A conversation with Brandon Shack-Harris


    Steve Albini spoke with Brandon Shack-Harris about why poker represents the illusion of freedom, how each hand tells a story, how he’d explain kickboxing to a child and why Las Vegas is the most oppressive city in the world.

    The reason I got into poker was for the illusion of freedom, which doesn’t really exist for someone like me who’s bad at prioritizing.


    Steve Albini

    Most people have a schedule because they have a job. Have you created a schedule for yourself?

    Brandon Shack-Harris

    The reason I got into poker was for the illusion of freedom, which doesn’t really exist for someone like me who’s bad at prioritizing. I used to have a school schedule written out for when I would play and all the things I had to get done, but then I’d have a session where I’d lose a bunch of money and just curl up in bed for like two days. Lately I’ve just been trying to play when I feel good about playing. Financially, there’s not too much pressure right now. If I have a disastrous WSOP series then I might be forced to play a lot, but right now, I’m trying to play when it’s fun to play and I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can do that.


    So there’s no daily schedule, like get up, make a smoothie, go to the gym…

    There was but there isn’t. I tried treating it like a job, and it started to feel like one. But you can lose so much money at this job, and there’s all this other bullshit that you have to endure to perform at this job…


    Are you talking about the politics of the games?

    Yeah. The way it works out, I end up having to get up at 6 a.m. just to get in the game when it starts. There are “regulars” at this casino (Commerce Casino, where the high stakes games usually run) who have been paying the floor (casino staff who assign tables and open games) for years. The floor makes sure they get in the games. Formally, if you’re there on time and the game starts, you should be able to play. But in practice, they open the signup list at 6 a.m. and you have to be in the casino to get on the list for the game, which starts at 2 p.m. every day. You can’t phone in. So you show up at 6, make sure you’re on the list, go home, and make sure you’re back there by 2 p.m. In the meantime, three people who didn’t get on the list can show up at 11 a.m. and ask to start the game. The floor calls the list, and if you’re not there you lose your place. They play two hands, then break the game which clears the list, then they start a new list with them on it. In some places you can call in; at Commerce, you can only call in if you have a room at their hotel, which is 2-300 dollars a night.

    Then, when you show up and actually get in a game, half the players won’t play unless they think the lineup is good. They pretend to take phone calls away from the table, they make change for casino chips, they walk around. There’s usually only four or five hours of a 13- or 14-hour session where everyone is playing. Besides that, there’s collusion between players, where one player has a piece (stake) of another, or there’s soft-playing or they’re chopping up profits or other angles I may be too naïve to see.


    A lot of this social engineering seems at odds with your basic personality. You seem trusting that other people are going to be decent to you because you’re a decent person to everybody else. Do you think that getting good at these skills, manipulating the floor people and the gamesmanship of who’s in the game has affected your overall view of humanity or can you compartmentalize it to the poker universe?

    Sometimes I think I’m a misanthrope and sometimes I’m optimistic about humanity. I definitely like it when people like my company, and if I were misanthropic I wouldn’t really care. But I’ve been let down a lot. I want to think that everyone has good intentions, but I kinda secretly think most of them are pricks, so it makes me wonder why I want them to like me. I don’t want to learn all the politicking of it, I just want to come play the game. I’m too lazy for it and it’s not sincere. I don’t like to compartmentalize them too much, because then it’s like, is this a friend or just some challenge or task I need to solve. I don’t like to dehumanize them. My really close friends I totally trust, and I may be naïve and overly trusting, especially considering what I do. I’m aware of where I can go with certain people, but then they’re not really my friends, I’m just in a place where I conduct business. What about you?


    For me, there are my friends, and then there are many subcategories of the rest of the world.


    There’s so much dissemination of information that everyone is catching up in all the games. It’s hard to know who knows what and not project the way you play onto somebody else.


    Poker is a game of deception, and poker culture, for most of its existence, has been an illegal underground where all the participants are hustlers. Once poker got turned into an Internet game where you could play millions of hands and do diagnostics on your play, there developed a very technical, nerdy approach. So now poker is a spectrum between total degenerates and brainy, clean-cut intellectuals. They’re all doing the same thing but couldn’t be more different. How do you confront that spectrum? On one hand, if you turn your head, some of them will just take chips off your stack or beg to borrow money with no intention of paying it back, or make big wagers with no intention of paying them off. On the other hand, there are players whose code of honor is iron-clad.

    I just go into it being me. I’m not trying to manipulate people into doing what’s best for me, I’m just hoping that’s the effect of it. I try to be nice and let them have a good time because I want to have a good time. I’m pretty quick to catalog people as friends, hope that I rub off a little, and hope they don’t view that as weakness and try to exploit me. I may be a little more guarded now, but I just hope people like me enough to not fuck with me. I mean, it’s sincere. I like to be friends and learn about people. People like telling stories and I want to hear stories. Every now and then someone will pull some shit and you learn another lesson, but I have a hard time changing my approach, which is just to try to be cool with everybody.


    You are almost entirely self-taught, even in very complex games or games so new that there’s no literature about them, and people who play them are keeping their secrets very close to their chests. Can you name an advantage to learning on your own rather than being taught by an expert player or reading the standard texts? Something that you do that other people don’t do because you’ve figured something out on your own.

    When you’ve taught yourself, you have a lot more freedom, like you can hop around from one thing to another. You might even be following the theoretical pattern unbeknownst to yourself, but you’re not handcuffed. It’s like when I’m trying to play music. If I’m not taught something, I go, “I like this sound.” Even if it’s a standard progression, I don’t know that, so it’s exciting to me and I want to keep doing it. That’s kind of my approach to everything.

    A lot of people, when they’re learning a new game, will play very tight (conservatively) and then open up over time. They’ll start by playing x amount of hands, then add more hands as they go. For me, I just want to hop around from place to place. I want to play all the hands and explore all the options and see where they go. A fun thing about limit poker is that you’re usually priced-in to call once you have some bets in, so it’s usually incorrect to fold a fair amount of the time. You end up creating these stories for fractions of a bet that get them to fold when they have a good price to call down.

    I’m sure that my edge at one point was that I thought I was good at telling really weird stories with really weird hands, and getting people to fold specific to their player type. If somebody played really tight but could make a fold, then I’d make my raise on a board that looked scary for me, to get them to believe that I couldn’t be fucking around here and fold. At the same time I was trying to be balanced with my storytelling, which is the technical side of it. It’s like having a fundamental framework and adding a bunch of chaos to it. Like painting, having a technique but putting crazy brushstrokes on it.


    A player who learned conventionally would read your play based on his presumptions about what you know about poker, i.e. similar to what he knows, but what you know is unique to you, so he’s going to make mistakes against you.

    It’s scary now, though, because there’s so much dissemination of information that everyone is catching up in all the games. It’s hard to know who knows what, and not project the way you play onto somebody else. You can make a mistake against yourself instead of who you’re playing. I don’t network too much when it comes to strategy, but that’s a fun thing about poker, finding out what other people know. Sometimes you think somebody is on to you and knows all your secrets, but then you find out they don’t know some basic, basic thing. Or you’ll be in a spot and you wonder “Do they know that? Do they know they have to call here because I might have a value hand they can beat?” but then they’re really not on that level.


    You told a story last night where a guy made a play at you with a hand with no value, and you called. The guy told you that in your spot he would have raised “to find out where he was at.”

    Well, I was thinking more about guys with really good results who make mistakes or don’t know something. That guy, he was kinda supposed to say something like that.

    We went to Starbucks and it wasn’t like going to Starbucks. It was like an oasis of normalcy in this bald hell plane, with the sun like a laser.


    You also train as a kickboxer. How would you explain fighting – for fun – to a child? Like, you’re not mad at the guy, but you’re fighting.

    I would show all of your weapons – right? – and explain this isn’t about hurting somebody, this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a game. You have weapons that can score points with your hands, your elbows, your knees and your feet. Those are your eight main weapons, and the more weapons you can use, the more you confuse your opponent. You want to try to find ways to use all your weapons to confuse your opponent and score the most points. At the same time you need to avoid your opponent’s weapons.

    I didn’t like fighting to start with. I was definitely a pacifist, and still am. I got into boxing and then muay thai because I was getting agitated playing cards and a gym opened up across from me. I was used to playing basketball and football, and I thought fighting was really disgusting. But I was out of shape and they offered me a free class, and I started noticing all the parallels between playing cards and fighting.

    From a theoretical standpoint, they’re very similar. You have to have these fundamentals, and balancing your actions is really important. You want all of your kicks to appear the same before you throw them. You do something called chambering your kick, where you pull your knee up so you can thrust out from there and generate the most force. So if I throw a front kick, a push kick, I bring my knee up then push my hips out. If I throw a roundhouse kick, I still bring my knee up, but then I chop it down. If I throw a side kick, my knee comes up, but then I push out to the side. So they all appear the same until I throw one.

    The same goes for punches. When you’re chambering your punches, you can go out from here (ready position) or go up from here, so it all looks the same. It’s like, in poker, your bet sizing for your bluffs and your value hands should look the same. If you’re going to throw a left kick and you’re right handed, you would switch your stance so you can get your leg back to generate the most force. But when I switch my stance I can also throw a right hook, or I can switch and throw a push kick, or a combination of a left hook, right cross, then come with the kick.


    Las Vegas is the worst.

    Isn’t it?


    The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been trying to think of what I would do if I lived here. Other than play cards, I can’t think of a fucking thing. There’s some decent food. That’s it.

    You’d play pool. You could bike.


    It’s 140 degrees out there, the fuck I am riding a bike. We went to Starbucks and it wasn’t like going to Starbucks. It was like an oasis of normalcy in this bald hell plane, with the sun like a laser. You really do feel the pressure of the sun on you here. If you could play one poker game for life, what would it be?

    It wouldn’t be Razz. Well, you know I have trouble playing and talking, like while I’m playing. I don’t think I’m stupid, but I’m like a dial-up modem. It takes me a lot longer to process all these options, and Razz is the only game I could talk to somebody while I’m playing. It gets tedious and redundant. I’m really liking Archie (hi-lo split draw poker) right now. Do you find that it changes with how you’re doing in a game, like if I actually start winning with my sixes in ace-to-five (lowball), then I’m like, “Oh, I kinda like this game and I want to play it more!” I feel like Omaha came really naturally, with four cards you know everyone could have all these hands. I’m way more lost in no limit hold ’em. I was thinking what a luxury it is for people who specialize in one game. When they go through a downswing, they don’t have to second-guess themselves.

    Thank you.


    Conversation: 65
    Curated by: steve albini
    Conducted by: In-person conversation
    Edited by: Morgan Enos
    Published: November 10, 2017
    Total questions: 13
    Word count: 2488
    Reading time: Ten minutes
    Hyperlinks: 2


    Job: Illusion
    Fighting: Preposterous
    Humans: Subcategories
    Poker: Storytelling
    Vegas: Hellscape
    Sun: Laser


    About the subject

    Brandon Shack-Harris is a professional poker player living in Los Angeles, California.

    About the curator

    steve albini was born in 1962, grew up in Montana, lives in Chicago and makes records for a living. He owns a recording studio, Electrical Audio and plays guitar in Shellac of North America. He also plays billiards and poker, and cooks something for his wife Heather Whinna every day.

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