To be a successful poker player - or a player of any other game in which you judge success by how much money you win - you must be aBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play. Bob's website is www.pokercoach.us good gambler. Just being good at the game is not enough. Being a good gambler means many things, and one could write a whole book about the subject.
I have a reputation for being a good gambler. I have never been out of action since starting to play professional poker in 1980. I am seldom seen playing poker in the wee hours of the morning. You are more likely to find me in the best poker game instead of the biggest poker game. My "leaks" are spending money on items like my garden, rather than on activities such as sports betting. However, many of my good gambling habits did not come directly from poker; they came earlier, from shooting pool. Let me explain.
I learned poker at age 9, but did not start shooting pool until I went to college at age 16. Even so, until I was well into my 30s, I made more money from pool than from poker. No, I was not an all-star at the game, just a good local player. But you did not need to be an all-star at pool to make money - at least back in the '60s and '70s. I lived in Michigan, where there was pretty good pool action in bars and restaurants. I usually played on small-size tables, mostly against amateurs rather than toughies.
Is there enough similarity between pool and poker for the gambling skills learned in the former to apply to the latter? I will tell you about some of my pool-playing encounters, and you be the judge.
My favorite form of pool was "straight pool," in which the player can shoot at any ball he likes. When you make 14 of the 15 balls, a new frame starts. To keep a run going, you have to make your shot and break the rack open with the cue ball. Major skills in that form of pool include determining the order of balls to play, setting up a good break shot, and playing a skillful safety when no attractive shot is available. (I do not care as much for the main game of the 21st century, nine-ball, in which the order of balls to be pocketed is predetermined for the player. Doing something "by the numbers" is not my cup of tea.)
An occasional opponent of mine in straight pool was "Big Al" of Oak Park, a rather poor gambler, but a tremendous shot-maker. We usually played a game for $20, sometimes $50, in the local poolroom. Somehow, I usually beat him. One day, after we had not tangled for a couple of months, Al came up to me and wanted to play a game (a race to 100 points) for $100. I figured this meant he was playing well, but I obliged. Early on, I had a run of 39, and built up a comfortable lead, reaching 58 while he was still somewhere in the teens. Then, Al got hot, and started running rack after rack. He was having a run in the high 60s, his lifetime longest (and more balls than I had ever run), when he reached a critical point. When I racked the balls for the next frame, Al had a difficult shot, a thin cut the full length of the table with his cue ball almost frozen to the rail. He could break open the rack if he pocketed the ball. The smart strategy was to play safe, but Al was on the longest run of his life, and he put keeping the run going ahead of winning the game. He went for the shot, and his cue ball smashed with terrific force into the rack, splattering the balls all over the table. However, he failed in executing the most important part of the shot - pocketing the object ball. I ran 42 and out, and won the money.
Ego is what made Big Al go for an overly risky shot. Ego is an important part of gambling, because the most important factor in any gambling game is how you match up. It is natural in poker to want to be near the top of the pecking order. One way this order is determined is the stakes for which you play. The bigger the stakes, the better the players, and a major part of how you are judged is the company you keep. Sometimes, the biggest game in the house is the best one, or at least the game in which your earn will be the greatest. But there are many occasions when you are better off playing in a smaller game - if your goal is to win money. A professional gambler needs to win, and he should play where he has the best chance to make money, and not necessarily where he can consider himself "one of the big boys."
It is not just my opponents who have made mistakes on account of ego; I have made a few myself. One does not always play a game at the same level. Some nights, you are "in the zone," where hard shots look easy and your cue ball control is effortless. It is easy to think of this as your "normal game," and all the other times as being "a little off." You golfers and bowlers know exactly what I am talking about. This psychological error of overevaluating your "normal game" can cause the biggest gambling error of all - making a bad matchup. Here is an example from pool, where I committed this cardinal sin:
I was trying to get a pool game at an all-night restaurant in Hamtramck (in Detroit). Things were slow that night. I decided to play against a player I knew was a real toughie, Harry Leogi, reputedly the best pool player in the western suburbs of Detroit. We played eight-ball, my favorite game on a bar table. I should mention that although eight-ball on a regulation-size table is supposedly a game for amateurs, on a bar-size table, it is an excellent gambling game. On such a table, the balls create a clutter, so the planning and execution of a runout, using good cue ball control, is more important than being a great shot-maker. Plus, if you run most of your balls and then err, the other guy has a cakewalk to win.
The session against Harry went very well for me. I had a lot of luck, and was "in the zone." He eventually quit me, and after that, never ventured to play me eight-ball again. He did not know that he had run into a player on fire that night, who was normally a worse player than he was. I foolishly got it into my head that I was a better player than Harry Leogi, and could beat anyone he could beat. This was not proper thinking for a smart gambler; it was overconfidence.
I got my comeuppance for this ego error a couple of months later, in an extremely appropriate fashion. Harry had an older brother (I forget his name) who was not quite as good as Harry, but was still no slouch. I ran into "Big Brother" in a bar on Telegraph Road, and we started playing some nine-ball for $10 a game. Obviously, if I could beat Little Brother, and Little Brother could beat Big Brother, I could beat Big Brother. Wrong! Pool isn't math. Even after I got him to switch the game from nine-ball to eight-ball, I still kept losing. By closing time, I had lost all the money that I had brought with me. My ego error had done me in. When I drove home, the evening's happenings dwelled on me, and I realized the type of mistake I had made. I needed to take ego out of my gambling.In my next column, I will tell you some more pool stories, and how they later tied in with my career as a professional poker player
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