I’m a fan of The Moth podcast, in which people stand up without notes and give a 10-minute autobiographical talk about something interesting. Some time ago I thought I would try to be a performer on that show. I couldn’t use notes to tell the story live, but I sure as hell could use them to help prepare for the talk. So, I wrote out what I’d say about an incident that happened almost 40 years ago.
Sometime later I decided not to try out for The Moth, although I thought the story would fit well enough into this blog. I’ve already shared parts of this story with my readers, but not all of it, and certainly not the big secret I reveal at the end. So here is what I was planning to say:
In the 1970s, I was a professional gambler. My game was backgammon. It was played in discos, at least in greater Los Angeles, which is where I lived. I even took lessons learning how to disco dance so I could hang out in these discos without looking like a gambling hustler. I also played at an underground club near Los Angeles called the Cavendish West.
It isn’t hard being a successful gambler when the competition isn’t very good. And that was the way backgammon was for me in the mid-1970s.
I had first heard of the game from an article in Playboy, which I really only picked up because of the articles. I bought every book I could find on the subject, bought a board to practice on, and soon was in business. As bad as the books were at the time, my studying was more than my competitors did. Plus, I was smarter than average and had been playing board games since I was a pre-teen. I did well.
At the Cavendish, I became a regular. In backgammon, you are not playing against the house. You are playing against other players and the house charges each player a rental fee for providing the boards and the place where other like-minded players can congregate.
No matter how good or bad you are, your success at backgammon is primarily determined by your skill relative to that of your opponents. If you are the third best player in the world but always are playing with numbers 1 and 2, you’re going to be a loser.
For those who don’t play the game, it’s a board game where there’s a special device called the doubling cube. If you’re not playing for money — or perhaps trying to win a backgammon tournament — the doubling cube is irrelevant and kept in the box. If you are competing for cash, though, learning to use the doubling cube well is important. It’s every bit as important as learning to move the checkers well.
Without going into details about the cube, it can be used to increase the stakes of the game dramatically. If your opponent is too aggressive or too passive or too timid with the cube, so much the better. Systematic mistakes were exploitable. So, similar to reading poker tells, good players kept a catalog of sorts on the doubling cube practices of every opponent. If you saw your opponent make a doubling cube error, AND THEN MAKE IT AGAIN in another game, this was called “confirmation” and you had a potential gold mine. A single game of backgammon usually lasted less than 10 minutes — and we played for 6-8 hours at a time. There were LOTS of opportunities to get confirmation on these exploitable habits of others.
In 1979, I was a much better backgammon player than I was in 1975. But I was going broke. Gone was the regular infusion of bad players that were easy to find in the disco era and not so easy to find anymore. The players still in the game had been there for as long as I had. I was a good player, but I was mostly playing REALLY good players. This was not a recipe for success.
I started contemplating getting a job. This I viewed as an admission that I was no longer able to live off my wits in the gambling world. I was no longer able to accurately assert superiority over those doofusses who actually had to find a job in order to survive. I was now going to be a doofus too.
This was very traumatic. I also didn’t know what I could do to earn money. Although I had a pretty good education and got up to the almost-PhD level in Economics, I had been fired five years earlier from a think-tank job in which I was a research associate. I hadn’t read any economic books or journal articles in five years. My skills were woefully out of date.
Since I had used some Fortran-based computer packages in my research-associate position years before, I decided to market myself as a computer programmer. The available jobs were in COBOL, a computer language I didn’t know at all. Still, I read a how-to-program-in-COBOL book one weekend and went on a job interview the following Monday. Before I did, I shaved off the beard I had worn for 10 years and got a haircut that made me look like a Republican. God! It was awful!
I was interviewed by two guys, both of whom liked to gamble. I talked backgammon with the first guy and blackjack with the second. Although my skills weren’t good enough to survive as a gambling professional, they were WAY better than these two wannabe gamblers. They were impressed with my abilities. The $25,000 a year job in programming I was applying for had been filled that morning, but there was a $35,000 a year job as a systems analyst available. It was now the week before Christmas and their budget didn’t allow another hire until after the first of the year. Was I interested in starting in two weeks?
I was, although I had no clue what a systems analyst did. I went to a bookstore, bought two books on how to be a systems analyst, and went home where I stayed in bed for two weeks. I’d come out of my room only to grab something out of the refrigerator or go to the bathroom. Otherwise, I read the books over and over again and was seemingly catatonic. I was sure I was going to be found out as a fraud and fired immediately. When that happened, I didn’t know what I was going to do. The fact that I was having to get a job in the first place wasn’t helping matters any. And I liked my hippie look WAY better than looking like a Baptist preacher. But that look was now gone. Not shaving for two weeks didn’t come close to making me feel better.
I was living with a lady named Betty at the time. I didn’t say a word to her for those two weeks. Not one word. She’d ask what she could do to help, or suggest I get out and exercise a bit, or maybe we could go see a movie or something, and I’d just lay there with my back to her, totally mute. I didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t anything to say. I was a doofus who looked like a Republican.
She kept the refrigerator stocked with good eating options, bless her heart, and didn’t get too freaked out by my behavior.
Two weeks later, Wednesday January 2, 1980, I was 10 minutes early to work. I came up with a couple of good answers to questions I was asked in the first week and somehow lasted on that job for three years — at which time I went out and found a better one. I can’t tell you exactly how I did it. I just don’t know. I suspect being in the right place at the right time helped a lot.
One year after I had started working, I received a phone call at three in the morning from a lady friend named Margo. Not a romantic lady friend — I was still with Betty — but a good friend nonetheless. Margo was contemplating going back to work. Margo was a nurse and had written some books on pain management. She had gone around the country lecturing to nurses about treating those in pain. But her 15 minutes of fame was now up. She no longer got enough attendees to come to her lectures. It was time for her to go back to work.
Like I had been, Margo was severely traumatized. She didn’t want to go back to work. She knew I had gone through something similar the year before and needed some good advice. And she needed it now! At three in the morning. What could I tell her?
She had just returned from a nightclub where she’d probably had several beers (or something stronger). I was sound asleep when the call came. I gave her the best secret I could come up with on the spur of the moment. I told Margo that I hadn’t spoken to Betty for two weeks prior to starting my new job and recommended she not speak to Betty either. Not talking to Betty, I told Margo, was the secret to my success, and now I was going back to sleep. Good night.
Flippant though it was, Margo took my good advice to heart. For the next 10 days or so, Betty and I would get messages on our family answering machine that said things like, “Bob, I’m getting ready to start working at a hospital a week from Monday. Don’t let Betty know. I’m not talking to her.”
Margo started her job and did well at it. This, my friends, is confirmation! You now have the magic secret of getting through whatever it is that you are fearing most. And that secret is: Don’t talk to Betty.