Saturday, February 24, 2007

See You in Poker Shul

SUCCESSFULLY SUPPRESSED AN URGE to visit one of our local casino emporia this weekend. I was in the mood for some hold'em, possibly at Foxwoods, where the maximum $1/$2 no-limit game finally has been raised to match that in Atlantic City ($300). Foxwoods takes a time charge per half hour at this game, instead of a rake from each pot as is typical in Vegas or AC, and when the max buy-in was $100, throwing $10 to the house each hour took a big chunk out of your stack. Plus, many of the dealers are slow to get the cards out and do little to quicken the pace of the game. However, combine this with the generally craptacular skill level of the $1/$2 NL players there, and it now has the potential to be quite tasty.

My reason for restraining myself is that I am returning, after a long hiatus, to a regular tournament offered at a Bergen County synagogue. One of the earliest regulars in my poker game had started running this tourney sometime before joining my crowd, and he extended an invitation to those playing. I tried it for the first time in September 2004, and I have returned a few times since. I'm not a strong tournament player, but I alternated for a couple of years between this one and a private home tourney in Wyckoff that, to my regret, broke off sometime early last year. I prefer low-entry-fee tournaments, because I'm not the best tourney player in the world. Aside from a couple of low-priced matches at the Plaza Las Vegas, my meager experience has been amateur-run events among folks who mostly know one another.

And I have to admit I prefer it this way. In a casino, I would be playing against a roomful of strangers. Playing tournament hold'em correctly, at which the wrong move can send all of your chips to another player and your ass back to the parking lot, can be a lonely, tiring experience. In the early stages, you are playing only the best starting hands, which inevitably will be separated by long minutes of tossing crappy cards in the muck, scrutinizing the play styles of your tablemates, and ignoring the many distractions casinos have to offer. And you're doing this among folks who have no reason to extend you any good will or even to recognize your existence past being a possible source of tournament chips.

The amateur matches in which I've played are quite different. They emerged as part of the great flowering of home games in 2003 with Chris Moneymaker's win at the WSOP and the debut of the World Poker Tour. Existing poker games began dealing hold'em, and groups of friends new to poker wanted to give the "TV poker" a try. The more enterprising among them tried the tournament format, and guides for running such games began to appear on the Internet. Soon, you couldn't play in a home game without one of the players mentioning an upcoming tourney with a few open seats. Most folks knew one another at these tournaments, so you could at least have some fun and not entirely feel like a ribeye in a shark tank.

The tournament I will play in tomorrow had the added unity of featuring folks belonging to or friends/related to members of the same synagogue. If they don't already see one another socially, they at least meet up once a week for services. So it's more like playing in a club full of folks out to have fun and, maybe, make a little poker money. Although there were a number of nonmembers there to play, few stood out as outsiders, just because this was such a congenial bunch. One or two went the whole sunglasses-and-hat routine and played the tourney like poker robots, and in turn wasted the chance to have a good time.

I haven't won yet in this series of tournaments. The players are, on average, not skilled at this style of poker. A few of them who have played some form of poker for decades are repeat winners. The majority are calling stations, to use the poker lingo for a player who will call any reasonable bet and who are difficult to chase out of pots with raises. When you have a strong but vulnerable hand, like Jacks, you want to get those dealt a single, higher court card out, because you could be behind a single Queen on the flop. Some of the folks I will see tomorrow will simply call, and each successive call represents further odds justification for the next person to stay in. This is how I've been busted out sometimes. If the occasion weren't so much fun to attend, it would be vexing. Still, when you have to reraise with Queens because nobody folded to the first player's raise, and your reraise gets four calls, you kinda cross your fingers and toes before the flop comes down.

I hadn't played for some months because the local no-limit ring game was kicking my ass through the late summer, and I was questioning whether I was playing this game remotely correctly. Through fall and the beginning of winter, however, I made a huge comeback, beating both the local game and tables I've raided at Atlantic City. It's been ages since I played any tournament at all, so when I got word the event was on again, I registered. Last time I played, they got 64 players, each of whom paid $25 into the prize pool. I believe first place gets 40% or 50%. So at minimum, the winner got $640. If the new hall can hold even more people, that grand prize will be sweeter still.

So we'll see how well I make out tomorrow. I can't claim to be the best player in the room, but I intend to have the most fun. After these past couple of weeks, it will be welcome.

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