How Watching Rounders & The Hustler Can Help Your Poker Game

Since I’m writing this on the flight on the way to Washington DC, I guess this represents the first traveling journal entry. The last 2 weeks have been pretty hectic: between being tour guide for my wife’s family, transitioning to the web team at work, and preparing for my conference presentation, I’m pretty drained. Hopefully I can catch up on some sleep before the presentation tomorrow, but that’s doubtful! I guess good old adrenaline will have to pull me through.

The presentation is for the American Medical Informatics Conference, so there will be lots of hotshot doctors listening to my talk. I haven’t given a presentation in a long time, and never one at a conference, but I tend to do better under pressure, so I’m not too worried. This is the first time I’ve had the luck to have an all expenses paid trip! I added it up last night, and I think the bill came up to $3000 total, so I owe a good presentation to the hospital. There will also be some excellent networking opportunities, as all the leaders in the field will be there.

Another perk I snagged was a high power laptop that my boss loaned me for the trip! I’m in the middle of watching Paul Newman in “The Hustler,” and surprisingly, the movie has inspired me to deliver a good presentation. There’s a great Newman speech where he talks about the beauty of a person doing something he knows he as good at. Newman says that even an expert bricklayer’s work can be beautiful if the bricklayer is inspired and”in the zone.” This made me realize that a good presentation is defined mostly by the enthusiasm of the presenter for the work he is discussing. The standard is dry, monotonic explanation of statistics; if I can bring some youth and energy to the presentation, I think people will listen.

The psychology of gambling is really the main theme of “The Hustler.” After Fast Eddie loses to Minnesota Fats, the knowledgeable gambler who ends up backing Eddie explains that Eddie was a born loser who was just “waiting to lose.” Interestingly, the gambler is a high-stakes poker player. The gambler also claims that talent is of relatively minor importance in long heads-up matches. It’s character that counts, and Fats just has more character than Eddie, who has never really lost in his life.

Losing builds character, so the cliche goes, but I definitely think this is true.
All the great poker champions have been broke at one time or another (or so legend has it), and this is probably for 2 reasons: 1, it built the character required to become a great poker champion, and 2, when you believe you are the best, and are playing against the best, you must keep putting your money in the pot until you are broke. When you believe you’re the best, at no time do you think, “I can’t beat this guy, I should quit, or, I’m already $X up/down, let me get out while I’m ahead/not broke.”

The danger of this line of thought is also explored in Rounders: Mike McD gets his money in when he thinks he has the best of it, and loses everything. Although he regrets his decision, the journey it forces him to undertake ends up building his character and showing him the path that his life should take. The foil for McD is Knish, the true grinder who only puts his money in the pot when he is sure he’s got the best of it. I’m still on the fence on this idea: can you still be a great player when you always leave yourself “outs”? Maybe. But if we say that character is built by risking great loss, then the gamblers of great character are willing to put it all in the pot.

Back to the world of low-limit poker: I finally got the 500 hands to collect the PartyPoker bonus, but took a lot of punishment in getting there. After being up $120 on my initial deposit, I had an awful session that brought me back to even, WITH the bonus. I played a few orbits on 2 5.10 tables, promptly dropping 60 on one and breaking even at the other. My play wasn’t bad, I just wasn’t getting the cards, and the game was so tight that when I did have a hand, even the blinds folded me. I escaped to the looser world of 3.6, which treated me even worse than the 5.10 tables. After an hour and a half, I ended up down $170 on two tables after not picking up a hand on either table nearly the whole time. I had about 10 medium pocket pairs, and was unable to hit the set on any of them. I think I won 3 or 4 hands out of the 150 I played, and I misplayed only one or two of them. I guess sometimes you just catch a “frozen wave of cards” and you just have to minimize your losses.

So 500 hands on PartyPoker showed me losing $117, but the bonus brought it back up to a $17 loss. I guess it could be worse, but it’s still depressing. I can take comfort in the $8K raise I just got, and the hope that my wife gets the waitress job at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Ahh, just reading the last sentence makes me feel better, and I can’t wait to get back to the tables. Hopefully like Fast Eddie, the loss built my character bankroll and I’ll be even more fierce when I sit down at the Mirage next Thursday. Yep, that’s right VEGAS BABY, VEGAS! (Thursday).

photo image of matt damon playing poker at a tournament

[thanks to kaloozer and hdouble via cc]