From my hermitage deep in the Ozarks, I share my life with you. Some of my friends think I’m crazy to make so much of my personal life public and to share my feelings so openly. They say it’s a dangerous world and the Internet is a cruel place.
But I see it quite differently. I see you as my family and Poker1 as my means of communicating my experiences to you — all my research, my lectures, my lessons. And, also, my secret spirit. So, here’s a piece I wrote for Poker Digest in 2001 that caused a brief controversy and was then quickly buried. Oddly, I also found it attached to a life-strategy entry here at Poker1. I want you to read this, because it may give insight into your life and the lives surrounding you — as well as giving you a better understanding of who I am and why I teach.
You see, I was retarded once. I know the word “retarded” is no longer supposed to be used, due to the dictates of political correctness. But it’s the way we spoke then; so that’s what I was — at least in the minds of those who evaluated me. Here’s the true story…
Sharing my story
Two days ago, I stopped at a red light in Long Beach, and I noticed a man crossing a street. I was startled. He looked exactly like George Hardie.
Now, Hardie is a very prominent person, politically active, founder of the Bicycle Casino near Los Angeles, former president of the California Card Club Association, and often credited with forging the path toward modern poker operations.
Fine. But the man crossing the street walked without particular confidence. He was holding a bag of groceries. He seemed sad and uncertain. Then the light changed, and I drove on, having determined that this wasn’t George Hardie. The closer I’d looked, the more differences I’d spotted in their appearances.
But that’s not the point. For a moment I’d thought it was Hardie. Then I started thinking about an important poker-to-real-life link that I teach. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, we need to acknowledge that maybe the man I’d seen had never been physically or mentally capable of great achievements. Who knows? But what if he had been? What if circumstances simply had not collided in the right ways, at the right moments to spark his interest in achieving? Or what if his interests were sparked but, again, circumstances had not collided in the right ways at the right moments to allow him to achieve?
How I was almost retarded
I’ll tell you how this relates to poker, but first let me share something that happened to me a long time ago. I almost didn’t end up being “the Mad Genius of Poker,” you see. There was really no reason for me to begin analyzing poker strategy, programming artificially intelligent players on computer, writing books, or speaking before large audiences. I could have just as easily ended up retarded.
Don’t be so shocked. Sure, I know that most retarded people have little choice. We cherish them for living their lives as fully as they can. We feel fortunate that we’ve been blessed with better brains. Most people are never faced with, in essence, having to make a decision about whether to be retarded or not – but I was. Someday, maybe I’ll tell you the whole story, but right now, here’s briefly what happened.
I flunked the sixth grade at William Smith Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. And justice was served, because I deserved to flunk. I could do complicated math in my head, but I’d never learned to go up to the blackboard and follow the procedures. I liked astronomy and knew all the planets, but my grade school teachers had no idea about this. All they saw was a totally withdrawn kid who chewed pencil after pencil until the splinters could finally be swallowed. All they saw was a social outcast who hid alone in far corners of the schoolyard during recess. All they saw was a boy who daydreamed all through class, did no homework, and paid no attention to anything. To them, the boy seemed retarded.
A good hand for the young “Mad Genius”
And the boy did not want to escape from the cocoon of the retarded, because to him it was sheltering. There was no responsibility. You could escape deep within yourself and fantasize about many wondrous things that became the bigger reality. I was there; I was that boy; I did this escaping and sought this comfort. And it wasn’t as if you were feigning retardation for the comfort; you truly were becoming retarded; you didn’t think there was anything more to be. You didn’t know how the real world worked, because the real world wasn’t real. Everything conjured up inside you was real. And you didn’t share it. And so you faded. I was there. I faded.
And then the day came after flunking the sixth grade where I sat in a class for “backward” kids in a semi-hidden room with a door in the back of a regular classroom. It was a shameful place where everyday you were humiliated walking through the normal kids whenever you entered or exited.
One day, a young woman teacher passed out tests to everyone in our slow class. These, I later learned, were intended to further separate us, weeding out the merely deficient from the truly retarded. Normally, I would just stare at the tests. Sometimes, I would just randomly mark multiple choice answers without reading the questions. Tests were an unwelcome discipline that invaded my daydreams.
But then there was that spark – a circumstance colliding in the right way at the right moment. And I focused on the first question and it was easy. And all the questions were so very, very easy for me. And while all others in the class toiled and were baffled and struggled through their allotted 15 minutes of mental torture – with the teacher reading the questions to the majority who couldn’t do it for themselves, I filled out the correct answers in perhaps two minutes. I raced against myself to see how rapidly I could accomplish this.
And, in one strange and surrealistic moment that is indelible in my mind, I did not wait for the tests to be gathered, but sprang instead from my chair and marched to the teacher’s desk. She seemed stunned that I had risen to violate her space.
“I’m done,” is all I said.
She grudging looked at my paper. Then she seem perplexed, almost astonished. Perhaps an event she had long fantasized had been made real, and she played her part as she had imagined it. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “I’m going to get you out.” And she did – the next day.
You see, in that moment, I had chosen not to be retarded. Oh, sure, we can argue about whether it would have been true retardation – I know it wouldn’t have been. But I might have lapsed further into a world within myself, probably never to escape. But I drew out. Hearing my teacher say, “You don’t belong here,” opened up everything to me in a moment that might never have been. After that I craved praise and began to believe I could do things that others couldn’t. Believing it helped it grow real.
My high school years were bizarre. I still never developed discipline to do much homework, but I became so advanced in some areas that a few teachers thought I was a prodigy and even devoted their classes to discussions about my actions and my writings. Another story for another time. But, clearly, I could have been struggling to cross the street in Long Beach, bewildered, unknown, unliked, unapproachable. It just wasn’t the card I was dealt on the river – the card that changed everything.
It’s the same way, you know, in poker. Think about this. Every year thousands of players come to the casinos to take poker seriously. They’re experimenting. Maybe they’ve heard the truth that some people make their livings playing poker. I’m betting they don’t completely believe it, but they’re going to give it a try.
Most of them fail and lose interest. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to win, they just don’t know enough. And maybe they get unlucky, just to make it worse. So, they become occasional players or stop playing altogether. A few, though – not necessarily even players with the best strategy in the beginning – get lucky. Their confidence soars. They hang around. Their lives are changed forever, because they happened to find the right games in the beginning, be dealt the right cards in the beginning, or make a borderline decision to persevere rather than go off in quest of other challenges or to sink lower into lives more miserable.
That’s poker, my friends. It’s the man crossing the street in Long Beach who wasn’t George Hardie and it’s you and it’s I. It’s all around us, poker, life – everywhere. Everything. Today, I’ve shared a little about myself and my bout with “retardation” in the sixth grade. I hope you’ll keep it confidential, because others might not understand. They’ll make fun of me – and I’m pretty sensitive about that, because I’ve always tried to shy away from the spotlight. Thanks for understanding. — MC