Road Burn

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Enroute To New York Penn

My week in Montreal could not have been more enjoyable.

I finished deep in another World Poker Tour event. I gained some valuable experience and felt I played the best poker of my life.

I also got to see my first CFL game and my first NHL game. I walked through Old Montreal and was able to see Ottawa briefly. I went to a museum. I ate poutine. I ate a sub in LaSalle that a Dodgers catcher used to always rave about. I saw A Perfect Circle live for the first time. I finished another book. I watched a documentary on Fred Eaglesmith.

I did all of this within the span of seven days while still making money. That’s a win in my book.

“I know you wanted to finish further Alex…” everyone keeps saying to me. “I know you must be disappointed,” they say right after.

Well, no, I am not disappointed at all really.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I delivered a 9.75 performance. I botched one hand where I did a preflop raise I shouldn’t have, but my opponent folded. I missed the action on about ten hands, maximum, over three days.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I have been delivering 8.5s to 9s my whole career. Focus has always been an issue. People do not understand how difficult it is to focus for 10 hours a day for an entire week.

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It’s especially difficult in a game such as No Limit Hold’em where there’s so little stimuli. You’re literally staring at people who are staring into space. Baseball players get to watch 100 MPH pitches on their off plays. They see wild foul balls go into the upper deck. I watch grown men who wear sunglasses indoors.

It’s only natural to space out in such a slow game.

Unfortunately, if you miss the betting order on one street then you can horribly misconstrue an entire hand. You can’t build a profile on your opponents from that particular deal. You’ve missed a valuable opportunity. You might not get it back.

When I started working with my trainer Frank Rizzo it was really out of anxiety. I had been nearly 240 pounds at one point in 2016. (I am six feet tall, for reference). I lost 40 pounds on my own eating nothing but meat, cheese, vegetables, and nuts. I lifted weights and did road work five times a week.

When I got to 200 I found I couldn’t lose more weight. I threw everything I had at my body. I did intermittent fasting while running six miles a day and eating a Vegan diet. That helped me drop to 190, but I looked emaciated. I felt awful too.

I eventually stopped intermittent fasting and went back to 200 pounds. There, I plateaued for a long time.

I hired my trainer when I didn’t have the money for it and I really didn’t want to do it. I just didn’t feel I had a choice.

I could feel my body getting weaker. That bothered me a great deal. It was a shot at my masculinity. No man wants to feel at age 29 like their body is breaking down. Yet, sitting in that computer chair each day put my back in pain. I couldn’t get rid of my belly with my metabolism and distance running anymore. Something had to change.

The first three weeks in the gym were excruciating. I dreaded waking up at 7:00 AM to drag my ass to Newark Penn to take a train. I hated the cold. I hated how tired I felt the whole day.

Eventually, though, things began changing. I dropped weight, built muscle, and grew stronger. I became much happier. Podcast listeners started commenting that I sounded different.

Soon, I was longing for the early mornings. I got addicted to drinking coffee and lifting to start my day.

What I didn’t expect was all the newfound energy I’d have. Before, doing two lessons in a day would leave me exhausted. Now, I can easily do four.

My mental acuity has grown as well. I’m ecstatic because during WPT Montreal a strange thing happened: No matter how tired I was I could always track hands. I didn’t become distracted by TV or a conversation. Even through fatigue, I was analyzing betting patterns.

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I have never found myself to be great with physical tells, but I did make a point this tournament to pay attention to everyone’s face on the river. I wanted to see if they were comfortable with a hand or without one. Some people are very calm bluffing but get very nervous with a hand. Others, of course, are the opposite.

What changed my tournament was a read I made against a young French-Canadian pro. Everything came together on that hand. I’d been scribbling in my Evernote file about him the entire tournament. I knew his betting patterns with certain holdings, so I was able to rule them out. I knew his facial expression with a hand and without. I even smiled at him to see if he’d smile back at me. It helped me get more information.

In the hand, I called his triple barrel on the river for my entire stack and $3,850 CAD tournament, and he turned up with nothing. I tabled my second pair with second kicker, and raked in a huge pot.

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At the beginning of this week, I WhatsApp called my girlfriend from the basement apartment Dennis and I rented in the Jamaican part of town. I told her, “I feel if I stick with my routine good things will happen. It might not be monetary. It might not be this tournament. But if I wake up, shower, shave, do my interval training, and iron a shirt I know I will play my best.”

At the diner, every morning Dennis and I went over my starting table. We analyzed the stacks, the Hendon Mob pages, and discussed dynamics.

“This is the real reward,” I thought. Most people wake up, drive to a desk job, sit there from 9 to 5, and then hope to get out on time. It’s high school; you’re still just looking at a clock all day. It’s high school with paychecks.

The real reward from tournament poker is taking the train to Montreal, looking at the fall colors from the window, and knowing that you could change your life for the better that week. As a man, it means a great deal to be able to test your mental mettle and succeed for your family. It means a lot to not have your destiny be determined by a superior or an advisory board.

With that grateful attitude and my physical and strategic preparation, I made another deep run. No regrets.

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“Good game!”

***

Throughout the week I had some thoughts.

Since this is my blog I will share these thoughts with you.

Hockey, for one, is amazing. Getting to see Montreal play Arizona was a blast.

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The whole day was ideal for me. I woke up with a distinct feeling of, “I can’t stay in this apartment today. I have a day in Montreal. I am going to use it.”

Without any kind of plan, I hopped in an Uber and went to Montreal. Prior to being dropped off, I scanned available tickets on StubHub to see what there was to do in the city that night. I saw the Habs were playing and purchased some tickets for 60% off.

I got to Old Montreal, had a croissant with an espresso, and then I walked the streets, peeking inside museums as I went.

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I found a gift for my girlfriend back home at Montreal’s oldest market.

I learned that the American Revolutionaries once invaded Quebec in a museum.

I went to the oldest building in Montreal open to the public.

I walked the docks.

I took some great photos to post on Facebook.

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I then listened to The Midnight’s newest CD on Spotify, while walking the city at night with a light downpour drizzling on my jacket.

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I went into the clean spacious subways and took a train to the arena. The station emptied right into the entrance. There was no need to go back out into the downpour.

It was unreal how good the game was. I had to be the only one with an Arizona driver’s license in the arena, but I wasn’t letting on that I was rooting for them to come through. I cheered with the Habs when they scored, and secretly enjoyed it when Arizona scored.

That seems to be the play when you go to a sporting event that doesn’t involve your home team. Root with the home team, but have a reason to like the opposing team.

The game was supposed to be a gimmie for Montreal. Instead, Arizona answered every Habs goal with a goal of their own.

An older Italian man next to me explained how Montreal talk radio worked, and how the Habs were going to be obliterated if they lost this game. They needed to win to get .500 before hitting the road.

He also had Thursday Night Football streaming on his cell phone. He told me why Seattle wasn’t going to get the next NHL expansion team. He explained the rules to me, the team’s history, vital statistics, and how each player had been playing through the season. It was like having an announcer sit with you.

The crowd was fascinating. They spoke a French-English patois. They’d go from fluent French to a wildly American phrase at the drop of a hat. There were Asians, Africans, Natives, Middle Easterns, and Europeans in the crowd.

As Arizona scored goal after goal they turned rowdy. I made sure not to flash my driver’s license when I went to buy a drink.

At the end, Arizona won. The crowd booed the home team as they skated out. They couldn’t believe they’d just lost to the worst squad in the NHL.

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On the whole, it was a great life experience. The atmosphere was truly unique. I doubt it exists in any other hockey arena on Earth. It was enjoyable to see my pseudo-home team win.

Hockey seems like a great social game. Everybody cheers with each other on a home team goal. The two breaks between the three periods allow ample time to socialize.

The music was way better. Linkin Park, Eminem, Metallica, Rage Against The Machine, System Of A Down, and someone even scored a goal off of a Megadeth track.

Then, when they played French hip-hop, that totally threw me off.

The fights were exciting too. There were tons of them. I was surprised by how hard they went at it. I can see why Canadians think fighting in football, basketball, and baseball is just posturing now.

***

What really boggles me about the great day I just had, and the great week for that manner was how little of it was possible when I started on the tour in 2007.

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There was no WhatsApp then. If you wanted to call your family or your girlfriend you got gouged by phone card prices. You huddled into a payphone. The 60 minutes on the card felt suspiciously like 42. Sometimes, you would get charged when the call repeatedly wouldn’t get through.

There was no Air BnB then. You went to whatever hotel was nearby. There was almost no way to rent an apartment or get a space to cook in. Prices were outrageous the week of the tournament.

There was no Uber then. If you wanted to get around you called a taxi. The taxi, upon hearing your accent, demanded any amount they damn well felt like. Local governments insisted you not fight with them, because there had been incidents where cabbies shot their customers.

There was no StubHub then. If an event was sold out, it was sold out. If you showed up to get tickets off of a scalper you usually got gouged when they heard your accent. If you tried to buy something off of Ticketmaster it frequently wouldn’t work, or you’d have to find a business center to print out a ticket.

There was no BandsinTown then. If you wanted to find out what was going on in a city you had to keep your eyes peeled for posters or you just randomly showed up at a hot venue and hoped for the best.

There was no Spotify then. If you wanted music you downloaded it, and you weren’t downloading anything new for weeks at a time on the road.

There was no Facebook then. If you wanted to take some pictures to remember an occasion and write something about the day you were going to have to buy a scrapbook.

There was no Twitter then. If you wanted to update your followers on your chip stack you had to write a blog.

Cell phones didn’t take pictures then. If you wanted to remember where you were you had to bring a digital camera with your cell phone and wallet.

There was no Google maps then. If I wanted to walk to the arena from Old Montreal I would have had to ask locals for advice, and oftentimes there would be a language barrier. In Montreal yesterday, I had my GPS read me walking directions while I listened to Spotify.

I feel as if I live in the future now, and I somehow have the expertise and wherewithal to enjoy these trips. I know now that there’s no law that says you get to stay on the poker tour. You have to appreciate each one of these city visits while they happen, because you don’t know what’s going to come next.

I’m also extremely blessed to be able to play for investors now.

I could play poker for the rest of my life with investing a cent of my own money. The former live pro in me is blown away by that. I remember rustling twenties together in sock drawers to barely make the night’s buy-in. I remember walking through Casino Road with my whole roll on me, worried that if I got robbed I’d be out of action for a month. I remember working security jobs into the late night because my money wasn’t together.

If you sell 80% of yourself at 1.25 mark-up you are playing the event on a 20% freeroll. FREE. ROLL. Nothing invested.

Everybody wins. Fans who don’t know as much about poker as you get a piece of the action. I get to play for free if I want, or I can put up the amount of money I’m comfortable with. None of us invests too much, so we can all part ways amicably if the event doesn’t go well. And if we win it means serious profits for all of us.

That kind of arrangement didn’t exist when I started playing cards. No way, no how.

To do it right though you have to offer “stakeback.” What that means is you pay your investors their investment back before you get a cent. Otherwise, according to my co-author Daniel Kasper in our book Sharp Staking, you’re just scamming your friends.

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1.25 mark-up is even hard to justify. You have to be a bang-up No Limit Hold’em player to justify that mathematically. When I see guys selling at 1.6 with no stakeback my first thought is, “what the hell?”

Many of these guys sell so much of themselves too that they don’t care about the outcome of a tournament.

That boggles my mind. It’s the opposite for me. Before I called off my tournament with that second pair I thought long and hard. I had a lot of people to answer to if I botched that play.

I love that pressure. I love playing for a team. That makes me focus.

The truth is, I’d play poker for free. Literally, if they told me, “you can only keep your teaching income from now on. All your poker winnings have to go to a charity of your choosing,” then I would still be on the felt.

I love the competition. I love the feeling of putting together a playbook in your Newark apartment. I love seeing my plays come together and stun pros from around the world.

The fact this is my career still boggles my mind.

***

Now, the name of the game is playing more.

I have a schedule put together which has been going well for me. My problem is I don’t know when I am going to execute it.

Next week, I have Thanksgiving with my family in Richmond, Virginia. After that, the holidays continue.

I’m revving on all cylinders now. I want to get back in the gym. I want to start playing online.

But then again, time with family is precious. I’m grateful to not be locked away in San Jose, Costa Rica anymore. I should take advantage of this opportunity.

***

What’s really helping me be psyched about the game is the support I’m receiving outside of the poker community.

The poker world views a deep run without a “serious” score as a failure. I see it as a stepping stone to success.

My mother sees it the same way. She’s always cheering me on, telling me how proud of me she is.

My girlfriend sees it that way. She was the one who told me I have to get back on the tour and begin competing again. She was just happy that I was battling it out with the boys again.

Everyone at the gym just thinks its cool I even play World Poker Tour events. They’re fans of the game and sport in general, and they wish they could keep competing in some fashion. They love to see I’m still out there doing it.

My girlfriend’s friends are super complimentary too.

It’s a good way to keep realistic. I’m so grateful I have those people in my life to remind me how special my opportunities really are.

Working with my students has also opened my eyes to how many people love poker but can’t find the time for it. Their vacation is going to one of these events. Just one. I can go to one every month if I wanted to. I could be on the plane to Punta Cana tonight if I was so inclined.

I didn’t realize how special that was. I was very ungrateful and entitled when I was younger. I am so thankful that these people took the time to educate me about what I was throwing away.

I used to have no discipline when it came to study too. I would do a ton one week and then none over the next two weeks. I never was focused.

It wasn’t till I realized my students spent their free time doing the stuff I was getting paid to do that I realized how ungrateful I was.

If they hadn’t paid me to hit the books again and come up with new plays I don’t know where my career would be at right now.

***

I had another thought during this week.

Dennis and I went to a CFL playoff game.

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For some reason, ESPN streams ESPN3 for free on their app. I didn’t have cable when I got to New Jersey, so I watched that channel all the time.

On ESPN3 they play seemingly every CFL game. And they are glorious.

Receivers can go into running formations before the hike. There’s very few BS penalties. There’s three downs. The play clock is reduced. The defense is backed up a yard, so running plays are more viable. There’s only one replay challenge allowed per game for each team. The field is expanded, so no one can run out of bounds. You’re forced to run with the ball and fight it out. Quarterbacks can also fire huge passes that wouldn’t be possible in the NFL.

In short, CFL football is everything Arena Football never was. It’s fun. And the Canadians make it more fun.

Dennis and I drove up to Ottawa to catch the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I showed up to my seat a minute late, and already missed a touchdown. Something wasn’t sitting right in my stomach, so I hunkered down for thirty minutes. Surprisingly, it felt like half the game went by without me able to really cheer.

The rest of the game was brutal to watch. Ottawa couldn’t get anything going, and slowly but surely the crowd started realizing they were going to be hosting The Grey Cup without their team, the defending champions, competing in it.

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Ottawa couldn’t even make it look competitive at different times. Saskatchewan was on another level.

Annoyed, I had a thought. “Every CFL game I watch on TV is insanely fun to watch, and this one’s a dud.”

Then, it occurred to me: I was still having a great time. Even though my stomach was uneasy, and I was in and out of my seat for all the wrong reasons, it was fun to watch CFL football live for the first time.

That got me thinking.

I was uncomfortable in that moment, but I was accepting of it.

Is that all maturity is?

In every test they’ve ever done, they’ve found the ability to delay gratification is the greatest predictor of success.

I had another thought then. “At what point of the day am I not uncomfortable?”

All day, every day, my body has urges. They don’t come to me when I conveniently schedule them. They arise whenever they damn well feel like it.

At any point of the delay I am hungry, thirsty, needing to urinate, bored, tired, struggling with a headache, anxious, or in desperate need of exercise. There’s literally always something.

I’ve read a great about the universe. There’s one thing all scientists, religious and atheist, agree on: We shouldn’t be here. The chances of the universe existing are equivalent to me unloading a clip into your skull point blank range and you walking away unscathed. Just being born is the equivalent to winning the lottery ten times in your lifetime.

Perhaps consciousness is not natural. Perhaps consciousness is painful.

No one taught me this when I was younger. Instead, I heard this line. “Do what makes you happy.”

I have the best job on Earth, and there are many days where it completely sucks.

This is why drugs and alcohol are so liked. They dull our consciousness. It’s unnatural.

Yet, drugs and alcohol don’t make you happy long term. They cause you to damage relationships. You stop remembering nights that could’ve been unforgettable.

When I think of what makes me happy, a lot of it is a colossal pain in the ass to start with. Feeling healthy makes me happy, but it requires my waking up at the crack of dawn to get to the gym. Poker makes me happy, but it requires me to sit on my ass doing nothing for hours on end.

This thought stuck with me the entire trip. When I went to go see A Perfect Circle play live it occurred to me all the songs were about escaping the pain of consciousness. There were lyrics about a partner that betrayed mutual escape plans. There was disdain for those who used religion instead to escape. There was a great deal about drug use. And the list went on.

It was an odd moment for me. I felt like I was watching one monkey wail to the other monkeys about the pains of climbing up a tree.

Maybe we shouldn’t focus on what makes us happy.

Maybe we should focus on choosing the right discomfort.

To do so, we have to first admit all of life is varying degrees of discomfort.

You can choose the discomfort of waking up to run, or you can choose the discomfort of feeling unhealthy.

You can choose the discomfort of creating a game plan before you walk into a tournament, or you can choose the discomfort of being caught in a situation with no preparation.

You can choose the pronounced stress of striving for something, or you can select the dull frustrated rage of giving up on yourself.

Either way, there’s no true escape.

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  • Michael Gillespie

    Alex, awesome post man, seriously inspiring. I’ve been following you for the longest time, back since your blogspot days, and seeing the way you’re approaching things now…it’s something to be proud of.

    Your score will come. But you know what, even if it doesn’t, with the man you’re developing into you’re already winning big time at this mofo of a game we call life. Keep at it brother…

    • Alex Fitzgerald

      I appreciate it Michael. Thank you for taking the time to read for all these years.

      You’re absolutely right. The journey is the reward. I am not even focusing on the score anymore. Just enjoying the process and pushing myself.

      I’m really hoping in 2018 we can start putting out the blogspot entries as compilations on Kindle. Stay tuned.

      Glglglglglglglgl