South Carolina’s catching up

February 22, 2009

So this week Mount Pleasant Municipal Judge Larry Duffy told the world what most of us, at least the poker enthusiasts around the world, already know. Playing poker is a skill.
That’s a bit like telling a fisherman the sea gets angry during a thunderstorm, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

For most of us, this “decision” won’t matter in the least in our everyday lives. That is, of course, unless you live in South Carolina, where the law that, read literally, makes any game with cards or dice — including popular board games such as Monopoly and Sorry — illegal.

Poker just can’t climb out of Monopoly’s shadow, can it?

All joking aside, the state isn’t as crazy as you might think, and through a looser interpretation of the law considers games reliant more on chance than on skill, including our favorite Texas Hold ‘em, to be gambling and thus illegal. And they’re not alone, about half the U.S. states have similar laws.

What could this ultimately mean for South Carolinians? That eventually, if poker is recognized by the state as a game of skill, that police might not be able to arrest people involved in house games.

Friendly house games, of course.
I can just see it now, a half dozen of you and your buddies sitting around the old felt beast with some beers and a mean game of follow the queen going, when who shows up to break up your party but a bunch of boys in blue. Luckily, you all have a copy of the new state law handily sandwiched between the empty bag of cheetos and the six jokers you stripped from the decks before you started.

“See officer? We can play. We’re skilled. Don’t mind the orange smudges, they don’t nullify the law.”

If only your elementary, high school and college – if you went – teachers saw as much skill in you as the South Carolina law now does.

This brings up my next thought…why the hell would a cop bust up a home poker game where the people are playing for chump change? They don’t have anything better to do? I’d be a pissed off citizen if somebody broke into my house, mugged me or jacked my car only to find out the police were too busy to be around during or shortly thereafter the crime because they were crowbarin’ the door to Johnny’s mother’s basement. And for that matter, how the hell would a cop even find out one of these games were going on? The only way I can see someone really being charged with this is if the cops are there on some other type of call (domestic disturbance, if I don’t mind stereotyping) and happen upon the game in the process. Kinda like when they pull you over for speeding and then double you up for not wearing your seatbelt. Doesn’t that one suck.

That’s the only way I can see it happening. Unless there’s a secret underground ring of co-workers snitching to the law as a plea deal for slipping Janine one too many roofies at the bar.

Laugh, it’s not that far-fetched. Another reason to only play with people you know.

Um, where was I? Oh yeah, poker’s a skill. Good for South Carolina. No longer will it be lumped in with the likes of Kansas and Georgia. It’s moving up in the world. Pretty soon it might give North Dakota a run for it’s money. Next thing you know Texas will finally come forward and declare sex a skill. Won’t that be a glorious day. The rest of the country follows suit, identifies prostitutes as the most talented of us all, and all-too-familiar boutiques start opening up on every corner of every strip mall.

“Welcome to The Beaver Squad. We’re the most skilled artists this side of the London Symphony Orchestra! Like, totally!”

OK, now I’m just dreaming.

What are the odds?

February 15, 2009

What are the odds?

Do you ever find yourself thinking this phrase…or even saying it out loud…after a big win or loss at the table?  It’s one of those lines that creeps into our vocabulary and comes out almost all the time.

Beat on the river by a full-house draw?

“Oh, man.  What are the odds?”

Pull that last heart to topple a straight?

“Yes, bingo!  What are the odds of that?”

Well, before I go any further, I’ll certainly concede that many of you do know the odds, and probably came up with them in your head in the time it took me to write that opening sentence. I respect that greatly, and envy your ability and dedication to the game you love.

But I’m also guessing many other people would shrug their shoulders in ignorance, or simply not even think about it as a legitimate question that could be answered.  Instead accepting it as just another figure of speech.

Put me in with the later group, although I’m not too thrilled to admit it.  I can come up with the odds for a few simple scenarios, but when it comes time to really rely on the odds to make a poker decision, I’m shooting in the dark.

So why is that?  Why do we put real money at stake without playing the odds? 

I think back to whenever I catch a tournament being broadcast on ESPN, and you see the percentage of winning changing under each hand as more cards are revealed in any given Texas Hold ‘Em hand, and I’ll actually refer to that in conversation with whomever I’m sitting near.  Sometimes, like an idiot, I’ll even nod my head in agreement, like I knew that was going to be the change.

Well, I think we all know the benefit to knowing the odds, and the reason behind studying this part of the poker craft are fairly straightforward.  But if you play regularly like I do, why wouldn’t you be in the group that knows?

Here’s a couple guesses.

Lazy:  It’s much easier to watch ESPN or drop three hours a night on your PS3 than it is to figure out the odds for all the different poker scenarios.  For many people, it’s almost like studying for a test, and for many more I guarantee you it’s like being at work.  And retaining that knowledge isn’t something that’s going to be accomplished from a single blow-through of the information.  You have to stick with it and go over them time and time again, then come up on them in mock and real situations and learn through trial and error.  That takes a great deal of effort many of us just don’t want to put forth.

Apathy: Probably more suited for that casual player…that “hey poker is still cool” player.  Some of these people might not even know that you can prepare for situations by studying the odds.  If I had to choose the lesser of two evils between laziness and apathy, this one loses in a landslide.

Stupidity:  Maybe you’ve tried and you just can’t do it.  The brain power just isn’t there.  Hey, sometimes Adult Swim and flag football are just more up someone’s alley.  At least you gave it the old college try, chap!

Except for that last one, the first two explanations are obviously no more than excuses, and leave the uninformed at a gaping disadvantage when it comes time to go head to head with $100 in the pot. 

But hey, maybe you will get lucky, see that last queen turn up with a couple already accounted for.

What would be the odds of that?

Sometimes when you lose, you’re still a loser

February 8, 2009

At the risk of quoting “White Men Can’t Jump” twice in a three-week span, I have to open with a line from Rosie Perez.

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose.  And sometimes when you lose, you really win.”

Doing my best to purge her accent from my memory, this quote came to mind during a poker game situation last week.  It’s a loose correlation between right/wrong or win/lose, but you’ll see what I’m talking about in a minute.

On to the point, which is the pain of going out on a hand, and then following the game through to the end only to realize you would’ve won.  I can’t stand when this happens.  I end up feeling like I’ll bet those guys on jeopardy do when they only wager 10% of their money and get the easiest question of the year.

What is “I’m a dumbass?”

That is correct.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that’s poker.  And to be a strong poker player (much like, duh, everything else) you have to know the game and make the smart decision.  Which is exactly what I did…I thought. 

So why the quote to start this article?  Well, I felt like this was a perfect example of “sometimes when you make the right call, you end up being wrong.  And sometimes when you make the wrong call (poker can be famous for this) you end up being very right.”

Just for background, here’s the hand.

I was dealt Jack of clubs, nine of hearts.  Nothing special.  I can’t remember if I was the small blind or neither blind, but I called to play the hand.  Right after that, the next player made a major raise…something like 20 percent of my stack. 

I decided to fold.

From force of habit, I follow the hand.  I’m even one of those guys who, if it’s seven card stud or a similar game, will work out the distribution and ask the guy who got the river card I would’ve received to let me see what it was after the hand was over.  Sometimes they oblige, oftentimes they don’t.  But anyway, I follow it through and realize I would’ve pulled a straight, and probably cleaned up against three of a kind.

And oh, did it burn.  Just sat with me for the rest of the night.  I tried clearing my head, tried taking a break, even tried a little Absolut…nothing did the trick.  I was fuming.

I try never to play angry, either, so after about another 30-35 minutes, I called it a night.

Usually I can tell you exactly how much, down to the quarter, I won or lost on any given evening, but I can’t for the life of me remember.  I can’t even remember whether I won or lost, believe it or not.  This “missed opportunity” just got to me.

So, did I make the right call?  I thought so.  I didn’t have a strong enough hand to play against a big raise…and I couldn’t read the guy well enough to feel comfortable calling his bluff (and he wasn’t bluffing).

But it was a large pot (since two people did call his bet) without my contribution, but I’m guessing I could’ve cleaned up topping three of a kind if I stayed in and make intelligent, patient bets to bait him in until the end.

Sometimes when you do the right thing, it definitely turns out to be wrong.  And it will, unfortunately, make it that much more difficult next time to do the right thing. 

The little gambling devils in my head will remind me of this one for a long time.

Super Bowl madness? I’ll pass

February 1, 2009

I know you’re making a crazy bet right now.  Or at least sometime throughout the evening.  You have to be.  It’s Super Bowl Sunday, after all.

Yeah, yeah, you’re just doing it to be social.  I know the deal.  I’ve put my money on a few Super Bowl party board squares before.  It’s not my first dance. 

But what always surprises me is why the hell I do it.  It goes against everything I try to stand for as a gambler.  Intelligence and control.  Maybe that’s another reason why I never bet on sports anyway.  There’s something about putting my financial future in the hands of somebody I’ve never met before in my life that rubs me the wrong way.  I need at least some control over the outcome of the bet.  Some ability to put myself in the driver’s seat. 

Every March, my friend for years invites me to Vegas for March Madness.  I always ask him (even though I know the answer because it’s the same every week) what we’re going to do.  His answer – what else?  Drink, gamble and watch the basketball.

The whole vacation?  Yes.

Now, I’m actually not a huge fan of Vegas these days.  I’ve been almost a half dozen times throughout my life.  The first couple I wasn’t even old enough to gamble, and I have to say I almost had as much fun as a 10-year-old wasting time in the basement of the Excalibur than I did the last time I went for someone’s bachelor’s party.  Vegas is full of crappy shows, lame comedians, upscale shopping malls, decent buffets (yeah, just decent), and a little bit of gambling on the side.

All right, I’m losing my point, which is — even though Vegas doesn’t have the mystique and excitement for me that it once did, the last thing I want to do during a trip up there is watch basketball the WHOLE day and night.  Drink yes, gamble a little at the tables, sure.  Watch a few hours?  Eh…I suppose.  Just not my scene…I even retired from NCAA Tournament pools (2-3 career record, that’s for the big money) and fantasy football (2-2 as far as taking home money, won it all once). 

So that brings me back to Super Bowl Sunday, and making CRAZY bets.  What is it about this day that gets everyone so swept away in the moment that they throw logic to the wind?  I’m sorry, but when people start banking on Lebron James scoring more points than both NFL teams combined, or how many commercials will play before the first field goal….you lose me.

I’ve seen amazing poker players, that guy whose goldfish could’ve just died and his face wouldn’t crack a bit, make the dumbest bets…sometimes not even affected by alcohol.

When I was back in college in Missouri, the town was going insane because the Rams were in it, taking on the Titans.  Kurt Warner back then, Kurt Warner now.  Anyway, almost as crazy as one of the pledges getting his head dunked in the snow repeatedly during halftime was the amount of “side betting” people were doing on the game.  And let me also say this was before poker became “popular.”  This was just guys with extra money from selling back their beat up textbooks the semester before.  $60 a square on this.  $100 this commercial would come on before this commercial…give me a break.

I can’t do it.  And if that means being the “buzz kill” of the party and sitting alone in the corner with the overly spicy jalapeno poppers and flat diet Coke… so be it.

Unless, of course, the Bears make it back…then….well, then all bets are off!