When DZ checks the turn after raising Miniman’s donk lead, I put the pro on eight-six suited. It’s a fast check, really much too quick, because if DZ had a set he would have considered continuing his aggression, even with the severe hit the straightening card delivered to his perceived equity share. Holding eighty seven might cause him a short pause, like the brief consideration he gives the latest face on his beloved Tinder app before the inevitable swipe. DZ’s disguised eighty-six was never the nuts, of course. Worse for him, the best possible hand has changed again, filling in pair with gutshot straight draws, the internationally preferred holding of poker optimists; Miniman’s indolent air, positional indifference, and bravely pastel sweater seem to qualify him for the team. DZ will respect the board, the sweater, and thus his opponent’s range; it’s the right play, but he’s made it too many times after years of doing this. He’s on autopilot and is not really performing with this snap action of his. He’s reading the lines but not playing his role. His check doesn’t just mean two pair; it also means DZ has been doing this stuff for a long, long time.
It must be difficult showing up to the games every day and attempting to play at the same level. Winning poker, because of its endless iterations of similar circumstances, puts a severe premium on mental balance. However, being still youthful, energetic, and only barely showing signs of the slight translucency of skin brought on by the inevitable autoimmune issue he will develop from cigarettes, DZ is built for our game. He’s lean and won’t suffer from sitting. He is modest and isn’t bothered by people or their shortcomings. He makes friends and has the respect of the staff and the players. More than that, his victims love him, like the patients who thank Dr. Wilson after he informs them of their terminal condition. There is no apparent Manichean struggle in DZ’s poker life: he’s Gargamel’s good twin, and does not cause trouble. In fact, you’ve likely seen him in your casino or on LATB yet completely forgotten him: advantage DZ. He’s a true grinder, attempting to repeat quietly the same thing over and over again in the hopes of a better result.
For all these reasons, I don’t think DZ has 85. It’s true that one of his technical weaknesses is a very liberal attitude toward stack to pot ratio, and while for once, he might have actually had the depth to make the three gapper call (thanks to Miniman’s heater), I just don’t think DZ actually plays that hand. 85? Swipe. I suspect him, in fact, of being the quiet utilizer of a true static range, which makes him a unicorn hidden in the forest of looseness, the sweet girl he’ll never find online. His tight, half aggressive game is even more ageless than he is, like an all-purpose piece you could smuggle into a difficult jigsaw puzzle, or the low res photo you never stop using for your profile. Further, the micro dude betting into him has run scorched earth hot, gouging me by limp calling AA and flopping top set while I “punished” his “capped range” with barrels on a raiser’s board, then serendipitously repeating the process versus the hapless chaser in seat three. To defend against things like this and bingo players in general, DZ prefers to underplay hands than to overplay them. He understands that full ring, low stakes poker often has to be played nittily and that the honorific LAG, an impressive title especially coveted by newbies and wannabees, is usually a former position on a resume needing polishing. Lastly, and the real nail in the coffin: as is the case with most good men, DZ is basically a deadly boring human being. So really, even if he had something odd like 85 and was open ended, he would not have raised the flop and now checked the turn bewilderingly. DZ has 86.
What that means is that things are going to get interesting when the eight pairs on the river and DZ fills (surely?) up. This final card brings in every possible hand that wasn’t already there, including two straight flushes, a bottomless board of possible holdings, an overpair’s nightmare on 5th street of 87698ccc. Gin, it seems, for opponents with 200 bigs behind and who did not three bet commit on the flop. Miniman strikes first, not bothering to Hollywood other than a very brief false expression of concern, the kind of subtle acting that will earn you a leading role in the crowd scene of a middle school play, before betting out for half pot. As Miniman’s chips hit the felt, DZ flashes me an ironic glance. His eyebrows twitch upwards in a classic optimism spike, a priceless tell in the games themselves- but he’s looking at me, not his opponent. I’m a little confused by it, frankly. I think it was no more complicated than “I’ve got it.” Maybe “this pot is about to get bigger, for better or worse.” Or maybe the expression of someone who has seen it all has layers to his understanding I still can’t grasp.
DZ raises the river lead 3.2x. This is hammerlock sizing. It’s the wager of a serious, unimaginative player. It is a death knell sounding over the hand, one that should stun and silence his opponent unless he has been blessed with one of poker’s more magical holdings. DZ is not messing around here. He’s not getting into a leveling war with anyone, because he knows there is no need for it in most of these games. Think someone is fooling you? Swipe. Think he’s adjusting to you? Swipe. Humility. Straightforwardness. Discipline. Which is why, when Miniman shoves the rest of his stack, the second look that DZ gives me contains no optimism tell. It is the cornered look, the tournament life look, the stood up on a date look: the face of rerecognized reality.
After some fidgeting in his chair, DZ drops in three chips to signify the call. It is smooth and simple, so quick, nearly a sleight of hand. Cat like. Paw forward, retract. Perfect. Even, it seems, in defeat: Miniman turns over the straight flush and collects a big pot.
Show me someone who never tilts and I will rezip their body bag for you. There is no way around this. There is no silver bullet. You cannot make promises about your behavior when it is instinctive, emotional, and raw. You cannot will away every possible negative feeling in advance. Try as you might, you will never meditate your way into a completely fortressed state. Meditation is an excellent method toward full focus, a prophylactic to tilt, and I endorse it, but it will tear when your full house loses to a fish who has no idea what he is doing. When all your years of work and experience can’t match an opponent who knows so little about the game he keeps referring to his straight flush as a royal flush. (That must have been irritating to DZ!) You just lost your weekly nut to someone who doesn’t even know the card rankings. You think you’re going to avoid feeling upset about this because you started the day with a protein shake, five walnuts, stared at your navel and wished away the universe for twenty minutes?
DZ mumbles a few things to me, I to him. We’re both in a bit of shock, and of course, his is extreme and meaningful. There is no outcry, no lament, which is an aberration noticeable enough. He collects his phone and cigarettes and disappears. Good for him, but I wonder what he is thinking.
The games go on, as ever. Poker mourns no one, especially so at this oblivious table, which barely manages a murmur beyond the obvious bad beat jackpot whimpers. When he returns, DZ gets involved in another multiway pot. Has the pro slowed down time for himself? Has he come back afresh? Now, as you might deduce, his stack has been leveled to not much more than 100 bigs, a far cry from the big winning day he must have been savoring as surely as tonight’s hook up. So when he overlimps in middle position (oh boy), then calls the straddler’s exasperatingly undersized, predictable raise, it’s as if DZ had picked up his cell phone not for a break but to slip in a phone call before the yellow light turns red. His demon of not paying attention to the stack to pot ratio rises to the surface, horns first, when the flop comes A86. The straddle leads out into the four way pot, and DZ is left with two reasonable bets. There will be no river play, which is a situation, if you are still learning, that means you are doing something wrong with your speculative hand. What exactly was DZ doing on that break of his?
When DZ makes the call, there are two types of holdings that he can have, and is skewed toward having one (I’ll let you guess): either Ace rag suited or one of the open-enders. The turn is the seven, and the straddle now moves all in, naturally; the call was weak, and I hope for DZ’s sake that I’m completely wrong and that he’s sandbagging the fish with an incorrect but successful set mine. It’s immediately apparent, unfortunately, that he is not. Instead, he bites his lip. That ever so slightly sickly skin looks moister. He shifts one leg under the other. DZ is in outer space, between profiles, no good options available. If he had somehow binked the seven to pair his kicker with the ace, the money would be in. So what he has here is now a seven and a draw, as many as thirteen outs and being offered somewhere south of three to one. It’s a breakeven spot.
DZ is exasperated, not because the decision is impossible, but for the same reason you are angry when your wife is angry that you won’t ask for directions. When DZ puts the money in and misses, the straddle shows A9o and claims a full buy in from the beleaguered pro. DZ stares at the A9, especially at the nine, I think. It’s an embarrassing hand to lose to, because his own holding, though unrevealed, is exposed as possibly misplayed against someone who has gone nuts and been rewarded. DZ never should have been in this spot. He just paid off a weak player with his day’s investment. He knows it, and stands up, wild eyed.
When is a walk not a break, but just a promenade? When it’s a programmed action, something to do, because, well, that’s what you do. The problem with a walk or a quick break or a smoke or whatever you do, is that it’s often mere lip service to your mental anguish. It’s the pause button, when what you need is rewind, review, and most importantly: a new course. “How did I get here? What kind of player am I? Is this how I beat the games?” To counter an adverse action, make a decision, and then react. Action, decision, reaction. Skip the middle part and you are being played, not playing.
Whoever tries to tell you results don’t matter is a pedantic and irritating fool. If you depend on the game for any sort of income, obviously, the results matter; you are, in fact, in the results business. Further, you likely care about results even if you are gambling for entertainment. There is no anesthetizing the highly selfish nature of the game. Though many of you are fat and happy, you are not actually Buddha. The real choice DZ had, flooded with negative emotions, was how to react to the bad news that his paycheck was yanked away and torn up. “I expected something like this, maybe not this bad. Now what am I going to do? Who am I?” Without a real plan to slow down and ask yourself very fundamental questions, it can be very difficult, even for an old hand, to reestablish one’s game and strategy. I don’t think DZ really decided what he was going to do and who he was going to be during that cigarette break which was not a break. His anger was not really released or conquered, just lessened and left simmering. That’s ok, that’s good. Careers can be made out of that kind of moderating self-control. It’s just not always going to be good enough. The story of his day.
Check, bet, call. Action, decision, reaction. Strategy and mental game are bookends. In order to live up to this harrowing simplicity, you will have to treat your mental game as seriously as you treat your strategy. Not having a plan to deal with all aspects of rungood and runbad is no more reasonable than spending all your time studying at Masteronlytheturn.com. (If you belong to a coaching website with no mental game component, you are already a member there, whether you know it or not.) You need to be prepared when the donk in the straddle builds the pot pointlessly. You don’t have to slip into the vortex of your mistakes. You can grasp that the slippery slope really is a concept, as annoying as that is to concede. You could decide to plug your ears or tie yourself to the mast before you hear the siren call of Variance, so that as tempted as you might have been, you don’t give Her the chance to save you (it’s the last thing She wants to do for you). “This situation is against me”: Swipe. “Ah, that is the kind of player I am. I remembered.” Swipe. Swipe. Swipe.
Mental game concerns are as inherent to a winning poker player as his technical strategy. So spend time working on your mental game. Read about it. Keep records of it. Act on what you learn. The plan you need is not how you are going to emotionally react, which is impossible to control and even undesirable, your plan exists with respect to what you are going to do while feelings wash over you. Action: something happens. Decision: what am I going to do about it? Reaction: I do it. Action: I get sucked out on and feel bad. Decision: Shall I continue to play tilted? Sure, sounds great. Reaction: I do it, and get owned. Action: I take a walk to clear my head, but can’t. Decision: To sit or not to sit? Fuck this. Reaction: I’m leaving.
DZ isn’t ready to leave. He continues standing for a few hands, then open ships his remaining stack of $175 and change. 35x. A tad large, this bet. (What was that formula again, the open plus one blind for every limper in the room?) The white chips don’t play, but no one is going to tell him, because he knows. Actually, at this moment, he knows nothing. He is on tilt. The table doesn’t know how to respond, which in part is a tribute to them. They don’t pay attention much. They’re a level one sort of crowd, but anyone can and should recognize that this professional does not do this. The $175 open is for drunks and baccarat experts. Oh, and massive, Mt. St. Helens, release the Kraken tilters. In fact, Miniman and Mr. Straddler should probably remember, even more than their lucky score, the day they put a serious player into the atmosphere, for the first time many of us have ever seen.
The table pauses sympatico before folding to a heretofore unseen action for which no one can imagine a range of hands. Might those two cards be, most painfully, a suited gapper? Oh blood sweet irony.
Tilt is the homage your limitations pay to variance. You will never have all the chips, you will never win every hand, and you will never make all the right decisions. There was never any compelling reason, in fact, for you to win at all today. Most winning players, even crushers, win about 65% of their sessions: have you ever lost to a flush draw?
DZ gathers his chips and leaves. Now he is thinking and acting clearly, at long last: he is taking one possible course that differs from the last. He could have stayed. Maybe he should have. After all, these guys are terrible. (Poker folk wisdom: Im stuk 4 byins butt kneed 2 stay bc EDGE. LOLLOLOZLOLLLZZZ.) Indeed, very soon several of them will attempt to punt it all off without even so much as a second thought. (Is there a word for less than thinking at the poker table? Debt mining?) But leaving is good, too, especially if DZ recognized he would never play well today, not now. The final failsafe activated, the secondary parachute pulled. At every branch of the decision tree, DZ made a small mistake, each building up and mounting the one after, from the expeditious check to the uncharacteristic shove, but this choice was, at long last, a right move. Not the right one; there are no perfect lines in poker and no perfect answers to the mental game, obviously. Close enough, is good enough, however, when perfection is fiction. Quitting was his A game in action.
Just as one questionable decision can lead to another, the opposite is equally true: one right decision leads to another. This is the other credo of mental game consistency, and it explains why runbad and playbad are heads on the same hydra. So, since poker is won not only on the table, but off, what DZ does tonight will affect what happens tomorrow, as surely as what he did today. DZ needs to digest what happened, but also move his life forward to get past what happened. For now, he needs to rest and at some point, decide who he is going to be at tomorrow’s game. Not smolder with resentment and reenactments, but simultaneously process and gain perspective before he makes that decision and puts it into action. Maybe he’ll have a beer with friends, talk to his family, see a movie, walk his dog…
…or meet up with whoever his phone spun up for him: I’m guessing someone’s going to come through on a Saturday night, couples night, when desperation is measured in megs per second. A little rungood is a start, and his date will not doubt DZ did everything right. She’ll nod and wonder how she found such a good looking, normal guy online. He apparently had some sort of rough day at work (on a weekend, this guy is responsible), finance or something (it’s all so very complicated and he’s a little vague). You’re right, it wasn’t so bad, and there have actually been worse days. I just have to clear my head and move on. I guess I could have done that differently. Restart. This guy isn’t very arrogant, he admits his mistakes. That last guy was an ass, so easily upset! This one could work. Can we make something good happen? Shall we get out of here?
Sounds like a plan.