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The Poker Cynic

by Ashley Alterman |  Published: Dec 01, 2005


The Company You Keep

This is either a closely observed social phenomenon or just one more excuse. I played my heat in the World Speed Poker Open, and found myself stuck in the bar, for several hours, in the company of assorted poker players. I was sitting with two of Ireland's finest, Donnacha O'Dea and Scott Gray, and like Woody Allen's Zelig, I felt myself taking on the characteristics of the company I was keeping. As the minutes ticked by, I could feel my game becoming more solid and considered. I was thinking about what I was saying, and I was even thinking about what they were saying. Everything was going well, and I was looking forward to pitting my wits against five other players in a long tactical battle. Then, out of the blue, a new face arrived at the table, and a Jekyll and Hyde transformation started to come over me. Lucy Rokach sat down for a drink before her heat, and like a chameleon, I felt my game morphing dramatically. I could sense all traces of caution disappearing, replaced with a new level of aggression. I ordered a bloody steak from the bar, and then shadowboxed for a few minutes to build up an appetite.

I lasted until the second round of my heat, before jamming all of my chips into the pot to fatten up the eventual winner. I didn't want to take a backward step, so it was speed poker for me, in every sense of the word. The truth is, I'd be delighted to take on the characteristics of any of the players I mentioned, but, needless to say, their styles are easier to observe than they are to imitate. We all have the tendency to affect each other's behavior, and you can see examples of it everywhere. Sometimes, we use other people's behavior as a spur to behave better. Often, however, I find myself reduced to the lowest common denominator once the situation becomes stressful. I am too easily influenced by the bad behavior of others when directed at me. Instead of ignoring it, I sink comfortably to the low levels of others, so that we both can make a spectacle of ourselves.

I did just that in my last live tournament appearance, after an unpleasant exchange with a new, young player. The chat became nasty, and my opponent offered to help me understand his point of view by the application of physical force. In keeping with the spirit of the affair, I felt it would be rude to refuse his offer, so I got up and went around the table to meet him. My mouth and body were in action, but my brain was not engaged. Yes, I was irritated by our exchange, and I didn't appreciate being threatened, but I was pretty disappointed in myself that I lost control so easily, and for so little reason. What on earth did I think I was going to do when I got to him? Fortunately, one of the casino staff intervened, and held my adversary back. It appeared initially to be my fault, so I ended up with a 20-minute penalty, which was reduced to 10 minutes on appeal. The casino manager later talked to the dealer and apologized for coming to the wrong conclusion. I didn't feel hard done by, even though I was perceived as the injured party. I had helped to create the situation, and instead of ignoring it, I allowed myself to contribute to it. I expect we provided some light relief for the other players, so the incident wasn't a complete loss.

From now on, I'm going to be staying indoors, where I'll be playing my poker on the computer. I'm too influenced by others to risk going out.

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