NEW YORK CITY -- The ultimate American archetype -- our most cherished self-image -- is the lone gunfighter.
In our secret heart of hearts, he is everything we are and ever wanted to be, a collection of virtues that built this country into a superpower -- cool and cunning under pressure, a man of action rather than words, psychotically anti-social but self-reliant (that ur-American virtue so beloved by Emerson, Thoreau and Billy the Kid), willing to take responsibility for his own fate, impatient to bring his personal brand of justice and order to a chaotic world ... and in the cleanest way possible -- at the point of a gun.
And not just any gun. Not a gun, for example, operated by computer from half-a-world away. No, we are talking about a small hand-held gun, and a simple message: "Move on peacefully, stranger, or die like a dog in the street."
Why, it's the ultimate teaching device.
Think about some of our great cultural heroes -- Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" ... George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur ... Johnny Unitas ... Clint Eastwood in the "Dirty Harry" and Man With No Name movies ... John Wayne in just about anything ... Vince Lombardi and Bobby Knight ... Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano ... Ronald Reagan and his spiritual son, George W. Bush. They're all "My way or the highway" guys who know better than you what's right and what's wrong, and who, for the common good, would be willing to kill you in the process of saving you from your own lost self.
Before I embarked on my year-long journey as Page 2's "poker pro," I had this theory -- that our top-flight players are the modern equivalent of the lone gunfighter.
Think about it. The 19th-century gunfighter had to walk into a dimly-lit saloon, check out the louts lounging around (all complete strangers), figure out which ones were dangerous and which were wussies, then, based on the most subtle of reads, make a snap judgment about which ones he could take and which ones he had to avoid. And if he was wrong ... well, that was the last time he would be.
In other words, it was a life that consisted of going all-in every single time. As Mike Sexton, the lead announcer for the World Poker Tour, has so wisely put it, "Going all-in is a great play ... except once."
The 21st-century poker player has to walk into well-lit casinos, check out the louts lounging around the tables (mostly complete strangers), figure out which ones are dangerous and which are wussies, and make snap judgments about which he can take and which he has to avoid. And if he is wrong ... well, bye-bye, bankroll.
As it turns out, my theory holds up in most ways, though there are a few differences. The big one: Poker players, for the most part, are loathe to accept full responsibility for their own fates. In fact, their primary vehicle for "communicating" with one another is the bad beat story. As Phil Hellmuth has said, "If it wasn't for [bad] luck, I'd win every time."
For the gunfighter, there was no such thing as a bad beat story. If he suffered a bad beat -- if his gun jammed at an inopportune moment, say, or he wound up with the sun in his eyes -- there was nobody left alive to tell the tale, a circumstance for which the gunfighter's few friends were undoubtedly grateful.
The point is that gunfighters had few professional friends -- "This town ain't big enough for both of us, pardner" -- and neither do poker players. It's an occupational hazard I became keenly aware of soon after I arrived in Las Vegas at the beginning of my journey.
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"I've always wondered at the sheer number of superficial relationships there are in tournament poker. If you hang around enough, you'll know several hundred people on a first-name basis; but you'll still be lucky if you really have a substantial relationship with three of them or know anything about their real lives outside of poker.
"I've felt crushed by loneliness once or twice on the road. In particular, I can recall a time in Tunica, Mississippi, when I got seriously ill and I spent two or three days in my room with a fever.
"People in poker really do enjoy the misery of others. I'm guilty of it myself. I think I might enjoy watching others lose more than I enjoy winning myself. At least, I feel that way sometimes.
"I do have a core group of close friends in poker now, including Evelyn (Ng, one of the top women pros and his girlfriend). But remember, I am not a full-time touring pro. Those guys literally live in hotels and may have no roots at all. Some of them scrounge from buy-in to buy-in. That's got to be a lonely, desolate existence."
To be fair to some of the frequent targets of this column -- Hellmuth, Mike Matusow, Scott Fischman, the Unabomber -- this might help explain their behavior. When you are out there all alone on the high wire -- a lonely and desolate place, to be sure -- and your performance is being subjectively judged by so-called experts (such as yours truly) who don't really know what they are looking at, it's easy to feel insecure and threatened. And, if you've got few close friends to speak up on your behalf, it makes a certain kind of sense to present an arrogant face to the world. At the very least, it's a good bluff: Act strong to disguise those inner feelings of weakness. After all, weakness and insecurity don't work well with the lone gunfighter thing.
Still, though I can sympathize with the dilemma, I've been left longing for something a little more palatable from the poker-playing gentry -- maturity. And I think I finally found a bit of it last week, when I had dinner in New York with 75 percent of the Hendon Mob.
The four long-time friends -- brothers Barny and Ross Boatman, Ram Vaswani and Joe Beevers -- who make up the Hendon Mob (named after their neighborhood in London) are little-known in the United States. But they're extremely popular in their native England, thanks to frequent appearances on "Late Night Poker" and much success on the European tour. (And if Ram's appearance at three final tables at this year's WSOP is any indication, they may soon be on their way to recapturing America for the Queen.) They are also uncharacteristically friendly and civilized. And why not? After all, the iconographic British figure is a sociable dart-throwing pub-crawler, not a sociopath duelist.
By any standard, the Mob has a pretty sweet deal. They are sponsored by PrimaPoker.com, the largest online poker network in the worldan English online poker site, for whom they are currently helping to promote the Monte Carlo Millions, an invitational $14,000 buy-in tournament that will be held in Monte Carlo on Nov. 6-13, the first poker tournament ever in the tiny but rich country of Monaco. Basically, PrimaPoker pays the Mob's tournament entry fees and expenses -- completely eliminating the need to scrounge that Schoenfeld mentions above -- in exchange for a wide variety of promotional activities, including frequent Beat-the-Mob events on their site and various media-centric events.
Which is where I come in.
Ross, a two-career kind of guy (he's also a successful TV and stage actor in England), couldn't make it; but Barny, Joe and Ram arrived at Naples 45 (the only "certified" Neopolitan pizza joint in New York City, according to Chris Capra, the Mob's American handler) relatively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, considering they had flown in from London only a few hours earlier.
Ram was curious about the Tournament of Champions, wondering why ESPN had put up $2 million.
"Are you trying to tell me that ESPN couldn't have gotten anybody to play for one million?" he asked.
I tried to explain that $2 million isn't a big deal for the Worldwide Leader, especially as the price for three hours of otherwise inexpensive programming -- and, at that, programming that can be shown over and over again. But apparently, English TV operates on a different scale.
"Plus, it was kind of like Joe Namath when he was signed by the AFL for $400,000," I said. "The Jets could have signed him for less, but they wanted to spend the money -- they wanted to make a splash. ESPN could have put up $1 million, but they probably thought $2 million sounded sexier."
While Ram was chewing this over, I tried to get the guys to explain, once and for all, the best way to play J-J, a problem that has plagued me -- and many of my readers -- since I started my new career.
Barny said that the wisest course is to treat J-J as if it were a small pair. In early position, get in as cheaply as possible, try to flop a set, get out if overcards show up on the flop and a large bet ensues. In late position, try to win the pot right there with a decent-sized bet; or, at worst, isolate against a single opponent, and, if overcards show up, be careful.
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In other words, as with all hold 'em problems, the correct answer is -- all together now -- IT DEPENDS!
I didn't get a chance to ask about the loneliness of the long-distance poker player until we were rushing around midtown Manhattan, trying to find a couple of cabs to take us to one of those quasi-legal poker clubs that are sprouting up around town as fast as bleeped words in a Mike Matusow monologue. A $50 buy-in tournament, featuring a $500 first prize and $100 bounties on the three Mobsters, had been arranged for media types who, it was hoped, would be willing to help publicize the Monte Carlo Millions.
Loneliness is not a problem for the Mob, because they travel together throughout the world. Nor is the kind of crazy-making self-obsession to which Schoenfeld alluded -- where a player himself thrills to the bad fortunes of every other player in the world -- partially because, quite apart from their friendship, they have a financial interest in one another's success. (A Mobster keeps 85 percent of any tournament winnings, and the other three each get five percent.)
"Wherever we go, we find groups of friends who enjoy spending time with each other -- and us," he said, though he admitted that none of these groups is made up of Americans.
At the club, the name and location of which I have sworn not to disclose under pain of torture, I got to see first-hand the kind of common touch Barny has with everyone -- even the crazy Americans. He was my Mobster -- each of three tables featured one of the guys as a target -- and his teasing and good-natured advice put everyone, even the non-players, totally at ease.
When, after the flop, a lady with little gaming experience showed him her hole cards and asked him what she should do, he did a classic Rodney Dangerfield I-can't-believe-my-eyes double take and said, loudly, "Well, I wouldn't have played that hand in the first place; but as long as you're here, you might as well raise."
Later, some of his chips stuck together as he went to throw them into the pot, so that it was hard to tell if he actually meant to raise. Barny smiled and said, "Well, you're probably wondering if that raise was intentional. So the question you've got to ask yourself is: 'Do I feel lucky?'"
After both of us bombed out of the tournament -- no, I didn't get the bounty, I'm sorry to say, making me probably the first journalist/poker pro ever to pay somebody $50 so I could publicize their event -- we found ourselves playing together at a $5-$5 no-limit hold 'em table. I was up about $100, but I hadn't played a hand in quite a while when Barny suddenly stood up, leaned toward my stack and blew on my chips.
"I was worried they were getting dusty," he said.
Sadly, the evening ended badly for me when I went all-in -- for my last $400 -- with two pair against a guy who had flopped a straight.
Still, I realized later that it had been a special evening. Even if my "connection" with Barny, Joe and Ram was a staged-for-the-media event -- and therefore no real connection at all -- I was touched by the way they connect with one another.
In the end, to be honest, I felt like the American version of the little match girl, nose pressed up against the window, watching the Hendon Mob play poker in front of the fire on Christmas Eve.
Needless to say, any self-respecting gunslinger -- cards or six-shooters -- will sneer at that. And who can blame them? Warm and fuzzy never won anybody a penny playing poker, let alone built a world power.
But maybe there's more to poker than winning money ... and, hopefully, there's more to life than being the last man standing.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
Last week: minus $1,400
CTD (career-to-date): plus $34,449
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.