04/05/2006 12:00AM

Wiser to compliment than criticize a chump


The wise philosopher Charles Brown once said, "I love mankind - it's people I can't stand." Brown, better known as Charlie during his 49-year run as the central character in the comic strip "Peanuts," could have been speaking for how many a poker enthusiast, including this one, feels about his favorite 52-card pastime: In more modern parlance, it's a case of "love the game, hate the playaz."

Poker in the abstract is a fascinating and even beautiful pursuit, elegantly simple in form and structure while endlessly intricate in its details and execution. Yet few players would ever use words such as beautiful or elegant to describe their fellow hobbyists. The words more often invoked might include, in alphabetical order: contemptible, despicable, loathsome, miserable, and vile. And that's if you're at a friendly table.

This is not a matter of disliking the stereotype of gamblers as all looking and acting like Big Pussy from "The Sopranos" or, as a colleague who shares this space recently put in, inevitably being seated next to some "behemoth cramping my elbow room and reeking of cigar smoke." Such calumny against those of us who enjoy tobacco and donuts is besides the point. It is the way that most poker players behave, not what they smoke or eat, that makes so many of them so dislikeable.

Like every other crotchety male approaching his 50th birthday, I am more than happy to blame everything on television and the youth of today. Television and the hole-card camera have made poker a massive industry, luring a generation of 20-somethings to a game that was about as popular as cribbage a decade ago. While TV coverage has widely taught the appeal and the mechanics of the game itself, it has also created a role model of the successful poker player that many of the new converts are imitating. Unfortunately, that model is one that lacks any semblance of civility, respect or sportsmanship, instead promoting gloating, hostility, insults, and rudeness.

Some of this is endemic to the game because poker is a competition among the 10 people at the table, not a tilt against the house like other casino games. Further, it is a game where misleading and confusing your opponents, by disguising your abilities and misrepresenting your holdings, is key to success. Many players, however, take this more than a few steps further and think that abusing and berating their fellow players is an acceptable and even laudable extension of the game's inherent psychological warfare.

The acceptability of this behavior is reinforced when television makes stars of some of the nastiest and most abusive tournament professionals, lingering approvingly on scenes of their berating competititors for poor play and unpleasantly needling everyone at the table. The suggestion is that the way to become a winning poker player and, perhaps more importantly to today's neophytes, the way to get your face on ESPN, is to simulate a 7-year-old throwing a tantrum at every opportunity.

This is not to suggest that optimal poker consists of gentlemen in bow ties silently sipping sherry and speaking only to compliment one another on their masterful play. Conversation is fine and there's something to be said for getting out from behind the computer screen and interacting with other members of the species, at least occasionally. Sometimes a table with a good and friendly dynamic going is as entertaining as the game itself.

Criticizing and belittling other players not only makes the game unpleasant but also, on a more venal note, decreases its potential for profitability. If an inexperienced and inept player sits down at your table, is it really smart to start telling him what a rube he is and how much smarter you are? You're supposed to treat him the way casinos treat the delusional high-rollers who think they can win at craps and roulette: Send a car, comp a suite, hire a showgirl, whatever it takes to keep him there.

Tell him how well he played the hand where he would have been outplayed by a chimpanzee. Sympathize with that horribly tough beat he took by chasing your three kings all the way to the river with a pair of fours. When he catches his inside straight on the river to beat your three kings, a cheerful and approving "Wow! Nice hand, sir" will keep him there a lot longer than a muttered "What a moron." Make him feel like it's a pleasure and even an honor to lose his money to such a swell group of guys.

Consider, by contrast, the noble and well-mannered horseplayer, who also is competing against the other players rather than the house, but who does not spend his days running around the track insulting his fellow racegoers. Perhaps the difference is that there are common imaginary enemies at the racetrack on whom to vent one's anger after losing: the trainers, jockeys, stewards, public handicappers, the track superintendent - anyone other than yourself.

At the poker table, it's hard to get mad at the robotic dealer or the cards themselves, so it must be the other players' fault. Even if you're determined to blame someone else, though, keep it to yourself. There's no reason or excuse for spoiling the game for everyone else.