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What an incredible hubris

In the old days, long before the Internet married poker, and long before a roaring tide of new players strode into online and traditional cardrooms alike, free of apprehension and trepidation, the modus operandi was all very much the same. New players were cautious when moving up to higher-stakes limit games, and especially careful when venturing into pot-limit and no-limit games for the first time.

No-limit games had a certain similarity about the way they were played, too, especially in tournaments. While you could always find a maniac or two afoot, many tournament players prided themselves on their ability to make the final table without ever having to commit all of their chips to the pot, except when they might be fortunate enough to hold the pure nuts.

Not now — that’s all in the past. There’s a new style of play taking hold, and it’s been spurred on by the two usual suspects: poker tournaments on TV and small buy-in events online. No one plays small ball any longer; they’re all swinging for the fences. It’s push and shove it all in. Put your opponent to the test. Maybe he’ll lay down the best hand. Perhaps you’ll make him commit all of his chips when you have the best of it, or maybe you just have a chance to get lucky and eliminate your opponent from the tournament, and that’s enough motivation to go all in. The strategy is the same regardless of the circumstances. “All in,” you hear them scream time and again; “I’m all in.”

Way back when — about three years ago, before the growth of online tournaments and 24-hour-a-day televised poker — it was pretty easy to deal with a push-and-shove opponent. You simply avoided him unless you had a big hand and were substantially favored to win the pot. But the sheer number of players who are playing “all in” poker today makes that more difficult. While it’s one thing to duck a tough, unpredictable, and somewhat maniacal opponent, it’s something else entirely to play against a host of players whose approach to the game is to push all in at almost every opportunity. You can’t duck everybody. At some point, you have to take a stand.

While most of these “all-inners” are going to be eliminated because they’re going all in with weak hands much of the time, some of them, of course, will accumulate a massive amount of chips and stand a good chance of winning the tournament.

I guess that’s another way of saying there’s more dead money than usual, although the cumulative effect of all that dead money is that someone is going to win a lot of it, and it’s not likely to be anyone playing conservative, small-ball poker.

Many new players, who have been attracted to poker tournaments, live games, televised poker, online poker, and everything else poker-related, seem to come into the game with an incredible amount of hubris, a word Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.” The New World Dictionary of the American Language pushes that definition a bit, defining it as “wanton insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride or passion.”

Both definitions fit. There seems to be an “I know it all” mentality common to many new players. Sometimes it stems from beginners luck, winning a bit of money early on, and then not wanting to hear a single word about any weaknesses that might be resident in their game. Other times it simply seems to stem from an attitude characterized by an “I know it all, and there’s not a thing you can teach me” perspective.

Much of this hubris comes from ignoring the fact that poker is really a very long game, and that the mythical long run takes a very long time to reach. It’s compounded by ignoring the fact that short-term results in poker are really nothing at all. They’re illusory as a general predictor of one’s play, except when they can be viewed from the perspective of a very long time. That’s another way of saying that while guys like Doyle Brunson and T.J. Cloutier have every right to claim greatness because they’ve proven it over a long time, guys who have won a tournament or two on TV (and that’s it) really can’t make a legitimate claim to greatness, or at least they shouldn’t — not yet, anyway. Just like baseball players who have one good season and a lifetime of obscurity, and one-hit musical groups with a million-selling hit but are never heard from again, poker’s night sky is filled with shooting stars, guys who light up the poker world by winning an event or two, only to vanish from the scene and never be heard from again.

This incredible hubris can be found on poker online forums like the Internet newsgroup rec.gambling.poker with increasing frequency. Players are criticized for no real reason at all, except perhaps for one play made during one hand that happened to be televised, and may be nothing more than an episode taken completely out of context. Many attackers spin a player’s personality onto his poker skills, when they should at least make an effort to separate the actor from the act. Let’s face it, Phil Hellmuth is an easy target for criticism, since he is his own worst enemy with his tantrums and diatribes at the poker table. But how can you attack his results? He has won so many tournaments and World Series bracelets that his skill ought to be acknowledged even by the staunchest of his attackers.

Chris Moneymaker is a guy who had lots of bricks thrown his way last year. Critics say he got lucky when he won the 2003 World Series of Poker. They’ll say Greg Raymer got lucky this year. So what? Even Doyle Brunson got lucky when he won the WSOP with a 10 and a deuce in his hand. Of course they got lucky. Everyone who wins a tournament, be it the WSOP or a $10 buy-in online event, will get lucky along the road to victory. It doesn’t lessen the player’s accomplishment, it merely points out that luck and skill are both factors in poker, and they’re probably inseparable. To demean someone for being lucky is a way of saying, “He’s not so good. He got lucky to win it,” while muttering sotto voce, “If I had gotten as lucky as he did, I’d have won it, too.”

It’s that hubris again. Maybe it’s something that takes a long time to beat down. Perhaps it takes a lot of perspective to realize that poker is a very long game. And until hubris can be banished from one’s system, it’s tough for a player to have a realistic view of his own skills and abilities. After all, the continual carping by some of these same overly critical players about online sites being rigged is probably nothing more than an unwillingness to face facts: When your bankroll continues to decline, your measure as a player is being taken and you can’t escape it. Yet, the hubris to suggest sites are rigged continues despite no facts ever having been presented to support allegations. It’s also obvious that it’s in the best interest of every online site to run its business on the square. With poker continuing to grow, the challenge facing most sites today is building the scalability into their software to accommodate new players, not to rig games in order to maintain some sort of status quo among existing customers.

I don’t mean to sound discouraged. I like all the attention poker’s received, and I hope it continues. Poker may have some growing pains, but I’m optimistic. I usually am. Once all the newcomers have been around for a while, I think they’ll develop an appreciation for the lengthy perspective required to view poker and assess a player’s skills — even if they do retain that tendency to shout “All in!” at the drop of a hat, or more precisely, the turn of a card. spades

 

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