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The Poker Cynic

by Ashley Alterman |  Published: Aug 01, 2005


Through the Looking Glass

Newspapers are reporting an unsavory trend associated with reality TV shows. Apparently, upon leaving these shows, some contestants have been unable to cope with failure or with public scrutiny, and have suffered severe psychological consequences, which in extreme cases have led to suicide. The article highlighted four vulnerable personality types, and suggested that these people should be weeded out in advance of making the programs.

This all sounded like a good idea, until I realized the dangers facing the world of televised poker. When we say "well-balanced personality" to describe a poker player, it usually means he has as much money in his right pocket as he has in his left pocket. To be fair, I am sure that there are plenty of poker players who could fit into society comfortably, I just haven't met any of them yet. Psychological analysis of poker players to determine their suitability for reality TV would only demonstrate how unsuited they are for this type of public exposure.

Fortunately, poker players possess other qualities that allow them to suffer the slings and arrows, and still keep coming back for more. If you play poker aggressively, you are often in danger of appearing foolish, so players develop thick skins to protect their fragile egos.

In some respects, the problems of the psychologically challenged game-show contestants are actually the strengths of poker players. The first "type" highlighted by the newspaper reports is the "emotionally needy," those seeking approval and recognition. This sort of motivation for a player is very valuable. In the competitive world of poker, this kind of drive is often the edge a successful player demonstrates. Determination is the character building block that is needed to overcome the vagaries of chance, and the long and winding road of probability.

The second "type" comprises people who are unable to empathize with others – people whose opinions and perspectives do not require the approval or agreement of anyone else. In poker, this self-belief can be a player's greatest asset.

Third on the list were people of less intelligence. I'm not sure whom they were less intelligent than, but, as is the case in many areas, people feel intimidated if they think everyone else is smarter than they are. At poker tables, the only valid measure of intellect is the ability to win in the long term. Intelligence in other areas is not relevant. I know plenty of very successful poker players who may not be considered rocket scientists, but in their activity of choice, when they are at their most motivated, they demonstrate a very high level of intelligence. It often seems like a streamlining process, whereby all of their creativity and brain power goes into poker, making them shine less brightly in other areas. I also know a number of very intelligent, creative people who play poker very badly. I won't mention the people who win all the time and are very intelligent, as that would be too depressing!

Finally, the experts decided, quite reasonably, that people who are mentally unwell would be too fragile to be put into the pressurized situation of reality television. Sometimes, it appears that people who are "normal" would be too fragile for the world of professional poker. You don't have to be mad to work here, but you might fit in better. Poker used to be a marginalized activity for the compulsive gambler, amongst others; a game suitable for those who liked to live in the twilight world of casinos. The scene may have expanded to include thousands more people, but the core group of players is still an eccentric bunch of individuals who only occasionally seem to conform to society's standards.

I have always seen not being able to conform to the norm as a benefit, rather than a drawback, and if I can just undo my jacket at the back, it will save me from having to pick up my cards with my teeth. Keep the noise down! It's like bedlam in here.

Ashley Alterman is a British professional poker player who lived and worked in Paris for several years before returning to London.