When I talk about casinos and tell people I enjoy playing poker and they say they don’t gamble because they don’t like to lose their hard-earned money, I always think but don’t say, How would you like doubling your hard-earned money on the turn of a card? That would be a snarky response. Theirs might have been first, but it’s better to assume people aren’t being snarky. They may believe casinos take people’s money, which is an understandable, perhaps even wise, view. When I dealt blackjack, the dealers on break rarely talked shop. No one told stories about how excited our tables got when we drew a ten and busted and no one told stories about how upset our tables got when we hit sixteen and got a five. These things happened night after night and just weren’t interesting. Dealers only told stories when someone was in for their 21st birthday. Then we all felt the same way, we were glad for the player if that birthday got ruined and worried for them if that birthday was too much of a blast.
Gambling is a lot to handle, whether the game is the pure luck of a slot machine or one where skill can give a player an edge, like poker, a thrill comes from winning money in a casino and a degree of pain comes from losing. This is no different than any other game. People wouldn’t sit around a table on a rainy Sunday afternoon and play a game of Monopoly if no one cared, at all, who won. A fleeting but intense competitive feeling is brought out by games. For most people that feeling evaporates the moment the game ends and the players shake hands over the table. When money is involved that feeling can linger. I once drove home from a casino after winning a morning tournament feeling elated. I reminded myself that I’d played poorly and simply gotten lucky with a couple huge outdraws, but the feeling didn’t go away. It feels good to win money. I’ve also driven home from casinos feeling pretty distraught about how much I lost. Limits in poker rooms are set to where your bankroll can take some large swings, no matter what your game. I decided many years ago to quit smoking and use the money I was saving for poker, so I’ve always had money available to lose. Still I’ve taken time away to let my “cigarette money” accrue and to get comfortable with the prospect of losing another chunk of it before sitting down at a poker table. These are issues all poker players can identify with. Most of us enjoy gambling for the same reasons some people become addicted to gambling, simply to lesser degrees.
I’ve formed many poker friendships over the years. Poker friendships are friendships with people whose company I enjoy, but I know nothing about them outside of a poker table. They’re people I care about, and I’ve wondered if some of them struggled with gambling addictions. A super nice woman used to come in every night after work and play almost every hand until she went broke and left. I recall sitting next to her and making an effort to get her to play with more patience. She listened to everything I told her, seemed grateful, and continued to play every hand to the river. I didn’t see her for several months and when I did finally run into her in a different poker room, she was as tight and patient a player as I’d ever sat down with. Another friend went on tilt every time I played with him. He was on tilt before he sat down. One night he took a couple early bad beats, and I could see that look in his eyes. I tried to calm him down and told him not to worry, I said, “You’re on your first rack.” He fired back, “This is my only rack!” He stormed out broke, and I recall thinking distinctly: he should not be gambling.
I ran into him at a restaurant, and he told me he’d quit. I said, “Good for you!” If I saw him again at a table, I’d say, “Welcome back!” Everyone is on his or her own journey. When we sit and play poker, we’re accepting that we might be sitting across from someone for whom playing poker isn’t a healthy decision. The game isn’t the place to get people help no one knows they need. It would be presumptuous to assume someone needs help with gambling because they appear to be struggling at a given time on a given night with some of the pitfalls many of us handle as players. Casinos are good about having phone numbers available for people ready to look for help. Away from the table, subtly making a friend, an opponent, aware they’re there might be a good idea. It wouldn’t hurt, and might help, to leave that number here: 1-800-522-4700 (national gambling hotline number).
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