Swimming with the Devilfish: Excerpt 3/5

Des Wilson on the poker pro’s… ”they’re ruthless but that’s the jungle they’re in.”

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(Extract from Des Wilson’s “Swimming with the Devilfish” – now on sale)

“I like the poker pro’s… I’ve found them friendly and fun, helpful and trusting. The best of them have courage, determination, discipline, and skill. They’re clever. They’re resilient. They fight back from appalling setbacks…who knows what lonely and painful hours they endure after suffering crushing blows to bank balance or ego in the early hours of countless mornings. Poker players have to be able to live with defeat and disaster, trials and setback, as an everyday experience, and put it in some kind of context, and draw on extraordinary self-belief. They’re free spirits who pay a price for freedom – namely, in uncertainties and insecurity and loneliness. And boredom – because sometimes they have to spend hours, sitting on poor cards, hanging on in there, waiting for the one break that will make the day profitable.

I like their eccentricities. They’re night people. ..even after spending six weeks in Las Vegas for the World Series they’re all deadly pale. No-one sees the sun. While most have a taste for good food and wine, their diet is appalling, because apart from breakfast-lunch in the early afternoon the food has to be snatched during the brief breaks of play. On the other hand, few of them have a drink problem. No serious poker player drinks before play, or at the table, and that doesn’t leave a lot of drinking time… outside of the card room, they tend to be innocents abroad. If you compare them with professional golfers – and there are parallels – in the sense that they lead a nomadic life, plying their trade, or practicing their skills, wherever the latest tournament is – they have no management, no long term plan. They book their own hotels, buy into tournaments themselves, and take life as it comes, confronting “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with the occasional whinge but otherwise world-weary acceptance. The hours they lead and their lifestyle means that they can travel the world, day by day, with little awareness of what’s actually happening in it… despite the fact that a considerable number left school at 15 or 16, and have no educational qualifications, they have, generally speaking, an extraordinary facility for figures – mathematical skills that enable them to instantaneously work out the odds as each card is dealt – the remaining “outs” (cards in the pack that can help their particular hand) and the odds of winning with a particular hand, and the value of the hand compared with the money in the pot. And they have an extraordinary memory for hands they’ve played – sometimes going back years. Hang around in the bar and you’ll hear it scores of times: “I had ace queen, off suit, and he had a pair of sevens. I raise, he calls. Flop comes down ace, queen, and ten. I raise, he calls. Turn card is a three. I raise, he calls. River card is a seven. I figure the aces and queens will stand up, so I go all in. He calls. He calls, and turns over a seven…what can you say?” Another bad beat…. the players love to describe their bad beats, but they hate to listen to anyone else’s. They will listen, but with a glazed look in the eyes. It’s never said, but the basic rule is “don’t bother me with your bad luck stories, I’ve enough of my own.” For them there really is “no such things as society”; they don’t pay taxes, taking the view that if they pay taxes on their winnings, then they should be compensated for their losses. Paradoxically, they’re non conformists who play by the rules. They pride themselves on their independence but at the tournaments they’re like lambs – they queue to register, do what they’re told by the card room manager, keep to the laws of the game, and, on the whole, are courteous and friendly to others. They simply don’t think about money the way anyone else does. .. they’ve found a safe way of living dangerously, war without gunfire and where few of the injuries involve actual blood.”