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Local Column

OLSON: When breaking the rules works

SPRINGFIELD – It probably wasn’t any kind of short con job – we weren’t playing for real money – but it sure could have been.

At the Illinois Press Association‘s annual convention here this week, the IPA organized its first Texas Hold ’Em poker tournament. The proceeds went to benefit the IPA board, so Northwest Herald Editor Jason Schaumburg, Shaw Media Group Editor Dan McCaleb and I signed up to play.

I’m not a regular gambler, but I know how poker works, and I don’t mind playing if it’s not for more than I can afford to lose. And I did make it to the final table, although I didn’t last long there. 

Just as we were about to start the tournament, there were loud voices out in the hall. A few women, also here for the convention, were having a good time and, although they hadn’t signed up for the tournament, were invited in to play.

They didn’t seem to know much about how poker worked, and didn’t seem to mind if they won or lost. Naturally, they started cleaning people out left and right.

One woman in particular did well. She almost never folded. She’d call people’s bets with bad hands, then the cards would break her way. At one point she kept betting a bad hand and ended up with a flush, good enough to win the hand. They had to explain to her how she’d won.

“Doesn’t it stink losing to someone who doesn’t know what they have?” Schaumburg said to one unfortunate player who’d gone against her.

There was a “ringer” in the tournament, a woman who regularly plays in poker tournaments. She-who-never-folded took her out.

The ringer spent much of the rest of the night watching over the novice’s shoulder, often wondering aloud why she’d called one bet or another.

Then she’d win the hand.

It went on like that until the woman who never folded was among the final four players, with a big stack of chips in front of her. Then she played a hand the way she should have – and lost it all.

Her hand was a pair of aces, known as a “pocket pair.” It’s one of the best starts you can have in Texas Hold ’Em poker.

She went all in before any other cards were turned. One player called her substantial all-in bet with an 8 and a 9 of different suits.

When the first three cards were turned – the “flop” – there among them was another 8 and 9, giving the weaker player two pair. No other aces showed up on the board, and just when she’d played a hand in the proper way, she-who-never-folded was out.

It was stupefying.

First thought: When things are going your way, stick with what works.

Second thought: When money doesn’t seem real, people don’t show it the same kind of respect. The woman who never folded probably wouldn’t have played the way she did if she was gambling her money. Given what she didn’t know about poker, it’s doubtful she would have sat down to play in the first place.

It’s kind of the same situation with our state and federal governments. They deal in numbers in the billions and trillions of dollars, sums so large that they’re hard to really imagine and so immense that they’re beyond our ability to conceptualize.

What’s more, the tax dollars they spend are other people’s money, and because the state is always assured of bringing in more, legislators are free to keep betting big rather than having to worry about folding programs that we perhaps can’t afford.

When they spend too much in Illinois, they can always put off paying the bills – hence the multibillion-dollar backlog of unpaid bills at the state comptroller’s office.

At the federal level, the Treasury can actually print money. You can’t devalue money any more than simply having the power to make more of it.

No wonder that our federal deficit is so mind-bogglingly large. In the upcoming federal budget, which begins in October, the budget deficit will be about $500 billion, and that’s progress – it’s the lowest deficit since 2008.

Our national debt is about $17.5 trillion, a number so mind-bogglingly huge that we can’t really grasp it and so it just becomes something we write or say. One trillion is a thousand billions. A trillion seconds ago, it was about 30,000 B.C.   

Seventeen trillion? Yeah, that’s a whole lot, but it’s no big deal. We’ll just print more money, and bet this hand, too.

Third thought: Defying conventional wisdom doesn’t always make you wrong. Almost everyone in the room that night knew more about poker than the woman who didn’t fold. We were all so sure that we knew better, and yet what she was doing that night was working.

Sometimes going against the grain really works. That’s where innovation, invention, and groundbreaking new ideas often come from – the people who say “why not?” when everyone else in the room says “no way.”

Of course, what we saw that night was more amusing than groundbreaking.

But for a Thursday evening in Springfield, that was good enough.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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