For Esquire Magazine / July 2012
THERE’S A saying among poker players that if you can’t figure out who the fish is at your table within the first half-hour, then the fish is you. The fish is, of course, the prey in the ocean, regular lunch fare for the sharks, the poker player who’ll go all-in on a pair of Queens because they’re the best hand he’s had all evening despite an Ace and a King showing on the table.
But let’s make this easy without having to wait for 29 more minutes: I’ll admit it, I’m a fish, 90 percent of the time. I go into a poker game not really to win—though I’ll be happy if I do, and thank you very much—but to play cards, which can be very different from playing to win. How so?
First of all, let’s define what winning in poker is. Logically speaking, winning is a positive outcome—literally, a result at the end of the day that yields you a bigger bankroll than you started out with. If you’re a poker pro, which I’m certainly not, this can be your only definition of winning: going home with even just a couple of thousand pesos more in your pocket, whether from a tournament or a cash game, after having risked, say, anywhere between P5,000 and P10,000 in play.
For fish like me, winning is less an outcome than a moment—a surge of adrenalin, a flood of endorphins—that can pass very quickly, but is a high well worth buying. It’s the high you get when you hit your flush or your inside straight on the river, busting your cocky opponent’s three Aces or two pair. Never mind that that rush is followed by a long, slow slide back into the doldrums, and that you’ll be driving home in the wee hours many thousands of pesos poorer. All a fish has to do is to remember that instant—that look of utter horror and disgust on the other guy’s face—and all the pain of losing fades away, like dirty water down a drain.
A “grinder” or a “rounder”—someone who’ll play hundreds of hands in a day, on the felt table or online, just to come out with a little more than what he would’ve made driving a cab or flipping burgers or calming down irate Texans from a call-center cubicle—can’t afford that kind of drama. That’s one way of spotting the pros: they’ll fold pocket Kings when they have to with the faintest cluck of the tongue, almost as easily as if they’d been holding a Seven-Deuce.
Like you might have noticed, I observe my fellow players a lot. That’s my official excuse for spending 16-hour binges at the tables—typically checking in after lunch and playing in the 2:30 tournament, busting out by 6 pm, signing up for the 7 pm tournament, and again busting out by midnight, just a few places short of finishing in the money, and staying on at the cash tables until 5 am, when UP’s gates open and I can drive home with a little back massage from the rosy fingers of dawn. I’m writing a novel with a poker player in it—a call center fellow whose wife has been sleeping with her boss and whose only consolation, if you can call it that, is the draw of the cards and the gambler’s unflinching conviction that, one inevitable day, he’s going to strike it rich. Throw in a messy love story—a cute dealer with a thuggish boyfriend—and you have a novel.
So I’ve been taking notes about the game and its practitioners, in between throwaway hands. Seriously: I get a lot of writing done over those stretches, and it used to be easier when I was using a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone. I sit at the tables for so long that I have to bring an extended battery for use from about 2 am onwards, and I wouldn’t have traded the BlackBerry for the iPhone’s crappy battery life if I didn’t need to surf and look up my eBay bids while playing (more fish tells: impatience, distraction).
And so I dutifully observe the comings and goings of the cross-dressing diva whose girlish giggles disguise a strong, solid game; the starlet whose privates I’d met in a sex video before I met the rest of her; the loudmouthed balikbayan cursing the last card, or the “river”; the dealer bouncing back from pregnancy to another kind of succulence; the masseuse in hospital scrubs kneading a bare, shiny back as large and as dark as Africa. They used to play “Pokerface” to death on the PA but that’s been replaced by B.O.B.: “Beautiful girls all over the world I could be chasing but my time would be wasted….” How could I be wasting my time when I’m meeting people and learning songs like these? Never mind that any dude my age is addressed as “Daddy” or “Tatang” at the tables; put on shades, a hoodie, and Sennheisers, and you’ll feel 30 years younger.
I’ve written down lines like “The ceaseless murmur of chips sounds like a forest of crickets” and “There’s nothing more cruel than the indifference of cards” and “The dealer’s fingers darted like a skittish crab across the felt, picking up chips at every stop” (let’s add this for the wannabe Hemingways out there: copyright, Butch Dalisay, 2012). I’d like to think that, one of these days, those lines will turn like Moses’ snake—whapak!—into a novel that will win a prize that will recoup all my losses from all those donkey calls.
Ah, the donkey. Anatomically and taxonomically, donkeys have very little to do with fish, but in poker, they might as well be the same animal. The donkey will make a bad call holding an insufferably bad hand—something like a Three and a Seven off-suit—in the deathless hope that the flop, the first three community cards, will be Four, Five, and Six. And you know what? Sometimes it happens. And that’s what the donkey-fish lives for, to the dismay of the pros, who also have an attitude problem of their own, to the effect that “Unless you’re holding at least an Ace-King, you have no right to call my pocket Queens.”
As for the cards themselves, I’ve seen and had them all: a royal flush (three times), an Ace-high flush beaten by a one-outer straight flush (my best hand ever), a four-of-a-kind beaten by a straight flush (my worst hand ever). In the middle of a boring meeting at the English department, I run these games through my head like YouTube videos, savoring every flip of the cards, almost forgetting that, in many cases, I was on the losing end.
That’s why I’m a fish. I’m here for the endorphins, and they don’t come cheap.
(Photo courtesy of pilipinaspoker.com)