Why are poker players infants?

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t launch ridiculously profitable surprise attacks then complain bitterly when a “fish” (however defined) makes us the victim. We can’t herald our inventive playing style then rise from the table in high tantrum when a hyper-maniac playing 7c3h rivers the three in a $1900 pot.

A former backgammon addict, Eddie drinks too much but grinds beautifully (unless he’s smashed). Eddie adores his unpredictable style, prides himself in high deception, openly dissects every hand to prove his mastery. He likely whispers to the cocker spaniel stretched across his chest just before sleep, “I am the best player alive if only everyone could see….” Yet, when Eddie loses big hands to “bad” players (however defined), he launches into invective, circling the table, muttering distastefully, hungry to understand what went wrong—because as we know the best players never lose.

Eddie mounts rage fests because in his mind, less-worthy players are uncertain and should be punished for not following the rules (whatever those are). His brain convulses over the sheer arrogance of weak, weird play. His act-outs persist alongside crude, persistent curses on all fish houses—frog, boil, locust.

Life is Structure

Most everything we touch has order (except love).

Dutifully we learn the poker roadmap. The game’s putative strategy rules. Books, videos, insider podcasts, glossy secret-filled magazines, boundless obscene-money-shot TV tournaments, 24/7 Twitch-fests. We memorize plays. Balance ranges. Leverage position expertly with visions of Stu Ungar dancing our decisions. We proudly check back the river when behind because we’re nothing if not allegiant. Early in our gaming life, our obedience and discipline please us. Yet from where does our profit arrive? Does poker patriotism pay the rent?

Conveying a sort of exquisite anarchy, poker invites every manifestation of creative, rebellious line (think Selbst, Mizrachi, Berkey). Yet we’re inclined to scorn that wicked creativity (however defined) when it’s coming toward us because we need villains to be transparent. The game is looser and more aggressive than ever. Yet we (pros, too) can and do fall into frenzy when tricky, original, or simply knuckle-headed play takes it down.


Jamming the Contradiction

Poker is tribal. Though card habits are shared incestuously, we tell ourselves stories. We flatter ourselves as lone wolves rejecting the manners of the pack. Our proud, singular style is designed to startle and offend. We’re desperate to assume we’re different. Nine steps ahead. We dream ourselves defiant because everyone knows rules are for the little people. And it’s our job to nobly demolish those rules and keep the little people in line.

In our child hearts we long for each opponent to play ABC so we can exploit and crush—our sand box, our toys, our fantasy. From seedy underground 1/2 games to plush, private nosebleed cash extravaganzas, outrageous, inventive players have always frustrated expectation and crashed the system. I no longer think the biggest fish in the sea are moronic idiots. They may go broke in the long run but their wild hearts are on to something.

More to the point, was Ungar peddling obedience? In his brilliant careful hands, extreme Moby Dick moves became moneymaking world-class lines.

We act ghostly. We pray to keep our logic invisible and confounding. We’d never admit it to ourselves, but we want our dull villains to be consistent and beatable. Like presidential candidates who shatter rules and disrupt expected behavioral norms, most players want to own the option of being freakishly disloyal to standards and unspoken covenants. We’re elitist. Radical play is not for everyone. With secret handshakes we communicate this to our smarter comrades. Only we know how it’s done. Don’t let the masses get their hands on state-destroying optimal trade secrets.

Marching Bands, Floats, Waving Girls

Our egos want careful Lumpy from Leave it to the Beaver in the game. We want a dolt to come through the door. We want to bully and barrel Lumpy out of pots to claim his dough. Yet and still, I’m convinced our bloodthirsty, competitive souls surreptitiously crave more.

Drunk Eddie may storm about. But he’s Playboy-aroused when a villain pulls off something breathtaking. In the presence of strong play, Eddie often complements like a maniac, hurling deafening praise. He loves bearing witness. Despite his toddler habits, he loves the titillating intensity of great moves. He loves when poker is coddled in loving, worthy hands. He loves the art of the game. Its complex mind-drenching poetry.

Eddie adores this poker-skill parade because that’s what poker sets us up to do: find a challenging multi-way spot where we can leverage our feel game and astutely harmonize to perfection every moving part of this merciless engagement, manage every nuance of every bet from every player on every street, do it with such finesse and unmitigated confidence that we drag large, sick pots and prove for all eternity that our virtuosity will be seen from Mars—the aliens there loving our superior NLHE play, clapping excitedly with four sets of antennae protruding from seven heads, or whatever they’ve got to nail admiration.

Slight of Gill

Nothing stays still. The value of creative interaction and evolving the game is intimately wedded to the violent reinvention and reordering of old ways.

Let the fish swim. Learn from their elegant sleek curves. Observe how they move through the tide with erratic, mysterious grace. Like cats, fish can’t be herded. Just ask the incredible Mr. Limpet who transformed from human to paraphyletic but kept his glasses. Fish vision through a human lens. Dive in. Be yourself and something else entirely. Have at the conventions in the deep blue sea. That which is uncertain will always have magic.