Empathy’s a hindrance…

Some people have asked me, if I’m capable of playing poker for a living… why would I not? The freedom it affords must be magnificent, mustn’t it?

Well, yes, it can be.

But, it comes at a cost.

Recently I spoke with my Uncle about playing cards professionally. At one point in our conversation, my Uncle asked me whether it was hard taking money from people who had families to support (of which I do not). It got me to thinking about a story I’d written many months ago about this very dilemma, which I’d like to share.

It is a story about the ever-present and rather relentless internal conflict I experienced while playing poker for a living.

I still play poker as an income source. At this stage in my life I’m finding it necessary to use this skill to help me achieve bigger things. I hope to someday play poker for nothing more than the fulfilment of my deep passion for, and love of, the game…

Empathy’s a hindrance

Playing poker is one of the closest things I can think of to modern day hand to hand combat. Poker involves a group of people sitting around a table, with stacks of money in front of them (in poker-chip form). Every person sitting on the table is trying to fuck the other over. Literally, everyone is trying to kill each other in the form of taking each other’s chips (each other’s money). And at the same time, everyone is aware of it. Everyone is aware the person sitting beside them wishes to drive a sword into them. People on the table joke with each other, tell amusing stories and socialise, myself included, which rather poorly conceals the quite obvious truth of what it is we’re all trying to achieve: unashamedly trying to take the others’ chips. That is the aim of the game after all…

This may seem a little extreme, but it’s kind of the truth. The difference between poker and the professional world I once inhabited is this: when you’re playing poker, you can see the swords. As far as games are concerned, I much prefer it this way. However, this does not mean there aren’t times when I’d wished my sword had remained sheathed.

I once sat at a table playing poker against a woman who was pregnant (let’s call her Pregnant). I beat her. I took $100 from this woman. Not much in the grand scheme of things. As the dealer moved the chips across the table to me, Pregnant stood from her chair rather awkwardly, her baby bump getting in the way. Then she looked across the table at me with a hollow stare I won’t ever forget and said flatly, “well played”… her tone was so dull and devoid of emotion, I could’ve sworn they were the words of a robot.

In this moment, I felt the pain of Pregnant’s loss as if it were my own. I had won but felt nothing of the sort. I felt as if I was the one who’d lost. Honestly, I think I’d have felt better if I had.

For the next three minutes sitting at the table I was overcome by feelings of guilt and shame. What was I, a single male, going to do with this money? Pregnant would soon have a child to raise. Another mouth to feed. I had only this one to feed, and I did not need this $100 to do so…

I stood from the table and went to find her. In the next room, there she was, sat on a chair. I took $100 from my wallet and held it out to her, “take it, I don’t want it. You have a baby on the way”. Despite my insistence, politely she declined my offer.

Call me soft if you like. Call me sexist. Call me whatever you wish. I don’t care. Truth is, I simply did not want Pregnant’s money. Regardless of what her financial situation may have been (of which I did not have the vaguest idea), I could not help but feel she needed the money more than I…

Perhaps there are some out there who will be outraged by my clearly condescending treatment of a pregnant woman (I’m looking at the super-feminists). Perhaps they wish to tell me “she’s a strong independent woman, she don’t need yo’ help fool!”

Sure, I can dig that. And to be fair, that’s probably quite true given she declined my offer. But, something you need to understand about my offer is this: I offered the money back because I wanted to feel strong (as if I could do without Pregnant’s money!), not because I perceived her to be weak or incapable.

Some may say it was her choice to sit at the poker table. It was her choice to be there. In that arena. And so, the argument goes, I should not feel this way. I am entitled to take her money. Some may even take it a step further to say that, in a poker game, I should be actively trying to take her money. Actively trying to take that baby’s food. This is the aim of the game after all…

While I agree everyone possesses freedom of choice, I do not consider this to be limited to her actions alone. I too have choices. I won the money, fair and square. This is true. I did. However, I have a choice to take it or not. I also have a choice whether to play the game or not…

In this particular instance, I did play the game, and I did take her chips. However, I then felt bad enough about winning that I offered the money back to her.

Something over which I had little to no choice was how I felt.

At the poker table, this proved problematic.

Sometimes when I’d win, I’d feel good. Yet always it was fleeting. A feeling gone almost as soon as it had arrived. Other times when I’d win, especially at times when I perceived my opponent not as capable as I, I didn’t feel good at all. Instead, I felt bad for their loss – even when I wasn’t the one who’d caused the loss.

I believe this is called empathy. I had it. An over-supply it would seem. It proved a real hindrance on the poker table. The more I played poker, the greater depth of understanding I gained for my empathy. As it turns out, this empathy was not reserved only for pregnant women. In fact, it was not gender specific at all.

A month or so after playing Pregnant, I played against a familiar adversary, a chubby-bearded truck driver. A far inferior player than I. On many prior occasions I’d taken many a dollar from Trucky Chubs. Once again, on this particular night, I took some more. Yet, when I dragged the chips toward myself and I looked over at Trucky Chubs’ bearded dejected face, I did not feel a winner… Instead, I wondered about what Trucky Chubs’ life was like. Why was it that he chose to play poker? He was the nicest man, but so horrendously poor as a poker player. So bad he didn’t even understand he was bad, “how am I so unlucky”. He did not even understand he was playing a game of skill, and that he would be severely outclassed by every other player every time he chose to play. I know very well how much it hurts to lose, and Trucky Chubs lost so so often. So, why did he choose to play? Why!?

I talked to a poker-playing friend of mine, a good but at times overly aggressive poker player about Trucky Chubs,

“Why does he choose to play? He’s so bad. I feel bad for him. He’s so bad. Why does he still play!? I don’t even want to beat him. I don’t want Trucky Chubs’ money.”

His response: “That’s not your problem. Fuck him. Take his money. You can’t worry about that.”

A few weeks later, Trucky Chubs beat me in a hand. A real nasty beat. Unavoidable. One of those James Bond type hands where one guy has a really strong hand, but the other guy (in this case Trucky Chubs) has the one hand that can beat it. Trucky Chubs dragged the pot flush with many of my chips toward himself and celebrated with a smile and some animated words. My friend, let’s call him Good-Aggro, happened to be at the table too, and afterward came over to me.

“Still feel bad for Trucky Chubs now? Fuck him. He wants your blood too. You see. Take his. Or he’ll take yours.”

He was right. But I couldn’t help but feel wrong about it. This dog-eat-dog mentality. Is this really any way to live?

Another time, I played on the same table as another poker player I’d call a friend – one who it seemed to me pretty clearly suffered from a gambling addiction. On this occasion I sat as a passive witness to my friend losing two thousand dollars in the span of two hours. I was not the one who’d taken any of his money. But it crushed me all the same. This was a guy with a heart of gold, yet the self-control of a sieve. I felt his loss deeply. Yet, I could do nothing to help. After he’d lost, I walked over to him with a half-frown and shrugged my shoulders… There was pain in his eyes, but nothing I could do. It was his decision to play. It was his choice. And he lost because of it. Badly.

Another time, I played against my unofficial poker mentor. Someone who’d been playing for a living for over 10 years. Someone who’d just about seen it all. He’d just broken up with his girlfriend. He probably shouldn’t have been playing, but he was. His head clearly wasn’t in the game. He wasn’t playing at his usual stellar-level. He was gambling. He knew it. And I did too. And so, I beat him. He stood, dejected, and left the room. I scooped his chips, a winner in dollar-terms, yet I felt anything but… my internal monologue piped up, “jeez, way to kick him when he’s down dick head…”.

On the poker table, empathy was working against me. Something I now realise to be one of my greatest strengths was an Achilles heel; a total hindrance.

Cut throat. Dog-Eat-Dog. Totally Fucking Ruthless. This was how I needed to be on the poker table. But, the feels were getting in my way.

Soon enough, others began to notice this.


Wildhorse Casino (Pendleton, Oregon)

Wildhorse Casino in Pendleton, Oregon, USA puts on a poker series twice a year. A three and a half hour drive from Portland, the series usually attracts all of Portland’s finest poker players. The reason for this is simple. The Pendleton series is littered with local farmers. Farmers know how to milk cows. And poker-pros know how to milk farmers.

While in Pendleton, I played with a poker player who lived somewhere in Rural Oregon. I’d never seen him before, but he played solid. Definitely no schmuck. Let’s call him Rural. Rural knew a couple of the guys I knew from Portland, and Good-Aggro formally introduced him to me later that night.

The next day, Rural and Good-Aggro were drinking, and I was playing. A few hours went by, and Rural ended up sitting down on my table. He had the look of a guy who was half there, half not – drunk as a skunk. He splashed chips into the pot, pushing everyone on the table around with unconstrained and at times reckless aggression.

Soon enough, I found myself playing a hand against him. I put chips into the pot, but then later in the hand folded my cards, making him the winner. He scooped the chips and as he did so looked over to me,

“What… don’t you want to beat me Mark? Because, you might feel bad?”

I don’t know how he knew about my tendency to feel bad for people. Perhaps he was an extremely perceptive human being. Or perhaps Good-Aggro in his drunken state had spoken to him about it. I’m not sure, though I certainly hadn’t said anything to Rural about it. Rural hurled this barb at me across the table and it cut deeper than you can possibly imagine. Rural was trying to use something I perceived to be a strength (which was definitely more of a weakness on the poker table) against me. As a result, an internal rage of a strength not felt since Pete’s printing boiled within.

I resisted this rage and did not respond. Rural was drunk and non-sensical. There was no point in picking a fight. Besides, I’ve always been more of a lover than a fighter, and short of saying “fuck off dickhead”, I honestly didn’t know what to do. I’m not one to throw fisty-cuffs (partly because I’m a fairly slight guy and would lose to a goldfish in a fist-fight, and partly because it seems retarded). But, tell me, how is one meant to respond when someone attacks another for being empathetic?

Let my play do the talking. There’s no friends on the poker table. Be ruthless.

Soon enough I find myself holding a very strong hand. I disguise my hand by playing it slow. Rural puts a fist-full of chips into the pot, walking straight into my trap. He’s sitting directly opposite me on the table and looks across the table at me as he places chips into the pot.

“Ohhh, what’s up man. You got something? You going to do something? No way!!!” he says.

I’d been playing solid poker for the last hour or so. Sticking to my game. Not wanting to get caught up in Rural’s attempts to bait me into making a mistake.

Why do we insist on playing these foolish games with each other? Games within the game. Are we not capable of playing the game straight up? If we are going to play poker, can we not just play poker?

I don’t respond to his comment. I’m here to play poker. Not for this shit.

I shovel a fist-full of chips into the pot.

“What… you’re raising? What you got over there? What’s this all about? …” he says.

Rural stares blankly into space, looks at his cards again, then at me. I don’t move. A sharp frown crosses his face before he tosses his cards into the middle of the table signalling a fold. Rural shoves both his hands into the stacks of chips in front of him which he only moments before put into the pot. The chips roll over the table in all directions, but there’s no doubt where they’re heading – they’re coming to me.

“Take it. I don’t care.” he says.

I think to myself, “Fuck you Rural. Give me the chips.”

Ruthlessness and empathy both exist within.




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