Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On Not Turning Pro

I must admit that I am competitive by nature, and that when I have been attracted to some new game that interested me it has been my practice to learn all I can about it, to gamble at it, and especially to gamble at it with better players. If you can find such stituations in lower stakes games, this is the best way to learn. If you become only fairly good and confine your playing to games in which you are one of the favorites, you soon stop learning. In backgammon, for example, I was able to find a club where I could play with stronger players for a dollar a point or two dollars a point. I soon lost several hundred dollars, but the games tended to have a mix of stronger and weaker players, my losses tapered off, and I became one of the more or less consistent winners.

The club slowly died and I moved on to another, this one featuring five and ten dollar games. It's been a long time since I played, but I am certainly ahead some number of dollars in the lower five figures. However, you shouldn't be too impressed. That only makes me a slightly larger than small fish in a very large pond.

(By the way, I have found that in all such situations taking a break and playing only with weaker players for any significant amount of time weakened my game. My wallet would get fatter, but when I returned to games that included some better players I often got my clock cleaned.)

Interestingly, I have been approached by professionals in two different games with advice by one and an offer by the other. They thought I should lose my "honest" job and become a professional. These approaches occurred many years ago:
  • In the 1960s, when I was active in duplicate bridge, I came (by a bizarre road) to the attention of a bridge pro whom we'll call Taylor. He is still active today (thanks, Google).

    I was partnered at a regional tournament with an elderly woman (Fairfax Nesbitt, R.I.P.) and the movement called for two boards (hands) to be played each round. At one table we bid and made two grand slams. It happened that I was declarer both times. When Taylor saw the traveling score slip he alerted the tournament director that something might be wrong - more precisely, that cheating might be taking place - as neither hand was makeable at the grand slam level. At one point in a subsequent round a middle-aged gentleman in a suit watched our bidding and play, then left. I later learned that this was the tournament director.

    We got tops on both hands, but what actually happened during the play of the two hands was:

    1. Based on the bidding, the opening leader came up with a "brilliant" lead which was in fact the only lead that allowed me to make the contract. This was followed by:

    2. A hand with a revoke by a defender. I led a trump, she had one, she inadvertently played a card of another suit, and the penalty was two tricks, giving us the grand slam.

    Taylor had been informed by the tournament director that he observed nothing unusual. Taylor kept his eye on the score slips and found that our results were otherwise consistently normal. Between two rounds he hastened over to me, introduced himself, and asked how I had made the two grand slams. I explained and he laughed and confessed that he had put the tournament director onto us. He returned to his partner and we played our next several sets of opponents.

    When the session was over he appeared again and we chatted about some of the hands. He was, I think, testing me to decide how good or bad a player I might be. In the end he tried to convince me that I should become a bridge pro.

  • In the 1970s I played a lot of backgammon, initially at one club and with perhaps twenty more or less regular members, several of whom were strong players and the rest middle or weak players. As mentioned above, I lost an initial investment of several hundred dollars and learned a great deal. There were two players who made a living gambling at backgammon (with bridge a second source of income for one) and several very strong amateurs who simply supplemented their incomes there.

    I would say that I had about reached the level of the very strong amateurs when the backgammon and bridge pro approached me. He wanted me to turn pro and travel the country with him, occasionally being his partner in matches. He was in his mid-twenties and I was in my early thirties.
These approaches were flattering, but I rejected them both. The first advice was given when I still had several years to serve in the Army. When I went to Vietnam I was necessarily deprived of opportunities to play duplicate bridge, and this caused me to realize that I had been spending most of my life, at least most of my life outside my Army duties, with people who were ten to fifty years older than I (I was 25 when I went to Vietham), and that this was not healthy. And frankly, I still had a lot to learn about bridge and the pro life didn't seem all that attractive to me.

The bridge/backgammon offer was made when I was in my thirties, which is a bit late to switch from a more or less normal life to one of constant travel and gambling. I had been around the world and I was tired of traveling, and once again the pro gambler life didn't look all that attractive.

Whether for the right or wrong reasons, I think I made the right decisions. Today, it seems to me that such lives are shallow, or at least would be for me. Now I'm not shooting at anyone in particular here, or even at any group of people. It may be just a matter of temperament and a matter of when (at what age) you start.

I look, for example, at the international stars in poker who play for a great deal of money. They've all become millionaires that way, and I'm sure they're happy about that. However, correctly or incorrectly, I divide them into two groups: those who balance their lives to some extent, have other things that are important to them, sometimes even more important to them, and those who simply live the life of traveling and gambling (and yes, I'm aware of the perks), constantly competing.

As I have said (or will say) elsewhere in this blog, I overdo things. I suspect that had I turned pro and been successful I'd have fallen into the latter group. I think that I have lived my life in a more interesting if less lucrative way.



Barney said...

Well I for one am glad; I never would have met you if you'd been a pro gambler of any stripe.

Reid said...

I have no idea how to play backgammon. All my life, the board has been on the back of my checkers board, but no one has ever sat down and said "let's play!" Until I read your blog, I was afraid we might have let all of the people who knew how to play backgammon pass on without imparting their knowledge unto us.

It's a quaint throwback to a forgotten time. Seeing someone playing backgammon is like seeing a kid running while rolling a tire with a stick, or seeing a guy wearing suspenders and a barrel.

Enjoy the blog, as always!

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

(I've rewritten this comment as I had Reid confused with an earlier poster.)

Ah ha ha ha ha ha. Well, backgammon is not *quite* as rare as suspenders and a barrel.

In the early 1970's there was a backgammon boom in the US, lasting for perhaps a decade.

There are still backgammon clubs in larger metropolitan areas, and in the 1980's I belonged to one on Peterson in Chicago. Google backgammon and you get 15,600,000 hits.

If you are competitive by nature, be careful. It is one of the most addictive games I know of. It is deceptively simple to learn, but beneath the surface it is *monstrously* complex.

Thank you for the kind words, and I'm happy that you're enjoying the blog.