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.

 

 

 

London’s calling…

Today I played a poker tournament and lost. Blegh. Been there. Done that before. Too many times now. It is what it is. It hurts. It sucks. 10 hours of mind-crunching focus and hard work over two days for zilch. Demoralising. Soul crushing. Soul destroying. It really is all those things, but the poker tournament story has become a rather boring one to me. I’m not here to whinge and moan about that.

Instead, I’d like to tell you another story. One that happened mostly on the tables too…

LONDON’S CALLING

The tournament kicks off. Immediately I win the first hand I’m dealt in a bizarre scenario where my opponent thought they had a straight when they didn’t. I flash a look of bamboozlement to the table, and say “I was confused there, but I figured the only hand she could have that beat me was X. Can’t fold”. A girl sitting one seat over from me nods, “Yeah, exactly. Quite strange”. I detect an accent. British I think.

Play continues. I notice the girl who’d made the comment to me reaching for her phone every now and then. Every time players at the table give away new information (when they show their cards), she grabs the phone out and begins banging away on the keyboard. I think she’s taking notes on people. I’m doing the same, only it’s all happening in my head. I make a mental note that this girl is taking notes on people. She’s paying very close attention to the game. Most other’s at the table aren’t. One other guy is. But the rest are just playing their cards. Not thinking about the other players at the table. Not paying much attention to them. Definitely not taking notes. Not in their phones, nor in their heads. As for the lady who thought she had a straight, she doesn’t even seem to be playing her cards. I have no idea what she’s thinking. Not much is my guess.

The girl and I speak a couple words to each other during the second two hours of play, “unlucky” being one such word exchanged once in each direction on separate occasions when we both had the best hand against our opponents but the deck had other plans in mind…

At a break in play, which are only ten minutes long, I ask her where she’s from,

“London” she says

And she asks me,

“From here, but I lived in the USA for a while” I say

“That explains the twang”.

While on the third ten minute break from the tournament, about to head into the final two hours of play, both London and I need some help. We’re both rather short on chips, in desperate need of some traction. Luckily, we both find some. First London. And then I. The final two hours of play goes according to plan, and we both increase our chip stacks.

At the end of the final two hours, I turn to London:

“That went a little better”

“You can say that again.” she says,“It’s frustrating to see the chips going in all the wrong directions” 

“Yep, people playing poorly and getting rewarded. People making monster hands and not getting any value. It’s hard to watch.” I say

“Sure is”

“But hey, very happy with that final two hours” I say as I raise my fist in the air hoping for a bump. Quickly, I find it obliged.

We exchange a few more words as we bag up our chips. “That was a fun table”. “Yeah, I thought so too”.  I finish bagging up my chips, while London is still busy bagging hers. I walk away from the tables and into the casino amongst the pokies and the ding ding ding noises. Although, I don’t head straight for the carpark lifts as usual. Instead, I hang around a little bit, walking a lap of the casino floor pretending to be looking for something, spending the time pondering whether it would be creepy or inappropriate of me to ask London for her number. An internal monologue ensues:

We’ve been competing against each other all day, given such a scenario, is it offensive to ask her out? Would she perceive it as offensive? How can I ask for her number while making sure to get across the point it’s because I respect her poker game? Her mind. Not just because she’s cute (which, she also is).

I don’t come to any conclusion on the matter, but decide aimlessly walking laps of the casino is not a good way to be spending time. I don’t really know what I’ll do if I see her again, all I know is I hope to. But alas, it’s not to be.

Later that night, lying in bed, I make two mental notes:

  1. Play disciplined poker tomorrow, start fresh, new day, new table, take it slow.
  2. Find an opportunity to ask London for her number. If none arises, create one.

The next day I arrive early at the tournament wanting to set up my chips, have plenty of time to scope out my new table, the competition and to catch my breath. And to give myself ample chance to put point 2 above into effect. I can’t control the cards, but I can control this.

I grab myself a coffee and sit down at a closed roulette table overlooking the poker tables. There’s 30 minutes until the tournament restarts for the day. A dude who’d played with me on my table for the full eight hour day before spots me and walks over and sits down in the empty seat next to me. A lousy poker player, who’d been smacked in the face with the deck the day before and was now sitting on a mountain of chips. He talks to me about his strategy, “I only play really good hands”. My mental note could’ve told him this. London’s phone-notes could’ve probably told him this too. Unless a horseshoe remained embedded in this guy’s arse, he really has no hope. I smile and nod “you’ve got to play your game, what you’re comfortable with”.

With 15 minutes to go until the tournament begins, I spot London walk in and make her way to her table. I tell Horseshoe I’m going to grab a glass of water before play begins.

I make my way to the water jug at the bar, and pour a glass. London is sitting at the end of the bar, empty chairs next to her on either side, looking at her phone. I pull up a seat next to her, say hello and ask her whether she’s set for the day ahead – the poker-equivalent of some pretty poor small talk, on par with “how about that weather”.

“Did you get some decent rest?” I ask

“Not really, struggled to sleep. Had a bunch of stuff racing through my mind. Couldn’t switch it off.” she says.

I can relate. Eight hours of intense focus is not easily shaken with a click of the fingers. It takes time to unwind. It’s difficult not to indulge in mentally replaying hands from the day over and over in your head. Was that person bluffing me? Should I have raised this hand? Folded that hand?

“How long have you been in New Zealand?” I ask

“A while now, just under two years. But I’m heading back soon” she says

It’s foolish, because I don’t know London from a bar of soap, but her words cause my heart to sink a little.

“Do you play the tournaments up here regularly?” I ask.

“Sometimes, the smaller ones. This is the biggest I’ve ever played. By far.” she says, “did you play much poker in the USA?”

I don’t have the heart to tell her I was a professional. Most people look at you with sideways-judgey-eyes when you say such a thing. I had a strong inkling London may not, but in the moment, I’m incapable of thinking it through. I respond in the habitual manner I’ve become accustomed, which is to take the most direct route I can think of to avoid having the head-beating-against-a-wall conversation trying to convince someone that poker is a game of skill and to avoid having to reassure them, “no, I don’t drink while I play”.

“Yeah, quite a bit” I say, “I take it you play quite a bit”

“A fair amount. I live in a Women’s Buddhist community and they’re all a little suspect about it. Telling them it’s a game of skill is a difficult point to get across, but I think they’re warming to it” she says, “not many people understand poker, it’s very misunderstood”

She believes in the Buddhist way of life too? What the actual fuck.

“Tell me about it” I say as I let out a sigh,Women’s Buddhist community. That sounds interesting. I’m a big believer in the Buddhist philosophy. Done a bunch of reading on it.” 

An announcement rings out over the speaker asking players to take their seats. London and I stand.

“Good luck today” I say

“You too” she says

“Hey I never got your name” 

“Camilla”

“Camilla, I’m Mark, nice to meet you”

“And you, good luck”

We take our seats on different tables. I wonder whether I’ve blown my opportunity to get her number, but I make a mental note to ask at the first break, in two hours time. I zone into the table. Unfortunately, I blow point 1. Royally so. Within an hour and fifteen minutes I’ve lost all my chips. Dejected, I stand from the table and take my position as spectator.

There’s still 40 minutes until the first break. I think to myself that I may not have made good on point 1, but I’m not about to let this day be a total catastrophe. There’s still point 2. I can make it happen. I park up at an empty roulette table and read a book, waiting for the first break and an opportunity to ask Camilla for her number. It seems a little bit of a creepy move, some guy sitting in a casino reading a book waiting for a girl to go on a break in a poker tournament so he can ask for her number. I message a friend to get a creepy-ness read. I’m reassured it isn’t creepy. Totally normal. Well, maybe not totally normal. But definitely not totally creepy. “Do it bro” is the sentiment I’m given.

The seconds tick down on the tournament clock, and players begin to stand and make their way to the bathroom. I spot Camilla. She’s walking toward me.

“Camilla”

She doesn’t hear me.

“Camilla”

“Oh hey” she says, “I saw you busted, what happened?”

“Uhhh, never mind that” 

“Don’t want to talk about it?”

“It is what it is you know” I say, “tell me if I’m out of line here or whatever, but I just wanted to ask if you wanted to hang out some time?”

“Oh, I would definitely, but I have a boyfriend back home”

Her admission she’d soon be leaving the country made my heart sink a little. This feels like a punch in the guts.

“Totally understand, no problem. Good luck!”

She hurries off to the bathroom. And I make my way to the lifts.

Two thoughts cross my mind…

  • Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Damn. Fuck. Shit. Testicles.
  • Was that a bluff?

 

 

 

 

 

Schooling Fish

The schooling fish know not the difficulty of living an authentic life. How simple it must be for them. To see not with their own eyes. To feel not with their own hearts.

The school keeps them safe. Their judgements are reinforced, and they fear no retribution.

Foolish fish. Never do they realise that to judge another, is to judge the being beneath their own scales.

It takes NO courage to judge. It takes immense courage to love.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time…

I gave away my soul. All of it. Everything I had. I opened my heart and gave another my world.

And do you know what she said?

“is that it?”

Such a simple question capable of cutting such a gaping wound.

It tears at the very fibre which makes one human, and forces the question,

“Am I enough?”

The work involved in healing a wound of this magnitude… words do the labour no justice.

From hard work I do not shy. So, work I have. Day after day. Moment after moment. Until my heart once again felt warm as the sun, and my spirit rich as chocolate mousse.

This time, I keep guard. A watchful eye. I walk with a shield. An unfortunate thing, cumbersome to lug.

Lucky I possess wisdom: to know when it is needed, and to know when it is not.

I’ve peered into the depths, the fibre that holds together my being. I’ve seen what I am. I also see it in you, because we are the same.

I learnt I am enough.

And yes, that is it.

 

 

A night at the cardroom

The below is a short story from my days playing poker professionally in Portland. It is a story of just one of the MANY nights I came home from the card room a loser.

A night at the cardroom

And that night, I walked alone from the dimly lit card room. Down the steps, through the corridor, out the doors and into the spacious car park. The five minute drive home felt an eternity as I wallowed in an unconscionable pool of self-pity. Hours upon hours spent playing cards, and for what? To lose $800. To go nowhere. To go backwards. To gamble. And to lose.

As I drove home alone, a pervasive emptiness sat inside, which not even the grandest of experiences in that moment could have filled. A familiar voice harped on with a familiar tale:

What a loser! What are you doing with your life?

I pulled up outside the house, next to the cutty-grass bush. The garage was open. Stephanie sat on an upturned empty paint tub enjoying a cigarette. She asked why I was home so early, and I told her with smile contradicting the pervasive emptiness I felt inside, that things had not gone so well.

Her hands trembled. She was barely able to bring the cigarette to her mouth. It reminded me of my Opa, the way his hands would shake while he clutched a fork when he ate. Only Opa had good reason to shake. He’d seen three times the show Stephanie had.

We talked for an hour or so. About what, I can’t recall. Stephanie had another few cigarettes, and I more feelings of self-pity. Then she stood, and her entire being shook violently as if the ground were moving beneath her. I stood in stillness, watching her legs wobble like pieces of spaghetti. I asked whether she was okay, and she responded with a smile, “Yes, just a little wobbly, the MS plays up at night”.

I took her by the arm and she lent her weight into me. We walked together arm in arm from the garage, through the lounge, up the stairs, taking each step one, by one, by one, and then down the corridor and to her room. She thanked me for my help while she lay on her bed in a state of paralysis involuntarily challenged by the ceaseless shaking of her body.

I went downstairs, closed the garage door, and turned off the lights.

As I lay alone in bed something dawned on me… if I hadn’t lost $800, I might not have been home to lend Stephanie my arm.

 

Ode to the Grizzle

A week without shaving, the Grizzle no longer pricks, but is rather soft to the touch.

Crisp suit pants and shirt, cuffs rolled to the elbow. A Uniform to conform. Grizzle is out of place amongst such attire. 

Uniform does not see the Grizzle. Or perhaps it does, yet intentionally does not acknowledge.

It instead looks in the eye of the individual, and spits in his face.

It laughs at his hopes, dreams and aspirations, as if they were childish folly.

It seeks to discredit anything and everything which is not it.

It is for those who wish to hide. It provides cover for the weak.

It is an abomination to the soul.

The grizzle feels right. It is my uniform. And I wear it with pride.

Call me a bum, if you will.

I see things the other way around.