They Call Me…

I’ve had a lot nicknames in my 62 years.

Nicknames are very popular in the Philippines. Almost everyone has one. Some nicknames are very simple: a popular one for men is “boy” and for women it’s “girlie.”

Other nicknames are unusual: the nickname of former President Marcos’ son is “Bong Bong.” A senator is simply “Bong.” Former President Eric Estrada is “Erap” and newspaper headlines used that when referring to him, such as “Erap Departs On Trade Mission.”

In at least one instance, a nickname became used officially. Manila’s international airport is named after Sen. Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated by Marcos agents as he stepped off a plane from the U.S. The airport’s name is not Benigno Aquino International but uses his nickname: Ninoy Aquino International.

In high school, I often played basketball at our subdivision’s park. The teams were typically “Americans” and “Filipinos” but since I was both I’d play with the Filipinos if they didn’t have five players or if one of them needed a rest. Although I was only 5′-6″ I could touch the basket rim from a short running jump and still get very high from a standing jump.

That ability caused the Filipinos to nickname me “frog legs.” That was my first nickname.

One of the Filipinos who played with us always completed a lay-up with a dramatic flair. His nickname was obvious: Hollywood. After every lay-up he made, most of us (including the Americans) hollered “Hollywood!” and he’d break out in a big smile. In fact, I never knew his name; I only knew him as “Hollywood.”

In college, “frog legs” gave way to a new nickname reflecting my radical politics. I was “Mad Dog.” I think that was because I could go off on a “frothing” rant if someone pressed a political hot button. I liked it since it suggested that upsetting me was dangerous: I was not all there psychologically and might “bite” you.

That “mad dog” image helped me bluff the college administration in my sophomore year when my black roommate joined other black students in occupying the student union. They were told to leave by noon the next day or the police would be brought in and they’d be expelled.

I passed the word that if the police arrived, I could bring a few dozen radicals to block them and while we would lose that battle the administration better think about the PR war. What would it do for their fund raising if there were newspaper headlines about a confrontation on campus over a very reasonable request to increase financial aid for black students and to hire black faculty at a college that liked to trumpet it’s liberalism?

The administration decided not to risk what a “mad dog” might do and decided to negotiate. The next day, the black students voluntarily walked out of the student union just before noon. The day after that, the college announced more financial aid for black students and that three black faculty would be hired for next year. No disciplinary action was taken against my roommate or the others.

When student government elections were held a few weeks later, my roommate and I rode that success to elected positions on the six member student government Executive Council, which were elected “campus wide.” Most of our allies were elected (or re-elected) to dorm representative positions and the radicals took firm control of student government, including four of the six Executive Council positions. (There were few conservatives at the college; the only significant other faction was the “moderates” who generally supported our goals but not our aggressive tactics.)

Once in power, however, I took an approach which would lead to a new nickname in one of my early jobs. Publicly, I was still a “mad dog” because young folks enjoy “soap opera” political theater. Privately, and especially with the administration, I was now (as a junior) an “elder statesman” who desperately wanted to be “reasonable” but needed to appease my… rabid…supporters.

If I could achieve most of what “they” wanted, then I could make some small compromises. Otherwise, I might be overshadowed by someone who would not make compromises. This approach worked beautifully for the next two years until I graduated. Better to negotiate with the devil you know than a devil you don’t know.

In my second job, I was a budget coordinator in a county manager’s office. I was the first point of contact with department heads and the five or six elected (state) “constitutional” officers (sheriff, tax collector, etc.) on all day-to-day operating budget issues while my boss took care of “the big picture” and the big ticket capital budget.

By this time, I was in my late 20’s and realized that my “mad dog” approach in college would be counter productive in a work environment. Especially since I was pretty low on the status totem pole. I needed a “Dale Carnegie” approach, and fortunately I learned that in the Philippines.

In the Philippines, which is true in most of Asia, you learn to tread lightly because the concept of “face” is very important. Even when the status of both parties is dissimilar, the higher status person must treat the lower status person in a manner that maintains the latter’s dignity and self-respect. Otherwise, the situation can easily escalate when the lower status person acts to maintain “face.”

So when I approached folks, I never attempted to suggest that since I represented the county manager I had some leverage. Department heads understood that if they blew me off then they’d have to answer to the manager. But the constitutional officers could blow anyone off since they only answered to “the voters.”

So I was always deferential, polite and, if I thought it would help, apologetic. An approach of ” John, I hate to ask this because I know it’s a pain and last minute too but the county manager is on my case about (issue) and I need (info)…” got me what I needed faster than: “John, the county manager needs this yesterday.”

My focus was that *I* needed the information, not the manager. They were more likely to help me, even if they didn’t like the manager, because I was a “nice guy” who treated them with the respect due to them and who understood the importance of their independent role in county government even if the power hungry manager didn’t.  😉

When the county manager got into a tiff with an elected constitutional officer who could tell the manager to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine because “I don’t answer to an unelected bureaucrat who’s not from around here and will be gone in a few years”… I would be sent to mend the fences. I knew what the manager wanted and I was there to sniff out what was, and what was not, possible.

They’d rather talk to “Mr. Nice Guy” anyway. Maybe they could sell me on some portion of their position. I always encouraged that attitude.

I’d report back to the manager and sometimes suggest a compromise which, if the manager accepted, I’d then sell to the constitutional officer. My approach was: “John, I explained your position to the manager and he wasn’t happy with it but I noted that you have some valid points and I think if you can accept (compromise) I can persuade him to agree. But I doubt he’ll accept more than that.” I was trying to help them!

If the officer agreed, I’d report that back to the manager and then wait a day before going back and telling the officer that the manager had agreed but only after some tough persuading on my part. This is the classic “good cop” (me) / “bad cop” (manager) approach and it often worked.

I probably should have been nicknamed “good cop” but instead it was “the fox.” Because in an evaluation form which asked my boss to select from descriptions about how I dealt with others, he picked the one that read something like: “This is the employee who is sent out to deal with situations where others have failed because he is like a fox.”

In my last job before retiring, which I held for 20 years, I don’t recall any “official” nicknames. But I can imagine a few.

“Magician” is on the short list because I knew the rules so well that I could “magically” make something happen that appeared to be inconsistent with the rules. At one time, we had a $750,000 limit on an economic development grant to preclude a few local governments from using all the money on “mega” projects which should be shopped around for assistance from many funding agencies.

A huge ($65 million private investment) project creating 350 jobs that the Governor wanted to happen needed a lot of…incentive. Georgia was offering more… incentive…but the business wanted to come to Florida and just needed about a million more to get “close enough” to Georgia’s offer. Our program had the money but there was that $750,000 limit.

Every other state agency had put in what they could and was tapped out. Our federal friends were working on putting at least a million into the project but could not guarantee anything in writing within the business’ short deadline.

While in a meeting with all the parties about what infrastructure would go where, just in case the federales or someone else came through, someone mentioned that a fire protection water storage tank would be in the county but maintained by the city. I literally jumped out of my seat and exclaimed…”Whaaaat?”

Since the project was still in conceptual phase, we had never seen detailed maps and the “by the book” engineers had not understood the significance of the unprecedented fact that the site was partially in the city and partially in the county. But I immediately understood the importance of that technicality.

The rule allowed a $750,000 grant to a local government. We have a project located in two local governments’ territory. Therefore, each local government gets a $750,000 grant for infrastructure within their territory and that extra $750,000 closes the gap with Georgia. Even though everyone wanted the project to happen, they were all skeptical because of habit: one project, one local government, one grant. But technically…

Management was also at first skeptical but since it would give the Governor what he wanted they accepted my reasoning after the agency lawyer agreed that it technically complied with the rule. Besides, how many times would a project straddle two government boundaries? (It happened again a few years later with another mega project and we did the same thing.)

My most recent nickname is for poker. A few months ago, I was playing in a tournament at a local poker room. The top five finishers would be paid.

I made it to the final table of ten, and eventually I was one of the final six. When the final table drops to one person more than the number who will share in the money, this is called “the bubble.” No one wants to be the one who is eliminated and just misses winning any money. So most folks in the bubble play very conservatively until they know they are “in the money.”

Unfortunately, I was the short stack. By this time the antes and blinds were pretty high. If I didn’t win some chips soon, I would be eliminated just from the antes and blinds. But I wasn’t getting any decent cards and the players who were not the blinds (and often the small blind) were just folding, waiting or me to go out rather than risk losing a large contested pot and becoming the new short stack.

Some players urged me to just go “all in” and hope to be lucky. Without any other players coming in, the pot was at least 4,200 because of the six antes and two blinds. If I took on just the big blind as the small blind, I might win because maybe his cards were even worse or maybe I’d get lucky on the board.

But I don’t play that way. It’s one thing to have to play because you’re the big blind and another thing to choose to play very poor cards. When you have some chips, the pot odds for calling in the small blind are often good enough to warrant limping in with almost anything. But when you’re the short stack on the bubble, that calls for being extremely conservative.

I knew that if I was big blind and no one else came in, the small blind would probably put in the additional 800 chips with any two cards to call me in hopes of eliminating me rather than fold a $4,200 pot to me. That’s what I would do in his position. I just had to hope for a decent hand when I was big blind.

When my turn as big blind came, one player came in and then the small blind came in. That increased the pot to 6,200. I never look at my cards until I have to act, just to make sure that I don’t unintentionally display some good (or bad) expression which might help another player acting before me make a decision.

When I looked at my cards I saw a pair of eights. A mid pair is a “real” hand but since someone had already come in then they probably had a least one card higher than an eight. If I went “all in” the blinds might fold, but the player who voluntarily came in probably would not since he’d not have to put in too much more to call and he didn’t come in with a poor hand. I’d have to see the flop before considering a raise.

The flop came out with a Jack, a seven and a card below seven. Since the player who was not a blind acted after me, I had to watch for how he played because if he had a Jack I was beat. He didn’t voluntarily come in with poor cards.  His likely hands were an Ace, two face cards or a mid to small pair.

Small blind checked, I checked and the third player checked. The fourth and final cards were higher than an eight and play was the same.

At the showdown, the small blind had nothing but the third player, showed an Ace and  a seven to pair with the seven on the board. I showed my eights. I had survived….

Next hand, I was small blind and folded because of poor cards and because a non-blind player came in. That fold cost me 1,100 chips. I folded the next three hands.

By the time I was big blind again, antes were 400, small blind was 1,000 and big blind was 2,000. I was now “all in” because I only had about 2000 left. Seeing that I was on the verge of elimination, two other players and the small blind came in. That pushed the main pot to about 9,000.

When I looked at my cards, my heart leaped and sank at the same time…aces. But I had no chips to raise with, which would either make the others fold or at least narrow the competition down to one and make my aces a favorite to win. But with three other players, I could be beat if they all stayed in. If I didn’t improve, only one of the other three needed to get at least two pair to beat me.

For enquiring poker minds, the odds calculator at gives aces playing three players who have unsuited hands of J-10, K-2, and 7-8 only a 57% probability of winning. (If one of those three hands is suited, the probability drops to 55%. Against one player with K-Q unsuited, aces have an 87% win probability. So you see how the number of players alone undermines the likelihood of aces holding up.

That’s why you don’t want to face more than one player (two at most) if you have aces. Better to win a smaller pot than to lose a huge pot…

The flop was a dream flop that I would not be able to clean up with since I had no chips to bet. The other two aces came out. Only a straight flush could beat me and the flop made that impossible.

But those two aces excited the other players and now there was some strong betting into the side pot. With two aces out, there is fear that another player has an ace and so players can “represent” having that ace in hopes that others will fold. If they only have the other card that came out on the flop, they have two pair and it’s still a good hand.

All three bet on the flop and after the fourth card. One player folded after the last card when one player went “all in” but the remaining player (who had a larger stack) called the “all in.”

When the showdown arrived, the “all in” player showed the highest possible two pair but the other player showed… a full house.  Wow!

The dealer began pushing all the chips, not just the side pot, to the player with the full house until I protested. When I showed the aces, eyes went wide and jaws dropped.

Since the player who went “all in” was eliminated, I was now part of the final five and was guaranteed some money. Interestingly, the eliminated player had refused an earlier suggestion for a six way “chop” which would give all players $140. He was agreeable to a five way chop for $175 each after I was eliminated.

I asked him why he was so concerned over $35 and all he said was that he wouldn’t have to wait long for another $35. By not agreeing to the six way chop, he ended up with nothing. (I of course showed “table manners” by not rubbing that point in after he was eliminated.)

At this point, another player remarked that I was hard to kill, just like a roach. This player was nicknamed “Doc” and I said I liked that observation. From now on, they could call me “roach.” And next time, they better bring a big can of Raid… 😉

I was eliminated a few hands later. But I walked out with more money than I arrived with. And a new nickname.


One response to “They Call Me…

  1. I have rarely had nicknames, but I will never forget the first time I was ever called something other than my actual name. In my first year of junior high (7th grade for me), we had to walk single file from class to the cafeteria. To do that we had to pass a gauntlet of older boys who had eaten earlier and stood to the side for the sole purpose of harassing us younger kids passing by. One of them called me “Syphilis”, and the other boys thought that was amazingly funny and clever, and took up the chant. I so tried to be stoic, but I just couldn’t make it and burst into tears on the spot. Which of course encouraged them. I was so humiliated, and furious with myself that I couldn’t be strong enough to ignore them.
    Ultimately, however, that backfired for them. Two or three years later, when I was cute and desirable, I never forgot. If you were a part of the “Syphilis” crowd, hell would freeze over before I even talked to you, much less entertain the idea of going out with you.
    In college, I got my first “real” nickname. A boyfriend started calling me “Phyl” and it stuck. All my other friends started calling me that too. I wasn’t crazy about that, I thought it sounded too masculine, but I thought it was intended to be affectionate. So I never either encouraged or discouraged anyone from calling me that.
    Once I was out of college, that nickname went away…until recently. Your friend and my FB friend Silvester calls me Phyl. Seems reasonable, since I always call him “Sil”.

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