Sunday, March 29, 2009
The other night I sat down at a poker table and watched a guy amass nearly a thousand dollars in the course of an evening. What's more, he didn't even show up on time.
Of course, results must be considered in context. If you're playing for $500 a hand, winning $1000 in an hours-long session is more or less breaking even. In our case, a $1-2 mixed game of no-limit hold'em and pot-limit Omaha hi-lo, winning a grand in a sitting is a remarkable feat.
I play my share of poker but haven't discussed it here because doing so is a no-win proposition. Reporting on my own winning would be in poor taste, and recounting my losses would be dwelling on something I'd just as soon forget.
There are other reasons I steer clear of writing about poker. I write for a general audience (props to both of you), few of whom play the game. Getting into the minutiae of specific hands might be confusing to a non-player. Plus poker stories are like golf stories, frequently of greater interest to the teller than the listener.
Then there's the fact that my poker pals have been known to read this site. Why would I share opinions and strategy here that I wouldn't in person?
Of course, I'm not saying poker isn't worth writing about. There are plenty of good poker blogs out there by famous pro players and enthusiastic amateurs, not to mention enough worthwhile poker books and magazine columns to break a shelf. Some of these are considered required reading in poker circles. My blog is not.
Writing about poker also serves to advertise, to whatever degree it exists, my own degeneracy. I would make a principled argument, à la Matt Damon in Rounders and a thousand husbands to their wives, that poker is a game of skill played not against the house, even at a casino, but against other players. There is a luck factor, but over time, the superior player will relieve the lesser player of his chips.
I share many people's distaste for gambling, but poker doesn't feel like gambling to me. Pumping money into a slot machine, throwing it at a roulette wheel, those are gambling. Not only can you not control the outcome, but the odds are tilted against the player. I prefer not to donate.
Poker, though, is a test of ability, one I find challenging and enjoyable, and there's camaraderie and continuity in a regular game that you won't find online or in a casino. Plus, in a home game, you're not cutting the house in on your winnings. I've played in and hosted different games over the years around the city, and I'm glad I have.
Then again, even if I concede the point that playing poker is gambling, there is also that, as Norm Macdonald observed, "gambling is the only disease where you can win a bunch of money." Without going into specifics, I am a winning player, which is one reason I continue to play. I just don't usually write about it.
Though I am content with my results on the felt, I further concede that every evening spent throwing chips around is an evening I could have been seeing a play, writing a novel, learning to construct a crossword puzzle or bedding Elle Macpherson. (Hey, it could happen. Again.) So I keep it in moderation.
As for the guy who won the thousand bucks, it was just his night. Let's call him Dan in honor of one of my favorite players, Daniel Negreanu. Despite what I said above about poker stories, here's an example of how good Dan was running (in poker parlance, "running good" means winning consistently). I'm going from memory here but this is more or less how it went. Please forgive the lingo.
Late in the evening, already the big stack with $400+ in front of him, Dan wakes up with pocket 5s against two players who each hold 9-Xo. They call his preflop raise. The flop comes 9-5-blank. He checks his set and smooth-calls a bet from Opponent A. Opponent B, also having flopped top pair, calls. The turn card comes a 9, giving each of his opponents top set. Little do they know Dan's got them crushed with fives full. A round of betting ensues and everyone sticks around. A and B, of course, think they're good with a harmless-looking board; if they're worried about anything it's that they're outkicked by someone else's trips, but either way they can't lay down top set.
The river card, the case 5, moots their kicker worries, as there are now two pair on the board and they've each got the better boat. Unfortunately for them, Dan just made quads, which he didn't even need; he'd already filled up on the turn. On the river A and B were drawing dead to a non-5 board pair, a paired kicker or the case 9 (and even in that case, one of them was dead to a better kicker); that it came a 5 was just gilding the lily. After the inevitable bet, raise, reraise and all-in shove, the dust settles with two guys watching stunned as Dan drags a massive pot in the neighborhood of $500 that knocks them both out of the game.
Of the six players at the table, three guys each lost $300 on the night, one guy lost something like $150, I won $78, and Dan walked with the rest of it. He was quick to point out that he'd lost $600 in his previous go-round.
I was happy for him, but it was hard to relate. I've never lost $600 in my life at a poker table, nor $300, because I would stop playing before I got stuck (poker term) for that much. I've been lucky enough to win four or five hundred bucks on a number of occasions, which was great and all, but it was as much the satisfaction of winning specific hands as it was the money. As they say on Wall Street, money is just a way of keeping score.
It's enough to know that I won, or on an unlucky night, to feel that I played well if I did. Paying my housekeeper in found cash is a bonus. I would never bet enough money to change my life one way or the other. I don't have it in me to expose myself to that kind of downside potential.
It is that aversion to risk, along with a pesky skill deficit, that will keep me from reaching the higher echelons of poker.