Jeffrey Vanchiro (1976 – 2014)

JeffreyZ

In January 2009, I spent a week playing poker tournaments at the Beau Rivage Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. There was a conspicuous character dominating the events.  A tall dude rocking colorful tracksuit tops with shiny sneakers and fitted ball caps—the guy had on fresh matching colorful gear every day.  He was strutting around during the breaks.  He contrasted so sharply with the opposition that it felt like he was foreground and the Gulf Coast locals were out of focus in the background.

In addition to some other deep runs, this dude made the final table of a $1,000 event that week.  When the final table participants were introduced over the PA system, on his turn, the tournament director said “from Queens, New York, this gentleman is a world famous graffiti vandal.”  LOL, wat?  I observed some of the final table, and the guy played cards with a distinctive flair—his chips were flipped into the center of the table with a joie de vivre, as if each bet gave him a special opportunity to announce his presence.  I liked this guy.  It was Jeffrey Vanchiro.

Fortuitously, Jeffrey and I had friends in common on the tournament circuit.  Maybe a month or two later, he was present during a group dinner and I drove him back to our hotel.  I can’t recall if we were in Atlantic City, Connecticut or Las Vegas.  I do recall the conversation vividly.  This was a passionate person.  A very passionate, very New York person.  We were kin that way.  His manner of speaking was wholly engaging.  I felt myself consuming his energy, engrossed, connected.  I was smitten.

This was early 2009.  I had been traveling the circuit alone, by choice, for three years.  The poker circuit gave me freedom but I also found it to be a lonely and alienating environment.  My conversation with Jeffrey was an unexpected breath of fresh air.  I needed a companion. . . I needed more of this guy!  We talked about our shared love of poker; how we got into the game.  Jeff said he came up dealing in a NYC card room, and before that he was at Riker’s Island after being convicted on graffiti charges (!!!)

Having worked as a criminal defense attorney in New York City, I knew that Jeffrey had probably just told a lie.    You have to be a very persistent, notorious graffiti writer to end up serving a sentence.  I’d never heard of such a thing.  I went up to my hotel room and did obsessive amounts of internet research on my new mancrush.  I discovered that Jeffrey Vanchiro was KORN, a legendary New York graffiti writer.  My due diligence turned up tons of pictures of his artwork, fawning testimonials and a video in which Jeffrey trolled Fox 5 News with a blue plastic plate covering his face (I was duped too).   Jeffrey was not bullshitting.  He was not quite the Babe Ruth of NYC graffiti, but maybe the Stan Musial—if baseball was illegal and Stan The Man gave no fucks about risking life and limb to play ball.  The full extent of the KORN legend was revealed to me months later, when Jeffrey and I were in a Duane Reade.  Jeffrey was on line to buy a drink.   A random teenager he’d never met cold stopped him and started raving and genuflecting.  Jeffrey gave him a dap and a fatherly talking-to about things utterly foreign to me.  I’m talking out of school when it comes to Jeffrey as KORN.  There are already so many memorials completed, with more to come—it’s a testament to his impact on a large urban subculture.

Jeffrey and I grew up fifteen miles but worlds apart, the Queens/Nassau County border dividing us culturally.  We still had a lot in common (both my parents are born and bred in Queens), and it turned out that Jeffrey liked me.  My desired bromance became a reality.  Jeffrey was my roommate and constant companion on poker tour for three years.

He was a true friend.  We shared a mutual respect and admiration.  He respected my opinions and I did his.  We sought out and took advice from one another.  We had actual conversations every day—we didn’t just sit there rehashing poker hands.  We were true confidantes.  We told each other things about each other that no one else knew.  I am not ashamed to admit that I felt a sense of pride when Jeffrey would say something complimentary about me.

Rooming with him was the best.  I came to love his idiosyncrasies.  Jeffrey was more than fashion conscious, his clothing was an absolute point of emphasis.  This was a man who wore OUTFITS—thoughtfully devised OUTFITS—every day.  I enjoyed the fastidious arrangement of his beloved sneakers and fitted ball caps around the room, his consumption of (literally) gallons of water each day, his one-legged bunny hop to the bathroom when he had to take a leak in the middle of the night.  Social outings were much better with him than without.  He had a marvelous sense of the moment, a lyrical way of talking, and brought a true embodiment of the carpe diem mentality to my world.  He often saw things differently than me, but he invited me to join him on his perch.  Jeffrey wasn’t just offbeat.  This man was a snare rip in an otherwise vacant stanza.  Anyone who spent time with Jeffrey has Jeffrey stories.  I have stories on stories on stories.  I remember new ones every day.

Jeffrey could have been practically anything he wanted to be.  He was not just a brilliant artist; he was straight-up brilliant.  He DID things all the way, never halfway.  When he set out to overcome his disability, he overcame it to such an extent that no one had any idea he was working with 1.5 legs.  When he decided to become a NYC graffiti writer, he became one of the greats of the game.  When he decided to learn poker, he became one of the better players in New York City.  When he decided to get into better shape, he went so hard that his body was practically transformed.  And when he decided to become a Brooklyn Nets season ticket holder, he ended up becoming the face of the franchise.  I’m convinced that he was on his way to mainstream celebrity.  I am also proud to say that his “Nets Neon Guy” persona would probably never have happened had we never met. . .  I unwittingly lit the fuse that exploded into that entire thing.  Believe it or not, Jeffrey did not like to dance when we met.  Another one of my Jeffrey Vanchiro stories.

The memorials and tributes to his Nets persona also are flowing in as I write this; most of the mainstream media articles have been thoughtful and warm.  I cannot provide better accounts.  I can say this:  Jeffrey LOVED the NBA.  He would obsess over certain individual players.  When we first met it was Brandon Jennings.  Then he had his “Ricky Rubio is the truth” phase.  I’ll never forget the time he insisted that we watch an entire Timberwolves game in our hotel room.  I don’t recall the opponent.  Rubio was quite bad that night; he shot about 2 for 12 from the field with a handful of turnovers.  Jeffrey was undeterred.  “Z, you see how he handles it?  He has flair, but he’s efficient.  It’s efficient flair, bro. . . Ooooh, who makes a skip pass there?  Who does that?  Ricky Rubio, that’s who!”

Jeffrey and I quit the poker tour around the same time, in 2012.  I retreated to the comfort and stability of my old job.  Jeffrey, of course, was onto his next new thing.  In the fall of that year, the brand new Brooklyn Nets invited their committed season ticket holders to their brand new arena.  No game was scheduled, the attendees had the mere privilege of a first look at Barclays Center.  I was part of the group Jeffrey invited along with him.  He strutted into the building and immediately began glad-handing the ticket-takers, ushers, the security people, concessionaires, other fans. . . everyone—like he was Borough President or something.  “Hi, I’m Jeffrey Gamblero!” he said with each dap/handshake/high five.  I was mildly embarrassed and asked him, politely, what in the hell he was doing.  “Z, I’m going to run this place.  This is gonna be Gamblero’s house.”  Like I said, Jeffrey did things.

He’s gone now.  Just like that.  The shock is only now wearing off.  Now it’s a prolonged devastation, gutting.  I attended and enjoyed the Nets memorial, but something about it felt really somber for me.  People should realize that “Jeffrey Gamblero” was a kind of performance art.  Jeffrey Vanchiro, the son, the devoted fiancé, the adoring big brother and father, the fantastic friend—that person is also gone.  I just wanted to write something in recognition of that Jeffrey:  a kind, sensitive, loving soul.

I can’t believe that I won’t bear witness to what comes next.  There’s no doubt that it would have been awesome to behold.  R.I.P. Jeffrey Vanchiro.  I will miss you, brother.

Staying Up.

For decades, this pile of mysterious reel-to-reel tapes sat gathering dust in my parents’ basement.  A couple of months ago my mother took them to a guy.  The guy transferred the contents onto a DVD.  The DVD is a collection of videos taken in the years 1973 through 1976.  They depict the time period from my birth until, roughly, my third birthday.

There is no audio component and the video is of Zapruder-esque quality, but the footage is marvelous.  My mother and father are youthful new parents.    The infant-toddler version of me is fawned and gushed over, repeatedly tossed from one person’s arms to another’s.  The now-elderly are shown in the primes of their lives.  All of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, many of whom are long deceased, are vibrant.  The video, despite the lack of sound, is a vivid reminder of the personalities of these departed loved ones.  I was deeply moved the day I watched the DVD.

Only a few days later I had the occasion to consider the purpose of this blog.  I’ve decided that it is not unlike the 40-year old video footage.  This is a repository of facts and feelings that tell the story of my career in poker.  It is recorded history that already carries the scent of nostalgia, and that effect should only increase with the passage of time.  This blog is not a diary, it was written for an audience.  It was never designed to be private, none of it.

Janeen and I attended her best friend’s wedding last Saturday.  I began conversing with the couple seated next to me.  The topic of poker somehow came up.  The guy plays semi-seriously.  He asked me my name; I told it to him.  His response was “I like your blog.”  This website was offline at the time.  I put it back up the next day.

That poker is not a big part of my life anymore had no bearing on this decision.  Moving forward doesn’t preclude looking back.  My present involvement with poker is limited to (1) helping my friend Sam learn to beat NLHE (so far so good!) and (2) bearing witness to Mukul Pahuja’s current destruction of the tournament circuit.  He’s on a tear the likes of which is rarely seen.  It’s the best run a friend of mine has ever had, and that is an accurate statement, not “recency bias” blather.  I’m very happy for Muk, I think our outlooks on life are similar which makes it feel natural to root for him.

I’ve also been working on a case involving a lawsuit between a tournament backer and a player.  It will go to trial soon.  I find the case quite interesting, and I think, regardless of the outcome, others will too.  My next new material on this website will probably retell the story of that litigation from my perspective.  Even if I never get around to doing that, this website’s archives are a thing I did.

VERY Belated WSOP Recap.

My yearly World Series of Poker writeup was a tradition I took pride in.  The voluminous and impassioned retelling of my 2005 Main Event was in fact the very first material to appear on this blog.  My recaps for WSOP years 2006 through 2010 are also lengthy and detailed.  Unfortunately, what was once a labor of love is now just labor.  This year’s version follows nonetheless, and it will allow me the catharsis of sharing how terribly I played a hand of poker:

I doubt that anyone who knows me well would describe me as especially motivated, so my life as presently configured might be difficult for some to recognize. I’m slowly evolving from just a lawyer to a lawyer and business owner, and two toddlers live in my apartment.  My career and my family are both objects of my devotion at the moment.  The things that keep me in action on the tournament circuit are my waning determination to hang around and my wife’s leniency.  The fire isn’t entirely out, but poker is now simmering on my back burner.  The sea change was complete when I stopped thinking about poker in my spare time.  I don’t do that anymore.

I split my WSOP into two trips this year:  a week in the beginning of the series and a week at the end.  The first trip went quite well–I cashed in the first event I played, a $1k NL bracelet event, and then again in the second, when I finished 38th of 6,300+ in the $1500 “Millionaire Maker.”  I was very happy with how I played, particularly in the Millionaire Maker.  I felt creative, sharp and decisive throughout.  The deep run also afforded me the opportunity to play with a lot of great players, and I learned quite a bit about some newer approaches during the tournament.  The cash was good for $26,000 and change which (with my limited schedule of mid-range events) locked up a profitable summer for me. I then returned home to real life; the second leg of the trip came almost a month later.

I wasn’t able to spend much time packing for the second trip, and when I got to the airport, I was met with an unpleasant surprise.  I had been working my way through a dense two-volume biography of Charles Darwin and at that time had finished volume one and was halfway through volume two.  At the airport, I got through security, walked to my gate, sat down, dug into my bag and rummaged around for my 600-page companion for the next six hours, the only book I had packed . . . and pulled out Darwin. . . volume one.  Ugh.  These sorts of minor mishaps sometimes set me off more than they should, and this was one of those instances (no, the book could not be purchased online).  I walked over to Hudson News, bought a Sports Illustrated, read one article, and dumped it in the trash.  I wish I could say the trip got better from there, but it didn’t.

I opened with the final $1500 bracelet event and busted that.  I then tried a mega satellite and busted that.  Then, naturally, I resorted to some trusty old friends:  sit ‘n go’s.  To my surprise, I fared terribly—bust, bust, bust, bust—cashing in only one out of eight of them.  This wasn’t exactly a good lead-up to the Main Event, but, as they say, it was what it was.  “That’s poker!”

I pressed onward and registered for my ninth WSOP Main Event. Main Event fields, as every poker fan knows, run the gamut.  My starting table was an exemplary cross-section.  There was a two time bracelet winner, a young but very accomplished online pro, two Russians, some older recreational types, and me.  I didn’t recognize the young pro’s face, but he was wearing a patch that made his identity easy to figure.  Armed with my iPhone, I am sharp enough to figure out who almost anyone of remote poker fame is quite quickly, usually through only a few snippets of conversation.  In this instance, a poker company patch made my job very easy.  Before a hand was dealt, I knew who this pro was.  By the time we had played an orbit, I had reviewed his lifetime results (very impressive) and visited his twitter feed (very busy).  This player exuded the casual confidence that comes with the success and renown he’s achieved.  My sense, however it was acquired (attire?  demeanor? who knows), was that he was a bit soft and a bit snooty, the product of a privileged upbringing.  I could not picture this person worrying about anything, I had the sense that he hadn’t dealt with much adversity in his life.  I countered his casual confidence with casual disdain, and only after he busted me (see below) did I come to realize that there was a healthy dose of jealousy mixed into my disdain.  My game plan for the day was easy to figure:  let this kid do his thing, attack the weak spots.  And yes, there were weak spots.  I failed spectacularly at executing this game plan.

On the first break I had worked the 30k starting stack to something like 31,500.  The game plan was being executed.  The young pro’s popular twitter account reported that his table, other than the two-time bracelet winner, was very soft. By the time the second break came around, the weakest spots at the table were doing their best to bust, and two of them had already succeeded.  For my part, I had by now executed a 5 bet preflop bluff against the Russian man on my right, and despite holding no premium starting hands thus far, my stack was now 37k and change.  The blinds were going to 150-300 (no ante).

As the cards were dealt for the first hand following the break, several players had yet to return to my table and we were only five or six handed.  I was second to act and looked down at the king of clubs and king of spades.  My first big hand of the tournament.  I opened to 700. It folded to the young pro in the cutoff and he three bet to 1850.  It folded back to me.  I thought about flatting but figured—in light of the absent players and this player’s general profile—that a four bet might induce a light five bet.  I made it 4200 to go.  The young pro called and the flop came 9 8 4 with two diamonds.  I now chose to take a passive line in an effort to control the pot size, and so I check-called the young pro’s bet of 3600.  Probably a mistake, I dunno.

The turn came jack of clubs, and I checked again.  This time the young pro fired out a big bet of 8000-ish.  I recognized that this line, from this player, against a perceived random, was a value line.  He was almost certainly taking me to value town.  What to do?  Well, folding was an option.  Probably the best one in the WSOP Main Event.  But I didn’t fold.  Instead, I considered the young pro’s range, and came up with “a lot of AA, some JJJ, some 999, some 888, maybe some 444, perhaps random bluffs and semibluffs?” and said to myself, something like this:

Fuck this kid’s AA.  Fuck this kid’s set of eights.  He cannot call a shove with those hands in the WSOP Main.  He will cannot. He has no idea who I am, but he’s going to soon.

And having thought something approximating the above-quoted material, I proceeded to do something completely contrary to my plan for the day—contrary to any rational plan for the WSOP Main Event, really—I turned an overpair into a crazy bluff and announced all in.  His call came so quickly that it could only mean one thing.  Before the cards were even tabled, my heart sank and I was already thinking of arranging a flight home.  He had the Q-10 of spades, I was drawing stone dead. He covered me by a couple of thousand chips.  Young pro’s resultant and triumphant tweet was mildly disparaging of the random idiot who he’d just busted.

My initial thoughts on the hand were that my opponent’s flop bet was odd, because all he had was queen high, and I don’t have a 4-bet/check/give up on the flop range, so it’s not a bluff that will work.  But I was just a random face to this kid, and the bet could have achieved a fold against a random.  The bet further succeeded in building a pot in the event that his gin card fell on the turn, which it of course did, and in possibly setting up a big multi-street bluff if a brick fell on the turn.  So perhaps I simply got owned.  One of the sadder aspects of the hand it that it was not apparent to anyone that I was bluffing, it looked more like “kings! yayyy… oops.”

In retrospect, I recognize that my emotions played a role in this disastrous hand.  It’s impossible to say what would have happened in this hand against a different opponent, but it’s safe to conclude that I almost definitely would not have busted.

An old prizefighter gets into the ring with a great young boxer.  The old prizefighter knows what he’s doing.  He’s encountered his share of great young boxers, and on his good days he’s handled them, left them flailing away while he pounded jabs and crosses into their mugs.  He knows how to stay out of these kids’ way until the right opportunity presents itself.  He also knows some really effective counterattacks.   But the old prizefighter is a prideful creature, one that doesn’t take kindly to being singled out and zeroed in on like an easy mark.  The old prizefighter is capable of losing his patience, losing his mind, and walking straight into a haymaker.  All because, well. . . don’t be starting shit with me, youngblood.

“That’s poker.”

Happy New Year out there!

Ring Me.

Last week I celebrated my 40th birthday.  As is customary at such landmarks, I stopped to take stock of my life.  And I saw that it was good.  I got some awesome gifts, including a cooking class from Janeen and WHITE CASTLE SCENTED CANDLES from my kids.  Yes, WHITE CASTLE SCENTED CANDLES, THEY SMELL LIKE WHITE CASTE, OMG.  I also got to eat a great meal, surrounded by my family, at Peter Luger’s.  Mmmmm…

My transition from pro grinder to daddy/shyster is more or less complete.  I’m comfortable at my job and with fatherhood.  I’m actually intermittently enjoying the lawyering, and of course I’m endlessly amused and intrigued by my children.

Ivy is now quite the miniature human.  She has shed much of her shyness and has entered the “randomly pepper all in my vicinity with batteries of questions” phase of her existence.  Strangers seem to find her genuinely endearing.  As for Max, I wanna get inside his head badly.  He storms around in what appears to be a quixotic adventure and has a surprising vocabulary, always delivered in triumphant one-word blasts.

I still play plenty of poker (hooray for private practice).  I pick my spots, showing up at the tournaments with the juiciest prize pools, or simply on random days where my work schedule is light.  I make it to maybe three or four tournaments a month.  This is drastically fewer than I played as a pro, but I still manage to elicit the same “you sure play a lot for a retired guy” comments on each trip I make.  I suppose that’s good; I’m still plugged in.

The day after my birthday happened to be an easy day to get away, so I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike to the racino in Chester, Pennsylvania to try my luck in a WSOP Circuit Event.  To say that this particular casino is a depressing place is probably redundant–when you read “racino in Chester, Pennsylvania” in the last sentence, you probably had already conjured the appropriate imagery.

Anyway, I sat down to play at noon and busted the $365 six-max event by 2:00 p.m.  Bummer.  I was vaguely aware that a second event was scheduled for 5:00 p.m–a semi-turbo which was also a ring event. “Ring event,” in this context, means two things:  (a) that the official WSOPC winner’s merchandise, which includes a ring, would be presented to the winner; and (b) that the results would be tabulated as part of the WSOP’s points system for determining who would be entitled to play in their yearly $10,000 freeroll.  This points system is a rather ingenious marketing tool and is probably the primary reason that over 200 people showed up to play poker in Chester, Pennsylvania last Wednesday.

Since I wanted to spend more time playing poker than driving that day, I decided to stay for the aforementioned 5:00 p.m. semi-turbo ring event.  I passed the time by sitting in a 1-2 NL game, running hot and departing the cash game room with an extra $500 in my pocket.  I ran hotter yet in the tournament, a one-day $365 buy in that drew 160 players.  By midnight we were in the money.  Some time later, we were at the final table, and I was nicely positioned in the middle of the pack.  The run good continued further, and as the field thinned down to four, I held a big chip lead.

At that point I began to give serious consideration to actually winning the tournament.  It occurred to me that I really wanted a WSOP Circuit ring–certainly more than I wanted the paltry $13k first place cash prize.

Yep, I sure coveted that ring.  Not because I wanted to wear it (it’s hideous).  Not for the uniqueness of the accomplishment (there are easily over a thousand in circulation).  And not so I could pawn it (I’m appraising it at $29.99).

I wanted the ring because having it would fill a hole in my poker resume.  Most of my closest pro poker cohorts have at least one WSOPC ring; it’s not really a big deal to win one.  Traveling the pro tournament trail for six years and not winning a WSOPC ring is something like working at McDonald’s for six years and never being named employee of the month.  My lack of a WSOPC ring was actually noteworthy to me, and potentially others, on some level.  I had some near misses, but had never closed the deal on a ring.  Now I had my chance.

I cruised into heads-up with a two to one chip lead.  Things went south from there, and at one point I was outchipped six to one, a desperate-withering-(overused poker term alert!)-shoving-every-hand-kind-of-character.  As luck would have it, I scratched my way back and ended up winning a flip on the final hand, QJ > 1010.  Jack of justice, right in the window.  I got my ring.

As I said earlier, the ring is unwearable by normal humans.  However, It does make a nice tail accessory for Ruthie (she’s the talk of the neighborhood!) and Elmo’s been rocking it on his left forearm.  Gives him some tough-guy appeal.

RuthieRingElmoRing

For those of you keeping score at home (you totally know that you are), I have a week in Vegas booked for the start of the WSOP.  Then back to business, then back out West for the WSOP Main.

Oh hi.

Yes, this blog still works.

I don’t expect any sympathy on this, especially from people with tougher lives than mine, from people who work two jobs to feed their families… but full time lawyering + parenting + poker = a lot.  Things like “food shopping” and “haircut” languish on my to do list for weeks at a time.  “Update blog” isn’t even on my radar.  It sucks, because I do enjoy writing.  I loved coming up with ideas for this space then spending a few leisurely hours getting them typed up.  Now?  Impossible.  I fall asleep whenever I’m left unattended for two minutes.  Writing’s a luxury I can no longer afford.  Gonna give it a quick try, though.

I’m most interested in discussing my children, but there’s nothing especially compelling about kid stories on (what used to be?) a poker blog.  I could run through all of Ivy’s adorable malaprops and mispronunciations, which are now sadly disappearing as she becomes more and more conversant, but two of the best: “fooda” means stroller and a perfectly yiddish gutteral sound, “uchhhh” means milk.  I could share her obsession with the children’s television show Yo Gabba Gabba.  Or I could describe Max’s indomitable happiness (seriously, a vaccination suppresses his perma-grin him for maybe three seconds), his insatiable love of music and his moutaineering (he scrambles to the highest point in the room when left to his own devices).  But there are parenting message boards for that.  I’d know, Janeen subscribes.  I guess I’ll just talk about how poker fits into my life.

I do not play poker on weekends (case in point, no Harrah’s AC Main Event for me tomorrow).  It’s not fair to Janeen.  The best days for me are weekdays, when daycare is taken care of.  That of course means that playing poker requires holidays from work.  I don’t usually have much trouble getting days off, and for that I owe gratitude to my boss/father, who appreciates my love of poker.  I used to bemoan the difficult times when I would drive a car for several hours and play a tournament on the same day (rather than arriving the night before).  Those days are now the norm.  I’m pretty lucky to be playing at all, and I know it.

When I do take a day trip and play, I don’t feel out of touch with the scene.  Quite the opposite.  During my cameos on the tournament trail I hang out with the same old friends, see the same old opponents, engage in the same old conversations about bad beats, big bluffs and whichever player is currently the hottest commodity on tour (and whether this person is a transcendent talent or is merely running well).  The brand of poker I play also continues to mirror that of the full-time pros, and I feel perfectly comfortable battling them at the table.  I haven’t missed a beat.  Poker is like riding a bicycle.  My training wheels came off in 2006.

I am happy with my decision to retire from full-time poker and believe I left at precisely the right time.  I’m not trying to give myself any credit for this—my retirement was borne of my personal circumstances, it’s not like I read the poker tea leaves, but I believe the game is harder than it’s ever been right now.  Rakes continue to increase, re-entry tournaments are becoming the norm, recreational players are losing interest, and the skill level of the average tournament player is on the rise.  I can only produce anecdotal evidence in support of this theory, but I believe that the magical line of demarcation that separates the profitable players from the net losers—the breakeven line—has shifted from somewhere in the range of “good amateur” to the domain of “average pro.”  Yes, I’m saying that in the current climate, there are professional poker players who are break-even.  At best.

Most of the tournaments I’ve played recently have been trench warfare from the start.  Minraising—once the exclusive province of the online freaks—is now the norm.  The same older gentlemen who once passively sat there bleeding chips, clinging to their tournament lives, now employ the preflop 3- 4- 5-bet game the cool kids figured out years back.  It’s kind of funny; if you check a poker-themed twitter feed any time a serious live tournament is winding down, you’ll find the same comments about how many “heros” “sickos” and “beasts” are left in the field, accompanied by comments like “the cream rises to the top.”  The narrative of the good players systematically destroying fish is a popular one, and one that is often propagated amongst pros, possibly because a united sense of purpose can be derived from it.  Unfortunately, I think it’s misguided.  Good players are not destroying fish, they’re destroying each other—there aren’t many fish left in the pond.  The ratio of sharp money to recreational money has never been higher, and when you factor in the current trend towards allowing re-entries, this effect is amplified.  The cream isn’t rising to the top; poker tournaments are a pretty creamy beverage to begin with nowadays.

Despite all of that, I still love playing.  And although I’ve now been working a 9-to-5 for almost a year, I continue to feel most comfortable when I’m in the poker world.  I’m re-learning lawyering on the fly and poker tournaments are still “my element.”  In the poker world, I am generally well-respected.  My contributions to conversations there hold value.   I feel completely at ease.  When I make a play at the poker table, I can articulate the exact rationale for it.  I approach every situation in a poker tournament with a cold calculation that can only be enabled through years of repetition.  Perhaps oddly, I feel secure in the domain of a game of chance.  In my new work life?  Not so much.  I have good days and bad days.  Sometimes I’m quite lost.

The worst days for me are invariably the ones immediately following a poker excursion.  On the morning after a tournament, I have trouble getting out of bed.  I mumble profanities as I put on my suit.  I feel nervous before court appearances and I find that I have a shorter fuse when talking with clients.  I feel like Ray Liotta in that final cutaway in Goodfellas, just a regular schmuck picking the newspaper up off his front porch.

The lifestyle it affords is of course professional gambling’s greatest perk, and the real job I’ve chosen sits somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum.  It’s no wonder that I feel mildly depressed on days after.  The contrast between the two worlds I’m attempting to straddle is extreme.

In fact, if I had to pick a single day on the 2012 calendar that made me truly miss professional poker, It’d probably be a day when I did not play poker at all.  It was in early October:  Day 1b of Event 1 of the WSOP Circuit stop in Hammond, Indiana.  I had played Day 1a of the tournament and made it through, leaving me with a day off before I was scheduled to participate on Day 2.  Janeen and the children were in Brooklyn and I was in Chicago.  I slept in.  I researched football statistics.  I watched two innings of a baseball game on TV.  I took a cab to one of my favorite restaurant/bars, where I ate a burger and drank some beers.  I left and went home and went to sleep.  That was my day, and I spent it completely alone, without speaking more than 20 words.  I loved it, and it made me miss playing poker terribly.  Poker is a pretty antisocial endeavor; it can actually make for a lonely profession.  But the way my life is currently configured, one day of peaceful solitude is pure nirvana.  What a day that was.

I don’t expect I’ll post much else here for awhile.  After I came back from Council Bluffs, I wanted to write about how foreign and interesting the city of Omaha, Nebraska felt.  Couldn’t find the time.  After the WSOP Main Event, I planned to post about a couple of really interesting hands that I played and the disappointment of flaming out on a bad beat.  Within a few days I couldn’t remember the important hands in much detail.  After Hammond, I wanted to wax poetic about that day off and recap my second consecutive deep run through Event 1’s massive field. Never happened.  Alas, I’m decidedly no longer a poker pro, and I’m definitely not a poker blogger.

That doesn’t mean you should try running a hopeless bluff against me.  I’ll still snap it off in your ass.

Mincashing Every Day.

So the 2012 World Series of Poker has commenced and I’m far removed from the action.  Today I’d normally be packing 90% of my belongings into my giant blue suitcase, withdrawing a large sum of cash from the bank and steeling myself for a summer in the desert.

[edit:  I started writing this thing last week.  Because it takes me so long to compose and post blog entries these days, I am in fact packing and going to Las Vegas tomorrow.]

Instead, I’m doing what gainfully employed recreational poker players do:  devising plans to play a small number of WSOP events and otherwise going about my usual business.  I’m playing a couple of prelims next [this] week, coming back home then resurfacing again a few days before the Main Event.

I’m not especially upset about this, at least not in the traditional sense.  I am not envious of the people I know who are spending the next six weeks in Vegas.  I am not feeling any remorse about my decision to retire from full time play.  I haven’t really bothered to reflect on that choice just yet; my inevitable period of nostalgic rumination about my time as a poker pro has not begun.

Through the years I’ve been open about having mixed feelings about the WSOP.  There’s a lot to dislike about the WSOP, ranging from constant mild physical discomfort (outside’s way too hot, inside’s too cold) to severe homesickness (which acquires a strong new dimension when you have children) to the continuous presence of Clark Grizwald bozos, Southern California dillweeds and hookers in your field of vision.

For the first time since moving to Carroll Gardens, I will be spending the summer of 2012 here in Brooklyn, and I’m excited for it.  This is where my family lives.  This is where the best pizza  and chicken parm is.  Where I can walk my dog and chill on my stoop.  Where vibrant weekend daytime parties pop off on rooftops, in parks, in vacant lots, on boats—not in contrived megaclubs overrun with noobs and fake boobs.  I love summer in New York.  When half the neighborhood retreats to the Hamptons or the Berkshires or Point Pleasant or wherever and leaves the rest of us to handle things (and park our cars wherever we want)… those are the days I really love.  As long as it’s not 95 degrees.

Still, there’s also a lot to love about the WSOP.  It’s a truly singular event in its scale.  If you took a snapshot of the Amazon Room at the start of a NLHE tournament, photoshopped the cards and chips out of the frame then asked a randomly selected stranger to guess what was depicted, what would they say?  Hundreds of tables, each with nine people gathered around one guy in a uniform… probably “third world governmental processing center”—perhaps a Chinese inoculation clinic or the Department of Motor Vehicles in Mumbai?  That’s how enormous and orderly everything is.   During the meet there is a staggering amount of money being wagered under one roof at all times. Each and every day a handful of people will win a life-changing portion of that money.  That’s intoxicating to those disposed to gambling.  The WSOP is heaven for big gamblers.

Scaling my involvement down a few notches is an easy decision for me.  My priority now is my family, and to miss time with them would make me sad.  Ivy’s 17 months old and in a stage of hyper-development.  I’m witnessing daily changes as her brain soaks everything up and she turns from one of the world’s silent witnesses into a real conversationalist.  She surprises Janeen and I with new words every day.  Meanwhile, Maxwell is now four months old and has decided to make his presence felt.  He’s exiting the beanbag with eyes stage and entering the terrestrial human stage.  He smiles and laughs at practically everything.  Looking at a table leg fascinates little Max.  Must be nice!

I’m feeling extremely sentimental about this time in my life, even as it unfolds.  I know that Janeen and I will never again have two children of Ivy and Max’s formative ages.  During the times that I’m not consumed with some child-care related chore, I am dismayed with each passing minute that this time in our life will never return.  How am I supposed to fade a 2,800 player field under these circumstances?  And why would I want to?

But wait… things are not perfect:  I am experiencing a mixture of good days and bad days.  I am learning on the job in my new (old) position, which brings both daily stress and occasional satisfaction.  I’m earning a solid living, unfazed by the lack of variation each day.  Getting up early does not bother me at all.  Nor does wearing a suit (although I enjoy being treated as an oddity when I appear in a NYC card club after work—my friends view me with curious affection, as if a suit and tie were assless chaps and a ten gallon hat).  The rhythm of my current world is agreeable.  Still, there are lots of days where I feel “blah” for no apparent reason.  Why?

I’ve considered this quite a bit, and I’ve concluded that my problem is what inveterate gamblers might call a lack of “juice” in my daily existence.  I’m not talking about freshly squeezed OJ here.  Saying there’s “no juice” in my life is a euphemistic way of saying that I’m experiencing withdrawal.  And withdrawal is of course a physiological ailment.

In an effort to self-diagnose my inner feelings of juicelessness, I did what I usually do:  read stuff.  I’m a sporadic but voracious reader; in this instance I read a bunch of medical journals about the neurological effects of gambling.  These types of documents typically devote more space to footnotes than actual text and are crammed full of terms I’ve never heard and have no hope of ever understanding.  Laypeople don’t bother to read this stuff.  Yet I somehow find these articles riveting.

Anyway, as usual I am short on time.  One day I am going to write a full blog entry about the things I’ve learned about the neurological side of gambling.  I am fascinated by this info and feel that it may have useful applications in gambling games that involve predicting the actions of other humans—like poker, sports betting and the stock market.  So instead of a full treatment, here is my spin on a few of the things I’ve learned about the neurological side of gambling.  In bullet points.

-Dopamine (the same chemical that is released when we have sex, eat a good meal, etc.) flow is responsive to gambling.  Our brains come equipped with complex risk/reward machinery, rewards produce dopamine.  When an agent that randomizes rewards is introduced, our brains continue to seek the dopamine release associated with the rewards.

-The randomizing of the reward in gambling games is a key element.  The part of our brain that is designed to detect patterns, solve problems and achieve things goes a little bit haywire due to the non-predictability of rewards in gambling games.  Because the reward (“winning”) happens so haphazardly, the anticipation of the reward becomes stimulating.   Not only does anticipating a reward become stimulating (and dopamine spew-inducing), simply thinking about gambling or sitting there observing the game becomes stimulating.  At least for some of us.

-The human drive to achieve in skill-based pursuits is hijacked by gambling games.  This is why normal, intelligent people gamble in -EV situations; the games mimic skill-based problem solving situations.  “Near miss” results are especially potent.  While near misses portend improvement in skill-based games, they are destructive (and dangerous) in gambling games.  Examples of near misses in skill games would be shooting just one stroke over par for the first time in golf, coming just short of the high score in a video game and losing to your older sister by just one point in Scrabble.  These results motivate people to continue playing and even to try harder.

-In gambling games, “near misses” correlate with absolutely nothing but nevertheless motivate people to continue playing and “try harder,”  just as they do in skill-based games.  The gambling game hijacks your drive to succeed and overrides your logical side that way. Examples would be a guy betting a $25 ‘yo’ and watching the dice land on twelve on the next roll, someone betting on a number on roulette and watching the ball land in the very next slot, and the most insidious of all: having the first two reels of a slot machine produce jackpots and watching the last reel brick out.  The first two are completely random events that ought to be viewed independently from your wager–the twelve is no different from a seven for the purpose of your ‘yo’ bet, but your brain is telling you that you came close.  As for the slot machine, it is actually programmed to produce near misses with enough frequency to keep the dopamine flowing so that the customers act illogically (irresponsibly?).  Near misses great the illusion of control in games of chance, and drive gamblers crazy.  Or drive them to gamble more.  They fry the circuitry.  And you wonder why so many people will not shut their goddamn pieholes about all bad beats they’ve suffered?  That’s the dopamine talkin’.  Junkies.

-Poker is gambling too, and it does the same thing to your brain.  The hilarious fallacy that poker is not gambling is torn to shreds by the neurological evidence.  You can lionize poker all you want, talk about maximizing expectation and couch the game’s strategies in whatever esoteric terms that you like best.  It doesn’t change the fact that when you checkraise the turn with an open ended straight flush draw, get flatted and are left sitting there waiting for the river card to turn, your brain is furiously pumping out the same chemicals that those blue-haired old ladies sitting at the Blazing Sevens slot machines are on.  So light up a Virgina Slim and enjoy yourself, you wizard.

What was my point?  Oh yeah, that I’ve been going through gambling withdrawal.

Vegas tomorrow.  That might help.