The Tao of Knish


Joey Knish from “Rounders” is regarded as the consummate grinder. Knish’s physical characteristics paint a gritty picture of a pro’s life — disheveled appearance, unshaven face for weeks at a time, a slight limp from persistent back problems, and deep circles underneath droopy eyes. Despite the fact that he looks more like a stoned zombie than a professional, Knish is a positive influence on the film’s protagonist, Mike McDermott. As a mentor to Mike McD, Knish’s dispatches of wisdom are a few rays of light in the otherwise murky underworld of poker.

Knish displays many similarities to Socrates. In classical Greek philosophy, Socrates was one of the rationalists from the “know thyself” school of thought. Socrates firmly believed that you must first understand the intricacies of yourself before you can fully understand the complexities of the world. Knish is the personification of Socratic rationalism; Knish exudes heightened self-awareness with a firm grasp on his reality and his role in the realm in which he plays cards. Knish believed in his personal system (adopting the life of a grinder) which is why he never worked a “real job” for more than two decades. It is difficult to string together several winning months in a row with variance and rake both conspiring against you. Yet that’s what Knish achieved.

“I’m not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here,” said Knish. “I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat.”

In boxing terminology, Knish is punching his weight and like a keen corner man, he knows which troublesome opponents he should duck and which palookas he should stand and fight. Knish knows deep down that he can hold his own in nosebleed stakes, but the sharks at that level have the edge, so what was the point? Knish is a realist who doesn’t buy into the “pipe dream” of winning the World Series of Poker. Knish is cautious to avoid the fleeting appeal of fame and fortune which is why he warned Mike McD that the WSOP pipe dream wasn’t as enticing as hyped.

On that fateful night when Mike McD walked into Teddy KGB’s underground joint with $30,000, Knish knew what was going to happen before Mike McD played a single hand in the big game. The intuitive Knish tried to stop the slaughter.

“They’ll chew you up and take your whole bankroll,” Knish said in an attempt to dissuade Mike McD from making a dreadful decision.

What Knish didn’t know was that weeks earlier, Mike McD made a sick move on Johnny Chan during a $300/$600 game at the Taj in Atlantic City. Mike McD always had tremendous confidence in his poker abilities, but it wasn’t until he sat down with Chan at the Taj that he truly put his skills and acumen to the test against one of the titans of poker. After he successfully bluffed Chan, Mike McD knew he had the emotional fortitude and necessary balls of steel to compete against the Vegas elite.

Knish encouraged Mike McD to invest his time and money at beatable games (e.g. the soft seat in Queens, the $10/$20 game at Chesterfield, and the Goulash joint on 79th Street), but Mike McD was on a mission and riding a tidal wave of confidence after making a move on Chan. Mike McD’s next goal was to crush the big game at Teddy KGB’s joint and he wasn’t going to let Knish stand in his way.

Perhaps Knish could have done a better job at preventing Mike McD from sparring with Teddy KGB, but the sage knew that Mike McD needed to learn a valuable life lesson — sometimes you must fail miserably in order to succeed.

The core of Knish’s master plan is conservative game selection and parsimonious bankroll management. Mike McD initially bought into Knish’s “grind it out” philosophy and followed the Tao of Knish by manufacturing his bankroll a little bit at a time. He even paid half of his law school tuition with his poker winnings. However, grinding it out seven days a week is a boring lifestyle for an ambitious 20-something. After his encounter with Chan at the Taj, Mike McD caught the fever for larger action. He craved higher stakes, which was the opposite of everything Knish had taught him. Bravado doesn’t pay the bills, but Mike McD knew that he’d never drag a six-figure pot at the Goulash joint.

Mike McD took an audacious shot and tried to run with the big dogs, but Teddy KGB crushed his soul and extracted his entire bankroll in a single blow.

Knish absorbed his fair share of lumps at the tables. The savvy veteran knew that the best way to handle the turmoil of going busto was to numb the senses, so he handed Mike McD a joint. When Mike McD declined a toke of weed, Knish looked for other ways to console his friend.

“Let me stake you,” Knish offered.

Instead of accepting Knish’s stake until he was back on his feet, Mike McD made an abrupt decision to quit poker altogether in favor of the straight and narrow life. Mike McD was not interested in financial backing, and instead took a “real job” as a truck driver delivering candy and potato chips to bodegas. During his self-imposed exile from poker, Mike McD developed his own personal philosophy, which became clearer toward the end of the film: “Bros before hoes. Cheating is dishonorable. The legal field is a farce. Working a 9 to 5 gig is for chumps. Grinding is for losers. Don’t fuck with the Russian mob. And in order to win big, you gotta be willing to lose big.”

When McD returned to poker, his new outlook conflicted with Knish’s aphorisms. When Mike McD begged Knish for money to stake him with the sole purpose to bail out Worm’s debts, Knish vehemently declined. Knish supported Mike McD by giving him work as a truck driver or even letting him crash at his house, but when it came to funding Mike McD’s life leaks (let’s face it, his loyalty to a screw-up like Worm nearly cost him his life), Knish had to take a tough love approach, otherwise Mike McD would never learn a valuable lesson.

“I give it to you, I’m wasting it,” Knish said.

Knish promotes personal responsibility and does not flirt with moral hazard, which is why he should be revered as a deity among the despicable lot of delinquent characters in Mike McD’s life. However, the Knish character is often misinterpreted and unfairly knocked. I’m guilty of a few back-handed compliments by tossing a Knish reference into the mix because comparing a player to Knish is a knock on that player’s unwillingness to take a shot at a big score. Denizens from poker forums often argued that Knish was an overrated nit.

“Knish is a big fish in the kiddie pool,” seethed one of Knish’s haters.

If you poll poker players who they’d rather be — Mike McD or Joey Knish — almost all of them would a say that the life of Knish is the more sensible and the safer choice, but in the end they’d rather be Mike McD.

Every year, thousands of Mike McD-inspired clones pad their bankrolls in their home games, local casinos, or at the virtual tables for the sole intention of heading to Las Vegas in the summer to play in the World Series of Poker. Life on the circuit is far more exciting than staying at home like Joey Knish and “grinding it out on his leather ass.”

Joey Knish might not have a bankroll worth millions, but he’s never broke. At the end of the month, he always comes out ahead. Why?

“I got stones enough not to chase,” Knish succinctly explained his philosophy on poker … and life.  

March 2012