The gamble of poker

By: Tim Napper

'Hollywood' looks at me over the rim of his beer glass, “The problem is that you don’t have any gamble!”

Coming just a couple of hours after I busted from a $5,000 buy-in poker tournament, I find the statement pretty absurd.

I snort a reply, “Well, your definition of someone with gamble is someone who is broke. Like you.”

You see, ‘Hollywood’ is a professional poker player who is struggling at the moment - he’s getting backed by another professional to play cash games at Crown Casino (‘Hollywood’ got his name after auditioning as an extra three times for Home and Away, and being rejected three times. He told me afterwards that the casting director told him he looked “too much like homeless person” to even get a bit-part on the soap opera.) He’s been doing it tough, trying to grind his way out of a vicious downswing that won’t seem to let go.

But three jugs of beer later, Hollywood’s accusation still stings.

You see, in poker circles, there’s nothing worse than being known as someone without any gamble. By 'gamble' we don’t mean someone who truly gambles – that is, who doesn’t apply skill, but rather just mindlessly rides their luck to try to work up a big score. We’re not talking about the pokies here. Not at all. Because those who rely only on luck in poker, all end up broke.

No, when poker players talk about ‘gamble’, what they’re really talking about is a quality that is true of all the best players in the game. What they are talking about is ‘heart’. When a poker player has heart they forget about the money, they play on instinct (albeit instinct built upon a wealth of experience and study of the game). Because it is only in that nexus of skill, discipline, fearlessness and heart does a good poker player become truly great.

The paradox is that a lack of regard for the money is the one true way to make real money from the game.

So do I lack gamble? I don’t think that’s the problem. I reckon I’ve got enough gamble, when it counts. I'm no pro and wouldn't claim to be, but I can put it all on the line. As an amateur playing in my spare time, I built a bankroll big enough to play in the World Series in Vegas (and blew it at the World Series in Vegas). When I’m in a tournament I rarely think about the money. Sure, I’ll glance at the first prize and allow myself to savour what a score that big will feel like, but that tends not to determine my actions.

The problem I had in the 5k event was a bit more commonplace than lacking gamble. It was the old standard of poker players and sportspeople, indeed of anyone who has ever engaged in a competitive pursuit - self-doubt. My problem was not trusting reads and experience, of forgetting lessons learned a thousand times over.

I wandered by to chat to Hollywood later in the poker room; he was slouched in a chair playing at stakes far lower than he was used to. Sitting there underneath disheveled hair, a worn jacket that looked like a blanket you’d bury a dead dog in, an unlit hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. I watch him 4-bet a wild Asian player preflop and take the pot down with an all-in bet on the turn. He looks like a bum, but the man can play.

Hollywood looks up at me, if he feels any exhilaration from the big pot he just played, it doesn’t show, “You’re terrible. I’ve decided I’m not going to pay you for the piece of you I bought in the 5k.”

I reply, “The 2 per cent? The hundred bucks? Just give me the money you hobo.”

He smiles. I’ll get the money, but he isn’t going to make it easy. “Well, I’ve only got silver coins. Can you take that?” Like a true grinder, he won’t take the chips from the table in front of him to pay me.

I shake my head. I don’t think my Virgin Ticket for my flight home has sufficient weight allowance for so many coins. “Let’s leave it for next time.”

I think forward briefly to the next time I’ll be in Melbourne. To the Aussie Millions.  The best-run, biggest, most exciting tournament series on the Australian poker calendar. If there’s a time to combine heart with some run-good, that’s the time.

An announcement in the poker room breaks my reverie, “Contestants in the two hundred and fifty dollar tournament, please take your seats, the game will begin in sixty seconds.”

It’s not five grand, but it’s still action. I make my way over to my table.

Time to gamble.


Tim Napper is a freelance writer, poker player, and regular contributer to