I am back from Puerto Rico, which was a good vacation. Great weather, lots of fun places to party and practice my gringo-level espanol. And my crew unwittingly booked ourselves at the hotel with Puerto Rico’s best poker room, the Intercontinental.
The Intercontinental runs decent no-limit tournaments throughout the weekend, and all of Puerto Rico’s finest poker players show up for them. On Sunday afternoon, in particular, I was surprised at the number of serious poker players who attended. I was not the most accomplished tournament pro in the room–a gentleman whom I vagulely reognized was there. It turns out he was Karlo Lopez, who has had quite a bit of success in the WSOP and other major events. Anyway, the Intercontinental is a very nice place and offers a bonus to those who enjoy poker. Highly recommended.
Today, since baseball’s spring training is now well underway (sports fans are in the midst of that awful dead spot between the Super Bowl and March Madness), I thought I’d write a piece comparing baseball to tournament poker. It’s especially apropos for me since I have just gone through dry spell, which is common to both sports (yes, I’m employing the word “sports” very loosely with respect to poker). It’s also especially apropos for me because my grandfather taught me everything he knew about both poker and baseball when I was just a lad. I was basically reared on both games.
Oh, and yeah, I know. Baseball as a metaphor for pretty much everything else in the world has already been done. Whatever. My blog.
In both baseball and poker tournaments, failure is the norm. The very best batters only reach base safely roughly 40% of the time, and the very best tournament poker players only cash roughly 20% of the time. An at bat or tournament finish results in nothing spectacular on all but a few occasions. Thus, neither hitting nor tourney poker are healthy for people who can’t cope with frustration. See O’Neill, Paul and Hellmuth, Phil, both of whom probably have shorter life expectancies than you or I.
Both pursuits reward patience and discipline. Most successful batters succeed by forcing the pitcher into a spot where the pitcher must throw a hittable pitch, then seizing that opportunity when it finally arrives. Skilled hitting is both a science and an art form: the very best hitters systematically destroy a pitcher during each at bat by fouling off or taking the difficult pitches, then finally, once the pitcher exhibits some vulnerability, smashing the ball. Likewise, a good tournament poker player often lays in wait, sometimes for very long periods of time, observing his opponents. Then when an opponent eventually makes a mistake, the good poker player is there to exploit it. A good example of this is a big preflop bluff executed by a tight player against a very loose, wild opponent. The loose opponent may steal the observant player’s blinds many times over the course of a couple of hours, but when there is a lot of loose money trapped in the middle, the skilled player finally pounces.
There is yet another way that batting and tournament poker are very analogous: in both fields it is very important not to be results-oriented in the short term. In the short term, there is a tremendous amout of luck involved in both pursuits. All baseball fans know all about “hittin’ ’em where they ain’t” (shoutout to Wee Willie Keeler)–wicked line drives frequently become outs, and broken bat dribblers frequently become base hits. And all poker players know that pocket aces sometimes get cracked, and that sometimes seven-four offsuit rivers a straight. Some of the greatest plays in baseball history have involved unlikely sequences (like say, a series of soft base hits culminating with a slow dribbler going through an opponent’s legs on a certain October night in 1986), and some of the greatest moments in poker history have likewise involved some very strange doings. In baseball and poker, for brief glimpses, it can sometimes be better to be lucky than good.
However, in the long run, in both baseball and poker, it is always better to be good. That’s because everyone is equally lucky in the aggregate. Taking this long view is difficult, since we all live our daily lives from moment to moment, a.k.a. the short term. Even a lifetime .320 hitter gets really pissed off when he lines into a double play with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. And even hardened poker pros ask God “why!?” when they lose with pocket kings against pocket sixes all-in preflop on the final table bubble.
In order to stay sane and continue to improve, I try to distinguish between my “bad slumps” and “variance slumps.” I presume baseball players do the same thing. We’ve all seen hitters in the throws of a bad slump. They are off balance at the plate, taking pitches down the middle, and flailing at pitches in the dirt. Hitters in bad slumps go 1 for 28 without hitting the ball out of the infield. A poker player in a bad slump is consistently getting his money in the pot when he’s behind and/or failing to put money in the pot when he’s ahead.
Bad slumps require self-analysis and correction. A hitter in a bad slump will take extra batting practice or perhaps revamp his stance or approach. A poker player in a bad slump likewise must take the time to examine his game and figure out what he’s doing wrong. In a way, the badly slumping baseball player probably is better off than the poker player. Being sent to the minors can’t suck as badly as losing your bankroll.
Then we have the variance slump, probably the more frequent type of slump in both baseball and poker. In baseball, the victim of a variance slump is doing nothing wrong mentally or mechanically. The balls he hits are simply landing in the wrong places, usually his opponents’ gloves. Everyone familiar with baseball knows that it is very common to hit line drives all over the yard yet finish the night 0-5. I’ve seen players go through week-long slumps without ever having a bad at bat. As a matter of fact, it is Joe DiMaggio’s miraculous defiance of baseball’s natural variance, not merely his supreme skill, that makes baseball’s record 56-game hitting streak such an astounding achievement. It’s the baseball equivalent of winning an all-in with AK over a pocket pair 20 straight times.
In poker, the variance slump is such a common phenomenon that it’s barely worth citing examples of it. On a personal level, I can tell you that I’ve been through multiple week-plus periods this year without earning any money. And after careful, painstaking, Tony Gwynn-like examination of all the videotape, I have determined that I’ve only had a couple of bad at bats. Tough? Yes. Typical? Also yes.
Lemme tells ya kid, it ain’t easy up here in the bigs.
::Spits, adjusts cup::
Writing that made me hungry for some baseball.
Let’s Go Mets!