Winter in Las Vegas: A Special Poker Report

Business Is Business: I spent 17 December 2006 through early 21 December 2006 in Las Vegas. During live play at a 2-6 spread game (which just means that one can bet anywhere between $2 and $6 at anytime, as long as one at least matches the previous bet), I played for 31.14 hours and lost $45.50, which works out to an hourly average of -$1.46114322415, which, though it’s a bit of a drag to have lost money, is completely worth it. You get to sit around and work on your poker skills while talking to a random collection of people: a former Berkeley acidhead who now lives in Michigan and is in publishing; a California cowboy who was wearing so many diamond-encrusted rings that he had shot right past tacky to sort of comical and who dropped $300 in about five hours; a recent Washington State University grad who’s moving with his knocked-up girlfriend to Seattle to work for Berkshire Hathaway; a guy from Toronto who was the worst bluffer whom I’d ever seen and who told me about spending time at a kibbutz and being forced to work even after burning the hell out of his hand (a “test of faith,” I called it, and he nodded solemnly); a Los Angeleno who always walked out on his blind and who gave me advice about playing low, suited connectors (advice that I listened to a few times and that cost me some money); and quite possibly the most annoying person that I've ever had the misfortune of sitting next to at a poker table (I took to calling him the “Poker Professor,” though some of the other players gave him a more accurate, though quite vulgar, nickname).

While in Las Vegas, I also played in a few $35 buy-in tournaments. In the third tournament in which I played, I finished 14th and lost when my A-10 hearts bricked out against another player’s A-J diamonds. In the second one, I finished 11th, one seat away from the final table, when, short-stacked and one off of the big blind, saw Q-J unsuited and figured that it was probably the best hand that I was bound to get before the blinds finished chewing up my chips, and pushed all-in, only to run up against an unsuited A-10.

In the first one, which started with thirty-one players, though, I tied for first place and, counting my buy-in, won $271.50. We tied because the player with whom I was heads-up, a nice guy to whom I wouldn’t have minded losing, and I decided, since we were so even in chips, to chop the combined first- and second-place money.

It was actually pretty cool when he and I got down being the final two. People started crowding behind the glass partition to watch us play. Then, when I had about a 3-to-1 advantage in chips and pushed all-in from the little blind with my unsuited A-3 and he called with his unsuited K-J (making me a 57.26% favorite), a buzz went through the crowd as they surged toward the table. That was sort of awesome. If I had won this hand, I would have won the tournament, but he hit a jack on the turn, one of his six outs, and that’s why we ended up being so even in chips, which led to the aforementioned chop.

Things That I Know To Be True: I learned much on this trip to Las Vegas.

1) If You're Driving to Las Vegas, Go on a Sunday:
The whole trip in from where I live only took six hours, which was an hour better than any of my previous times. The worst time was the time that it took nine hours because, about forty minutes into the trip, there was a guy on an overpass threatening to jump and we were diverted onto some single-lane country roads. Then, to make it just a little worse, once I got into Barstow, the 15 was a goddamn parking lot.

2) Cougars Aren’t Bad People:
I went to the University of Washington for grad school, and on my second day in Las Vegas I ended up sitting next to a guy who had gone to Washington State University. My first instinct was to hit this cousin-marrying cabin dweller with a chair and represent for the Huskies. WSU, as it is universally understood, is a “country school,” where a person of questionable intellect and inadequate upbringing might learn how to milk cows, or some such thing, and I went to the best university in the state, where we look upon the Cougars as one would look down upon any lowly, small-minded creature. Like a raccoon, perhaps, or a salamander.

But it turned out that this guy was pretty cool. We talked sports, comparing how lousy our football teams are nowadays and also talked about poker. Then, the next day, I sat next to two of his homies, and we had a great time and covered many subjects of interest.

3) Costcos Are Universally Loved:
The above-mentioned Cougars wanted to spend as much of their non-poker-playing time as they could good and liquored up. With such a noble pursuit in mind (they were young; give them a break), they had sought out a Costco, where one can easily acquire cheap alcohol, along with just about anything that one may need, ever.

This led to a discussion of the awesome majesty of Costco. A guy sitting to my left told us about one of his father’s friends, who’s a food broker specializing in meats (I had no idea, by the way, that there existed in this wide and wonderful world such a job as a “food broker,” nor that they could or would specialize in meats; I, myself, would want to specialize in English muffins, mostly just because they’re damn tasty), and his father’s friend said that, since Costco purchases so much of their product, his company sends its choicest stuff to them. Our dealer then noted that Costco operates on only a three-percent profit margin. Who knows if this is true, but it only made us love Costco even more. I then said, “Yeah, and if you need a gallon of macaroni salad, boom, it’s there.” When the conversation turned to the various Costco in which we had shopped, I expounded on the beauty of the Richmond, British Columbia, Costco, where, ten years ago, I purchased a leather belt that I still rock today.

4) Everybody Is Both Intrigued and Repulsed by the Las Vegas Buffet:

I was staying in the same casino in which I was playing, so I didn’t set foot outside for ninety-two hours. It was great, thanks for asking, but since I was only eating late in the evening or right before getting to the tables, it was entirely McDonald’s and mall-like Chinese food up in the restaurants section of the casino.

This topic came up because guy-connected-to-the-food-broker, who had sat across the table from me one day but ended up next to me the following day, said that he had eaten McDonald’s that morning because he had seen my McDonald’s Coke in my drink holder the day before, and, his appetite thus whetted, he had felt that a Big Mac would go down easy.

Tragically, though, he hadn't partaken of McDonald’s in a long time, and his stomach, thus ill-trained, had rebelled against the Big Mac. His queasiness then led naturally to a discussion of Las Vegas buffets, specifically if anybody at the table had ever eaten at one.

You should know that there’s a buffet in practically every casino of even moderate size. Think I’m kidding? There’s a website, you doubtful bastard. I have, in fact, gotten down on the buffet at the Excalibur (one of my homies had a coupon, so why not?), and, yes, it was unpleasant. The food was not made with love. Neither was it made with flavor. Nor, apparently, with palatability. The one quality that it did exhibit was lasting power; once you ate there, that fact dogged you, your traumatized consciousness and your delicate innards, for the rest of the day, much like a kick in the caballeros.

When the question got around to my tablemates, there was much widening of the eyes and vigorous shaking of heads, as if they had both thought about eating at a buffet and then been repulsed by that very notion. I was the only brave/unfortunate soul at our end of the table to have eaten Las Vegas buffet food, so I probably looked a little badass, as if I had spent time in the joint.

5) The Word “Donkey” Will Always Get Laughs:
The buffet discussion opened up to other possible food-related topics, and I asked if anybody had ever gone to Slots-a-Fun, that sketchy/kind-of-gross casino on the scary end of the Strip, where one can purchase a giant-ass half-pound hot dog for, like, a dollar. I’d first heard of this hot dog while watching a PBS special on hot dogs, and the idea of this particular hot dog both intrigued me and grossed me out. Think about it: a half-pound of what I’ll generously call “meat” for a dollar. Come on, who wouldn’t want to give that a shot? But it is a half-pound, for only a dollar. I’m just going to speculate now that the finest of meats probably haven't gone into them.

The questionable provenance of the “meat” was, in fact, where our conversation was centered. I speculated that the hot dog was probably something like “half-donkey/half-horse,” which got a good laugh, but then I took it to a whole other level of comic invention when I pretended to order a hot dog by saying, “Can I get that with extra donkey?”

6) Not Everybody That You Meet at a Poker Table Is Going to Be Cool:
Some people come to the table angry. They take every loss of a hand personally, they get snippy with the dealer, and they’re not friendly to the players who are sitting around them, none of which I have never understood. If poker isn’t fun for you, go play the slots. And these players usually give away all of their money because they’re as far from clear-headed as one can be. On the second day, there was a player who looked a little bit like Andy Griffith, but only if he had lived a little more roughly, and if he never smiled. He went broke.

Then, at my very last table of my vacation, for the very last half-hour, a guy sat down next to me whom I could tell was one bad beat away from punching somebody out, or maybe stabbing them repeatedly with the knife that I was sure that he was carrying. He was as tense a person as I've ever seen at a poker table, and he seemed to be glaring through his 80s-style sunglasses at everything.

He and I got into a bit of a thing because we happened to have the worst dealer in the casino at our table: she skips players when it’s their turn to act, she loses track of the number of bets already made in a round, and she struggles to keep track of what the various sizes of any side-pots should be. All of these deficiencies, along with a few others, mean that she doesn’t deal as many hands per hour as other dealers, but that wasn’t the problem.

I was first to act, and when I went to look at my cards (lift my card holder with my right hand and flip up the corners of my cards with my left), the dealer mistook my left hand movement toward my cards as a check, which means that I was passing the action along to the next player, who promptly checked behind me. That was when I said that I hadn't checked and that I thought that it was still my turn to act. The angry player said, his voice already filling with rage, that the dealer had said that I had checked and the dealer said that she thought that I had checked. Instead of trying to explain what had probably happened, that our inattentive dealer had misread the movement of my left hand for a check, I said, “Okay, I’ll let you have a free card,” which the dealer then promptly dealt.

I had paired on the flop, but it wasn’t a pair that I had had much confidence in, but now I threw out a little three-dollar bet. The angry player promptly folded, and I said (sort of semi-mockingly [I hate to admit]), “I didn’t have anything,” as if I had just punked him out, which was, yes, a lie, unless he couldn't have beaten a really low pair, but this guy had been a prick and I wanted to knock him off of his already shaky game. That was when he started with the fucks: I don’t give a fuck what you had. Play your fucking cards. Etcetera.

7) The Poker Professor Has Another, More Graphic, Nickname:
Unpleasant, yes, but he wasn’t the most annoying person with whom I interacted on this trip. That honor goes to the Poker Professor. First, he told me that he had bluffed me off of a hand with his A-K and a six-high flop, but I had only made middle-pair off of the flop while I was in the blind, fives, and I had hoped to hit trips or two pair or to fill my gut shot straight at the river, and when I didn’t, I certainly wasn’t going to call his $6 bet, especially when a queen had come on the river. Then he asked me if I could have beaten queens, and I said no but that I knew that he didn’t have queens. He had won a total pot of ten dollars, maybe, and he had acted as if he had hustled me for a big pot.

Thankfully, a short while later, his friend arrived and the Poker Professor moved to the other end of the table to be nearer to him. It was at this point that I said, “Thank god that that motherfucker moved.” I then began to hold forth on how much of a pain this guy had been, what with his whiny voice and his know-it-allness. That was when guy-connected-to-the-food-broker, who had actually been sitting between the Professor and myself, said that he had had to sit next to him the previous night, too, but that he had had to sit next to him for hours. That’s when I talked about how this guy seemed to think that he knew so much about poker and when I first called him, in a moment of pure inspiration, the Poker Professor. (Editor’s Note: Here’s where it’s going to get graphic, so those of you who have delicate constitutions may want to skip the rest of this paragraph and the one that follows and instead go out on your porch and gently sip some chamomile tea while thinking wistful thoughts of your lovely and innocent youth) It turns out that the Cougars with whom I had been having a good time were common fellows after all because one of the Cougars, the one who is finishing up his MBA in the spring, then called the Professor a douche bag. (Editor’s Note: Having never had to spell douche bag before, I had had to look up on the Internet how it was made compound. [Open compound, solid compound, hyphenated?: Both the open and the solid forms are acceptable, but I prefer the open spelling; I think that it looks much prettier on the page.]).

I’ve always been “down” with the people, so if these guys wanted to work this rather vivid area of the language for laughs, then who was I to not join in and contribute to the general merriment of my poker-playing brothers? So, thus motivated, I said that his mother probably called him Douche Bag, too. I imagined an introduction: “I’d like you to meet my son, the Douche Bag.” Then, inspired by the laughs, I imagined this guy’s birth and the moment when his mother first saw him: “Can you scratch out Timmy on his birth certificate and write in Douche Bag?” (See, that’s why I put that little Editor’s Note up there about the graphic nature of this section. And, no, I’m not proud [Though, in my defense, everybody was laughing hysterically, and, according to the Tractatus Coislinianus, comedy’s primary job is to bring about catharsis through pleasure and laughter. Besides, as we all know, the only work of comedy that is indefensible is the one that doesn't get laughs. {Though, like I said, I’m not proud.}].)

(If you skipped the last two paragraphs, how was your chamomile tea? Good, I hope.)

(Editor’s Note: Here’s where I get all introspective and sensitive on you.) Tragically, on Wednesday, my last day of play, the Professor actually sought me out to say hello, a big smile on his face. Somehow, he had thought that our hour of “conversation” from the night before, in which I had mostly been non-responsive and (to my great dishonor) probably a little brusque, had now made us buddies.

You know how there are people out there who have no idea about how they come across? They’re supremely annoying, but they don’t know? This guy was one of those people, and I started to feel bad for him. On Monday, he had annoyed guy-connected-to-the-food-broker; on Tuesday, he had annoyed the hell out of me and the two Cougars at the end of our table before he moved to the other end, where he promptly annoyed the people around him (in other words, out of the nine people at the table with him, he had managed to turn six against him); on Wednesday, the day that he sat next to me, he got a few more people to turn against him. Oh yeah, and on Wednesday he made a ruckus about saving a newly available seat next to him for his friend, even though that friend was taking forever to get there from Caesar’s and there were people on the list who were waiting to get into a game; when the pit boss, Neil (a nice guy with whom I talked about bad beats [a poker player’s favorite topic; it’s sad, but we can’t seem to get enough of them, although they're all pretty much the same: a schmuck who shouldn’t even have been in the hand took all of your money]), finally gave away the seat but kept the Professor’s friend’s name at the top of the list (a big favor because your name is usually just crossed out), the Professor still found a way to get annoyed.

I’d say, then, that just from a rough analysis of my admittedly tiny data set, that this guy pretty much annoys nearly all of the people with whom he comes in contact. Imagine his life, how lonely it is or is going to be, how he must already suffer slights and unkindnesses that are all going to add up and mar and stunt his life. Yes, he brings it all on himself, but, still, it seemed tragic.

I had started to think about all of this when he had come by to say hello, so when he sat down next to me at the table, I tried my best not to get too annoyed with him. That strategy worked for about a minute (even though he ended up sitting there for about five hours). Then I switched to trying my best not to let my annoyance come through. The lowlight (or highlight, I guess, depending on how you deal with how tragic life is: if you take the tragicness seriously, it’s a lowlight; if you take it for some sort of cosmic joke, then you’d probably think of it as a highlight) was when he wanted to tell a woman at the other end of the table (if you know about how seats are named at a poker table, she was in four) to stop covering her cards with her hands because he couldn’t tell when she was or wasn’t in a hand.

While it is true that one isn’t supposed to cover one’s cards at the table (because it slows down the game as the dealer looks to see who’s still involved in the hand, because players might be skipped, and because both of these things can lead to bad feelings), I told him that it would be terribly rude on his part to do that, even though I know that Miss Manners says that it’s rude to point out to somebody when he or she is being rude. It was either be explicit with him about why he should chill or have to watch everybody start making fun of him.

Finally, the Professor had to leave so that his friend and he could drive back to Los Angeles. We shook hands, he got up, and I could finally relax. I hope that he finally figures out, or somebody tells him, that he’s a bit much and that maybe he could dial it back a little bit. It would make his life so much easier.

8) Ducks Blow:
On my last day of playing poker, the three guys from WSU and I were sitting at a table, them on one end and me at the other, when, all of a sudden, a bunch of people walked in in big group, many of them wearing warm-ups in the distinctive green of the Oregon Ducks. If I despise any university more than I had despised WSU, it is the University of Oregon, our closest Pac-10 rival (in terms of distance, I mean, by about four miles) and a team that has been doing much better at football than we have for, oh, about the last fifteen years.

I pointed out the Ducks to my new Cougar friends, and I told the guy wearing the WSU Cougar T-shirt to stand up and show them his T-shirt and represent for his school. He did, but when I told him to walk over by where they were walking and rock his T-shirt in their faces, right in their faces, he took the more prudent course and declined. I said that his two buddies and I would back him up because three Cougars and a Husky could surely beat the hell out of fifty-plus Ducks. That’s right, you heard me.

9) Finally, The Palm Slap Signals All Things:
If you’ve ever seen people playing poker in a casino or on television, you will occasionally see a player lightly slap his palm on the table, and you may have asked yourself, “What’s up with the palm-slapping?” I’ll explain.

The palm slap signals all things. It’s one of those magical tools of communication that has multiple uses and that is universally understood.

If you want to acknowledge the beauty of somebody’s hand, slap your palm on the table. You may want to combine the palm slap with a head nod and the utterance of the phrase “nice hand.” You may also want to purse your lips afterwards in order to show your commitment to your appreciation of the quality of the hand. If you’re heads up with another player and you want to wish him or her good luck, slap the table while leaning back in your chair and saying “good luck.” (The beauty of it is that you don’t even have to mean it.) If one of your tablemates gets up to leave and says goodbye, guess what? The palm slap. If somebody’s been boned by a bad call or by a bad beat, you can signal your sympathy and/or feeling of his or her pain through the powerful combination of the slow palm slap and the solemn head shake. Finally, you can use the palm slap to acknowledge that life is essentially meaningless; that we live in a world in which suffering is the norm; that hopelessness prevails; and that love, when it comes/for as long as it lasts, mostly leaves you wrecked and miserable. I’m just saying.

I’d never been big on the palm slap because it seemed sort of corny, and using it would have made me feel self-conscious and utterly ashamed. Well, most of the time, I already feel more self-conscious than I can stand, and let’s not even get into the shame, but, still, it would have been too much. But, I decided to try it out, and, after running a systems check during my first palm slap, I decided that it had gone okay. It actually made me feel like I belonged in that same silly way that you feel when you're at a baseball game and find yourself screaming along with everybody else for the ball to get out of the park.

Now you're ready to go to a casino and signal any number of feelings or states of being. When in doubt, palm slap.