Transcript

192:

Meet the Pros
Transcript

Originally aired 08.31.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/192

Prologue.

Ira Glass

A few years back, a science fiction writer and fan named Stephen Goldin was preparing for an upcoming sci-fi convention. And he thought that it might ease some of the awkward situations that he had seen at conventions in the past if he would just write up a few simple guidelines for the fans on how to act when they get to meet, one on one, some of the professional writers who they admired so much. Some of his tips-- I have them here.

Don't delay the pro on his way to the restroom and try to start a long conversation.

If a pro is involved in another conversation, do not interrupt. Wait until a break.

In talking to a pro, keep it light. If you want a detailed philosophical discussion, make an appointment. Don't be a sponge. Buy your fair share of drinks and meals. Twenty-three different rules, ending with the most important. Don't insult the pro.

Ira Glass

Why would rules as basic as this even be necessary?

Stephen Goldin

The science fiction fans are usually the people who have been sort of the social outcasts when they were growing up in school. When everyone else was out playing sports or going to parties, the fans were in their rooms reading. And so they didn't develop a lot of the social skills their peers did and they grew up being introverts. And so when you get to a science fiction convention, you get a convention of introverts, which is a very strange social phenomenon.

Ira Glass

Have you seen fans try to follow the pros to the bathroom?

Stephen Goldin

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Well, I bring all this up to say that it is not just science fiction fans who need simple guidelines like these. Reading Stephen Goldin's 23 rules online, I realize, to my embarrassment, that in putting together this week's radio show, we have violated eight of the 23 rules. Eight. This week, we visited with a variety of different kinds of pros, and we monopolized their time, we interrupted, we got into detailed philosophical discussions uninvited. We did not pick up the check. Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today's show, Meet the Pros. Stories of amateurs hurdling themselves at the professionals whose jobs they would like to have, for better or for worse. Our show today in three acts.

Act one, Crispy With the Rock. The star of what is arguably the world's greatest sneaker commercial, and whether it is possible for our correspondent, little grasshopper, to grab the basketball from his hand. Act two, Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run. In which I explain how I went to the World Series of Poker as a reporter and came away completely obsessed with the game, reading about it, playing online to an extent that I have not completely admitted to my own family until this very hour. Act three, Martha, My Dear. David Rakoff goes behind the scenes at Martha Stewart Living to find out the answer to the question, if his hobby became his job, would it still be fun? Stay with us.

Act One. Crispy With The Rock.

Ira Glass

Act one, Crispy With the Rock.

This is the story of two amateurs meeting the pros. One of the amateurs, a teenager in New Jersey. The other, our correspondent, Joel Lovell.

And before we get started, I should say that today's show was first broadcast in 2001. And so the amazing TV commercial that they're talking about in this story, it's something that aired back then. OK, here's Joel.

Joel Lovell

This is the sound of me dribbling a basketball.

[DRIBBLING]

Now this is Luis Da Silva dribbling a basketball.

[DRIBBLING]

Ira Glass

Luis is in the Nike commercial-- Freestyle, it's called-- that ran on TV throughout the NBA playoffs this past spring. If you haven't seen it, the commercial features a bunch of NBA stars and some WNBA stars and a bunch of street ballplayers. Guys with names like Speedy and A Train and The Future performing a series of spectacular tricks. Dribbling and passing and twirling basketballs, sort of like the Harlem Globetrotters. But a lot faster and a lot cooler, and to this incredibly infectious hip-hop beat. So their dribbling sounds like music.

In May and June, the ads were airing in pretty heavy rotation, and I found myself spending a lot of hours watching games I didn't really care about. Games involving the Indiana Pacers, for instance. Just so I could see the commercial.

Technically, there are three different versions of the ad. A long two and a half minute spot involving all the players, then a similar shorter one. And then a 30-second spot that features only Luis, a 19-year-old kid from Linden, New Jersey who can do things with a basketball that if you're serious basketball lover-- well, they just make you want to die, they're so great.

Linden is a working class suburb just south of Newark. Luis's family moved here a few years ago, so that he and his sister could go to a safer school. It's a nice neighborhood. The houses and lawns are well kept. It's not at all the kind of gritty, urban neighborhoods where serious street ballplayers make their names.

Luis Da Silva

This is actually my room right here. This is where I stand in the mirror. Because I'm always in the mirror trying to figure out new moves. It's like my workout screen.

Joel Lovell

He shows me the walls of his room, and they're like the walls of a lot of 19-year-old guys' rooms. There are some photos of souped-up cars, and one of a motorcycle in mid-flight, and there are a bunch of posters of Luis's basketball heroes.

Luis Da Silva

You see a lot of Iverson and Steve France. Then right here you got Michael. Everybody got a picture with Jordan.

Joel Lovell

And there, to the right of Jordan, a full-sized color poster of Luis. And to Jordan's left, some one-of-a-kind Luis memorabilia.

Luis Da Silva

And that's actually the same shorts I wore in the commercial. My mother did that for me. She put it in a little frame.

Joel Lovell

This is the story of how Luis, who is not a basketball star, who in fact didn't even make the starting five on his high school team, ended up on the same wall beside all his idols.

We sit in Luis's living room and he tells me his story from the beginning. He's been playing basketball since he was 11, when he lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The nearest park was pretty dangerous. And because his mother didn't want Luis going there alone, he ended up dribbling a ball in his own backyard, a concrete slab about the size of a Twister mat.

He would dribble from morning till night, watching his reflection in a basement window. Trying to repeat exactly the same moves again and again. His neighbors, who were often kept awake by his dribbling, thought he was out of his mind.

Luis Da Silva

When my father called me in, he's like, son, it's time to come in now. I'm like, what time is it? He's like, it's 2:30. I was like, wow. Time just came by. Time just flew.

And I would wake up the next day during sometime like 9, 10 o'clock and get like four or five hours of sleep. Back up. But I wanted it so bad. I wanted it so bad.

I was just in my backyard. That's how much I loved it. I mean, nothing else mattered. Nothing else mattered. Wasn't on the phone much. I wasn't even concerned about going out with my friends and going to the movies. I loved it so much. And I just wanted to be the best at what I do and dribbling and having the nicest handle around and nothing else mattered.

Joel Lovell

Nicest handle, maddest handle. Do him dirty, break him down. Like any specialized world, street basketball has its own language spoken by experts. And the lingo sounds so cool to me, but also sounds so uncool when spoken by me, that I ask Luis to elaborate on some of the phrases. It sends him into a kind of hoop slang spiral, in which it turns out, the lingo can only be explained by more lingo.

Luis Da Silva

There's so many terms. Having good handle or being crispy with the rock is having good basketball skills and fundamentally sound with the basketball. Everybody uses, but break an ankle is now having an opponent fall or they got the cowboy now. And when you're on the one leg, you're hitting a skip because somebody just broke you down. Broke you down means somebody just went by you real fast and shook you. And shook you means you're playing defense, you lost your footing, and it sort of looks like you're doing a dance step when you should have been playing defense. Dunk, make a deposit, x amount of sign. Money, Niagara Falls, reindeer games, those are all terms for making the basket in.

Joel Lovell

Luis never had a shot at the pros. There was no way he was going to make a living at basketball. He 5'10'', a decent but not great high school player who mostly sat on the bench. Like thousands of other guys who played ball when they were young, Luis's basketball fate seemed clear enough. He'd play the occasional pickup game, maybe join a local rec league, and years from now he'd settle into a Barcalounger and watch hoops on TV and complain about how kids these days have no respect for the game.

But then one night he got a call from a friend telling him about an audition for a Nike commercial the very next day over in Manhattan.

Luis Da Silva

There was a little gym on the third floor. And yeah, a little gym on the third floor. So we walked in. And I'm so used to my little bubble, I mean nobody around my area does the stuff that I do, I stand out. But then I enter a room where everybody's doing pretty much the same thing, guys doing this for a living-- Harlem Globetrotters and Wizards and NBA players.

So I turned to my father and I was like, oh man. I didn't even think it was going to be like this. My eyes grew. And it was like a basketball court. Everybody was crowded around the court and I was one of the last ones. Everybody was starting to leave, the crowd was starting to go. I was actually the last one.

I started doing my thing, doing tricks and things that most of the other guys they had never seen somebody do. Everybody started coming back in the room and filling up again. So I'm like, I don't know if this is good news or bad news. But I was so in the zone. And from there on, after I was done, everybody came up to me and was like, where are you from? They looked at me like I had three heads and I was from Mars. They were like, I never seen you around. I never seen nobody do the stuff you do.

I had to call, the next day I was working part-time in a local mall at the Athlete's Foot, here in Woodbridge Mall. And I got on the phone and her name was Kim. And she saw me at the audition yesterday and she wants me to come to the studio. So I hung up on her.

Joel Lovell

Wait, you hung on because you thought--

Luis Da Silva

I thought it was somebody trying to clown me. One of my friends trying to pull a prank. Because if it was really her, then she would have been like, why'd you hang up the phone? So then she calls again and we got disconnected, she said. I was going, I guess it is for real.

So then she's telling me if I could come to the Kaufman Studios in Astoria, Queens. Tuesday. Everybody thought you were the best one and they want you for this commercial. They want you for this commercial.

March 20, I'll never forget. That was one of the best days of my life. Other guys came out. A Train came on. Chris Franklin, that was the one who was spinning the ball on the floor. Also PV Kirkland was there. He's a street diplomat with basketball. He started crossovers and all that. And they had Jackie, the famous Globetrotter. I'm in a room all full of celebrities and players that I grew up inspired by and want to be like and enjoy their style of basketball.

We had a little water break. Actually, PV Kirkland, he actually got up off his seat and shook my hand and said, I've been around a lot of basketball players and seen a lot of things, but I ain't never seen somebody do the stuff you do. That was the ultimate.

Joel Lovell

What about the pro guys, did they say anything to you?

Luis Da Silva

Yeah, Barry Davids is real cool. He's like, Lu, you got to teach me some of this stuff. I was like, Barry Davids, I'll teach you some of this if you do me a favor and pull it off at some of the games. And he started laughing. But he got handle.

Paul Pierce though, that's my man. He couldn't spin the ball around his fingers if his life depended on it. It was so hard to get him to spin the ball. It was tough. He was getting it. He got a little dance going. Too much for the basketball, so he could sort of bob his head to the music.

Joel Lovell

Right. They just have him dancing around the ball.

Luis Da Silva

It was real fun. It was real fun.

Joel Lovell

A couple of months later, Luis was out driving around when he got a call from one of the guys in the ad.

Luis Da Silva

He's like, Lu, called me all excited. He's like, Lu, your commercial's on right now. He's like, the commercial is so hot. And he's like, hold on. He's like bowl commercial break your commercial's going on. Your commercials going on like eight, nine times. Every time they put in a timeout, the commercial's going on. And they got one just with you.

I said, oh yeah? Click. Yeah, right. Stop clowning me. And I didn't see it till, I believe, it was a week later. But when I seen it, I was-- I had a smile. I didn't have a smile on my face, but inside I was so lit up. I was like, man, I can't believe it. I can't believe it.

Joel Lovell

I came out to Luis's house with the tape of the commercial in my bag. I wanted to watch it with the man himself, have him describe to me in detail what went on the day they shot the ad.

Luis Da Silva

Starting off the commercial. Future with his little dance. That was Dottie and that was me right there. Everybody thought that was a camera take. They couldn't believe I could really do that.

Joel Lovell

It's a little difficult staying calm as Luis walks me through it. I mean, I don't want to sound like a corporate flack or anything, but I think this commercial is just about the greatest thing that has ever been on television. It kicks the moon landing's ass.

I also don't want to get too enthusiastic about something that ultimately exists to sell sneakers. But there's just no denying the way the commercial captures basketball's pure improvisational beauty.

There's one trick Luis does that's a little hard to explain on the radio, but it involves him capturing the ball between his elbows and lower back, in such a way that the ball seems to vanish in thin air. The first time I saw it, I thought it was done with computers.

Joel Lovell

Can I pause it for a second?

Luis Da Silva

Yeah.

Joel Lovell

It looks like the ball is just like on a string hanging there. It's incredible.

Luis Da Silva

Thank you.

Joel Lovell

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. This past month, Luis went to Taiwan with a few other guys from the ad to promote a street basketball event called Hip Hoop. The Nike commercial had just started running in Taiwan, and he wasn't really prepared for how he'd be greeted there.

In the airport outside of Taipei, Taiwanese customs officials approached him and the other guys, pointing at them and dribbling imaginary basketballs. Saying, freestyle, freestyle, over and over. And repeating the rhythm of the ad's squeaking sneakers.

[SAYING RHYTHM]

Luis has a pile of snapshots he took on the streets of Taipei to record the hugeness of his celebrity there.

Luis Da Silva

They had posters and billboards of me all over Taipei. I was shocked. I was taking pictures all over. Everywhere I would turn there would be another posted of me. They had, actually, basketball courts in every park of my face on it.

Joel Lovell

So here you are, it looks like it's about 50 feet high, this poster.

I got to ask you about once specific move. You hold the ball in your hand and you go as if you're throwing it towards the camera. And somehow, the ball rolls back on your hand.

Luis Da Silva

It's like you're going to throw the ball forward. You roll the ball back, you get the spin back, and you try to stop it. But you do it with one hand, so it's like a motion--

Joel Lovell

Luis can explain to me all the tricks he wants. But what he can't really put into words when I ask him is what it's like to go so quickly from selling Nikes at the local mall in more of a one-on-one, is there enough room for your toes kind of way, to travelling halfway around the globe to a place where photos of him dominate entire city blocks? And what I can't explain is the effect this commercial has had on me.

I've watched it dozens, maybe even hundreds of times. I keep trying to do tricks in my house that go badly awry and leave dirty basketball imprints on the walls.

Luis Da Silva

We're going to go outside and teach you a guys a couple tricks so when you go home, your wife's going to be like where you've been?

Joel Lovell

Eventually, Luis takes me in his backyard to play a little one-on-one. I have to admit, it's the moment I've been waiting for. I'm 35 years old, a husband and father and total square. And I'm about to play ball with the kid who has the maddest handle in the world. He starts showing me a couple of tricks, and then starts dribbling the ball around, good-naturedly challenging me to steal it from him.

I take a couple of half-hearted swipes and Luis taunts me little, dribbling the ball right in front of me, less than an arm's length away. And that's when I have this weird, slightly confusing pang. I start thinking, what if I steal the ball from him? I've played a lot of basketball in my life and we're in this tiny space that's about the size of a parking spot. There's actually a chance that I'll be able to take it away from him. Or that I'll look kind of like a chump if I can't get a hand on the ball at least once.

But then Luis begins to dribble the ball faster and faster. Sweat stains his shirt and beads on his face, and his hands move so quickly they look like wild birds. He flutters the ball along the ground in front of me, then makes it rises up one arm and roll down the other. When I swipe at it, it somehow disappears behind my head. And then, like a nickel plucked from my ear, reappears in front of my face. So close that for a nanosecond, it feels like I'm about to kiss the grainy service of the ball.

I lunge at the ball now, hoping that by sheer coincidence I might knock it away. But I know I won't. He's too good even for that, and I'm glad.

When Luis got to meet the stars on the set of the Nike commercial in Astoria, he was excited, sure. But he also knew that at this one thing he was their peer. What I'm feeling now is totally different. This wave of relief and giddiness comes over me. There's something reassuring in the idea that someone, through sheer determination and will, can become so impossibly blow-your-mind good. And there's something so comforting about being in the presence of such goodness, I keep on reaching out my hands and groping around like a blind man. Sometimes goofy laughing and spastic like a kid, and sometimes dead serious determined. But no matter what, my hands come back to me as empty of basketballs as the day I was born.

Ira Glass

Joel Lovell in New York. If you're curious to see the Nike ad he's talking about, we have a link at our website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

Coming up, I give all the good reasons for doing something very stupid. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Know When To Walk Away, Know When To Run.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Meet the Pros. Stories of aspiring amateurs dropping in on the big leagues. We have arrived at act two of our program. Act two, Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run.

In May of 2001, one of the then-producers of our radio show, Starlee Kine, and I went to Las Vegas to watch the World Series of Poker with this guy named Jim McManus. McManus is this novelist who had gotten sent to the World Series of Poker to cover it by Harper's Magazine the year before. And as part of his coverage, he entered the tournament playing poker.

Now usually when a reporter does a stunt like this, he's knocked out of the competition pretty fast. McManus, who had played poker all his life, but had never actually played in a tournament with professionals, came in fifth. Fifth out of over 500 entrants. He flew home with a quarter million dollars in prize money.

So anyway, Jim was introducing Starlee and I around to the various people who you're going to hear in this next story. People who make their livings playing poker. And some of these people, by the way, have become pretty well known in the poker explosion that's happened on TV and online and all over the country since we did this story back in 2001.

So I'm talking to these poker pros and during one of the interviews I was asking somebody a question about, how much money they make? Or how many days a week do they work? And Jim, who's been listening to all these interviews, interrupts to tell the person who we're talking to, you have to understand, Ira is secretly considering leaving his job to play poker for a living.

And up until the moment he said that, that thought had not fully formed in my head. And as soon as he said it, I realized he was completely right. There was a part of me that was working on this question, should I leave my job to go play poker for a living? Even though I'd only played poker like a half dozen times in my life.

Watching these people play cards all day for their jobs, it just seemed so much better than any job I had ever seen or imagined. And the tricky thing is, it doesn't look that hard. It's not like pro basketball. It's not like hitting a fast ball like Alex Rodriguez. You know you can't do that. But poker, it's just cards. You know, it's only cards. How hard could that be?

And so I spent a lot of time talking to people who had mastered the game-- my future colleagues-- trying to figure out if, in fact, it seemed attainable. They seem just like you and me when you meet them. But somehow they had figured out not only how to beat other people, but how to beat luck itself. You know, to what degree are they just regular people and to what degree do they have a kind of superpower? Like this woman.

Jen Harman

My mother started teaching me how to play cards when I was five. And then I have a really big family and a really close family and we used to always when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, just play poker for pennies.

Ira Glass

When I met her, Jen Harman had been making her living as a poker player for 13 years. Grew up in Reno. She was in her 30s, owned a bunch of dogs. Married. Do you see what I'm saying? She seems like anyone you know. Until she starts telling stories like this next one about how when she was 12, her dad would have poker games now and then. And if he started losing $300 or $400 or $500, she'd be allowed to play.

Jen Harman

He would put me in the game for him to get his money back. And I remember sitting with these guys who seemed like ancient because I was only 12 or 13 and thinking, wow, these guys have no idea what they're doing. And I'd take their money.

Just I'd watch people's movements and I'd watch them how they bet their hands. And just the whole psychological thing about it. They'd bet and I'd be saying in my mind, he doesn't have anything. Just all that kind of stuff.

I think I always got my dad even. I don't remember a time that I didn't get him even. Like winning $500 back's a lot of money and you're like getting an allowance.

Ira Glass

At 16, Jen started playing in casinos. After college, after studying to go to medical school, she started playing full-time. If poker's your job, you set your own hours, choose what days to play. Jen says it will be the perfect job when she has kids. Right now her daily routine goes like this.

Wake at noon or 1:00 or 2:00. Hang out in the afternoon. Play with the dogs, run errands. Study Italian. Jen's new husband is Italian. Sometime between 7:00 and 9:00 at night, a few nights a week, she drops into the casino to see if there's a game or to start a game.

Jen plays in what are probably the most expensive card games in the world in the poker room at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas. She shows up on a Tuesday night.

Jen Harman

OK, I'm going to go to the box and get money.

Ira Glass

The Casino gives hard core players like Jen safe deposit boxes in a room next door to the poker room.

Jen Harman

Can I get black?

Ira Glass

She gets $40,000 in chips. She only needs $15,000 for this game, but she's hoping that a bigger game starts up.

Jen Harman

Let's start something, Freddie. Let's start something.

Ira Glass

You broke me, Freddie tells her.

Jen Harman

Huh? I surely didn't break you.

Ira Glass

Here's something I never would have guessed. The people Jen plays with are mostly other professionals. The same people, over and over, night after night.

Jen Harman

And then we go out afterwards and have a drink or we go bowling or we go to dinner.

Ira Glass

So you guys are all pros and basically you're just taking each other's money?

Jen Harman

Yes. Well, there's usually like one or two people that aren't experienced and are from out of town, or are businesspeople that aren't as experienced. And they actually supply the game for everybody to make a good living.

Ira Glass

Supply the game. A delicate way to say, they lose. It turns out there are a lot of very rich guys who want the thrill of playing against the best in the world. Some nights the game has a minimum bet of $1,000. Other nights, it's $1,500 for one bet. It's not unusual for Jen to lose $100,000 in a single night.

Jen Harman

It's like normal, so you don't even think about it. But you know, it's hard getting to this frame of mind. Trust me. Because the first time I lost $3,000, I went home and cried like a baby. And I said, oh my gosh, that's the biggest loss I've ever taken in my life.

When I lost $10,000, the same thing.

When I lost $30,000, I couldn't sleep for four days.

When I lost $100,000 the first time in my life, I couldn't sleep for a week. But then, the next time I lost $100,000 and the next time I lost $100,000, it's like your pain threshold just goes up.

Ira Glass

Jen has made enough playing poker that she bought a new house, a huge house, with no mortgage. She just wrote a check. Play at her level, she says, she's not comfortable without $2 million as her bankroll.

Most poker professionals, needless to say, play for lower stakes and make less money. A lot less money. I asked many different players what they made at the very beginning of their careers and the answer was usually about $150 a night. Coincidentally, about the same as casino dealers make.

As you'd expect, poker is the kind of job where health insurance is sort of a problem. Even Jen, with all her money, is still on a family policy through her parents.

And how much skill does a person need? How much is luck a factor in all this? Consider this story.

At one point during the World Series of Poker, a pro named Linda Johnson and I are standing just a few feet away from one of the tables. The cards are dealt. The World Series, they play a kind of poker called Texas Holdem where each player just gets two cards, face down, and then five cards come face up in the middle of the table for everybody to share.

Anyway, the cards go around and a guy in his 20s named Paul Phillips, makes the first bet on the hand, $7,000. A guy in a bush hat and sunglasses calls the bet. Puts in $7,000 of his own. The dealer then lays out the first three face up cards, what they call the flop, in the middle of the table. And Linda leans into my microphone.

Linda Johnson

The flop comes queen, nine, three. Paul bet all in. Paul at least has a pair, I believe. I would think he has a queen.

Ira Glass

More betting happens. They flip over their cards. Paul actually has a pair of aces. The other guy has a pair of nines. Which, combined with the nine that's sitting on the table face up, gives him a set of three nines. Three of a kind beats a pair in poker, so Paul loses the hand.

Man 1

I can't believe it.

Linda Johnson

Paul's feeling a little sick about this one. You're not supposed to lose with aces.

Ira Glass

Paul loses $20,000. The very next hand, each player gets his two cards face down. There's a flurry of calls and raises.

Linda Johnson

Raphael brought it in. We've got some action here. It was brought in for $7,000. Daniel called $7,000. Tony D re-raised. He made it almost $80,000. Paul just moved all in. Now, remember, Paul got two aces beat last hand.

Ira Glass

A bunch of other people drop out, leaving just two people in the hand, Paul and the guy named Tony D. Each of them has $72,000 in the pot, which is every last chip for Tony D. Because Tony D couldn't bet any more-- even if he wanted to-- they each flip over their two face down cards. Tony D has two jacks. Paul has two aces. Again.

Then the flop comes and another card. And then, the last card.

Man 2

Aces. Oh my God.

Man 3

Jack on a river.

Ira Glass

It's a jack.

Man 3

You've been flopping aces back to back.

Linda Johnson

Painful. Back to back he had aces. Once against nines, once against jack. And both times they hit their miracle. Make three nines and three jacks. So he loses two pots in a row for a lot of money. That's a brutal beat. Oh my God. Oh, Paul. Oh my God.

Paul's got to feel sick about this. Paul's standing up now. He's in pain. It's probably hard for him to breathe right now. Anyone who says there's no luck in this just doesn't understand.

Ira Glass

A few hands later, Paul's lost the rest of his chips. Then his friend Melissa Hayden, a fellow pro, takes us to meet him in the casino bar.

Paul Phillips

What can you do? That's part of the game. It's just part of the game. It's hard to describe. When I saw that jack hit the table, I couldn't even see. I went blind for a minute. It was like it couldn't actually be a jack. It's as if you saw just something materialize out of thin air and said, that violates the laws of physics. That couldn't have just happened. This ball bearing just appeared in front of my face. That's how that jack felt. Like it just simply couldn't have happened.

Ira Glass

And then, standing in the bar, without notes, or pad, or paper, or anything, Paul calculates the odds that a person could get a pair of aces in two consecutive hands, and then lose both times.

Paul Phillips

All right, well, the odds of getting a pair of aces. You look at your first card. It's 4 out of 52, which is 1 in 13. And then the next card, 1 out of 17 because there's 3 left. 3 out of 51. 13 out of 17 is 220:1. So it's 220:1 against getting aces. Then it's 220:1 against getting them the next hand too. So we're looking at over 40,000 here because 200 squared would be 40,000.

So then we've got the odds of me having aces cracked back to back are 4 and 1/2 squared, which is about 18. Then we got 18 times 45,000. Brings us to right around a million. And it's definitely in the milliony ballpark. What happened to me we call a 1 in a million beat.

Ira Glass

This is the sort of moment that makes the aspiring amateur player feel suddenly awestruck and frightened at all the things that the professionals have running through their heads. And this is just the odds of the game.

At the Bellagio, Jen is having a good night, catching good cards. And the most noticeable thing about watching her play is that, like a great ballplayer, she does not seem like she's trying very hard. All at the same time, she is watching the other players, figuring out what they have, calculating the odds in her bets, ordering hot tea, conducting an interview, chatting about her upcoming trip to Italy, making her own bets.

Jen Harman

You raise?

Man 4

Yep. You raise?

Jen Harman

Yep.

Ira Glass

Jen says that the main difference between low stakes games and the higher stakes games that she plays at, is that the better players at the higher money levels, play a way more psychological game. Here's the kind of thing that she's talking about. She knows that one of the guys in this game doesn't think much of women players.

Jen Harman

He thinks I'm the worst player in the world. That I don't play well. I get the cards and I win with them and I'm just lucky. I mean, he just hates losing to a girl. It just drives him crazy. He can't see clearly when he plays me. And it's been like that for years.

Ira Glass

And so, in one hand, she has terrible cards. And though this guy raises the bet over and over, she bets him back. And she only wins in the end with a lucky last card.

Man 5

Oh my gosh.

Ira Glass

She collects the chips that she's won. One of the guys at the table points at my microphone and asks her, would you have played that hand if the guy had a video camera with him?

Jen Harman

It wasn't a very good hand, let's put it that way.

Man 6

I was just wondering. Why would she play a hand like that?

Ira Glass

Well, the reason why she would play a hand like that has to do with that guy who doesn't think that women play good poker. She wants him to keep thinking she doesn't know what she's doing. That makes them make the wrong decisions, stay in hands that he should never stay in.

Jen Harman

I wasn't supposed to win that hand. He had buried aces. I had a dead three. And he was so much more of a favorite than I was. But I also knew that I'd make more money in the future from him if I play that hand. So if I lost the pot, I took a small loss for how much I'm going to make in the future because he thinks that I play those kind of hands against him all the time. So it's like putting myself in a negative equity situation to make more money in the future.

Ira Glass

Many poker pros we met have no interest in other kinds of gambling. They don't exactly look at poker as gambling. Others gamble compulsively on all sorts of stuff.

One of the best poker players on the circuit is known to take his winnings and blow them at the craps table. During the World Series of Poker, at one of the breaks, producer Starlee Kine and I noticed Phil Gordon. For Phil, betting is just part of life. He bets on gin rummy. He bets on cribbage. He bets on golf. He bets on backgammon.

Phil Gordon

I love gambling. You know, I'll gamble on anything.

Ira Glass

Really?

Phil Gordon

Oh yeah.

Ira Glass

Like what? What's the smallest thing you've ever bet on?

Phil Gordon

Well, I lost $5,000 in rock, scissors, paper last weekend.

Ira Glass

Wait, rock, scissors, paper. You mean the--

Phil Gordon

Rock, scissors, paper. The one, two, three. $5,000.

Ira Glass

To who?

Phil Gordon

To this guy.

Ira Glass

This guy turns out to be his friend Rafe, who travels everywhere with him, in a free-floating, vacation slash gambling trip that never ends. Rafe, who can somehow out-think and out-strategize Phil in rock, scissors, paper.

Phil Gordon

We've been playing rock, scissors, paper for 10 years and I've seen all the moves. You think that there's just rock, scissors, and paper. But when someone goes paper five times in a row, and you're like, OK, I know what he's doing next time, he's going paper. He's trying to sucker me into thinking he's going scissors. So you go rock and he goes paper again. It really can put you on the most serious tilt.

Ira Glass

Phil describes the strategy of rock, scissors, paper. And really, it's just like poker, he says. You only have three possible options. In one game, it's call, or raise, or fold. In the other, it's rock, or scissors, or paper. And how both are pysch out games.

And before I know it, we're in the casino bar and Phil is rock, scissors, papering Starlee for a drink.

Phil Gordon

She has just gone scissors followed by paper. Which tends to lead me to believe that she's going rock next. Just to do the full gamut of the moves. But that might be too obvious for her, so she might double reverse me.

Man 7

OK, I can tell her what you're going to go and I'll make it--

Phil Gordon

OK, I'm going to go rock.

Man 7

Now you better win this.

Phil Gordon

I'm going to go rock.

Man 7

I have money on you.

Phil Gordon

I'm going to go rock.

Ira Glass

People start placing side bets. Phil looks right in Starlee's eyes as he declares he's going to go rock. And this totally psyches her out.

Phil Gordon

I promise you.

Ira Glass

Starlee gets this look on her face that says, is he going rock? Wait, is he?

Phil Gordon

One, two, three. Oh.

Man 7

He did.

Starlee Kine

He did.

Ira Glass

He goes rock. She loses.

Starlee Kine

Now I'm on the juice and I want to keep doing it.

Ira Glass

Parents, see how kids get hooked?

Phil and Rafe were in computers, their companies went public, internet boom. You know the rest of the story. Millions of dollars, no need to work. And they make a good case for why, given a choice of doing anything in the world, one might decide to play poker.

It's a great life, Phil says. A constant field trip with your friends. Flying around the world, playing cards. And hearing him and Rafe describe it is really like listening to the devil telling you to quit your job, don't heed the advice of your loved ones, turn your back on everything you have ever fought for or held dear, to come and live forever on the Island of the Lost Boys.

Not that Phil doesn't see the downside of all this.

Phil Gordon

Well, I think that was probably the number one complaint of my ex-wife. I wasn't able to grow up as fast as the love of my life wanted me to. So I always want to live a life of fun and excitement and adventure. I'll do pretty much whatever it takes to make sure that continues. I mean, I have a failed marriage. I'd been married for six months. I got married October 1 and we just split up about a month ago.

No, it's OK. I mean, it's very amicable. We just realized that our life goals are different.

Ira Glass

Phil's moving to Las Vegas. Where else can you get world class entertainment seven nights a week, he asks?

It's getting late. Rafe turns to Phil before we go.

Rafe

$500 this won't make the air.

Phil Gordon

What kind of odds are you willing to give me.

Rafe

Even up.

Phil Gordon

I'll take 3:2.

Rafe

How about you give me 3:2?

Phil Gordon

My $750 to your $500 that we never make the air.

Rafe

You're on.

Ira Glass

Sorry, Rafe. You lose.

In the months since Starlee and I went to the World Series, we've both gotten hooked on poker. She now plays in a weekly game. I've played nearly every night. Sometimes with friends, sometimes on the river boats just 25 minutes from my office at the public radio station. But most often, online for real money.

Sometimes I'll be sitting in my office or out to dinner with friends, and I'll daydream about poker.

When poker's your job, apparently, you daydream about other things that gets taken from you. While Jen and Phil and Paul all still love playing poker, there are also guys like this longtime Vegas player.

Mike Laing

My name is Mike Laing. L-A-I-N-G. My dad always told me the I is for intelligence.

Ira Glass

For you, after playing for so long, how often is it just like a job?

Mike Laing

Every minute of it is a job. From the time I get up off my couch to where I have to go take a shower is a job.

I don't feel like getting in the water, washing my hair, and taking a shower and getting dressed up and this and that and going out. That's when the work begins.

Ira Glass

Mike says that when he's playing poker, it is literally boring for him. In contrast to all these 20-something poker pros who are smart about their money and managing risk, Mike is old school. He never read a book about poker. Why read them when he plays against the guys who wrote the books? He's the kind of gambler who recently bet $24,000 on whether a coin flipped in the air would come up heads or tails. He won.

Mike Laing

That's part of a gambler. Then the next month you're broke. And that's the way it goes. It goes up and it goes down.

Ira Glass

Do you have a bankroll that you keep to protect you for a month, two months?

Mike Laing

Well, see a lot of guys keep their bankroll, their gambling bankroll and their spending bankroll. Me, it's like my bankroll is whatever I have. It's always up for grabs.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Mike Laing

I'll flip a coin for it or whatever.

Ira Glass

So you'll let yourself go broke?

Phil Gordon

Well, yes. I have the heart to risk everything. If I think he's bluffing, I'll just move in on him. I'll just risk everything. It doesn't matter. If you get broke, you get broke. You just go on the next day, that's all.

Ira Glass

One day Mike was walking by his 11-year-old son at home who was playing poker online. Mike noticed his son had a killer hand, the best possible cards of anybody in that hand. Bets were happening. Mike suggested that his son raise. The son said, nah. I don't want to lose the guy, dad. Meaning he didn't want the guy to fold. He wanted to string him along, get more of his money.

Mike Laing

I'm thinking at 11 years old, to pick up this lingo and to realize this, I mean, he could have potential to be a great poker player. But I mean, it'd be nice for him to have that as a hobby, like a secondary thing. I'd like to have him go onto college and be a doctor or a lawyer or something.

Ira Glass

And would you be sad if he became a professional poker player?

Mike Laing

I don't want him in it. I don't want him in it. I mean, I got a lot of friends all over the world and I got a lot of respect from friends all over the world. And he'd have a lot of friends. And he'd hear stories of his dad all the world, and I'm sure of that. Because I mean, I put some stories out there. Not meaning to, but I've put out a lot of stories that people will be talking about for years after I'm gone. But I want him to have something else to fall back on that he knows is going to be there.

Ira Glass

Poker will bus you. It's built into the job that experienced players go on losing streak that last months. No player can avoid it. Think about what that does to you.

Mike Laing

It makes you mean with your kids, your wife, or whoever you're with and you're irritable. People come up to talk to you, you don't want to talk to them. You kind of like fly of the hand and say I'm sorry. I had a bad day.

You know it's supposed to all balance out, but it's like you think, God, why? Why has it got to balance out now? Why can't it balance out a little bit later or not so strong?

Ira Glass

The night we went with Jen Harman to the casino she won $16,000 in two hours. But she spent most of the last three months on a huge losing streak. She says it doesn't worry her. She knows it will change. When she first started playing poker, it was different.

She'd only been playing seriously for a year and a half when she went on a seven-month losing streak.

Jen Harman

You doubt yourself. I tried not to change my game for the worst. And a lot of poker players, that's why poker's so difficult, and so many people can't be successful, is because they go through these losing streaks and they start to play really bad. They really change their game for the worst. I mean, you have to be robotic. And that's very difficult to do. I don't know how many times I've said, man, I wish I was a robot. Why can't I be a robot? No emotion at all.

Ira Glass

She keeps track of her wins and losses. And in 3 of the 13 years that she's been playing, she took a loss. She's gone broke once. Nearly gone broke a second time. This is all very sobering news for the aspiring professional.

I find it's hard to quit poker, though. Even though playing just these last few months, it's clear that I don't have a special gift for the game. I don't have the patience. I get bored waiting for a good hand, and then play all kinds of cards I really should be folding. This has cost me frankly, a bit of money.

Another weakness of mine, I find I'm often more interested in knowing whether people are lying than I am in winning money. So if I have a pair of aces and then somebody keeps raising the bets as though they have a straight, or trips, or something that would beat my aces, the right thing to do would be to fold. I like to flatter myself to think it's a reporterly instinct kicks in. And then I simply want to know if they're bluffing. And so I stay in.

If they're bluffing, it's so interesting. It's so interesting how people act in different situations. That is more interesting to me than winning the money. Starlee says that when I say in like this, I'm basically a girl. You know, watching sports for the personalities rather than caring about who is going to win. So I stay in. They are almost never bluffing.

Just about two weeks ago, I started lying about money. I've been telling people that I'm down about $150 total for all this poker. But really, it's more like $300. OK, it's $350. That's bad, right? The lying.

I asked Jen Harman how many hours an amateur like me would take to get competent at poker. And she thinks for a moment and then says, 2,000. 2,000 hours. Think of that. That's like a 40-hour-a-week job for a year. I only have 1,930 hours to go.

Act Three. Martha, My Dear.

Ira Glass

Act three, Martha, My Dear.

Well, David Rakoff is our third amateur today. An amateur who set out on the quest to meet the pros, to get a question answered.

David Rakoff

I have a cupboard in my living room, a freestanding armoire that holds, among a ton of other stuff, the following supplies. Six stamp pads, rubber linoleum printing blocks, seven boxes of Chinese flash cards, bindery fabric sample books from the garbage of the carpet and tile store on 20th, acrylic paints-- approximately 40 tubes-- rhinestones, pearl buttons, architectural balsa wood, pipe cleaners, and a tin cracker box of golf tees. Quantity, approximately 1,000 assorted colors.

I make stuff. Boxes, lamps, mirrors, small folding screens, painted jackets for kids, that kind of thing. It's what I do in my spare time. Some people need to exercise every day, my salvation lies in time spent alone with an X-acto knife and commercial-grade adhesive.

During the act of making something, I experience a kind of blissful absence of the self and a loss of time. I almost cannot get this feeling any other way. Certainly, it never happens in my job in writing.

When seated at the computer, I have to either check my watch, eat something, call a friend, or abuse myself every 10 minutes. By contrast, I once spent 16 hours making 150 wedding invitations by hand and was not for one instant of that day tempted to check the time.

Is it possible for one's job to be an exercise in having that feeling? Or does the act of doing something for money automatically rob you of that feeling? For me, there was only one place where I could find the answer-- the crafts department of Martha Stewart Living magazine.

Hannah Milman

It's kind of messy.

David Rakoff

You're the luckiest person I've ever met.

My voice is squeaking in Hannah Milman's office. Hannah is the editor who heads up the crafts department, and her workspace has me green with envy. There is the requisite desk with telephone and computer, but beyond that it's just an embarrassment of fantastic art supplies.

Numerous apothecary jars filled with sea shells, bags upon bags of quartz, polished oyster shells, beads, vintage rhinestones, spools of ribbon, silk flowers. It is an astonishing array.

David Rakoff

Did you blow these eggs yourself or did you get them--

Hannah Milman

A lot of them, yeah.

David Rakoff

On one of the shelves is a series of decorated eggs that have been sawed open with the tiny bit of a dremel drill, painted, hinged, altered, and adorned in innumerable variations on opulence. Hannah explains that these were created in-house for a feature the magazine did on how to make your own Faberge eggs.

Hannah Milman

When we did this costume story, one of our projects was a witch made out of plastic drawstring garbage bags, plastic drawstring garbage bags.

Woman 1

The story was to do costumes out of found objects.

Hannah Milman

Well actually, it was no-sew costumes.

Woman 1

No sew costumes.

Hannah Milman

The requirement is that they could not be sewn.

Woman 1

So you're given a problem. That's the problem. Let's do it. That's a great idea.

Hannah Milman

So I went to go look for garbage bags. And as everybody here does, you search for the perfect garbage with the right color drawstring and just the right sheen. So I was shopping and thought, there must be something else in the supermarket that would work as a costume. It wasn't really coming to me, but then there were the coffee filters. And I thought, those could be those Elizabethan cuffs around your wrist. I said, I'm going to buy these. There's something there. They remind me of the cuffs. It turned out, it was the perfect material.

Woman 1

You should have worn it for your wedding, it was so beautiful. She regrets that.

David Rakoff

We have congregated in the main work room. The project currently underway is-- not surprisingly-- Christmas ornaments. Stalks of wheat have been soaked, folded, twisted, braided, and tied into an endless variety of shapes. Then dusted with differing shades of brilliant metallic mica powder, which requires a respirator.

The women who work here-- there is one man, but curiously his name is actually Megan-- seem more like rizdy hipsters than ice cream social soccer moms. They all went to art and design school. They all seem to love their jobs. And they seemed to love them for a reason that's very familiar to me.

David Rakoff

When you're making something, do you ever achieve this state of mind where you've lost time?

Woman 2

At 2 o'clock in the morning.

Woman 3

You get really flushed and excited.

Kelly

You go into a deep level of concentration really, is what it's all about, I think. You really do. You have to be able to concentrate really deeply to the point where you don't even realize-- you're not self-conscious about what you're doing anymore. It's just flowing out of you.

David Rakoff

The actual name for the state of mind that Kelly is describing is called flow, coincidentally. It's a term you may have heard of without knowing where it came from. It was coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For those of you not of Hungarian descent, let me say that name again. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed athletes, chess players, artists, rock climbers, and found that all of them, when engaged in the act of their choosing, spoke of reaching a level of engagement that is completely unself-conscious, removes them from their everyday worries, and alters their sense of time.

Kelly

I think the biggest challenge for us is that you have to have like insta-flow. You have to make things. You don't have a choice. That's what you're paid for. That's what your job is.

David Rakoff

But has that corrupted flow in your life? When something becomes from avocation to vocation, from the thing that you love to do to the thing that you may still very well love to do, but the thing that you're paid to do, can you still create it for yourself?

Kelly

Yes you can. Yes you can. But it takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of discipline to keep-- you can't just sort of do it when you feel like it.

David Rakoff

Dream over. I can't work here. I just don't want to expand that kind of effort to get to a place that I can get to without any work at all. Under that kind of pressure, I'm not even sure I could get there in the first place.

To paraphrase that famous old saying, don't flow where you pro.

Talking to these women, I do realize I have this in common with them. We all make stuff. We give most of it away as gifts. And for the most part, none of us seems to have a terribly clear idea of what happens to all of it after that.

I have made and given away years and years worth of things, starting in earnest at least 15 years ago. Some of it to people who have moved almost that many times. Others have gotten divorced or been widowed. I've made things out of food, polyurethaned food, but food nonetheless.

My hypothesis is that a lot of the things I've made spend a year on the shelf and are then consigned to the rubbish heap or the Goodwill or a box in the basement. I decided to test my theory.

Deb

Hello.

David Rakoff

Deb?

Deb

Yes.

David Rakoff

It's David.

Deb

Hey.

David Rakoff

Hi. I have a question for you. You're being recorded right now.

Deb

Oh, for crying out loud.

David Rakoff

Do you remember that birthday-- it might have been your 30th birthday. Do you remember what I made you?

Deb

Yeah, I have it right here.

David Rakoff

You do?

Deb

Yeah.

David Rakoff

I'm surprised that Deb still has the box. Especially so close at hand.

David Rakoff

What is it?

Deb

It is a wooden-- is it a transformed cigar box? And it's painted in various lovely pastel shades. And then it's covered in Necco wafers. And they're topped with [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

David Rakoff

It turns out that she wasn't the only one who could describe the gifts in detail. I call my friends James, Laura, and Margaret. They also kept the things I'd made for them. Not just kept them, but kept them out in their daily lives. On their bedside tables, in their hallways, on their children's backs.

In between phone calls, I postmortem with my producer Alex Blumberg. He recorded all of these calls. He wasn't surprised at all that my friends kept the stuff.

Alex Blumberg

Because they love you and they're your friends and they're clearly-- you know, you're all very close. And they're going to keep everything that you give to them because they like you.

David Rakoff

All right, what did you do with the little linotype that I left on your desk?

Fascinating.

Alex Blumberg

What did I do with the little linotype? I totally forgot that I was a gift recipient. I got to find it now.

David Rakoff

You don't have to find it now. This is the thing. You really don't have to find it now.

Here's the thing. On some level, I actually don't really care what happens to the things, so long as what doesn't happen is the following, which is that 20 years hence, when these people are sitting around with their families, their new families, their children, that the sort of mythology of the object is not, oh, this was given to us by that sad, lonely loser. Do you know what I mean? Oh, he made us this thing, but he came to our wedding and got so drunk.

Alex really shouldn't feel bad. It's a lovely moment when I give somebody something and they're appreciative, to be sure. But in some ways, their reaction is beside the point. I'll make things anyway.

On some level, me giving somebody something that I've made, it's almost the equivalent of your fitness nut friend coming into your living room, dropping and giving you 25, and then shouting, Happy Birthday! Who's really gotten the gift in a transaction like that? You tell me.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff is the author most recently of the book Don't Get Too Comfortable.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Original music for our poker story today by TRS 80. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, all he says anymore is--

[SAYING RHYTHM]

I'm Ira Glass. The I is for Ira. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.