Brain Damage

In the last few years, since poker went from being a private sickness enjoyed by a select few, to a fashionable hobby of the rich and famous, players have been getting brainier. Virtually every month or so another bright young kid starts playing regularly, and winning, in the games in The Vic. Often these guys are students, and the thought of them skiving off from their valuable drinking time to gamble makes me nostalgic for my own college days. I studied economics for three years and I often look back and realise that I just can’t remember a single thing that I learned.

During the GUKPT London leg, and the festival of tournaments that go with it, I did manage to remember two important concepts that had been drummed into me all those years ago. The first grain of knowledge that has been so important to me as a poker player is the idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost can be roughly defined as the cost of choosing one alternative over another equally desired alternative. However much I fancied a nice change and the chance to grab some glory by winning one of the early tournaments over the weekend I was well aware of the potential opportunity cost of not sitting in the enormous cash game which is running every day now.

Luckily for me I was offered the chance to have a considerable interest in the outcome of the early events. A very large collection of waifs and strays, former champions, total degenerates and young up-and-coming talents seemed happy to play the tournament if I would just buy them in. One or two of the members of "Team Channing" have been playing in partnership with me for a while, and some have just joined the stable. Meanwhile an equal number of people, who all assure me they’re currently playing to the absolute top of their ability, seem keen to get on the gravy train. The only question it’s left for me to fathom out is, if all these people truly are as good as they say, then why on earth do they need my help in playing a three hundred quid freezeout?

By Tuesday it’s time for the monkey NLH competition and I just can’t decide what to do. The cash game is guaranteed to be lively and with most pots over a grand, a five or ten grand night is quite common these days. If I play the competition I’ll probably get knocked-out around 11pm and have to wait ages before taking my seat in totally the wrong frame of mind. Even if I do well it’s not great, as I’ll have to play until 3.30am and be back at 2pm on Wednesday. Unless I get at least the fifth prize of three grand it will seem like a wrong decision. On the other hand, there was a time when I’d never miss a Vic festival tournament, and a break in routine might be good for me.

The Champ decides for me in the end, (it’s lucky she’s such a resolute decision maker), and I settle down to play, planning to push every marginal situation in a desperate attempt to get chips or die early.

After a short while I find myself enjoying the company, I’m chatting to neighbour Dan Samson, who’s a good player who I conclude deserves a decent result soon, while playing every pot with no real plan or direction. I got a bit grumpy with a guy who was slow to show his hand down and started to think I may be better off in the cash game. I needed to slow down, relax and let the situations come to me.

I decide to break the habits of a lifetime and have a massage at the table. Poker massages only arrived in Europe a few years ago, having been enormously popular in the States for a long time. I personally never thought they’d take off as I thought the combination of English reserve, lack of players and the absence of a tipping culture wouldn’t help. I always tend to think that getting a massage is similar to eating and reading at the table, in that it’s impossible to do without giving off lots of tells. When Sophie started working regularly at the Vic I decided if I just made it a rule to not have a first massage I wouldn’t get in a habit that could add up to thousands over the year.

I have to say though that this was a good massage. I immediately was able to switch off and stop trying to force the action. I began to play less hands, but play them better, and I’d soon got my stack back to a workable level. I was moved to a new table where I made three good plays and I took the chips to a third table where I found a new neighbour.

Dave Colclough has always been a player I’ve admired and feared. He has an excellent tournament style and a good poker mind, and I find it really hard to play with him. Over the years I can barely remember a time when I’ve played well on his table. On this night though, I did. There were two key pots where we gambled. He won the first one where I liked his play and mine, and I won the second where I loved my play but wasn’t so sure about his. It was the second which made me the overnight chip leader of the nineteen players left.

On the other table Team Channing was in full force. I’d staked or partially staked around seven people in the event and four of them were on this table. One by one they departed and each time I looked over to see one of the longest serving members of my squad, "RiverDave" Penly, scraping in the chips.

There was just enough time to grab a last hour in the cash game, lose an eight grand pot on a race, and get six hours of shut-eye before getting back for day two. As well as Dave it was also nice to see Hugh Kirton back on Wednesday, but not so nice to see some of the other tough customers including Julian Thew and the Devilfish.

Dave Penly may be one of the sickest degenerates I’ve ever met, but it doesn’t stop me admiring him as a great player. I was delighted that we got heads-up, where we decided to do no business and just play, and I was genuinely pleased that he got a decent result which he richly deserved. I’m sure Dave’s trip on the poker rollercoaster will carry on being a turbulent one, but I’m equally sure that the highs will be totally amazing.

By Thursday night I was remembering the economic law of diminishing marginal utility (I think you can Google it). I looked around the remaining bodies in my cash game, added up the money they had left, looked them up and down again, and figured a few hours extra sleep might set me up for the GUKPT Main Event.

I came into Friday in such a hyperactive buzzy mood that my table must have suspected I was on a powerful combination of coke and amphetamines. I was chatting away, laughing loudly and getting chips. I was also playing really well.

On the second table I got to I won an enormous pot from Ali Mallu which gave me over three times the chip average – I probably had more than any of the hundred players left.

I can’t really explain what happened next.

There have been many times in my life when I’ve been hit by a sudden overwhelming feeling of gloom and despondency. I can’t always put my finger on exactly why it happens, but it certainly happened now. I went from having a perfectly nice time, enjoying the atmosphere and playing well, while gaining chips easily as a consequence, to being totally overwhelmed by melancholia, which was completely unrelated to the poker. If it were a cash game, I would have had the option to get up, but I was stuck in a tournament, not wanting to be there, and my chips went down accordingly.

I ended the day on 16k and decided to have as many drinks as my pancreas could bear (three pints). From there I staggered into the cash game where I donated an indecent amount of money to some people who don’t really need it. In one pot I bet and raised on every street with a board of Qd6d6h…Ad…10d while holding 7s8s.

On Saturday I returned with the remainder of my diminishing mental resolve and my meagre stack. Despite just two hours sleep I got my chips to 60k but I knew it couldn’t last. With blinds at 800/1600 I was looking at marginal hands and wondering how I could best get all my money in. Luckily I was dealt a pair of eights and soon found it was easier than it looks.

By Sunday my sanity had returned. I had a long, and very profitable, session in the cash while following events at the final table. It was a really good line-up and there were several people I’d like to see win.

I was really pleased for my good friend Maria, who was a little unlucky in the end, Danny, who got his deserved result and Vic legend Colin Kennedy, who I never really want on my table, but who I’m always glad to see around.

It was Tony that I was cheering for though. He’s a cheeky little git and can be a bit lairy, but I’ve been happy to have a share with him in a few tournaments now. I could tell from a long way out that he was going to do well in this one. There was a moment on Friday where I gave him a severe ticking-off at the table because he made a bad poker decision. I apologised afterwards for being a bit strong, and embarrassing him in front of the other players. I’m thinking now it might have done the trick. If I can just keep him away from Penly he could have a future in this game.