Finding my Spot

When I was nine years old, I was an All-Star baseball player. It wasn’t part of the official Little League system. Our city parks in Gardena, a suburb of Los Angeles, had a minor league, from 8-10 years of age, a major league, from 10-12, and a pony league, from 12-14.

At the start of the summer, I was 10 years old. I could have played in the minor leagues or the major leagues. Most of my friends were a bit older and didn’t have that choice. So, I went along with them and signed up to play in the majors.

Big mistake. I was physically afraid of how fast the 12-year-old pitchers threw the ball. Even with my eyesight corrected as much as possible, I couldn’t properly evaluate the spin on a curve ball — a pitch that was common in the majors and pretty rare in the minors. I did play some that year, but mostly I was a bench warmer.

When I was 11, I was no longer eligible for the minors and no team in the majors wanted me. I was washed up at 11 years old.

There were a number of other players my age who were similarly washed up. While my parents weren’t involved, other parents passed a rule that each minor league team could have up to two 11- or 12-year-olds who were not good enough to play in the majors. One of the coaches remembered me and I was invited to play.

I was an All Star again, mostly because a 12-year-old playing in an 8-to-10-year-old league has lots of physical advantages over the younger players. I led the league in home runs and was capable of stealing second and third whenever they decided to walk me. Cloud nine. It was the favorite summer of baseball in my life. When I got a big head about how good I was, which was frequently, my mother would remind me that if I were anywhere near as good as I thought I was, I’d be in the majors. I knew she was right. But I also figured out that I was happier dominating the minors than I was being a bench warmer in the majors.

I’ve applied that principle again and again in my life. In college, as an undergraduate at UCLA, I took some graduate classes and did very well. UCLA was an excellent school. I was in the Economics Department which, at the time, was ranked about number 15 in the nation based in part on the prestigious faculty in that department 

The schools ahead of UCLA? Harvard, MIT, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, others. My grades and test scores were high enough that I could probably have been accepted into one or more of these. But they were the real major leagues. I might become a bench warmer if I went there. At UCLA, arguably a lower tier of the major leagues, I knew I could be a star. So, I only applied to UCLA and was rewarded with a Teaching Assistantship — which is a form of scholarship. I would rather be a star in a lower league than a bench warmer in the real majors.

At gambling, I started out at backgammon. I was fine so long as I stayed in the minor leagues of backgammon. When I wasn’t welcome to play in the softer games anymore, or there were no softer games available, I played with the big boys and got crushed. 

In blackjack, you have to travel to be in the major leagues. In Vegas, few players are making money long term in this game. Casinos identify and remove them quickly. Hole carding can contribute to the EV, but my eyes aren’t nearly good enough to go that route.

For whatever reason, video poker doesn’t really have a major league. Comparatively speaking, very few of the smartest and best gamblers consider video poker to be a destination. It’s a fine way to supplement your income coming from live poker, blackjack, sports betting, or what have you, but the strongest players don’t end up there permanently. A $50-per-hour opportunity in video poker is rather sweet. You can do much better than that in many other games. 

Except for me. I learned I was good enough to shine in this area of limited competition. Whatever skills that were needed, I was able to obtain. It was like a perfect storm. Smart enough. Willing to study enough. Able to meet enough of the right people to further my career. Brave enough to put money on the line. Whatever. Through writing and teaching, I’ve become the best-known video poker player in the world.

Not because I’m so bright. Not because I’m so talented. But because most of the really bright and talented gamblers choose not to compete in this game. I don’t mean to insult anybody else who is trying to succeed at this game. But if you took the top 5% of poker players, or blackjack player, or sports bettors, their accomplishments would far surpass the top 5% of video poker players. For whatever reason, my skill set has meshed with this game better than most other games. 

I’m definitely not the only successful player. I’m definitely not the best. But I’m the most famous because the other good players remain quiet about what they know while I’m out there writing and teaching, which brings me to the attention of others.

Being well known in today’s society comes with a lot of incoming fire from people who want to knock me off whatever position I’ve carved out for myself. People using pseudonyms say dreadful things on the Internet they wouldn’t say face to face. Definitely not my favorite part of being moderately famous. But I’ve developed thick skin and can deal with it.

And I’m happy about this. Being a big fish in a small pond is okay by me. At least I was able to find my pond. Learning when I was 12 years old that being successful in the minors can make for an enjoyable life has served me well. 

I wish you success in finding your small pond. My pond is big enough to share with some of you, if that’s your desire, but there are tens of thousands of other ponds out there as well, most of them having nothing to do with any form of gambling. Find the one that’s right for you.

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