Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Reykjavik Gambit

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

I visited Iceland in 2001. It really wasn't my idea. I had a horrible run betting on the college bowl games and got wiped out. This was in a time way before I even heard of online poker or became a regular in underground card room scattered around New York City.

The depletion of my entire gambling roll was a minor problem compared to the rest of malaise on my plate. Broke financially, heart-broken romantically (still struggling to deal with the dissolution of a relationship 16 months earlier), and unable to write a single word (I don't believe in writer's block, but at the time, I had given up all hope after five years of nonstop rejection letters).

"Let's go to Iceland," Senor said on the phone. "It'll be awesome."

Senor, my best buddy and partner in crime for so many hijinks in my 20s, was a true patron of the arts. He had a job, a well-paying one in the financial sector, and I was his perpetually broke hippie-beatnik freak of a friend. He funded most, if not all, of our adventures. I always felt guilty and self-conscious about being the recipient of his charity, but he always convinced me that he wouldn't have as much fun if he went on many of these excursions by himself.

"Besides, I got a great deal -- two for one flights on Icelandic Air."

Senor's roommate subscribed to GQ magazine. He thumbed through the rag during an early morning dump and came across an article written by an American who had just returned from Iceland bragging about the easiness of Icelandic women. "Sexual predators," was how they were described. Plus, as the lore goes, Icelandic women were among the most beautiful in the world -- the product of impeccable genes due because the Vikings pillaged the hottest of the hotties during their numerous raids centuries earlier. As a result, all of those kidnapped women ended up in Iceland, a tiny island somewhere in between North America and the European mainland.

At the turn of the century, the best way to describe Senor is to conjure up images of Vince Vaughn's character in Swingers.

"Think about all those beautiful babies!"

The Swingers analogy fit. I was the moody brooding lovelorn John Faverau character, and Senor/Vaughn took it upon himself to snap me out of the funk. And that's how I ended up in Iceland.

"All we have to do is show up and we'll get laid."

Easier said than done. I knew it was bullshit, nothing more than a travel shill article concocted by the Iceland bureau of tourism. Nonetheless, I had nothing else going on, so I accepted the invitation to visit Iceland... in the middle of January. I packed light and brought along 60 pages of the novel that I began five years earlier, yet never finished.

My goal was to write my own Iceland travel piece and try to sell it to a magazine. I imagined something similar to David Foster Wallace's essay on cruise ships, but without the boat and endless snarky footnotes. When I returned from Iceland, I sat down and wrote something that ended up rejected by more places than I could count. Most of the mags that I submitted never bothered to send me a rejection letter. Par for the course. I was used to the rejection, so that didn't bother me at all. Besides, the piece wasn't really that good. A few years later, I would pull out excerpts and self-publish it on Truckin', but the rest of that trips has been buried deep into my memory banks. In the short story, I wrote about buying a chocolate donut from the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. A decade later (and even though I lived in the shadows of the hills of Hollywood the last few years), I still say that the hottest woman I have ever seen worked at a bakery in Reykjavik.

It's dark in the Icelandic winter, something like 20+ hours of the day. But during that twilight, I sat in a cafe in Reykjavik and edited parts of a manuscript. I quickly realized that it was shit. As I stood on Iceland's volcanic-rich soil, I made the tragic decision to kill the novel. To this day, it remains shelved. Maybe a decade from now I will revisit that manuscript and write up a better version of what it was like being a museum security guard. But at the time, I was hopeless and not much of a fighter. I got knocked square in the jaw, fell to the canvas, and decided to stay down. Indeed, parts of the Iceland trip were painful.

Upon my return to the States, I all but stopped writing, but found a different creative outlet -- painting. I dunno what happened in Iceland, but upon my return, that's all I could think about -- painting. I had no formal training, but I had seen enough art to know what I thought was good, and what I thought was pretentious bullshit. If anything, the trip triggered something inside of me and I embarked on a brief binge that spawned numerous paintings.

I painted all summer and spring, spending my days in museums and galleries studying other artists. I had lengthy conversations with artists about post-modern art, and spent endless hours at the Strand bookstore thumbing through massive art books. That's when I had one of those "a-ha!" moments. I knew that painting was a temporary form of expression, something to keep me from jumping into the abyss before I eventually found enough inner strength and courage to write again. But I took note of my crash course in art education and needed to apply that philosophy to writing, specifically -- I needed to study my contemporaries and review classic writers much like I had been doing with painters. I'm a voracious reader, even back then because I didn't even have cable (couldn't afford it), but I was devouring books on Eastern religion and philosophy, and not much in the fiction genre. I knew that had to change, so even though I wasn't writing, I added a dose contemporary fiction to my regular reading diet.

The hiatus lasted from late 2000 through mid-2002 (when I started Tao of Pauly), and it marked the last time that I did not write what I consider "everyday."

I look back on the hiatus as an important stage in my writing career. As ugly as it seemed, it was necessary because I would have never gotten to this point today without that period of malaise. I often scrutinize the series of decisions that I made as a result of the Iceland trip, and if I didn't go to Iceland, I would have gotten discouraged from writing without finding inspiration to paint, which eventually led me back to writing -- but from a different and refreshed perspective.

Today, I'm not having issues with writing. If anything, I have too much to say and not enough time to say it. My issues are with poker because I'm in the middle of the longest hiatus since the poker boom. I haven't played a lick of online poker since Memorial Day, save for a couple of Double or Nothing SNGs a month ago for an investigative column, because those tournaments were rumored to be dominated by collusion rings from Communist countries (former or current), and I wanted to see for myself if any shenanigans existed.

I'm drawing comparisons with the current poker hiatus to the writing hiatus of 2000-02, because even though I'm not playing poker, I'm playing other games that (according to my half-baked theory) will eventually allow me to have a refreshed approach to the game upon my return.

So what have I been doing? Playing a lot of backgammon and chess. Change100 bartered for an iPad at the end of the WSOP (delish trade too -- a bit of cash, a bag of MMJ, and a fistful of Xannax). While she's spent most all of her free time trying to beat Angry Birds, I used her iPad to play four simultaneous matches of Scrabble against Aunt Maudie, Gracie, Cherie, and Change100's sister Mandy. The rest of the time, I used her iPad to play traditional board games against the computer in an attempt to re-develop strategic thinking. My backgammon game is average but I rapidly improved over a couple of weeks. My brother Derek and I used to play backgammon and Othello when we were kids. I know that my mom tossed the Othello board, but I wonder if the old backgammon set is sitting in the bottom of a closest somewhere?

Playing backgammon the last few weeks has been a pleasure, because I'm learning more and getting better every time that I play. It's fun and has a little bit of action to it. However, my chess ability has plateaued and it's been an annoying fucking grind. I got stuck on one specific level and couldn't beat the fucking AI on the iPad to save my life. I even tossed a few obscure opening sequences at the AI/iPad in hopes to confuse the machine, but to no avail. It's embarrassing to lose in less than a dozen moves, but it happened too many times to count. I'm stubborn and I will not give up. I must beat the machine. Otherwise, SkyNet will eventually take over the world.

In college, Derek and some of his fraternity brothers were involved in hyper-competitive chess matches, which seems like some sort of a paradox that a bunch of frat boys pounded beers in red Solo cups, blasted Sublime, ripped bingers on a 3-foot long bong, and played intense matches on a Simpsons chess board made out of Simpsons characters. My brother got me back into chess in the late 90s, but after that short spurt, I stopped playing. That's why it took my iPad chess game a lot longer to come around.

Some of the best Scandi poker players in the world have a background in competitive backgammon. The Russians and Eastern European poker pros are all former chess players. Hmmm... is there something to that? I wanted to find out. But a couple of months dicking around with a few iPad aps is not going to automatically turn me into a world class poker player. However, I definitely see the positive attributes about approaching poker in different terms -- thinking about the game as a chess player or how a backgammon player would. Dare I say, perhaps this will help me make better decisions against Scandis and Ruskies at the tables.

As long as I'm playing one of those two games while I'm sitting out at the virtual poker tables, I'm doing something to keep my mind fresh. Never stop educating the mind.


  1. jxma@aol.com4:53 PM

    Iceland is great. 6 hours from JFK. I went in 1994, but in the summer. Completely different vibe. Most aggressive women I've ever met, and I've lived in Asia for the past 11 years.

  2. Ten Mile5:28 AM

    Memphis MOJO has posted of tournament winnings this year. He's a Bridge Player.

  3. Bluejack10:28 AM

    Only 1000 characters for comments, huh. Bummer. I guess I'll delete my novel about chess and just say this:

    Chess = great for clearing the mind, but not great for poker training. Wrong brain muscles.
    Better than chess = go. Have you played go? Beautiful game, and the computer is still only mediocre compared to human levels of play. Check it out!