Monday, September 5, 2011

Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse

 I dream about zombies way too much.  Probably 80% of my bad dreams involve being chased by zombies, usually in a burnt-out post-apocalyptic wasteland.  It has been probably a decade since I’ve dreamed of any other kind of boogie-man.  I no longer fear vampires, ghosts, ax murderers, werewolves, Freddie Kruger or any other imaginary terror.  Zombies have replaced them all as the standardized fear in my nightmares.  That makes sense too since most of my suppressed real-life fears involve things I’m trying to avoid, like an unpleasant task at work or putting myself in uncomfortable social situations.  What better to represent my avoidance than a zombie?  It’s something that exists exclusively to be avoided because if you interact with it, you will suffer serious consequences, like disembowelment, cannibalism or the social pariah-ism that comes with turning into a zombie if you get bitten, scratched, puked or bled on.  Being chased by them in my dreams equates to me trying to run away from my fears, from avoiding something I don’t want to do but that needs to be done.  Still, knowing why I dream of zombies doesn’t make it any less scary in my dreams when I’m running through a deserted building, looking for an exit before the horde of moaning zombies catch up to me.  Even when I do find an exit, that just takes me to the next level and the next batch of zombies,  particularly since in my dreams these are the 28 Days Later zombies, the kind that move pretty darn fast.  You can’t outrun your fears forever although I keep trying to.  Evasion is an ingrained response. 

The other 20% of my bad dreams involve math, usually me stressing about a math class I have to get to or that I have to pass if I want to graduate college.  Math is my go-to representation for a fear of ineptitude and incompetence.  I’m terrible at advanced math (meaning anything beyond addition and subtraction which is ironic since at work I’m known as “the spreadsheet guy” or “the analytical guy”.)  If I don’t think I’d be good at something, I try to avoid doing it, just like I coasted by in my math classes, either because I didn’t like them or couldn’t easily comprehend them.  So to sum up, my two biggest fears are being incompetent and being forced to do something I don’t want to do- either because it is unpleasant or I think I can’t do it well.  It’s a common set of fears, I think.  In fact, I saw a quote today- "Only the mediocre are always at their best (Jean Giraudoux)”- which aptly sums that up.  Not everyone is always at their best.  I just happen to be bothered by that concept and my math-worry is the dream state representation of that fear of failure.  

For instance, I’m dreading having senior moments. Even now, I sometimes can’t think of the name of someone in a movie, and that’s supposed to be “my thing.”  I can remember the name and plot of the movie and the actor’s face, just not the name of the C-list actor who starred in it twenty years ago.  Granted, most people can’t even remember seeing the movie, much less those details but that doesn’t make me feel any better that it took me awhile to remember the name of the guy.  (Who was in fact so forgettable that now I can’t even remember what movie/actor I was trying to pull out of the fog in my brain last week.)  So there is another reason zombies are the perfect dream fear.  They also represent death and decay and the decline of one’s physical body and abilities.  I used to dream about my teeth falling out but that hasn’t happened lately.  There’s no need for different dream themes- zombies can step in as the catch-all metaphor for every fear I have (that isn’t math-related.)  I’m trying to outrun everything at once- death, disease and old age in addition to all the unpleasant activities I’m trying to avoid in my life.  Next thing you know, my bad dreams will reach singularity as I try to dodge zombie math professors.

To switch to a conversation less serious than “zombies as a metaphor for the fear of death”, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how to survive a zombie apocalypse.  I have thought about this a lot lately because zombie dreams are a way to work through my real life obstacles and immobilizing fears.  If I can win in the zombie world, maybe that success will carry over into succeeding in the real world, where there are no such things as zombies (unless you happen to apply that label to people who are inflexible thinkers, corrupt politicians, unethically profit-driven business executives or monolithic, cookie cutter entertainment companies.)  Why should you listen to what I say on this topic?  My qualifications are irreproachably simple- years of escaping zombies in my dreams, watching way too many zombie movies and constantly being amazed at the stupidity of other people.  Don’t underestimate that last one either. If you consider how stupid some people act now, imagine what happens when you throw zombies into the mix (or when they become zombies.)  On top of that, I’m also quite paranoid and have thought through some topics normal people don’t consider.  This is a benefit for end of the world scenarios but a bit of a drawback in normal situations.  For instance, last week a conversation got around to what-ifs like “What if you live in an apartment and need to leave quickly?  There will be zombies in the stairwell so you are screwed.”  I got some funny looks when I said “You go out the window. I keep some rope in my house just in case the stairwell is blocked during a fire or zombie attack.”   So here is some advice from me about how to escape real or dream zombies.

1)      Stock Up: First of all, you need to have supplies ready ahead of time.  Don’t wait until an emergency happens to start stocking up on supplies.  If you recall how people panic and descend on the grocery store when the news forecasts a big snowstorm, imagine what they’ll do when the news guy warns them about the dead rising up to feed on the flesh of the living.  Within an hour of that good news, you won’t see any milk or bread anywhere.  Ever again.  Why do you think the guy in the movie Zombieland had such a tough time finding a Twinkee?  Next time you go grocery shopping, pretend you are stocking up for an unforeseen disaster. Mormons do it all the time.  So do neo-Nazi survivalist groups.  Do you want those to be the only people with food supplies when the shit hits the fan?  Me neither.  Start stocking up on Cherry Coke Zero, bottled water and split-pea soup now.  Worst case scenario- you’ll be able to use those supplies for some other non-zombie disaster situation, like when the power goes out during an ice storm or an Afghan terrorist blows up the local power plant.  Or a dinner party.

2)      Fortify:  No, I don’t mean take your vitamins. I mean build a fort.  Not one out of blankets or cardboard boxes or sticks and straw.  I mean a real fort or a castle.  If you saw the movie Resident Evil: Afterlife, they converted a whole dang prison into a stronghold.  It worked just as well keeping out zombies as it did keeping in prisoners.  Plus it looked wicked cool, especially in 3-D.  If you don’t happen to live near a prison, or an ancient castle with moats and turrets or a military complex then find something suitable near you (Hmm- I wonder if I could use the Pentagon…).  Seek high ground, control the access points and minimize the noise and light.  If you have steel doors and door frames, weld shut the ones that are likely zombie entranceways.  Barricade the windows. Shore up the walls. If you saw I Am Legend, use that house as your starting point.  Don’t yield any ground outside or any room inside.  Create layers of barriers so that it is a struggle to advance towards you.    

If you live on the second floor of an apartment building, in Oakton for instance, you can weld your door frame shut and go in and out through the windows, but don’t forfeit the turf leading up to that door.  Park a big old Hummer in front of the door on the first floor so things can’t inadvertently shamble in.  Clutter up the stairwell with furniture or trash or shopping carts (a la 28 Days Later) so it is not easy to crawl up the stairs.  Black out the glass part of the walls in the hallway so anything that does get up the stairs doesn’t see you and try to get at you if you happen to be in the hallway checking the stairwell.  That is, if you have glassed walls in your hypothetical stairwell in hypothetical Oakton.  Make sure the windows are covered too.  If zombies don’t see you, or hear you, they are likely to keep on moving.  Don’t give them a reason to notice your domicile.  (So no blasting AC/DC music.  ‘Cool’ isn’t worth dying for.)

When I’m driving to work I look at the buildings around me and I’ve noticed that CVS stores seem like pretty good locations in an emergency.  If the parking lot is empty, you’ll have clear lines of sight for fields of fire.  Even though they have glass windows, they are fairly high off the ground and since most zombies don’t know what a ladder is, you could quickly fortify a CVS.  Black out the windows, back an SUV in front of the glass doors (then black them out and lock them), weld shut and barricade the delivery door in the back of the building and you’ve got a good location.  I think CVS architects designed them this way to keep out real life zombies- drug addicts who might try to break in to get to the pharmacy.  Plus, they come pre-stocked with food, medicine, toiletries, Cheetos and lawn chairs.  I’m sure there are employee restrooms somewhere too.  You have everything you need to exist for a couple of months while absorbing the horror of what has happened and coming up with a game plan.  I can’t stress how helpful Cheetos will be in this situation.  They may become the new currency after the zomb-pocalypse.  Either Cheetos or M&M’s. 

I should point out a couple of places that are not good places to hole up.  The idiots in Shaun Of The Dead actually tried hiding in The Winchester, the local pub.  Yeah, it has loads of beer and peanuts, but it had ground level glass windows and was in the middle of the infested area.  Plus they turned on the jukebox!  Getting away from Ground Z(ombie)ero is always a good idea.  The refugees in The Walking Dead got that part right.  They left the city, went to the top of a mountain and stayed in their campers and jeeps.  Except for that one couple who pitched a tent.  A tent?  Really?  Those can’t even keep out mosquitos and bugs so how will they keep out a zombie who’s trying to eat you?  Plus they left it unzipped.  They deserved to get eaten for being stupid.  Basically, find a safe place quickly and make it even safer once you get there.  And for god’s sake, if you seek refuge in an amusement park, don’t start up the rides and the carnival lights.  That’s like ringing the dinner bell.

3)      Game Plan:  Even though fighting for your life isn’t really a game, you need to come up with a game plan.  If you want it to sound more official or serious, we can call it an action plan or a contingency plan but basically you need to figure out what the hell you are going to do.  On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about going to work Monday.  On the negative side, you’ve become part of the food chain.  That kind of requires you to reorder your priorities a bit.  You can’t dash over to Starbuck’s when you need a coffee and it’s a heck of a lot harder to find a babysitter.  If you are going to venture outside the safety of your fortress, you should establish your “to-do” list before heading out the door.  There are lots of possible game plans you can come up with.  Some have merit, some are naively optimistic and some are downright stupid but at least decide on a course of action before hopping into your heavily fortified vehicle. 

There are several possible reasons to leave a secure area.  Maybe you need to get more essential supplies like food and water or gasoline for your generator and escape vehicles.  That’s a good short-term plan obviously.  Perhaps you have decided it is time to try to find that safe colony you heard about on the radio or from a survivor you met while foraging.  That’s a nice idea but how often has that panned out?  I don’t think any safe haven in a zombie movie has turned out to be anything other than a pipe dream.  You are better off staying where you are unless you’ve drawn the attention of the zombies and the congregation forming outside your fortress is about to outnumber the quantity of bullets you have left.  Then maybe it is time to get mobile again.

Perhaps you are smart and have developed a cure for zombieness.  You would want to test that so you need some specimens to test it on.  Rather than creating a breach in your fortress to allow one or two creatures to get in, which would likely invoke Murphy’s Law, you would go out for a “catch and return.”  If you are certain that the cure works, you’d want to go find other humans and salvageable recently infected zombies-to-be.  I would even join you on the road for that mission.  I will not be following along though if your game plan is to “find your family.”  Get a clue- they are already zombified and will consider you to be lunch meat the second you walk through the door.  It is a fool’s errand. 

The only possible exception is if you recently talked to them.  That might be harder than you think because phone companies probably will stop working after the Z-plague.  Not because the employees were eaten but because there is no one there to post your payments.  I bet utilities are probably stupidly set up with a default to cancel service if no action is taken.  I wonder how many systems like internet service, electricity, cable and cell phones will continue on without employees?  I’d better hedge my bets now by making sure everything is on a monthly autopay plan.  Regardless, a recent conversation with a loved one something like an hour ago, not last month and not because some random survivor said “I think Cleveland avoided the infestation.”  No it didn’t.  I would not even consider it unless my Mom called me on the phone that morning and said “I’m fine and I don’t see anything dangerous around but I’m afraid to leave the house.”  In that situation, I would gas up and go across town or across the state to get to her.  I’m not sure I’d risk cross country though- will the gas pumps be functional without an attendant at the station?  (And I mean a living attendant.)  Maybe you can meet me halfway?

Another plan I can’t support is the “Let’s go out for a zombie hunt and kill as many as we can.”  Sorry- I know how often hunting accidents happen and that’s without the wildlife trying to eat you while you are hunting them.  I’ll just stay in my secure area and use my sniper rifle to put them down.  I’ll use a silencer as well so I don’t make enough noise to draw attention.  When you do return from your little trip though (assuming you do make it back alive), be sure to check the place out.  Just because there were no zombies inside when you left doesn’t mean there are none inside now. 

This is because people are still stupid and the same people who used to lose their car keys or forget if they turned off the stove will be the ones who leave the back door open when they go out.  You would think the situation would force people to be more attuned to their surroundings but it doesn’t.  Nothing ruins a homecoming like opening the door and finding zombies inside the house to go along with those outside the house and heading your way.  The game plan I will be endorsing is the “Stay alive as long as possible” plan.  In general, that will mean staying put and only venturing out when absolutely necessary. I won’t vacate the premises until I am forced to, namely because it was overrun or there is a cure.  Which brings me to the next topic.

4)      Exits: Are located here and here and this is how we get to them, quickly.  Even though you are safe now, that can change.  Have an exit plan in place.  Know where to go when it is time to go.  The most idiotic thing in Shaun Of The Dead was not that the main characters holed up in the local pub. It was that once they got to the glass enclosed, ground level building, they didn’t think about how they would leave when the time came (or the beer ran out.)  When the windows were breached, they hid behind the bar.  Like they wouldn’t get sniffed out in that clever hiding place.  That’s like hiding under the bed when a psycho killer is in the house.  After he checks the closet, he’s going to look under the bed.  Then behind the shower curtain.  How can someone not know these things?  Shaun and his friends got lucky and found a cellar hatch but they should have known about that immediately, before they sat around drinking.

Here’s a little ditty for you to make it easy- “Exit before beer, never fear.  Beer before exits, you’re breakfast.”  Along the same lines, don’t get backed into a corner- always know your exits.  When you enter a room, immediately locate the best exit in case you can’t leave the way you came from.  Zombieland knew the importance of that and made it one of the official rules.  Along the same lines, stay away from enclosed areas.  For example, there are only two ways out of an air shaft.  If you go into the shaft because of what is chasing you, you have to cross your fingers and hope that nothing is in front of you.  As a survival strategy, “crossing your fingers” should not be high up your list of options.

5)      Weaponize: I don’t know how many years I have been preaching this.  Always have a weapon handy.  Always.  I don’t care if your best friend or wife has been shot.  Do NOT toss aside your weapon and comfort them.  You can cradle their dying body in one hand and hang onto a gun with the other, even if you aren’t ambidextrous.  Do you really want to look into his/her eyes, watch them die and then turn around to find out that your gun is behind those three zombies that shuffled up while you were reenacting Terms Of Endearment?  No.  As Marine drill sergeants say “Your weapon is your best friend.”  It will not try to eat you shortly after you’ve cried over its’ dead body nor will it convince you to engage in stupid heroics.  It will simply kill things for you without question.  What more can you ask for in a best friend? 

Along those same lines, you can never have too many weapons.  Why risk running out of protection?  If you walk past a dead body holding a shotgun, pick up that shotgun.  If you see an ax lying around, retrieve it.  If a dead soldier has a grenade or ammo clip on his belt, grab it.  (Of course, be sure watch his head and hands while doing so- no one likes to pilfer some ammo and get bit on the neck by a recent zombie cross-over.)  Do you go fishing without a rod?  Do you play soccer with a football?  Do you make cookies without sugar?  No, so why would you go into a zombie wasteland without a way to kill zombies?  If you saw a $20 bill on the ground you’d pick it up.  Do the same thing with an Uzi or a grenade.  An IED is effective against a zombie’s “I Eat Thee” attitude.  Being armed to the teeth is just good policy.  Why would you ever want to run out of ammo or not have a backup in case your favorite gun jams at a bad time? More guns, more peace of mind.  The NRA should use this as their new slogan.

This doesn’t apply just to zombie apocalypses either.  I can’t think of any situation that isn’t improved by carrying a weapon.  Camping- you might run into bears so it would be a good idea to have a gun.  Grocery store run- someone might try to carjack you (or take your parking spot) and a machete would prevent that.  Kylie Minogue concert- carrying a shotgun with you certainly seems to thin the line of people waiting for the urinals.  Watching television- what better way to express your dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Women’s World Cup game than by smashing the TV with a baseball bat?  A wedding- maybe this is the one exception.  Then again, in the movie Kill Bill Pt. 2, it certainly would have helped to be packing heat at Uma Thurman’s nuptials.  Plus, what better way to answer that question of “Does anyone here object to this marriage” than with a round of mortar fire?  It makes a nice punctuation mark after you say that you object.   (Or if you are the groom and you see someone about to object, you can nip that in the bud pretty quickly with a well-placed shot to that person’s leg.)

One more word about weapons.  Swords and machetes never run out of bullets.  What will you do if you are surrounded by 40 zombies and you only have a pistol with 16 bullets and one spare clip? That’s eight more zombies you can’t shoot in the head.  (A side note- always shoot them in the head.  You know a torso shot does nothing so why waste the bullets?  “Destroy the head to kill the undead”- it works for zombies, vampires, psycho killers, Medusa- heck, even sharks.)  If you are carrying a machete with you in addition to your gun, you have a way to dispatch those last eight horrors.  None of the people in zombie movies seemed to have figured this out. Someone may have an edged weapon at some point, but they always lose it or throw it away (often to comfort their dying friend.)  Stupid.   

6)      Strip:  No, I’m not talking about going to a strip club although it might relieve some of your anxiety about being treated like a buffet table.  Even if you were willing to venture outside and could find one, it’s likely that it would be populated with very ugly strippers.  Not coyote ugly, but ugly like flesh falling off their own limbs because they were zombie strippers (just like the movie of that same name.)  Plus even if they weren’t zombies but just normal strippers, how would you pay them?  I don’t think a few $1 bills in a G-string would satisfy them in this circumstance.  They’d probably want your weapons or some of your food, neither of which is worth exchanging for a few glances of naked flesh. 

When I say “Strip”, I mean it is time to see your friends and family naked.  Plus complete strangers, priests, pets and whoever else is holed up in your stronghold.  If some of them happen to be strippers that would be an added bonus but is totally unrelated to what I intend with this rule.  I don’t say “Strip” to be prurient though, I say this to be cautious.  How many times has someone gotten bit or scratched in a zombie movie and tried to hide it?  I understand why’d they would do that- someone in the group will want to shoot them right away, without even the courtesy of waiting for them to die first. 

The infectee, however, is still very much human and a bit opposed to taking a bullet in the head.  They will cover up the bite, hide the scratches and attempt to laugh off that their eyes are turning bloodshot, that they are getting nauseous and puking up black liquid or that appendages are starting to fall off.  They will say they are just tired or hungover or stressed out or pregnant.  Then when you are asleep, they cross over and try to eat you while you are dreaming of hot cheeseburgers and cold milkshakes.  Not a good start to your day.  So the easiest way to avoid becoming a zombie’s “Steve-burger” or “Mike-shake” is by verifying that everyone inside the shelter with you is infection free. 

Thus, strip.  If everyone sees you naked, they can tell if you have a bite on the butt, a scratch on the arm, or a chunk missing from your thigh.  There will be no secrets, no unexpected surprises and no need for $1 bills.   The peep show will finally have a worthwhile purpose.  Not that you want to see everyone naked though.  Your band of buddies is more likely to contain a bunch of people measuring more along the lines of 38-42-46 rather than 36-26-36 (or my personal ideal of 34-26-32).  The sexy, good looking people assume nothing bad can ever happen to them so they just kept on shopping when the first zombies started their rampage at the mall.  Still it’s going to be necessary to disrobe once a day.  It’s no different than checking someone for ticks if they have been out in the woods.  If you just ask someone “Are you a zombie?” they are never going to say yes.  That whole survival instinct thing is still going on.  If you get someone who refuses to do it, they have either been bitten and know they’ll be found out or else they are too stupid to understand that modesty isn’t practical anymore.  Either way you need to show them the error of their thought process.  To paraphrase the well-known philosopher Ivan, I say that if your friends don’t strip, well they’re no friends of mine, which means they need to get out of my hideout now.    

7)      Organize: This may sound a bit like “Game Plan” but it’s only the same in that macro-economics and micro-economics are the same.  The point here is that you need to step away from the big picture and look at the details now that you’ve started to settle in.  Don’t assume that people will remember to sleep in shifts and maintain lookouts.  Set up a schedule detailing who keeps watch when and make sure someone is in charge of verifying that those shifts are covered.  If everyone knew what they should be doing, how to do it properly and would do it without prompting, there would be no need for middle management in any company. That’s not the way things really are though so you’ll need to figure out how much food everyone gets and be sure that no one raids the pantry for extras just because they are hungry.  The zombies are hungry too but that doesn’t mean we are going to throw open the doors and let them feast.  The quicker you use up your supplies, the sooner you have to venture back out and get more, which means the sooner you are again at risk of becoming zombie chum.  Those hungry whiners won’t be the ones volunteering to go out either- they’ll say they need to stay behind and do laundry or inventory the weapons.   

As for venturing out, that needs to be coordinated too.  One idiot can’t decide that he’s going to open the gate or unbar the door and go find some more water or look for someone who didn’t make back on the last supply run.  Can you name a single instance when someone snuck away on their own, planning to be right back, and it turned out well?  No, never.  It always leads to disaster.  You need to have an established procedure for leaving the compound.  Who will provide tactical weapons coverage when you open the door and will close it behind the exiting group?  How long will they be gone?  Where are they going?  Is the mission worthwhile or foolhardy?  In medieval times, the drawbridge wasn’t opened and closed willy-nilly.  There were guards who controlled when it happened and who could come in.  Same idea here. 

 Since you are in the middle of a combat situation and you need establish order and procedure, a quasi-military structure makes sense.  Someone with a clear head and reasonable plan should be giving the orders.  You want Sarah Connor or John Connor guiding you, not Paul Reiser’s character from Aliens or anyone who mentions “cost”, “company image” or “shareholders”. Lawyers, congressmen and sports figures are automatically excluded from consideration since they are obviously too far removed from reality to be effective.   You can vote for who is in charge of the overall game plan if you want to maintain a sense of democracy but the smaller details need to be overseen and carried out by other people following an established set of rules.  If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you can look at it another way.  Pretend you are in a Best Buy store.  Each department was workers who know how things run in that department and someone who is charge of making sure that area is staffed, organized and functioning smoothly.  There are other people in charge of store security, customer service, shipping & receiving and merchandising.  Then you have the store manager who keeps an eye on profitability and overall operations. 

 That scenario applies in this grim situation.  Your fortress is the Best Buy and you have people who do certain tasks, like food gathering or guard duty or medical services, and people in charge of overall security or operations for the complex with one person (or a board of directors) in charge of survivability.  No one just wanders around the store doing nothing- everyone has a job to perform and rules about how to do it.  That’s common sense, right?  So think of your current situation like you were a Best Buy employee, without the blue shirts.  And with guns.  And zombies playing the role of the “consumer”, literally.  

8)      Dodgeball: Why would I mention this playground game in a discussion of surviving a zombie attack?  Because mastering the concepts and strategies of the game can be very useful in other situations besides recess.  What’s the principle objective of dodgeball?  To not get hit.  What’s the main strategy of zombie survival? To not get bit.  What’s the idea of politics?  To not get pinned with the blame.  To getting ahead at work?  To not get stuck with bad projects or bad employees.  To getting somewhere quickly?  Not getting stuck in the slow lane.  Just like dodgeball is about avoiding a red rubber ball and the social stigma of being out of the game, survival in any “arena” is about dodging the “ball” and avoiding the traps the other team is setting for you.  My zombie bad dreams are all about avoiding the creatures and the real-world problems they represent.  After the Z-plague hits, dodging skills are literally and figuratively useful. You can’t get bit if nothing can catch you. 

Another skill gleaned from dodgeball- cardio fitness.  Yes, I’m directly plagiarizing this from Zombieland but it is incredibly important and worth reiterating.  You might be able to outrun a zombie but if you aren’t in shape, you won’t be able to outrun the third one or the fourth one that comes after you.  You know the old joke about not needing to run faster than a grizzly bear, just faster than the person beside you?  Well the same thing applies to the undead.  Being physically fit is no longer just a vanity thing, although working on your biceps and abs still doesn’t matter as much as cardio work.  You might look great when it comes time to strip for the evening but I’d rather spend my time on cardio work.  That way I’ll be able to run after that last truck that is leaving the area because zombies broke through our defensive fortifications.

One last thing that directly translates from dodgeball skills- working in teams to accomplish goals.  You might have great reflexes and amazing peripheral vision but if you are off by yourself without anyone to block for you and contribute a massed firepower response, you’ll be in trouble because everyone will go after you first, being an easy to target to focus on and eradicate before moving on to the more difficult threat- an organized group of dodgeballers.  There is nothing that one person can do better than a group of people could do.  Even snipers work with a spotter.  Teams work.  I should also give a shout-out to other D-ball skills such as shot accuracy, defensive positioning and complete awareness of your surroundings since they are also critical survival skills in the Z-era.  Heck, dodgeball might even replace “The Art Of War” as the best source for strategic planning and successful combat.

9)      Dress Code/Suit Up:  Let’s say that the CEO of the company you work for is stopping by the office today.  Do you think this is a good day to skip putting on a tie?  Or maybe you have a casual workplace- are you going to wear those raggedy jeans that are your favorite pair of pants?  When you go to a wedding, do you wear hot pants and a Hooters half-shirt that shows off your cute belly piercing? Do you go to church in your Iron Maiden t-shirt?  Do you wear a bikini when you go visit a sick friend in the hospital?  No, you don’t do any of these things because they are not appropriate.  There is a proper dress code to follow in various situations.  Most people realize this.  If you are one of those that don’t, then by all means wear your bikini the next time I throw a dinner party but don’t be offended if everyone spends the whole dinner gawking at you, either with lust (the guys) or disdain at your classless ensemble (the girls) or with anticipation that you’ll drop some food underneath the table (the dog).

Now imagine you are in the middle of a plaque infested wasteland and surrounded by creatures who want to eat your flesh and the slightest bite or fleeting scratch from them will turn you into one of them.  You spend your days crawling through dank, rotting buildings and putting up walls and fortifications.  So what do you wear in such an environment?  No, flip flops, cargo shorts and a t-shirt is not the correct answer.  No, not even if you throw in a baseball cap worn backwards.  You are not going to a 4th of July barbecue.  Nor is the answer “a nice suit”.  If you wind up starring on the show “How I Met Your Mother”, then yes it is appropriate to do as Barney says and “Suit up!”  If you are in the midst of a real-life Walking Dead scenario, that phrase takes on a whole different meaning. 

Out here, the dress code is “Survival Casual”.  This means you need to be scrounging up protective gear.  Think face masks, Kevlar vests, knee pads and steel-toed boots.  You are not dressing up to show off your fashion sense or to attract the opposite sex anymore.  You don’t anyone to notice you at all, much less have easy access to your sensitive spots.  You don’t want them to admire your tan or cleavage or have your jewelry catch their eye.  In fact, you are dressing to repel people.  This doesn’t mean leisure suits, fur coats or headbands and leggings.  It means outfits that give you a few seconds of protection so you can fight back against the undead’s unwanted advances.  In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, “dressed to kill” is a literal expression.  Think of Mad Max as the new Georgio Armani.    

When football players take the field, they dress to avoid injury by wearing helmets, shoulder pads, and back braces.  When soldiers hit the field, they dress to avoid injury by wearing helmets, Kevlar vests, durable boots and clothing that covers their extremities.  When the CDC hits ground zero of an infection, they dress to avoid injury and contamination by wearing body suits and masks to protect them from infected materials and accidental contamination.  When you hit the ground running from zombies, the same principle applies to you- you need to be wearing something that helps you avoid injury and infection.  You will be driving souped up vehicles covered in armor plating with guns mounted on top so why wouldn’t your apparel mirror that aesthetic?  Let’s look to your new fashion icons for some ideas. 

First of all, you are going to be doing lots of walking and running and mucking about in nasty areas so you need to have proper footwear.  The Army has a bit of experience in this area and I will admit a fondness for wearing combat boots.  When winter rolls around and there is snow on the ground, that’s what I wear.  The ones I have are from more than 20 years ago and they are the basic black ones so I can only imagine what the newer jungle boots are like.  I figure they are really comfortable and water resistant and made of materials that are resistant to bites from zombies crawling on the ground.  After all, they are called combat boots.  Where are you going to find a more appropriate name for a piece of appeal to wear for the zombie apocalypse? 

Now my fondness for the boots doesn’t carry over to the Army’s socks.  My memories of them are of ill-fitting, itchy things that didn’t wick moisture very well.  I’m going to go with regular hiking socks of the type found in REI or Bass Outdoor shops.  I’ve got a couple pairs that have lasted me ten years and feel awesome on my feet.  Why mess with perfection?  As for pants, the idea of cargo shorts is half-right.  You want durable pants with lots of pockets for carrying things like ammunition, food, medicine, more ammunition, keys for the Humvee and for even more ammunition, but they need to be full-length pants.  Cover the legs so zombies don’t think they are looking at an appetizer- human “chicken wings”.  I’m partial to Army B.D.U. pants because they’ve held up pretty well for me and again, with a name like Battle Dress Uniform, you know what they are intended for.  Maybe you are a Levi’s guy or gal.  That’s fine- they are pretty rugged too although you won’t have as many pockets for ammunition (and I’m not giving you any of mine.)  Don’t stop there though.  Reinforce the pants.  Add some knee pads and shin guards- on both sides of the shins- and see if you can protect the thighs somehow. 

As for shirts, pick something long-sleeved that’s made of comfortable, durable materials.  I’m not making any recommendations here which might surprise you.  The reason I’m not is because the shirt doesn’t really matter.  You will be wearing a Kevlar vest over top of it and that is what will provide you the necessary protection.  If it can stop bullets and knives, it should certainly stop zombie bites.  It’s good enough for SWAT, the Army, mercenaries and bomb squads so that makes it good enough for me.  Maybe you think that a heavy bulletproof vest isn’t worth the effort and that it will slow you down too much.  All I have in response that that sentiment is “It’s been nice knowing you.  See you on the other side.” 

Besides, you don’t have to wear it 24/7.  If you have properly followed the “Fortify” and “Organize” steps, you don’t have to stay in battle mode all the time.  You can take things off while sleeping or showering or relaxing.  Now I would still keep everything nearby for quick access and I would still always carry a weapon with me, but I wouldn’t sleep in Kevlar or go to the bathroom in it.  After a while though, you will probably build up some vest stamina and it will be no big deal wearing it for extended periods of time.  Oh, and a word of advice about the vest.  Don’t take it off after you’ve survived being shot or just escaped a pack of zombies.  There are always more zombies and more bullets out there.  I keep waiting to see a cop movie where the hero dramatically removes his vest after surviving an attack and he gets shot again a few minutes later.  As for a utility belt, I’ve found them to be a little cumbersome.  It’s hard to run with them and it is uncomfortable crawling around on the ground with an ammo clip or shovel digging into my kidney.  I’d rather go with a backpack or lots of pockets on my pants and shirt.  Or maybe a bandolier because they look so cool.  Now don’t forget to add some elbow pads and arm guards too.  Some simple plastic things would work to provide protection when crawling under cars or through fields in order to avoid groups of stationery zombies.

Now for the final piece of clothing- head protection.  Nothing sucks more than someone crunching on your skull, trying to get at your grey matter.  Really, nothing does.  Being struck by lightning?  Not all that bad- it happens very quickly and then you are either dead or have an amazing story.  Freezing to death?  That’s just going to sleep and not waking up and everyone loves sleeping.  Being attacked by a gang in prison?  At least you can fight back.  Falling from a tall building?  That’s not too bad except for the end part and you might not even feel your femur driving into your chest before your brain gets squished.  Well, that’s kind of gross and painful sounding.  Being buried alive in a casket?  Okay, this one actually freaks me out.  You can’t fight against anything.  At least with someone trying to eat your brain, you can try to fend them off but being immobilized underground until you run out of oxygen?  Shudder!!! 

Geesh, I’m uncovering new fears.  That’s not supposed to happen.  This post is supposed to be a cathartic exercise.  Where was I?  Oh yeah- head protection. Skull crunching.  So, this is an area where you have several options.  Since zombies don’t know how to shoot guns, you don’t necessarily need a Kevlar or bulletproof helmet.  You just need something strong enough to resist bites and scrapping nails and sudden impacts against a wall or on the ground.  You can go with a baseball batting helmet, an Army infantry helmet, a hockey mask, or anything else that strikes your fancy.  I would recommend something that allows lots of peripheral vision but also protects you from blood spew or regurgitated ooze.  I’d probably go with a SWAT style helmet- it protects your head on all sides but the clear shield in front allows you see all around you while still keeping out potentially infected blood spatter. 

My only remaining concern is the neck.  None of the equipment I’ve mentioned so far protects the neck.  In medieval times, knights wore suits of armor that had pieces of metal projecting up from around the neck area so that an opponent couldn’t accidentally sever their head when a sword blow to the shoulders glanced off their armor. I don’t think the SWAT helmets extend all the way down to the neck (and since the movie “S.W.A.T.” sucks, I don’t want to rewatch it just to verify that.)  Wearing a turtleneck isn’t that viable either.  It is better than bare skin but it probably won’t stop someone trying to bite your neck.  Plus you’ll get really warm really quickly, especially since zombie incidents only seem to take place in urban or arid areas.  They never take place in wintery conditions (with the sole exceptions of “Dead Snow”) where a turtleneck would be advisable as well as stylish.  So I’m open to suggestions in this area.  Does anyone have a good idea for guarding your neck?  If so, please let me know.  Hopefully I will be able to blow away every dangerous thing from long distance and not have to worry about risking my neck but still I’d like to be properly suited up if the situation arises.        

10)  Secrets- What does this one mean?  I can’t tell you- it’s a secret.  If I told you… it might kill me.  Telling you every one of my secrets for surviving the zomb-pocalypse means that you would have an equal chance of staying alive and some fluke accident might sway things in your favor instead of mine.  Thus, I’ll keep some survival tips for myself.  I won’t discuss military tactics or mention that it might be a good idea to find a big boat to hide away on since zombies don’t seem to be able to swim, just walk on the bottom beneath the water (like in Land Of The Dead and Shock Waves).  There are a few more thoughts I will share with you though.

I’m not going to ask you to leave me behind if I have trouble keeping up.  I’m not going to volunteer to stay behind and explode a grenade in the midst of a pack of zombies descending on me so you can make your escape.  I will not go back for someone who is bitten or likely to be dead.  That has never turned out well (until Resident Evil: After Life pulled off a major twist ending.)  I will not shoot myself in the head if I’ve been infected by a zombie bite.  You will have to hold me down and try to take me out because I will go down hard.  This whole thing has been about survival so why would I voluntarily let anyone kill me?  If I wanted to go out as a “suicide by zombie”, I would have done so at the start of it all, before everyone I loved got eaten.  If you’ve ever seen the ending of the movie The Mist, you know that you should never give up, that giving in to despair can result in awfully cruel irony.  Stay strong.  Always.

So that is my plan for staying alive when the zombie apocalypse hits.  You might be scoffing and thinking this strategic exercise is a waste of time.  Okay, maybe the zombie plague will never happen and I won’t have to worry about flesh eaters roaming the landscape.  What if I had talked about hurricanes instead of zombies?  All of my ideas also work when you are in the midst of storm winds and flooding.  You still should have stockpiled supplies, fortified your house from the wind, figured out your exits if the house gets damaged, decided on a game plan before the emergency (Leave town or hunker down?) and once it is over and the power is out and the rivers are flooding (Wait for help or head to rescue stations?).  Weapons are still a good idea and so is dressing appropriately.  Imagine how awesome it would feel if you had a pair of waders sitting around the house in that situation?

About the only thing that doesn’t apply is stripping although that would keep you occupied while you wait for a rescue team to arrive.  Heck, last week my area was hit by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake AND a Category 2 hurricane.  I’m still at risk for a nuclear attack on Washington DC, from melting ice caps, from massive snowfalls or flooding riverbanks.  Violent gangs roam certain parts of town.  I might be targeted by a crazy stalker (A male one, I mean.  I’d welcome a female stalker since I like semi-crazy chicks.)  Anything can happen.  You have to think of all possible scenarios in life and find the right strategy for each of them.  Doing this ahead of time will save you from overlooking something important.  The worst case scenario is that you’ve wasted some time planning for something that never happens.  Peace of mind is worth that wasted time.  It can even act as impromptu therapy. 

Flipping through channels right now, I came across an Australian horror movie called Triangle and heard a character say “Apparently, bad dreams can cure you of real life stress.  And so can champagne.” I doubt things will turn out well for this character but the idea is reasonable.  During this whole month while I’ve been tinkering with my thoughts about zombies, you would think I’d dream about them more frequently since the topic is on my mind.  That hasn’t been the case.  I’ve dreamt about poker and work and old friends and all sorts of things but not zombies.  Maybe that will change tonight or tomorrow but so far discussing my fears has seemed to make them dissipate.  Connecting my real life stressors to their dream manifestations allows me to recognize what is bothering me and resolve it in my dreams.  Coming up with a plan of action for an unlikely scenarios makes me feel like I have some control over my life.  Take a minute to Google “surviving a zombie apocalypse” and seeing how many hits you get.  Other people understand this urge too.  When you think about it, that’s what zombie movies are all about- metaphors for people’s fear of war, indiscriminate consumerism, aging, violence, declining civility, repressed anger and anything else you can think of. 

Getting rid of fear is a good thing and doing it by smashing and shooting things feels even better.  Why do you think videogames are so popular, particularly the combat and zombie ones?  After all, Resident Evil started out as a videogame.  Then it spawned four movies, with another on the way, and people reacted to the terrifying visualization of their fears being overcome by a kick-ass babe, one with guns, a plan, organizational skills and a knack for finding exits just in time.  Her wardrobe choices left something to be desired at first (a red dress and combat boots?  Really?), but otherwise she embodies my rules.  The zombie movies brought some of my fears to the surface and confronting them in my dreams helped me get recognize them and try to address them.  Now I just have to deal with the real world.  And math.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bad Beat Stories

Getting a bad beat in Texas Hold’em poker is not a pleasant experience. The sensation is exactly like the phrase implies, except that the beating isn’t physical, since this is a card game. That doesn’t make it any easier to take though- it still feels like a punch in the gut. A bad beat happens when you have the winning hand almost all the way to the end, with “almost” being the operative word. This calamity can happen at any time, which is scary enough, but somehow it seems to be most common once you have pushed all your chips into the pot and have no chance of backing out even though you can see the disaster about to hit you. At first you feel good because once you go all-in and reveal your cards, which handily beat the other person’s cards, you figure you are in good shape. Then as the rest of the cards are dealt out, you start to get excited about winning and the adrenalin surges through you. You are already counting those chips and figuring out your next move in the next hand. Then that card shows up. One of only two or three cards in a deck of 52 that can hurt you. Badly. When that card hits the table and you realize what it means, all that adrenalin just stops flowing, like a speeding car suddenly putting on the brakes. You are thrown forward, psychologically, and a brick wall is looming in front of you but you are powerless to prevent the impact. You can’t take your bet back, you can’t cover your head and hide, you can’t click your heels three times and say “There’s no place like fold.” Nope. You hit that metaphoric wall hard. The crash is only mental but your shortness of breath and shaking limbs makes it seem like it happened for real. And that’s the easy part to get over.

After you get a bad beat, doubt and self-recrimination crop up and start tearing chunks from your psyche. You question how you played, the technique you favor and what you could have done differently. If you can’t shake it quickly and chalk it up to coincidence, you might go on tilt and start playing wildly, which just compounds the problem. This is just like the fear and skittishness you experience after getting a physical beating. If you are mentally tough, you can generally take the blow and move on, muttering to yourself that is just the way it goes sometimes, that “That’s poker.” Hopefully you have enough chips to keep playing and you will be more cautious next time. Or at least you will promise yourself not to get caught in that same situation again. It didn’t feel good to lose like that but sometimes you just get unlucky. At least it is over and things can’t be any worse, right? True, unless you happened to have suffered the defeat at the hands of a bad player.

As much as a bad beat hurts, it’s even worse when you suffer a bad beat at the hands of a bad player. Many times, they don’t even realize that a bad beat just occurred. They just think they won a nice pot. They are oblivious to the fact that they should not have won that hand. They definitely don’t know that they are a bad player. Mostly likely they will turn to their friend to celebrate the success and the friend congratulates them on winning. That’s because the friend is just as clueless as the bad player, which is why he will compliment them on how well they are doing. You are forced to sit there and stew over bad luck and admonish them in your head. Or you can do it out loud, if you are a really poor sport, or you have poor impulse control, or it happened to be a monumentally bad beat. I’ve done all of those and nothing helps. You don’t feel any better by pointing out someone shouldn’t have won. They might retort, “But who’s stacking the chips, though?” They might sit there silently while you chastise them and then you feel like a dick, like smacking a clueless puppy for chewing on your shoe. It doesn’t change anything. You still lost.

Even though you try to get past it, the knife goes a bit deeper when it’s a bad beat by a bad player. You start questioning the same things that you question when beat by a normal player but then you are forced to go deeper, because against a bad player you can’t convince yourself that you were outplayed. You start to wonder about other things, like luck and fate and justice in the universe. You start to notice how often the bad players get that exact card that they need to beat you, despite the fact that the percentages are massively in your favor. You doubt your own skills and feel that maybe it is all luck and you are on the wrong end of the luck scale. Your burst of doubt becomes a full-fledged identity crisis. Why are you not blessed with good luck when this idiot across from you has luck dripping from his fingertips? Yes, they might be a good person but that doesn’t make you feel any better. If you can be bad at something and still succeed, what does that say about the people who apply themselves and try to do well? Where is the fairness in that? What is the point of anything if it is all about luck, coincidence or whatever you want to call it? Why can’t I be the lucky one for once? Why doesn’t skill and practice and focus trump blind luck and obliviousness to the odds?

As you have probably guessed, I was put on this train of thought by a bad beat at the hands of a bad player. The most ironic thing about it was the fact that about 15 minutes before it happened, I was discussing the very topic of luck with another player. We were lamenting our lack of luck. He was bemoaning how he is always drawn out on by other people and it rarely works the other way, in his favor. He said he only gets luck, sucks out, on the other person about one in ten times. Then he commented on me and said, “You have only slightly better luck than me.” I agreed since when I’m behind in a hand, I only get lucky about once every seven or eight times. That might also be an “optimistic” estimation by me.

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I got pocket kings so I raised it to 1200 chips, six times the blinds. Most people I play against these days know my style so they know this raise means I have a good hand and they either fold or decide that they want to take the chance to crack my hand. Bad players though don’t take a raise as a hint that they should fold their hands. They simply think it means they hand to pay more to play a hand they should have thrown away even without a raise in front of them. They think they are supposed to play every hand until they win the tournament. Or they run out of chips. It always seems to surprise them when this happens- “I can’t play anymore? Just because my chips are gone? Can you give me some more chips?”

So the flop in this hand was 8, 4, 3 rainbow, a very safe flop for me considering that I always expect to see an ace on the flop when I get pocket kings. So I put another big bet out there- 1600 chips. She, the bad player, called and the next card was also harmless so I throw in the rest of my chips- 2500. She calls that as well and I get ecstatic because I figure I have just doubled up. I turn over my kings and she shows her 7-8. Yes, she played a 7 and an 8, unsuited to boot, before the flop for a big raise and continued to call me even though she had nothing more than a pair of 8s. A pair of eights with a crappy kicker. It probably never occurred to her that someone might have a bigger pair than what was showing on the board. She was just looking at her top pair and thought she would be the winner.

It will feel really good to take away this donkey’s chips. She only has five outs on the river- a 10% chance of winning. Then of course, the bottom drops out of my euphoria. The final river card is a 7 and she makes two pair, which beats me. She emphasizes this by saying “I have two pair.” If she had said “Wow, I got lucky” I would felt a bit better about it. Even something as simple as “Too bad” or “That’s poker.” No, what she did was state the obvious statistical fluke that we all observed in dumbfounded amazement and then she turned to her friend and said “I won!” To which her friend responded “Yeah, you are doing well.” Neither of them seemed to recognize her luck at the low probability of her winning. What else could I have done? She shouldn’t have played those cards in the first place so what’s to say she wouldn’t have called me if I went all-in pre-flop and then still beat me? How could she have gotten one of only five cards that could have helped her while any of the other 52 cards would have made me the winner? I watched her next hand where she raised to 1500 before the flop. She won the hand, with an 8-4. I couldn’t watch anymore after that. I paid for my food and left.

Being gone from the premises didn’t make me stop thinking about what happened though. I kept going over it in my head, trying to figure out what I could have done differently and it all came back to the question of luck. Percentage wise, I should have won but I didn’t. Why not? I know I did poorly in math at school but I did absorb enough to know that when I have the higher percent chance of winning, I should win more often than the other person. It doesn’t happen that way though. If I haven’t locked up the hand on the flop I don’t seem to win. If the turn improves my hand, it seems to improve my opponents’ hands even more. My set of queens will give someone else a straight draw. My two pair gives someone else a flush draw and once someone has a draw against me, they never seem to back away. It really gets to me, like they are deliberately trying to crush me in particular.

My anguish can reach Shakespearean levels. I mean that literally too, in that I tend to think of the first part of Shakespeare’s 24th sonnet:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

I always wonder why other people are better off than me. Is it through my own doing that I’m failing or are they just luckier than me, better than me? What will it take for me to succeed? Do I even have a chance or should I just give up now? Much as I hate to lose money playing poker, I feel worse about the battering my psyche takes. At some point I start thinking it is me. I’m hapless, hopeless and unworthy. In the second half of the sonnet, the narrator finds his redemption:

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

That doesn’t help me though. I have nothing to redeem me, nothing to bring me back from despair. I‘m still left to wonder why that guy gets to have it all and I have nothing. Why does he get to have more hair and better luck? Why is his job cooler and better paying? Why does he have a hot girlfriend and I have television?

Worst of all, the lucky bastards don’t learn anything from their improbable success either. The following week, I again had pocket kings and again made a big raise before the flop. The same lady called me! She called my big bet after the flop too and then my smaller bet on the turn. I made it a smaller bet on the turn on purpose because the third card for a flush was out there. I wanted to control the action by determining the bet size and luckily she didn’t think to re-raise me. Of course she called my even smaller bet on the final card because she had already made her flush, which I saw when she turned over her seven and ten of clubs. Yes, again she beat my kings with a hand she shouldn’t have even been playing. So the lesson being reinforced to her is not “Wow, you got lucky. You should be more careful next time.” Instead, it is “Keep calling with a bad hand. It’s going to turn into a winner.”

Ironically, this lesson was cemented an hour later when the last two players remaining were her and I. Things went back and forth until finally I had worn her down to the point that she didn’t want to play any more. When I went all in with my ace-ten, she called me with her ten-two. In poker, my hand is considered to dominate hers. Not just beats hers but dominates it. So naturally I’m expecting to see a deuce pop out on the table. Believe it or not though, she did not get a two and win the tournament. Nope, not even close. Instead, she got the even more unlikely flush and I was done. That’s why you see poker players leave the room apparently talking to themselves. They aren’t crazy, they are just asking fate when it will be their turn. When will fortune cast its’ eye on them? There is no answer of course. Just a rueful shrug from the other players in the know, as they say “That’s poker.” If the loser is a jerk and it was a really big pot, they’ll say “Fuck you!” and stomp off though. They haven’t yet learned that saying “That’s poker” is the polite way to say “Fuck you, you fucking lucky donkey! I hate you, I hate this fucking game. I’m never playing again.” Both phrases mean the same thing. It’s just a matter of using the more polite words instead. Your tone of voice gets the point across anyway.

Normally I would end this post right now, because what else can you say after “That’s poker.”? It is what it is- you can’t undo things. Unless it is a cash game, then you can re-buy and hope you aren’t snakebit that night and throwing away even more money. Poker players don’t stop when they ought to though. They’ve seen luck change. They’ve had their fifth buy-in bring them back to life and recoup everything they lost previously. Last week, someone I play with bought in for $200, for the fifth time. They turned that into $1200 by the end of the night, giving them a winning night. They had to survive several bad beats to get there though and it was not pretty to watch them claw their way back. They were talking to themselves a whole lot that night.

Another reason I’m not ending this post now? Because the only thing poker players enjoy as much as winning is telling stories and the only kind of stories that seem to get told are “bad beat” stories. No one tells plain stories like, “I was last to act so I raised the pot three times the blind and everyone folded and I scooped the chips.” No, that is never a story you will hear, not unless it is a preamble to the real story. Even if you tell one about pulling off a great big win instead of a horrendous loss, it probably means you still end up giving someone else a bad beat and now that opponent will be sharing his tale of woe. All poker stories have this trait in common. So here are a couple of my favorite bad beat stories.

That same night that the guy I discussed earlier came back from $1100 down, I played in the bi-weekly tournament prior to the ensuing cash game and I had one of the worst bad beats I've ever experienced. Here’s how it went down. I managed to hang on until the final table and had a modest amount of chips. I was not quite the short stack at the table but I didn’t have enough to scare off the really big stacks if they had a good hand and certainly not enough to risk an inopportune bluff at a pot. There were five players in the hand and I’m the big blind with a 9-10 off-suit so I’m inclined to check when it gets back to me. Especially since Tyrone is the dealer and says “Please don’t raise it on me, Rich. No, you won’t. I call.” The flop comes 8-J-Q, rainbow suit. In other words, I have the absolute nuts, the best possible hand so I lead out with a bet of 600 chips which is just one times the blind. I’m trying to juice up the pot since I’ve got a monster hand.

Everyone folds around to Tyrone who pushes the raise to 3500. Since I have the nuts, I have no problem going all-in for another 4300. Tyrone talks through his actions, trying to figure out what to do. He says, “I think you have two pair already. I have top pair though. I think I should call.” Two of the other people who folded to my over-the-top all-in said “You’ve got a straight already,” when they were folding. Well, at least Ivan and Brandon could read me right. Tyrone couldn’t. In fact, he couldn’t even make the right call- he put me on two pair to his one pair and still decided to call my all-in. He flipped over J-7 and sees that he is crushed. I mentally counted my chips to see what kind of shape I’ll be in after this hand is over. Then the turn card comes and it is another jack, giving him trip-jacks and the river is a seven which gives him a full house and puts me out of the tournament in ninth place. He put me on a hand that already had him crushed and he still called me? It was a horrible read and a horrible call on his part. The odds of him going runner-runner to win were miniscule and he still pulled it out. Unfortunately, that is vintage Tyrone- he makes calls he knows are stupid and somehow gets lucky. That happens to me so rarely I don’t even factor it into my game plan.

I was still on tilt from busting in the tournament that during the first part of the ensuing cash game I made a couple huge mistakes. I played a bit loose and called with a K5 of hearts because I figured I might get a flush and pull a Tyrone but when the flush hit on the river, I checked because I was still distracted and didn’t realize it even though a flush draw was my reason for playing a weak king. A few hands later I had pocket queens and was so concerned about protecting them that I made a big raise when I hit a third queen on the turn. I got a call from a really loose player so now I was worried and then when a possible flush card hit and he bet big, I flashed back to my recent bad beat and just called. Once I flipped over my cards, everyone said “Richard has a full house.” Crap! That river card paired the board so I had a full-house (the 2nd nuts in fact) against a loose aggressive player. I could have gotten a lot of chips from him if I had come over the top but I didn’t see my hand properly. See what a bad beat can lead to? Not only do you lose the hand you played but the loss ripples down the line and affects what you do in subsequent hands and games. I think I ended the night on the positive side of the balance sheet, at least for the cash game, but mentally I was still reeling. It kick-started a losing streak that I’m still riding out. I’m starting to assume people will suck out on me and I tend to fold decent hands to a big bet even though they might have been the winner. I’m waiting for the nuts.

It sometimes works out the other way though. A couple years ago when I first started playing at that same home game, I had pocket kings and flopped K-10-10 so I slow-played the heck out of that flop and got a lot of chips in the pot by the time the river hit. Of course, the only player left in the hand flipped over pocket tens so his flopped quads beat my flopped full-house and I was out of the tournament. Later on while playing cash, he got a full-house and pushed all-in but that time, I had quad tens. Sweet turnabout! The very first time I recall getting lucky in a hand was back during the free poker days at Neighbor’s Bar. I had pocket queens and called an all-in when the flop was all under cards. Turns out my opponent had pocket eights and flopped a set. I was getting ready to go when I hit a queen and doubled up. I actually apologized to him for sucking out because I know how I felt when it happened to me. That’s when I first consciously realized that “Hey, this luck crap can go both ways. I’m not the one who always loses. I can suck out too!” I still feel slightly guilty when it happens but I make myself ignore that feeling because no one else feels any remorse when they take my chips away from me. Not the slightest bit of it. Heck, sometimes they laugh after a “donk-out.”

In fact, this week I did it a couple times to win a free poker tournament (although I didn’t laugh afterwards. I was polite and simply admitted my luck.) I called a small pre-flop raise with an A-7 of spades and hit the top pair on the flop so I raised three times the blind. The original raiser pushed all in for all my remaining stack. Another player called so I decided to be reckless and call all-in since I had already bet half my stack on the flop, it was a big pot now and I had the top pair and an ace. The raiser flipped over a pair of tens- an over pair to the board- and the other caller flipped over pocket aces. Ouch. I got trapped but good. I had figured the raiser for big over cards, not a pair or set. The other caller I had disregarded since he flat-called. In fact, if he had come over the top of the raiser, I probably would have folded since I’d have figured I was beat by one of them. Instead I have the worst hand of the three and most of my outs were gone. The turn was a spade and so was the river so I ended up with the nut flush on a hand I was almost certain to lose. That got me back on track because I hadn’t played, much less won, many hands that evening up until then.

Later that session, I called a minimum raise to my big blind, which explains why I played a J2 of diamonds, and flopped a flush. I checked and let the raiser bet all the way through until then river when I led out big and they folded. That wasn’t really a bad beat though. The raise wasn’t big enough and the flush was obvious so anyone betting knew what they might be trying to dodge. That was just a simple loss which is nothing like a bad beat. One bruises your pride while the other demolishes your psyche. When it got to heads up, I got lucky a third time and delivered a second bad beat. I had an A-8 and the big blind said “I have to go all-in with this.” I had been playing fairly tight to no avail so I called her bet at which point she turned over A9. Ouch. That would be enough to take me out.

Unless…. I got lucky on the flop and hit my eight and doubled up to become chip leader, like I did. From there I whittled her down until I won. (On the final flop, she pushed with a 7-4 straight draw and I called with a K-2 of hearts four-to-the-flush draw and hit the flush though I’d have won with king high.) The $20 was mine but the mental victory was a more important prize. Every time I think I’m a terrible player, or at least an unlucky player, something nice like that happens to encourage me. Maybe I am crappy but I can get lucky sometimes too. Or maybe I am good after all and it is just bad luck that takes me out. More bad luck than the average bear, to be sure, but I can live with being good but unlucky. Or even bad but occasionally lucky. I just don’t want to be bad and unlucky. If that’s the case, then I definitely want to be oblivious to it so don’t tell me if this happens to be the case.

Here are two more of my favorite bad beat stories. In the first one, it is at Pepi’s for a free poker game. In this one hand, it’s just me- the small blind- against the big blind. We both call/check and the flop comes out with three hearts, 3-4-5. I know I have a Q2 of hearts and flopped a flush so I check. The big blind is about to check too when he realizes he might have something worthwhile and peeks at his cards again. After consulting them, he bets, I raise him, he goes all in and I call immediately. He has a 10-7 of hearts, so his flush is dominated by mine. The turn is a black card and I’m already sorting out the chips when another heart hits- the six of hearts. Amazing! I have a straight flush… which loses to his higher straight flush. I had him crushed the entire way and he hits a one-outer to beat me. One out. I can’t even win with a straight flush. I flopped the best flush, got all the money in the pot, rivered a straight flush and I still lost. That one definitely got me muttering to myself.

The second story doesn’t involve me but it’s a story that still gets told around the poker table. Wesley and “Action Dan” were in a hand together and it became heads up when everyone else folded to Dan’s big bet. Dan didn’t see that Wesley still had cards, assumed the pot was his and he showed his pocket kings. Wesley said “Don’t show me your cards. I haven’t folded yet,” so Dan apologized and said that he was still welcome to call his bet, although it was enough to put Wes all-in. Wesley looks at his cards again and takes a minute or two to think. Finally he says “I call,” and flips over a 2-3 off-suit. Dan just stares at him and then says, “Why would you call? I showed you kings,” and Wesley says, “I didn’t believe you.” Um, Dan held them up. We all saw them. Did Wesley not notice a pair of kings staring him in the face? Well, it will be over with in a minute. The dealer puts out the flop. It’s A-4-5 so the hand is over, but not the way anyone expected. Wesley flopped a straight and ended all the conversation. We just sat there staring in disbelief. That was a bad beat for the ages. A player sees kings, has crappy, unsuited small cards and still calls. It’s not even like he was playing the odds because the pot was so big. A year later, we still aren’t sure why he called. Did he really not see the kings? Did he just think “WTF”? Did he have a gut instinct? Is he an idiot? We’ll never know.

One more story and I’ll finish this post. Because every bad beat story gives someone else a great suck-out story, I’ll let you guess whether I was the winner or the loser in this last scenario. Justin is a pretty good player but he is also aggressive and occasionally gets reckless when he has been drinking too much. The real problem though is that he is aware of this and plays it to his advantage when he has a monster hand and tries to get people to call him. And also when he runs a monster bluff and doesn’t want people to call him. You pay him off on his monster hands with monster pots because you’ve seen him make massive bluffs to scoop a big pot. At any given moment, you aren’t sure whether he is bluffing or if he has a great hand. So when Justin raised, I wasn’t sure what to do with my small blind. I had a 3-5 of spades. Not a very powerful hand but with the right flop, it could be a money maker.

I made a “what the hell” call and two other players were in the pot too. The flop was 2s-4s-6d. I flopped a straight and had a flush draw too! Not a bad flop. When Justin made it $30, I had to call. I had the nuts right now. I didn’t check-raise because I didn’t want to reveal the strength of my hand especially since the other two players dropped out and it was just Justin and I. So am I going to be the winner in this scenario? Right now I would think so but of course the river was a queen of spades. Crap. Yes, I had a flush but it was a five high flush. I preferred it previously when I had the absolute nuts with my straight. Justin bet $20 and I wasn’t sure what to do. Did he have a flush too? He will often bet into a flush draw, especially if it is the nut flush draw, so the bet on the flop would make perfect sense as would the follow-up bet when he hit the flush. If this is the case right now, I’m in big trouble. If it is a bluff or a draw, I’m still good but if he hits his draw or he has a made hand, I’m throwing away a bunch of money. What would you do in this situation?

I called, reluctantly. I would have preferred it if we both checked because what if the river is….another spade. It is, just like I feared. My baby flush won’t hold up against another spade. Except that this one is the six of spades. That means I have a straight flush! Unlike the last time at Pepi’s, I have the nut straight flush. I can’t be beat! So there is one answer- I won the pot. Now there are two more questions- did I suck-out and how can I possibly get Justin to pay me off? If he was bluffing, he can’t call with flush out there. If he has a queen, he still wouldn’t call a big bet. I’m not going to get any more money out of this, am I? I decide to go with an option that sometimes works for me- make it look like I’m bluffing. People know I will make a value bet on the river when I want to get paid but they rarely see me bluff on the river. If I look like I’m trying to steal this $100 pot, maybe I’ll get a call. Since no point did I raise, a bet now will look like a steal because all I did was call someone else’s bet all the way through.

I lead out with a $30 bet, pretty small considering the pot so it seems more like a bluff than a value bet, especially since I’m first to act. Justin comes over the top and makes it $90. He raised me! That’s awesome. Wait, what does he have? Can he beat me? Did I get sucked-out on? Hold it- I have a straight flush. I have THE nut flush. I can’t lose. What was concerned about? And what could Justin possibly have? Maybe I can use this initial hesitation to my advantage. I put on my “Damn it, you bastard, you got lucky on me!” face and look at my cards again. Then I go all in for about $125 total. Justin calls immediately and says “I have a full-house,” and shows a 6-4 in his hand. Ah! He wanted me to have a flush! I say “I have a straight flush.” Justin just looks at me, at my cards, at the board, at my cards again. Then he says “That really sucks. I didn’t even consider that hand. Damn it,” before getting up to go outside for a smoke. I had a big smile on my face when I scooped up the chips.

I rarely scoop big pots against Justin. He either wins them with a lucky hit or he folds to my aggression because he knows he is beat. This was a perfect storm of a hand though. He got fancy pre-flop and raised with a 6-4, and I was stupid and called a raise with a 3-5, totally out of my usual range. Justin would never consider me to be playing it so when the possible straight came on the flop, he would not expect me to have it. He might have thought I had an ace for a straight draw but not a 3-5 so he felt good with his two pair of sixes and fours. When the flush card hit, he got worried and bet conservatively, for him, but the river six gave him a full house so he felt a lot better. He put me on something like an ace high flush and felt good about pushing me all-in. I was happy to call.

I was ahead the whole way, even though I didn’t realize it so I still felt like I got lucky. Justin thought he was ahead the whole time even though he wasn’t so he felt like he got a bad beat. Neither situation was quite true but poker is about feelings as much as it is about facts. You can know, for a fact, that you have a 90-95% chance of winning but I’ve learned to stop stacking the chips in the pot or even mentally counting them until I know, for certain, that I have won. Every time I ignore that rule, I seem to lose. Kenny Rogers had it right- “There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealings done.” That’s why bad beats hurt so much- they defy the odds and cast doubt on your whole mental perspective. It’s not really about the money or the game- it’s about how bad beats make mathematical likelihoods moot so your brain freaks out. If math is wrong, what else is wrong? If assholes get lucky and win with small probabilities, what does that say about karma?

If I can’t count on karma, or statistics, what else is left? The kindness of strangers? Yeah, right. Have you watched the news lately? Everyone is out for themselves. My only weapons are knowledge, skill and luck. If those desert me, I’m toast. If I’m a poker loser, am I also a life loser? How far do the reverberations go? It feels like a scene from “The Matrix”. Maybe I should have taken the red pill. I hate poker. If you’ll excuse me though, I have another game to get to soon. Surely things will work out my way this time because I’ve learned so much lately. Please? Let’s get the cards dealt and see how things go. Anything can happen. That’s why it’s poker. That’s why I love it.