Editor's Note: Jackpot Jay has spent the past year as a poker pro. He has returned from the World Series of Poker and penned one final column for Page 2.
What did I learn from my yearlong odyssey into the weird and wonderful world of poker? What did it all mean?
Good questions. And, after thinking about them for a few days, I realized one thing: Impossible to answer in a single column (though, hopefully, not in a book).
So, instead, I thought I'd end my journey with Jackpot Jay's 10 Commandments of Poker, which should, if you follow them closely, make you a better player, a better person, and a player and person better able to pay your rent and put food on your family's table (though I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that a family can be a terrible hindrance to a serious poker player).
Imagine the following chiseled with a stylus upon two large tablets of stone:
(1) A Man's Got To Know His Limitations
Yes, I stole this one from Clint Eastwood -- or, rather, Dirty Harry in "Magnum Force." (Harry would have made an excellent poker player, don't you think? At the very least, nobody in his right mind would have given him any crap at the table, not even Phil Hellmuth. And that death stare -- by comparison, Phil Ivey looks like Mary Poppins.)
My primary goal when I first started on my journey was not to maximize my winnings (or perhaps more realistically, to minimize my losses), but rather to find interesting situations that would lead to good stories. In other words, I saw myself first as a writer and observer of the human condition (especially my own), and a poker player second. So, as often as possible, I tried to play against the best players around, in games that would produce drama, good anecdotes, or at least a top-notch wiseguy line or two. And if there was a world-class bad beat in there well, so much the better.
However, if I had been looking for the best result, the first thing I would have done -- and what I plan to do now, in the post-pro portion of my career -- is figure out which version of the game I'm best at -- and which stakes -- and stick with that, at least until I'd built up a bankroll sufficient to withstand the vicissitudes of the goddess Lady Luck.
In my case -- and this will come as no surprise to the observant among my loyal readers -- my future games of choice will be one-table satellites (at which I can hold my own against anybody, I believe) and tournaments that pay all survivors equally, like the Act IIIs at Foxwoods, in which the top 10 percent of finishers all win seats into that casino's World Poker Tour $10,000 buy-in event, or, if they already have seats, $10,000 in real American money.
(2) You Are What You Read
|The Best of Jackpot Jay|
Some of our favorite Jackpot Jay columns:
• May 18, 2004: Who's in the game? -- Six evil-smelling desperados praying for one last chance to throw some hard-earned money away.
• June 28, 2004: Finally, my 15 minutes -- Jay goes on MNBC ... and gets asked about Ben Affleck.
• Aug. 16, 2004: Lessons learned -- 25 things Jay learned playing poker.
• Nov. 23, 2004: Beating the best -- Jay goes head-to-head against WSOP champ Greg Raymer.
• March 29, 2005: Life with father -- Jay remembers his card-playing dad.
There are many fine players, including some truly great ones, who claim never to have read an instructional poker book. Hey, Meyer Lansky never went to business school either. But if you want to speed up the learning process exponentially, there's no substitute for reading, as long as you read the right books.
If your obsession is no-limit hold 'em tournaments, and if you are going to read only one book (as they say in the book-review trade), make it "Harrington on Hold 'em." Technically, "Harrington on Hold 'em" is two books -- "Volume I: Strategic Play" and "Volume II: The Endgame." Longtime readers may recall that I earlier referred to Volume I as the best poker book ever written. Well, Volume II is better -- a lot better.
How much better? I was sitting with Dan Harrington on a bench outside the Rio poker arena during the first Day One of the main event, and we couldn't get a complete sentence in without fans interrupting to congratulate Harrington on the brilliance of his new book, which had been available in stores for only a couple of days.
In fact, one pro that I know actually chastised Harrington for giving away too many insider secrets to the hoi polloi, who, in this pro's opinion, had done nothing to earn the privilege. Another pro -- Adam Schoenfeld -- in homage to the scene in "Patton" when George C. Scott praises Rommel, his enemy and role model, actually shouted, "You magnificent bastard!" at Harrington, across a crowded room.
What makes "Harrington on Hold 'em" so great is that it actually teaches you to think dynamically about poker. Sure, there's the usual stuff about starting hand requirements, position, etc. But I think Harrington just threw that stuff in there so that the other poker authors wouldn't feel too badly about their own work. No sense stirring up a hornet's nest, right?
(By the way, for those of you who have been living in a cave for the past couple of years, Harrington doesn't just talk a good game. In 2003, he made the final table of the main event, finishing third out of nearly 850 players. In 2004, he finished fourth out of more than 2,500 players. If this isn't the most improbable feat in the history of poker, it's in the sentence. Oh, yeah. Harrington also won the championship in 1995.)
Other must reads:
1. "Super/System" -- Either the original version or the updated one. It doesn't really matter, since the key essay, by Doyle Brunson, which launched the current era of hyper-aggressive poker, the style almost all top players use, is almost exactly the same in both books.
2. "The Theory of Poker," by David Sklansky -- Still the ultimate book for poker wonks.
3. "The Making of a Poker Player," by Matt Matros -- Great poker players are made, not born on the tops of mountains with perfect knowledge. This book takes you through the process -- the failures as well as the successes -- and makes it clear that everybody -- starts at the bottom. So there's still hope for you.
4. "Ace on the River," by Barry Greenstein -- A look into the mind, the heart and the soul of one of the game's greats.
5. "One of a Kind," by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson -- The ultimate cautionary fable on the life, times and premature death of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, who may have been the best -- and most self-destructive -- poker player who ever lived.
6. "The Biggest Game in Town," by A. Alvarez -- The most entertaining read on America's game. Alvarez, an English critic and poet, writes like a dream -- in this case, about the 1980 World Series of Poker, one of three captured by Ungar.
(3) It's A Tough Way To Make An Easy Living
Much has been written about the huge amounts of money many players are raking in, week after week, especially on the Web. But the fact is, in real life, such people are few and far between.
Since there are very few, if any, reliable studies available that demonstrate the percentage of winners -- and big winners -- from among the tens of millions who play the game, you are probably wondering how I "know" this. Well, as it turns out, there is one group that can -- and does -- track this kind of stat, though they are not about to publicize the results. That group consists of online poker site management, two members of which revealed to me at the WSOP that what intuition suggests must be true -- only 8 and 7 percent, respectively, of all players on their sites finish the year in the black. And I'm not talking about deep in the black, either. The vast majority of those winners are not about to give up their day jobs.
If you think about it for a moment, the percentages have to be even lower for people who play primarily at casinos, because then you have to subtract the cost of travel to and from, meals, lodging, dealers' tips -- not to mention those "profits" that somehow find their way into slot machines or those huge piles of chips blackjack dealers and roulette operators always have sitting in front of them.
Moreover, the hidden story of poker is the large number of one-time winners who fall victim to the Peter Principle. Having ravaged a $3-6 game, they begin to wonder how much more difficult it would be to step up to a $10-20 game, or even a $20-40 game. And the answer is: a lot.
Even most of the greatest players -- the Michelangelos of the game -- have major leaks. Everybody who's spent any time hanging around the top players knows of many who have won millions playing poker, and lost at least that many millions on craps, or sports betting, or big-money golf.
The moral: Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be card cowboys.
(4) Bad Beats Shall Set You Free
If you really want to do something to improve your game -- not to mention your character -- you'll stop complaining about bad beats. Immediately. (I know, I know. All I ever do is write about bad beats. But this is a clear case of "Them that can, do. Them that can't, teach.")
There are three good reasons for this:
1. Nobody cares. If your complaints about bad beats affect anyone at all, it is just to make them happy it didn't happen to them. Remember: They're glad it happened to you.
2. If you are a frequent victim of bad beats -- if you receive far more bad beats than you hand out -- that means you are doing something right. In fact, you are doing the most right thing you can do in poker: You are getting your money into the pot as a favorite. In the long run, this will pay off. I know it doesn't seem like it, but it will.
3. Instead of bemoaning your ill fortune, try thinking about how you played the hand in question. Was there something you could have done differently and better to avoid the bad beat, or at least lessen its impact? You'd be surprised how much you can improve your game by doing this. It's one of the things that separates the great from the near-great, and the near-great from the broke. Believe it or not, even Hellmuth does this. Well, at least that's what he claims.
(5) Truth Is Overrated
On my way to the Rio one hot afternoon, my cab driver suddenly asked me if I was a poker player. I grunted something I hoped was noncommittal enough to forestall further conversation -- I was trying to focus on my game plan for the main event -- but no such luck.
"There's a guy I work with, another driver, who plays three nights a week," said my new best friend, "and he wins $300 every time he plays. Whaddya think of that?"
"I think he's full of [expletive]," I said.
"What?!? How do you know? You never even met the guy."
"First of all, nobody wins every time they play," I said. "Not even the best players in the world. Second of all, nobody wins the same amount of money every time they play. Plus, all poker players lie. That's the point of the game."
"But why?" asked my driver. "Why would he lie to me, his friend?"
"Think of it as good practice," I said.
Remember this the next time a poker player tells you well, anything especially if he's your husband.
(6) Behind Every Good Poker Player/Writer, There's A Good Woman
And An Entire Posse of Unfortunates
When I first embarked on my journey, I had a few goals in mind -- self-knowledge, a new perspective on the American soul, the reasons behind poker's sudden explosion as a pop cultural phenomenon second only to Harry Potter, instant fame and fortune -- and if not fortune, at least a retirement annuity. The most important?
I wanted to have an interesting adventure -- without terminally ticking off any of the parties I have come to depend on, or will soon come to depend on, in my declining years, especially those I'm going to spend time with on the porch of the Old Folks Poker Home, rocking and drooling. These parties include, but are not limited to:
1. My wife. Not angering my wife was a complicated problem. First of all, and perhaps most important, because ESPN was not going to front my gambling bankroll, I had to agree not to lose too much money. (Eventually, we settled on a number equal to the total amount of my book advance, minus my agent's fee and any expenses not covered by ESPN.) Implicit in the arrangement, as well, was that I would not be away from home too often, especially during family crises. At this, I'm afraid, I failed miserably, missing a daughter's root canal, a couple of plumbing emergencies and a rather substantial number of vital after-school conferences. (I'm not even going to try to count the trips to gymnastic meets, the birthday parties, the laundry-folding extravaganzas -- one of my specialties -- and the planning sessions for various English and history projects that I was unable to attend, either in person or in spirit.)
2. My editors at ESPN. The absolute salt of the earth, genial to a fault, undemanding, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. They asked nothing more than an occasional column, delivered on deadline, without too many spelling errors or grammatical atrocities, and of a moral fiber consistent with Disney values. As my many loyal readers will attest -- hi, Mom -- I had no trouble fulfilling those simple goals. (No need to thank me, fellas. Just keep those paychecks coming.)
3. My book editor. If I understand his situation correctly, he needs me to write a No. 1 best-seller in order to justify to his superiors the absurd advance he gave me. If I fail to accomplish this well, does the phrase "homeless person" mean anything to you?
4. My three daughters, Rachel, Woo and Wendy. No sweat. As one of them explained to me on my way to the airport back in April of 2004, "Don't worry, Dad. If we can still remember what you look like when you get done playing Peter Pan for a year, we'll be happy enough."
5. My loyal readers. Easy. More technical poker info and less technical poker info. More online poker columns and fewer online poker columns. More bad beat stories and fewer bad beat stories. More book reviews and fewer book reviews. More personal stuff about my family and save the family stuff for Dr. Phil. More illusion and less reality and vice versa. More about how prevalent cheating is in poker, especially in the collusion-riddled world of the net and stop being such a paranoid a-hole. Play better and, maybe if you'd play less, you'd stop losing so much and so often. Keep telling the world what a bunch of jerks the new breed of young players are and be more respectful to the kids, because the kids are all right and, in any case, kids are us. Lay off The Unabomber and Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow, you old fart, because they're the future of poker entertainment and keep ripping The Unabomber and Phill Hellmuth and Mike Matusow new ones, because they are desecrating the beautiful game we love. And speaking of Mike Matusow
6. Mike Matusow's mother. All she wanted was for me to show a little more respect for her son, who came back from his 2004 main event fiasco to finish ninth this year. (Sorry, Mrs. M, but some targets are just too tempting.)
(7) TV Giveth, and TV Taketh Away
Poker would be nowhere without TV. Whether you credit the invention of the card cam, Chris Moneymaker's biblical triumph over Sammy Farha at the 2003 WSOP (the lamb slaughtered the snake), the brilliant story-telling of the "World Poker Tour" on the Travel Channel, the omnipresence of poker on ESPN, or just that patina of joy that millions and millions in prize money can bring to the most sour puss, TV is the engine that's driving the boom.
However, like a lot of powerful people and institutions, TV can also be a bear. For one thing, the more you feed it, the hungrier it gets. If three hours of poker per night is good, than four hours is even better, and eight hours is even better than that, and on and on and on, until people get sick of it, like they did with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
Also, TV has no vested interest in poker's long-term success. The second viewers lose interest in it, TV will move onto the latest and greatest Fad of the Century, and never look back nor shed a single tear for what was that game again?
Worst of all, TV presents a distorted picture of how poker ought to be played. As far as most of America knows, the way to play championship poker is to go all-in with Big Slick or any respectable pair, get into a horse race, hope you win it, and watch your life change for the better in every way. Has it occurred to anybody that if it was that easy, anybody could be a world champion? Wait a minute! On TV, anybody can be a world champion. Never mind.
Speaking of which
(8) Nobody You Have Ever Heard Of Will Win The Main Event During The Next Decade
There are three reasons for this:
1. Too many players
2. Too many players who learned to play on the Web have no fear
3. The law of averages
No. 1 requires no further explanation.
No. 2 has to do with the current prevalent philosophy of play -- go all-in, pre-flop, whenever possible. This eliminates much of the skill -- post-flop play requires superior judgment, the ability to make good laydowns, the skill to read opponents and act accordingly, the chutzpah to bluff effectively, knowledge of odds (both explicit and implicit) -- that separates the greats from the anonymous, but thundering, herd.
Think of No. 3 this way: If Phil Ivey has to survive umpteen all-ins, even as a substantial favorite every time (which probably isn't going to be the case), eventually, he's going to lose one. Back in the day, like in the '90s, the world champion might have to survive eight or nine of 10 virtual coin flips to win. Now, he might have to survive 10 of 10 to make it out of Day One.
I have a proposition bet for anyone interested: You pick who you believe are the 10 best players in the world, and I'll give you even money that none of them makes the final table of the main event by the time the 2012 London Olympics conclude.
And this will eventually prove to be a problem for poker's popularity. There's no other competition in the world in which the best players (or teams) have virtually no chance to win their sport's biggest event. If history tells us anything, it's that the key to sustained sporting popularity are superstars you can root for.
(9) Phil Hellmuth Is The Ultimate Poker Genius
I know I've spent a large part of the year making fun of The Poker Brat, but he was the first one to figure out that the road to massive riches is not winning tournaments, but rather making yourself a brand name. If Hellmuth never wins another major event, never writes another book containing an original thought, never inspires a single player to transcendent heights, he'll still be the guy the average American thinks of when he thinks of poker superstars. Dan Harrington vs. Phil Hellmuth is like Maggie Smith vs. Paris Hilton. Dan and Maggie are just great. Phil and Paris let's face it -- being famous for being famous is the ultimate American dream. It gets no better than that.
(10) Poker Has Not Jumped The Shark
I mean, how could it have? My book doesn't come out until next spring. At the earliest.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY DID IN HIS NEW CAREER (NOW, SADLY, OVER)
Final total -- minus $1,000. (As David Hirshey, the editor of my book, said, "I was hoping you'd win a lot of money. But, failing that, I was hoping you'd lose a lot. How are we going to spin minus $1,000?" Uh, thanks, David. At least now we don't have to wonder anymore why the book publishing business is in the dumper.)
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, will be writing a book on his poker adventures for HarperCollins.