Friday, October 28, 2005

Poker All Night, Sleeping 'Til Noon, and My First All-In Bet

THIS IS THE SECOND of my two days off, and boy, was it nice out. Gently breezy, bright sky, cool air . . . finally some fall weather to enjoy. Of course, had I not gone to sleep last night at four in the morning, I might have had a few hours more to savor, but, alas, last night's poker game ran juuuuust a little late. And I have another game scheduled for tonight, this one a tournament. In poker-ese, this is a no-limit hold'em tournament, $40 buy-in for T1000 in chips, no rebuys, no add-ons, blinds start at 10-15, 30-minute rounds, top four spots pay. If this is gibberish to you, then read on and learn, as this will be the first of many posts in which I detail my slow assimilation into the hold'em Borg collective.

As you have no doubt noticed, the form of poker known as Texas hold'em has seized the imagination of the nation. I mentioned in a previous post how I began playing poker again, but I tried seven-card stud in my first casino excursions. What poker I had played before that had either been stud or some wildcard variation of it, so I stuck to my most comfortable game. I liked it enough to set aside some money for a bankroll and buy an introductory book, so I could play that instead of the cash-draining table games (e.g., blackjack, craps) that ultimately keep the casino's lights lit and Siegfried and Roy awash in chest-waxing dough. When I eventually visited the local casinos in Connecticut and Atlantic City, though, I noticed more and more people playing a different poker game than mine. I also saw printouts of tournament schedules, most of them not for seven-card stud, but for this hold'em game.

Ah, "this hold'em game." From Southwest obscurity, to late-night ESPN2 reruns, to Travel Channel novelty, to new national obsession in apartment kitchens, on fraternity pool tables, and across the Internet. Two cards in the hole, five on the board, best five-card hand takes it. And it is the no-limit style of hold'em that has commanded the most interest among the new generation of players. You can bet your entire pile of chips at any time, which can either propel you toward a commanding lead in money, or send you slinking toward the parking lot stone broke.

As 2003 drew to a close, I could tell that hold'em was edging out stud in popularity. The World Poker Tour program, and the victory in the annual World Series of Poker of Chris Moneymaker — an amateur who won his entry via an Internet poker site —sparked a groundswell of popularity among a horde of poker virgins. After a decade during which many Las Vegas casinos closed their poker rooms amid declining interest, people invaded those that remained to play that game they saw on TV. They also swarmed over the gambling sections of chain bookstores, seeking out the previously obscure texts on the game. Like that scene in Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd cite various eldritch tomes to diagnose Sigourney Weaver's haunting, you would hear new players name-check poker-lit luminaries like Sklansky's Theory of Poker and Jones's Winning Low-Limit Hold'em. (And these books often remained more spoken about than actually digested, much to the emolument of professional poker players.)

In addition to offering actual live poker, the Internet allowed new players to start or join games via sites such as Craigslist or, both of which I trolled for new games. Rick's group wasn't meeting as often because one of the regulars dropped out, reducing the odds of getting the minimum number of players. And describing Foxwoods and Atlantic City as "local" casinos glosses over the reality of 5 total hours in the car for trips that were essentially freshman-year classes on the game, with a rather unforgiving grading system. Coming home after getting busted as a beginner was a bit of a sting. I wanted to learn more locally and more cheaply if I could.

So I searched for nearby, inexpensive dealer's-choice and seven-card stud . . . initially, not hold'em. This limited my options, as most of the ads were for hold'em games. I had purchased the dominant introductory text to Texas hold'em, the second edition of Lee Jones's Winning Low-Limit Hold'em, and I had been watching the World Poker Tour, but these could only take me so far as tutorials without live play. Despite feeling more comfortable with stud, I would need to begin learning hold'em too. I was still a stud beginner, and there are enough significant differences between stud and hold'em to make scaling two learning curves a bit of a challenge.

So you can imagine how I did when I first played hold'em. I found a game in Manhattan not too far from my company. I played in a dealer's-choice game in January 2004, and three of the players had an ongoing no-limit hold'em game at their office, to which they invited me. The dealer's-choice game was fairly lousy for a variety of reasons, so I only played there once and took the guys up on their invitation.

Now, let's back up for a moment. I am not a hugely extroverted person. Shy, you might say. Not usually the first to try new things. My first trip to Las Vegas in 2001 was a huge break from routine, and perhaps opened the first crack in my usual withdrawn self. Also, over the course of the next couple of years, I began to see my friends less and less often, due to increased family and work responsibilities on both my part and theirs. When I made contact with Rick again in 2003, it was in the midst of a social drought. I was happy to have a new social circle, especially one that allowed me to host gatherings like game nights. So I was poised to make the next jump when it arose: looking for a poker game on the Internet.

I was understandably nervous the first time I did this at the Manhattan dealer's choice game. Think about it. I was going to a strange apartment, alone, with more money than I usually carried around (admittedly just a few $20s, but the people on the other end of the ad didn't know I wasn't packing a mighty roll). I had called the hostess at her request after answering the email, which was as much a security move for her as it was for me. Still, this was unknown territory, and definitely a huge break from my usual social shell.

Fortunately, the destination did not involve a rag full of chloroform and a date with Malaysian organ thieves. And when I got the invite to the hold'em game, I had already played with these guys for a few hours, so I felt a little more secure. Nonetheless, I did feel nervous as I walked through an evening snow flurry over to their office a week or so later . . . passing, oddly enough, the New York Friars' Club on their street. Their company, a firm that managed back-office computer and software solutions for hedge funds, was based in a nondescript office building in Midtown. They had commandeered a conference room for the game, and upon being introduced around, we settled in.

Poker games are usually defined by the initial betting commitment and how many chips you can buy. For this game, the initial bet was a dollar, and you could buy up to $40 in chips to start. As I know now, this is a terribly small amount of money for a no-limit game, especially one with only six players like this one. Between the blinds (compulsory starting bets that two players post each hand) and any abortive starting hands you then have to toss, you could be pissing away $3 or $4 each time the deal goes 'round the table, and that's if you're doing what good players do and tossing the vast majority of your initial two-card starts. Still, you're going to lose a good tenth of your starting $40 just sitting there for a full revolution while you wait for a decent chance to play. And this is no limit. If you do commit to a hand, you could easily get a third to a half of your stack into the pot before the showdown . . . with a loss leaving you crippled in terms of getting back out of the hole, unless you buy back up to the starting amount.

So I just sat there, folded most of the cards I was dealt, and tried not to get too involved in mediocre hands. Even these abortive hands were inexorably eating up my pile of chips. One advantage I had was that I was just as much of a new player to them as they were to me, so they had no real read on my skills. When I eventually did get a pair of 10s, therefore, my raise got attention and respect. All but one player folded.

The next three cards in hold'em are dealt face up. This is called the flop. (Two more are dealt out, one by one, to finish the hand, with rounds of betting after each.) In my case, the flop contained a King, normally a disquieting sight. But it also revealed a 10, giving me three of a kind. My opponent, Chris, was first to act, and — deciding he wanted to win it right there — bet about a third of his remaining chips. The other players got excited, partly because (as I would later learn) Chris had a way of either folding or betting heavily, even on a single pair. They were also eager to see what I, the new guy, would do when confronted with this aggression.

I did not disappoint. Using the three fateful words that were even then echoing through the poker world from a new wave of newbies, and were slowly becoming a metaphor in the broader world, I looked at Chris and said, "I'm all in."

The other guys cheered. Chris slumped back and crossed his arms, recalculating his chances. Even with my inexperience, I figured him for just a pair of Kings, maybe with an Ace as his second hole card, a hand the hold'em world calls Big Slick — a strong starting hand. He had a number of ways to improve and beat my three of a kind. After a surprisingly long minute, he called my bet and flipped up Big Slick. There were 12 cards that could give him a better hand than mine, and he figured for the amount of money he could win, the cash he placed in the pot next to the Ace and the King was a good price for the potential profit.

The betting now over, we looked at the dealer to decide our fates. He dealt out the turn and the river with an agonizing pause between each.

Neither of the two cards helped Chris in the slightest.

My three 10s held up.

Handshakes and backslaps showered upon me. Chris said, "Nice hand." I would later understand this to be a standard face-saving response on taking a serious hit at the table (especially against long odds or from a weak player), but in his case he was sincere.

Others would enjoy his money that night. I was, after all, a beginner, and the other players' experience eventually took its toll on my chips. In the short term, I booked the night as a loss. In retrospect, though, despite my continued study and play of seven-card stud, this night can be seen as my beginning of the end as a stud player.

Whereas a skilled stud player can slowly bleed an opponent of all of his chips, only in a no-limit game can you eliminate a player in one hand. Stud might be the death of a thousand cuts, but in no-limit, with a single card your foe's head can roll to a stop at your feet.

In my next post — in addition to far fewer violent metaphors — I will detail how my apartment became the center of "the Westwood game."

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