Monday, May 23, 2011

Tony and me, strangers and strangeness

This is one of the rare times I'm writing when I have only a vague idea what I'm going to say. I don't have a particular point, no story with a clear moral, no narrative path with a beginning, middle, and end--just some semi-connected thoughts and experiences and observations tumbling around inside my head. So together we'll see how it comes out. It was a year ago almost to the day that I last wrote about my personal history of oddness, of otherness. Warning: This threatens to be more of the same.

A series of otherwise unrelated events has put me in this brooding state of mind.

1) Last night I went to the Tropicana primarily to watch a $1000-each, winner-take-all, heads-up no-limit Omaha/8 match between "Tony Big Charles" (about whom I've written once before, here) and a guy named Dave. I originally became acquainted with both of them through, though more recently both of them have moved to the newer upstart site, Tony's blog (in the form of an ongoing forum topic) is here. Dave hasn't updated his poker blog in a long time. (He finished grad school and moved out of state to take a teaching position.) The two of them had done a similar challenge a couple of years ago. Tony won, and I think it has been a burr under Dave's saddle ever since that he lost to a man he considers an inferior player. He was coming back to Vegas for a visit, so they arranged a rematch.

I got recruited to use a cell phone camera to record Tony's hole cards, so that the owners of the VPN site can put together a reconstruction of the match. In the end, Dave won the best two out of three tournaments and the money. But it was very close. They each had one victory, and on the final hand of the third round they were close in chips and got it all in with very similar hands, which were probably close to 50/50 equity. The board went Dave's way, but it could just have easily gone Tony's. That wouldn't have quite finished the match, but Dave would have been left so short-stacked that it's unlikely he could have recovered. Basically, after a couple of hours of play, the whole thing came down to a coin flip.

Tony--as anybody who has met him, read his adventures, or even heard of him undoubtedly knows--is autistic. Within minutes, often just seconds, of meeting him, most people will notice that he is definitely "different," even if they can't put a specific diagnostic label on him. His list of quirks and idiosyncrasies is longer than that of the title character of "Monk." It is not the personality profile you would expect to make for success in a game like poker, where discipline, consistency, patience, focus, and social virtuosity are valued traits. Yet against all odds, Tony somehow manages to eke out a living playing poker.

Let me be blunt: Tony is paranoid about people and his surroundings, addicted to gambling, emotionally labile, undisciplined, self-destructive, often offensive to others (mostly unintentionally, but with bursts of intentionality about it), full of strange ideas and opinions, and can be downright annoying. But try as I might to dismiss and ignore him, I can't. And, try as I might to dislike him, I can't do that, either. That sounded wrong. I don't actually try to dislike him. A more accurate way to phrase it is that his most obvious and prominent personal characteristics are ones that usually make me want to avoid at all costs the one possessed of them. But Tony has a different effect on me. It's not that I want to become BFFs and hang out in my spare time, but I have developed a definite soft spot for him, after following his blog stories for the past couple of years.

Last night was, I think, the longest prolonged contact I've had with Tony. We played in adjacent seats at a NLHE game for about 30 minutes before the heads-up match got underway, and then, as mentioned, I sat next to him for the roughly two-hour contest, looking at his hole cards, and thus gaining some insight into his play.

Perhaps more important than observing Tony from short range, in terms of being fodder for today's rumination, was watching how Dave treated Tony. Dave is the kind of person I'm naturally inclined to like: he's funny, extremely bright, interesting, friendly, accomplished, musically talented, poised to make a real contribution to the world. He's also a superior poker player. But in recent months, Dave has become increasingly nasty to Tony, via posted responses in Tony's blog/forum. I have found it reading these verbal missiles sufficiently cringe-worthy to tarnish my impression of Dave in a major way. You can think the world of somebody, but if you happen to spot him kicking a puppy, it's unavoidably going to shade everything you think of him thereafter. And Dave has been kicking at Tony relentlessly and mercilessly.

I had hoped that it was just the cold, impersonal medium of textual exchanges on the Internet that was doing it, that things would be different in person. But they weren't. To the best of my recollection, Dave never said a kind or even sportsmanlike thing to Tony all evening. On the contrary, he continued his bashing. This seemed to me not to be friendly trash-talking between mutually respected rivals, but seriously mean-spirited, intentionally hurtful, hostile to the core. Of course, I'm entirely capable of grossly misreading people and emotional situations, so maybe my assessment is wrong and unfair, but that's how it seemed to me.

To his credit, Tony did not respond in kind. Of course he gloated about hands he won and sometimes sulked and made excuses for hands he lost, lamented instances of bad luck, and so forth. But I did not sense any cruelty, spitefulness, or hurtful intent in his comments. He was just wearing his emotions on his sleeve, as he always does. I was also surprised but glad to see that Tony did not appear to get upset at the loss. Frankly, I had expected he would blow up, but he didn't. He quickly got himself back into the NLHE game, and appeared to be handling himself just fine.

The unexpected net effect of observing these interactions for a couple of hours was to make me feel less inclined to want to be friends with Dave, and more inclined to feel compassion and even fondness for Tony. This, despite the fact that by all appearances and usual methods of accounting Dave is about a million times more the type of person I would usually tend to prefer to have in my life and spend time with.

Lately I've been more open with my opinions in Tony's blog when I think he's doing something dumb, self-destructive, or unworthy of the professional that he aspires to be--though I hope that my comments come across as the constructive criticism they are meant to be, rather than just put-downs. I could spend whole pages listing the things about Tony that I don't "get." But placed above all of that is the single thing that I don't "get" about Dave, which I sadly have to conclude is a really ugly streak of cruelty. Tony has plenty of faults, but I haven't been able to find cruelty among them.

I guess it comes down to this: I find characteristics such as emotional volatility hard to put up with, but I find deliberate meanness completely intolerable.

2) Last night after I finished playing at Bill's, I decided to use some of my accumulated food comps for the steak-and-eggs late-night special at Bill's coffee shop. While I was eating, I continued my reading of Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth on my new cell phone. Another guy got seated just a couple of feet from me, at an adjacent table. He started talking to me:

"How'd you do?"

At first I wasn't sure he was talking to me, let alone what he was talking about.

"How did I do at what?"


"It turned out OK."

"Where you from?"

"I live here in town."

I turned back to my book and food, and apparently was successful in signaling him that I wasn't really interested in chatting, as his questions ceased. After all, I cannot believe that this guy actually cares how my gambling session for the day went, nor where I live. I think he was just bored and lonely, and felt that small talk was better than silence. But it isn't--not for me, anyway. It's torture, and I didn't feel like being tortured in order to alleviate some random stranger's boredom.

It was one of countless interactions I've experienced that remind me that I don't fit in well with the crowd. To use the classic phrase from kindergarten report cards, I don't play well with others.

3) Something on Twitter today led me to an article on the Psychology Today web site, and a link in the margin there led me to a blog by a woman with Asperger's syndrome, and specifically to this post from December, in which she ponders what the world would be like if "Asperger's was the norm, and non-autistics or neurotypicals were the minority." (Asperger's is basically a mild form of autism.) Among other things, the author imagines:
Those who insist on saying ‘have a nice day' and other polite exchanges of fairly empty niceties are taught to be honest and say what they think. People who go to shake hands are simply thought unhygienic. And of course, you would never be expected to hug someone just because they shared an ancestor or a common acquaintance.
I rather liked her imaginary world. I think I could get along better there than I do in this one.

4) Last Sunday was the conclusion of this season's "The Amazing Race" on CBS. I was pleased that they had brought back for this season Zev and Justin, who had fallen short on a previous season. Zev has Asperger's and you can tell almost at a glance that he's kind of "off." But he is extraordinarily good-natured. He's smart and funny and persistent, and Justin obviously both accepts and loves him in spite of all his quirks. I enjoyed watching these two best friends on both seasons, because they never got angry at each other, worked exceptionally well as a team, and always supported each other. They always managed to make the best of any bad situation and roll with the punches. They didn't win this year, either, but I was pulling for them all the way.

5) To be clear, I don't think that I would be diagnosable as having Asperger's, even if there were a definitive and reliable clinical test for it. (There isn't.) But there is no question that I share some characteristics and have some strong tendencies that parallel those of Asperger's: I'm terribly uncomfortable in most social situations, I can be oblivious to emotional nuances, I lean toward excessively literal understandings of everything, I often fail to grasp people's motivations, I'm blunt where reserve and diplomacy would serve me better, I get easily distracted and annoyed by extraneous aural input, I am baffled by many social conventions, and so on. (Cardgrrl is a valued liaison with the world of normal humans. For example, she recently spent a patient 20 minutes or so explaining the purposes and niceties of the "Tell ___________ I said hi" protocol, a request which I have always found not just pointless but bizarre and inexplicable--all the more so in an era in which a dozen different forms of instant communication across any distance are readily available.)

On one widely used test for the syndrome I score 40. The accompanying information says that "the average score in the control group was 16.4. Eighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher." So you can see why I am sympatico with the Aspies, even if I'm not exactly one of them.

Well, it's about time I wrapped this up with some sort of brilliant, insightful conclusion, something that ties up all of the foregoing with a nice ribbon and bow, rewarding the reader for slogging through it rather than giving me a "TL;DR" or "TL;DGAFF." Unfortunately, I'm no more sure about what it all means than I was when I wrote the first paragraph. But it's what has been on my mind today.

Addendum, May 27, 2011

I just watched the videos of the match here. My memory was faulty. The spot in which they got it all in with very similar hands was a little earlier, not the final hand. In the final hand, Tony actually got it all in as a substantial underdog.


There are some who call me... Tim said...

Thanks for the laugh on a Monday Morning... I knew what tl;dr meant, but it took me a few minutes to realize what tl;dgaff meant...

JT88Keys said...

I happened to catch videos online of the first TBC-Yappy Dave heads up challenge several months ago and had the same "puppy kicking" reaction you did too. Although it didn't change my opinion of Dave, but rather confirmed my opinion formed from his postings on AVP that he was an egotist and borderline megalomaniac.

Michael said...

Outstanding article. I've followed the Tony/David soap box off and on at AVP and VPN. I think it was fairly telling from the first match that Tony won, that David definitely was losing something that had nothing to do with poker and has only shown up worse over time. I don't know him personally and I'm a bit surprised to hear your assessment that you didn't think it was pure internet bravado. David's personality on the internet has in my opinion always leaned toward disrespectful and mean spirited, I always chalked it up to internet speak. Although a personality trait that shows itself in one area isn't just a result of that area as many know.

I have no particular fondness for Tony, I understand he has a disability, but his attitude, opinions, and behavior stretch beyond that disability in my opinion. That's not to say he's not able to handle himself well in a situation such as this beat, which it appears he did and for that I would give him credit, if only due to the fact that David's boorish behavior makes you realize that Tony's good behavior was the higher ground.

Tarpie said...

I agree with your assessment of the heads-up match. By the end I was definitely rooting for a TBC win due to the mean and nasty attitude coming from the other side of the table. TBC can be obnoxious, but in my experience most of his comments seem to be about justifying his play so that people will think he is a good poker player.

I did like watching Zev and Justin on TAR. I have long believed I should never get a body wax, and now I have video proof :)

I took an autism spectrum test a few months ago and IIRC I scored higher than you did. But I don't think I'm actually autistic, just someone who likes routine, sees patterns, and does not do well in social situations. You might have noticed I did a good job of sitting off by myself at the heads-up match.

As usual, it was nice crossing paths with you again. It might happen again next month during the AVP meetup.

Anonymous said...

Ask Tony if he knows sign language and if he has ever used it with a grinder buddy during a hand.

Anonymous said...

Funny Tony moment...he was stuck in the dollar game at bills and then BOOM sudden outburst about all the white chips lol went on for a few hands! Bro.. it's a dollar game!

Watched the first two vids on YouTube and yappy does seem like a bully, it's pretty embarrassing....but not as embarrassing as his attempt to look like Tom dawn when raising lolololololololol

Jacob said...

Could possibly have a schizoid type personality. I wondered for the longest time whether I had Asperger's or not, sharing many of your personality traits. The clinical diagnosis was Schizoid PD, which is basically a fancy way of saying I generally don't like most people or being around them. Society is a mystery to me.

Anonymous said...

Very interested to see your Asperger's score. My wife is a shrink, and I once read one of your postings to her (sorry, can't remember which it was) and she said, "Sounds like Asperger's."

I took the test myself -- thanks for the link -- and scored a whopping 12.

As always, your blog is great.