Poker Home Games: Pot Luck

May 31, 2009

 Ready for a new home game to try? I am – or was – until this one was taught to me recently. It’s an incredible game, perhaps not for the poker skill involved, perhaps not for the betting technique it forces you to perform, and perhaps not for the patience-building skills it encourages you to develop. What it does offer, though, in spades (pardon the pun) is the ability to build the biggest pots this side of a half hour Continents session. That’s right folks, bored with small, dinky Hold ‘Em pots? Are you “over” follow the Queen because you’re only winning $2-$4 a hand? Fear not, this game will quickly come to your rescue.

Called Pot Luck (that’s my name for it, since it didn’t have one when it was taught to me – but I admit you could probably come up with something better), it’s a blend of Omaha, Hold ‘Em and, dare I say, blackjack? Well, it offers one element you’ll find it blackjack, at least. OK, here we go:

Basics – You can play with between 3-7 players ideally. No wild cards. And it’s a high/low game, so the massive pot might get distributed between a couple players unless you take the whole thing (which you planned to do anyway, right?)

Every player receives six cards.

Players then split their cards evenly into two different hands of three cards each. Players must use two cards (and only two – shades of Omaha here) from each hand respectively, which will combine – separately – with the community cards that are yet to come.

  • Note – If you plan to play one hand, that’s fine. You can fold one of your hands whenever you like and continue on with the other hand. You cannot, however, keep both hands in and then only call or raise with one. If you raise or call, you must do so with both hands, which in turn costs that player double the contribution to the pot than that of the player only going in with one hand. Also, a player can’t bet against himself to increase the value of the pot (believe me, it’s going to get large enough as is). This means if you know you have a winning hand, you can’t bet with that hand and then re-raise with your second hand.

OK, moving on, after an initial round of betting, you get to see a typical Hold ‘Em flop (three cards).

Now, each player, regardless of how many hands he might be playing, must either discard one card from his hand or buy insurance on a card. Insurance will mean you can keep the card in your hand through the discard section. Insurance will be some fraction of the ante you determine before the game begins (and can be whatever the house wants).

So, if you have K, K, J for instance, you can buy insurance on them all, so you don’t miss out on the possibility of a Jack also improving your hand on the turn or the river. If two more jacks come up and no more kings, obviously you’ll want to use the Jack you saved to make trips instead of getting stuck selecting two kings and discarding your jack. Same situation with a flush draw or a straight draw.

After the insurance, there is a second round of betting.

There are no more insurance rounds after the flop bet. It’s simply turn card, then another round of betting, then river and another round of betting, similar to Texas Hold ‘Em.

Once the river round is complete, there is the declare (for high low, whatever works best for your house rules). Winner takes his half of the pot, or all of it if he wins both the high and the low.

I think this game has major potential for huge pots, but it might be contingent on how high you set the insurance. You can really make this a nasty burn ($5 to stay in the game, for example) and give anyone considering a flush or straight or a few high cards plenty to think about – similar to the match or fold rule if a 3 comes up late in the game of baseball.


May 24, 2009

 You ever get so mad at someone at the poker table that you literally wanted to hurt them? If you’ve played long enough, I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there immune to this emotion. It’s natural, it comes with the territory.

Now we, as poker players, pride ourselves on keeping our cool, maintaining self control when everything’s going to crap around you. There’s no denying, though, those times exist when you just want to throw caution to the wind and strangle the bastard who got under your skin.

What brings this up you ask? Anytime I watch some footage of Phil Hellmuth, it gets me going. I know the man has 11 World Series of Poker titles, and from knowing that, I think it’s worse the way he treats players, especially amateurs. Nobody is immune to getting beat. No expert, no superstar of the game is going to escape someone else making an “incorrect” play and still getting lucky on the other end. The way that man insults others at the table, though, is infuriating. So belittling, so elitist, it’s beyond spectacle of amusement, it’s downright ridiculous. It’s worse than watching Fox News or Nancy Grace.

I couldn’t care less if that’s his “schtick.” He should know better, and, being a widely recognized face and name, should represent his game in a more professional fashion. No excuses. This isn’t your high school buddy’s basement on a Saturday night. You’re a pro, act like it.

Anyway, enough with Hellmuth. The topic stirs emotions from me when I was, in fact, playing in my high school buddy’s basement, all those years ago. The situations were too numerous to count, but a few choice ones do pop into my head.

I’m sure you all know what it’s like to have that “one guy” in your regular poker group. Nobody really likes him. You were kinda friends from grade school because you were in classes together and you were one of the few that didn’t beat up on the guy. But he’s annoying and brings a stupid, unnecessary and stressful presence into what should’ve been an enjoyable experience. But, nobody hates him enough to ban him from the game, and he does usually dump a few bucks each week, so you keep coming back to the well. Who can blame you?

Well we definitely had this guy. One summer night in my parents’ backyard gazebo, we were all playing under the ceiling fan (yes, it had electricity) and some ice lemonade (yes, we didn’t have access to anything better this night). So, as luck would have it, an argument – as they sometimes do – over the result of a hand surfaced and pitted me, a small-framed chap pushing a puny 140 lbs, against the – we’ll just call him the outlander. Now a little history, arguments would never, never, go beyond some tense words and maybe someone tossing coins half-angrily into the middle. That night, though, chairs fell back and the Outlander rose to his feet, poised to attack. Since I’m not suicidal, I did not retaliate – I just told him to leave since it was my house.

He had gotten me so boiled up, so furious that I wouldn’t stop nitpicking his every move until it finally escalated to the scene that had unfolded. Anyway, 20-30 straight seconds of awkward, uncomfortable silence ensued before he walked out.

Five minutes later he returned with his tail between his legs when he realized he’d forgotten his wallet. Punk was lucky I didn’t deep-six it into the deep end of my parents pool.

That was the one and only time I’d almost gotten into a fight over poker, and even then I managed to keep myself in control. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if the Outlander had not.

Stay the course

May 17, 2009

 Here’s a question for all the poker enthusiasts out there…one that I’ve pondered myself this week as the situation arose. Do you find yourself playing different depending on how much you’re wagering?

Think before you answer, what you realize to be the truth might surprise you.

For me, the answer is yes, and I apologize for the visual, but I realized it when I was sitting on the toilet today playing live poker over my phone. It wasn’t for money, but it was against real people, and a real ranking was involved. So, technically, something was at stake. It wasn’t just a throw-away experience to kill time while I was punishing the porcelain (which I was, horribly.)

A few hands came up, early on in the game so the blinds were relatively low, when I had pretty crappy hands. 2, 4 off-suit. 10, 7 off suit…nothing to write home about…nothing to even consider playing. Yet for some reason, I did. I hadn’t even invested anything through the blinds, but I felt like letting loose and going in.

Now most poker players will tell you discipline at any level is key to shaping your poker mentality. Be prepared and calulating whether you’re betting a nickel or a million. You might learn something about yourself and your play that one time you’re betting a nickel which could lead to the same decision when it comes time to lay down the big bucks. Therefore, a good poker player should approach every situation as though the same amount is at stake.

For some reason, at least this week, I didn’t. Which was a shock, actually, because patience and consistency are two major areas I’ve been working on improving over the last year.

So why was it different this week? Why did I see myself playing sloppier and lazier when less was at stake? I wish I had the answer, but I promised myself it wouldn’t happen again. It might sound silly, but even if I had won all my hands, I wouldn’t have felt like I had earned it nearly as much as if I’d played poker the way the game is supposed to be played.

If I give the house or the casino money out of my wallet, could be $50, could be $300, those chips sliding through my fingers are absolutely worth their weight in gold. And I readily admit there’s a sensation going through your body when you have to control that increases in intensity the more money you have on the table. But the decisions affected by your ability to channel this emotion shouldn’t change depending on it’s intensity, and that’s what I allowed to happen this week during my gaming. It’s something I identifed, am ashamed of myself for, and am dedicated to avoiding in the future.

Something else I learned about this is that by playing lazy, or by allowing your decision to be affected by how much is at stake, you also reveal more of your game to those paying attention. You might think it’s the opposite, but in my observation I found that to be incorrect. If you’re playing looser, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more unpredictable. On the contrary, you’re more likely to overbet too early or fold too quickly once a bet has been made. Sure, if you’re not put to a big decision (such as facing a pre-flop all-in), you can limp in on virtually anything. But just because you’re riding into a poker gunfight on a three-legged horse doesn’t mean you’re unpredictable.

And, I’ll add that it works both ways. It’s just as counterproductive to play ultra safe when a lot of money is on the table than playing sloppy when virtually nothing is at stake – provided of course we’re talking specifically about improving yourself as a poker player (and not necessarily what might happen to your wallet in any one sitting).

Each player needs to strike a balance. Building on that balance, tweaking it as you grow and learn as a player is inevitable, but completely abandoning your self-control as a smart player simply because you don’t stand to lose more than $5 is a poor approach to the game.

Falling prey to a bully

May 10, 2009


I was so disappointed in myself this week. I’m usually very much in control of my frustrations during a game of poker, especially a long session where you know there likely will be swings one way and then another. If you start to lose it, even a little bit, you’re going to fall off that cliff in a hurry, and start making mistake after mistake that’ll snowball you right into losing your entire chip stack.

Such was the case with me this week. It’s been quite a while, too. I’m usually patient and calculating, I consider it one of my strengths. This time, though, at a certain point in a Hold ‘Em Tournament, I gave into temptation and made a few moves I never usually would with hands that didn’t deserve to be played in the first place.

Let me walk you through it, hopefully my poor decisions can help make you aware of the situation in the future and lead to better play in your own tournaments.

$50,000 online tournament with the blinds increasing every 20 hands or so (I can’t remember right now).

I actually started the tournament with quite a kill. I took down someone’s bluff with a pair of kings, and that immediately established me as the dominant chip leader at the table. From then on, I was really playing quite well. I took my time, attacked when appropriate, made a few “curious” moves to remain unpredictable to the others at the table, tossed in my fair share of hands pre-flop that I wasn’t happy with, even as the big blind many times.

Soon, the table dropped from six players down to three. I had around $185,000, the second place guy had about $100,000 and the third place girl was limping along with the remainder, about $15K. After the blinds increased for the third or fourth time, she knew she wasn’t long for the game. She went all-in on a mediocre hand, and the second-place guy powered her out. She would no longer be a factor in the hand or my story.

A few more hands later, the blinds increased again, up to $7,500 for the big. And this, my friends, is where it all fell apart. Why? Because I fell prey to a bully. And not just any bully, a computer bully. That’s right, I wasn’t even playing against real people for real money. It was just some daily messing around on my cell phone hold ‘em game, but left me with some very real and infuriating emotions.

It seemed like the player’s strategy and gameplay turned on a dime. Once content to check or call small raises, he turned from cautious to cutthroat right before my eyes, dropping huge pre-flop raises almost every hand. If I raised back in an attempt to bluff, he’d come back higher. More often than not, actually, he’d open the betting by just going all-in.

Now, this particular example probably represents the unlikely extreme of anything you’ll encounter in real life, but the lesson is sound. I constantly felt like I was giving away the pot, folding one hand after another, losing substantial chunks of my current winnings to the blinds or small bets. I felt like I was playing catch-up, which is a dangerous position to be in. It leads to desperation, and I couldn’t hold myself back from eventually calling an all-in. I was bleeding chips to the point where I had lost the chip lead almost entirely through swings of the blinds, and was clutching at straws.

To add insult to injury, I actually had the guy on the hand I called with. I had a pair of fours hidden, and the flop was 8, 8, 7. He had queen, jack. So right there I realized he’d been calling and raising on less than perfect hands. But what was I going to do, apparently the computer program was written to weed out the weak once the blinds surpassed a certain level. I proved to be a perfect victim. Anyway, the turn was a 6, and I was feeling good. Both our hands were open at this point, so the only thing left to do was wait. And wait I did, then when the river came I shook my head. Another 7. So instead of beating him two-pair to one pair, I lost to his high card since we both had the high two-pair on the table. Ridiculous. It put me out of the tournament and ruined part of my morning.

But, like most big beats, hopefully taught me something and built up my poker character. I won’t be such easy prey next time around.

Poker vs. Round 5: Sports Betting

May 3, 2009


One of my longtime passions, going back more than 10 years when I started doing NCAA tournament brackets in college, is sports betting. The seemingly endless options, the connection to a professional team, the rush from the victory, the added interest in the most mundane and irrelevant of contests, it all makes for a wild ride of gambling. And I’m not talking fantasy sports this time, I’ll talking real line bets, over/unders, all the favorites. Naturally, I wonder how one of my passions stacks up to my ultimate passion of poker.

So, returning to the ring for the first time more than 8 months, is the 3-1 poker. Poker has dusted off the boxing gloves and is ready for it’s challenger. Let’s see how he does.

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

SPORTS BETTING: Learning how to play a game is vastly different from actually diving into the strategy and specifics of it, so taking that into account, I have to admit sports betting is probably the easiest to learn of any opponent poker yet has faced. It doesn’t bode well for your difficulty prospects when that secretary at work can beat you in the NCAA bracket by selecting the teams ranked by the prettiest uniform colors. Anyone with a couple bucks can step up and make a sports bet. You don’t really need to know anything. 1/10

I’m amending poker’s score here from previous writeups, but I’ll keep the original language, as well. The truth is, understanding poker, regardless of the actual card decisions you have to make, is quite intricate. For that alone, it gets bumped up two spots. Original test: Hold ‘em games, much more so 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. 5/10

SPORTS BETTTING: Now, to actually understand sports betting, you undoubtedly must have intricate knowledge of the rules of the game, the strategies of the games and the dedication to stay up on news, transactions, injuries, anything and everything. Staying on top of your sports betting game is a full-time job. Learning football alone is a major undertaking. Factor in just basketball and baseball, and sports betting earns its stripes and it’s place atop this category. Then you have the actual art of betting, understanding the fluctuation of a sports line, the other betting possibilities and how to maximize your return, which I’ll talk about in the next category. There’s simply no competition in this area. 10/10
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

SPORTS BETTTING: Knowing a well-set betting line from one to avoid like the plague takes skill. Pinpointing the perfect over/under, and then correctly predicting on which side a specific game will fall takes skill. Working parlay bets, and actually being successful with them takes incredible skill. Much like in a golf skins game with multiple tied holes in a row, you’re carrying a wager over numerous games, all of which have to be successful for you to win. Knowing how much to bet on certain games, and how often to ride a team, both take skill. Utilizing your hard-learned knowledge when making all these decisions takes patience, critical thinking and trusting your gut instincts. 9/10
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

SPORTS BETTTING: The only time I can think of this coming into play, and even this is a stretch, is trying to decipher the cryptic messages of a coach like Bill Bellichek or Mike Shannahan when they’re asking about the playing status of their stars. Also, knowing the body language of the sports stars (are they confident, do they seem defeated, have they given up on the season already?) can be a big boost to you as you make decisions throughout that sport’s betting season. So while you’re not reading your direct opponent, per se, (which is who, the bookie? Vegas? Yeah, good luck reading Vegas), this skill does come into play in some capacity. 5/10

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

SPORTS BETTTING: This is a tough one to gauge this time. One on hand, once the games are under way, you have no control over the outcome at all, and some would say that by default means all your winnings are the result of luck. I think people in the know realize this to be untrue. On the other hand, you could say the luck of sports betting is directly related to the luck of the sport itself. Do athletes feel luck comes into play during a professional contest? I can’t remember the last time they used the other team’s luck as an excuse for losing. You know when luck really comes into play? The coin toss. Minus 1.
Final Score:

This might be the closest contest in poker’s short but stories career. Sports betting put up a solid effort, but couldn’t get past the ease of learning the game and the mediocre score when it came to reading people. While at the top of the game in other areas, and no doubt a formidable opponent that put a scare into our reining champion, sports betting doesn’t quite have enough to claim the crown.  Poker improves to 4-1 with a 4-match winning streak.