Terror/A Technical Discussion/A Tender Moment/Dancing Monkeys/It Goes Sideways/It Goes Downhill: A Four-for-One Poker Report

16 September 2005

Terror, Exhaustion: It’s sometimes hard to get an accurate sense of just how tough our poker game is when I’m on the inside, battling with these hardcore heavy hitters every Friday. We get clues from the outside sometimes, like when a new player comes in and throws away his chips as if he just that morning had had a religious awakening and had then decided to renounce all material wealth. Another clue was when I went to Las Vegas twice this summer and made money playing poker when most people don’t. Another clue was when Bert, inventor of the Bert Classic and offset printing, went to Las Vegas with me the second time that I went. He played casino poker for the first time in his life he ended up ruling the table and making a ton of money. Yet another clue was the fact that at both Madcity No-Limit Poker Invitationals that we’ve so far had, the finalists were made up primarily of people from the poker crew, and each time the winner was one of us. The biggest clue has to be the fact that on 17 September 2005 my big bro played in a twenty-two person, forty-dollar buy-in no-limit hold 'em tournament and won the thing.

What am I saying? There’s a lot of skill at our table, and you had better bring whatever it is that you are capable of bringing because an off night will cost you a lot of green and psychological damage. You also need to be constantly improving/adapting. If you don’t, everybody else will go right by you. The same little strategy that was extracting money one week, will cause you to pay out the next. Whatever new strategy/play you then put into use in order to compensate will also be adjusted for. It’s a brutal cycle of mandatory improvement and one-upmanship and cruelty, and it’s terrifying and exhausting, and it is also the highlight of the week.

Sometimes, I Do Really Stupid Things: Omaha is a tricky game. There’s no such thing as a made pre-flop hand. You might be holding A-A-K-Q, you bet up your aces, or your straight draws, or your flush draws if two of your cards are suited, but some guy holding 4-4-7-9 might flop a 4 or a straight, and your hand is already nearly dead. Why am I mentioning this? Because it makes no sense to bet up your aces, or to raise or re-raise with them before the flop because there are more cards that can hurt you than can help you when the flop comes down. You make a max bet, which would usually drive out most of the players, but just about everybody will be on some type of draw, and the chances of somebody catching a large chunk of the flop and cracking your hand is pretty high.

If you bet pre-flop, essentially all you’ve done is increase the cost of seeing a flop without gaining value from risking your chips. I know this. Every time we play Omaha, I know not to bet it up. But what happens when I see a nice starter hand? I start making dumb pre-flop bets. If you do that enough during a game—a dollar here, sixteen there—you can quickly turn a winning night into a losing one.

To top it of, once you’ve paid into a pre-flop pot, it becomes much harder to get out. You figure that you’ve already paid amount X into the pot, so when somebody bets it up before the turn, you’ll call, even if you got no piece of the flop, even if you know that there’s no way that you could possibly be in the lead, even if you know that you're going to need fourth- or fifth-street miracles, maybe even a runner-runner miracle (which is the only thing that might make me believe in God, but I doubt it).

Even after all the idiotic plays that I made in Omaha, I still managed to make $46.25, but I could have made so much more if only I’d listened to the voice in my head (the poker one, not the ones that tell me to drive my car off a cliff or set myself on fire).

23 September 2005

I Don’t Want to Get All Technical and Boring: I’ve lately been thinking about two phenomena (thinking about shit like this is what I do at work all day; seriously, I need to start buying lottery tickets): Pot Commitment and the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. Pot commitment happens when you’ve paid so much into a pot that you won’t let yourself get out, even when every cell in your body is telling you that you are beat and that every dollar you put in the pot is a dollar that you will not see again any time soon. You're beat. Why throw in more money? Because, my man, you are pot committed.

Is it some blind hope/wishful thinking? Maybe everybody else was bluffing or over-betting their hands and that’s why each one threw sixteen dollars into the pot and why you should, too. No. If there’s that much money getting thrown in, you’re dead. Mostly, once you realize that you’ve been beaten like a thrift store snare drum (horribly and incessantly), you’re just paying for a showdown, for the opportunity to turn your cards over at the end, or to see the cards of whomever it is who has won the hand. And, even though you won’t admit it to yourself, and never to anyone else, you probably still harbor the tiniest oh hopes that you’ll somehow win the hand. It’s sad, really.

People will also say that they had to defend their initial bets, that they’ve already invested so much that to not throw chips in at the end would be to give up on chips that have  already paid into the pot, which leads us to the Sunk-Cost Fallacy. Read the article, and then come back. It’s okay; I’m not going anywhere. Okay, so the Sunk-Cost Fallacy applies directly to the Pot Commitment problem and tells we poker players to just fold when we know we are beat, even if we’re already put twenty into an eighty-dollar pot and need only to put in an additional eight for a shot at winning. The Sunk-Cost Fallacy tells you to fold if you know you’re dead. Pot Commitment, a description of a (constantly) re-occurring phenomenon tells us, however, that we are, more often than not, going to throw in the eight, even when it is against our best interests. How fucked up are we? What you need to do is to forget about the chips you’ve already got in play because, man, they’re gone.

It Was a Tender Moment: Ivan and I talk a lot of shit to each other. A lot. How did it start? Ivan started with the verbal head games (Who knows why? You'd have to ask him, though I suspect that it had to do with trying to find every last advantage that he could.), and I got tired of it (because it was working), so I started coming back at him with my highly developed verbal skills. For me, it’s pretty natural to talk shit because, as my loyal readers know (all none of them), I wrestled in high school for a hardcore team. In a wrestling room, it’s pretty clear who the best wrestlers are (they wrestle each other and find out in about thirty seconds). Part of becoming a hardcore wrestler is taking abuse from the better wrestlers and giving abuse to the weaker wrestlers. The better that you are, the less mental torture that you have to take. Basically, we wrestlers brutally hazed each other, but it was only in the effort to be badass. Hazing with a purpose, if you will.

I can take it, and I can dish it out. Okay, I can’t really take it; if some dis were to hit too close to home, I’m pretty sure that I would die inside (I am, after all, a poet [but manly, dude, very manly]), but I’d put on a brave face. Thankfully, nothing Ivan’s thrown at me has been that bad.

Somehow, the discussion at the table turned to the subject of the verbal jujitsu that had been taking place. Ivan’s said stuff, I’ve said stuff, others have said stuff. I hadn't given it much thought, but the fact that it came up as a topic of conversation made me worry that I’d perhaps been more cutting than I had intended to. I apologized if I’d ever been too cold blooded, and we went back to playing poker. Really, it was touching.

At the end of the night, I had made $77.25, which made it one of the best nights that I’ve had in months.

Commercial Break: Okay, I need to take a second here to give a shout-out to caffeine. A little bit ago, I was dozing off in front of my rig (I had a bitch of a day at work on Friday, played poker until two in the morning, was asleep by three, was up by 6:45, and then worked for four hours), but I popped a caffeine pill (they’re really cheap at Target), washed it down with a big-ass Starbucks coffee (shut up; they have T-Mobile wifi), and now I feel great. Caffeine: is there anything it can’t do? The answer, my friend, is no. I need to get to a hospital now because my hands won’t stop shaking and my heart is going like a hummingbird’s.

30 September 2005

I Am Not a Dancing Monkey!: First of all, in general I am anti-exclamation point (they’re a little too exclamatory for my taste, and, really, why make a fuss?), but I felt that I needed to emphasize that I am not, in fact, a dancing monkey. This all goes back to the fact that I’m pretty goddamned hilarious. If the poetry thing doesn’t work out (Who knows, maybe my book, which has sold, like three copies [really, it’s embarrassing] will all of a sudden start to heat up like a bright burning star, but I doubt it. The last time I checked my Amazon sales rank, I had sunk into the seven figures. That’s right, there are at least a million books that are selling more consistently than mine. I should just kill myself), I have long believed that I could go into comedy. I’m no good on stage, I hate collaborating, I hate submitting my work to others (who are they to judge me?), I’ve never been able to pimp my writing, but, still, I’m convinced that I would somehow be hailed as a comedic genius.

So, I’m really funny, and everybody at our table knows that I’m funny, or at least knows that I think that I’m really funny. Because our game is really high-pressure and tense, they look to me to make them laugh. I don’t really mind, but sometimes I can really feel the pressure to be funny. In fact, I've abandoned one of my classic bits because of the pressure. Whenever my big bro (as nails as they come at a poker table) and I went heads-up, I would always joke that “It’s biblical,” because, you know, it was brother against brother. This always got laughs, at first because it was funny (invoking the Bible when you’re playing poker is pretty sacrilegious), and then because it reminded people of when they had thought that it was funny, but it was a joke that could only be told in a very specific situation. Whenever that situation arose, I could feel the pressure to wheel out my little joke, but that was exactly why I could no longer tell it. Now, the only way to save the joke is to use it only very rarely.

Non-comedy wise, I made $84.50. It was the best night that I’ve had since 25 February 2005, which was a little over seven months ago. The thing is that I don’t think that I’m playing any better than I have before. The only difference? I’ll make calls even if I don’t have a truly monstrous hand, and I’ll bluff at pots once in a while, which either get me folds (and you always want to get folds instead of giving folds) and chips that I shouldn’t have won, or I lose at the showdown, where I make sure to turn over my cards so that the other guys can see that I was on a straight bluff, which might get them thinking later on that I’m bluffing when I’m really not.

7 October 2005

It Goes Sideways: It’s bound to happen. A thing that’s really great can all of a sudden go south. That thing is the Friday-night poker game, though I hope it is only temporary.

First, there’s this new guy at the game, and he is quite possibly the most annoying person with whom I’ve ever played poker. Unfunny jokes. Poor poker etiquette (and he gets snippy when it’s pointed out to him). Slow play (if it should take twenty seconds to make a decision, he’ll take a minute). Worst of all, he won’t play all the games that are dealt, which is the major annoyance. Mostly, we play Hold 'Em, Omaha, Omaha Hi-Lo, and, very rarely, Tahoe. This guy, though, won’t play Hi-Lo. Who’s heard of a guy sitting out a hand just because he doesn’t like the game being dealt? Omaha’s not my favorite game, unless it’s no limit, but I wouldn’t even begin to think of sitting out (because I’m not a punk). Nobody else has ever sat out of a hand. The classy/only acceptable thing to do is to ante and then fold.

This guy gets to be more selective when nobody else does, and that’s an unfair advantage. Imagine if everybody else started doing the same thing. It would turn the game into a fucking joke. Uh, I don’t like Tahoe, so I’ll skip this one. Bert, inventor of the Bert Classic and scented candles, hates Hi-Lo, but he’s never once opted out. You’d think that this new guy would be embarrassed, but you’d be wrong. What do I do about his not playing Hi-Lo? I deal it exclusively. That way, I don’t have to hear. deal with him for one hand out of seven. Thankfully, Jesse loves Hi-Lo (he’s the one who introduced it into our game), so I sometimes get two breaks from this guy.

The Dickhead Factor Explained: There have been times in my life when I’ve been okay in groups, and then there have been times when I haven't been okay. It took me a while to figure it out, not until college and after a deep statistical analysis. After studying the historical record and running the numbers, I came up with a term for what I had discovered: the Dickhead Factor. The Dickhead Factor is the number of dickheads with which one can put up before the group experience becomes unpleasant. My D.F. is about one in eighteen, about 5.5%,which means that I can tolerate one dickhead in a group of eighteen people. If one person leaves and we’re down to seventeen people, then I can guarantee you that I will not have a good time. My low D.F. meant, of course, that grad school was really hit or miss (mostly miss), because, man, if you're short of dickheads, just look for English Department doctoral candidates.

There are some people, of course, who can be in a group of twenty, eighteen of whom are dickheads, and still have a great time. They find that one cool person, and that’s enough. These people have a D.F. of 90%. I don’t understand these people.

But Then It Goes Downhill: But the new guy and his presence at the table weren't even the worst parts of the night. There are annoying people everywhere, and one just has to deal.

The Worst Part: One of the players, a guy I’ve always thought was and still think is pretty cool, did the sleaziest thing that I’ve ever seen at a poker game. I’ve gone back and forth about writing about this, but writing is what I do, how I process and make sense of the material and the interior worlds, so to not write about it would be to go against one of the reasons that I write this blog in the first place.

Okay, here goes: A large aspect of poker is the misrepresentation of the quality of one’s hands. Bluffing is what you use to pretend that a weak hand is better than it actually is and to steal pots, although, technically, it’s not stealing. Slow playing is the opposite, the hiding of a strong hand so that others will bet for you and build up a larger pot. Beyond hand misrepresentation, there’s also how you behave at the table, giving physical/verbal cues to represent/misrepresent what you are holding/are not holding. Basically, then, deceit is an expected and respected part of poker. There’s a limit, though, to what is acceptable at a poker table. It’s a brutal contest, but with rules. It’s like in boxing: you’re trying to win the fight, to hurt the other guy, but there are rules. For instance, you don’t bring a bat into the ring with you, you don’t hit the other guy with your stool when he turns his back at the end of the round. You just don’t. It demeans you and cheapens the game.

So, when this guy, after making a four-dollar bet that I was thinking about whether I should call or fold. Needing my two cards, I had made a queen-high diamond flush, the third best possible hand, so there wasn't much that could beat me. I guess that this guy thought that I was going to call his bet because he then chose to pretend to accidentally turn one of his cards over as if we were already at the showdown and there weren’t an action pending on my part (which was pretty bush league of him), and then he started to call out “Ace high…” before stopping himself, as if he had almost revealed that he had made an ace-high diamond flush, one of only two hands that could have beaten me. I thought that I’d gotten free information, so I turn over my cards and say that my flush was only to the queen. I thought that I had saved the last bet by my not having to make a call. This guy then reveals that, while he did have the ace of diamonds, he didn’t have another diamond in his hand.

I guess that he’d seen the look on my face because he made some comment about how he didn’t have a hand, so he had to do something, which is about as morally reprehensible a statement as I've heard in a while. It was a straight con, and it was all premeditated, and he did it for the sake of a little over twenty dollars in chips, which I guess is how much he thinks his character is worth, which is a pretty low price, but he knows its value much better than I do. At least, though, he didn’t grab the chips and run.

What’s next? Marking cards? Mis-declaring hands (when you put down your cards and say that you made a better hand than you actually did [for example, calling a flush when you’re one card away] and hoping that nobody catches on? Stealing chips from other players when they’re away from the table?

It’s the morning after, and I’m still troubled by this event. Most if it has to do with the fact that, had he pulled this stunt in a game with strangers, he would have, at a minimum, been asked to leave and never welcomed back (because it was such a sleazy, no-class move), but he could get away with it at our table. In other words, he took advantage of friendships to take the chips.

One thing I’ve always believed in is the idea that people will only do that with which they can live or with which they can learn to live. Poker reveals character. What does all of this mean? Unfortunately, that I don’t think that this person can’t be trusted, and that a close eye must be kept from now on, just in case this is part of a larger pattern.

And, so, the winning streak ends. I lost $42 for the night, which isn’t a lot, but it is the worst that I’ve done since mid-June. I was completely distracted, by the annoying guy, sure, but mostly about the sleazy antics/my loss of innocence. I couldn’t believe it. I kept replaying it. I put it in the context of how fucked up the world is and it made me upset and disappointed and sad. People will do anything to get ahead, I guess.