The Limits of Being Human in a No-Limit World

Poker News RSS / Short-Stacked Shamus / 11 February 2011 / Leave a Comment

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There's something about that select group of poker players who play for the highest stakes that tends to encourage the rest of us to think of them as somehow not of our species. I'm talking about those players we see routinely competing for five- and six-figure pots in heads-up matches online, or who we watch take down similarly gaudy-sized scores on the live tourney circuit. To us mere mortals, it's easy to think of such individuals as somehow fundamentally different from us, playing the same game we are, but in ways and for stakes we can only imagine.

Of course, no matter how we might look upon them -- even "mythologize" them as we sometimes will do -- they are, in fact, human, too. Ultimately their status as somehow something different has more to do with how others view them than what is actually the case. Like most things in poker, when it comes to creating these seeming "gods" of the game, perception is more important than actuality.

That said, it is reasonable to say that while the highest-stakes players are certainly human, they still likely view the game -- and a lot of other things -- very differently than do most of us. The ability to do so is part of what makes them great, and allows them to compete at the stakes they do. As Al Alvarez notes in his 1983 narrative The Biggest Game in Town when speaking of such players and what makes them different, "It is a question not just of a different level of skill but of a different ordering of reality."

There were a couple of stories in poker this week that highlighted both how we sometimes view such high rollers as somehow not human while reminding us that indeed they are very much so. Perhaps not coincidentally, neither story was strictly about poker, but more of the "human interest" variety insofar as both focused more on players' lives away from the tables. And both highlighted the fact that while these players might sometimes order their "reality" differently than most of us do, the problems and issues they can face are -- just like ours -- most certainly real.

One story involved the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event champion Peter Eastgate. You'll recall how the 25-year-old from Denmark somewhat surprisingly announced his intention to step away from poker prior to last summer's Series, as well as his auctioning off his WSOP bracelet for charity back in November. In a post here called "Money Matters," I speculated that after having won poker's biggest prize Eastgate might've found himself in a position in which he felt there was nothing left to play for, the money (and perhaps other things) no longer mattering the way they must for poker to seem a worthwhile pursuit.

This week Eastgate announced he intended to return to poker, with plans to participate in the EPT Copenhagen tourney later this month as well as in the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship in March. In a statement over on the PokerStars blog, Eastgate explains both the reasoning behind his having taken a break from poker as well as why he wants to return.

The statement reveals Eastgate to be a thoughtful young man to whom many of us who haven't played for the highest stakes can nonetheless relate. "Sometimes in life a person can feel lost and wake up one morning not recognizing who he is," Eastgate begins, showing that despite the cool, emotionless exterior he consistently demonstrated during his 2008 WSOP ME run (remember his seeming non-response following the final hand?), he's certainly as feeling and vulnerable as those of us who haven't enjoyed multi-million dollar scores.

Eastgate goes on to talk about his two years of "living the life of a high profile poker pro" and how that experience had gradually caused him to have "lost track" of himself and who he was. He also notes how the money did, in fact, matter, explaining that "when there is no financial pressure it can sometimes be hard to get motivated to move forward as a person."

Having now had the chance to step away for a period and reconnect with loved ones and friends, Eastgate believes he has discovered a way to strike a balance in his life. "I feel I have figured out how I can combine playing poker with a healthy life outside of poker," explains the Danish pro.

It's that last statement -- regarding the struggle to live a "healthy life" as a high-stakes, "high profile poker pro" -- that connects Eastgate's story to the other one from this week that also got us thinking about how these players aren't as invincible as we might sometimes make them out to be. I'm referring to the story of that much-publicized prop bet between two other young poker pros, Ashton Griffin and Haseeb Qureshi, the so-called "Million Dollar Bet" about which there has been quite a bit of discussion over recent days.

Both Griffin and Qureshi have emerged over the last couple of years as successful high-stakes online players, with Griffin having added some significant live scores, too, including a victory at the 2010 NAPT Venetian High Roller Bounty Shootout last February.

As you've likely heard, the bet involved Griffin laying 3-to-1 that he could run 70 miles on a treadmill in a 24-hour period. Qureshi eventually bet $285,000 that his friend would not be able to perform the feat, with Griffin booking an additional $15,000 worth of action from others. All told, Griffin was risking $900,000 to win $300,000. And perhaps he was risking more than that, given the extreme physical challenge he was up against as well.

Ultimately Griffin won the bet, though not without a significant amount of drama along the way, much of which is compellingly chronicled in Qureshi's two blog posts this week "The Million Dollar Bet, Pt. 1" and "The Million Dollar Bet, Pt. 2."

Qureshi expresses a lot of regret in his posts for making the bet, having genuinely feared for the safety and even life of his friend over the course of the 24 hours of Griffin's run. I won't rehearse all of the particulars of Qureshi's account -- you can read it yourself -- other than to say it does show that while some of these individuals may make bets or take risks most of us cannot imagine undertaking, they are still quite susceptible to all of the same doubts, fears, uncertainties, and troubles faced by us all.

Near the end of his account, Qureshi wonders if there might be something "deeply unhealthy and imbalanced" about the world of high-stakes poker, a line that perhaps echoes Eastgate's suggestion that he needed to look outside of that world in order to become "healthy" and balanced. I wouldn't pretend to know one way or the other whether that might be the case, although it does appear from the outside that the "different ordering of reality" that goes on in that world would definitely be challenging for those trying to survive in it.

If they're human, that is.

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