Sunday, March 05, 2006

My Regular Poker Game: Genesis

I PLAY IN A weekly no-limit hold'em game. We play a cash version of the tournament games you've no doubt seen or read about on TV or the Internet. We have a pool of about 20 players, some more regular than others, some considerably better than the rest. This is the game for which I often manage the chips and cash box, as described in this post. Although the game is currently held most often at a house in Maywood, last week it was run at the place of its birth, my apartment.

In February 2004, I posted an ad on to solicit players for a dealer's choice poker game. This is the same site where I had found that no-limit hold'em game in Manhattan. It was difficult to attend that game, because I would have to run back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to grab the last bus to my part of Bergen County. Plus the stakes were higher than my comfort level, to say nothing of my skill level. In the ad, I asked for folks who were interested in games in addition to hold'em — basically, the sorts of games we played at Rick's — and at the 5¢ to 10¢ initial betting level. This would leave me with some money for such trifles as food and rent. This initially limited my results, because the vast majority of existing games looking for players, and players in turn seeking games, either had higher betting limits or were strictly casino hold'em or seven-card stud.

I also posted the information on the Northern New Jersey poker group on, and this is how I got my first player, who happened to be the group's founder. Pete was a mid-40s guy in the computer-security business, divorced, living on the other side of Bergen County. He had started the group to get back into poker, and he preferred the sort of dealer's choice games I had inquired about to casino poker, which he found intimidating. For a month, however, we got very few replies to our ads.

This was the first time I had done any "selling" since my Boy Scout days, when I sold fundraising chocolate to my classmates and friends. Whenever I got a reply to the ad, I would send info on the game, and I asked the respondent to solicit his friends for interest. I assured folks that they could indeed deal hold'em in addition to the crazy wildcard games, but often they tell me to contact them when we switched to hold'em only, or they simply broke off contact. I urged Pete to inquire of his coworkers and former poker contacts to see if they wanted to join a new game, but that proved fruitless, because none of them ever called him back. I also cold-emailed a bunch of people on the games-wanted section of

Think about what I was doing for a moment. As with the New York games, I was looking on the Internet for folks with whom I could wager money. But this time, I was potentially going to invite them into my house, or at least tell them where I live. Four to six total strangers, plus Pete — about whom I knew very little, even after meeting him on neutral ground and corresponding via phone and email. This combined the perils of online dating with the emotions of gambling, coupled with possible drinking. I recall being aware of this, but I wasn't restrained by it, which by nature of its being shockingly out of character still amazes me today. I really wanted this game to get going.

Eventually, it did — on March 30, 2004 — barely. Pete made it over. One guy committed to coming the first night but never showed. Another guy came up from North Bergen, and fortunately brought a friend, who replaced the bailout. Another guy, Harry, lived in Dumont, but got completely lost on his way here, and I had to guide him in via cellphone. So for my auspicious debut as poker-night host, I had a total of five players, at a table that could hold seven. Fortunately everyone was up for poker and ready to play, so we enjoyed a few hours of odd combinations of poker, guts, and a few of the games I played with Rick's crew (e.g., Chase the Ace and Black Mariah). I could tell that Harry, a college student and a good player, was really more interested in playing hold'em, which he called whenever the deal went to him. It set me thinking whether I would have to suck it up and learn this game as well.

Because our pool of players was small, we didn't have another game until late April, and then only at two-week intervals. Spring was flowing like a healing balm over the land, and in its wake came softball season and Major League Baseball. I was still urging the few guys we had to bring their friends into the game, and sending notes to new folks on It had the feel of sending mash notes to girls I had a crush on, just folding them up and jamming them through the air vents of their lockers. (Not that I ever did this in real life. I was a lonely lad. But enough about my schooltime traumas.) Pete was not having any success getting his old poker pals back into the game, so we frequently had to move the game one week because we only had four players, which outside the final table of a no-limit hold'em tournament is borderline unplayable. Even when we did meet, we had a couple of single-appearance players who either got cleaned out or just didn't find the game to our liking.

Worse, now Pete, my co-host, began to get flaky about the game. He declined the requests of some guys to attend because he felt suspicious about them. This was based on the fact that they seemed to know each other, which he observed when he sat in on one of their games. I found this ridiculous — they were obviously just friends, not colluding cheaters — but I didn't raise a stink. Then aspects of Pete's work and personal life cost us a couple of games. He had to work late one time, and then, on the very evening we had a game set, he called last minute and with a sheepish tone to report that his car window had gotten stuck down, and as a result, he couldn't park it anywhere except his garage or his mechanic's shop. Our game seemed cursed.

I took a break from the game in July for the eminently practical reason of spending a week in Las Vegas, where finding a poker game required one merely to throw a dollar chip more than four feet. I did think about my game and how to build it up. I enjoyed the small-stakes games we were playing, but I had also been reading about hold'em and stud, so I might be able to host nights devoted entirely to one or both of them. Pete was suspicious of hold'em, however, not being able to get his mind around the concept — which was odd, considering some of the exotic dealer's choice games he called. Harry and a couple of the other players had asked specifically if we might ever do a hold'em night, but I had had to cite Pete as the reason we still left it up to dealer's choice, and encouraged those who asked to call hold'em whenever the deal got around to them. I couldn't tell them flat-out no, because I had so few regular players to begin with, but I could see how Pete's insistence was an obstruction to growing the game and its pool of players. I was still getting polite rejections from folks I emailed from the list for dealer's choice.

Fortunately, I was about to get a new surge of players, including two who would figure in the next phase of my game's evolution — some might say its destiny — as a hold'em night. More to come in the next few days. . . .

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