As a novelist, I stalk narrative. I get high on connective story tissue. Cause and effect. This begets that. Life and heart stuff. A staunch right-brainer, I’m deeply creative and subjective. I cried the first time I played chess.
When my poker life first began to realize itself, my story-soaked brain reacted softly to odds and outs and ICM and GTO—the grittier, left-side-y things, the (sometimes) taxing math that both hides and reveals the modern game—think Dracula’s billowing cape.
When kids get cranky, mothers in my Lower East Side quadrant have screamed: what would Jesus do? Their ethical trailblazer died 2000 years ago. I don’t go back that far. When I feel a tad suffocated by poker’s numeric overlay, I pretend to grab my Ouija board and let my fingers do the walking into the netherworld. Stu Ungar, I ask cordially, what’s left of meta and game flow and style and reads and playing the player and that very unprovable phenomenon called instinct?
I’m romantic about Ungar’s 1960s New York world—the gangsters and card sharks and weirdoes whose freakish voices and manners he inhaled and survived, gestures that intimately shaped his underworld being and made his people reads stupidly great. Ungar had what amounted to a full-body empathic immersion in the unadulterated chaos of human nature. Thousands of miles away from Stu, I was raised in Los Angeles on top of a mountain with a key-shaped swimming pool that glowed in the dark. My days and Stu’s days were diametrically opposed (geometry). My world had infinitely fewer people in it than Stu’s. Less life to carve into and consume. Exponentially less (human) nature, but he holds me in his sway. Profoundly. A dame in name only, I model his aggression and controlled poker fury.
I love that Stu’s pops is described as a lot of things including lone shark and bookie. He owned Fox’s Corner, a Lower East Side social club at 118 1st Avenue. As reported by New York Magazine, the joint was frequented by “gangsters and gamblers, Jews and Italians. This was the sixties—before the lottery, OTB, Atlantic City, Foxwoods, before even pinball machines were legal. New York was a small-time gamblers’ paradise. In the East Village, every bar seemed to have a resident bookie, every block a card game.”
As a young child Ungar was exposed to a hustler’s life and by 10 was said to be a prodigy and gin-rummy genius. He used that skill to support his family when his father died. As he became a card pit bull, Ungar’s “assassin-like” poker style made him feared. Reputedly he was clairvoyant about hands and famous for world-class bluffs—poker’s primordial soul. (His drug use and dying young, much less romantic.)
I get that (post-modern) online play is loyal to GTO, the sheer frequency of hands urging poker theory to colonize digital combat. Thankfully, poker is gigantic in its range of locale. The tomboy in me swoons over poker’s Old West saloons. The sheer anarchy of those dusty back rooms, the power poker played in those nascent stud and draw iterations with a deeper reliance on reads and people smarts—I find those narratives irresistible. I am loyal to poker’s hardscrabble volk roots and hope to prove over time that as a first principle, each hand remains an exercise in domination and must rely on more vigorous (human) calculation to survive the current and trendier obsession with frequency and optimal play in the online environment. I trust how Phil Ivey unpacked it in his PokerListings 2008 interview: “There are many times when you can do all of the math you want and your decision still comes down to intangibles and a feeling about your opponent or the situation you’re facing.”
Poker engages me shockingly. Over time, the writer in me has grown surprisingly comfortable with the game’s logical spirit. But often, I rebel and resist. Fate helps. Having been a bullied child, poker has unleashed in me a long-slumbering aggression. I crawl up inside the dominance thing to enhance, or even replace at times, rigid and conservative math parameters. I know a boatload of outstanding math-based players who might insist game flow, the drive toward supremacy, and math intersect and make each other possible. Maybe.
My first coach and numbers genius Matt Matros insisted I get the fundamentals right. Not a single player is less aware than me at every point in a hand of pot size and the essential odds calculations that flow from that fact. Yet, as my skill amplifies I interrogate the game differently.
Ungar was not nice. He loved breaking villains. He was predatory and delighted in seeing opponents’ faces danced by desperation. As David Mamet said, “poker reveals to the frank observer something else of import. It will teach him about his own nature. Many bad players do not improve because they cannot bear self-knowledge.” What self-knowing do I covet?
I study and contemplate (honor, even) poker’s hard-surfaced theoretical nature. But that’s not what Stu and me would gab about if he answered my Ouija howls. Above all, Stu’s genius gut sense thrills me. Resisting Mamet, my fascination with dominance is up inside me, but I don’t look at it too closely and never with the lights on. I’m a live player. Proud and loud and committed for all eternity to protecting hunches and irrational, seat-of-the-pants unconscious perception in the heat of battle having little to do with data and calculation.
Poker is cracked and solved, they say (limit, anyway). Poker wears sunglasses and hoodies and doesn’t smile or laugh enough, they say. Poker content is ubiquitous and the game is harder than ever to enter, they say. Once mostly (and maybe forever) a feel game, poker has been, or stands to be, neutered (I say).
Stu Ungar, I Ouija one last time, for us women grinders, with our nifty, insurmountable, angel-induced intuition, what say you about this people-game-played-with-cards business?