In some respects being solitary, my lifelong theme, is a luxury. The frustrations of my last relationship had featured highs and lows in Las Vegas, where my natural need to have a woman nearby vexed my horrible independent streak, a trait I am beginning to accept as a curse, and one which makes compromises other people take as a given, nearly impossible and makes me unrelatable on the whole.
I was happy to have her with me on the first trip. Sharing a cigarette in the Aria was one of the closest moments of my life to happiness, as we seemed to relate to, and to join with, millions of other couples and families and successes who have past through this concourse of expected vacations and pleasures. All the movies and images and songs and ideas and whispers and rumours that create belonging seemed to make sense as we looked out upon the playground we would share for a few days. I felt like an American Man at last (which makes me wonder, what do I feel like normally?) In a few seconds, all the hard years on the outside faded. The bitter, trapped, insane Boston years, trying to live up some ideal with no reward, all in order to iron out some irrevocable grievance, and somehow, even worse, darker things, fell away. Could it be that I have a house and a family and someone who was moderately happy to see me in the morning?
However, on the second trip, from a distance, my obvious comfort in being away from our dramas incensed her and only made a difficult trip exhausting. I make everything too desperate and important and can never let a white lie slide by.
In other words, my best trips, before this one, on the table, at least, had been mostly alone.
Sometimes I went with other players, but this has not always worked, either. Part of this is because I often end up as a counselor for the poker frustrations of others. It has been my role in life, not just in poker, since my mother’s second husband, inspired by news coverage of the first Iraq war, abandoned the house in order to be a better role model.
Watching another player lose and suffer from the game is exhausting, perhaps even more exhausting than our own losses, which we can come to grips with through time and analysis. The hard truth of the matter that no one wants to accept, is that losing is natural, that it is built into the game, and that tilt is a relatively childish response to an expected outcome. It’s fine for beginners and for extreme situations as none of us are robots, but I’m afraid if you are constantly upset at the table either you are 1) naturally angry and so the issue is in fact something else; or 2) more likely, you don’t understand poker and the nature of your endeavor.
You can manage your emotions through meditation and exercise, thereby treating the symptoms, but the cure will ever elude you until you grapple with the unruly beast itself and what was scratched into its collar by the Goddess Variance:
Poker owes you nothing.
This is why otherwise happy people are often very, very frustrated by our game. The successful, especially those who simply followed a career track, are sometimes very bad at poker because they expect things to go their way. Our society has created heretofore unknown levels of easy success, and many of take for granted privileges and problems that people across the globe and throughout recorded time can or could scarcely hope for. However, poker is not showing up to work and pushing buttons, nor is it a game in the same way chess is. It is not a mind sport in the classic sense because its motivations are different. What poker is, is a device, disguised as a game of chance, for separating the comfortable from their money; that it is its origin and that is its culture. The true gambler sees a mark, as it famously goes, and takes him down.
We have made the game more complicated, we have mastered it. It has become an art, it has become closer to other games, and there is great strategy to it. We have refined it. The comfortable are no longer lounging gamblers with money to lose, but instead have become our competitors, who we must strive to stay ahead of.
Because we don't want to be fooled or left behind. We are addicted to poker's challenge because of our deep survival instincts.
It is life.
However, when you forget its basis, you risk never actually understanding it and the people who play it.
And then you may become the mark, whoever you are or whatever your IQ or resume is. Tilt, in other words, is the nature of the mark, because he expects outcomes he has been accustomed to elsewhere.
The grinder never forgets this or where he is. He is always at work. He knows the nature of the game and because of this, tilt is unlikely. He is too aware. He is too circumspect. He doesn’t imagine “aggression” or “trapping” or whatever tactic du jour will save him. He has no hope, only strategy. Like a soldier, he does not cry, though his family will, at the thought of his dying because he knows he must kill his counterpart. Like a hunter, he respects his quarry in a way the consumer never will.
He respects the game, his risk and his opponents’ risk, and this informs his behavior. He knows that it is brutal and unmanageable, greater than himself.
And so he belongs with the game.
Watching Christian Soto play poker is a lesson in how to comport yourself at the table. While this alternately tough and sensitive kid flops out of bed only when compelled, probably still likes cereal and milk, dreams of tourney scores like everyone else, and walks with a curious clipped yet heavy strut, like a young waterfowl crossing a muddy beach, having out eaten his siblings and unknowingly about to be kicked into the wide world by an exhausted but still sage mother, at the poker table Christian is a master of his domain.
Soto sits rather upright compared to other players, which you might not expect from his forever-weekend-in-the-burbs dress code. He is alert and ready, from the very start, seeming to require no settling in period. He acts at a very natural pacing, and even in difficult spots finds his answers without overly agonizing, suggesting that he understands the imperfect nature of many poker decisions. His checking and betting motions are efficient and consistent while being masculine and restrained at once, leaving little trace of his thoughts. He does not seek the attention of the table nor does he turn from it. He uses his phone when nothing is going on but it is never seen when anything important occurs, suggesting he feels the rhythm of the action, even when out of the hand.
In action, Christian is amazingly intuitive and a superior hand reader. In every spot but one over multiple sessions he managed to name an unseen hand exactly, as if he were supervising the table from a commentary booth. As for his own play, I never saw him make a significant mistake, a missed value bet being the sole blotch in over fifteen hours of play together, and all accomplished while never appearing to be anyone other than just another grinder.
Everything about Soto says he belongs to the game.
But you have to get him there first.
ChipXtractor was once described as “Red Chip’s Bulldog,” and that may be so, but he is also it’s social maestro. An unpaid, unappointed intern, he keeps everyone in touch and reaches out without fuss. On our second day, he decided himself it was time to get us some face time with Christian. Chip had been very grateful for the critiques and help Christian had offered at an East Coast meetup, and surely Vegas was the place for a repeat.
But that required Soto to get out of bed.
The hours went by.
Chip and I smoked in balcony of de Soleil, like poker gangsters waiting for the Made Man to call us in.
Then, a text:
I lit a match.
On the third day, ChipXtractor tried again, giving him until eleven to rest up from his hard work yukking it up in the tourney scene, chasing the donkey dollars.
The air was dry and feverish in shade of the patio.
We hit the Rio. While Chip played 1/2, I sat with Red Chip's Doug Hull, as well as what would be some familiar faces, at Big O. The usual hold’em burnouts, too worn and weary for the alertness required, these old guys like the more straightforward choices and safety of a split pot game. Their stacks were short, as usual, and as befit their style and skill, but a different player caught my attention on account of his giant stack, at least 1500 bbs.
About forty-five and hulking in muscle, this fellow said nothing the entire time. His ears were covered by headphones, and he was playing on wsop.com on a tablet. He played a clean game, I observed, folding a bunch, then mashing the raise button with big hands, outgambling the shorties.
He knew what he was doing, this ex-football player, and he also knew better than anyone that Big O can be a very, very profitable game.
After we went back to the pad for lunch and some more cigars, Chip and I talked poker and life and Red Chip. Our home base was comfortable and we got full use out of it the entire time. He spoke about his moving plans and the good things that retirement was to bring him.
Then, around 5 pm, we got the call to action. Christian was up and ready to face the day.
The Soto would see us now.
Christian agreed some low stakes PLO would be fun with the Red Chippers, and further agreed to meet at the Linq poker room (RIP).
It could be great, after all, with the heavy action that game sometimes provided. Low stakes with his peeps.
But Vegas is fickle. Its culture of poverty and splendor and dudes and dudettes who think they are cleverer than they are yields nitty games sometimes (meaning often), and this one was no exception.
After we arrived, Soto saunters in and gives us the universal dude greeting. He’s a light coffee colored man with curly, gleaming black hair and heavy framed glasses pressed close to his face. He’s decked out in sporting clothes that don’t seem to fit his body, the jersey still so new the light polyester strands glimmer.
Soto’s amused by the Linq's room, kind of poker lobby. It's exposed, like the old O’Sheas, in, I think, a nice way that makes the game visible, but in truth not entirely friendly to the minds of many poker players. They want their own rec room, man cave, sparring mat, fighting cage.
We buy in, exchanging hundreds for the plastic, low-end Linq chips. It’s not really the best thing and I’m a little anxious to keep Soto’s interest lest the group lose him. The NBA finals are on and he doesn’t have to be here. His friends are big time players and his true social circle.
Meanwhile, the game develops poorly. A dull, nut-pumping kid is raising and getting a little heater going through the will of the Goddess alone. He’s getting the best of the play in through the best of the equity, and in nine-handed, capped plo, a slow game already, there’s not a lot you can do.
I sense restlessness.
The Soto doesn’t get out of bed for this.
Christian's mouth is usually a little compressed, as if he’s constantly holding back from talking, but now his lips contort in clearer agitations. Soto interrupts the kid’s dribbling, worthless conversation (I can’t actually recall a single thing he said, like trying to remember an automatic preflop discard):
“Hey kid, you wanna high card for $300?”
The dribble slows. Not sure heater boy wants to risk his winnings (he should, actually, to open up the game.)
The dealing and pot pushing goes on. I make some dough with a judicious flop check, turn the nuts and fire away play. It’s pretty sweet because I picked up the distinct read that my opponent had a made hand on the flop, helpful because it was a cbet spot, maybe one-third pot at a good frequency to protect and induce in a balanced fashion. With a little attention, in other words, I don’t have to guess and go straight to the exploit.
Meanwhile, The Soto shifts in his seat. The kid has turned on the faucet of his monologue again.
Christian fidgets with his phone. There's only so much distraction from his housemates will accomplish. He's agreed to come out, to hang with the subscribers and be a good host, but this is too much.
“Yadda-yadda-something,” the kid rattles out.
“Hey Kid.” This time Soto is more aggressive. “You wanna high card for $300?”
“Because I want you to leave.”
Nevertheless, there will be no high card gamble, and it will be us who will leave, not the kid.
I text out an idea that I know will work for all our needs, and if it doesn’t, then nothing, even in Vegas, will.
It’s the Nugget of course, that dark den of poker, where we finally get into the meat of the Red Chip Cash game trip. Where we’ll ultimately see not only Soto, but Chip, Sacha, Skors, RAG, Bocky, Luka, Fausto and others in true NL action the way it was meant to be: deep, tough, affordable, and challenging.
Even The Soto will perk up a bit.
Coming Next! Poker Nerd Alert: Hands with Red Chippers.