All these characters

July 27, 2008

How much do you miss your first poker group? Sometimes when I think about the “good old days,” I miss mine quite a bit. There’s something to be said for the comraderie, friendships and challenges made and met from the first group of guys you drew cards with….at least that’s the case with me.

It could be you didn’t start playing until after college, or during college in a fraternity…for me, though, it was junior year in high school that really set me on the path to a having a regular clan of poker dogs. We’d rotate playing at parents’ houses (those who would let us play), sometimes having to quit way earlier than would even be thinkable by today’s standards (12:30 a.m. – are you serious? The sun just went down a few hours ago!)

High school’s funny, too, because you don’t have very much money to play with, but you also don’t have many financial obligations, either. All I had to worry about was paying for gas (which was about $1.05 a gallon at the time, if that), and coming up with enough for a McDonald’s extra-value meal each day for lunch. I know, I’m sure that’ll come back to bite me at some point, but I’ve been off the junk for years I tell ya (that’s a lie.)

Even so, we’d only play for quarters, but the types of games we were playing, many of which I’ve detailed in other articles, were invented for the sole purpose of beefing up huge pots. So a night of dimes and quarters could easily land you $80-$100 in the hole if you weren’t careful.

And a couple of us regularly weren’t careful. Which brings me around to my character study of the “stereotypes” of my first group of poker buddies. Read along and see which ones you’ve got in your own group…I’m guessing all of them.

The loser: Can also be known as “the sucker,” but the terms don’t go hand-in-hand. Kinda like all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares – well all suckers are losers, but not all losers are suckers. This loser was just a loser, which I guess is more of a compliment than an insult. Anyway, he couldn’t buy a hand. He didn’t bluff but once a year, either, which didn’t help his cause (although to be fair we did play with strict betting limits, so bluffing wouldn’t help as much as a no-limit situation – but it still had its purpose). I really don’t know how else to explain it other than he just couldn’t get the cards. He knew how to play the games and was reasonably intelligent, he just kept getting screwed the the odds. Go figure. Eventually, in later, crazier years, he thought things like the color of the deck or which seat he was in were having a negative effect on his situation.

They weren’t. He was just a loser.

The oblivious man: Has no idea he’s a tool, but everyone else around the table knows it. So why is he always invited? Two reasons – he’s usually good for money, and sometimes we just need the warm body at the table. So these guys worm their way into games, thinking they’re your friend, inviting you to non-poker events like birthday parties and the like, and you just look at each other in disbelief that someone can be so – oblivious. I could go on for pages and pages about this guy, but if I get started I’ll drive myself crazy and have horrible flashbacks, so I’m moving on.

The Outlander: This guy isn’t a regular, but he overheard someone talking about the game, and hey, just so happens to know how to play poker also! So someone feels obligated to ask him to join in one week, and that’s how he finds a spot at your green-felt battleground on Saturday night. And, in my experience, the Outlander always has a damn chip on his shoulder – like he’s gonna hustle all us regulars. Most of the time they lose or break even, if only because we all know each other’s games and he’s coming in blind. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s fun to have new blood at the table, and the better they are the more fun the games are…but they’re still Outlanders.

The comic relief: He plays, he wins a little, he loses a little, he’s there mostly for the laughs, though. And it’s not so much how he plays that’s hilarious, it’s his general comments and demeanor. Like, I don’t know, showing up one night in a big purple raincoat, or having to write out little IOU notes when he runs out of money (we didn’t have chips back then, only quarters and dimes).

The apartment: This guy is a regular, but it’s more because you know he’s got a place that isn’t regulated by parents. Which means as long as your parents (remember, this was back in high school) will let you stay out until whenever, it’s time to load up on the Taco Bell and Mountain Dew and get to it. Funny, in our circle, the apartment was also the comic relief.

The challenger: There’s usually at least 2 people at the table that are really good, and that beneath the jokes and the steotyping, take the game seriously. I like to think I’m one of them. The other one at our table was a great challenge, very good at math and calculating, but just unpredictable enough to throw you when trying to find a pattern in his gameplay. I miss playing against him. There are always other challengers, but like a true love, it’s the first one you remember forever.

And I’ll close with one of the great quotes from “Rounders,” which seems relevant here. “If you can’t spot the sucker after 30 minutes at the table….you are the sucker.”

Feelin’ cool at the card table

July 20, 2008

 What does it take for you to feel cool at the card table?  Not shivering cool, you can crack a window in the winter for that.  Or hold up a beer that’s been in the freezer to your face for a few seconds.  No, I mean, slick…happening…”the man.”

    Not I, nor anyone reading this is, in fact, “the man,” but I’m sure there was a time when you felt like you were, even if it was just for a few moments.
    I’ve felt like “the man” myself, and I’d like to share the one biggest example I can think of to really sum up the feeling.  There are a couple other times I’ve felt cool at the card table, like just experiencing sitting down at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, or every time I say “all-in” and mean it, but this one moment truly takes the pot, so to speak.
The Hand:  Nothing feels quite as good as nailing someone with a boatload of hidden cards, especially when it puts them back in their place.  I was having a rough night at the table, not down a whole lot, but getting down on myself and making poor decisions, affecting my play and forcing me into a timid, reserved gameplay style, which isn’t really much fun to do on a Saturday night, but whatever. 
    The game is 7-card, stud, no limit raises.  I think there were 6 people at the table.  One guy whom I only knew through a friend who was there, was supremely arrogant the entire night…and the funny thing was he was only up about $35 bucks or so, not even the largest winner of the night up until that point. But as smug as can be…and he was one of those guys who showed it even in his shuffling technique.  I can’t describe it, but trust me you’d want to take the cards and shove ‘em somewhere.
    So here’s “the hand.”
    My face-up card is a 2 of hearts, his is the Ace of spades.  No surprise there, he’s fed off his strong up cards the whole night.  Gotten quite comfortable with growing chip stacks, pulling out bluffs left and right.  With two people’s stacks at the table shrinking as the hours went on, they were reluctant to keep calling, so the smug bastard’s own stacks ate up little antes and small calls.
    First bet, $4 from smuggy, trying to get everyone out right away.  Three guys fold immediately, in order, I call, one other person calls.  3 left.
    Fourth street: 9 of hearts to me, six of diamonds to him.  Same bet, I call, irrelevant third player folds.  2 left.
    Fifth street: 3 of hearts to me, King of diamonds to him.  $10 bet from him.  I check my hidden cards calmly, think for a moment, and call.
    Sixth street: Queen of hearts to me, Six of spades to him.  $40 bet from him.  I take a step back and assess what we got here.  I have 4 to a flush showing, which doesn’t seem to phase him in the least.  Or at least he’s doing his best to make it appear as such.  He has a pair of sixes and two high cards…is he on a draw with top two pair?  Or did he actually have a hand to begin with?  Tough call, and no small bet to deal with here.
    Screw it, I called.
    River: I peek cautiously but optimistically and organize my three down cards together under my increasingly sweaty palms.  He does a quick take and nods – seriously – nods to himself but with the obvious intention of me seeing.  Then he bets $75…and yes he had all this cash on him.  We were playing chips but you could add bets with cash if you had it on hand.
    Well, he’d been good at betting generously early on in hands, usually bluffing his way to small pot victories, but did he have the balls to do it with this much money…or was I facing a full house?
    Only one way to find out.
    ….i had barely put the money in the middle when smuggy forcefully plopped down his hidden cards to reveal another pair of aces…full house aces over.
    “How’s that flush lookin’ now, bud?” he asks.
    At that point – in this one moment that I remember more clearly than any other poker hand I’ve ever won or lost – I felt like Teddy KGB when he said “You’re right, Mike, I don’t heeeeavve the spades.”
    And over can my hidden cards, three pretty little 2’s, to add to the lonely, shy one I had face up.
    Not only did I feel like “the man”, but I sent the false “man” packing for good that night, and I’ve never seen or heard from him since.

Poker VS. Round 3: Blackjack

July 13, 2008

Poker VS: Round 3 – Blackjack

Man, you’d think poker was pulling a Brett Favre for how long it’s been since toppling over spades in it’s last VS. bout, when it brought it’s record to a respectable 1-1 over Spades.  But that’s not the case, poker never retired, it just laid low for a while, and now it’s ready to return and compete against the Chicago Bears…er….Blackjack.

Here we go!  As is always the case, poker’s scoring has already been determined, so the new content you’ll see is under the blackjack sections.

        POKER:  At the most surface level, it’s fairly easy once you know the different poker hands.  Two from your hand, three community cards totals your best 5-card poker hand. Grading scale 5/10

BLACKJACK: Well, it can get a bit tricky with blackjack.  Learning the game is cake, mastering the game takes real talent and some card-counting abilities, as well.  But since those would fall under another category, all I can scale this on is your ability to count to 21.  1/10       

        POKER: Hold ‘em games, much moreso than draw games, rely mostly on odds and statistics, instead of knowing what the keep and what to drop.  So, really, under this category of the skill, if you understand what hands are more difficult to achieve in a hold ‘em game, you’ve already got a leg up against the competition.  3/10
        BLACKJACK: Blackjack’s understanding comes mostly from decision making and situational betting, which I’ll go into more in the next section since it more or less falls under that category.  However, there is one thing you do need to understand when sitting at a blackjack level.  It’s a universal rule that applies at the tables regardless of the stakes.  If you make a wrong move, all your former allies at the table are going to be pissed off at you, and it can go 1 of 2 ways.  Either 1, you bust yourself and everyone assumes your wrong play is going to screw up their upcoming cards (like they would’ve just magically received 21 anyway), or 2, you get the card you needed, you momentarily look like a genius, but then the next player busts and you’re on everyone’s shit list again.  However, to be fair to the game, knowing when to hit, stand, split, etc… is complicated and involved.  They don’t make cheat tables for nothing.  8/10      

        POKER: Poker’s playing skill is dominated by intelligent betting, which is why these two different areas are combined into one.  Taking control of the table with a power bet, throwing others a curve with a curious check, etc… (the list goes on and on) take talent, experience and balls (I sat here for 2 minutes trying to think of a better word to use, but I really couldn’t…sad).  Aside from betting, poker players must be able to figure how their hidden hand plays not only against the community cards, but also against what other might be holding (of which betting from them can be a reveal to the contents of these hands, as well).  9/10

 BLACKJACK:  So far in it’s two rounds, poker has been king in this category, as it should.  In blackjack, betting matters, but it’s only for yourself and only to make money.  Isn’t that always the point you ask?  Of course, but better can become a powerful gameplay and persuasion tool in poker and other games, as well.  Not so in blackjack.  Betting falls under a couple categories here, knowing what type of increased or decreased denominations to bet, usually determined by how you win or lose.  Different players have different systems here, and I’ve personally witnessed a couple that really worked well.  The second area of betting is during double downs, where the decision isn’t even how much to bet, it’s just to accept the double down at all.  3/10       

        POKER: Well, this is pretty much what the game is famous for after the gold bracelets and sunglasses.  If you got it, you got it…and oh boy does it make a difference.  10/10

  BLACKJACK: Well, considering you’ll see 95% of the cards that are in play during each hand, there’s not a whole lot of reading people going on.  And for that one dealer card that’s hidden, let’s just say if you’re trying to read it at any point, you can pretty much guarantee you’re leaving the casino with no money and a broken hand…and maybe a dirty look from Don Rickles.  0/10.
        POKER: Luck? LUCK??? Blasphemy, you say.  Yeah, yeah, whatever.  Even the champs will tell you, there is SOME luck in poker.  No more evident that the cruel, cruel river.  Luck detracts from skill, so poker gets a -3 here.  Minus 3

  BLACKJACK:  Even with knowing how to bet, in my opinion (and I’m certainly no expert) the cards themselves play a huge role in your success.  You’re not playing against the man, you’re playing against the odds and the cards, so the luck of the draw (and the cut), and if you’re “lucky” enough to have players next to you that know when to hit or stand, is more or less the determining factor as to whether you win or lose.  Granted, you need to know how to play the game, you can have all the luck in the world but you’re still going home a chump if you keep hitting on 17, but assuming you’re well versed in the gameplay decisions involved, the only thing left for you is to get those cards you need. Minus 5.

Final Score:

Wow, poker cruises to a 2-1 overall record, and blackjack sets what might stand up as the all-time low in scoring.  Hell, even monopoly would beat a 7.  Sorry blackjack gurus, maybe the scoring system puts your game at an undeserved disadvantage, but when you step into the ring with poker, looks like you’re getting abused.


I hate you Slow Sal

July 6, 2008

I’ve written about the slow player before.  At least I think I have.  The one that takes his time deciding what to do, or worse, is easily distracted by conversation or phone calls to the point where it really disrupts the flow of a game.  I don’t mind talk at the table, be it about the game or about something else, but these are the people who don’t care whatsoever if their slow pace hinders the rest of the flow of the game.

            Anyway, that’s really not what I intended to complain…er…..examine in this article.  What I’ve noticed in recent games, more than previously, is the player that will drag out a tournament – a deliberately slow player.  And I’m not at all talking about playing speed this time. 

            No, this “slow” player mucks up the night with his meager betting.  Not interested in bluffing, or even appearing as though a bluff might be part of his betting repertoire, he won’t match the blinds or cough up a few chips here or there unless he’s sure, absolutely positive, he has something worth competing with.

            At this point, many of you are probably shrugging your shoulders as if to say, “So what?  What’s wrong with that?”

            Typically, I would agree with you.  In many situations it might be beneficial to “ride it out”.  But this isn’t the World Series of Poker, you don’t get more money for third place instead of fourth, and we sure as hell don’t have 3 hours per $10 tournament on a Saturday night.

            We’re all getting together to play cards, we’re there to have fun and keep the games moving.  

            Slow Sal doesn’t care, though, and I can’t stand it.  And it only gets worse the fewer players there are.  It’ll get down to 2 and he’ll be folding twice as many hands as he plays, if not more, and that’s WITH throwing in the blinds, of course.

            Thank goodness the blinds go up after certain time intervals.

            I really don’t know if it’s an actual strategy, if he’s trying to wear the other players down into just saying “screw it” and going all-in on a sketchy hand, or if he think he’s playing the odds…I don’t know.

            It does, however, reinforce my preference in short, ante cash games over a hold ‘em tournament.  I love the cash game.  You can bet as little as you want in a cash game, Slow Sal, I’ll happily take your ante each time.

            I’ll admit I get antsy in tournament games anyhow.  We’re all throwing in $10 or $15 and dishing out chips to play with.  So already I feel like I’ve already bought into the game, and it tends to affect my play.  If I were playing with quarters and dollars, it’d be a different story.

            But the games drag, even with 10-minute intervals between increases of the blinds, I can’t keep my eyes on the big picture.  And you’re right, I’d never make it anywhere in any type of real poker tournament.  I don’t have any problems admitting that.  The fun for me is in the short cash games, the wild card games, the follow-the-queen games.  That’s what I love.

            Slow Sal can have the tournaments and sit there watching his stack waver 10 chips in each direction over and over again until the sun comes up. 

            As long as somebody else beats him when it’s done.