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On Not Being A Professional Poker Player

A Father And His Son

One of the many merits of my father was that he taught me to play poker and drink whiskey. We lived about a dozen miles north of the local Indian reservation. Like many reservations it had a Catholic mission and well-to-do ranchers who leased land from the Indians. It also had one of the poorest tribes in the nation but that is a tale for another time.

Several of the people who lived around the mission were close friends of our family. When weather permitted traveling Morris and his friends would gather of Saturday nights to play poker. The stakes were not large – a few dollars would change hands. Granted that this was a time when a man might work all day for ten dollars but still the stakes were not large. It was a social occasion. They played poker and drank whiskey. Usually there would be a feed, either shrimp or mountain oysters. The mission priest was a regular although he would not play past midnight.

At some point in my teen age years my father started bringing me to the Saturday sessions, a right and proper thing for a man to do. Thus it was that I became a poker player. I probably wasn’t a very good player but I had been blooded.

How not to be a college student

Having turned seventeen I trundled off to college wherein I discovered the ancient ways in which one may rapidly cease to be a college student. There is that in my nature that delights in the playing of games. I discovered bridge and how one may play bridge all hours of the day and night rather than studying and going to classes. In passing [which was not what I was doing] I became quite a fair bridge player. A fellow student and I concocted a home grown system with which we terrorized the local duplicate bridge. If I recall correctly it featured a multi-purpose club which combined the short club, the strong club, and premptive club bids. I doubt that it had any real merit other than the pleasure of invention.

Although I spent a phenomenal amount of time playing bridge I also found plenty of time to play poker. Impecunious college students do not play a very high standard of poker and I more than held my own. The great truth of poker is that very few people play the game well.

As my academic career disappeared into a monumental collection of incompletes I conceived the unhappy notion of making my living playing poker with what had been my fellow students. This notion had a few flaws. Said students did not have enough free funds to support me; I was not good enough, did not have enough hustle; and the school administration took strong exception to card bums hanging around leaching off the real students. Financial collapse ensued and I dragged my tail home to meet the displeasure of my parents. So much for being a professional card player.

Card Sharps, Usurers, and Pool Hustlers

There I was, back home on the farm. Ah, home sweet home. The joys of farm life, pitching hay, shoveling manure, driving a tractor. Up at dawn, work all day until the sun goes down. This was definitely not for me. Casting about for something to do, anything to do rather than be a farmer, I joined the Marine Corps. The first year after boot camp was spent making learnee, first infantry training, then radio school, then radar school. I learned useful military arts such as how to spit-shine shoes to a high gloss. And I played a lot of cards.

Let me explain about 5 for 6 boys. Uncle Sam generously provided you with food, bedding, and a place to sleep. Except for incidentals such as laundry your pay check, such as it was, was free and clear for spending on such entertainments as young men in the military traditionally spend their money on. Most of the men drank or gambled their money away. A few forward looking gentlemen scrupulously saved their money with an eye to wealth in the long run. Some of these gentlemen ingeniously accelerated the process of gathering wealth. At any particular time there were those who had spent all of their money well before payday and were financially embarrassed. No problem. If you were out of funds there was a chap in the barracks who would be happy to lend you money until payday. All he asked was that you pay him back six dollars for every five you borrowed. This was usury far beyond even the rapaciousness of credit card issuers; it was nominally illegal but every barracks seemed to have one of these obliging gentlemen.

I was not one of their customers. I played poker. Unlike most poker players who lose money and lie about it, I won regularly. There is this thing about poker players who are regular losers. When a loser has lost all his funds he does not tuck his tail between his legs and give the game up as a lost cause. Oh, no. What your loser wants to do is to borrow money to stay in the game. Some books say that you should never loan money in a poker game. This is wrong. The man who wants to borrow money has established his credentials as a loser. He is, so to speak, your best customer. I had not read any books but this I understood. So it was that I loaned money quite freely to losers, loaning it on the best of terms, asking no interest. Not quite the best of terms, perhaps, because I definitely wanted it back.

When we were in infantry training the paymaster set up a tent wherein he paid the troops in cash. The troops lined up, entered the tent one at a time, and got paid. When they left the tent they ran the gamut of another line which waited outside the tent. The people in this line were the people who were owed money and meant to collect while their debtors still had cash in hand. (A Marine who owes money is a very poor credit risk if he can get to a bar before you get to him.) The people in the collection line were mostly 5 for 6 boys and fortunate card players. I had a near permanent station in the collection line…

I wasn’t a card sharp or a hustler. I just loved to play poker. One of my good friends, a guy named Anders from New Orleans, was a pool hustler. He and I used to go down to one of the big pool halls in San Diego where the hustlers hung out. When there wasn’t any action they used to play things like one pocket (every ball has to be made in a specified pocket) between themselves. They were really good. I played a fair game of pool but I didn’t play with them, you may be sure of that.

It was a real education to watch them work the marks. You hear that a hustler will let a mark win a little at first to get him hooked. This is wrong. The hustler doesn’t let the mark win, not ever. The hustler wants the mark to lose big and to lose fast. The longer it takes, the more chance there is that the mark will come to his senses. The object is to get the mark to double up, to keep increasing his bets so that if he wins just this once he can recoup his losses. What the hustler does is to appear to win by the narrowest of margins, as though he were just lucky. The hustler wants the mark to think he could have won and was just unlucky. The hustler teases the mark, entices him by offering him what appears to be an edge if the mark increases his bet. It isn’t an edge, of course; the hustler utterly outclasses the mark. If you are ever in a pool hall and a friendly stranger says “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll give you…” run, don’t walk to the nearest immediate exit.

The process is fascinating to watch in a sickening way. The mark goes through a standard sequence of emotions. First comes friendliness, a friendly game with a pleasant stranger. Then comes greed and exasperation; the greed because he thinks he can win some money, exasperation because somehow he hasn’t won it yet. Then comes anxiety when he’s lost more than he can really afford to. Then comes desperation when he’s lost enough to be sick about it and desperate to get out of the hole. Then comes black despair when the hustler has stripped him of everything and he slinks away, broken.

Once They Go Up, Who Cares Where They Come Down

After I completed my training I spent a couple of years on regular duty as a radar technician. I played very little poker during that stint, being more concerned with making sure that the USA did not have a beer surplus. After I got out I moved to Boston. Again, no poker, just a lot of serious bridge and chess. The delights of Boston winters convinced me that a job in the Bahamas on the missile range would be just the ticket, so south I headed.

Working on the missile range was half way between being in the military and being a real civilian. We lived in barracks; we ate for free at a commissary; movies and laundry were free. Booze was two bucks a fifth, cigarettes eight cents a pack. There was almost nothing to spend money on. It wasn’t the military though. The food was good and we had maid service. And we wore real clothes. Most of the people were saving money like mad with a view to early retirement. This didn’t always work out. One chap saved enough to buy a small hotel on the Isle of Pines. It was nationalized when Castro took over. Win some, lose some.

I lived in C barracks. C barracks had a day room. The day room had a pool table and several card tables. People with money to spend and no place to spend it. Need I say more? Every evening there would be at least one and usually several games going on. On weekends there was often a game that ran day and night for the whole weekend. I was in my natural environment.

Some of the games were moderately stiff. You could win or lose a few hundred dollars. This was at a time when stamps cost three cents and two thousand dollars bought you a rich man’s car. Sometimes I won; sometimes I lost; but I won on balance. My biggest win was $535 in a weekend game and therein lies a tale.

One of the players was an inveterate poker loser. He worked on the range as an electrician. Back in the states he had owned an electrical supply business which reputedly earned a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. He gambled it all away; his wife left him and he lost everything. For lack of alternatives he got a job on the range. There were a number of people there like him, people who were on hold while they were putting their lives back together.

He loved poker. He had a set routine. When he got paid he would get in the games and keep playing until he lost his paycheck. Then for the rest of the month he sit and kibitz the games, patiently waiting for his next paycheck until he could play again. This particular weekend he had just gotten paid, oddly enough about $500. He sat down in the game. He played. He lost. The night went on; dawn broke. Everybody wanted to quit. He insisted that we keep playing. We kept playing. We were bleary eyed and bedraggled; the game was a wearying effort. We kept playing. He kept losing. Noon came; noon went. By late afternoon he had lost it all; his paycheck was mine and the game was over.

I didn’t think much of it at the time; I was pleased with the score. Shortly thereafter, having won enough to finance college, I went back to the states. But it gnawed at me. I don’t have what it takes to be a professional poker player. Thank God.

On Being A Professional Poker Player

The thing is, you see, I had never thought about what it meant to be a winner. I played the game for the pleasure of the game. To be sure, I liked the money. I liked winning. Being a winner is part of what the game is about. But for me to be a winner there have to be losers. And that’s a problem. I don’t want to make money by hurting people.

A professional poker player plays to make money. The best way to make money is to be a hustler, to exploit compulsive losers, to be a predator without a conscience. Remember my pool hustler friends and how they operated. That’s the way you have to be, that’s the way you have to do things, that’s the way you have to treat people and think of them. It’s a bit different for the poker hustler. He has to keep the games going. He has to know who can be stripped and who can be bled over a period of time. He wears a mask of friendship in the game but his fellow players aren’t people; they’re marks.

The predator and his prey have one thing in common; they both obsess over the game. I’ve known professional poker players – they mostly are a sad lot. Gambling is their life. They live to take money from compulsive losers.

I had my look at what being a hustler is really about. I didn’t much like it. I resolved to never play with people who couldn’t afford to lose, to not be a predator. On the other hand I took my winnings and used them to finance college without a qualm. Call me a hypocrite. I’ve never given back money I’ve won.

The Angel Of Death

Sometimes I’m not too bright. I didn’t learn anything from my first brush with Boston winters. After having done my stint in the Bahamas I first went to South Dakota to go back to college and then went back to Boston to take up the happy life of the well paid computer professional. For a good while I played no poker, save for an occasional game of penny-ante. Then I fell into bad company.

Said bad company consisted mostly of MIT graduates who also sold their intellectual integrity to the Greater Boston Software Works. [There is no such company; it’s a way of saying that the computer professionals in those days formed a fairly small circle.] Among them were one Jon Ravin and one Patrick O’Neil – only one of each. A group of us, all good friends, used to gather at Pat’s place to play nickel and dime poker. This was strictly a social thing but it palled a bit. We were all well paid and the amounts won and lost were insignificant. Poker is pretty pointless if losing doesn’t have a bit of a sting to it.

I don’t recall who proposed raising the stakes. It was probably Pat; he was always good about things like getting the stakes raised. However I was the one who introduced the idea of changing the game to pot limit. A word or two of explanation here:

Most poker games are fixed limit games; there is a fixed limit on how much you can bet in each round. In pot limit the maximum amount you can bet is determined by how much is in the pot at the beginning of the round. This limit escalates very rapidly. Say you start out with a dime ante. On the first round you can bet and raise a dime. On the second round there will be around a dollar in the pot; that’s what you can bet. On the third round there will be several dollars. It keeps escalating. On the last round the limit is usually one or two hundred dollars. One seldom bet the full limit but the possibility was there. This, I thought, was real poker.

We did it. We switched to pot limit. At first we were shy about about making large bets but it didn’t take too long before we got comfortable with betting 50 dollars or more in that final round. It changed the game a lot. Now people were winning and losing a few hundred dollars in a night. We were all fairly decent players and it pretty much evened out over time; nobody was getting hurt.

Things changed. Jon had a basement rec room with a poker table so he took over hosting the game. Over time some of the original players dropped out and new players came in – however Jon, Pat, and I remained as the core of the game. Poker players form a community; people keep track of other players and where the games are. Our game and us got plugged into the community. We got invited to and played in other games; in turn we recruited players into our game. We had a consensus about what the game should be. It should be a tough game to give people the pleasure of playing against good players. It should be a stiff game but not so stiff as to hurt people; we didn’t want any body in the game who couldn’t afford it. It was a good game; it went on for a number of years. Jon, Pat, and I were steady winners (surprise).

It finally broke up when Jon stopped hosting the game. Although I loved the game it is not necessary to me. When it was no longer convenient to play I stopped playing. I didn’t compulsively hunt out new games to play in. I haven’t played for a dozen years or more. Times pass. New things happen. Old things go away.

I am not the most perceptive or the vainest of people. I spend very little time worrying about what other people think of me. It never occurred to me to think about the image I presented to other people. Oh, I was friendly and social. I liked everybody. I thought about them. But I didn’t think about what they thought of me. So I was a bit startled and charmed when. at a party, I overheard one of the players in the game describing it and I heard the words

… and then there was Harter, sitting there like the Angel of Death.

I guess I was tougher than I realized.

Winning At Poker

The two great American games are football and poker. In it’s own way each is a model of life and a preparation for life. Football is the game of team effort towards a goal. It emphasizes joint effort, role specialization, teamwork, and a striving for a common goal. It is no accident that football jargon pervades the business world vocabulary.

Poker is the game of individuals striving against other individuals. It emphasizes internal dynamics of the individual, the choices that make him a winner or a loser, and his understanding of his competitors. It is no accident that poker jargon pervades the mythos of the frontier and entrepeneurship.

How to be a winner at poker? There are some things you have to get under your belt. You have to understand the game well enough to make realistic assessments of how likely you are to win a particular hand. Most players learn this fairly early on – they learn what the odds are, what a good hand is, and are able to make a reasonable assessment of what other players are doing. Most of the books concentrate on these mechanics; they are important but it really isn’t necessary to try to get that last little edge. Some players meticulously keep a book on their fellow players, noting each little habit and gesture. This is a good thing to do; it will give you a little edge. But it’s not a big deal; you can rely on your native feel of what people are doing and what they are about.

The mechanics, once you have grasped them, are not important. There are two important things to understand. The first is that poker is a money game. The books tell you about card odds. They are only the first step. The important thing is pot odds, how much is it going to cost you to play vs how much you are going to win. You can’t change the card odds. You can change the pot odds.

The whole secret of poker is to get people to put a lot of money into the pots that you win and not put much money into the pots that other people win. Some people think that the way to win is to play tight, to only play the very best hands. Wrong. When people see you playing tight they don’t stay with you unless they have very good hands. You win small pots. Some people think that the way to win is to play wild, to get a lot of action going so that there are big pots. Wrong. You win more pots that way but you also put a lot of money into other people’s pots.

What you have to do is to get people to put money into your pots. You manipulate them to get them to stay in. You push the betting agressively when you have them on the hook. When the odds are on their side losers call; winners raise.

The other big thing in playing poker to win is to choose to be a winner rather than a loser. Losers come in two flavors, the passive callers and the wild men. The passive caller stays in too long, hoping against hope, knowing that he’s bucking the odds. He doesn’t raise when he should, calls when he shouldn’t. He knows he’s playing like a loser but he does it anyway. The wild man likes action and excitement. He plays hands when he shouldn’t, raises when he shouldn’t. He looks for excuses to be in the action. He knows he plays too many hands and pushes them too hard but he does it anyway. If a person has played any length of time and is a loser it is because he has chosen to keep his losing habits, being a loser is acceptable to him.

But what, you say, do you do if the other players are better than you? The answer is very simple: Don’t play in games where other players a lot better than you are. That’s the winner’s answer – play in games that you can beat.

This page was last updated June 21, 1997.