You can find my “10 Basic Rules of Gambling” in Chapter 40 of Casino Gambling the Smart Way, and those rules are worth a review before any casino trip. In a poker game earlier today, I re-learned (the hard way, as opposed to the smart way) a long-forgotten addendum to Rule #3. Before we examine this sad and instructive tale, let’s make sure you’re up to speed on the original rule.
Rule #3 states that “if you don’t know who the fish (sucker) in the game is, it’s you.” Although primarily a poker rule, it applies to any situation where you’re risking your money against other individuals, rather than against a casino.
This means that anytime you play a skill game like poker, backgammon, gin, or bridge, engage in pari-mutual betting at horse or dog track, or compete against others in some kind of betting pool or tournament, if the likely losers aren’t apparent to you, you’ll probably be one of them.
Although this no doubt happened to me many times in the early days of my poker career, it has happened only once lately. A couple of years ago I sat down in a 15-30 Texas Hold ’em game in Atlantic City, and after about 20 minutes I asked myself, “OK, where is the free money at this table? Who are the bad players?” I didn’t have an answer. There were no bad players. So I got up and moved to an easier game.
Probably I wasn’t the worst player in the game, but it was clear that there were no easy marks, and without an easy mark, playing poker in a casino which charges you money just to sit in on the game (in this case, $14 per hour) is a losing proposition. To beat that $14/hour “house rake,” there have to be some players-at least one-who are likely to lose.
This doesn’t mean that the fish WILL lose, or that you will win, but to have an edge, that’s what you look for.
Arriving for today’s game, I experienced a feeling roughly analogous to learning a prospective blind date had been a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model before she got her Ph.D. in philosophy and written several books about how to be warm and kind to your fellow human beings: a very promising beginning.
Why so promising? Sitting in my favorite game was a guy I had previously labeled the “Worst Player in the World.”
Of course, he wasn’t actually THE worst player in the world. But for a game of this size, he was very, very bad-completely out of his league.
I’d learned this in a previous encounter. The last time I’d played with this fellow (let’s just call him WorldsWorst), he had lost about $4,000 (quite a bit in a game of $15 and $30 bets), and had played just about every hand (which is practically the only way you can lose $4,000 in a 15-30 game). What made the night even better was that Fate had decided to favor me and I caught a lot of cards. The bulk of WorldsWorst’s money went home with me.
Usually I go home at a reasonable hour, regardless of how I am doing, because I know my play deteriorates when I get tired. That night I had decided, while WorldsWorst was off on one what would prove to be nine or ten separate trips to the credit card cash machine, to stay until he left. He was the livest “live one” I had ever encountered.
Given a choice between the blind date with the warm, brilliant, supermodel and another game with WorldsWorst… well, I would pick the date. But I would at least pause for a split second before making my selection: WorldsWorst is the kind of poker natural resource that one shouldn’t squander lightly. I wouldn’t play him one-on-one because I would feel too guilty about hurting him. But in a big public game where he was going to lose all his money anyway, he might as well lose some of it to me.
Since there were no genius supermodels initiating conversation, I quickly signed up for WorldsWorst’s game. It took about an hour before a seat opened up and I kept checking things out from my adjacent table, hoping that the other players weren’t going to break him before I could sit down and get my fair share.
WorldsWorst was low on chips when I got into the game, and this worried me a little, because I had no idea how long he’d been there and how many times he’d already visited the cash machine. So I was a little too anxious to play pots with him before the cards had ever been dealt.
Sure enough, WorldsWorst was playing the kind of game I remembered. He was calling with more or less anything and figured to bequest his credit limit to the table.
Seeing this, I decided to relax my standards for entering hands whenever WorldsWorst was in a pot, because I knew I would get paid off handsomely whenever I made a big hand. WorldsWorst was sure to call my bets and perhaps even to raise me a few times when he was already losing. Trying to take advantage of this, I called a fair number of opening bets with hands that I would normally fold.
This turned out to be, as a pilot who crashes into a mountain might say, a slight over-correction in my course. I didn’t forget about the other players, but I was too focused on WorldsWorst. I was too eager to play with him; I was giving up some of my normal edge. Usually much of that edge would come from starting with a better hand; the player who starts better usually finishes better.
By relaxing my starting requirements too much, I was now facing WorldsWorst in some hands where he started better than I did. More importantly, I was involved in many three, four and five-way pots without sufficient ammunition. And so in a game that looked incredibly juicy, I lost.
WorldsWorst? He lost, of course, lost every dollar he had. He was going to lose, that was clear enough. But what I’d forgotten in the course of that anxious hour, waiting to get into the game with him, was that there was no rule he had to lose to ME.
The lesson, like the original rule #3, applies to most forms of gambling. If you find yourself in a game with a weak player, be very cautious about making any drastic changes in your usual play, just so you can engage the enemy. Slight, situational changes are correct, but if you’re like me on this particular day, or like most gamblers on most days, you will probably err on the side of too many adjustments or changes.
Unless you are a true expert and loaded with self-discipline, you will be better off playing your normal game, and simply accepting those chips which your game’s version of WorldsWorst happens to donate.
So we now have to expand Rule #3. It’s still important-critically important-to identify situations where you’re a big underdog, and to swim away before the sharks can gobble you up. But we need a codicil: If you do spot a fish in the game, don’t wander too far from shore trying to catch him. If you wade in too deep, you just might find one or more of the other sharks taking a bite out of your wallet, your pride, or both.
(By the way, if you spotted the fish-pun in “codicil,” you’re either brilliant or you’re reading this article WAY too slowly.)
If you do find a shark bite-sized hole in your wallet or pride, don’t go home angry. Go home and figure out what went wrong.
After all, Gambling Rule #1 is “If you can’t (or won’t) be honest with yourself, sooner or later your gambling is going to lead to trouble.” I made a mistake today; that honest self-appraisal will probably mean I won’t make this particular mistake again. If you can keep your mind open to learning from your mistakes, you’ll usually find The Big Casting Director in the Sky selecting you to play roles as a fisherman, rather than as a fish.
With the lesson learned, the next time you run into your local version of the Worst Player in the World, you’ll know just what to do, and well you should. Unlike blind dates with brilliant heartful supermodels, good fishing opportunities come along all the time.