Monday, February 26, 2007

Perception of Money

Last night I was playing 3-5 NL at Hollywood Park. There were a couple of slightly fishy types, but most of my opponents were regulars, including two very tight, aggressive, uncreative players. Both of these guys are very regular at Hollywood Park - I've seen them a few times before and they know all the dealers and floor people. One of the two regulars was sitting directly to my left. He was about 60 and had been folding consistently while watching and commenting on the Lakers game. Finally, he got a hand he liked. Raising preflop, he proceeded to call down another player on a rather raggety board. The other player was loosish and passive, rarely bluffing, if ever. On this hand the loose/passive player bet strongly on the flop, turn, and river. At the end he showed a set of three's. As the old regular was counting out his last bet, I think someone asked him what he had.

"Oh, nothing," he said in a frustrated, sarcastic sort of way. "Just a pair of kings. That's all. Nothing good. It's not like I had a good hand or anything." The old guy kept grumbling about it for a few minutes. Eventually, the winning player said "sorry about that" and the regular said "it's not your fault, it's just frustrating."

I'm telling this story now because it reminded me of something I wanted to write about: how automatic it has become for me to separate the money used in poker with the money I use to purchase things. Of course, it's all just money, and what can be used for one can just as easily be used for the other. However, for some reason it is perfectly natural for me to make a semi-bluff of several hundred dollars but I consider a purchase of several hundred dollar to be very significant. I'm not sure if this mental dichotomy is rational, but it does allow my otherwise tight-fisted psyche to play poker without having my judgment clouded by financial concerns. When I lose a big pot, say $1000, it barely even occurs to me that I had been playing for money. My thought is "darn, I lost," and I will often go over the hand again in my head to see if I could have played the hand any better. Contrast this with a scenario where I had just bought a computer for $2000 that I then realized I could have had for $1000. In this case I'd be immediately and acutely aware of my financial "loss," and I'd be very upset. The reason the story about the old regular reminded me of this is that I was taken aback by his apparent lack of this mental dichotomy. I see this a lot among regulars, and it never fails to amaze me. I just can't understand how they manage to stay focused on poker strategy when they are so distracted by financial concerns. My suspicion is that these players tend to be very tight, somewhat aggressive, straightforward players, as this regular was. That approach is consistent with a risk-averse, mechanical mentality that I think is characteristic of how most people behave in regards to their personal finances. They figure "if I play the best cards, I should win against worse cards, and there's not much chance for me to lose." Naturally, then, such player get upset when they do lose. At least, that's the best I can do to try to explain it. Like I said, I'm still taken aback by regular players who can't deal with swings of a few hundred dollars.

This mental dichotomy I seem to have has some potential downsides. For one thing, I don't think most of the great players have it. They tend to be gamblers who crave action. Otherwise they would never have moved up in limits quickly enough to be where they're at now. More practically, the dichotomy can cause unusual decisions when I have to pay for something with my chips, be it an implicit purchase or explicit. An example of an implicit purchase would be "paying to see." Is it worth a $100 call to see this guys hand? The answer is almost certainly "no," but when I am paying with "just chips" the prospect doesn't seem quite so ridiculous. More explicit is paying the dealer for dealing, in the form of tips. Because I'm paying in chips, it often doesn't seem so expensive to give the dealer $5. I just give the dealer $1 for every hand I win unless the pot is very small (eg just the blinds). That way I don't even have to think about it.

On a few occasions I have sold the right to see my hand after the hand was over. The most I have ever gotten for this is $35. That's right, somebody paid me $35 just to turn my cards over after they folded at the end of a hand. When sitting behind $1000 in chips this doesn't seem so much, but $35 in chips is 35 real dollars that I can buy things with. It's not considered good form to be so serious about money at the table, so I try to let my mental dichotomy manifest itself in my table demeanor. For instance, I almost never pout over a loss or celebrate a win. When it comes to making actual financial decisions, though, I try to make myself consider the actual value in terms of real money. I'm not going to turn down $35 just to hide my cards. Oftentimes I even think showing my cards actually helps my table image.

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