DATE March 28, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Andy Bellin discusses his new book, "Poker Nation,"
and being a poker player
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Bluffing, betting, gambling and how to spot a cheat are just some of the
subjects in the new book "Poker Nation" by my guest, Andy Bellin. He started
to play seriously when he attended graduate school in 1992. He was studying
physics and astronomy at Wesleyan University when he started to lose himself
at the poker table. He got so carried away with the game that he dropped out
of school shortly before he expected to flunk out. After giving up on
astronomy, he played semi-pro poker for several years and got a job at the
literary magazine, The Paris Review. "Poker Nation" is his first book.
Bellin lives in New York City where poker is technically illegal, but the law
is not enforceable unless a third party is benefiting, such as in games that
require a fee to play. Bellin used to belong to several underground poker
clubs, but he says they broke up when Mayor Giuliani started enforcing the
law. I asked Bellin what he liked about those clubs.
Mr. ANDY BELLIN (Author, "Poker Nation"): The one thing that I never
understood about closing them was that it was safe, it was reliable, there was
always a game. You knew that you weren't going to get cheated or robbed or
anything like that, and they were great games. They were competitive; yet
there were a lot of people there that shouldn't have been there that made it
sort of profitable.
GROSS: No, people for you to take advantage of.
Mr. BELLIN: I guess so. I mean, I hate to think of it that way, but--oh,
God, maybe I'll get back into therapy now, but yes.
GROSS: Now give us a sense of the range of people that would show up at these
Mr. BELLIN: There, it is the most eclectic collection of people you could
ever imagine. You'd walk in at two in the morning on a Sunday, and it would
be, you know, a Park Avenue lawyer next to stripper next to Albanian prince
next to Brooklyn cabbie. It was just the most bizarre but most entertaining
group of people.
GROSS: To what extent do you see poker as a game of chance and to what extent
do you see it as a game of skill?
Mr. BELLIN: Well, in any situation involving dice or a deck of cards,
there's always an element of luck. But what you have to remember is the
theory of probability, which basically defines all random activity, all random
chance, and what that basically states is that the more chances you take, the
more hands you play, the more times you roll the dice, the more likely it is
that the odds will hold true. So in the short run, when you sit down and you
play a hand or, you know, just for a night, there is a lot of luck involved in
the game. You can get terrible cards or you can get good cards, which is the
worst thing to do, and have somebody get better cards, and you'll lose
everything. But if you look at poker as a yearlong endeavor or a lifelong
endeavor, then you're sort of taking the element of chance out. The theory of
probability, the more hands you play dictates that everybody will get the same
cards eventually in all the same situations, and the better players will make
more money and lose less money and, therefore, it's a lot less chance
GROSS: Where did you learn how to play and who did you learn from?
Mr. BELLIN: Well, God, I'm going to give my family a bad name. My mother
taught me when I was very young, and we used to go up to--my grandmother had
this sort of haunted house way off in the woods of the Adirondacks, and my
mother used to take my brother and I up there, and this was like, you know,
early '70s, so there was no TV, no Internet, no cable, almost no telephone.
So, you know, it was two city kids out in the woods. I would do--terrified of
everything. I would just try and keep my family up as long as possible just
doing anything, and my mother taught us how to play poker, and I think my
first game, it involved mini marshmallows as chips and, you know, my brother
and I would just play through till the morning when we could sleep then.
GROSS: So was your mother your poker mentor or did you have a mentor more
from the poker world when you got a little older?
Mr. BELLIN: Forgive me, Mom. No, she was not my poker mentor, but when I
got into graduate school, I had a math professor who was just an absolute
statistics freak. I mean, he just loved everything, would quote these
bizarre death statistics about, you know, child mortality in Guatemala or
something and really just--that's the kind of thing that made him happy. And
the one thing that he was obsessed with more than anything was poker. And one
day, he pulled me aside and said, `Do you play?' and I kind of chuckled and
said, `Yes,' and we sort of ran off like towards the Foxwoods casino to go
GROSS: And so he was interested in probability and all that kind of stuff.
Mr. BELLIN: Yeah. I mean, whether he would have admitted this or not, he
loved the game for the same reasons that I do: the competition and thrill and
there's sort of something sexy about it. But, I mean, the way he rationalized
it to himself was that it's this perfect statistical model. You can just
watch the law of averages at work any time you sit down at a poker table. So
that was--actually the best way to learn is to start with the math, to start
figuring out what the right thing to do is and what's the wrong thing to do.
And then you start learning the sort of subtleties along the way, but it was a
great poker education.
GROSS: If you're going to work with laws of probability when you're playing
poker, you need to have a good memory and remember what cards have shown up on
the table and what hands other people are likely to have, what cards are
likely to show up in the future. Did you already have a good memory or did
you learn tricks to train your memory to remember what it is you need to know
when you're playing the game?
Mr. BELLIN: I think I had an average memory, and I had operated under the
assumption that memory was a birthright. You either had a great memory or you
didn't. And what I found out along the way was that there were certain--there
are tricks, there are mnemonics, there are ways to organize things by grouping
them that improve your ability to retain information. And I don't have a
great memory now, but, you know, it certainly helps to try and figure out what
works best for your mind; whether, you know, you see a series of cards laid
out on a table, you know, do you try and make up a story? Do you try and
spell something out with their first letters? Do you group them by using
patterns or something? And it's an amazing way to help your memory.
GROSS: What are the things you most want to remember when you're playing?
Mr. BELLIN: In a game like seven card stud, where there are a lot of cards
exposed, it really helps to--you know, if you've got a pair of threes and
you've seen one three in somebody else's hand, obviously, that's going to
change the way you play the game. You've just cut your odds of making three
of a kind in half. So memorizing the cards that have been played is very
important, but being able to--particularly because most of the poker that's
played in America is played, you know, in garages and around barrooms and
things like that, you're going to play with the same guys over and over again,
so you have to keep in mind the way they play, the things they do, their
tendencies, and in that way, it makes them a lot more predictable. And 90
percent of the time, you can base your actions on more evidence, so that's
really going to help you in the long run.
GROSS: What kind of tendencies do you spot?
Mr. BELLIN: You're playing five card draw and somebody draws one card, the
classic question is does he have a four-card straight or flush or he's drawing
to a big hand or does he have two pair and he's already got a decent starting
hand? There's almost no real way to tell, except there are a lot of people
that--my friend John is a good example. He's a guy who, when he would have a
straight or a flush draw and he needed a fifth card to make a hand, he would
never bet it. He would always just call whatever was bet. He would never
initiate a bet. But when he had two pair, he would always start the betting.
So as soon as I figured that out--I've been playing with him for 10 years
now--when he draws one card, I know what he is doing. So...
GROSS: This is not something you would call to his attention, right? You
wouldn't say, `I've noticed that you have this habit.'
Mr. BELLIN: I think I just did call it to his attention.
GROSS: Yeah, right.
Mr. BELLIN: I am just so mad.
GROSS: He might not be listening. But, I mean, really, you obviously don't
want somebody to be conscious of the things they're doing that betray them?
Mr. BELLIN: Oh, of course not. I mean, these are these little--you create
your private little books on people and you keep them your whole life. I
mean, like I said, I started playing with my brother when I was seven, so,
you know, for 25 years almost, and I never told him that he has a great
tendency to tell me what his cards are without him knowing it, until I wrote
the book and I let him find out by reading the book, so...
GROSS: His reaction?
Mr. BELLIN: He didn't believe it, and then I pointed it out actually last
night at a card game, but, you know, my brother's an incredibly sturdy sort
of--I mean, he's got these huge hands and he's like this very macho guy, and
when he bluffs or when he does something out of the ordinary, he's absolutely
steady as a rock, but when he's got the best hand and he's trapped somebody,
he gets so excited that his hands shake, which is completely a dead giveaway.
So for years, I've known what he's had in his hands.
GROSS: So do you fold when you see his hands shaking?
Mr. BELLIN: Immediately, without a thought, in a second. I can't get the
cards out of my hands fast enough.
GROSS: Do you think poker is a good game for people who are
obsessive-compulsive in the sense that some people who are very
obsessive-compulsive get really obsessed with numbers and with counting and
Mr. BELLIN: By good game, do you mean like a great way for them to become
totally obsessed with something and lose their minds or a good game as in...
GROSS: Like the...
Mr. BELLIN: I mean, it's the perfect game to become completely obsessed with,
but it's not healthy.
Mr. BELLIN: Yeah. I mean, there are so many stories of people who just had
these very normal 9-to-5 lives, and one day walked into a card room or a
casino for the first time, and their lives were completely altered just by
that introduction into this world. There's actually a great story in my book
about a kid who was a JD/MBA. I think he was working at a big accounting
firm, had a very normal life, wife, you know, mortgage payments, and then
somehow stumbled upon one of the card houses, and in about seven months had
lost his wife, lost his job, was $8,000 to $10,000 in debt and is now a
fugitive of the state of New York. So not so good sometimes.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like you were getting anywhere close to that level
of danger in your life?
Mr. BELLIN: I get that question all the time. I don't know how to answer
that honestly. I mean, I would never have played as much as I did had I
thought that I was doing something detrimental to myself, but looking back, I
played a ton of poker. I mean, I was playing five, six nights a week, seven
hours a day. I mean, I was more passionate about this than I was about school
or work or anything. I mean, I thought of it as my job and I happened to have
thought I was great at my job and loved my job.
But gambling addiction is a very, very tricky addiction, more so, I think,
than alcoholism because the warning signs are so well hidden. You know, you
don't look terrible. You don't wreck cars. Your life just slowly becomes
consumed by gambling, and you never give away what's happening to you until
it's way too late, until you're deep, deep in debt. So I tried very hard to
keep conscious of all of those things. But, you know, I was never close to
losing tons of money, but, you know, looking back now, I mean, I was in. You
know, I was definitely on the brink.
GROSS: My guest is Andy Bellin, author of "Poker Nation." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is writer and poker player Andy Bellin. His new book is
called "Poker Nation."
Now how do you decide if someone else is bluffing? What are some of the
things you look for?
Mr. BELLIN: Well, people do the weirdest things. You know, we all get
drilled into us at an early age that lying is a bad thing to do, and all of
the deception we intend to bestow upon people at a poker table, it comes in a
conflict with that. So people have the strangest reactions. People cover
their mouths when they bluff. Some people look away. Some people change the
tone of their voice. Some people bet way more aggressively, physically; they
throw the chips in the pot when they're bluffing. Some people do it very
sheepishly, like they're embarrassed to be doing this. It all depends on the
person, but figuring out a tell like that is really--I mean, it's such a huge
When I was in graduate school, I used to play in a game, and apparently--they
didn't tell me this until after I left school, note I said `left' and not
`graduated,' but after I left school--I was notified that I had a tell where,
when I would be bluffing or be making a very reluctant call, if it was a $10
bet, I would make the wager with small denominations. I would use 10
one-dollar chips or 20 50-cent chips to get rid of my small chips. And when I
had a very good hand, when I was confident in it, I would use a big chip. I
would throw in a $10 chip, and it's an amazing tell.
GROSS: Once you realize you have a tell, is it difficult to get rid of, just
as it's difficult to break nearly every habit?
Mr. BELLIN: I think it is, but you sort of do it proactively in the sense
that you don't recognize the tell and then compensate for it. What you try
and do is whether you're bluffing or whether you're making a reluctant call or
whether you've got an amazing hand, you try and go through the process of
betting in the exact same way. You do it almost as mechanically as possible,
grab the chips in the same way. You throw them in the pot the same way. You
look at your cards in the same way. You bet using the same inflection. And
if you can do that, you're better off trying to avoid it proactively rather
than reacting to it.
GROSS: Have you played cards with people who you were sure or at least pretty
confident were cheating?
Mr. BELLIN: I tell everybody that if you've played more than five hands of
poker in your life, you've probably been cheated at one point or another,
which is not to say that every game you're in is crooked, but if anybody has
ever looked at, you know, the bottom card on a deck, they've cheated in a
sense. They've taken advantage of some inside information, and they've used
it without, you know, stopping the game and saying, `Re-deal the cards.' So
cheating can be, in very subtle and almost meaningless ways, you know, knowing
one card in a deck is an advantage but not a huge advantage, or you can have
people try and, you know, steal the shoes off your feet.
And I was in a poker game in a casino a long time ago where I found that--I
didn't even realize that I was playing with what they called a partnered team,
where two people sort of signal each other what their cards are, and they try
and trap you in between them, where you've got a decent hand, one's got a
great hand or one's got a terrible hand, and they just keep raising, because
they know they're going to split the proceeds in the end. So there is
cheating. The problem is that you have to become a very good card cheat
yourself to be able to spot it. You have to learn what it sounds...
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Why do you have to be a cheat to spot it?
Mr. BELLIN: Well, you have to be able to manipulate the deck yourself to know
what it looks like when somebody else is doing it. You have to know what it
sounds like when somebody is peeking at a card or dealing the second or third
card off the deck and not the top one to be able to spot it. And the only way
to become familiar with it is to do it yourself.
GROSS: In your book, "Poker Nation," you write, `Losing begets losing.' Can
you talk about that losing spiral that you can fall into?
Mr. BELLIN: Yeah. You find yourself in the throes of it, and you think, `I
can't believe I got myself into this again.' But you say to yourself, `I just
lost money, so I have to play more poker to win,' and then you play more poker
to win your money back, but you've actually lost, so now you have to play even
more poker. Also, the mathematics logically conspire against losing, in the
sense that if you start out with $500 and you lose 50 percent of your money,
you've got $250, now you've got to make 100 percent of your money to get even.
So it seems like the further you go, the more difficult it is to crawl out of
the hole. And also, when you lose, you start getting frustrated, and when you
get frustrated, you start playing irresponsibly, and then when you start
playing irresponsibly, you start losing more, and then it just becomes this
vicious cycle that's terrible and wildly unprofitable and makes for a
miserable evening. That's why often, the best thing you can do after losing a
big hand is just pick up your chips and go home and come back and fight
GROSS: Are you capable of doing that?
Mr. BELLIN: Sometimes, I think. I used to pride myself--the expression for
when a player starts losing his mind at a poker table and playing
irresponsibly is that he's tilting, and I used to pride myself on never
tilting, but the fact was, I mean, I guess I used to tilt in my own way. Like
one of the most important decisions you have to make at a poker table is if
you've lost your money, do you buy back in? And the reason it's so important
is you have to figure out why you've lost your money. Were you just getting
bad cards and buying back in is going to further your attempts to get even
because you're a favorite at that table, or are you just completely outclassed
and just go home and, you know, watch a movie and then come back and hope
those guys are gone in the morning?
But I was never a great judge of that, so in a sense, I would lose, and then I
would have that sort of tilty feeling to me, and I'd think, `You know what?
I've got to get back in this game. I'm a favorite at this table,' and a lot
of the times, I wasn't. So I think that was my greatest shortcoming as a
GROSS: Do you like to play against someone who's tilting? Are they easy to
Mr. BELLIN: Yeah, especially if you can keep them tilting. You know, you can
just sort of subtly remind them of that hand that cost them a thousand dollars
GROSS: Oh, that's so not nice.
Mr. BELLIN: You know what? There's a lot about poker that's not nice, but
like I said, it's warfare without weapons, you know. I mean, the
psychological aspect is just as important as the card play. If you can keep a
cool head where somebody else is losing, you know, their cool, it's a huge
advantage, and that's where you make your money.
GROSS: Do you believe in beginner's luck?
Mr. BELLIN: Absolutely. My girlfriend, the first time she played, just went
on a tear. She just couldn't miss. The same is true at a horse racing track.
First time I taught her how to throw dice at a crap table, she threw the dice
across the table, hit a man in the head and they fell in the well and turned
out an 11, and we won. So, yes, very much so. It's a very important part of
GROSS: Well, Andy Bellin, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BELLIN: Oh, thank you. That was great fun.
GROSS: Andy Bellin is the author of "Poker Nation." I'm Terry Gross and this
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, Chris Isaak plays a couple of songs and talks about his new
CD and his Showtime TV series on which he plays himself, and his band members
play his band.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CHRIS ISAAK: (Singing) Don't tell me that you love me or that you'll
never leave me. Give me one day in your life. Just put your arms around me
and tell me that you need me. Give me one day in your life. One day is all I
ask for. One day to be with you. One day is all I ask for, one more day to
feel like I do over you. Oh, oh. This world could turn against me, but it
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