The Sickness

South V had been running well, so well that we merited the additional punishment of his opinions.

“This game is soft,” he told the tourney star.

A fuzz covered grin out of one red-faced mess emerges. Another, friendlier, fat, oily, and chin-strapped, smiled too formally; there was something else on his mind, some issue between them all I could only perceive the outlines of. These four were East coast poker transplants, a hard but shifty race borne of slow tournaments and slowplays, but it was South V who was the purest incarnation of the type: hungry and sharp where his self-interest lay, dull beyond it; all teeth and sweat, a drink away from getting staked, laid, or beaten up.

Tourney name only stared with feigned lack of interest. What might this one want from the other one? What wrong word had been said? How poor was South Vegas, how rich the tourney name?

None of it mattered, not to me. I was and am in the thick of trying to win. And, after all, SV was right: it was a good game, although maybe not entirely the way he meant it. Three and four-bets were coming in, coming in hard, all while two pure fish kept everyone hungry and undeterred by the aggressive obstacles: the cages were not strong enough, the walls not so high. So sure… but what had SV meant by calling it soft?

That was easier to interpret. South Vegas was trying to have it all, to insult the table, flatter himself, and praise his abilities to the big tourney name: an efficient three for one in a world of babble and variance.

Still, none of it mattered to me, and less egotistically, to the fish on my right, either. He clearly had other concerns, other interpretations of deviations from the norm. Consumed by the runouts and results, he kept comparing them to an illness. “It’s just so, so…” No one talked to him and no listened, but apparently the deck had Covid or something. Maybe he was catching it.

It’s hard for all of us to accept that things don’t always go well. It’s really not that shocking and probably would be more chilling on the walls of Bally’s, over the black gate entranceway of poker: understanding makes you free. I’d be leaving this place, one day a nest, the next a dungeon, so soon the next day, frustrated with myself. I’d walk all the way down Convention Center, past the abominable Korean and overpriced Italian tourist traps, and down arterial Paradise, the drivers bewildered and superior in their staring. I’d wallow in a drink at the Tangiers. When I ultimately limped back down the strip to Resorts, I looked up at some residential tower, one I know is full of poker players.

To see the top, I’d have to simultaneously move closer and back off as well. That’s variance. No one can simultaneously understand and see it.

Or maybe I haven’t left yet, because I hear the bros laughing. Chinstrap makes another set on the river, taking a chunk from fish two. He repeats the performance against me, but I check back. He collects the unlikely pot, then leaves. Irritating, but I’m curious: Will we get an answer as to why he’s the odd man out of the crew? Or why I need to step back from the building and see the big picture, the normalization, the graph? Do I get a ghost poker coach to tell me everything is standard?

I don’t play tournaments, and so it’s a little unusual to have so many of these East Coasters at one table; normally it takes a series to bring them all out here. Maybe I’ve forgotten the schedule, the poker map, where the Venetian or the Wynn had smartly placed their next series, of easily made guarantees, but I hadn’t forgotten these types.

These are the same cadre of bros who were part of choking the ten-dollar blind game at Borgata to death, being so tight and unhelpful to the game culture that eventually the play was subsumed by the two-five scene (along with a well-meaning but mistaken nudge by management; they could have used Mason’s book on how to run a poker room). After all, any kind of action is good, really, even tight preflop aggression, because it does create pots.

I remember going over to the five-ten table once, and being baffled by why every seat was full, chips in every spot. Only the dealer was seated, upright and official, as if on a tournament break. It turned out the whale had taken a break so the regs all agreed to cease play until he returned. That’s pure Atlantic City poker, the poker of films and stories.

Outliers. One of the reasons we enjoy Rounders so much, is the try hard nature, the harsh nature of the east coast. Fight on-the-boardwalk AC versus sleep-on-the-beach California. The characters have not only a classic “thread the needle” plot, where a difficult task must be completed in a short time, but a cultural background of everyone on the make – even the haughty golfing assholes are there to bluff the struggling kids out. Mike McD, a little too bridge-and-tunnel, shows up the snooty Manhattanites with the flavors of the steel wheel, in a brief moment of class warfare New York has traditionally hosted.

More action. South V’s friends go into a lather trying to flatter him and upset me after I fold a wheel ace to a five bet. “I’ve seen him go crazy!” disheveled red-faced bro lays down cover fire. “Wasn’t there that one time that you did so and so and…”

They rattle on, revealing a hand history that begins to prove the opposite of what they intended. Their voices fade in my mind and in reality, as they can’t even reconstruct the scenario.  If one might die of despair as one dies of a sickness, then the eternal in him, the self, must be capable of dying in the same sense that the body dies of sickness. But this is an impossibility; the dying of despair transforms itself constantly into a living.

I recover. I am the power and the pots go through me. The flops, turns, and river, do not, however. Again and again, they escape domination. Even when false scare cards don’t freeze me, and I aggress, they still call down for their two outs successfully.

I can’t win, not much, anyway. But this signifies something else, namely, that precisely because he did not become Caesar he now cannot endure to be himself.

I’m not making many mistakes, but I have told a small lie. I’m not just trying to win – I’m also trying not to lose. The spirit of AC is in me. I hate my tablemates because I am them. I’m trying to thread a needle, one that is damnably hard. I have to rebuild my bankroll, support my family, and keep my own life’s Worm out of trouble. Worse, I’m not really in the big games much anymore. Maybe I’ll sit in at Resorts World 10/20 and let Muhaha needle me every now and then (I’m a 5.5), but mostly it’s my own version of red chip hell.

Can’t we all sit out and wait for the whale? Really smooth that graph out?

That phrase, red chip hell, is a borrowed one. I’m a fan of the Sessions podcast with legendary California degen “DGAF” Billy, where a “thread the needle” story has gone on for years, and success – we’re talking about reality here, not a film – is finally imminent. The plot is clear: Billy must reconquer live poker to pay his debts.

However, reality is also different from dramatics. Billy did wrestle the demon of red chip poker to one knee, perhaps, but was really scooped up by other successes along the way, mostly being the story itself, in a beautiful synchronicity of art and life. So it actually goes, pilgrims, because even a very strong player struggles with the reality of the full ring game, low volume, and all the troubles of meat world poker.

Can one ever get out of it? And what if one can’t afford to lose because others depend on the income? How do you thread the needle?

Outliers. One of the biggest things to do when you can’t lose is to understand the old-fashioned idea of “spots.” In a natural game, a sort of weak equilibrium is created, where you wrestle with your and your opponents’ natural limitations. For instance, you may three bet a particular player at a particular position but never continue past his four bet with all the hands either of you should – such is the impasse of that spot. To become a better player and to crush the game, you would do so, and fight for the pot.

It’s certainly no different for me.

Instead, you might not take that three bet to begin with but take a much clearer one later. You can even show the bluff. I’ll flash a three or two often enough, meaning I might even be in some senses looser than any player at the table but in reality, not nearly close to my best game and worse than they are. I’m taking low risk spots.

Bankroll, it turns out, can be expressed as a function of strategy. It was always the case, and certainly was an interest of Jerry’s, if you can remember the wordy and wise “imperator,” who took a significant interest in economics. The objection the poker community has to this is a fair one but not a real one. The chance of going to zero was always acknowledged in their ideas – just never mitigated by strategy but by stakes and buy-in totals. Sure, but it’s all just numbers in the end. Most poker experts basically would have told Teddy they’d like to move down in stakes and challenge him, shortly before ending up in the East River. Their wisdom only goes so far.

It’s not ideal, but daddy needs to put bread on the table, ups not downs. What’s more interesting is the intersection of my problems with real time strategy decisions, and it can be even further star-crossed by my loose baseline strategy, which helps me vpip, look like a fish, and keep the game going. I call a lot of three bets, in other words, even when I’m broke.

I stand back from the building, looking up, but it’s the next day, and South Vegas is back, without his bros. He’s quiet and serious. He tells a fish he can see his cards. Without his bros, his drama, he’s a different person, likeable, serious, here to do his best.

Is he… the same person or someone else within a deviation of South Vegas? Did he have a hat or not?

The problem with variance is that outliers ruin the number, they tell us. We square a bunch of distances from the mean, exaggerating the biggest distances, I suppose.

Is South Vegas one person or two? That’s a pretty big deviation, a stretch that melts my weak and judgmental mind.

I’m struggling, you’re struggling. The points of the graphs, the paragraphs, are sharp. They are unconnected but meaningful. They aren’t a story unless you connect the dots.

Fortunately, the pool helps me out. The other night I continued with 97hh vs a large enough IP reraise. The player was obviously a try-hard, probably plays NL50 on and has plenty of baseline poker chops. He has a bunch of bros in a discord who will laugh together with him at whatever is outside the standard, the deviation. However, he is not going to consider the breadth of my range or my strategy at all, even if he thinks he is. We are ships passing in a strait. This is very important to understand, if you want to leave mediocrity as a player. High fives all around, Discord dudes.

The pool will only continue with certain hands and will raise others, leaving them too showdown heavy on the river. For this reason, modest stakes online players have learned to overfold, even in three bet pots, to river probes. Showdown Ace King is a deviation away from bluff Ace King, but all are asleep onboard.

I win there with nine seven, and I win again here, threading the needle. I will flash cards so unrelated to the board, no one really knows what to say. My lies are believed because anything is possible; I miss value and sell a bluff, disgusted with myself, too. The spread of my expectation is not concrete, the square of the deviation changes. It is a worthless idea and the most important idea. Accordingly, the development consists in moving away from oneself infinitely by the process of infinitizing oneself, and in returning to oneself infinitely by the process of finitizing.

As South Vegas and the bros guffaw and trade compliments of each other, I put in a three bet with 52hh, picking up only the preflop raiser. I get it through. I’ve been watching, ready to cheat the swings, to cheat the deck, to come up with a meaningless number, a variance that makes no sense. It may seem like fight, but I have so little. I’m a sniper now, easily killed if discovered, and no happy bunch of semi-colluding bros to lean on.

“Fight” is all about bankroll. The reason we love some big-name vlogger is he will happily bluff off all the stupid club rake he sleeps on, while a scrub like TBC is mocked because he’s risking the last money he sleeps on. Different stories, but not really, not if you know what is going on. Squaring removes the negative. The skill, in other words, lies elsewhere.

Of course, think back to that Borgata 5/10 game. What were they doing? Trying not to lose? Protect the herd? What of their individual fears? Did South Vegas fear Chinstrap, or were SV and the tourney name ready to pick apart Chinstrap?

Sometimes we get our answer. South V reveals to tourney pro Chinstrap’s issue: jealousy. The illusion and reality of rungood, the mystery of variance is sometimes made plain. We live with it, on it, all around it. Things get ironed out, problems are forgotten, unnamed because they disappear. When SV’s double returns, there is no jealousy. Everything is normal, the graph smooth.

He’s not really read much, even less than DFW but there is a similarity in cache, in usage of a dead man’s passion. To sit still and read either requires a mind attuned to swings of meaning, to a quantum dimension that can’t be pinned down easily. It’s been on my mind: boredom. Further, there are questions. What is a downswing? someone in my group asks. There is no answer, in fact, but we know it happens. It is a relation with the self, with one’s expectation when one’s expectation is never guaranteed. To live is to despair, but to not despair is to not live.

We square all the negatives. What a relief, it’s all positive now.

Then, as I walked out of RW, fuming that I couldn’t make it happen (I’d won nine sessions in a row, but nothing is ever good enough, not when you have to win), I see an answer. It’s not psychological, it’s not some character defect. Not the sins of the faltering player or his bankroll, not the weak mind who can’t take the heat or the strong one who brings pain upon himself.

You fear what you cannot understand, they say in impossible profundity, and no one has a mind for the swings, a mind to look up at the building and see the sun at midnight.

For, humanly speaking, death is the last thing of all; and, humanly speaking, there is hope only so long as there is life.

I see South Vegas’ double, his variation. He’s not bragging, nor is he complaining that I took money off the table, not even the trace of a petulance that I felted the fish he’d been chasing for hours. He is a strong and worthy competitor today, today when I took the money and he didn’t.

Because it’s not yesterday, it’s not when I lost, it’s today, today when I won.

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