Empathy

underset cat

“Running GREAT!” Dan kept mouthing. “GREAT!” He wouldn’t stop complaining. He wanted attention, and it was grating. After limp calling from UTG and folding to a cbet, he flashed me 106o. “Can’t hit a hand!” He rebought again for yet another forty big blinds. “Can’t even make top pair.” He sought soothing through nagging. Embarrassing, but I kept it to myself.  Had to.

The truth is, I don’t know Dan by that name alone, but – I guess I have a little shame about this – by the nickname Donkey Dan. It’s not my most creative, obviously, but Dan does not require a lot of thought to play (take that both ways). I pointed Dan out to Gargamel one day and from the way he reacted (utterly nonplussed), Donkey may well have been on his birth certificate. However, I don’t want to be rude. I named him that because, well, it’s pretty astonishing what he does. (When he gets there on you after set mining the turn and river, don’t get testy.)

I mumbled something to Dan. I had to fake a little sympathy for the guy; after all, I chose my seat (fruitlessly) to be next to him. He poured five short buys into the game before giving up.

I shook my head. Not your day, Don, I mean, Dan.

So much of what we do in life and poker is somewhere ambiguous on the truthiness scale. I don’t want to have to fake it, there’s more than enough of that to go around. One of my poker friends used to be called the Fish Whisperer. He has no problem gaming people. It’s not just in poker, it’s built into his personality. His utterly ridiculous, deliberately open mouthed, pandering smile makes me laugh just thinking about it. The Fish Whisperer’s ego was utterly in check while he was engaged. He was focused on his ends, not the means. A dangerous man, he who can subvert his own person to his goal, to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers. It’s taken me a long time to even approach doing that. I’d rather just change the subject or say something amusing, than try to make another man feel better.

Go home Dan: you weren’t even putting full stacks on the table.

I missed his potential, but I was also relieved.  Freed of the incessant whining, I refocused on what was left of the table, already threatening to get shorthanded: not the best game, really. With several competent players and only one pure mark left, on my left at that, I should be thinking about moving. Worse, thin, ageless DZ, subject of my reflection on the mental game, had joined us.

Gargamel had told me that when he was at the Village one night, a repulsive old whale, pokering between bean counting, slots, and prostitutes, bragged that he could splash around, because “there are no pros at this level.” DZ and I are among the few, limited by the size of the player pool, game structures and our own personal circumstances.

We grind it out, this thing we share.  That verb means something. It can’t be completely unrelated that I don’t like to change tables the way Gargamel does, that Smurf-killer always sniffing blood in the water five miles off. I spend a lot of time analyzing patterns, getting reads, setting up my own game. Every session is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end: that’s lost if I just get up to go trap some fish. The Donkey Dans may come and go: I’m an investor who does not chase the dragon, or any animal.

Perhaps DZ and I have some motivation to avoid each other, but we do tangle. In fact, he’s made some moves on me recently that only a year ago, I think, he would not have. I can tell that our history and our dynamic are in some nether world state at the moment, but until last night, I was not able to see more than the outline.

After I ruefully let go of what would have been a pretty sick spot against him, we lightly confer from across the table, our conversation lost in the general brouhaha. He implied that he was not going to fall for what I was thinking of doing. Really? What level are we on, exactly? It’s all getting a little odd. We’re not friends, and he’s not a member of the Coven.

A bit later, it folds around to me on the button, and I raise 43cc to twenty. I’ve got the table mark in the small, and DZ in the big. I like getting in pots versus the small blind, an amusing if slightly crazed erratic who is alternately willing to put money in the pot without much of reason and fold too much. DZ calling would not be a problem a year ago, but now – I just can’t tell.

The small blind flats, as predicted. DZ pauses. I see he is considering raising, and soon decides to go for it, making it an even eighty. DZ’s sizings, as I have written before, are geometrical and always a little smaller than mine.

There are exactly two things that could be going on here. One, he has value and is playing straightforwardly. That’s reasonable. DZ does not really mess around, and is a value bettor; some species of TAG, if you need a label. Two, he is isolating the fish with a modestly good hand. He knows I can be wide and does not want to share the SB with me. The reason that there is not a third, which would be recognizing a spot and taking it with complete air, is that the mark is prone to overcall, and so if I have nothing, there is little to be gained by bloating the pot. He can just take a flop in position versus the fish, if not me.

I am curious. I have played tightly or at least have been inactive while DZ has been at the table. I consider how DZ does like to iso many of his aces.  He could be, could be, unusually wide with those hands, say A8s plus here.

I look at my stack, which has drifted under the $500 max buy in. There’s not room for a normal fourbet, which is interesting. This means I could exert max pressure more reasonably. I decide to take a read.

DZ looks a little strangulated and not completely comfortable. It’s not AK, which he would be very happy with. It’s not likely to be AQ with that demeanor, and which I’ve gotten him to fold pre but also seen him snap call off a fourbet with in a similar late position formation. However, I’m thinking it’s A9s-AJ. I have the read, and I think I can make this one work.

I rip it in. The small blind’s cards fly out of his hands, and DZ looks frustrated. He moves the chips around, but within twenty seconds, I can see he is going to surrender, and that we are going to do the folding dance for a bit.

When the music’s over, he flashes an Ace and releases. I don’t show much in this particular casino, but here’s where I make my error. While the pot is being pushed to me, I turn over the three. I thought, impulsively, that it would be good for our dynamic.

DZ turns pale as a sheet. “Just lost your mind?” he chokes out. I don’t think I was wrong about his holding, but I may have been. He’s upset.

My mistake, I realized, was in misunderstanding why he flashed the Ace. Normally players flash this card to imply they are laying down a big hand, advertising their skill. That’s not, I see now, what DZ was doing: he was showing me that he was not taking a shot at me. Yes, he was signaling that he was a good player by laying down the ace, but his real message was: this is where we earn, we don’t have to scuffle. Then I showed him up.

I can’t really look at him directly the rest of the session, but from my few glances, I can see his mood has utterly soured. He is ashen. He looks tormented, and his game follows. He starts making moves in terrible spots, and compounds his problems by giving up too quickly. He’s gone from earning and happy, to having to add money on within a down. With his day’s profit, the bread a pro needs and counts to the dollar, now completely eaten, he abruptly leaves – not unlike that rough day I described last year.

As he spewed off his chips, and as I saw the real unhappiness in his face, for the first time in my life at the table, I felt badly about something I had done in poker. I’ve shown a lot of bluffs and said a lot of things at the tables. When I outplayed that silent foreigner who crashed the Red Chip game, getting him to lay down AA before I turned over the deuce, he gave me an impassioned speech before picking up all his chips and running out. Not a twitch of remorse. When I got slowrolled at the Village two years ago, I told the prick something so outlandishly rude that the dealer turned beet red (pretty amazing for a Southeast Asian) and addressed me unconsciously as if I were one of her children.  I withstood it. I’ve even lied about my holdings to friends, which I regret. But I never felt this terrible, ever.

If complaints from other players is all that binds us together, poker is nothing. The Donkey Dans don’t occupy my conscience, no matter how much they lose nor how I have to assuage them. Poker is a profoundly solitary activity. This is why it demands all sorts of social lubricants and trusses, such as poker forums and friendships, and why the best players are often true loners who can at least briefly embrace its nature for their work. The true gambler finds what true solaces he can.

Sympathy, in other words, is for wimps. It costs nothing. It’s ownerless. It’s for people who don’t really have anything at stake. It’s for virtue signalers and white liars. Empathy, on the other hand, just happens, and can’t be faked. It’s real because it belongs to you. Limon philosophizes that poker does not exist, that there is no “there there,” and insofar as what he means, he is right. But the illusion is based on reality, and every now and then, we compare them, and we are not sure which one came up short.

After DZ leaves, I take a miserable beat, losing with a set versus a guy who goes crazy preflop with the Doyle. He super Hollywoods me, faking me out of my shoes on the river to get extra value. Not a good day for the sharks.

Later on, just before quitting, I get some of it back from him. The deck has chosen him in three of the four spots we’ve been in, all big pots, so he has the lion’s share and my bread, too.  As I rack up the remaining chips, he answers a question from his friend by pointing to my broken stacks. “If he hadn’t beaten me in one hand I’d have all those,” wanting a touch of sympathy and praise from his buddy as he celebrated what looked to be a big session.

“Yes, that is how it works!” I tell him with some humorous condescension. He’s a good guy, very young, yet has stood up for his rights but also restrained himself during a rules altercation when he could have slipped into falsehood. I’ve gotten over his runhot against me. If I feel sympathy for him, it’s the rare, real kind, which requires no expression.

In fact, the session is finished, so I don’t have to fake anything. All that’s honestly leftover is a portion of my buy in, regret at showing a card, and the pride of playing well. I can’t apologize, but – here’s to the next one, DZ. You’ll be fine.

5 thoughts on “Empathy

  1. Great post! Riveting and authentic writing. This dynamic between solid poker players is one of the most interesting in poker. Unspoken negotiations that involve massive complexity and one peculiar choice can undermine trust.

  2. I could relate how dynamics between the regs are and you nailed it pretty well. However your a bit more kind than I am. I’ll probably be the nicest and most helpful guy off the table but an edge on the table comes in many form which is what i believe, so if he reacts so much to seeing a card then I would experiment in seeing how he reacts to different spots when getting to see a card and probably look to force him to make a mistake. However, the flashing a card is a bit tricky since it means i would have to give away information.

    1. All true. We are probably headed toward playing each other much tougher now; we’ll see. However, what I can tell you is that live poker, with its familiar faces and compelling stories, has a profound social level that online cannot imitate – you might be surprised by your own feelings and reactions, even when you know what the right strategy is.

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