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Beyond Good and Evil

by David Downing |  Published: Jul 01, 2007

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

It probably comes as no surprise to my regular readers that I am no poker fanboy. I have almost no interest in the current poker scene beyond how it affects my bottom dollar. Tournament "faces" are as obscure to me as the latest teenie pop bands or the cover girls of those Lads Mag magazines. However, there is one recent happening that caught my eye: the recent brouhaha over a certain golf match between one of the USA's most recognisable poker players and a well-known UK pro. I do not want to get into the details here, especially as they have been discussed to the nth degree on what seems like all of the major poker forums. Now, as often happens, don't ask me why, it's just a function of the Internet, the fanboys descended and staked out their respective idol's corner. Now, what stuck in many of these fawners craws was that their star may have behaved unethically at worst, coldhearted, money before friendship at best. They just couldn't accept this, and therefore contrived a whole host of reasons why he was in fact in the right. To some extent, this is a symptom of the "poker as a sport" revolution. A lot of the poker arrivistes simply do not understand that the heart of a poker player, especially a cash player, can be a cold, dark, and unsympathetic place.

Back in the day, a rather politically Left-leaning poker player rationalised the basically capitalistic nature of his game by saying that he played tournaments, and it was the cash players who were the intrinsically mercenary cogs of capitalism. I used to think he was being unfair. As time has moved on, I have learned that he was speaking an unpalatable truth. A tournament player simply has to turn up on time to enter and play his best game. His management and understanding of any kind of meta-game is approaching zero. He simply doesn't have to care. A good cash player, especially live, has to balance several complex and contradictory factors. First and foremost, he has to play in good games, and by good I mean beatable. Not all of these games may necessarily be hosted by a casino, so he has to preserve an image such that not only will he get invites for such games, but the players, who by their very nature will be losing to him, will not mind this losing. This is not easy. Mike Matusow- and Phil Hellmuth-style blowups, whilst amusing for television, will very quickly leave a live cash player with few happy-hunting grounds. So, at a very fundamental level, he has to be likable, or at the very least, not despised.

Beyond this, the player needs to marry this affable nature with a conflicting ruthlessness. He has to be prepared to cling tight to his foes and wrestle their money off them, and yet not seem manipulative or be angle-shooting, as these characteristics will firmly put him or her in the unlikeable category again. The worst examples of this tend to be of the "you're my new best friend" type, whereby the pro suddenly becomes a close confidant of the fish, purely and nearly always obviously for money exploitative reasons. This also can be a dangerous tactic, as it can become too transparent. On a broader perspective, the live cash-game pro needs to ensure that the running cast of players does not become damaged, that "providers" get value for their money and do not get too disheartened; that other more experienced or even winning players do not rock the boat too much because they do not understand the delicate factors in play; in essence that their own private hunting reserve not only stays well-stocked, but that the prey are happy to lead themselves into the slaughter.

To most Internet-driven players, this will have all looked like an irrelevance that surely cannot be that essential, which explains why they often are not as profitable in live games. To the rest, this will seem an almost impossible array of skills, with no sensible role models or guides. But there is an obvious "career path," the entertainment industry. Where else can people experience a whole range of emotions and feelings, where behind the facade, one of the main drivers is simply greed? A good live cash-game player should absolutely see himself as being in the entertainment industry, where his skills in audience management are just as key as his poker skills, and are rewarded as such. And poker novices should not be so surprised when the icons of their hero-worshiping fantasies, Hollywood smiles on the outside, have cold-blooded mercenary hearts beating within.

David has played poker all over the UK for the better part of a decade. Originally a tournament player, now focused on cash play and almost entirely on the Internet for the last three years, David makes a healthy second income playing a wide range of games.