Thursday, May 30, 2013

How to Play Poker by Omar Sharif

When I was at Fort Benning, I sweated through basic training with Omar Sharif. Perhaps I stated that a bit deceptively, but it fits. He was at least as good looking, had middle eastern heritage, seemed to be continually acting, and played cards. He was such a strange and secretive soul that I'm afraid to give his real name for fear that he's involved in some clandestine operations somewhere. While the real Omar Sharif was a world-ranked bridge player, my Omar played poker like no one I've ever met.

I could never be sure about Omar. He had "the uncertain glory of an April day"—alluring, likable, energetic and cheerful, but completely untrustworthy. Well, I never trusted him. I never could tell if he was simple or shrewd, if he was genuine or jesting. On the one hand he acted disarmingly naive, but on the other, it often seemed an act. "Elvis is the king!" he would say. Who knew whether to believe him or not?

Though effortlessly friendly, as far as I could tell, he had no intimate friends. When he spoke, he frequently sounded as if his lines were rehearsed. His favorite expression was "like love and particle physics" which, like his homage to Elvis, struck me as more flippancy than fact. If someone mentioned they were hoping to receive a letter from home, "Like love and particle physics, there's no way." If the conversation turned to the latest camp rumor, "That's as real as love and particle physics." It was his comment on pretty much anything in life. "Like love and particle physics, the chance of truth here is damn'd rare." And I never could tell if he meant "rare" in the sense of unlikely or precious. I don't know what others thought, but I found him an enigma.

Whether he was serious or seriously spoofing, he did, however, confide in me how to play poker. What follows is how he viewed the game, or at least, how he said he viewed it. I could never tell with Omar.

Like love, you play poker for pleasure. You endure pains and feigns during the game, all for the sake of coming out on top. For him this meant winning, but he recognized that some could enjoy the game without winning. Those people, he said, made the perfect partner(s). Who knows if he was only talking of poker.

Like particle physics, poker is all about probability. Therein lies the great conundrum, he would say. We act in accordance with learned likelihoods that we believe are true in the long run. Unfortunately, every single event, or 'hand', is unique. Plus, of course, we are all dead in the long run.

He insisted that you must learn all the probability statistics in poker and calculate odds, outs, and expected values. Anyone who didn't know these basics, he grouped with those trying to have fun at poker without winning.

But his main focus, and the denouement of his metaphors, was this: like love and particle physics (and possibly much of what he said), there is just one overriding principle in poker you need to remember. It is the principle of deception. If you understand this you will play well. And unless I am completely deceived, he understood deception better than anyone.

Unashamedly, he would then pronounce that the best strategy is, therefore, cheating. "Don the djellaba of deception," he urged as he simultaneously mocked slipping one on and Islamic clichés. If done well, cheating leads to your most successful chance of winning. If done poorly, however, it leads to loss of friends, game, and possibly kneecaps. He readily admitted he could cheat at poker and we would be none the wiser. He once stayed up all night practicing his second card dealing because someone told him that you could tell from the sound. I couldn't—even before he started. When we played with him, I'm not sure if he cheated or not, but he would graciously pass the deal when it was his turn. He probably didn't need to cheat with us. I don't remember him ever losing.

Deception in poker begins before you even sit down to play. The first deception is choosing your playing companions—more appropriately called, opponents. What did that say about us? As mentioned, those who could enjoy the game without the need to win or calculate odds were always welcome. In addition, he would look for two other types of individuals—the wealthy and the superstitious. But his views on wealth and superstition were, not surprisingly, unconventional.

I think deception, for Omar, meant marketing, and marketing was point of view. Wealth, in his mind, did not necessarily denote piles of money but, rather, your view on how to spend it. Players will strain and sweat over a five dollar bet in poker, but never, ever, even consider five dollars when negotiating the price of a new home. The five dollars remains the same value, but the point of view does not. When Omar bet five dollars, he wanted you to think like a homebuyer—that was his deception, his marketing. For Omar, wealth meant the willingness to let go of money.

Secondly, Omar believed everyone is superstitious—everyone. It is a consequence of being self-aware. He found it incredibly strange, and seemed genuinely shocked, that we access everything, the entire universe of sense and sentiment through only one person—ourselves. That unbelievable detail guarantees superstition. If everything is in your mind, then how could you not think you were special. We are superstitious because we only have one frame of reference, and it is ourselves.

While so much of his behavior I sensed was lightly contrived, his reaction to this very limiting view of the world seemed seriously to confound and upset him. This was life's one mistake. It didn't fit. More than once I found him on his bed or in the cafeteria shaking his head and mumbling "stupid singular access" or "suffocating singular access". It may have disturbed him, but he used it to his advantage. He knew, as perhaps no one else, that you have a small, singular entry into life, and he would market the hell out of it.

He always encouraged speculation about your hand, your place at the table, your good fortune, or the boundless opportunities in your life. What if you would have stayed and drawn that six? What if the three would have been a club? Is that your lucky shirt/skirt/socks/underpants? Why is it you always win when someone farts? For Omar, superstition meant thinking life is personal.

He loved when a player would ask the dealer to deal out the next card or the next card plus 3 after play had ended. He couldn't hope for a better example of life's personal promotion of superstition. Even though there is no possible card that could show up which would help you in any way, or reveal anything about poker or the laws of physics—unless it turned out to be a fifth ace (see cheating above), you willingly reveal your hand and your strategy! You learn nothing, but your opponent learns a little more about how you play. I can still picture him agitatedly waving his hands as he spoke. Of course, when he played he would encourage such behavior. If the revealed card made you believe that you would have won in some alternate universe, he would joking insist that you should share in the pot, or that the winner was lucky you dropped out, or something to the effect that you really didn't lose. In other words, he got the double deception of encouraging superstition (the hand was about you), and that the outcome should really make you feel more wealthy.

Omar said he learned to play poker from Edgar Allan Poe. Then he would recount a scene from The Purloined Letter where Poe describes a children's game, the object of which is to guess whether the number of marbles held by your opponent, behind his back, is odd or even. If you guess right, you win one; wrong, and you lose. One precocious boy won all the marbles in the neighborhood. Poe writes, "Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and . . . the astuteness of his opponents." His initial guess would be random, "Odd", for example. No, the opponent would show that the number of marbles was even. Now the gifted boy executed his two-fold strategy. If the opponent was "an arrant simpleton", he would just switch from even to odd. With "a simpleton a degree above the first", he would first reason as the "arrant simpleton" but then, being clever, switch back again. Thus, the boy captured all the marbles by knowing his opponent. And how did he know his opponent?

When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.
And this was the essence of Omar's game. Discern the acumen of his opponent and act accordingly. However, he harvested a lot more information than just a stranger's countenance. He encouraged his opponents to reveal as much as possible.

But reading the competition is only half the battle. For his part, Omar categorized three types of deception: 1) arrant simple, 2) a degree above, and 3) Vizzini. The first two, of course, were from Poe, Vizzini is the erratically cerebral character in the The Princess Bride. Omar said the vast majority of the time 'arrant simple' was all that is needed for deception. Typically, he would play his hand subtly hinting the contrary of what he held. His talk, his betting, his demeanor would suggest pocket pairs when he looked for a straight, a straight when he had nothing or a full house, a queen when he held an ace. Generally, he felt people are easily fooled. His trade mark was going 'all–in' at the most surprising times. It was maddening, and he was fearless.

In special circumstances he would resort to 'a degree above' where he would double back and hint at what he actually had, in hope that you were clever enough to think you are being deceived. Chances are you would be, but not in a the manner you thought. Lastly, more as a strategy to keep people confused about his play, he would pull a Vizzini and bet in a totally unfathomable, random manner. This was rare and he didn't expect to win—that hand.

Omar had plenty of other advice on poker, but it basically all came down to techniques of deception. It came naturally to him. His unusual personality of pretense was inherently suited for poker. But as peculiar as Omar's idiosyncratic behavior and uncommon outlook on life were, his reputation at camp became legendary from the most memorable hand of poker I ever witnessed. It's distinction stemmed not from the amount in the pot, though not inconsiderable, nor from the sequence of cards dealt, though not unsurprising, but from the shocking events immediately after the hand and the unsettling long term consequences that followed.

1 comment:

David said...

Damn, this is brilliant.

I put your blog in my reading queue and I forget why. I think I was looking up info on something or other I was havin a discussion on. Oh yeah, it was the Radio Lab episode on the Standford Prison Experiment think? Anyway I came back here and I'm liking the stuff I see so far.