Tunica... Existentialism and Poker

The old man stepped into the Harrahs Tunica Hotel elevator and said to the crowd "Heading to the gym."  He had 1970s running shorts, the type that barely covered anything, a polo shirt, and some white sneakers that looked like reeboks that girls used to wear in the 80s.  He said "At my age you can either exercise or die."

The group of portly, sedentary, but relatively youthful poker players on the elevator nodded in unison.  I think one tried to stifle some flatulence, which was ironic because that was the closet thing he'd get to exercise on that day.  Though it was a kind gesture because the elevator was crowded.  From the machinations in his face as it contorted a little too much I knew he was squeezing some muscles he rarely used or maybe just rehashing the Black Eyed Peas Superbowl show from last year.  I turned my attention from the look, and stared downward, praying the kid had the butt kegels to hold in the fart. I couldn't help but take in all of Grandpa in the hot-shorts.  Grandpas shouldn't wear hot shorts.

We got to the first floor and the old man turned off to the gym and me and the herd headed toward the shuttle and the parking lot to go sit for 12 hours in a casino.  Once the old man had shuffled out of earshot one of the players said, "It's a bit early in the morning for Existentialism."

I thought to myself, it's a bit early in the morning to use the word existentialism.

His buddy replied, "It's like Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption... get busy living or get busy dying."  They laughed.  I didn't.  I got the reference it just wasn't funny.  It was just a reference and though on point not really funny.  A funny reference was when a random dude sat at my table and looked at a dude's card holder that was a turtle and started doing Dana Carvey saying "Turtle Turtle."  That was funny and obscure, and only I got it.

I walked to my car as they headed for the shuttle.  Existentialism?  I was an English major, I should remember what that means, what does that mean again?  (To make me look smarter... let's just say that thought bubble was a narrative device to define Existentialism.. I've been chastised in the past by other bloggers for using SAT words as though my readers are illiterate... so here's the definition):

From Wikipedia (so you know it's got to be true because somebody in his mother's basement wrote this):  Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences,[1][2][3] shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.[4] In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.[5] Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.[6][7]

Looking for an absurd world?  Look no further than poker, where skill beats luck in the long run but in the short run luck crushes skill.  Have the basic human need to find patterns in randomness then try and make sense of anything in poker.  Idiots can win tournaments, bad play is often rewarded with the turn of the card, and the best players can often be seen grousing on the sidelines lamenting some donkey, mule or fish that stacked him.  In the long run, you want people to make bad mistakes but in the short run those same mistakes can cost you your tournament life.  You curse those idiots when you lose but usually forget to thank them when your hand holds up.

As poker players, you know this.  You know the desperate soul searching that bad beats can manifest in any of us.  When will it end, some wonder, and then out of nowhere... "run good" that euphoric high where you are outplaying AND outlucking your opposition.  Life is suddenly good again.  But none of it makes sense.  Are you playing any better when your winning then when you are losing?  Read a sampling of your friends that play poker's facebook statuses and try and make sense of the poker life... Good luck.

The randomness of poker is no mere metaphor for life because they are one and the same.  Crushing heartbreaks one after another or fantastic good fortune snowballing into even more, there is no rhyme or reason or meaning for any of it.  Sure we try to explain the bad away with sayings about life like, "Life is what happens when you are busy making plans," or in poker when you step into a crap-based quicksand for your tournament life "that's poker"... but it's really feels meaningless.

Those were the thoughts going through my head, as I trudged to my car, wondering why I let Existentialism linger on my mind, with another day full of poker looming, I look at fair Tunica trying to drive deep thoughts from mind.

Ummm... Tunica how do I put this nicely.  At it's best it is a place of nothingness, a waystation to nowhere, a purgatory on Earth if you will.  Not quite hell, but nowhere near heaven.  If you were the set designer for the play "Waiting for Godot" you could chose no better backdrop than Tunica.

I know a Waiting for Godot reference... everybody's read that right?  I'd link it for the rabble... but since you are rabble you are likely too lazy to click the line so, in short it's about two guys in the middle of nowhere waiting for this guy Godot who never shows up and who they barely know... psst some say Godot is... God... or he's not he's just a guy, because there is no God and there is no Godot...  it's a metaphor for life or purgatory which is life or whatever, the play is really about nothing and nothingness, kinda like Seinfeld without the funny... you know them sitting there in the prison cell in the finale having the same conversation they had in the first episode... Yeah, that's Godot.   Obviously, I couldn't drive the existentialist thoughts from my mind.

So, all around me is what I envision is around those guys waiting for Godot in the play.  Winter is in its throes, there are meadows of dead grass, looking like scorched Earth for as far as the eye could see.  A cold rain pelted and stung the bare skin on my face.  It just as easily could have been fiery ash.  The sky ashen and without texture, simply gray with little else.  Tunica as a place feels and looks Godforsaken or damned, in the dead of winter.  I've been here in other seasons and unless you are an admirer of cotton fields its not much better.

This vast expanse of nothingness is home to a few casinos where people wait for Godot at slot machines, poker tables, and the pits and try to make sense of their good fortune or bad luck.  There sits a mood of forlorn-ness (*yes, that's not a word but let's go with it) over everybody here.  Even the employees lament that this is Tunica.  If they could be working somewhere else they would.  The gamblers that are there would rather be elsewhere too but they just wait for Good fortune, God or Godot but he rarely shows and they wait for some more.  

I needed some contact solution, because I left it at home, just like I left my family, my dogs, my new TV, and the other happy distractions of life that the long days in Tunicas had none of, so I set off for  downtown Tunica.  It's hard playing poker and missing your family and being away from your kids.  Then you look around you and think I've left home for this?

With the casinos falling from the horizon in the rear view mirror I traveled Highway 60-something and saw nothing change.  I easily could have been driving one long loop, a big circle in the middle of nowhere.  "When is downtown Tunica going to show up?"

To that point my poker had been like the drive.  I came with the plan of entering every tournament to get into the points race and win a seat in the Million Dollar freeroll that will kick off the world series.  I got a lot points from my run at the IP where Godot showed up and good fortune shined on me.  I'm in contention to finish the year in the top 66 players in the country.  In Tunica to that point, that guy Godot was nowhere to be found and every day the same thing happened.  I'd get chips, I'd lose chips, I'd make it to the dinner break, I make it to a pseudo-comfortable spot where every one out of two players would make the money and then suddenly it would be over.  No points, no money, nothing.

The drive continued just as my tournament results did.

Nothing new to see and nothing to show for it, just one long journey.

Finally, out of nowhere Tunica arrived.  After blinking, missing it and turning around, I managed to find my contact solution in a drug store that doubled as a weave/wig store.  Yes, you read that right and yes, I felt out of place.  Yes, there were bars on the windows, and a man in the store who had a rolled up McDonalds bag as a wallet.  The decor looked like the orange and brown floral patterns favored by Florida from the TV show Good Times.  There was an odor, and a haze of  yellow fog that meandered above the aisles visible under the fluorescent lighting.  

Downtown Tunica, it seems is closer to Hell than the purgatory that is greater Tunica.

Another vapid aphrosim is "Thank God for small miracles."  Amazingly, on a shelf they carried the rare contact solution my gas permeables require and no others.  Weird.  Next to some cutex and fake eye lashing was Boston Clenser.  I waited for the twilight zone music to come over the loud speakers but instead heard only the dulcet tones of gospel music.  It might have been Sunday.  I don't know.  The days run together in purgatory.  Quickly, getting out of there I determined to do what the characters in Godot did, and just repeat what they where already doing.  Why not play another tournament?

I entered the next tournament under a bit of a malaise, its seems to be highly contagious in Tunica. I think that's what they are known for... malaise.  I had it in spades.  Knowing I'd been playing long and deep and doing everything right I still couldn't shake the frustration of not having cashed.  The coinflips or bad beats to end my evenings had to stop, why, because they had to... right?  Keep playing well, stay positive and if you are skilled you'll win.  Godot's going to show.  Good dough... is going to show. Right?

Unfortunately, on that day it didn't.  I seem to have found a nemesis hand in coinflips Ace queen versus an underpair usually tens or 9s.  At the IP, I lost the heads up in the Main Event when AQ couldn't improve vs. 1010 (or was it 99).  This week AQ can't beat 1010 or 99 or any underpair and I usually go home because of it.  Still, it's always been the right play to ship it in those spots, just the wrong result.  And on that day it was the wrong result again.

I questioned myself, am I good, is there a pattern in the randomness. Yes, I made mistakes, and yes, other made mistakes but could I be better?   In poker, sometimes you question the right move when you get a bad result... which is terrible, and my friends have put me back on the right track.  You are going to win those flips they said... eventually.

The next day... there is no existentialist moment on the elevator, but as I eat the same greasy Paula Deen buffet that I had for breakfast almost everyday, I prep for more of the same.  I again ponder if I'd be better off with an IV of syrup and an injection of Crisco then eating her buffer.  Fueled up on grease again, I got to play poker and yet again, I ran into another sampling of Tunica Toms.  There is a great portion of Mid-South (by the way that's what they call this part of the country around here... the Midsouth... sounds quite arbitrary, huh) poker players that look just alike and play just alike: Tunica Toms.  They all have beards.

If Pittsburgh is the mustachio capital of the United States (it is), with the Bill Cowher look the look of choice, the Mid-South has to be the most dense concentration of beard wearers outside of Hassidic Jewish alcoves in NYC and Amish farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio.   Every dude has a beard here.  One day, I had one.  I was becoming a Tunica Tom as probably the Paula Deen buffet has seeped into my blood and mutated me.

When I came to my senses, I cut it down to my poker goatee only to notice that was option number two for the Toms.  Most men have beards here, if they don't they have goattees, and that's it.  Clean shaven apparently is not an option.  There is variation in the beards, close cropped, thick neck fur, hipster/hippie blend on the kids, farmer fur on the adults but they are all beard.  Either they have really delicate lips and chins here or this is just the fashionable look.  Hell Justin Timberlake and Prince William even grew a beard when they visited Tunica.

The Toms all wear some sort of camo or garish Tennessee Vols garb, or Mississippi hunting gear, suffer from a bit of casino gut, and probably have bad bumper sticker like Nice Rack! on their trucks to go with their Nascar number of choice sticker, they all call with A high and can't find a fold in a newspaper.  They have a sticky drawl and sticky dispositions and sticky playing styles.  That being said, many of them are nice people.  They just play different.  I'm not knocking 'em, but it is a culture shock to see all these beards.

Maybe I have learned something because I know you can't bluff these guys.  Okay, that I've learned.  I've stopped doing, though I do bet the heck out of top pair for value.

After the buffet, I start playing a six max tournament.  My experience playing six handed is limited to the smallest sampling of mis-click tournaments on Full Tilt (ie I didn't know they were six handed until I saw two thirds of the normal avatars I normally see when play would start... (how I miss the afro dude avatar)).  Internet players should destroy this format and all love to play it, and it was no surprise that the field was half Toms and half young bucks.

So, as I prepared to rinse and repeat I solicited some advice from friends.  Gene D had a nice score in Vegas in one of these and gave me some tips.  Austin Martin too, and they agreed on the need to up the aggressiveness, to play position, and widen your hand range.  Both said KJ actually becomes a good hand (no longer a bad one disguised as a good one).  Sure enough, I draw a table of Tunica Toms and two youngsters.  Within a couple of levels the Toms stacks are halved.

I proceed to plough through tables.  I rejoin a kid I played with late on Sunday.  He'd go on to win that event after I busted.  He goes by Bo-Sox on 2+2.  He's a nice kid and a talented player.  He's on a bit of a heater.  He'd go on to make the final table in the 6max.  He outclassed most of the people we played with and ALWAYS had it when he needed it.  Somehow, we didn't play many pots together, despite playing together for almost two days straight.   At different times if felt as if one of us was avoiding the other.  I began to strategize in my head what to do if we clashed head to head to settle the tournament.  I had this odd feeling that was a very real possibility.

I make the dinner break.

It's about that time for me to lose a coinflip.

I piss away some chips.

I land at Jeremy Drewery's table again.  In another of my nightly traditions I join him when he's got a ton of chips.  I'm less then thrilled.  He's been tearing things up and was the player I respected the most at the IP.

I get in a coinflip and prepare to go home, but somehow... Godot entered the building... AQ beats 88.

I amass chips.

I make the money.  Did you not hear what I said, Godot has entered the God Damned Building (and I'm not debasing the building because in Tunica any building is God Damned because it's in Tunica).

I bag and tag the chips.

The next day I arrive to grind 'em and blind 'em off.

I think surely, I'll rip it and ship it.


Tunica Tom can't fold against me and rivers me twice.

Heater over.

The final table arrives.

Another dinner break.

Then two quick departures...

Then all hell breaks lose in purgatory.  Godot has left the building.

King Jack vs. King Eight offsuit.  Flop a jack.  Sure double up, right?  Runner-runner chop.

Next hand an active player bets.  The Button calls, I peel out two aces... uhhh All in.

Fold.  And call.  He shows Ace Jack.

By the turn he's got a straight and I'm praying for a Jack to show up to chop.  Like Godot the Jack is nowhere to be found.

...Tomorrow, I do it all again.

(To any reader that made it through all that, I thank you for reading, I've had a lot of disparate ideas floating in and out of my head this week or month or year in Tunica and tried to put them together in some semblance of a post that made sense, I hope it didn't too sloppily spill onto the page).


Goondingy said…
I felt like this was some of your best writing! This had me wanting more. Enjoyed the Godot, Tunica Toms and the breakdown to your 6max final table. Just know that you do have it, you are good, and you will win a lot more often!
GeneD said…
Wow...Good Stuff Bill...This one is a Classic

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