Living the Good Life

barry greenstein

I've played poker for decades. I've known hundreds, thousands of punters, amateurs, pros and semipros, winners and losers, the sublime and the simple, the saps and the geniuses.

And there's this big question hovering around the poker world that's bothered me for a long time.

They come; they go. Some last, but most seem to fall off the end of the pier. Never seen again.

Why? This word keeps banging a dull, thudding bell in my brain. Why do they vanish? Isn't this "the good life?" No real job. No responsibility. Easy money. Pick up and go where you want, when you want. Have cash, will travel.

So, while in Vegas I got in touch with a friend, a pro "with legs." We had a leisurely dinner and a long chat.

My editor likes me to personalize my protagonists, so let's call him Max. Max plays mainly Stud, but he'll sit in a game of Hold'em if the field looks soft.

His home is Vegas but he follows the tournament circuit - not to play in the events but for the side action. He says he makes the lion's share of his income in these circus-like gatherings since the joint tends to be filled with players who just aren't as good as they think they are - and many arrive seriously bankrolled.

Pouring a crisp Vouvray, I ask "how long have you been doing this now?"

"About 18, no, make that 19 years." Smiling. "Not many last that long."

"I bet," I replied. "When did it stop being fun?"

"Wha? Wha! What did you say?" He sounded like someone whose nut straight just got leveled by a fifth spade.

"I said, Max, when did it stop being fun?"

A spot of silence. A look of thoughtfulness. A wrinkled brow. A mind thinking ... do I tell him the truth? Or should I run a bluff?

"Well," he mumbled slowly, "about a dozen or so years ago."

"Then, old friend, why do you keep playing?"

"What the hell else I am going to do?" More silence. Drink another glass of wine. Order dinner.

"So, Max." Me again. I'm going to really stick my foot in it now. "Do you have a pension plan?"

"You know, prof [a lot of my poker buds call me that], I keep thinking I should. After all, I don't have much of a Social Security account built up and I kinda wonder what I'll be doing when I'm your age." (Now that was a shot.)

"How about health insurance?" Dig, dig, dig ...

"I've been damn lucky so far, I guess. Had to hit the ER once last year but could cover the bill." (I think that's a "no.")

"What're your plans for when you get too old to play?"

"Well, I honestly don't know," he said. "Maybe I'll get lucky and die before that."

Oops. New topic, quick. Anything but poker, the life and being a pro. "Are the Mets going to blow it again?" I ask. "It's getting really sick rooting for these guys."

Then I remembered, Max has a couple of thou on the Mets to win the division. So we shifted over to politics, where we agree, and knocked off the bottle of Vouvray.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Should life be fun? I don't know. Maybe. Ideally it should be. When I started teaching I ran across an article written by a psychologist named E. C. Tolman. Tolman was one of my academic heroes and one reason was this article, which was his last. I'll just give you the final words:

"Did I accomplish what I hoped? Not really. But that doesn't matter. The only sure thing is to have fun. And I have had fun."

I printed it out and put it on my bulletin board. Every student who came to study with me got a copy.

Tolman was one lucky dude. The world is chock-a-block with folks who aren't having fun.

Lawyers who flop around in bed at night unable to sleep. Sales reps who keep running tally sheets through their brains when they should be enjoying a glass of Vouvray. Carpenters who hate nails. Beauticians who hate them even more. Bored secretaries. Guilty politicians.

There are lots of reasons for playing poker. One of them is making money but, except for a few, this isn't the main goal.

We've talked about this before. We decided (well, I decided) that having fun was at the top of the hierarchy for the rest of us.

Poker is recreation, entertainment. It's special; the only easily available form of recreation that can pay for itself. But it bloody well better be fun. Otherwise, why are you playing?

It's really tough to maintain a presence as a top-level professional in this game. Want a sobering experience? Go back and take a look at the people who cashed in the WSOP events 10 years ago, 20 years ago.

Now take a look at the ones who cashed in the past two years. There are some familiar names, but not many. Even more sobering is to look at five years ago. So, so many "flashes in the pan." So many.

Max is right. He is special. He is one of a very few who have been around since BCM (that's "Before Chris Moneymaker") and survived. He's got a nice house. Not special, but OK. He drives a nice car. Not too fancy, but OK. He's got a girlfriend. Very, very special. (Hey, she may read this.)

It ain't a bad life. Is it "the good life"?

Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure is worth thinking about if you're in that mood. You know, the one where you think that you may just want to quit that ugly Dolly Parton existence and become a free spirit, the poker pro.

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 poker pro. 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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