Tim Holland, a former Backgammon champion, died yesterday at the age of 79. Read his obituary in the Times. It's eerie how much he sounds like a poker champion, talking about how he lost money learning the game but got it back from the "sharks" when he finally could play.
For such a simple game, it's endlessly fascinating to my mind. I've been fortunate enough in the past few months to get into the Backgammon scene which is played every weekday at 60 Wall Street (Liberty Park during the warmer months). The guys there have taught me so much about the game that my skill level is now leaps and bounds above where it was when I started playing them for money a few months ago. Granted, I'm still a net loser by far but since I'm only playing them for $2 or $3 a point, the losses are easily handled. More than the right price to pay for such an education. Every so often I can make a good score too, like today when I won 12 points of $3 each in a quick session with another amateur player. I'm slowly improving.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game that I'm observing is the art of the hustle. I'm definitely a target for these guys but I know I'm not being hustled because I adamantly won't play for high stakes. The perfect "pigeon" is one who has a much greater idea of their skill than the reality and won't mind putting up real money. Even more than poker, Backgammon encourages bad players to think they're good because one lucky roll in a game can turn it around very quickly. And since there are only 36 dice rolls in Backgammon, vs. 52 cards in Poker, the lucky dice rolls happen more often.
There's a player who's new to the mix at 60 Wall Street, we'll call him Pigeon, who perfectly epitomizes this role. He showed up a few months ago playing for $5/point, which is relatively low stakes (roughly equivalent to playing $4/$8 limit poker). Not high enough to do real damage, but high enough that a really bad session could mean a loss of a hundo. Immediately, he latched onto my regular playing partner, we'll call him Mr. Hustle and began losing to the tune of 10-20 points a session. The sessions would last for hours and would occasionally end with Pigeon winning 5 or 6 points, but that was a rare event. In most cases, Mr. Hustle was on the winning end of things. Then, one day, I walked in to watch the match (which occurs most days starting around noontime) and looked at the score sheet. On top of the sheet, where the scorekeeper writes the stakes, there was written "$10".
I was floored.
Who in their right mind, knowing that they are a consistently losing player, would double the stakes? If you were getting your killed at $4/$8 over the course of a few weeks, would you suddenly move to $10/$20? I guess it's one thing to occasionally take a shot at higher limits, but only if you're a winning player, right? I asked Mr. Hustle about it and he just shrugged.
"I guess he thinks he can win. I warned him he's gonna get hurt sooner or later".
And there's my first lesson in the art of the hustle: always make sure your mark doesn't feel he's being forced into anything. By telling him he's probably going to lose, you play into his ego. Once his ego is bruised, his emotions take over and he starts chasing his losses.
Mr. Hustle won the first 6 sessions for a total of approximately 50 points net. That's when Pigeon lost his mind. The next time I walked in, the stakes were $25! This is like a $4/$8 player (a losing one), jumping up to $20/$40! This is where the real damage can occur! Mr. Hustle, though, was cool as a cucumber. Rather than risk his bankroll with an unlucky session, he stayed at the $10 level and let another player bank him for the remaining $15/point. Pigeon lost 7 points in that 4 hour session when the banking player had to leave. They dropped back down to 10 and Pigeon lost an additional 3 points before calling it a night. He was down 30 points at one point (!), but managed to make the miraculous comeback that convinces losing players they could be winners, if only they could keep rolling like that! Winning players know differently. Just as in poker, each player will get the same distribution of luck over the long haul. It's making the right plays the rest of the time that provides the difference. A few days later, with no backers in sight, Pigeon lost a whopping 43 points in one session at $10/point! Imagine losing 4 buyins in limit poker in one session and you'll get the idea of how bad that is.
In true Pigeon fashion, they're playing today and Pigeon has won 7 points back. He'll be back again and again and again until he's lost enough where it hurts him to come back. Astonishing.
In all of this Mr. Hustle has smiled, offered advice (not always correctly) and been very friendly. Everytime Pigeon loses, Mr. Hustle tells him how if only this roll had been different or that roll had been different, Pigeon would have won. He bolsters Pigeon's spirits, all the way happily collecting his winnings.
Hustling for money isn't something I ever plan on doing, but boy is it fascinating to watch human nature at it's most basic. And just like poker, the best advice is always to be dispassionate and analyze your position as coldly and in the most calculated fashion possible. Check your ego at the door.