If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.
Growing up with a mom who dated bikers, I was exposed early to the existential croonings of Kenny Rogers. At bars and braais, one song, in particular, would have the ballies drunkenly shuffling and swaying as they belted out:
“You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run”
“The Gambler” is a quintessential country song. Existential musings wrapped in a thinly-veiled metaphor told by a traveller on a train over some whiskey and a cigarette. On the surface, it’s rudimentary advice on how to play poker (and most other card games). It covers the basics of holding and folding although the omission of “raising”, uh, raises some questions. I forgive it though because, like Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball likes to say, “It’s a metaphor”.
Poker is actually a fantastic metaphor for life as I’ve never made much money in either. Chip and a chair though, right? That’s the losing poker player’s motto. You’ll hear it repeated often throughout a night at the tables. The theory is that as long as you have a chip and a chair, you’re still in the game. That’s a lie. Sometimes the blinds are too high, your stack is too low, and everyone else at the table is looking to absorb your last remaining scraps into their mountains of chips. Now you’ve posted the last of your chips as the big blind and you’re staring at 2-7 off-suit. The person to the left of you just called. Chip and a chair, right?
If you’ve never played poker before, you’re probably wondering “What the hell are “blinds”?” Poker has a built in tax system called blinds (or ante) that go up at regular intervals to prevent inaction from players. Every couple of hands, you have to bet regardless of what you’re dealt. Essentially, you’re going in “blind”. If the cards aren’t going your way, you have some choices to make. To either “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”
As most experienced poker players know, sometimes you have to make bold moves at inopportune times to prevent the above from happening. Sometimes that leads to you getting knocked out of the game sooner. The thing is, if you’re going to lose anyway, isn’t it better to just rip the bandage off rather than feel each individual hair slowly pulled out? Besides, poker, like life, rewards people even more when they have money. You win more if you bet more. The only way to bet more is to have more and the only way to have more is to win more. The circle of life.
Going all-in (betting everything) with an average hand when you have a decent chip stack is far more effective than going all-in with the nuts (best hand) when you’re short stacked. You might have pocket aces, but aces are dangerous when everyone is in and are useless when everyone around you folds. A big raise from a small stack can go either way. If you’re lucky, one person will call you, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll double up and live to fight another day. If you’re unlucky, the whole table will call just because they can. You see, your chances of losing go up the more people who enter the pot, no matter what your hand is. Sure, the pot is bigger, but so are the chances of someone else hitting a flush, a straight, or even just two pairs as your dreams get crushed with every card that’s flipped over. You can have the statistically best hand and fate will laugh at your faith in maths. My biggest wins have come from hands like jack and 5 of clubs where I hit the flush on the “river” (last card to be revealed). A hand affectionately referred to as The Jackson Five.
“Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep”
Lately, I’ve been folding a lot of hands. The hands I do play have raked in small wins that barely cover the ever-inflating blinds. I can’t remember the last time I saw a face card and I know that if things keep going the way they have been, it’s only a matter of time before my stack of chips whittles away as I wait for aces. As a gambler, I recognise that it’s time to make some bold moves and let the cards fall where they may. Besides, I’ve always preferred Motörhead’s take on the matter, “You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools, but that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t wanna live forever.”
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