Poker Leaks: Something's Dripping, and It's Money

T.J. Cloutier

No, this is not an article on plumbing.

Leaking is an unhappy condition and pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Something's dripping - and it's money.

There's a guy I've known for years. He's a decent middle-stakes player, probably a long-term winner. But he has a leak. He thinks he knows something about the horses.

He doesn't, and he won't listen to anyone who does. He sits at the poker table with the Daily Racing Form in his lap. When he's not in a hand, he takes a couple of quick glances and tries to handicap.

Every half hour or so he goes to the simulcasting room and systematically piddles away his poker winnings.

That's a leak, and he's not alone. Our game has more than its share of legends who bleed profusely from self-inflicted wounds at craps tables, baccarat and games like golf and basketball.

Many also have a poor head for business and are prone to invest in offbeat ventures that are closer to scams than honest enterprises.

Two Categories

Leakers come in two categories: the ignorant and the driven. The ignorant are less interesting. They usually don't know the statistical natures of the games they play, and don't realize they are jeopardizing their bankrolls.

They think a slot machine is "due" because it hasn't paid out a jackpot recently; that baccarat can be beaten if you chart the sequence of "Banker" and "Player" hands. Or they think that to beat craps you just look for a hot shooter.

Whatever. It's a little surprising that people hold such delusional beliefs - especially those who are decent poker players. They are passionate about their "main" game, understand its mathematical elements and make strategic adjustments based on pot and implied odds.

But give them a baccarat shoe or a pair of dice and suddenly they can't count to 10.

Part of the problem is that when they play these other games, they stop caring. Oh, they like money and they like to win, but they stop caring about the mathematical aspects of the games.

They like variety and they like action. They also tend to be recreational players and all they're really doing is costing themselves a couple of bucks. In fact, many of them eventually figure out what is happening and plug their leaks.

Of more psychological interest, however, are the others: the driven. The head cases who don't just leak money, they hemorrhage it!

"Just Fun" Between Gamblers

The following episode took place a few years ago. A respected poker pro (who shall be nameless to protect the guilty) cashed out for a shade over $150,000 in a major tournament. He took the cash but, as he turned around, he found a bunch of his creditors standing there waiting to be paid.

Despite the size of the win, it wasn't enough, and the last guy in line, who got shortchanged, slugged our hero. Not many make the final table and get a crack in the jaw as part of the prize.

His problem? Sports betting, where he has lost astonishing amounts. Others bet the horses or shoot craps or wager on their ability to smack a small, white, dimpled orb of gutta-percha around a manicured park.

Of course, some of this is "just fun" between gamblers. But much of it isn't - it has a markedly pathological feel to it.

I've got some thoughts to share with you. First, there is an ironic, Shakespearean element here. In many of Shakespeare's tragedies the traits that made characters successful and heroic were the very ones that ultimately brought about their downfall.

And so it goes with many poker greats. The skills that enable these guys to rise to the top of the poker world are the very ones that drag them into the financial abyss elsewhere.

They hurl themselves into games with a devil-may-care attitude. They don't care about the money. They crave action, they know and love the game and they're ruthless. They don't just want to win; they want to crush their opponents.

You Can't Intimidate a Pair of Dice

Jack Straus put it best, "If my own grandmother sat down at the table, I'd break her." As English essayist, poet, mountain climber and poker player Al Alvarez noted, for these guys the chips aren't money in any ordinary sense; they're just a way of keeping score, a measure of one's status.

When these world-class, high-stakes poker players go to the sportsbook, the race track or the craps table, they take their skills, talents and personality quirks with them. Their knowledge of statistics and probabilities is useful, but their lack of concern for money, their massive egos and their dependence on reading their opponents are daggers in their hearts.

A thoroughbred horse doesn't give a fat flying fig who you are or how inflated your ego is. You can't intimidate a pair of dice with an all-in bet. A tipped pass in overtime will doom your bet on the Cowboys no matter how big your wager.

The psychology of the poker table is different from other gambling domains. The drive, the ability to read people, to out-think them, to win the wheels-within-wheels maneuverings that comprise the bluffs and traps - all these aptitudes that work at the poker table are useless in other gaming venues.

You'd think they'd figure it out, but they don't - they don't care about the money, their egos goad them on and, at the bottom of their mortal souls, they are action junkies.

Are there winning poker players who are also successful elsewhere? A few, but they tend to be laid-back types who approach both games with a quiet, studied manner. Mickey Appleman is a legendary sports bettor and Andy Bloch was a member of the famed MIT blackjack team.

There are also poker professionals with no leaks at all. Next time we'll take a look at one, and try to figure out what makes him tick, how he avoids the plumber and what we all can learn from his approach to the game and to life.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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Vincent 2010-01-03 10:56:10

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. If there is one thing that I have learned in the last 13 years of sutdying human behavior as well as my own behavior is that I have an addictive personality. This 'addictive' part of my personality bodes well for results in games that use math and deductive reasoning, but I have learned that, FOR ME, games outside of poker are just plain "off limits"!! Thanks, great article.

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