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August 11, 2006

Go All-In

“Shove me in the shallow water, before I get too deep”
–Edie Brickell, “What I Am”

If you’re a regular visitor here, you’ve been subjected to five straight drug articles.

If you’re not a regular visitor, perhaps you stumbled here after doing a Google search for “celebrity breast augmentation” or “Amsterdam hookers” or “female Viagra”. In that case, um…you know this blog is mostly about running, right? I don’t want be mistaken for TMZ.com or The Smoking Gun or some online sex shop (find your own link).

Either way, the drug series got a little heavy-handed, and very long-winded. And as I told Rob, I think I peaked too early by talking about artificial breasts in the first installment – after that, the bar for stimulating interest was set pretty high, and I may have overreached a bit while trying to keep your attention.

Next time, I’ll know to build momentum gradually, and save the sex talk for later in the series. Obviously I still have a lot of things to learn about writing.

At any rate, it’s time to shift gears. I’m taking the easy way out, by posting our Herald article from last week.

I first wrote about the World Series of Poker in 1993, thinking it was a flash in the pop cultural pan; a mindlessly amusing diversion that would soon go the way of Joe Millionaire or the Macarena.

Instead, televised poker continues to be a huge draw, and thousands of new players appear out of the woodwork every year. Likewise, the throwaway article I wrote three years ago turned out to have some legs – I’ve tinkered with it and republished it twice since then, including in last week’s Monterey Herald.

Here’s the version that appeared last week:

Running Life 8/3/06 “Go All-In”

Without a doubt, poker is hot.

High-stakes tournaments are televised year-round on various networks, and it seems like everyone wants to try their luck and live like The Gambler. Heck, even the Monterey Herald now has a regular poker column to teach a novice player how to work his short stack into a huge pile. We’re pretty sure those are poker terms.

As we write this column, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) is underway in Las Vegas, with $12 million awaiting the winner of the main event. The WSOP is televised on ESPN, and it’s a unique glance into the world of high-stakes gambling that the vast majority of us are too poor (the entry fee to the main event is $10,000) or too terrified to enter.

The contestants make for fascinating viewing - it's the biggest collection of geeks and oddballs this side of a Star Trek convention. Harvard PhDs compete with uneducated laborers, mathematic whiz kids stare down vice peddlers, and fresh-off-the-boat immigrants play alongside old-school Texas oilmen.

There are high rollers, Jesus freaks, pregnant women, and LOTS of fat guys. If someone could invent smell-o-vision, we would even sense the cigar stench and the stale nachos and the B.O. (come to think of it, maybe we could do without smell-o-vision).

The main event of the WSOP is one of the most ruthless varieties of poker, called No-limit Texas Hold 'Em.

Since this is a column about running, we’ll pose two questions: 1) Can poker legitimately be called a sport, or its players be considered athletes? And more specifically, 2) Are there any lessons that runners and other recreational athletes can learn by watching?

The answers may surprise you.

Actually, question #1 is easy: no one would dare call card players athletes. Even casual observers can take one look and tell that these folks aren't the smoothie-after-a-workout types.

However, question #2 is more complex. No-limit hold ‘em does have some parallels to running. One dramatic similarity is the most exciting aspect of the game, when players decide to "go all-in".

In the no-limit game, anyone can wager their entire stack of chips on any given hand. If you have a higher chip count, you can go all-in against a lower stack to intimidate him off a hand, further building your pile. If you go all-in with the low stack and lose the hand, you're out of the tournament.

You would think players would reserve such a gambit for only a few premium hands, but in fact it's done all the time. Tournament rules require increasing chip bids for each hand, so the player who plays conservatively will slowly bleed his chips away before the ideal hand comes along.

Thus, going all-in is a necessity, as players are unable to win large pots or knock other players out without this tactic.

Think of going all-in as running a race. It represents a time to push all of your chips onto the table, reveal your cards, and see who comes out on top.

In poker, the decision to go all-in is partly based on your opponent: do you think he has a better hand? Can you get a read off of him that indicates what cards he is holding?

In racing, we're often concerned with how we will perform in comparison to others. Some of us try to beat our training partners. Others try for age group awards, while some are simply afraid of finishing dead last.

Obviously, the fear of losing is the most nerve-racking aspect of going all-in for professional card players. In no-limit poker, any given hand could result in sudden elimination.

Similarly, with every race, runners risk failure or disappointment with a poor showing. But just as there is no way to advance in the WSOP without going all-in, there is no better way to improve our performances than by periodically putting everything on the line in a race.

Any of us who are concerned with PRs, age group places, and comparative times from year to year need to go all-in on a regular basis - not just when we have the perfect hand.

Without the motivation of the next race looming, many of us would tend to ease up on our training, gradually losing our edge and our speed, the same way a pile of chips dwindles away one hand at a time if never risked.

Don’t be afraid if racing gives you a major-league case of the jitters. That’s the nature of competition. For gamblers, this is the "juice" that draws them to the table - the panicky tension, the drama of exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows based on the fall of the cards.

Runners become hooked on racing in search of the same thrill. In fact, many coaches say that if you aren't terrified before a race, you aren't properly prepared for it.

So maybe runners and poker players have more in common than it first appears. Running also brings together people from disparate backgrounds. Some of us are oddballs. And although there aren't quite as many fat guys in our group, we know plenty of runners with B.O. issues.

Runners often use the phrase "go all-out" to indicate their maximal effort in a race. Next time, try this: when you are lined up at the start line, envision pushing a big stack of chips into the middle of the road, and commit yourself to going all-in.


Cliff 8/11/06, 11:33 AM  


good article..doesn't the runners with BO makes us run faster :)

angie's pink fuzzy 8/11/06, 7:19 PM  

i'm not aware of too many things...i know what i know if you know what i mean...

~angie, head boppin to the new bohemians

robtherunner 8/11/06, 7:47 PM  

Hmmm..I picture myself as the guy who gets into the later rounds year after year, but is constantly going all in and losing his chips everytime. The commentators would be talking about how this could be my year if I can just play it smart. One of these years I'll get my payday.

Dawn - Pink Chick 8/13/06, 7:26 PM  

An interesting comparison. Although I think I'd probably compare my running to playing solitaire since I'm usually out there by myself.

Mike 8/13/06, 9:52 PM  

Nice article Donald...I didn't think there would be any similarities between poker players and runners but good argument there!
I'm going all-in!

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