01/18/2006 1:00AM

No rule a game has to be a dry affair


Most people might expect a column about drinking at the poker table to be written with the tone of a schoolmarm - a humorless piece about the evils of losing focus and the importance of staying on an even keel. While there's no doubt that those two concepts are important - essential, even - to playing winning poker, I'm here to tell you that they're not mutually exclusive with having a few beers while you play.

For me it all comes back to one of the overarching themes of successful gambling of any kind - you need to know yourself and be honest with yourself. There are a lot of great players, including Max "the Italian Pirate" Pescatori - a triple threat who wins at horses, cards, and sports betting - who have written eloquently about how even having a single drink can throw them off their games. And for a lot of players, that's where the issue should begin and end: no drinking for them.

But there's another group of players for whom recreational drinking isn't a hindrance and can even be a huge plus. You'll often see top pros like Robert Williamson III or Layne Flack with a beer in hand at the table. Are they really willing to give up part of their precious advantage just for the enjoyment of a malt-based beverage? Or might there be something else going on here?

The answer is the latter. I recently asked Williamson about the advantage he can get by drinking and he explained, "If you're drinking, for one reason or another, people are going to assume that your game is going to go way downhill and that you're very action-oriented. They'll change the way they play against you. Especially if you get on a roll against them. If you get on a roll, they'll get really timid. Then they'll think: Maybe I was wrong, maybe he plays better when he's drinking! And the more they get intimidated, the more you can get a little brash, a little bolder, a little braver, and you can take a few more shots against them."

Drinking at the table can definitely help you in terms of your table image - your play might well become harder for your opponents to read. This might be particularly true if you're a tight, aggressive player. In a lot of good games, if you play tight and aggressive, especially before the flop in hold'em, it's going to be tough for you to get a lot of action. Other good players might know to stay out of your way, making it tough for you to maximize your strong hands. By having a few drinks while playing, you're going to appear to be looser, whether or not you actually are, and this might get you a few extra bets you wouldn't get if you stuck to mineral water.

The other reason to drink is a little different. Williamson offered a slightly sinister explanation: "The second reason why the drinking thing has worked well for me is that I'll often get other players to join me, and their tolerance for alcohol may not be quite what mine is."

Live poker games, especially home games, tend to be social affairs. A lot of people might be drinking anyway. But if you're a person who can have a few drinks with little or no effect and you can contribute to throwing novices - drinkers or poker players - off their games, so be it. For Williamson, it's not just a question of trying to gain an advantage - it's also about creating a fun atmosphere.

Williamson quoted poker author Mike Caro as having said, "A fun game is a good game." Therefore, reasoned Williamson, "If people are having a good time, they're not going to mind losing their money. So I try to create the most festive, fun atmosphere I can."

As always, complete honesty with yourself is of paramount importance. Williamson points this out when he says, "If you're trying to gain an advantage by increasing your wit or intelligence by drinking at the table, you're not going to do it. It's going to impair your decision-making ability."

You have to be selective about when you're going to drink and unflinchingly honest about the results. There are plenty of players out there who might think, "I play better when I've had a few," but they might be idiots who think the same thing about their driving abilities, and they're really costing themselves money with every Corona. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for certain people looking for that little something extra to get an edge. And if you're in that select group, you might not need to look any further than that 12-pack in the bottom of the fridge to find it.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press).