The Spirit of Solve For Why, Part II

I grabbed the keys from Steve: time for hospital. Downstairs, Jason was suffering. Earlier that morning, he had identified a ring of pain around his lower abdomen. I instinctively felt this was not gastric from the area he pointed out – yet how could it not be the Mexican Journalist’s abject legacy? We overlook small things in poker, things we ourselves see but ignore, then want to explain to others that we really did know what we knew – but who can trust us? I didn’t believe me, either.

Jason led us immediately out of the house, straight by the curious film crew (you could tell this was serious from his most rare impatience, no wonder he can teach high school), past the armored house mascot and out the door into the still pre-heating morning hour. I followed as he tumbled into the car, moaning and scowling, likely as much from pain as from vexation at missing the first day of a lecture he could measure in dollars per minute. Maybe frustrated to be a burden, on top of everything. Months of planning, he must have thought, and now this.

Small grace in the midst of disaster: by coincidence, Berkey’s gated community is just a mile or two from hospitals and health care centers. A few long blocks of unbuttoned, Western American roadway closed very slowly at their perpendicular, telescopic intersections: fifty miles per hour on the baking flat feels like twenty-five in the cold. I could hear in my mind the rubber of tires sticking to the asphalt griddle in a few hours when the sun reached temp. Forced coherent and wide-eyed from pain, Jason gripped his abdomen while guiding us to the emergency room traffic circle. Once I parked and caught up with him, I observed his consultation and watched a redundant triage. After a half an hour of leisurely inquiries, they rolled away Jason, who was now seated in a wheelchair. He waved, somewhat humorously, as he disappeared beyond the double swinging doors into more serious parts and places.

Back to Spanish Trails. Green grass. Landscaping trucks. Pets and people. An artificial stream.

Berkey’s door was secured only by the Knight’s quotidian vigil when I returned. (I wonder if Berkey and his house mascot bring just a touch of unintentional Bobo to this nouveau riche gated protectorate. Or is a gambler in Vegas always just another lizard in the shade?) We hear the details of a life in its outwardly projected philosophy: Berkey would soon expound upon his own “no attachment” axioms. But if Berkey has gone broke many times, what is he now? He likely doesn’t own this house, I realized: it’s not money as commonly thought of.  And what about the other things – the sofas, the chairs, the tables, the armored sentry? What are the finances of a man who puts everything on the line? Is it all lease first, ask questions later? Is the bank account full one day and depleted the next? If skill is currency, as Berkey theorizes, what means the furniture, man toys, even the RFID table – could they all be whisked away in an instant, mere shekels of his skill? There is an aspect of the poker life that simply doesn’t translate easily to the natural accumulation of the Protestant work ethic at the heart of America, no matter how hard one labors in our field.

I stopped for coffee in the kitchen: one of those cartridge cup things, naturally; checked off the list of the leasing agency or maybe thrown in as a gift? I found cream hiding in an absolutely packed refrigerator bearing traces of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, where Steve had already satisfied his urge to stuff our own condo’s icebox. Nutrition was emphatically not skimped upon in this house: the poker player’s approach to money is not the average citizen’s, if only because the respective attitude of each would make the other sick in the stomach. I shudder to think of how much I have spent on food since going pro – they should probably add that to the Poker Income Tracker.

We’d soon hear about Jordan’s up and downs, too. The Solve For Why guys are a little like George Carlin’s conception of God, it seems. All-powerful, all-seeing but just not good with money! Always needing more money! Only Soto seemed to have had the ideal slow upswing of the winner: overall, the fighting spirit the Solve For Why team espouses seems to have a slightly antagonistic relationship with a healthy savings account. The Keurig finished spitting out my shotgun corporate coffee. I headed straight upstairs, where the Car vs. Skateboard conundrum had just completed.

It’s not the most deceptive or profound concept, this thought experiment on risk and reward. Invariably, those who would come to this place and drop $3500 on poker lessons are inclined to take the more adventurous route, if not through inclination, than through pride or peer pressure. One of my students did contrarily chose the Car – let’s be honest about the realities of zipping around Las Vegas, folks – but one who did go Skateboard, to the slight amusement of the group, a local who was not staying with us back at the Desert Paradise and Mexican Journalist crime scene, was Bill.

If Christian H. was the least experienced player in the academy, Bill was very likely to be its most venerable. A lucid and robust enough seventy-nine year old (“Fifty-Three” as he likes to insist), Bill has been retired longer than most of us have played the game. He came to poker by way of horse betting, which was a pleasant and lucrative enough hobby for him until the day came when he sat at his first limit poker table. Now a widower and custodian of a beloved dog and house still serenely decorated by his late wife, Bill has decided to get out of the one-two poker nit trap and investigate potentially stronger approaches. His logical mind, a career in a scientific field, and a pronounced predilection to seek out qualifiers in conversation and argument give him a great poker upside, even at fifty-three.

Berkey, supplemented by Soto, and Young, went through the basic background of the strategy (“Intangibles”), setting the table with the assumptions that their work and style revolve around. Much was still ahead, but by the end of the academy, I’d come away as impressed as ever, primarily because two distinct thoughts and concerns were met with a happy resolution. The first was that much of what I had deduced about their ideas was accurate: I was relieved to see I was not off track.

However, more importantly, I came to understand more fully that Berkey’s ideas were comprehensive and even better than I had imagined. This is no trivial thing. The great anxiety within us, when we make a leap of faith, is that our intuition and even our reasoning might be wrong. We can’t always trust ourselves as much as we like: perhaps some part of me worried the Solve For Why approach was not so coherent after all. After all, I’d seen Soto play many times and what struck me was its precision, not its aggression, yet that was not the word on the street about S4Y, which was supposed to be all aggression and big bets and “breaking the game.” Worse, maybe it was a bait and switch, as with many pedagogues in poker and life: the fear that we would see more of the mystery and less of the answer.

In fact, there would be some of this – the logical lines and actions as prescribed by Berkey would not be discussed until the third day, when the academy was nearly over. This, Berkey would explain to me much later, while the team relaxed and their work done, was an important aspect of his pedagogy. He wanted to go to pains to not leave students with plug-and-play tactics in the quest to open their minds to the greater possibilities in no-limit play. To find lines that fit our purposes. Our work, in other words, to implement had only just begun by the time we were saying our goodbyes.

That’s not to dismiss critics or those who proffer and promote a different vision of how to win at poker. There are many doubters, who, armed with their books and solvers and databases, don’t really like Berkey’s ideas. After all, clear away some of the underbrush and a certain natural doubt may creep in: raising for “visibility” purposes… can someone say “information?” Forcing them “to show up with a hand” … can someone say “put a man to a decision?” And those leverage points? Didn’t Brunson cover all that back in the horse and shotgun days? What’s going on here?

However, skip those who actively doubt the Solve For Why philosophy of the game, because, in fact, one of the annoying aspects of being associated, even vaguely, with Berkey, are his fanboys and believers themselves. It is ceaselessly irritating to hear about how happy some players are about finding a different path together. How many times, after listening to these fellows go on about their new independent, brave course, going into uncharted waters and defying the “masses,” must the next phrase be, “So… what’s our range in this spot?” “So… what do we do here…?” May that the new masters might whip us better than the last, apparently.

Forgivable enough, I suppose. The fact is, poker players love playing on teams – just search field Game Theory or trawl through 2+2. Poker players espouse freedom but crave authority – just look how worried they are that some book is “out of date,” as if clear thought just expires like a giant burrito on a heat rack. Nevertheless, the Berkievers had gathered for more than just lectures and inspiring thoughts – they’d come to compete and get direct coaching, however novel the format. And with preliminaries over and our first luncheon behind us, it was time to play ball.

Lights.

The film crew’s leader caught Berkey mid-conversation in the kitchen – they were ready to go. The players took assigned seats at the RFID table. Jordan Young, pale and polite, would be operating the card software from there, while Berkey, Soto and the observers, including myself, headed into an adjacent back room, packed with video monitoring equipment and computers. From here, Berkey and Soto would deliver commentary on the action, recorded for the students’ benefit and a big part of the appeal of the academy for many players.

I found a barstool to the left of the small, puffy vinyl couch from where the two would work their expertise. Viewed through the monitor, the players appeared nervous. They’d be playing a hybrid game where the chips were not cash but in which they had every incentive to win and play their best. First of all, they were counting on the commentary to prove to be top shelf. Good news: it was. While I was invited to comment and did, I could barely keep up with Berkey and Soto. While I can analyze spots well enough, am waist-deep in the philosophy of the game, and Berkey has liked many of my posts and thoughts, I do all this from the comfort of my computer, with a backspace key and a “save draft” function.

Berkey and Soto, on the other hand, offered world-class reactions to every spot off the top of their head: this is a significant clue about the nature of the poker elite. While both were very attuned to game flow, Berkey himself was never at a loss as to what the players were doing, no matter how ill-advised or unpredictable. The following hours made clear that the soldier of poker is in fact a Master of the Deck. It was in that stuffy little poker command room that I realized Solve For Why – this house, this table, their mascot, all the objects (leased or bought), compose an atelier for poker players – a model that will become more and more necessary as the game, even at the mid-levels, becomes harder and harder.

Second, real rewards were on the table: hours of coaching for the daily and overall winners. With Berkey clocking in at a modest $1000/hr (and the others still more than the cost of cashews, eggs, and all those other elite poker player essentials) this day was to be serious.

Camera.

Then, sudden resurgence: Jason appeared. With that same, perpetually concerned expression, he simply walked in through the front door and took his seat. He explained that it was not the Mexican Journalist that had doubled him over, but something far more troublesome – a stone chose this weekend to descend from his kidney. One of the most painful conditions known to man, relieved only when its journey out through the ureter is briefly paused, Jason had a trial before him: diagnosed, but the stone was far from passed. They had loaded his nervous system with pain killers before he ride-shared back to Spanish Trails. My initial intuition had been right – gotta trust yourself, but really, how could that burrito possibly not take someone with it down the Rio Grande?

Soto greeted the camera: “So, welcome back, Berkey!” “Welcome back? Where did we come from?” retorted Berkey. The comedy of friends, although Berkey would prove to have an extremely rough sense of play with his partners: the most human and moody of the bunch, Soto, would have to shake off some very strong “jokes” at his expense over the three days. The door was necessarily but regrettably closed, as the air-conditioner for this room was down. Nothing will stop poker players from their passion however. I remember when a player, after taking a bad beat, got up and said he was going to get his weapon and shoot all of us. Nobody budged, of course: gotta meet that hourly.

Kidney stone or no, Jason three bet the first pot, but it was the fifth of my brigade, Greg, aka Porter, who set the tone. A studied and calculated player, he was a favorite to both do well in the game and learn much – it was freedom and imagination that we were here for, after all. Not actively under my wing nor needing it, we had worked together on fighting certain opponents, with very favorable results. Nor would he falter here: Greg responded, his early position range well protected, and stuck in the four bet with A4hh, knocking Jason off his merged isolation play. A little smile from the circumspect and often expressionless victor, who gathered in his first pot under the eye of the atelier’s trio of masters.

Action.

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