08/04/2009

They don't believe you

Alex Rousso

I like this girl. There’s something she does with her hair; twists the edges of her fringe, then flattens them to make them stick; but then they bounce back up again. So far, she seems to like me too. I watch her as she lazily picks up her wine glass and brings it to her lips, takes a short sip, and looks up at me.

“So I never asked what you do for a living?”

Oh shit. Here we go. To be honest, I’d got so carried away, I hadn’t even prepared myself. Shall I tell the truth? There’s no more than a second to make a decision – like deciding whether to bluff a missed flush draw out of position on the river.

You see, when you tell them you’re a professional poker player you might as well be saying “I’m a paranoid schizophrenic”, or “I’m a roadie for the Beatles”. Victoria Coren once noted that people who describe themselves as professional poker players are just unemployed people who pass their time playing poker. True, you can never tell who is lying to themselves (or you) about whether they really are making money or not. In the modern poker era, at least, computerised databases have established that making money from the game is not merely the pathetic imaginings of some vocationally challenged rich-kid.

With this in mind, I decide to tell the truth. “I’m a professional poker player” I tell my date.

“Really?!” she says. A little caught by surprise, she tries to mask the tension in her cheek muscles which is pulling her mouth into a grimace. Granted, my profession is pretty out there. However, as I recount the everyday ins and outs of it, her eyes begin to glaze over, the prejudice sets in, and by the end, you can bet your last chip that on the other side of her face she’s thinking “oh dear – another fruit loop.”

Such is the perception of poker that ninety percent of those outside the game have a cast iron conviction that you cannot make money from it. It’s a form of gambling, and therefore anyone who indulges in it is inescapably on to a loser, end of story. By extension, those who claim to do it full time must be two outs short of a straight flush.
I’ve had the conversation so many times I’ve honestly considered just making up some alter ego who works at an accountancy firm and watches TV every night. The consistency of the reactions is scary enough, but the truly terrifying bit is when you spend the best part of an hour breaking it down – explaining about pot odds, how it’s possible for some people to make money losing decisions and others to make money making decisions – only for them to pipe up with some comment that betrays either that they haven’t listened to a word you’ve said, or that their prejudices are too deep set to budge.

My favourite is when you get on to the subject of how much you make. “Well, I made $6000 last month,” you recount. “Ah,” they reply in an all-knowing, pedagogical tone of voice, “but how much did you lose?”

Sigh. It’s genius, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve just spend thirty minutes of my life demonstrating to you not only that this is a science, but that when it comes to this science, it’s quite clear that I know what I’m talking about, and now you’re accusing me of the simple error of not subtracting one number from another.

Many other classic statements abound. “Do you know when to quit?” they ask. Use your noodle for one second – if I’m making money, does it really matter when I quit? I mean, you wouldn’t run a shoe shop in profit for six months and suddenly get anxious that the world was about to run out of feet, would you? Sitting there, thinking to yourself, “sod it, it’s been a good stint, but I’d better just take my winnings.”

Try this one: “I’d rather just go for a walk than do that”. Right, and someone pays you to go for a walk, do they? For the umpteenth time, this is my job. I’d rather go for a walk than do your tired, boring, stressful, desk job. And so would you.

Then there’s the pre-Vegas advice: “make sure you have a budget in mind of how much you’re prepared to lose, and don’t go over it!” they warn. In a way, this is good advice. You know what Vegas is like – you might be playing live when you’re used to being online, you might be drinking, or take it less seriously because you’re on holiday, or you might get carried away with the other (not so money making) games in the pit. Either way, have the doom-mongers thought this through for one second? I’m a money... making... poker... player... Kappisch? It means that all of these things are meat and drink to me, my working life is made up of these decisions for Christ’s sake. After all, I don’t hover above your shoulder while you’re on your PC, looking at your press release going “ooh, make sure you don’t misspell ‘licence.’” Which, of course, you will misspell, you silly prat.

In a way, it’s another reason to be thankful – if this is the average prejudice about whether it’s possible to make money playing poker, it’s no wonder these mugs sit down with you again and again and again – they simply don’t get that you’re making money. It would be nice, however, if it could also enter the public consciousness that there are forms of “gambling” where skill can be applied, and where money would be made. If for any other reason, it would stop me having to lie to my dates about what I do to bring home the bacon.