A Mild Sense of Relief

I’m bad at gambling. I suppose that requires elaboration. In the early 2000s, poker enjoyed a kind of renaissance. They put it on TV. John Malkovich donned a legendarily strange accent in Rounders. And college campuses across the country were filled with low stakes home games. But they felt like the World Series of Poker. In Tim and I’s one bedroom casino, we used clay chips, used a felt table which was easily the most expensive piece of furniture in the apartment, and kept a running ledger of the P&L of every kid who walked through the door. Weinhard’s Root Beer flowed like water while Tom Waits serenaded us. We were 20 and laying the groundwork for future degeneracy.

They say it’s a lifetime of poker.

And if you go by the ledger, I’m up. I’m a profitable player. By a lot. I make money. But to quote Mike quoting someone else, “In his book Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King said, ‘Few players recall big pots they have won— strange as it seems— but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.’” 

Like I said, my lack of prowess stems from a strange place. Poker is painful to me. Winning produces a dim reprieve from the burden of not having accomplished my goal. It’s negative reinforcement. Removing the boot of success from off my throat so I can breathe. Accomplishment evaporates. It is cotton candy in the mouth leaving you haunted by the ghost of your previous self. Losing, however, is carved in your chest with a knife. To complicate matters, losing is a tremendous motivator. Aaron Sorkin’s Billie Bean said, “I hate losing. I hate it. I hate losing more than I want to win. And believe me. There’s a difference.” 

If only losing were discouraging. I could just quit and we could be done with this nonsense. But, it sets fire to my guts. It isn’t a righteous, “Lose Yourself” fire. It’s a dull, throbbing pain. And victory is the extinguisher. It makes me better. Forces me to learn from my mistakes. To study my tactics and improve them. The feeling is so potent, it verges on worrisome. I become a man of singular focus: the John Wick of never feeling this way again. The line between determination and obsession is virtually non-existent. They are neighboring shades of gray. Only history decides which side of the fence you end up on.

Not enough people talk about what a maniac Michael Jordan was. Mamba mentality is a productive mental illness. With great achievement comes magnificent sacrifice. Greatness requires emotional anorexia. It demands you look in the mirror and not see your achievements. Only what is lacking. Only what you haven’t done. Victory dysmorphia. It is precisely this unfillable void which propels us to a  Sisyphean nightmare of success. 

I once lamented I wouldn’t make a good parent because I can’t stand the sound of a baby crying. The shriek accosts my eardrums in a way that I can’t ignore. My friend’s reply shocked me. She said, “You’re supposed to hate the sound of a baby crying. It’s precisely because you can’t ignore it that you’d be a good Dad. It would be concerning if you could ignore it.” Aversion can be productive. Perhaps necessarily so.

So when I say I’m bad at gambling, that isn’t quite accurate. The ledger says I’m fantastic at gambling. My chest says otherwise. What worries me is that I can’t have one without the other. 

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