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.