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Confessions of a Budding Poker Addict

As surprising as it may seem to the casual observer, I am, from time to time, incorrect. Some people, including my Latin and Anthropology professors, have picked this up fairly easily. But for most of my readers, the inordinate number of times that I have been right has obscured the rare occurrences in which I have actually been wrong. For example, I was right that the Raul Mondesi trade was blown totally out of proportion by the media and that the Yankees would not benefit significantly from it. For all those of you who checked the math on my shocking “Chris Cagle’s song ‘What a Beautiful Day’ states the wrong number of days in 50 years” expose, you found that I was once again correct. And ummm… for the sake of time, we won’t list ALL the times I was right, but you get the idea.

So in an attempt to show my humility, as if that’s not evident enough, I decided to come out and admit to the world an instance where I was wrong. You may recall that in the second part of my column “Those Other Sports,” I made the following statement:

“World Series of Poker – I don’t get it. Look, I know that there’s a lot of money on the line. Yes, it’s all in cash, that’s kind of cool. I understand that these guys are obviously really good at keeping a straight face, probably even if they were sitting next to that curling announcer. But they’re playing cards and I don’t care to watch. I like to play cards, but I like to play Scrabble, too, and I wouldn’t want to watch that, even if they were playing for a pot the size of Lebron James’ shoe contract.

Stu Scott: “Y’all gotta check this out. Dude’s got the ‘Z’ AND the ‘Q.’ Straight SCHOOLS him with ‘QUIZ’ on the triple word score. Check out the replay again. I ain’t gon’ say nothin’, but that ain’t right!”

Maybe it’s just me. Overall Grade – D+”

As I know now, almost all of this is totally wrong. The crux of my argument was that just because I liked poker, that didn’t mean I would want to watch it. The problem was, I really DIDN’T like poker, or more importantly, I didn’t like Texas Hold ‘Em. Why? I had never played it, but I just foolishly assumed it was like 5-card draw and that it didn’t require much skill. But that is completely and utterly false, and thus my entire commentary on the World Series of Poker is false as well.

(In an eerie side note, ESPN disregarded my sentiments and DID start broadcasting the World Scrabble Championships! Needless to say, I felt just like the guys in the “ESP the Magazine” commercials, except kind of the opposite, if that’s possible. In case you were wondering, that stuff is literally unwatchable, unless you know words like “Calefied” and you have memorized the 14 words with a ‘Q’ and no ‘U,’ but if that was the case, it’s safe to assume you wouldn’t be reading my articles.)

So how did I come to realize the error of my ways? Well it all started on a seemingly innocent weekday night in early September when I had nothing to do. As we know, all good things arise out of having nothing to do, such as the conception of 90% of my articles, including this one. My unwitting suitemates introduced me to the game that fateful night, unleashing a monster that, frankly, the world was not prepared for. From then on I played two or three times a week, for 2 or 3 hours a pop. The time I had been wasting before by doing homework I was now wasting by losing money, and I loved it.

As much I loved it, however, I sucked at it for another two months or so, until my life took a decided turn for the better. You guessed it, I watched Rounders (by the way, I congratulate you profusely if you did actually guess that). The movie was suggested to me by my position coach, and I want him to know that 15 years down the road, he will be to blame when my hall of fame journalism career is cut short by a crippling gambling addiction. Thanks a lot, coach.

Rounders is the kind of movie that leaves you feeling much smarter, more cunning, and generally better than you were before you watched it. After watching Rounders, I was sure that I couldn’t possibly lose money playing Texas Hold ‘Em, that I knew all the angles, that it wasn’t really “gambling” if you knew what you were doing, and that all I had to do was spot the sucker in the first 30 minutes at the table and I would be just fine. Surprisingly, this is not necessarily true if you’ve only been playing for 2 months.

But as fate would have it, I almost tripled up the very next time I played. Naturally, I assumed that this was not luck, but rather a direct result of my newfound poker genius. And that’s what keeps fools like me hooked on Hold ‘Em: when you win, it vindicates your superior poker skill; when you lose, it’s just because you got screwed. And of course, the next time you catch cards, you’ll double what you just lost because you know what you’re doing, not these other lucky idiots at the table.

Over the last few months, I really haven’t won much more than I was in the pre-Rounders era. I’ve come to realize that most everyone else knows a thing or two about poker as well. It’s depressing sometimes. But that’s when the World Series of Poker comes into play.

I watch this stuff on ESPN and it has the same effect as Rounders. I pick up little things that the pros do and inevitably, within 15 minutes, I’m thinking, “OK, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong. Good. Now I won’t lose anymore.” Now clearly that logic has more holes than Arizona Cardinals defense, but that’s the great thing about poker, and the thing that keeps me tuning back into the World Series of Poker: it’s never that simple.

First of all, when you’re playing, you don’t have the luxury of knowing what the other guy has. That makes things a little easier for us watching on TV. Reading the other players is a craft that you just can’t develop except by playing. I could watch Sammy Farha flip that unlit cigarette around for hours and he could still probably scare me out of every hand with a 4-6 off suit. Now, even if you know the other guy’s hand, those of us who aren’t John Nash won’t be able to calculate those instant percentages in our head. Questions like, “If I’m holding just a pocket pair after the flop and the other guy needs one spade for a flush, am I the percentage favorite?” keep me up at night (along with questions like, “Am I really starting Anthony Wright on my fantasy team?”). And then even if you’re like Knish and you know all the angles, you can still get screwed… but you can also get lucky.

A guy like Chris Moneymaker goes all in after the turn holding three queens, only to find that Phil Ivey has three nines and two queens, making Ivey something like an 85% favorite. But Moneymaker draws an ace (his other pocket card) on the river to give him three queens and two aces, beating Ivey’s full house with a full house of his own. Moneymaker goes on to win the tournament and turns his $40 buy-in into well over a million bucks, and he was one card away from going home empty-handed. You just never know.

For those of you who don’t play poker and/or have not seen Rounders, I sincerely apologize for those last two paragraphs, and I will now return to the point of the column. I was wrong. The World Series of Poker has become thoroughly enjoyable for me, entering my second tier of programming, along with things like Beyond the Glory, NFL Films, and 24 (it’s not quite at that South Park/PTI/Sportscenter level). And ESPN shows it during mid-afternoon, a time when shows like Texas Law, Days of Our Lives, and Maury Povich gave me no choice but to do homework. ESPN had the balls to ignore my disapproval for The World Series of Poker and they continued to air it, and for that I applaud them.

But Scrabble? Seriously…

Anders Larson Archive