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The Professional, The Hobbyist, and Language

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I had a bad day on the felt yesterday. I lost 200 Euros. More importantly, I aired on the side of aggression too often, and I lost my chips because of it. After my session, I took to Twitter to air my grievances. I first tweeted:

The intention was to make light of a day when things didn’t turn out well. Poke a little fun at myself, and hype up the preceding month of insane tournament series action. There is some truth in my tweet, however. Since my run in the $5,300 MILLIONS Main Event in which I cashed for $35,000 and 20th place, I have been trying to re-centre my mind. One hand in that tournament is years worth of work in others. $900K is approximately 180 wins of the $125 Open that I play on a daily basis. That was the opportunity in front of me and I fell $865,000 short of it. I think it’s natural to get reacclimated to life after such an emotional and thrilling event, whether it’s poker or otherwise.

The response to the tweet above came with a variety of responses to which I wasn’t expecting. There was a lot of legitimate concern for my well being, and even some opinions that I was acting irresponsibly.

The idea that I would come across as being an irresponsible gambler is not a nice thought. I also know it’s not true. Poker for me is something within control. I have been playing now for 10 years, and have never gotten into any financial trouble, or felt negative because of the game. I strive to be the best ambassador I can for poker and do so responsibly. So in reaction, I tweeted the following:

People’s responses spurred me to contemplate the way people think about poker: particularly when it’s going poorly. There are significant differences in the way a professional and a hobbyist think about tilt. Those of us ‘in’ poker that wish to communicate something about it have quite a task at hand. We need to strive to remain truthful and authentic to our peers, while also communicating with the hobbyist the genuine thrill and turmoil within the game, yet also consider our obligation to the well being of the naive and vulnerable. Responsible gambling is important, and while I think it’s totally unfair that in the eyes of regulators and the world, we get grouped together as if we are all slot machines, the reality still exists that some people have issues with our game. We should, as a community, do our best to protect and help those people from any further damage.

How Do Professionals and Hobbyists Differ?

So how do the professional and the hobbyist differ? Let me outline a few examples below. Not all of these will apply to every professional or every hobbyist. Most will fit somewhere on a scale between two extremes. But these are some general baselines from which players can deviate:

Bankroll

The Hobbyist has a limited bankroll from which to play the game. It is a separate entity from the rest of life, and to lose the bankroll, is to lose the hobby. Large fluctuations in the bankroll on a week to week basis are expected (and fun)

The professional has operating capital. They have a net worth, and use a portion of that to invest in their game of choice. The risk of going broke in a couple of short weeks from bad results does not exist. The games that professionals play are very small in relation to their net worth and In the event that a professional takes on a larger portion of net worth risk, it is calculated with a large upside, and smaller downside expected. The professional deals with regular winning, but ALSO regular losing. They plan for it, and expect it.

The language problem

To say something like ‘punting off stacks’ to a hobbyist might mean that a player has lost 10% of their bankroll in a given day, and made a play where they had almost no chance to win. For a professional that would mean they lost some amount of money (usually less than 1-2% of net worth) and made some plays that fell outside of optimal because of a lack of patience. Not like “all in 72 preflop”, but more like: “I raise bluffed in a spot that was optimistic, and probably doesn’t work a high enough percentage of the time.” Or “I don’t have enough value to justify bluffing there.” Etcetera. The professional is recognizing a fault in their play or mindset and striving to fix it while risking a small percentage of operating capital. The Hobbyist has become emotional and impulsive and is risking a much larger percentage of their hobby money.

The problem here is that both players are suffering from the same ailment. Entitlement/ emotion/tilt. Why then is the hobbyist required to take a look at themselves and ensure that they are indeed gambling responsibly, and often encouraged to take some time away, whereas the professional is encouraged to improve however they may do that? Well, a few differences I can come up with:

    1. The edge or win rate: The professional has a larger edge, and therefore a lower likelihood of going on losing streaks. They are taking on less risk in their non-business life because they have less expectation of loss.
    2. Operating capital: The amount of money from which a professional can draw is usually much larger than a hobbyist. (not necessarily more money, but money that can be used on poker)
    3. Responsibilities: On average, the professional poker players of today skew, young, skew single and skew towards no kids. The average professional has less at risk outside of poker allowing them to take on more risk within their career. (Think 19-year-old uni student vs 40s-50s, family spouse with a mortgage, and kids. Different amount of risk is acceptable.)
    4. History of success in poker: Professionals usually have some data or a track record to back up their success. The likelihood of things changing from negative to positive in the future is much higher for someone that has a history of success within the game.
    5. Knowledge and knowledge gap: Both hobbyists and professionals know what they know, but professionals know more and also have a much more realistic sense of what they don’t know. Not because they are smarter (they/we aren’t) but because of how much time has gone into learning the game. More exposure to learning sources means a broader scope for the way the game is played.)
    6. Experience: Perhaps the most important variable on this list. The professional has been through negative swings and negative emotions time and time again. It’s a weekly occurrence. The hobbyist may be experiencing it for the first or second time.

Responding to Tilt

Let’s look at another concept within poker that is important to success. The response to tilt:

The Hobbyist plays poker for fun. If they aren’t having fun, but still choosing to play without an awareness of a change in their demeanour, they may have gone too far and become too impulsive. There is a line here that is difficult to draw. Working towards a hard objective in which short term failure is often expected, it’s natural to get frustrated. However a chronic frustration over long periods of time starts to become counterproductive, and a problem. If poker causes significant financial harm to a hobbyist, it’s ALWAYS a problem that needs to be dealt with.

The professional plays poker to win. It is often fun, it is often fulfilling, but also it’s often frustrating or painful too. When a professional starts to have issues with tilt, they aim to fix it. Identify the feelings in which the frustration arises from, and reframe that view to a more healthy outlook. For some pros, what is most helpful is taking some time away. For me, it’s getting to work on the actual problem. Getting back out there, and dealing with those feelings. It follows that the only irresponsibility on the half of the professional is not dealing with the problem. Continuing to play, and actively working on the issues of tilt is what we are supposed to do. That’s the process of improving at poker.

The Language problem: Let’s consider a saying like the following: ‘I’m so pissed off at today’s session. I played terribly! I am going to really beat these players tomorrow”

It is vastly different reading that from both kinds of player. If I read that from a hobbyist, I would be concerned for their well being. I would want them to slow down and consider that they are within control of their emotions, their finances, and are generally getting long term enjoyment or fulfilment out of playing the game.

If I heard that from a fellow professional, my feeling would be one of admiration for their desire towards success. Their drive to improve is awesome.

Human Reactions and Emotions Are in Play

Are you seeing the problem here? The same human reactions and emotions are at play. One is within control, and planned, and trusted to be okay. The other is at risk of being out of control and does not have the same level of trust. I encountered the dilemma just yesterday in that the hobbyist may not know what it’s like to have a professional relationship to poker. To always have control of finances, and frame poker difficulties for healthy solutions as opposed to impulsive ones. So when I shared my tweet and acknowledged my frustration and work to do, it was met with concern as if I was at risk in some way. Like some hobbyist would be in my shoes at times. So how then, to communicate across the spectrum of players responsibly, and authentically?

Something’s gotta give. You can’t have pure authenticity, relatability, and responsibility. For my life, and my incentives, it is important I act in the best interest of the everyday poker player, and communicate to all responsibly. I have to adjust — the way — I say some things for the people that are listening. It’s not something I enjoy doing. I’d love to just be one of those people that go from brain to mouth. Life would be a lot easier and frankly, I’d probably have a larger audience too.

The way hobbyists and problem gamblers decode and hear messages matters. There is a moral obligation to care about that process. Most of all, whatever I say, in whatever way I say it, has to be 100% true. There is no room to deviate from that. I get to represent poker to a wide audience and think of myself as incredibly lucky to do so. That gift comes with a sacrifice. The respect of some of my peers, (my fellow professional) who never have to consider how they speak. Some of them might view the sentiments I share as frivolous, naive, and inauthentic. It hurts me sometimes but it’s for the benefit of the hobbyist and problem gambler. I should have been more responsible with that tweet. I was speaking to the pro. Next time, I’ll think more before I act.

For any of you that have made it through this incoherent stream of consciousness, thanks for struggling through. How can you communicate about poker with more than one person? How should you? I think only you can answer that question. How do you feel about personal accountability, problem gambling, the need to be you? Is it important you speak your truth, or important for people to hear your truth as intended?

Thanks for taking the time to consider it all with me

Jaime Staples

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