Is poker a young man’s game?
There’s an experience in poker which I want to put a name to. Let’s call it the Grinder’s Lament. It runs something like this: when you win, it feels like just another day at the office; you make money playing poker, that’s what you do for a living, plan A worked – it’s nothing special. But when you lose it feels like the world’s caved in.
Many players suffer this, but here’s the thing. Young people are biologically constructed to deal with the Grinder’s Lament. The way nature gets us to learn is by encouraging us to play – not as in play poker, but as in experiment, get our hands dirty, fall down and get up again. When we’re young we have an inordinate capacity to accept knockbacks and go out there and do it all again. This is the hubris of youth; that which wins wars or dies. Without that capacity we would never learn, would never impose our will on the world (for it is only in our later, wiser years, that we learn that the world imposes its will on us, and we had better learn how to accept that).
This biological predisposition has two very good advantages for young poker players. First is fearlessness. Just as it is the youth who drive their cars like maniacs, and throw themselves into extreme sports like every day is their last, it is the Tom Dwans of this world who are forever raising, forever committing to a pot, refusing to back down. You can say what you like about Dwan, but whatever the stakes and whatever the opposition, he sticks to his aggressive style, never to be outgunned. He is twenty-two years old.
Second is the indefatigable will to learn. There is no question that the learning curve in poker is long; most would claim that learning in poker is a lifetime pursuit. I always get a shock when I see an old timer in the Vic play a hand in what I consider to be the most straightforward and obvious fashion. Surely after all these years, I think to myself, they’d know that it’s better to play that hand some other way? But as we get old, we get comfortable. The phrase “set in our ways” may be a cliché, but it’s one born of the fires of youth tempering over time.
In Vegas this year, I was on a table with an ultra-aggressive twenty-something who I’ve mentioned before – Danny Rudd. Like many younger players, his ambition is to make it big. But this is not a pipe dream, idly formed from lust for power, jealousy of riches, or exasperation with the more mundane vocations in life. His role model is someone like Ryan Giggs, a guy who has got where he is through the consistent and dogged application of hard work, who views their craft as a full time job which they are always improving upon, who believes that the correct road to success is to apply oneself relentlessly. Not Stuey Ungar, George Best or Alex Higgins, but Phil Galfond, David Beckham and Stephen Hendry.
Don’t get me wrong, older players can have these qualities too. I’m an old gimmer in poker terms at 39, but I still work hard on my game and try to learn from my mistakes at the end of every session. The trouble is, the incentive to build up my bankroll to the level where I could take shots at the $25/$50 is not so great any more. First, it would involve many months, perhaps years of hard graft. Second, I have other things to do in my life – see mates, set up businesses, work for charities. Third, if I had $100k burning a hole in my pocket I might not sit down with a bunch of high stakes poker players – where I can’t be sure that I’m a winner – and potentially blow the damn lot. It’s only those maniacal youths who have that kind of gusto. “The Ashman” might be able to build up a million dollar ‘roll from scratch in an attempt to impose his will on the world, but I’m afraid I got all zen about that kind of caper years ago, and would have stopped getting out of bed once I’d reached about $200k.
All of which would be a bit depressing if there weren’t a few lessons to be taken away from this. The fact is that being old is good for certain things in poker too. So before anyone over the age of 35 who’s reading this gets out their shotgun and carts themselves off to the glue factory, here are my reminders of why getting older and wiser can be advantageous in poker:
- You’ve seen it all before. When you’re relatively new to poker, nothing can prepare you for the horrendous ups and downs of the game. Again, this is something that is down to our nature – experience blunts the emotional responses to extreme events – the more we experience of something, the easier it is to cope with.
- You’ve got less to prove. Just as “The Ashman” is more likely to build up a million dollar ‘roll than me, he’s more likely to go broke than me. I’ve got my house and it ain’t going anywhere in the name of trying to make me King of the World. Being King of the World sucks, anyway.
- Poker is also about patience. Nothing is more barmy in this world than watching someone pushing on a door that says “pull”. Yet that’s exactly what someone is doing when they stack off refusing to understand that their opponent is not capable of laying down their hand. Older folks know better when to let go and wait for the next time.
So yes, the young guns have definitely got something going for them when it comes to poker ambition, but that doesn’t mean that being older means you’re out of the game. As with most things in poker, knowing your strengths and sticking to them is the best strategy.