Poker Lessons from the Sopranos

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One weekend, I was cooped up in a hotel with nothing to do. To pass the time, I thought I’d take advantage of HBO On Demand, and watch the pilot of The Sopranos. It’s a great show about a mafia boss, his mob employees, and his family life. Almost everyone on the show is connected with the mafia in some way. The show was so good, I made it through almost the whole series and unexpectedly found it very relevant to poker. The mob family on the show makes a good deal of money from gambling, especially poker games.

Here are some gold nuggets to take home:

1. Never Borrow Money for a Game

It’s a recurring storyline that always ends the same. Someone over-extends his reach at the table and has to borrow money to pay the house or stay in the game.

Usually, the misguided poker player sincerely thinks his luck is about to turn around. He just needs to stay in a couple more hands to win. On a whim, he re-buys from the house on credit or borrows from a rich acquaintance at the table. To make matters worse, the money is borrowed so it doesn’t feel “real” when he puts the chips on the table. He loses, of course, and then has to pay back the money at enormous interest rates and gets severely beaten if he’s late on a payment.

You probably won’t end up in a situation like this, but even in the non-criminal world, debt and poker do not mix. Whether it’s a cash advance from your credit card or a spot from your buddy, there is so much that can go wrong from gambling with borrowed money. Stick to the cash you brought to the table. When it’s gone, just go home. It’s obviously not your night.

2. Drugs and Alcohol = Bad

We talk about the importance of conscious awareness on this blog and it should go without saying that any alcohol or recreational drug you take can affect your performance at the table. When Tony Soprano hosts a game, there are always loads of alcohol and cocaine available, usually on the house. Las Vegas casinos do the same thing with whatever is legal in the area.

It’s a fun party atmosphere and you’re amongst friendly people, so it can be tempting to kick back with a couple top-shelf mixed drinks or high-grade cocaine.

Avoid the “party favors” and stay sober, even if it feels rude to turn a drink down. Even though the house may seem kind in offering you a drink, they’re most likely not trying to help you win.

3. Avoid the High Roller Games

There’s something very exciting about playing at a Sopranos poker game. You never know who will show up. Aside from the gangsters, you have guests like David Lee Roth from Van Halen, billionaire CEO’s, and the occasional movie star. Several of Tony Soprano’s friends-turned-victims couldn’t resist a shot at being part of poker legend history.

And it makes sense. What could be more fun than getting in on that action?

Well, the difference is that if David Lee Roth goes all-in on the first hand, and then re-buys three times on credit, and then snorts up the entire supply of cocaine in one night, he has very little to worry about. His monthly royalties from 1984 alone will take care of the issue.

You, on the other hand, are wayyyyy out of your element. If you’re excited that you have permission to play at a table, then this is a clear sign you don’t belong there. The guys at high roller tables are usually having fun whether or not they win. They can put $25,000 up for a bet, and win or lose, it won’t affect their lifestyle in any way. This is because a normal day at their profession brings in such a high amount of money that the poker game is not much more than a fun game of Pac-Man with a pocket full of quarters.

Stay with the small fish until you have enough bankroll that it wouldn’t bother you to lose your buy-in at the big table.

4. Above All, Take Responsibility

There’s a beautiful scene from Season 2 of The Sopranos where a high school friend of Tony does everything he can to get into a high roller game. He tracks down the secret location, begs Tony for permission to get in, and then begs again for a $10,000 advance to get in on the game. By the end of the night, he’s $40,000 in debt and there’s no solution in sight for how he can pay. When he’s later being slapped around for not having his minimum payment, he pleads to Tony, “Cut me a break, will ya? I’ve been unlucky!”

No one likes excuses, but few people detest excuse-behavior more than the mob. Tony is constantly having to deal with FBI wire-tappings, rival gang threats, and attacks on his life from disgruntled mafia underlings. If he can’t trust you to be responsible for your own effect on his business, he’ll have no problem disposing of you.

Now real life may not be as brutal, but there are some real similarities to take home. When you screw up, owning up to the mistake will cut you some slack from almost anyone. Even the mob bosses on the show will respect a debt-ridden nobody when he admits he screwed up. He won’t be let off the hook, but he will live to see another day.

In your own life, this means drawing a personal boundary on making excuses. If you have a bad few nights, it’s your own doing. It doesn’t mean you didn’t play with solid strategy, but it does mean that you put yourself in your current circumstances. Taking responsibility for where you are not only gets others off your back, but also empowers you to make the right changes to rectify the situation.

While we’re on the topic, it should go without saying that playing poker with the mob is probably a bad idea, whether or not you’re a great player with a high bankroll. There’s enough shady stuff that can go on in the gambling industry to begin with, that there’s no need to dabble with real criminals.

2 thoughts on “Poker Lessons from the Sopranos”

  1. And the 5th tip would be: “wiser is the man who learns from others’ experience”. The above tips are basically a product of somebody’s bad experience, thus anyone who don’t want to fall on the same path of misfortune should learn from the story through tips that directs gambling the right way. =)

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