Saturday, February 11, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: Shuffle Up and Deal

JUST FIVE SHORT YEARS ago, poker was a game in decline in Las Vegas. Gambling veterans tended to study blackjack or craps, or perhaps the tuxedo-clad mystique of baccarat. Then the one-two punch of the World Poker Tour and Internet player Chris Moneymaker's 2003 win in the World Series of Poker sparked a renaissance. Suddenly, Vegas casinos reopened their poker rooms, expanded their existing ones, or included them in the blueprints to catch the wave. The town is now an ocean of poker, and many thousands swim among its green-felt islands . . . some of them fish, others sharks.

I am neither. I am a seasoned beginner at poker in general and Texas hold'em — the type you mostly see on TV — in particular. I know enough to stay out of obvious danger, but I haven't logged enough table time to match wits with leather-assed Vegas or Atlantic City locals who play every day or visitors who have honed their skill on the Internet. However, if there are some casual players at the table, like a rich lunatic who treats poker like any other luck-based table game in the place, or one or two people who are flush with booze or starved for sleep, I've got a better chance. This helped me score a sizable win in July 2005, when I haunted the Aladdin's poker room and its rich crop of mediocre players.

To sidetrack: It's not enough simply to know the rules, what hands to play, or how to bet. Even the famous tells — unconscious physical or verbal clues to the merit of a player's hand — are but one factor, as most skilled cardsmiths conceal them or drop false ones as traps. Finding tables where you are most likely to win is key — as is getting up from a table where you either can't make money (i.e., few hands get played to showdown) or where you are outclassed in skill.

What made the Aladdin so lucrative last year was its tournament schedule. People want to play the no-limit hold'em tournaments they see on TV, although for far smaller entry fees (anywhere from $40 to $100 for the smaller ones, vs. $1,500 and up for the WSOP events). Inevitably most of these players lose all of their play tournament chips and, spying the non-tourney no-limit ring games in progress, often decide to make a run at recouping their entry cash. One good hand and they're set, right? Problem is, if they were a rotten tournament poker player, they're going to be just as bad a ring-game player.

That's where they run into me.

I am not a genius. I am not a math whiz. I am not a wild gambler or a crazy bluffer. I am just a patient, slightly paranoid poker player who gets aggressive with hands that I think will go the distance. I don't get drunk at the table on the free booze. I don't take smoke breaks every 10 minutes and miss critical details on other folks' styles of play. I don't pound the table angrily when the flop connects with the hand I just folded. And I don't get emotionally attached to hands that — despite being statistical favorites to win — get beaten anyway. I fall back on the same expression every player uses when he takes a beating against the odds or at the hands of a shitty player — "Nice hand" — count my remaining chips . . . and consider it a loan.

One other thing I do is to take notes. I am still learning this game. The strategy I just described is very basic. Against pros, I would get peeled open like a ripe Jiffy Pop. So I write down on 3" x 5" cards details of the hands, bet amounts, what the opposing hands were, and (if I lost) what I could have done differently. Even if I get beaten or busted out, I grit my teeth, note what happened and why, and either buy more chips if it's an otherwise beatable table, or call it a night. (If this is in Vegas, a consolation In-N-Out Burger is not out of the question.)

So that's the preparation that goes into this sort of poker binge. How did I do this time?

Days 1 and 2: 2005 Redux
I returned to the Aladdin poker room with hopes that the caliber of players would match that of the crowd in July 2005. The lineup of dealers was largely the same — good news, as the Aladdin's crew is fast, friendly, and not into a lot of needless chitchat during hands. I did recognize a couple of regular players from last time as well, which helped me fold my borderline hands with more caution against these folks. In one case, it kept me from turning my two pair into an all-in situation and busting out to a guy's straight.

As for the rest of the players these two days, most of them were tourists staying at the hotel or just there for the morning tournaments, and were predictable and profitable. People like to talk during a game, and this is how you first get a sense of how much you might be able to get away with versus this or that player. Sometimes they've played regular weekly tourneys at their homes, or at bar leagues. Maybe they have a Party Poker account and they're giving live play a shot while in town for a convention. Sometimes it's a young hotshot, the best player in his Thursday night home game, who plays brashly, drinks heroically, and takes bad beats with a storm of obscenities because he has equated skill with entitlement, and is disappointed by both.

I took it all in, but kept largely mum on my own abilities. When the regulars began raising and reraising each other, or targeting the transient players, I backed well off and let the carnage pass me by. On both days, I managed to increase my initial buy-ins by at least 50%.

More important, when I called home at the end of my first-day session to check with my mother (who had had a test scheduled for her vision impairment), she said there was only a 50% blockage in a single carotid artery; probably not enough to warrant immediate surgery, just close observation. She once again exhorted me not to think of her while I was out there, and I breathed a sigh of relief audible even over the clanging slot machines in the main casino.

Day 3: The Luckbox Versus the Locals (and Me)
Here is where I was caught between heeding my advice over table selection and falling into the temptation to see when a player's lucky streak would end.

I should say that I have a neutral attitude toward luck. Specifically in poker, there are a few occasions where a super-strong hand is a 100% favorite to win. But often there is a mathematically expressible chance that a favorite will be beaten. I don't think this is "luck" in the sense of some wave of math-warping mojo, even as I use the term casually to describe it (kinda like how I use the names of the Christian Trinity, usually in vain, despite being a massively lapsed Catholic). Still, when a single player piles up unlikely wins in the face of statistical logic, it's tough for the human mind — ever the seeker of rational patterns — to avoid considering this some sort of mystical rush.

The crowd on the third day was distinctly different. On Sundays, the Aladdin runs single-table tournaments with the same format as those offered online. These are the sit-and-go tourneys I describe halfway through this post. This brought out veteran Internet players in bulk, so when I sat down at the no-limit ring game this time, it was mostly locals. It was safe to assume that I was going to see real skill here. I nonetheless decided to give it a spin.

I wasn't disappointed on the skill count. These players were deeply bankrolled, willing to raise big on single-pair hands or to bluff when the cards on the board were weak, and showed down just enough legitimate hands to make picking out these bluffs difficult. Although a few of the guys were playing on little sleep or too much early-morning booze when I first sat down, these guys eventually went to bed or breakfast to be replaced by solid players busted out of the SnGs but who still craved action. I played tightly (i.e., bet on few starting hands and raised with still fewer) while getting a feel for the players, but still couldn't make too much headway. I had two trips (pokerese for three of a kind) I was down about $50 out of my $200 starting stack when the biker sat down.

I don't know if he was actually a biker — he never stated his profession during the hours he played, nor did he have any motorcycle club insignia on — but he looked and sounded precisely like a Hell's Angel. Tall, husky, bearded, with a cigarette-ravaged grumble of a voice, he walked up to the podium wearing denim bib overalls and a stained baseball cap. Half of my table watched him, sensing fresh meat.

I watched but did not prejudge. That's dangerous. I got my ass handed to me once at the Bellagio by a sweet old man who plaintively asked, "Why?" every time I raised him in a pot. I later learned that he was leaving for the East Coast in two weeks to play high-limit seven-card stud for a couple of months. Assumptions can be costly. Dummying up and observing is free. So I let the locals salivate and decided to watch him for a couple of rounds to see how he played.

It didn't take long. He was there to gamble, but also to win.

Selectively applied aggression pays in poker. When you bet your good cards hard, or attack perceived weakness in other players' betting patterns, people think twice about calling your bets, and especially your raises. They begin folding hands they ought to play. And when they make mistakes like this, your chances of profiting increase.

The players at my table were not afraid of aggression, merely cautious. When the biker fired out bets of $10 to $20 each time he entered a pot before the flop (in a game where the typical raise might be to $7 or so), they pegged him as a LAG — a loose aggressive gambler. Professional poker players, especially those who have made deep mathematical studies of the game, eschew the term gambler. They believe they are making bets, raises, and bluffs on a rational, if carefully unpredictable, basis. What remaining randomness in the way the hands end up is a residue of their preparation, observation, and experience. (They tend also to be found in the kitchen at parties.)

The usual way to approach a LAG at a no-limit hold'em game is to tighten your range of starting hands, sometimes let him do the betting when you hold strong holecards, then reraise to get him and yourself heads-up and then try to take him to the cleaners. This is what the locals were trying to do with the biker. The problem was that the biker was making fantastic hands. Unlike the usual LAG, whom you can occasionally catch raising on a bluff and then get him to fold or go all in with a strong reraise, this guy was getting more than his fair share of pocket Kings and Aces, or two high suited cards, and hitting three of a kind or flushes on the board. If the flop looked remotely threatening, he would bet at least half the pot. None of the locals could tell if he was bluffing or not, so they folded (possibly wrongly) or called and lost more money. His constant aggression was cutting a path through their chips just as surely as an icebreaker across the Arctic Circle.

I only got heads-up with this guy once. After a couple of hours of dodging the locals and folding to the biker's raises, I got Kings in the hole. I raised to $15, and the biker was my only caller. The flop contained a third King, I bet somewhere around half the pot, figuring the biker would raise me, which he did. Three of a kind is sometimes safe to play slowly (without the full level of aggressive betting) if you figure the other player is going to do the raising for you. However, this can backfire if the next card is threatening, as it was in this case. The turn card made three clubs on the board, and neither of my hole Kings was a club. Worse, there were two cards that could help make a straight.

At this point, the biker announced he was going to call any amount I bet. Technically this is a binding bet. He then showed me one of his cards —the Jack of clubs — which is legal when only two players are in a hand. I decided to put my last $103 in the center. I had lost money not pushing trips hard in a previous hand, so I decided to make a stand.

"Shit," he said, and settled back into his seat to think. Nobody — not even the dealer — pointed out that he had stated an intent to call any bet I made. Another $103 would have been only about a tenth of the massive wall of red $5 chips fronting his seat. Plus, on the off chance he was actually drawing to a straight flush, the Aladdin had high-hand jackpots that would have paid him an extra $599 for hitting it. So he had to factor that potential gain into his play here.

After a couple of minutes, he finally folded. He explained that my all-in raise led him to think that he was facing a made King- or Ace-high flush, and that his Jack was the high and only club in his hand. We asked the dealer to show the now-irrelevant river card (which is usually not done in casino poker). To the biker's shock, it would have completed his straight flush!

I stuck around with my now-refreshed stack of chips for another hour or so, hoping to get the biker in another hand, but eventually he ambled over to the podium with three racks nearly full of red chips (almost $1,500!). The locals exhaled heavily, counted their remaining bankrolls, and waited for easier prey.

Said prey turned out to be my undoing. A young guy soon sat down to my immediate left. I could tell he was a tight player like me, but by this point, I was getting tired, and my radar was not returning signals rationally. I was dealt KK, raised, was reraised by the new player, raised again, was reraised again and this time all in, called, and was shown a baleful pair of Aces. The flop put out a third Ace but also a Queen and a Jack, so any 10 would have given me a straight. No 10 came, though, so as they say on the Internet, IGHN — I go home now.

The reversal of that day cost me my first two days' worth of profit and a couple of hundred more. I decided to back down in limits for my next outing, which, after nearly 7 hours of play that Sunday, was not gonna happen before Monday. If nothing else, I got to watch how players with daily experience react to a whirlwind like our biker. I also had reinforced for me the importance of picking the right table. I took this lesson to the Paris Las Vegas Champagne buffet, and began plotting my next game amid mounds of crêpes and stems of bubbly.

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