My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

I love tournaments.

I already talked a couple months back about how I love competition for its own sake, the thrills of the rise and fall of one’s prospect and the possibility of winning something. And I’ve even meditated extensively on the early morning joy heading into a debate tournament as I did most every Friday for five years recently and four years when in college as a competitor, let alone five years in 8th-12th grade prior to that. But having just completed a grueling 19-hour tournament over the course of two days in Baton Rouge this past weekend, I’ve come to a new appreciation about how all tournaments are in some ways the same, and specifically how debate and poker tournaments correlate as environments that has made my transition from debate coach to poker player rather smooth.

I was always impressed at the universality I found in ardently pursued extracurricular activities in college between myself and friends of mine who did ostensibly different things. My friend Ariel was in an elite a cappella group at Brandeis, Alisha in band management at Harvard, Fish in the Student PIRG at UC-San Diego. In all instances and more, it was clear that high school days of doing twenty extracurriculars to pursue all possible interests (and build a college-bound resume) was infeasible. People had, generally, one thing that they did. After an early dabbling in Model UN, the Socialist club, the literary magazine, and the non-drinking club, I quickly consolidated my energies into debate … and the rest is history. But as I would discuss the intricacies of these activities with the friends pursuing them, commonalities with debate quickly became apparent, even where there was not an overtly competitive aspect.

Each group had its own vocabulary and nomenclature. Each had its individual intrigues and romantic entanglements. Each had power struggles and leadership dynamics. Every group had a “that guy,” with the possible exception of the a cappella group which selected in part on popularity, almost like a frat. And each, in its way, brought people together to accomplish great and unlikely feats as only collections of highly motivated and talented groups can consistently do.

Nowhere were these parallels more apparent than in an extensive discussion I had mid-college with Ariel about an a cappella competition her group had attended. While there was no direct clash and engagement as in debate, the similarities of group and individual dynamic in the midst of the intensity of a struggle to win a subjectively judged event were uncannily striking to both of us. There were similar personalities in each of our stories, similar interactions between individual and larger team, similar qualms with the nature of judging and reputation, and remarkably familiar highs and lows and eventual triumphs.

Poker is not a subjectively judged event, but it effectively simulates one in the chance that the better hand will lose on the flop, turn, or river. While the strict outcomes are more like a sport, and indeed a sport without umpires or referees to add some human error, the fact that a person can win a hand they were 8% to win when the chips went in the middle is notably akin to a subjective or even seemingly corrupt declaration by a fallible human judge. And it incites equally pleased and sportsmanlike reactions from the losers. The most frequent expression of frustrated disbelief is to pound on the table once, eliciting an incongruous knocking sound from what appears only to be green felt (there is a harder surface beneath that is rarely reached except in the most angered moments), but berating rants are also not uncommon. As in the debate world, losing competitors are only too happy to tell someone who has just knocked them out of the tournament how vastly inferior a competitor they are, how stupid they have demonstrated themselves to be.

There are brazen jerks in both events. Maybe there are everywhere in the world, but intensely competitive environments have been known to elicit the absolute worst behavior in many an otherwise intelligent or even possibly kind individual. I have had countless run-ins with such people in debate, often getting in preachy arguments with them about how it is possible to both compete well and respect the dignity of one’s opponents without resorting to shady tactics or condescension. And heard the defenses of and from such people that they can be nice humans but ruthless debaters and that we should view this Jekyll/Hyde hybrid as perfectly acceptable. There is an arc of this argument that includes the notion that being intimidating, ruthless, and attempting to extricate tears from one’s opposition actually makes one a better debater in some way, that mercy or even respect are weaknesses that are to be stamped out by those who wish to be the best. No matter how vehemently I disagree with this perspective, there are certainly kindreds in the poker world who craft the image of an asshole in order to induce folds or angry calls at their desired discretion. The fundamental idea being that both debate and poker rely on calm, rational judgment, and this becomes abridged when someone feels personally threatened or a righteous desire to suddenly beat their purported villain/rival all at once.

What makes poker viscerally distinct from debate, however, in these kinds of interactions, is the enforced ongoing physical proximity to those one may deeply dislike. I never had to sit next to a debate rival for eight straight hours as I recently did next to a relatively well-known pro and world-class egotist last Friday. I’ll refrain from including his name, but several articles I recently found about his participation in this tournament alone described him as a “polarizing figure,” which may be the ultimate euphemism. Among other things, the individual displayed extensive racism and sexism in brash tones, as well as bad-naturedly making fun of me repeatedly both in person and on Facebook (he commented on a video the tournament took of one of my hands). He tried to engage everyone at the table in a discussion of how Michael Brown deserved to die in Ferguson (I know I moved to the South, but … Jesus) and went on to describe a sales clerk at a store he’d encountered who he deemed “too stupid to live.” This nestled amongst stories of his extramarital affairs and other disrespectful interactions with women. Nowhere had I been so proximate to certain self-loving and unsavory people capable of such disrespect to their fellow human than in the debate world. But at least there they’d just be across GA, not literally rubbing elbows with you. Finishing off his knockout (someone else got most of his chips two hands prior) was among the most satisfying aspects of that tournament.

All these events have reputational considerations that deeply impact the results, or at least the journey toward the results. Almost any regularly meeting competitive event has the cool kids and the people who are respected as the best and then the vastly greater number of people trying to knock on the door and establish themselves. This is the nature of most every gathering of people in modern Western culture – a ladder is either built-in or implied in most every workplace, school environment, club, or pastime. It has been a satisfying journey to come in as an unknown and consistently cash in over half the big tournaments I’ve played, especially when I don’t rebuy my entry into tournaments as many pros consistently do. If I get knocked out, I’m out, partially a product of my smaller semi-pro bankroll, but also increasingly a deliberate choice to maintain a serious do-or-die mentality throughout the tournament. I’m sure this has a negative impact on my stomach’s stability and heart-rate, but also I think makes it possible to play a 5.5-hour satellite, then a 10-hour day one, then come back two days later and ride out the 3.5 additional hours to a $2k cash placement as 15th of 115 runners in a “main event” tournament, all without busting out once at any point.

It is that elimination nature of a tournament, combined with the fact that you literally have a chance of winning until the moment of being knocked out, that makes both tournament formats so excitingly engaging, so palpitation-inducing and thrilling. No one managed to get debate on TV, despite C-SPAN’s offers around the time of my graduation, but poker’s a fairly well-established, if culty and heavily edited, spectator sport. My favorite part of each event is the advanced strategics. The careful calculation of the psychological state of the opposition and what move will elicit the worst response from them, while playing to one’s own advantages. Obviously making it over the money line (called the “bubble” in poker tourneys, just as the line for breaking is known in debate) was my favorite single moment of the tournament, swinging the event from a potential $270 loss (I never would have paid the full $1,100 entry fee at this stage in my budding career, but thank goodness for satellites) to at least a $1400 profit. But close behind and by far my favorite play was a 7,000-chip river-bet against a steely calm player who reminded me greatly of my friend Russ in the third hour of the main event. It was designed to look like a frustrated bluff on a missed flush-draw, a calculated over-bet of the pot that would have left either myself or my opponent, if he called and lost, with almost no reasonable chips to play with but was still not an all-in. I actually had a set of 4’s which I was 90% sure was good, but also thought the bet could be strong enough to get him off a slightly better set since the turn had been a queen and the river an ace. I had checked the rainbow flop (including my set), then bet hard on the turn that brought a second heart and the queen. The guy “tanked” (thinking hard for a long period of time) for over five whole minutes, a veritable eternity in poker (that’s a whole PMR!) before calling with an inferior hand and the probable assumption I was bluffing. I turned over the fours and asked if he had a set (the 10% chance at that point had diminished, but he could reasonably have a set of 6’s and basically take my tournament chances with it) and he angrily mucked. I watched him bleed out his remaining stack as I secured my near-double-up, talking to himself frustratedly and busting out an hour later. Not only was that hand the turning point in setting me up to run toward the money (I’d really just tread water up to that point), but after his departure, a couple neighbors confided that he was one of the best pro cash players in Baton Rouge. I felt that little jolt of pride that comes with overcoming someone with a better reputation, so familiar from my early coaching days at Rutgers.

I’m still not sure I have what it takes to do this professionally. But it’s become increasingly clear that the shape, structure, and payouts of tournaments are vastly more to my style and liking than the hourly grind of the cash game. There’s vastly more strategy in the former environment, where the playing field is somewhat leveled (entirely so if one isolates the ability to rebuy entry) and survival is the primary object. The latter brings looser and crazier play, which can both be an advantage for the patient strategist, but leads to wilder variance in a world governed by probability rather than fixed outcomes. Of course, New Orleans has almost infinitely more opportunity to play cash than tournaments, so being a full-time tournament player would require precisely the kind of journeyman travel that Alex got me to give up by leaving the debate world in the first place. The long-term nature of the “circuit” as both traveling weekendly tours are called, with its repeat players and uneasy camaraderie punctuated by vicious eliminations, is perhaps the greatest parallel between these two similar universes.

But I have found enough consistent success, at least a few months in, to feel that my self-evaluation of my ability to hack it in this world is not overblown. That I have the general skillset to hang with even the long-term professionals. I still probably want to supplement this lifestyle with a health-insurance-offering employment of some sort, preferably one that works against the capitalist structure or at least helps people somehow. But approaching a half-year of this experiment, I feel grateful (on Thanksgiving!) to have found another competitive environment where I can find periodic success and consistent outlet for the competitive strategic parts of my brain that constantly pressure me for release. And perhaps I owe no small amount of this ability to being forged in the nerve-wracking fires of fourteen years of competitive debate in one role or another.