Saturday, July 22, 2006

Las Vegas 7/06: Escaping West and the Course Curriculum

RIGHT NOW, IN JERSEY, it's raining hard, with thunder and wind lashing at the dripping bushes outside my window. I would say it represents a radical difference from the place where I spent the bulk of the past 2 weeks, the arid valley of Las Vegas, Nevada, but as our plane rolled into takeoff position this Thursday, rain — thick drops of it — was spattering the porthole windows. This was the third dose of precipitation in as many days there, and the first two had filled the dry washes with rushing, debris-choked waters that engulfed cars and harried casino patrons in the usual areas where floods occur. Locals know to dodge such low points as the Flamingo Wash behind the Imperial Palace, but inevitably, some impatient tourist judges his or her rental car to be seaworthy, attempts to ford the maelstrom, and swamps hopelessly, giving the wiser locals a wry chuckle when they see the flailing dupe being plucked from the roof of the car by Vegas's Bravest.

Indeed, a sly trap the town springs on its unwary visitors, one of many. I stepped in a few over the course of my visit, but I also set a couple myself, both of these transpiring on the green gladiatorial felt of no-limit Texas hold'em. Although I came back just about $140 lighter, I fought my way out of a nearly $600 hole due to a crushing misfortune with good cards on the second day of the trip. All in all, the trip was like a visit to poker graduate school, where one's fundamentals are taken for granted and where advanced skills can be taught and tested. A buck-forty was cheap wisdom compared to the tuition I saw some folks pay.

First, some details on logistics and my chosen reading material.

I flew out to Vegas for my ninth visit this July 12. After a very short night of sleep — more like part of the morning — I was driven via Air Brook to the airport at a quarter past five. No hitches on the ride to Newark, check-in, the security hurdles, or boarding the jet. The in-flight movie was so nondescript, and contained so few identifiable stars, that I can't even tell you what the hell it was. I know it was yet another light romantic comedy, of the type I railed against in January. I was busy reading my brand-new copy of No Limit Hold'em: Theory and Practice, my first copy of which was turned to wet pulp earlier in July by a bad morning rainstorm. See, the poker grad course had a new textbook to absorb, and, only having replaced this tome a day prior, I had some catching up to do for the first class.

As you might expect, the poker boom has flooded bookstores with new and reprinted books on the topic. Over the course of 2004, as the World Poker Tour garnered record ratings and the World Series of Poker Main Event was won by another nonprofessional player, it seemed that anyone who had ever published a poker how-to book got a new edition of it out to the public. Six months before Raymer's big win, I had to order a copy of David Sklansky's seminal Theory of Poker used from someone on eBay. By the second half of the year, even writers long dead were having their texts dusted off, bound with new covers, and placed on the shelves next to the works of living stalwarts like Doyle Brunson or T.J. Cloutier.

Lurking near the end of most lineups of poker books, mostly due to Sklansky being the author or co-author on many of them, the offerings of poker publishing company Two Plus Two have been seminal to the educations of amateurs and pros alike. Older titles by Sklansky and frequent collaborator Mason Malmuth recently have been supplemented by crucial studies on small-stakes limit hold'em and tournament play. The No Limit Hold'em text is the most recent addition to their library, and from what I was reading on the Two Plus Two forum devoted to study of smaller stakes no-limit games, this one was definitely worth a read.

I envy the younger players, who certainly have more time on their hands to do the study that I need to wedge in among work and sleep. I can recall a time when I virtually knew all pertinent parts of the various first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks by heart. Nowadays, guys are learning poker on the Internet and sharpening their understanding of it via books and online discussion boards. I remember one year when I was in Vegas, I wandered by the high-limit section of the Palms poker room. One player at a $1/$2 no-limit hold'em table had a pile of his effects on one of those rolling drink stands some casinos have for tableside drink or food convenience. In the pile was Sklansky's Theory of Poker, another Two Plus Two book which I now believe was Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players, and a stack of 3" x 5" notes rubber-banded together. I never spoke to the man, not having any legitimate reason for interrupting him in the middle of what was (to me at that time) a high-level game. But I have taken his example as an inspiration in what sort of study poker deserves if one wants to win consistently.

So buying a second copy of No Limit Hold'em was more than a kneejerk reaction to the first copy's needless destruction. I wanted to stay competitive. I had to assume that professionals — not merely the TV personalities that have emerged from the sport, but the anonymous, skilled grinders who derived their daily pay from winning at the "smaller" games — were reading the book as well. It is an advanced course in no-limit poker thought, and I didn't get through the whole book while I was in Las Vegas. Time actually spent at the tables, and the sleep deficit it created, threw my reading schedule all out of whack. It will take me some time to digest it fully. But I know that guy at the Palms surely has a copy, and is working through it. Therefore, so should I.

More details, as well as my Route 66–length tangents, in the subsequent posts:

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