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The Poker Wisdom of Omar and The Wire

“Recall how often in human history the saint and the rebel have been the same person.”
–Rollo May

It’s been 5 years since I wrote anything about poker, so I thought it was time to get back to the roots of this blog and extract some poker wisdom from the greatest character in the greatest show of all time.  That’s right, it’s time for some quotes from Omar Little, the Robin Hood of the Baltimore streets, the noble stick-up kid and champion of “the road less traveled.” For me, The Wire transcends television… the show is so good that it goes far beyond the topics it addresses and offers up eternal truths that give us insight into how we should live our lives. Much like Hamlet is about much more than a Prince’s struggle to avenge his Father’s murder, the Wire is about much more than the problems of an American city.

***

Once upon a time, I almost became a professional poker player. Over the past few years, I met a lot of young poker players who made the choice to turn pro, and made a ton of money.  Sometimes when I’d meet these guys, I would wonder how my life would have turned out had I decided to make a career out of poker.

Rewind to 2003.  I was 26, fresh out of graduate school, working my first “real” job, collaborating with doctors on creating software that would help them to be better and more efficient with their care.  At the same time, I was falling in love with poker, playing for at least a couple hours every day after work.

Everything was new to me then.  Work was great — I was writing software from scratch, working on academic projects that I was sure would eventually be integrated into the hospital-wide Computer Patient Record System, which would eventually replace the old paper-based system.  A consulting company had been hired to create software that would force doctors to enter data via keyboard, instead of scrawling unreadable notes on paper files that acted as the official record for how each patient was treated. I worked on my software projects separately with the doctors, knocking off small and useful modules that we could later plug in to the larger system to improve the efficiency of data entry and lookup.

After a few months spent creating dozens of these modules and putting them on the shelf, I began to wonder when my work would be introduced to the doctors it was developed for.  I turned my attention to the system the consultants were building.  It quickly became apparent to me that this system was poorly designed and implemented, and I did my best to help improve the system and make it more user friendly for the doctors and nurses who would be using it.  Eventually the software was complete, and the hospital rolled it out, forcing the doctors to use enter all their data through the clumsy system.

As you might expect, the system was poorly received — doctors spent far more time with the clunky computer interface than they had with the paper system.  After a few weeks, the doctors joined together in protest, forcing the hospital to revert back to the paper based system so the doctors’ time wasn’t wasted hunting for letters on the keyboard.  My software sat on the shelf as the consulting company redesigned the system, and my work was looking more and more like an academic exercise, as the redesign effort grew larger and involved more people.

My frustrations at work pushed me to spend more time developing my poker game, and I found myself enjoying my daily grind at the poker tables, both online and in the poker rooms of Los Angeles.  After a while, I found myself making more money on the felt than I was at my job. Like most ambitious poker players, I often wondered what it would like to be a professional poker player. It’s tough to get up at 8 AM when you’re raking in huge pots all night and racing to get back home before the sun comes up.  You envy your professional opponents, who stroll in at midnight, alert and ready to exploit the rest of the table who are tired or on tilt from a long day of work.

The daily grind at the poker tables was exciting and rewarding.  My daily grind writing software was frustrating and filled with bureacratic and political battles, which began to overshadow the software I was writing.  The life of the professional poker player became more and more attractive.  Friends and fellow bloggers began to ask me if I had considered “going pro,” telling me that they thought I had what it takes to be a successful pro.  I started considering the possibility of quitting my job and playing poker full time.

Over time, I realized that professional poker was not for me.  I just couldn’t justify spending the majority of my work day extracting as much money as possible from my opponents.  It bothered me that surrounding myself with the worst players would get me the biggest profit.  What kind of job pays you to surround yourself with idiots? The drunker, richer, and angrier the opponent, the better the chance that I would go home a big winner.  There are other ways to be a poker pro — tournament pros, for example — but in a game where the score is kept in dollars won, I was always drawn to the games that would allow me to win the most money.  At the time, this meant playing in late-night weekend games with people that were not very much fun to be around, but were happy to donate to my “income.”

Growing up with the dream of becoming a professional football player, something bothered me about a life where individual effort and results were more important than being part of a collective effort. The idea of being part of a team was important to me. Working together with people to build something bigger than myself, a group of people that helped each other go beyond individual accomplishment, was attractive to me.  Team sports like Football and Basketball had always been a lot more fun than individual sports like Track and Field.

In addition to missing the “team” element as a poker player, I also didn’t like the idea of a profession which essentially boiled down to collecting poker chips.  The job didn’t “contribute” anything to society directly, and this bothered me.  Why become an accountant when you can be the guy hiring an accountant?

Looking back, my perspective on all of this is a lot different now, but I know that I wouldn’t have been happy as a poker pro.  While I loved to play poker, I didn’t have the faith in the other aspects of the game to be successful at the highest level.   The poker world is about a lot more than just being good at playing cards, and ultimately, I didn’t buy into the idea that the dollar is a good way to keep score. As Omar says, “Man gotta live what he know, right?”

The story that best illustrates my unsuitability for the professional poker game happened one night at Hollywood Park.  Sitting in a $15-30 limit game, a guy stumbled over to my game and sat down next to me, putting his 3 $1000 chips on the table and breathing Jack Daniels fumes in my face as he asked for a rack of $5 chips.  The faces around the table smelled blood, and suddenly I was surrounded by jackals and wolves.  After a couple of hours, $3000 had been distributed to the jackals, and the poor drunk had nothing left.

The owner, so drunk he could barely hold his cards, looked down at the bare felt in front of him, suddenly came to life: “WHO STOLE MY WHITE CHIPS???”  After he accused me of pocketing them, the dealer and everyone else at the table reminded him that he had lost them over the past couple of hours.  Refusing to believe this, the drunk asked to see the video footage: “I WANT TO SEE THE CAMERA! YOU ALL STOLE MY CHIPS!”  The dealer stopped the game and soon enough the drunk wandered away, with the jackals and wolves smiling as he wandered away.

We had won his money “fair and square,” and I seemed to be the only one at the table who wasn’t happy about it.
***
A recurring topic in the wire is “the game,” and much of the street dialogue refers to the game and what it means to be a participant in the game.  ”The game” is the set of rules and structures that the society around us has created.  In The Wire, the game refers to the unwritten rules and ethics that anyone involved in the business of selling drugs must adhere to.  For Omar, the rules of the drug game justify his existence as a murderer whose life is dedicated to taking money from drug dealers.

What is “the game”?  The creator and writer of the Wire, David Simon, says that The Wire is about American Institutions:

“But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.”

We’re born into a world where the rules are already defined.  ”The game is out there. It’s either play or get played,” says Omar.  Omar chooses to play the game his own way, adopting a style that allows him to be true to himself and his personal beliefs.   He plays the game the only way he knows how, and he plays it well.  Rather than becoming part of a team — playing a role in an organization of drug dealers — Omar chooses his own path, becoming a “stick up kid,” an opportunistic thief who robs drug dealers for a living.

The archetype for Omar’s character can be found throughout literature and film.  The rebel, Robin Hood of the streets, the “noble savage.”  In a show that on the surface is about cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, Omar decides to choose his own path, blazing his own trail rather than joining an organization where the rules have been made by somebody else. Is it possible that someone who has chosen a vocation of ruthless murder and robbery could be a hero?  Why do we find ourselves rooting for Omar?

Rather than answer the question directly, let’s break down the words of one of my favorite characters to walk across the TV screen.  Since Omar is dedicated to playing the game his own way, as an individual, he offers a lot of valuable lessons for poker players.

***

Ilene: And what is your occupation?
Omar: Occupation?
Ilene: What exactly do you do for a living, Mr. Little?
Omar: I rip and run.
Ilene: You…
Omar: I robs drug dealers.
Ilene: And exactly how long has this been your occupation, Mr. Little?
Omar: Well, I don’t know exactly. I venture to say maybe ’bout eight or nine years.
Ilene: Mr. Little, how does a man rob drug dealers for eight or nine years and live to tell about it?
Omar: Day at a time, I suppose.

Omar’s attempt to explain his existential choices to a group of people outside of “the game” shows the disconnect between the lifestyle of a “stick up kid” and the lifestyle of those in polite society.  In a society that pushes people to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians, those within the institution look upon those who choose their own path with disdain.  Anybody who decides to make their living outside of the “9 to 5″ world — artists, poker players, and criminals, among others — is going to walk a lonely path.  Existential writers like Camus champion this act of choosing a different path — the conscious choice of the individual to seek a different life than those offered through institutions is symbolic of the desire to create meaning in an absurd world.

The professional poker player must have the courage to embrace his chosen path, to stand proud in the face of those who question his choice of career.  Can you imagine telling your parents that you’ve quit your job and you are dedicating your education and talents to beating your opponents at the poker table?

In order to succeed as a professional poker player, you must have complete faith in your choice of career and devote yourself to becoming the best player you can be.  Omar is able to “win” because he embraces his role, enabling him to kill drug dealers and the players in the game without hesitation or guilt.  If you decide to make a living at the table, you need to be able to take your opponents money with passion and style, leaving remorse and doubt behind.

Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You’re stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off–
Omar: Just like you, man.
Levy: –the culture of drugs… Excuse me, what?
Omar: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?

In one of my favorite bits of dialogue from the series, Omar points out the hypocrisy of the lawyer whose career is dedicated to defending Baltimore’s most notorious criminals.  ”It’s all in the game, though, right?”  Omar does not take offense at Levy’s accusation, but he does take offense at the accusation that he is “amoral,” especially when the accusation comes from someone who makes a living in exactly the same way he does — sticking up drug dealers for huge fees as payment for his expert legal representation.

Poker pros can be considered “parasitic” — the “poker economy” is not self sustaining, and poker pros feed off of money coming in from money that is earned away from the poker table.  The money inside poker changes hands and flows freely, but without the money coming in from sources outside of poker, there would be few professional players.  Does this make playing poker professionally amoral?  I’m not going to get into a long discussion of morality, but hey, if you decide to play “the game,”  there’s nothing wrong with me taking your money.

Bunk Moreland: So, you’re my eyeball witness, huh? [Omar nods] So, why’d you step up on this?
Omar: Bird triflin’, basically. Kill an everyday workin’ man and all. I mean, I do some dirt, too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game.
Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: Oh, no doubt.

A man must have a code.  This quote goes out to anyone who bets against their friends for serious money.   There’s been a lot of talk about prop bets lately, and one thing I learned about prop bets is that you shouldn’t bet against an outcome that would make you feel good.  One of the basic rules of sports betting is that you don’t bet on your favorite team to win — not only are you likely to be too biased to make a good bet, if your team loses, you have to deal with the heartbreak as a sports fan with fewer dollars in your pocket.  Similarly, if I win money because my friend fails at something important to him, what kind of friend does that make me?  If you’re making the bet to motivate a friend — to quit smoking, to lose weight, whatever — then you should be happy to pay off the bet.  If you’re making the bet because you think you have an edge (in other words, it’s not a “friendly” bet), it’s a bad bet.  Some people can do it, but I can’t stomach the idea of making a profit from hoping my friends will fail.  A man must have a code.

Omar: How you expect to run with the wolves come night, when you spend all day sparring wit’ the puppies?

My favorite Omar quote points out that to be the best, you have to surround yourself with the best.  For professional poker players, this presents a problem — regularly playing against sharks who are as good as you are isn’t good for your bottom line.

A couple of anecdotes help illustrate how “running with the wolves” can help your game:

Anecdote 1: A friend at an LA casino, who was a very good player, became a dealer and floorman.  We played a lot of poker together, and we would talk about hands and our game whenever we saw each other.  One night, he walked over with a huge rack of chips and a chesire cat grin.  He had been lucky enough to get a seat with the biggest fish in the casino, a guy who would show up occasionally and donate to everyone at his table.   A week later, I got a phone call:

Him: “Get down here!  The whale is playing and there are two open seats!”

Me: “Lock up the seat if you can, I’m on my way.”

By the time I got there, the list for the table was 5 deep (he wasn’t able to lock up the seat due to the protests of hungry sharks) and I watched in agony as the whale proceeded to lose hand after hand.  Needless to say, nobody left the game and my name never got called, but I learned that there were a lot of players who tipped floormen big to get called whenever certain players showed up or the game was abnormally good.   If I wasn’t running with the wolves, I would never have figured this out.

Anecdote 2: In one of my first forays into $30-$60 limit, I recognized a formerly-famous female pro sitting to my left.  She played with raw aggression, raising and re-raising every time she entered a pot, putting on a clinic in tight aggressive play.  I’d never seen anybody play with so much aggression and dominate the table like she did.  I watched her closely for the entire session, paying on the river to see her cards several times when I knew I was beaten because it was worth it for the education.  I went home and ran some simulations that analyzed her style of play, and discovered that her aggressive strategy was perfect for certain types of games.  I added the hyper-aggressive style to my repertoire and became a much better player for it.  Running with the wolves may not be profitable in the short term, but if you pay attention, they will show you some tricks that will make you a lot of money in the long term.

Marlo: That’s my money.
Omar: Man, money ain’t got no owners. Only spenders.

In the only poker scene in The Wire, Marlo complains when Omar holds him at gunpoint and robs the game.  The professional poker player must learn to think about money differently than society teaches us to think about money.  If the money is on the table, it’s the job of the professional to take it, using whatever means they have at their disposal.   There are moral and practical reasons that taking the money by illegal tactics is a bad strategy, but there are a lot of ways to outplay your opponent and get the money.  The best players have an arsenal of psychological tricks to entice their opponents into terrible plays.  Great players have Jedi-like powers over their opponent, playing their opponents more than their cards. At the highest levels, the mind games happen as much away from the table as they do in the cardroom.

Omar: Shoot, the way y’all looking at things, ain’t no victim to even speak on.
Bunk: Bullshit, boy. No victim? I just came from Tosha’s people, remember? All this death, you don’t think it ripples out? You don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about. I was a few years ahead of you at Edmondson, but I know you remember the neighborhood, how it was. We had some bad boys, for real. Wasn’t about guns so much as knowing what to do with your hands. Those boys could really rack. My father had me on the straight, but like any young man, I wanted to be hard too, so I’d turn up at all the house parties where the tough boys hung. Shit, they knew I wasn’t one of them. Them hard cases would come up to me and say, “Go home, schoolboy, you don’t belong here.” Didn’t realize at the time what they were doing for me. As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you. And out where that girl fell, I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.

This quote goes out to me in 2005, and anyone out there thinking about becoming a professional poker player. Bunk’s angry speech to his fellow high school classmate laments a society that glorifies a murderous bandit as a hero, and chastises those of us in the audience rooting for Omar.   One of the show’s “good guys,” Bunk criticizes Omar’s choice to destroy community rather than to build it.

***

I’ve always been attracted to rebellious characters that challenge authority.  I admire the courage and passion of those who choose to make the leap of faith despite the protest of the society around them. Kierkegaard said that a pagan who prays passionately to a false God is more authentic and true than a Christian who prays falsely to his real God.  You may not agree with Omar’s choice, but you have to admire his decision to live an authentic and passionate life.  Omar’s got style.

I’ll always wonder how my life would have played out if I had decided to become a pro.  I envy and respect those who made the leap and made their living at the poker table, but I don’t think I had the disposition to become a great poker player.  Whatever the case, I take comfort that my decision was made in favor of building something rather than pursuing a career in which money is the primary focus.  Man gotta live what he know, right?

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Links:
David Simon interview by Nick Hornby

Omar’s best scenes

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