Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Early-Spring Raid on Atlantic City: Part II

AFTER A DELI LUNCH (mental note: Pickles's pastrami is just a touch fatty; try the corned beef), Dave (aka the mighty Felix) and I had the yen to try our luck again. We paid, headed out to the Boardwalk, huddled into our coats amid the cold early-afternoon air, and tromped back north to Resorts and the Trump Taj Mahal, for craps and poker, respectively.

The casino was much busier, and the poker room looked full. Still, seats open constantly at no-limit hold'em tables, and I had a choice of several open chairs. I sat at a different table than the first time, with a new bunch of chips and hope in my veins.

So imagine my happy surprise when I looked down at my second hand and found Aces! After a few people limped into the hand, I raised to $10. I only got one call. The flop came Queen high, with 2 spades and a Ten. I bet $30 to deter a draw to the flush, but he calls after a few moments' thought. Considering he didn't enter for a raise preflop, I had to doubt he had two Queens in the hole. I also couldn't put him on Jack-Nine — giving him an open-ended straight draw — which you wouldn't call a single raise with preflop. (Maybe a Foxwoods player would.)

The turn was a blank, making neither the straight nor the flush more possible. I bet $65 to give him no odds to justify continuing with the hand. If he called here, either he was slowplaying a set, had Ace-Queen with a spade on one or both and was ignorant of the crappy odds I was giving him to see the river, or was doing the same with Ace-King with one or two spades. He thought for a long while, then called.

The river was the Eight of Spades. I immediately cut out a stack of red, $100, and pushed it forward. An instant call or raise here would mean he hit his flush. Based on how I had trashed his pot odds for draws on both flop and turn, I couldn't put him on a flush, much less a straight. I also wanted my swift bet to represent a made flush. The other player muttered as much to himself as he thought about a call. That he had to think gave me optimism that my Aces were good.

After a couple of minutes, during which he kept agonizing about losing to a flush and how the call would be stupid, he called. "Do you have the flush?" he asked?

"No, Aces."

"Oh, I win." He showed Ten of Spades with an Eight. The Eight of Spades had given him two pair. He had called this far on a gutshot spade draw and second pair. Unlike my earlier loss that day, this was a bad beat, a suckout on the part of a donkey who had no right to call my three aggressive bets. Sickening.

I gritted my teeth, said nothing, and peeled 10 $20s off of my roll to bring me back up to $300. I watched him do the same thing against another player with Aces in the hole a couple of hands later, so I was hopeful I might get some of the money back. Alas, he and his two friends at the table racked up their chips and left shortly thereafter. Very frustrating.

I got little chance to replenish my deficit from the other players, as Felix appeared at one of the exits, lacking some of the usual spring in his step. The dice were just as cruel this round as they were the first time. The only mark in the plus column was my hit-and-run on Resorts earlier that day. Thus it was that we, two whipping boys for the cruel lash of probability, headed back to my car and hit the road.

Despite the losses, it was a fun trip. I hadn't seen Dave for some time, so we got a chance to rap about this and that for an extended stretch without worrying about our employers wondering why our emails had nothing to do with work. (Granted, I am on my way out, but Felix just might want to retain his position for a little more time.) We returned to Bergen County in fine time, and I bade him goodbye as I returned to my apartment. . . .

. . . to inquire more closely about a call I had received from Danny, the co-host of the regular Thursday poker game, to see if the match was still on for tonight. Yes, I had decided to continue my binge. My mishaps earlier that day were neither demoralizing nor costly enough to deter my last-waltz binge of poker that weekend. Danny told me the game would be held at the home of a fellow player, so I grabbed some makeshift dinner, rested a bit, and eventually sped north to Rockland County and my third game of the day.

SEVEN OF US MET in the host's basement, a full-foundation unfinished cellar cluttered with the usual trappings of suburban life, plus a few unusual items: a dusty, half-stripped old jukebox; a wall of streamers, Mylar balloons, tassels, and other party supplies; a tank of helium for said balloons; the remnants of a home office, complete with a white board bearing the ghostly traces of some meeting notes; and in the center, the bright green felt of a poker table. The host permitted his players to smoke, so he and a couple of them lit up, passing a coffee can for ashes, as the nonsmokers among us grabbed sodas and frozen beers stacked on an end table nearby.

It stood in stark contrast to the waitresses, bowtied dealers, and bright lights and wide space of the Taj poker room, but in its social-club ambience, it was damn perfect.

With less than the usual 10 players, sometimes it makes sense to step up one's aggression a touch. I did so, raising with a wider range of starting hands, like suited Kings or Aces, or even suited connecting cards like Jack-Ten, to throw folks off. Twice, this style of play forced me to fold when the board made hands stronger than mine almost certain winners, and I had to toss my cards to big bets. I rebought for $45 twice. In the back of my mind, I made some calculations about how much I was down for the weekend, but I resolved not to let these rebuys deter me from my style of play. In the right circumstances, it could pay off.

I soon had an opportunity. I bided my time, watching my poker buddies spar while waiting for decent hands to begin working. Two players eventually busted out, leaving five total. Getting hands to be heads-up between me and only one player would therefore be easier. I was dealt Ace-King of the same suit, and I raised, only to have Danny reraise me. I called, and we both went to the flop, which contained a King. I bet out, trying to take the pot down. Danny called. The turn was a blank, at which we both checked, but the river put a possible flush out there. I decided to end the hand or at least clarify it by going all in.

This knocked Danny for a loop. He knew I was the type to bet out if my small-to-middle pocket pair caught a set on the flop. There was a smaller chance I might have either hit the set on the turn, or actually might have bet top set, three Kings, on the flop. Danny began to doubt that he was good. I made it worse by posing the possibility that, with the table short on players and my starting hand range wider, perhaps I raised with two connecting flush cards and semibluffed on the flop to represent the King.

Now, I rarely speak in these sorts of confrontations. I learned this from one of the younger, yet most skilled, players in the game. He, too, is usually silent in big pots when folks are contemplating calling his all-in bets. One time, when he spoke, it threw the opponent completely for a loop. In fact, that opponent was the same one I faced in this hand, Danny, and my speaking had the same effect on him. Wondering if he was still ahead, he turned up his hand without folding. Pocket Aces. He held the winning hand, but he did not call, instead testing my reaction.

Think back to Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi is dueling his former student, Darth Vader. Kenobi sees he is hemmed in by a phalanx of stormtroopers, but that his young charges are on the verge of escape. He makes his decision, based on a deeper wisdom Vader can never understand. Kenobi offers Vader one last, knowing smile before he accepts his fate.

I looked at Danny and smiled that very smile.

Twenty seconds later, Danny set the chips in his hand back down, picked up his cards, and tossed them into the muck.

Naturally, I flipped up my hand before pulling in the chips.

Seeing Big Slick there haunted Danny for the rest of the night.

The other big hand came when we had dropped down to four players. I looked down to find AA, which I raised. At this point in the evening, at least one person was raising per hand, and getting a call about 50% of the time. This time, I was raised from my nominal $5 to $12. The raise came from Paul, who had the biggest stack of chips in the game.

No way was I folding, but I didn't want to scare off a potential payoff from KK or QQ by acting too swiftly. I looked at him, checked out the pot, "thought" a moment, then reraised him, replacing my red $5 chip with a green $25 one.

Paul also took some time to think, then declared another raise, to $50. A minimum raise, or "minraise," in this spot could only be KK or, perhaps, Ace-King suited. Now, some of the players in our game have a superstition about pocket Aces, in that they prefer to see a hand end before the flop if it means avoiding having the opponent crack their Aces by catching three of a kind in the next five cards. Mathematically, AA beats KK by the river 81% of the time, so this is specious reasoning. I therefore felt I had a chance to extract some more money from Paul, so I minraised back, dropping two more green chips into the pot.

Now Paul went into the tank, genuinely fearing AA. With a massive stack behind him, the individual call of $50 wasn't so much. With a nonthreatening flop, however, or one with an Ace, he had to know I would get the money into the center at some point. This was exactly true, with my preference being to go all in on any flop with no King. Still, the gears turned in his head. With what other hand could I minraise him back? Me, one of the tightest players in the game? After surely turning these details around in his head a thousand times, he made the call.

The flop came maybe Eight high, no pair. I went all in. Again, to theatricize things uncharacteristically, I shoved my chips in slow motion, humming the Imperial March as they approached the $200 already in the pot. Calling my bet would cost Paul about another $115. It represented about 20% of his huge chip stack. Still, nobody wants to undo some of the good play they've executed all night, not even if all of their gains have come on a single buy-in.

Paul thought long and hard, decided he might have a chance, and called, tossing his Kings face up in front of him. I obliged his suspicions with my Aces.

The host, who was dealing the hand, initially gave Paul and me heart attacks when he dealt out two Kings for the turn and river, but these were from the second deck not in use, through which he had dug in anticipation of seeing one of us show Kings. The real turn and river were of no threat to me. I dragged in a pot considerably bigger than my losses for the day.

I ended the night a winner, even after losing $100 to Danny when his two pair partly avenged my earlier bluff on him. I dug my way out of the $90 hole at this game, and put myself within $15 of even (with my craps win) for the weekend. I staggered off to my car, leaving behind some players incredulous at the style of play I had exhibited that night, and drove through the early morning back to my welcoming bed.

I hope all of the players from Saturday night will be there on this coming Thursday for the regular game. I want to use this recent experience to leave them guessing as to what sort of game I'm playing. I know Danny will still be tilting from folding the winning hand, and Paul may overplay a strong hand while looking for some payback. I will do my best to handle both with the unusually sharp perception I showed, even in the depths of a long day and a deep evening, that night.

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