I was a 5th grade Nik Airball

Brad Willis
Posted on: May 11, 2023 07:54 PDT

When I was in fifth grade, I felt–for lack of a better word–unseen. 

I was smart but not as smart as the really smart kids. I wasn’t too ugly or too good-looking to be noticed as a monster or a pre-teen heartthrob. I couldn’t grow a beard like my early-puberty and holy-shit-hirsute best friend who was only a month older than me. I couldn’t yet play guitar, sing, write, or take people’s money at the card table. Oh, and the prettiest girl in the school had kicked me in the nuts at least once a year since kindergarten. 

These factors and many I still don’t understand today made me believe for the better part of one day that getting the attention of the masses was the same thing as earning the respect of the masses. Poker has recently seen its favorite villain, Nik Airball, fall victim to that same trap. The big difference between Airball and that version of me? Airball handled the aftermath much better than I did.

Making Brad Airball

It’s never easy to understand social emasculation, but as a fifth grader, emasculation is as impossible to understand as it is to spell, especially when it's 90% a product of the pre-teen imagination.

So, I did the only thing that made sense to my fifth-grade brain: I picked a fight with the toughest kid in school. I mean, hell, that’s the lesson of half the prison movies ever made!

It didn’t matter that I’d never actually been in a fight and that my crotch was sore from all the attention I was getting from that pretty girl.

A fight felt like a solution.

Using the logic that has started countless barroom brawls and more than a couple of government military actions, my fifth-grade solver-psyche settled on an after-school scrap with a kid named Jamie.

I followed Jamie home with a motley retinue of blood-thirsty people trailing behind me and salivating at the idea of a good old-fashioned fight. I was so focused on my goals, I didn’t see two things coming. 

  1. Jamie standing at the end of his driveway and declaring he wouldn’t be engaging in any clout-chasing violence with me because his mother had issued a decree that he was no longer allowed to fight
  2. Jamie’s fist coming at my face so fast that I didn’t have any time to think before I was prone and bleeding on the hood of his mom’s car

In between #1 and #2, I’d told Jamie his mom didn’t have any say in the matter, because I was about to punch him for reasons I wasn’t going to take time to list. So, he beat the hell out of me. You could suggest that I forced his hand. Put another way, I basically punched myself in the face with his fist. 

That trick got me 100% of the attention I wanted and exactly zero percent of the respect.

Airball (finally) finds the bottom of the net

We may never know exactly why Airball chose to go after Solve For Why’s Matt Berkey. Airball’s motivations might have been pure and then bastardized. He might have seen Berkey as my 5th grade Jamie–a quick ticket to stardom and the promise of no longer dreading the random day in the year a girl’s sneaker collided with the V of his too-blue Wrangler jeans. Maybe Airball let his mouth borrow his good sense while his brain was taking a super-chill indica nap. I don’t know, and I don’t know if it matters. Here’s why:

Despite the constant talk and chatter and insults and wine and bravado and wine and swagger and Twitter posts and MMA-weigh-ins and wine, Airball punched himself with Berkey’s fist, took a million-dollar L, and then did the craziest and most unexpected thing. 

The dude freaking apologized. 

“I want to apologize for the comments I made about Matt being a scammer and the negative comments I made about his business. That was out of line and I regret making those comments,” Airball wrote on Twitter. “I got caught up emotionally in the heat of the moment and said some things I shouldn’t have said, and for that I apologize. Matt showed during this match that he is a true professional.”

No equivocation. No slow-walking it back. No wine. Just an honest-to-goodness apology. Seriously, click that link, read the whole thing, and you could come away thinking, “I’ll be damned, Airball might not be a terrible person. Somebody call Snopes.”

And here’s the thing: if you had that thought, you would be agreeing with the toughest guy Airball could find to fight. Berkey recently intimated on his podcast that in the time he spent alone with Airball, he started to pick up a tell that had nothing to do with poorly-timed bluffs.

In unguarded moments, Airball would–perhaps accidentally–reveal that he was nothing like the character he developed to trash Berkey in public. 

Berkey, once a college baseball hurler, knows that a big part of the game is never tipping your pitches and letting a batter see your true intentions. But sometimes, mischievous muscle memory can thwart the deception and make a pitcher (or a play-acting poker player) reveal reality. 

Berkey marveled, “Airball tripped over my phone cord, and he immediately apologized.”

It might seem like a little thing, but Berkey is no dummy, and his trained eye picked up what Airball was accidentally putting down.

All along, Airball might have just been a nice guy in an asshole costume.

How to Apologize 101

Somewhere in the fabric of acid-washed society, some caveman wove a thread that convinced people that apologies are for the weak and that the weak deserve to get eaten by predators. That caveman’s ancestors evolved to offering non-apology-apologies and whatever public relations executives talk about in Zoom meetings. 

There is no science for a real apology. The analytics won’t give you a true picture of an apology’s worth. That’s because an apology is art that can only be created with sincerity. Try to paint it with any of those synthetics and spin doctors, and the only thing you’re creating is a window to the kind of human you really are.

After I picked myself up and wiped Jamie’s fist off my face, I didn’t apologize to him, his mother, or any of the assembled vultures standing in the road. Instead, my intuitive brain started understanding what was likely going to happen the next day at school, and I doubled down, calling over my shoulder as I walked away, “Don’t be telling anyone you kicked my ass, because this isn’t over!”

I feel pretty certain Jamie didn't hear me over the loud whooshing sound the remainder of my pride made as it evaporated into the afternoon air.

I went home and cried to my mom, Jamie apologized to his mom for having to beat me up, and Jamie, to his credit, didn’t waste his breath telling people about the Brad-sized smudge on his mom’s car hood. In a fifth-grade minute, it was all over except for the ever-lasting shame I’ve carried for being a needy, nerdy fifth-grader with fettuccine arms.

That said, while it wasn’t the only time I ended up in the middle of a fist-throwing fracas, it was the last time I ever picked a fight I’d have to fight with my dainty hands. 

Cynics will say Airball apologized for the optics. Berkey, instead thinks Airball apologized for real and from the heart. That apology landed more squarely than any of the grudge match bravado-banter and just as solid as Jamie’s fist on my face. 

Berkey, asked by his podcast friends where things stand with him and Airball, left no room for interpretation. 

“We’re definitely good now as far as I’m concerned,” Berkey said. 

It would be foolish of me to believe we’ve stopped the Beef Era of poker in its tracks, and I’m almost afraid to open up YouTube tonight. But for now, I’ll take it. And if I can spend weeks memeing the hell out of Airball for being a moron, I can also do the thing everyone else should do if he sticks to what he wrote in his apology. I can tell him he just did an important thing he can be proud of.

You did good, Nik. Be proud of that. Be so proud of it that you convince others to be just as good. It will suck for clicks and engagement, and we might get so bored that we go outside, talk to people, and play poker without a pitchfork in our hands. And if that happens, you can take some credit for it. I’m not sure that credit is worth a million bucks, but it’s worth something.

Shit. Sorry about that last line. Old habits die hard.