The Luck Laak Luck

July 1, 2011

Last level of the night. Especially tiring in a 6-max event when you've already played eleven long hours with young internet symposiums who are doing the raising, the re-raising, the constant pressure and the three barrel bluffs. It's enough to make you want to fall out of your chair. Which to be fair, is what at least half of the people in this tournament look ready to do. Forget about your superstars, your screen names, and the bracelets on the arms. Come this time of night, there's only two kinds of players left. Those who want it, and those who want bed.

The Finn Juha Helppi is standing up alongside of Erick Lindgren while a hand plays out. A guy in a brown jumper in the one seat has actually fallen asleep, his eyes shut and his head resting on his hands. This is a blind you might want to steal. The other side of the room and Huck Seed isn't clockwatching, he's sat up straight and bouncing his leg. He looks fresh. I remember reading where Huck stated about eating during tournaments. "I stopped it," he said, "I stopped it altogether. It's way better to be hungry when you play." Seed's wearing a clean white t-shirt and his eyes are darting. A new player comes in on his left and Huck Seed is like a hound dog sniffing ass, trying to get a make on your man who's arrived with a whole pile of chips. Seed has no sunglasses, no headphones, not even a cell phone on the table in front of him. All he's got are his chips. Alec Torelli is at the table two seats to the right in an animated argument with Jim Collopy about Omar from The Wire. Collopy is in his mirrored shades bouncing up from his seat at the table behind between hands and gesticulating at Torelli while talking Hollywood squares. Neither of them seems to have much interest in the poker.

Phil Laak is at the table, hunched across the green. Laak has got his shoes off and his hoodie up and the fitness trainer they call All American Dave has recently dropped off a white paper bag that sits under the table and says in black magic marker, Phil Laak – Chicken. Laak has re-raised from the big blind to 6500 and Torelli's shoved on a four bet with the A-Q and Laak has got the kings. When they hold Torelli is gone and Laak is bouncing around happy as a clam. He spies me and starts chattering about betting patterns and the check-check-fold and his hands are moving like a karate chop. Now he starts a discombobulated story with obscure detail about how he's only had three hours sleep and too much racquetball and a funny coloured alarm clock spun in exotic metaphors like his stack is a temple and his chips are only for his honour and all that, but what you have to understand is the whole time he's talking what he's really doing is letting the mouth roll down below while his eyes are staring bright and every other phrase he's giggling at me, madly.

Now I don't know why Phil Laak is giggling, but I'd like to think it's because he knows that I know. Probably he's only giggling because he just got the kings to hold, but actually I think I know something else. What I think I know is that what he says is only patter because patter is what he does, and he's only telling it to me because he's been working on this particular line of patter all day, he's been telling it to everybody he's played with in the place of actual conversation and embellishing it here and there and adding details one by one and now after ten hours the thing is pretty much a masterpiece of a five minute ramble and he's spilling it out to me plain just so I can hear it, because I love the mastery of these things. I'd love to think that the reason he's giggling is because he knows I know that his story isn't true. It could be true, little teeny parts of it could be true, but it's of absolutely no concern because it is ten hours of patter that has evolved into a great story, the whole point of which is only designed to convey two things. And even if his opponents are completely thick in the head, even if they are so lost in their own worlds that only a few words and details stick in every now and again, even if they can't hear out of their left ear and an iPod is stuck into their right, the two things that Phil Laak is making sure everybody knows are first that he's really tired, and second that he's a complete nit. Both of which couldn't be farther from the truth. And if you're playing with Laak and you're not completely on top of your own mental game, then you might believe him. So that's why I hope he's giggling and that's why I'm laughing as well, because I could care less that the story's not true. He's been working on that patter all day long, and it's a masterpiece. And that's the beauty of Phil Laak.

But I'm not playing. And if I was playing at that table, I hope what I'd notice about Phil Laak is that he's seen every card, every bet, and every movement that has been played, not only in the last five minutes but the entire day. I hope I'd notice that he's super focused and super aware, and capable of pulling any move at any time. Huck Seed is sitting across from Phil at the table and I wonder how much Huck Seed is aware of what happened last summer when they played on TV in the World Open. When Phil Laak made a Mississippi River bluff against the former world champ and took Huck off his top pair top kicker river value bet simply because he assumed that Laak could never ever raise him on a blank river on a dry board without a better hand. I wonder if Huck Seed ever went back and watched. My guess is no. But I know that Phil Laak did. And I know that in the last two years Phil Laak has become a different person, and there's a reason that he can now beat most any game and won a bracelet at the 6-max last year in the World Series of Poker Europe and played one hundred and fifteen hours straight in a cash game at the Bellagio without any drugs. And Phil Laak is on about one hundred seventy thousand in chips and Huck Seed's on 22k. I'm just saying. I'm just saying that Phil Laak developed a whole lot of character in the last two years and no one caught on. Not yet.

Pace the floor on the last level of the night and realize that all the talk about poker is largely just talk. And four weeks into the World Series of Poker, a WSOP like this one that's featured chaos galore, bankroll pressure, players desperately patched, and a lot of grim faces staring off in a stew about next week and tomorrow, you realize that the mental game of poker is still underrated, always underrated, like we'd like to pretend it just doesn't exist. Most would be happier if there was no mental game, if they always played their best and losing could just be down to luck and variance and they could focus on the haters and the people with bad manners and slow rollers and nasty dealers and maybe even the loud music or the air conditioning that didn't let them sleep. Around the last level of the 10k NL 6-max event during the fourth week of the WSOP, all you see everywhere are a whole load of people who are convinced that it's not their fault.

There's an unfortunate fact that pervades this tournament room, though, a stench that comes from every head fallen on every hand, a reek wafted up from every pot that's not watched and every eyelid that droops and every player with a three day beard and a wrinkled tee staring at the felt and shuffling their chips and keeping their crackberry glued to three thousand followers on Twitter more important to keep informed about how it's not their fault than to work out how to turn it around.

Here, then, is the situation. It is your fault. It always, is your fault. Remember the idea that luck is a big part of poker? That is a lie. That's the opium for the masses, that's the fourteenth century clergy trying to convince you that life in the dirty and dank streets of London during the scourge of the Black Plague wasn't all that bad so that the masses would continue to shovel the dung from the sewers while wooden carts with mangy horses clattered off the piles of dead. But luck? Luck's the opium. Luck is the thing that ain't real, that don't even exist. Stick that in your poker pipe and smoke it. Grab a hold of that thought on the river of the two outer that would have catapulted you to the final table of your first ever bracelet on your eighty-seventh try and stop chewing on the dry dust, the powdered soap at the bottom of your can of beer. And the reason that luck doesn't exist is because it doesn't matter if you lose or win. Those who truly play the game of poker go to the place where it doesn't matter if you lose or win. The rest of us believe in luck.

Start from there, look at yourself, forgive yourself and then go forward. This poker ain't so much about the skill. This game is about forgetting how to spend your Sklansky dollars in an Internet store where nineteen year old railtards give your posts thumbs up and retweet your sniffles. This game is about looking down and seeing yourself bleeding, on the floor. This poker is about who, during the last level of the 10k 6-max NL Hold'em in the fourth week of the WSOP, isn't sitting there and praying for luck.

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