No gold records, no gold bracelets

From Post Hardcore to Post Flop, Steve Albini is just playing to play

Steve Albini has worn many hats over the years; from being called “The Godfather of Grunge” as one of the most sought-after engineers in rock music, guitarist for the highly influential post-hardcore band Shellac and now — poker player.

But Albini’s 12th-place finish in the 2013 World Series of Poker Seniors Championship didn’t happen by coincidence, it began four decades ago at his great-grandmother’s kitchen table.

Steve Albini

“I was taught poker by my great-grandmother when I was 6 or 7 years old, she taught us to play poker using novelty toothpicks that had different colored crinklers at the top.”

The entirety of Albini’s adult life has been about music. He estimates that he has recorded 2,000 records over his career. He has engineered genre-defining records such as Nirvana’s “In Utero” and Bush’s “Razorblade Suitcase” and critically acclaimed albums by Helmet, Failure, the Pixies, the Stooges and hundreds of other successful bands.

Albini splits his day job as a one of the most sought after rock audio engineers and as the guitarist and singer for Schellac. He has been touring and recording his band’s albums since the early ’90s. With so much time devoted to the music industry Albini enjoys when he can sneak away to play poker.

Albini’s schedule this year allowed him to play a few events at the WSOP. He mostly sticks to the Stud games and Lowball, shying away from tournaments in general. But he played in the $2,500 Ten-Game Mix and a $1,500 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo event.

Albini left Las Vegas for his hometown of Chicago for a few days for break before playing the Ten-Game Mix. Upon returning, he referred to the trip as, “what my dad used to call a long walk for a little drink.”

“I suppose being a musician in a traveling band I have the opportunity to play poker in places that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I played poker in Croatia for example,” Albini said. “I played poker basically everywhere my band goes on tour. If we finish early enough and if there is a public room I can get to, I might as well play some poker.”

Albini developed a love for card games and poker at a very early age. “My family is a card playing family,” Albini said. “The games we played as a family were cribbage, pinochle and poker. My father was a bridge master who played tournament bridge when he was younger.”

“Basically since a teenager, I’ve had a home poker game or private game where I could play for amusement. It’s only been since the ’80s that I could use it as a viable second income,” Albini said. “But I’d be lying if I said the poker boom wasn’t the reason to use it as an enterprise.”

Because of Albini’s hectic work and touring schedule, he doesn’t get much time to play tournament poker. He has one other WSOP cash in a 2010 Seven Card Stud event.

“I play poker somewhat seriously because I enjoy it and get something out of it, but I’m not particularly competitive,” Albini said. “I’m not a tournament player by nature. I don’t play many of them. I basically only play tournaments when I’m out for the WSOP.”

Albini’s cerebral, laid-back personality doesn’t exactly fit with the new era of poker players. Which is a big reason why Albini chose to play the Seniors Championship having turned 50 in the last year.

“That particular event was one of the most pleasant poker experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t particularly exciting, not an edge of your seat tournament with tension,” Albini said. “But just the fact that everybody in the event was an adult with a full life behind them — they don’t feel that a particular check-raise defines them. Their manhood isn’t on the line to bluff somebody out of a pot. They play poker because it’s an interest for them that they’ve nurtured for decades. So it was a very congenial tournament, very much like a kitchen table home game.

“The attitude that everyone brings into it is so much less macho and less about being the alpha-male or the top dog,” Albini continued. “That’s one aspect of poker that doesn’t appeal to me — you know, assholes that try to dominate the table or are King Shit of their local card room. It just galls me and makes me think less of all the people that do it.”

What keeps Albini playing is the sociological enjoyment he gets from the game. “The poker culture has spread and developed its own poker vernacular, where the Italian style of check-raising is different from the French style of check-raising,” Albini said. “It’s interesting; it’s like seeing differences in regional cuisine, or accents and dialects. I enjoy that as an anthropological experience. It seems like I know more how poker works around the world having the opportunities I’ve had.”

Interestingly, Albini doesn’t look at his deep run as a sign of being an exceptional poker player. “Yeah, I had to beat 4,400 people to get to the point of approaching a final table. But it’s not like I beat them all, I didn’t have to outsmart them all personally,” Albini said.

“Every now and again something would happen at a table that I was able to take advantage of and over the course of three days that happened enough times where I was able to survive,” Albini said. “So winning a bracelet in an event like that would not be indicative of being a necessarily great poker player — no disparagement whatsoever to those that made it to the final table — they’re great players. I’m saying beating a tournament field full of professionals that make their living at this is a much different enterprise than beating a public tournament full of enthusiasts.

“There are people who make that their life’s work — studying the way you pace yourself for a long tournament, the way you adjust your play to the suddenly changing environment,” Albini said. “I don’t think in that way so I’m not making the adjustments that a professional would, so if I were to win a bracelet it would be indicative of a good run of cards and a couple of lucky moments where a hand held up.

“It would not be indicative of me being good at poker, whereas; someone who made this a profession and incrementally earned success would. Winning a bracelet is a validation of that. They stuck at it, kept doing it and were in the pool of players that repeatedly have a shot at winning a bracelet,” Albini said. “For me, winning a bracelet wouldn’t be nearly as important for someone that plays professionally and it wouldn’t signify anything about my abilities the way it would if a pro won one.”

While at the WSOP Albini also played in the $2,500 Seven Card Stud event. “I saw Scott Seiver get heads-up in that tournament and I sat next to Scott all of Day 1 with him on my immediate left,” Albini said. “Seiver can really put on a show. When he decides he wants to clean out the table he can scoop up every loose chip. There isn’t a single available pot he doesn’t win, one way or another if there is a pot for sale he’s going to get it.”

“That’s such an impressive thing to watch in a limit game where you can’t make as many moves as you can in a big bet game. Especially in a stud format game where on fifth street people can see the majority of your hand and it gets worse from there. By the time you get to sixth street they can see three quarters of your hand,” Albini said. “Three fourths of your hand is known to the world, so if you can make moves with so little concealed information that indicates that you understand the game and the dynamics between players in that specific game at a really high level.”

“Seeing Scott chew through that tournament was super impressive,” Albini added. “In my opinion, he won that tournament. When he got heads-up, Chiu had an unreasonably lucky run of cards and in my mind Seiver won the tournament — Chiu won the bracelet, but Seiver won the tournament.

“If Seiver had won that bracelet it would have been indicative that the bracelet would have gone to the best player in that tournament. The guy that played the tournament the best — it didn’t,” Albini said. “But he had a shot at it. The fact he had a shot at it means he’ll have the chance to win it again. If he gets enough opportunities at it, he will eventually win another one.

“My friend was Christopher George — he got heads up in the Omaha Hi-Lo yesterday (June 15) and the same thing happened — he stomped all over that final table until it got heads up and he couldn’t scoop a pot,” Albini said. “He was getting scooped by very thin margins. That was another example where if George had won the bracelet it wouldn’t have been a fluke — he has a history of good results.”

Albini has a close circle of friends in the poker world and has very little crossover in his music life and his poker life. “There are some people in the poker world that are music aficionados or have the very perceptive mind and think critically about music. I stumble across those people and like them a lot. We have a lot in common and a lot to talk about,” Albini said.

“Erik Seidel for example, is a big music enthusiast. He writes about music on his personal blog and I think he’s a very perceptive guy,” Albini said. “I think if professional music journalists displayed the kind of attention to detail and the understanding of music as a human endeavor as Erick does, then the standard of music journalism would go up rather than down. If professional music journalists wrote like Erik, then there would be better music writing than there is.”

The thought of earning a gold record before winning a gold bracelet made Albini jump up in his chair. “Fuck! I don’t give a shit about gold records. Gold records are a novelty prize that you get for having a bunch of people buy a record you worked on, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Albini said.

“The music that matters to me the most is the music that is the most satisfying to the people that made it and most stimulating to the people that bond with them through it. The music that is evidence of a kind of mania, where you can tell people making the music are obsessed with this enterprise,” Albini said. “They do it in a way that is uniquely theirs. I find that as a satisfying way to think of music, not a popularity contest like a beauty pageant — more like how over the long haul a writer’s value will get recognized.

“Over time it has the chance to percolate in the public conscience it’s resonated with more people and has been revealed as a great book. I feel that when music is done with similar intent it can have an impact and can be really satisfying to the people that make it,” Albini said. “That’s the kind of music that moves me and I care about.”

“One record company sent me a gold record for what I did and I sent it to my mom because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with it,” Albini said. “I certainly didn’t want to put it up on the wall.”

“I know that I’ve been involved in gold and platinum records but I couldn’t name them. I’m not a member of the organization that hands them out,” Albini said. “I don’t pay attention to that sort of shit. I’ve never tried to chase copies down for myself.

“If anything, having a record that sells a lot is kind of indicative that it appeals to a dull generic audience that slurped something up rather than something that is recorded as aesthetically or culturally important,” Albini said. “I’d rather work on a record that I think is great than a record I think will sell a lot.”

August 2013