What Not To Wear

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007, 1:23 pm

I realized the other day that I haven’t been writing that much about poker on these pages. That’s in large part because most of my poker writing goes on the UB blog, but I figured I’d post what I wrote today here as well as it was a piece in the Post-Gazette that inspired it. Nothing too heavy or technical, just a little light nonsense:


When I first started following poker one thing that struck me was how the players dressed. I watched the first season of the World Poker Tour and was somewhat appalled to see players like David “DevilFish” Ulliott wearing a suit at a final table. Oh, I’m not criticizing DevilFish’s ensemble–he was immaculately turned out. Nor am I saying that it’s inapproprate to dress up in a casino–if I had my way no one would be allowed to wear T-shirts, fanny packs or flip-flops inside the Las Vegas city limits. Hey, when I go to Vegas I’m living out a Sinatra-esque fantasy in my head. It rather spoils the moment to see some touristy couple waddle past wearing matching “Virginia Is For Lovers” sweatshirts. C’mon, there’s a whole industry built around fashion, don’t do all your shopping in airports.

Anyway, what bothered me about poker players wearing suits (or hooded sweatshirts, or leather jackets) was that I imagined they had to be ROASTING. At the time I’d never played poker in a casino, and to see these players wearing a buttoned-up shirt and a tie and a coat and slacks and dress shoes…I pictured these players pouring sweat, the perspiration beading on their foreheads and running in rivulets until their socks became soaking wet.

Yes, I have issues, but this particular one was solved when I covered this year’s World Series of Poker. And learned that the only difference between a meat locker and a poker room is that the doors on a meat locker as usually made of metal. The WSOP was held in the middle of the Nevadan summer, temps well over 100 degrees, and I worked in jeans and long-sleeve shirts and nearly every day I drank two cups of coffee just trying to stay warm. There were days when the temperature inside the Amazon Room had to be below 55 degrees. It got especially bad late at night, when there were just a few players fighting to make a final table, and without all that body heat to stabilize things the temperature plummeted as if after a Saharan sunset. One guy I worked with bought hooded sweatshirts on three separate occasions because he just couldn’t bear the cold. I did the same on the night Jerry Yang won the World Championship, as I sat there in a Polo short and shorts wondering if my chattering teeth were getting picked up by ESPN’s microphones. I finally succombed and bought a 2007 WSOP sweatshirt. Forty percent off, so I got a good deal.

The cold made me rethink my previous prejudice. When Phil Hellmuth arrived to play in the Main Event wearing an all-leather racing suit, instead of worrying about him quickly dying of exposure out in the Vegas sun all I could think was that he must be nice and toasty. Maybe that’s gonna be the next big thing in poker fashion, custom-made leather outfits. Or, maybe, not.

So I learned that if you’re going to play poker (or cover it) for long stretches of time, you’ll want to bring along something warm. And as Harrah’s has stated that they won’t be using the Poker Pavilion tent this year (where temperatures routinely soared into the nineties…or worse) there’s no need to bring along a Speedo and a terrycloth robe. Still, once you get temperature-control out of the way, how should you dress? This is a question I ponder to this day. Last year I toyed with the idea of playing in a WSOP event, and this year I almost certainly will. This might be my one and only chance of ever getting on TV–what should I WEAR? My sleek, black Calvin Klein evening shirt with the silver cufflinks? Something baby blue, to bring out my eyes? Or should I fly the colors and come to the table in my UltimateBet hockey jersey?

What got me thinking about this subject six months before the World Series was an article that appeared Monday in my hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Headlined “How Poker Players Dress Can Give Away Clues”, the reporter (Cristina Rouvalis) lists different wardrobe choices players often make and how this might give you insight into how they play. Rouvalis got this info from Judi James, a Britsh author who wrote a book this year called Poker Face, How To Win At The Table and On-Line Using Body Language. Now, I have a few quibbles right off the bat. First of all, I don’t know how body language can help your online play (unless you’re heads up against a neighbor and have a telescope trained on his window). And the Amazon desciption of Ms. James’ book says that this is “(t)he first guide to using the psychology of body language in order to win at Poker”, when of course Mike Caro and Joe Navarro and many others have written books about body language and physical tells.

But let’s get back to the article, which lists different ways poker players often garb themselves and what that might tell us. There are the power dressers, who wear “designer clothes, status-symbol watches and sharp suits”. Ms. James says that you should expect “industrial-strength bluffs” from the highly-competitive people who dress this way. While I kind of agree that someone who wears Armani and Rolex to a poker table is probably some manner of Master of the Universe bastard…you don’t really come across too many of them at your local card room. Maybe at a World Series of Poker final table, but not at a $3-6 limit table. Hey, like I said, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up a little when you’re gambling, but if I’m gonna splash around and play some donkeypoker I leave the Rolex in my room.

Players who are “casually scruffy dressers” are impulsive and erratic and have no game plan. I dunno, some of the most dangerous players I saw at the WSOP looked like they slept under a bridge…and, to be fair, it’s possible that a few of them did. Maybe Ms. James is on to something with this observation.

Contrasting with the “casually” scruffy are the “smart” scruffy, who wear threadbare suits and scuffed shoes and are basically slobs wrapped in a frayed silk ribbon. Look, if you’re a slob, be a slob, there’s no shame it that. Well, actually there is shame, a lot of shame, but less than someone who comes to a poker game wearing a suit from 1983, a tie from 1985, and shoes from Payless. And this is coming from a guy who’s currently wearing a mustard-yellow sweatshirt and red sweatpants. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. Of course, I wouldn’t go out in public like this, heaven’s no. Get the shudders just thinking about it.

Ms. James describes a class of risk-taking players called “optimistic” dressers, who wear “bright yellows, oranges and other creative colors, and they often wear juvenile-looking cardigans and full skirts”. I think a more accurate term for such people would be “ghastly” dressers, though I guess you could create some manner of naughty-librarian scenario where a cardigan and full skirt would be kinda sexy. But that’s about it.

There are the “inappropriate” dressers, those who thumb their nose at fashion convention. But Ms. James doesn’t give an example of what would construe an “inappropriate” outfit at a poker table. Believe me, I saw some weird clothes at the World Series, and I’m not including jokes like Jeff Madsen’s court jester costume. Maybe wearing a wedding dress would count, or arriving at the table wearing a leather mask and shackles. Though to be honest, everyone would just assume you just lost a prop bet and growl at you to post your blinds.

And then there are the “casual-obsessive” players, who wear baggy pants, T-shirts with logos, and chains. I think it’s safe to say that Doyle Brunson is not a “casual-obsessive” dresser. Last, there are the “smart-casual” folks, who dress well but aren’t afraid to make themselves at home once they sit down. That’s me–I put on a comfy pair of jeans, my running shoes, and a sharp yet comfortable shirt. I’m at my ease, and because I’m dressed for the occasion I’ll remain that way through all the check-raises and bad beats the day has in store. Ms. James says that this brand of player is “ruthless and very focused”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to a group of people and someone pipes up, “Gene, you’re looking ruthless and very focused today”.

Reading over Ms. James’ criteria I think she puts a bit too much emphasis on how people’s dress influences how much they bluff. Poker wouldn’t be poker without bluffing, of course, but too many people think that poker is ALL about bluffing. Which it ain’t. Overestimating how often players bluff is one way that professionals get the best of amateurs–maybe the sick bluffs are the hands that stick most in the mind, but when you watch a tournament on TV the pros are often showing down the nuts and stacking some poor soul who thought they held nothing but air. And so, while what you wear at the poker table may be important on both practical and aesthetic levels, what you DO at the table is more important than how you LOOK doing it. Unless what you’re really worried about is how you’ll look when you have to stand up, shake everyone’s hand, and walk away.

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    Since I’m the worst dresser in the world, maybe the worst poker player as well?

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