closer to $100k.  I imagine that the debt became too large to handle month over month that he was forced to inform my mother or face frozen bank accounts and seizure of property (jointly owned) which would be a surprise to my mother.

My parents almost get a divorce (advocated by me to try to protect my mother), but marriage prevails and the guy is forced to swear off poker for real money for life.  My ex-father(?) is now a real prick.  He's totally focused on himself at this point; a narcissistic person with absolutely no impulse control.  In conversations, he's claimed to me that he has "no responsibility over his own actions; he shouldn't be held accountable for the things he says and does."  He spends my mother's hard-earned money, showering himself in gifts and luxuries such as expensive watches, pens, computer equipment - anything that suits his fancy.  At this point, he gets a limited income from his residual premiums from his days as an insurance salesman.  My mother foots the bill for almost everything life-related including the mortgage, utilities, etc.  He wants a new car?  He goes out and gets a new car.  He wants a new tablet or phone?  He goes out and gets one of those too!  I'll never understand how my mother can watch him pamper himself while she gets nothing in return.  I still shake my head in wonderment about how my mother didn't leave him; the behaviors have not changed all that much to current day, so I still wonder.

Anyway, I get heavy into online poker a few years back.  I get into it to the point where I'm playing every night, every opportunity I have in free time.  It should be noted that my wife didn't sign up for this when we were married - poker was a recreational thing back then.  However, it was new, it was a hobby, and it wasn't costing anything - well, except time and emotion - more on that in a bit.  To step back a few years, I dabbled in online poker prior to getting serious - maybe spent around $500 in total deposits at various sites (over the prior 3-4 years) to play for a night or two here & there.  If you'd like, you can look back at some of the original posts on this blog.  One day - June 2009, I got serious about it.  Started studying ranges and understanding odds.  Started studying hand histories.  Started doing all the things a successful online player needs to do to earn money.  I deposited $40 on Full Tilt and never ever deposited again.  I built up on an online roll from that $40.  I traded my way into an online roll on Stars.  I freerolled my way into an online roll on Bodog / Bovada.  From that starting $40, I've made a bunch of money - cashing out over the years & never having to re-deposit ANYWHERE.  I'm pretty proud of that fact (if you've done something similar, consider yourself in an exclusive club of 10-20% of all poker players).  I'm pretty proud of the fact that my father tried to convince me that my run at the poker tables was an aberration and could not be maintained consistently - that poker is luck and it's only a matter of time 'til you're luck runs out - yet I was undeterred and persevered.  This coming from a guy who considered himself a "poker pro" for a few years - LOL.

As an aside, I would try to have poker conversations with my father, but they'd generally go nowhere.  I'd explain pot odds, quick arithmetic at finding out odds of getting the best hand (i.e. rule of 2x 4x), etc., but it would all go in one ear and out the other.  It was comical to find out how little my father knew about poker other than instinct, or I guess distilled down: reading people.  What I thought were conversations were really just one-sided; he'd claim to have forgotten as soon as I told him about the math behind poker.

4+ years later, and my "run" and "luck" still continues.  I've taken my game from online to live (out of necessity, thanks to UIGEA) with a bit of difficulty, but I think things are mostly in order & under control at this point.  I do want to talk briefly about the costs of poker, even though the costs are intangible - the costs of emotional stress and time.

I was never much of a tilter online.  I'd study my problem hands, try to figure out the issues / leaks, and fix them.  The beauty of poker is that you can play the hand correctly but still lose.  The reality is that you can only hold yourself accountable for the mistakes made.  There is not one else you can blame if you get your money in behind in an incorrect way; i.e. you get outplayed.  For what it's worth, the money won / lost is of little consequence; given enough volume, the suckouts will cancel out all the times you got it in good and your hand held.  Early on, though, when the bankroll was shorter (i.e. 15-20 buy ins at a particular stake or level of play), my moods after playing were frequently dictated by how I did for the night.  I would argue with my wife when I had a particularly brutal losing night.  It wasn't a regular occurrence, but it did happen more than once on occasion.  Its hard keeping emotions bottled up, particularly while being married to someone who expects you to be mood-free when you shut off that computer or end that session.

The more frequent emotional toll to my wife and our relationship were the hours spent ignoring my wife.  I need complete concentration while 10-15 tabling; interruptions could not be tolerated because it would mean a loss of money.  The reality is I should not have been playing with near the frequency I was - I was hooked on the rewards scheme that Full Tilt had created - Iron Man.  I needed to put in X amount of hours per day in order to achieve the highest reward.  It was a challenge that I did not want to back down from.  Looking back, although it made us some money, it was really stupid and not worth it versus the long run toll it would take on our relationship.  In that regard, I'm glad the online days have passed.

I've never missed important events due to playing poker, but I recount all the time I spent thinking about the game - not fully engaged in whatever event or family function I was involved in.  Physically, I was there, but mentally I was thinking about hands and problem spots.  I recount all the decisions I made that were centered around giving me time to play online.  I have no doubt that I created a a ton of angst for my wife by my online play.

Looking back, I am not and do not intend to be a career online player.  If online poker ever gets popular again, I very heavily doubt that I'll ever get back into it with the same vigor as I once had.  I realize that the experience and time I've put in over the past years has certainly enabled me to be the player I am today. However, realizing that this is not a full time job, nor a part time job, I don't envision ever trying to masquerade it as such.

Some points that may resonate:
  • For me, it was never about the money.  It was always about whether I am making the correct play.  Being married to a non-poker player, she never wants to understand it.
  • It took me a while to realize that I needed to maintain a separate live bankroll from ordinary cash.  She can't understand how I don't quit when I am down even 50-$100, but always "forgets" when I have a nice win to more than counterbalance the losing days.
  • I don't want to talk about the losing days with my wife since she is not a poker player nor does she want to learn about the game.  She's since learned not to ask; I'll now offer the results if I feel like it, but I hate the inevitable "sigh" when she hears about a loss.  It's not a forced reaction; I think it's more an acknowledgement that in her mind.  She sees that I lost car payments for both cars for the month which is a big deal for her (again forgetting about all of the "up" days).
  • The scorn felt early on by being a "poker player."  My wife's family initially judged me to be degenerate when they found out I was playing online / live poker with regularity.  The aura that surrounds being a poker player is filled with negativity and mistrust.  Following that are fears of gambling addition and concerns for being around "those people;" the very poker players that I describe in this bullet.  I think they've come around full circle on this and accept my poker playing as an ability, not a detriment.
  • My mother was particularly concerned given my father's debt problem due to poker.  It's understandable; her experience with poker was a negative one.  The reality is that I'm one of the most fiscally conservative guys I know - on paper, it's an oddity that I've embraced a game that centers around odds and chance.  The reality is trusting those probabilities is exactly what makes the game predictable and stable.  The game is more than just spinning a wheel which you have no control over - aka roulette.  The game is more of a get your money in good and x% of the time you'll win the hand, and 100-x% of the time you'll lose the hand.  In isolation of one hand, yes, you'll lose and disbelieve the statistics.  However, replay that same hand 1,000 or 1,000,000 times and you'll win money.
  • The uncanny ability to dwell on a hand or series of hands.  I can stew for hours or weeks on a particular hand, all crossed up as to whether I played it right.  The game is so subjective that there isn't always a correct answer.  This mental energy takes focus away from the things that are important.
Anyway, I leave you with the opening clip from The Wire.  If you haven't seen the series, I highly recommend you taking a few hours to check it out.  It's one of the best series on TV *EVER*.


  1. great post, dude. if anything ppl should c poker as a way to supplement their income like a part time job.4 example when we use to play on the suncruz casino ship in fl in the late 90s early 00s. 1 dude, there were other, would play 2 to 3 days a week at the 5-10 limit holdem or omaha hi/lo game.make like 100 -200 dollars a week and b happy. like 1 of the dudes would say beats working part time at walmart.the key is they had a real job or retirement and this was just a part time job to make some extra cash. that is y i laugh at TBC and other that think they r GRINDERS or PROS. they r just delusional. also, i think yr ability to only deposit only is amazing and more like in the 1% of ppl online. imo. again great post.

    1. i suck at typing sorry. LMAO. hope u can understand what i am saying without a rosetta stone

    2. u werent old enough to play in FL that many years ago. and its dumb to never deposit, u lose out on all kind of bonuses that way.

  2. Wow -- heck of a post!

    In fairness, I think that there were huge numbers of us who were seduced by playing this game that was at its zenith back several years ago. I can't believe how much time I spent playing. I dabble in online poker now, but I have little interest in devoting the kind of time and effort I did back in the day, no matter what happens with online poker in the future.

    1. I think that the time put into the game in the past formulates into the results we get out of the game present day. I, for one, am far more prepared to sit down at any table and understand the dynamics and complexities - and able to eek out value (and sometimes not so much :-( ) from places where other players may not. I suppose what I'm saying is the time I put in back then leads me to almost never be a fish at my table.

  3. I heard a bit of dialogue in a British radio-play that I did not think many listeners would get.

    Wife: I suppose you were out so late last night losing money at roulette?

    Husband: I'm not an idiot. I was losing money at poker.

  4. Dude good shit. I agree that on-line rewards could make it somewhat addictive and I have said that getting away from on-line has probably helped my game tremendously. yeah I was banging out 2500-3k per month a lot of months but for the amount of time I put in I am making way more playing live.

    Good to keep things in perspective!

  5. Seems like this post came from JS instead of the "Poker Meister." Great stuff!

    1. Yeah - I've tried over the years to stick to just factual information and none of the personal stuff. However, reading that new blog struck a cord with me...

  6. Excellent post mate. Lots of stuff all us poker players can relate too!!

  7. Thanks for sharing these stories and nuggets of wisdom. With regard to the Iron Man challenge, I think it's a fine line between goal-setting and it just not being worth it. In retrospect you may conclude that the promotions were a huge waste of time, much like all casino offers and promotions. However, it did provide incentive and motivation to get you to clock more hours and spend more time on improving your game. Your goal was never to be the best at racking up rewards, but rather to get better, increase your hourly rate and move up stakes. It's a long road and psychologically creating non-monetary goals can help with the swings, as well as, the frequent redundancy of grinding. In short, don't be so hard on yourself about what was a source of inspiration. It's great to see you reflect and acknowledge that even people that aren't as technically proficient as you are in certain areas can always help to put things in perspective.

  8. Great post. I don't play Poker and I understand only the basics, but much of what you wrote about the game (calculating odds, math...) I've heard it from Josh and some of his friends. They consider it more of a "sport" than a game of luck.

    I feel sorry for your dad, but I'm glad you didn't end up like him. I understand you're a much more intelligent man than he is/was when he got hooked. He must be going through hell though, if he's addicted. I also feel for your mom and what she had to put up with... to some degree, I understand her (not that I would do the same).

    Regarding the influence Poker has in your relationship, I can also relate. The mood swings can be tiring and I also sigh a lot lol, specially because he insists on describing the hands he looses (and some of the wins). For me it's just... boring, I usually nod and don't listen to a word of it. The worst part are the outbursts. It got to a point when I woke up in the middle of the night with him screaming "HOW CAN THIS BE POSSIBLE" at the screen. Thank god he stopped as I told him to, but it took a while. And he still hisses from time to time, which is terribly annoying. Now I sleep with ear plugs.

    Fortunatelly in my case the game doesn't take his attention away from me (to my knowledge) because he mostly plays when I'm at work. When I get home we do something together and he only plays again when I go to sleep.

    Thanks for sharing this story, you seem to be a pretty reasonable guy! I guess not all Poker players are freaks :)

  9. Best post ever. I learned more about you, learned more about myself, and learned more about the game.

  10. Best post ever. I learned more about you, more about myself, and more about poker.


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