Monday, 19 July 2010
Last night I'd called round Henrik's house. He is short and chubby and pale-skinned and takes no care over his appearance. I ask him if he is pursuing a particular woman at the moment. He tells me he falls in love every day as he walks down the street. But, having discovered his hairline is starting to recede, he's decided it would be unreasonable of him to expect to ever be in a relationship. He's resigned to simply being a voyeur; which, in summer in Sweden, does have its short-term rewards.
He's pathetic, but not unhappy, whereas I have the misery of a thwarted romantic. Look at me in the school yearbook and you'll see I'm better looking than many, and no worse than others. I'm tall, slim, and a little muscular and I have good hair and cheekbones.
I was seeing a girl when I was winning last year. She'd sit at my side while I was multi-tabling, until one night she held my hand and wouldn't let go when I was intentionally timing down before a $100k check-raise on the river. I shouted at her, and she stomped off in tears.
When I next saw her we had a few drinks at Harry's Bar, and I tried to explain my fierce pounding need to keep playing. And she said "Please stop, for my sake", and put her her hand on my cheek. And I saw she was afraid.
I told her "No! Please leave me!" She was quiet and shy and essentially decent, if dull, but I said such terrible things to her. All she wanted was to settle down. How could she lack such ambition? Why couldn't she understand what I was trying to achieve? Why should my money matter to her when it doesn't to me?
She said "I have to go" and her hand slipped from mine. Perhaps she'd realized her mother was right all along. A gambler is a worse prospect than a street sweeper. At least the sweeper's income is secure.
I think I want a girl who really wouldn't care if I won or lost. Cocky and confident, she'd just tell me I was an idiot because she was more interesting than any game. And I'd soon believe it.
And when I was playing poker, she'd know when to leave the room, and when to come back. She'd understand I could lose money without losing myself. And when I lost $2 million in a day, she'd just hold me. And when she held me I'd feel... better. I would. I'd feel better.
And when I won, she'd tell me "Let's get away from all this", and she'd suggest places we could go, things we could do which didn't involve settling down, but quite the opposite - which felt like freedom. And for her I'd switch off the computer and never come back.
I think I'm afraid of finding her.
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
In the last month, two flowerbeds planted with tulips have come into bloom. He tells me he planted 300 tulip seeds earlier this year, turning over the soil, and dropping in the seeds at measured intervals. I must have been playing poker at the time because I didn't notice him doing this. Now the flowerbed is so alive with colour I can't bear to look at; the flowers are red, yellow, yellow-red, like flames. I don't dare go near the flower bed in case I catch alight.
But my parents like to sit in the dining room and look through the window at the flowers while they eat. I have taken to eating my dinner upstairs, rushing up with the plate as soon as my mother has made it for me. My parents have taken to avoiding talking to me. They view me as their lost son, aged 19, living across the hall. This is the closest we can come to peace.
One day I walked outside by mistake and saw my father standing by the tulips. Not even doing anything, just standing there looking at them growing older. I caught his eye by mistake and had to say something. "How long will they be up for?" I asked, trying to think of things to say that wouldn't make him look at me with disdain. "About a month", he said. I tried to look awed and appreciative, but I couldn't understand why he would put in so much work for something which lasted such a short time.
Behind the tulips I noticed for the first time a pink-flowered tree. My father told me it's a magnolia tree. Without my asking, he said how much it had cost. I was shocked - he had paid nearly $400 just for a tree! It didn't even do anything. I suppose there were shoots from which you could grow more. But that would just mean more magnolia trees, when chips are what matters.
I hurried upstairs when my father started to point out other shrubs and trees. I realized I couldn't identify the plants in the garden; and I felt ashamed.
I can't make excuses by saying this is a common sickness of youth. Take my friends Clare and Tobias. Like me, they left school and did not find work. Unlike me, instead of poker they fell into a life of romantic poverty. It is hard to find work in Uddevalla; and besides, Tobias has intellectual pretensions, and doesn't want to work in the Volvo factory.
So while avoiding employment, they have enrolled in a state-funded six-month gardening course. I went to see them in their one-room apartment and saw the window-sill taken up by plantpots. They told me they were growing artichokes and chilli peppers. Clare was pruning a bonsai tree while Tobias put down his latest science fiction novel and talked. It seemed to make them happy to have something to tend to, something to be responsible for. What will survive of us is love.
I would like to say their good example stirred a spring-like awakening in my own soul, and that I resolved to stop playing poker, and help my father tend to his garden. But instead, I resolved to grow my bankroll with the care my father gave to his tulips. I locked my door, drew the curtains, and fired up Full Tilt again.
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
Isildur1, we’re very happy that you’ve agreed to this interview. You recently stunned the poker world by pulling out of the Big Game IV in London because you had to take your driving test.
I heard Cole South just paid cash for a Bentley Continental with money-green leather seats, Brian Townsend has a new Porsche Cayenne, and Brian Hastings just got "TY ISI1" numberplates. You played for millions against these guys. So, what kind of wheels do you have?
My mum's Volvo 740 is a helluva ride. When I'm cruising around I can play all my favourite cassette tapes. On hot days, I wind down the window and open the sunroof and imagine I'm in the Ferrari Enzo I could have bought back in December.
Did you take many lessons before your test?
You know what Brian Hastings, Townsend and Cole South have in common? They all needed to be taught how to drive. But no amount of CardRunners videos can teach me how to pass my driving test. I have a natural, instinctive gift for driving, and so there'll always be guys happy to lend me a car and put me in for my test.
But you must have learned from somewhere?
I watched Gone in 60 Seconds, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Last Run, and Monte Carlo or Bust. I found it easy to identify with these titles. Straight after watching Harry Garmes cruising down the French Riviera, I fired up my mum's Volvo 740, and sped along the coastal road out of Uddevalla. I took a hand off the wheel to turn up my Velvet Underground tape while the wind messed up my already artfully-messed hair and the speedometer pushed past 120km.
I felt like James Dean, only Donald Turnupseed couldn't catch me. I was unstoppable; and in total harmony with the car, the road, the whole material world. It was almost as good as playing poker.
Doo da-doo da-doo doo-da-doo doo da-doo da-doo...
So what kind of driver are you? Does Isildur1 drive like he plays poker?
You could say I move my car like I move my chips. I have a super-aggressive style and I’m always putting other drivers to a lot of tough decisions.
I don’t like other drivers to get a read on me. I've perfectly balanced my indicating range. When I signal left, sometimes I turn right. Sometimes I do go left. But other times I just keep going.
When I’m behind the wheel I don’t even like to look at the dashboard. I’m more of a feel kind of guy.
I don’t have the patience to work through the gears. I keep trying to move from 1st into 4th.
And when I’m too tired to drive at 60km, if I speed up to 120km I’m okay.
I see. Well, the question everybody has right now is “Did you pass your test?
For me, driving tests are not about passing. It's not about the score at the end of the day. I just love to drive, and maybe for the first half of the test I was the best driver in the world, and for the second half when I was tired and angry and very emotional I was the worst, and the instructor was screaming at me to stop, and I just wouldn't quit until I had crashed and burned. But that's okay. I can take the test again another day. What matters is in that moment I was alive, Alive, ALIVE!
Sadly I can't say the same thing about my mum's Volvo. Or the driving instructor.
I took the bus home.
Saturday, 27 March 2010
The East train station:
This is how I feel on the inside:
Getting the bus home after seeing my therapist:
A little ambient number near the police station. This would have been longer, but I nearly got hit by a train:
Sunday, 21 March 2010
The day before I'd felt like some kind of God; wing'd-with-Awe; keen-scented; inviolable. I desperately wanted to feel that way again, now I was just another teenager being shouted at by their mother. When I was in high school I used to know a black-nailed girl who cut herself. She told me she didn't hate herself; she just wanted to feel something. I understand that now.
I don't like my mother's disgust; but I regret only that I'm out of the game. Do you want to know how it had felt to be winning and - yes - losing so much? If normal life is a 20 - talking to a pretty girl at a party, her pupils dilating in excitement, oh my God I think she likes me, or holding my grateful grandmother's arm as she walks unsteadily through the park, or, once, racing dog sleds over sheets of ice - then, for me, playing six tables of $500/$1000 PLO is at least a 100.
It's also a lot like getting an enema. It can get messy and unpleasant, but soon after, I feel like I've purged a lot of shit. When I'm losing money I get angry and feel such hatred for everyone. I'm normally a calm, nice guy, but tilt brings the darkness out in me. Perhaps you noticed, when Ziigmund bust me the final time, that I called him "tjuv", or thief. Where did that come from? I had been beaten, and all I had left was insults. I'm glad when the game is over and these sour angry feelings are gone.
The hardest part to explain is always the end. Hastings and I were even for a long time before the collapse came, swinging just $500k either way. Then I was like a boxer being pummeled in the corner after ten rounds of an even fight. When he had me down to one table and $80k, what did I think was going to happen? When I rallied and got back up to $350k, and still played on, did I think I could win a million back? No, I knew my game had gone, and I was shoveling chips like December snow; but there was a terrible fatalism about me and I knew I couldn't leave until it was all gone.
I wasn't able to think of the money as having any value outside the game. That's nothing new for me, I never can. But also I couldn't see it had any value within the game either. I couldn't see I could start over the next day when my head cleared. No: it was totally impossible for me to stop until I had lost everything to Hastings.
Most people go their whole lives without ever losing a million or more in a day. This last year it seems to be happening to me too often. It still hurts, but never so much as the first time. It makes me feel a slight ache, a tightness, as if mildly hungover. Whenever I bust my account I spent a day or two downloading music, trying to find songs that evoke the grandeur, frenzy, euphoria and despair I'd felt playing poker.
Then, newly aware of my own mortality, I find myself rediscovering the life to which I'd become a stranger. I'm thrilled to find I've lost nothing but money I never needed anyway. My neglected high school friends are still drinking in the same bars; or playing the same MMORPGs, in Henrik's case. I embrace him as if I were a brother back from a war. And I find myself listening with quiet acceptance to my mother's criticisms. I'm so chastened I even tell her I love her, though under my breath.
In my loss I have seen death, and resolved to live on.
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Monday, 15 March 2010
So every Monday morning I spend an hour sitting in a comfy chair in his consulting room in the centre of Uddevalla. Today's session was difficult because I'd only had four hour's sleep. I'd pour myself another glass of water, pausing as if on the cusp of disclosure, but really I was just thinking of the $900k I had in my poker account. The previous day I'd managed to get money online. I was losing $590k after the first hour, but winning $750k after eleven hours. When I went to bed at 5am I'd won just $68k.
My desperate urge to play again could hardly be lessened by the thought that $68k is surely more than Bengt earns in an entire year of sitting in his drafty room feigning interest in other people's problems.
I find our sessions to be invaluable training for the poker table. In therapy, like poker, you looks for tells, while trying not to reveal too much about yourself. Bengt never speaks of his own life, but from his face, his clothes and his manner I try to guess where he lives and who he goes home to.
He's in his mid-40s and carries his strong frame apologetically. But he's smarter than I first thought. At first I tried to make him laugh or shock him, until I realized he considers jokes to be a nervous evasion of truth. His pauses can be deadly. He never rushes to speak; knowing that if he stays silent, most people will carry on talking and reveal more than they'd intended. I soon learned to withhold my thoughts and let the silence drag.
He asks what I want out of life and what my goals are, and how I might achieve them. He's explained his role as a therapist is to help explore my thought processes, but not to tell me what to do. Our sessions feel circular; the breakthrough never comes; or if it does, it's forgotten the instant I leave the room.
He nods understandingly when I tell him I'd won a lot of money in the previous week then lost it all back. As a Freudian, he thinks gamblers are masochists. I don't tell him it was a million and a half. He asks if it's my parents I'm really trying to hurt. Perhaps I want to get back at them for something. What could it be?
In a flash I remember the powerlessness I felt as a child when my parents told me we were moving to the town from the countryside. I thought of all the friends I left behind. And my first day at high school, when the bullies flushed my head down the toilets just because I said I liked Klaus Nomi.
I swallowed the memory; it was too painful, but also too petty. People get over much worse. Maybe I was never destined to be a happy teenager, whatever school I'd been to, wherever we'd lived.
I realized I was saying all this aloud. In my fatigue I'd told Bengt more than I'd intended. He replied with a rare sincerity "You must learn to listen to your still, small voice within".
"Oh yes, I hear it" I said.
"What do you hear?" he asked. "What does the voice inside you say?"
"Pot, pot, pot!"
I stood up, put on my coat, and hurried out to the bus stop. I'd soon cleared my mind of all thoughts but one: when I was back on Full Tilt Poker, should I start at $60k or $100k PLO?
Saturday, 13 March 2010
I'm sorry if you find my lack of prudent money management somewhat offensive. Perhaps you yourself dream of having a $60k bankroll, a hundred buyin rule, and a steady income. But that is not how I am. I'm not interested in grinding out your bourgeois living.
But soon I was losing and on tilt, and when I asked him to play higher he said no. I often find my opponents try to set the terms of play; it's all part of the game. Although I was losing, he clearly viewed me with caution; as if, as a jungle man, he saw me as a drowsy but dangerous snake which might still bite. So, since he wouldn't give me action, I short-stacked the first player I found at 100/200 and lost the rest.
After that, I had to get out of the house. I put on my heavy black coat and boots and walked straight out of the door. I didn't want to speak to anybody, not even my best friend Henrik. I just wanted time on my own. I caught the bus to Emaus nature reserve on the outskirts of town. It's one of my favourite places. There are beech and hazel trees; oak trees, elm and ash.
As I stomped through the snow, I saw a couple in their late 20s, and their young son of about 5 or 6 running ahead, chasing after their fat little dog. The boy's entire outfit was colour-coordinated the same shade of blue. Just that little detail stuck with me. I imagined his parents together choosing it in the shop. I looked at the man and I thought, this is what it means to be a strong man: to have a wife and a son and a dog. That's true strength. One day I might want it too.
I walked to the top of the reserve where there's a great view over the nearby Gustafsberg reserve and the city fjord. I found a clearing and I just laid down on the snow and felt myself inhale and exhale and looked up at the gray sky. I just wanted to feel something, to be reminded of my mortality, of my place in time and space. It's always like this after I have been gambling; it is like coming up from the depths of the ocean; I must learn to breathe again; to feel the air on my skin.
It was dark by the time I caught the bus back into town. I found myself walking past Harry's Bar just off the main street in Uddevalla. Probably people I knew from high school would be there, with their hair products, house music, and designer labels. I had enough money in my pocket to get in, and briefly thought of it. A dozen shots of tequila suddenly seemed a very attractive proposition. Then I caught my reflection in a doorway, realized my back was still wet from the snow, and I hadn't changed my clothes since Wednesday. I went back to my parents' house.
Once more in my room, I logged on to FTP to check the action. There was a PLO game going; players I knew I could beat, if only I had chips. I felt like an injured footballer bitterly watching the game from the sidelines; but I made notes in my mind from what I saw of their play. Always processing data. I soon logged off, though, feeling the old sickness rising in my stomach. I ripped off my clothes, got into my single bed, and tried to sleep.
Thursday, 11 March 2010
Maybe you want to know how I slept after 20 hours of play and losing $1.5m. Well, I slept as soundly as I’ve ever done. Having lost at poker, I was lost to the world. My once restless mind was now empty, and at peace. Imagine the calm and tranquility on a battlefield after the last breath; or when an apartment block has been demolished. The carnage is over, and much has been lost; but now, everything is still. I slept with the serenity of the dead.
In those last few hours against OMGClayAiken, I was in such a trance I thought it more likely I’d pass out than stop playing. And since I couldn’t win all the money on FTP, what other ending could there be than a massive loss? When his every hand seemed to beat mine, I couldn’t even feel anger. In truth, after a certain number of hours I had completely forgotten I had any other existence outside of the quick movement of my hand on the mouse; call, raise, re-raise, and, increasingly rarely, fold. If I had looked in the mirror then, I would not have known who I was. I no longer knew of myself as a man, a son, a friend, a brother. All that had been forgotten. I had become simply a player in a game.
The gambling experience can be like a psychedelic drug experience – no, that’s not quite right, because nothing is warped; it is more like the hard crystalline clarity of cocaine. But online gambling, like taking drugs, can be a way of effacing yourself, erasing your personality, dropping the ego. Harder for this to happen in a live game, where you are all the time aware of the other players, the conversation, your physical existence. Online is unique in the manner it allows you to disappear.
The other day, Hastings told me he had to quit playing because he had college work. Last night, when he was up a million against me and had me on tilt, begging him to play higher, Durrrr quit me because he had to go get a massage. I don’t get that attitude at all. How can these guys treat the game so casually? How can they walk away, treating trivial, avoidable encounters in their daily lives as more important than the possibility of an epic game, and potentially an epic win? Did Durrrr not want vengeance against me, when I’d been the one to destroy his reputation? Was it a loss of nerve by him? Or did he just want to show he had control of his own degenerate tendencies, and could quit when he wanted to, be the one to set the rules?
I can beat all of these guys from a clean start. I am better than any of them. But after ten, fifteen, twenty hours of play, when I am facing my sixth opponent, even I, the mighty Isildur1, can be slain by an ignoble opponent. Think of me as a prize bull, drugged, stunned, stabbed with darts, falling to a final puny matador.
When I got into bed, I erased any thought from my mind. No point in thinking about hands. When I woke after nine hour’s sleep, it was evening already. I had slept all through the day. I called up my high school friend Henrik. Who can you to speak to, after such a loss? My friends are at university or in jobs where they are lucky to earn 3000 SEK a week. What sympathy could I expect from them if I said I’d won and lost $1.5m in the space of two days, when the most talented of them may not earn that in the next ten years! Only a businessman or city trader could understand such losses; yet my recklessness and youth mean I have nothing to do with that world either.But I can talk to my friend Henrik. Here’s a picture I took of him in my parent’s garden earlier today:
We became friends because of a shared cynicism and detachment; we thought ourselves too witty, too esoteric for the main crowd at school; but also we were too awkward; too hesitant, unable to live in a purely joyful way. Henrik has got more into video games as I’ve got more into poker. Money doesn’t seem to interest him – he has enough of it, but does nothing with it. He lets it accumulate, with no notion of its utility. He’d never gamble. But, somehow, he can understand poker. He’s the only one I can tell about my wins and losses. As a gamer, it makes sense to him that money is just a way of keeping score; it doesn’t represent anything real.
He came over early evening after he’d finished work. I let him in quickly – I don’t want to talk to my family today – and we go up to my room. He watches me fire up FTP again, and glances more out of curiosity than concern as I remind myself of my account balance. While Henrik picks his eczema and insists we listen to Venetian Snares, I sit at some 100/200 PLO tables, and instantly process what I know of the opponent who soon joins me. I click to be dealt in, and the game begins again.
Wednesday, 10 March 2010
I feel like a fighter pilot or an orchestra conductor when I've six tables going and the mouse is flying all over, click click click, each decision for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just totally in the zone, my pure poker consciousness; some innate level of thinking. I mean, it feels almost like I'm a puppet on a string, I don't know where some of my plays come from. I just seem to know what to do: when to bluff, when to call, what they've got. Sometimes even what cards will come next.
I finally crashed out at 5am. When I woke up and saw $1.5m more in my account than I'd had the day before, you might think I felt elated, ecstatic, victorious, all-conquering. But the truth is I didn't feel much. I mean, I'm happy, but it was more a quiet contentment than an overwhelming joy. I'm where I want to be, and now I have the freedom to play whoever I want, as high as I want, and for as long as I want. But I'm still $6m down from my peak.
And I still don't have my own place. I'm thinking of cashing out a few hundred grand and getting somewhere to live. At 1am last night when I was six-tabling Hastings, my mother banged on my door and screamed at me to turn my music down. Momentarily distracted, I called a $100k all-in by mistake.
This morning as we were eating Surströmming for breakfast she told me I looked pale, my eyes bloodshot, my skin stretched. She said I looked like a corpse: and no wonder, since I spent all my time indoors on the computer. She asked again why I had to dye my hair black. I think she thinks I might be gay. I told her I did it because black is how I feel on the inside. She told me to get a job. I went back to my room, looked out of the window - another grey day in Uddevalla - drew the curtains, sat back down at $500/$1000, and waited for the game to begin again.
Saturday, 27 February 2010
I wish I'd got my own place last year. It sucks to still be living with my parents. But with apartments, like with poker, I won't stop till I have the best, am the best, and everyone knows it. Last December when I was winning $6 million on FTP, I heard of a luxury apartment in Stockholm on sale for $7.6m. That made it the most expensive in all of Sweden. I told myself I couldn't cash out of FTP until I had enough to buy it. And I nearly got there.
But then, as everyone knows, I lost $4m in one day to Brian Hastings and partners. The apartment was bought by Curt Bergfor who founded the Max burger chain, while I was left walking down Uddevalla high street chewing one of his hamburgers wondering what went wrong.
It was a real moral victory that the next day I didn't throw myself off Uddevalla Bridge. I spent most of the next month under the bedsheets listening to every album ever recorded by Bright Eyes, most of the EPs, and some of Conor Oberst's solo projects. Then I plotted my revenge on the Cardrunners guys.
For me, poker's an innate thing. I don't need to read a book or watch a video to know how to play. I don't need to run statistical theorems on a pooled database to figure out how to beat a guy. I just play the game. And you might think I'm a loser, but what I did last year will keep me in action for life. Call it advertising.
I've been playing a few tournaments but I can't seem to make a deep run. I don't have the patience - live poker is so slow compared to eight tables. I get bored and run bluffs too sophisticated for any live donk to understand, so they call and bust me.
I might have money online, but I'm broke in real life. I can't even afford to rent a studio flat downwind of the herring processing plant.
I tried telling my parents they should treat me with a bit of respect, but the fact I've played Durrrr, Antonius and Phil Ivey over eight tables at $500/$1000 means nothing to them. I keep it hazy anyway because they'd be shocked to hear I'd gotten through more money than they've earnt in their lives. Once, after my mum had told me to make something of myself, I told her I was already the most famous person in Uddevalla. She looked up from her TV soap and snorted "Pah! You're not even as famous as Berit Carlberg!" I stormed up to my room and slammed the door. Brian Hastings was sitting at 200/400 and all of a sudden it seemed a good idea to play him. Another $100k gone.
My parents moved to Uddevalla from Dals Ed in time for me to go to high school. This is how school here is described on Wikipedia:
"As a school of art the students are free to express their creativity in many forms of ways; clothing, drawing, photographing, filming and music, to name a few. The atmosphere in the school is very relaxed and the bullying-rate is low. Alternative ways of dressing is very common though, and you can be sure to find someone at the hallway piano during all times of the day."
Doesn't that make it sound swell? But I was the guy that always used to play the hallway piano, gazing out of the window, sometimes having to flick my hair out of eyes. And these were the guys that used to smash the piano lid down on my fingers:
I guess that's when I took to my room. Sometimes I still think of them when I'm hurtling through my bankroll at the poker table. I want to kill my opponents but it might be easier to kill myself. All-in, all-in, all-in. Smash, smash, smash!