Life at the Foxwoods

My poker buddies took a trip to the Foxwoods recently. I can’t actually tell you if the Mashantucket Pequot tribe has all the history they claim, or if they’re just recognized as a tribe in order to have a casino, but it doesn’t really matter. Americans have enough blood on their hands not to quibble about such things. (“Oh, I’m sorry we nearly eradicated your culture. Perhaps a license to steal from our mathematically-challenged citizens will make it right?”)

My poker buddies, which is a misnomer since I’m referring to one guy and one girl who can both outplay me in poker, converged in Providence and drove right over the border from Rhode Island into Connecticut. When we finally sat down at a poker table, we all took our respective places. Bradley and Katie gravitate towards the higher low limits ($4/$8), whereas I gravitate towards the lower limits ($2/$4).

In case you didn’t know, poker is a game where you get a couple of cards and then there are rounds of betting each time a new card comes out. As new cards come out, your hand either improves or starts to suck compared to everyone else. The betting increases as the cards continue. So when I say “$2/$4” I mean a game where the betting starts in increments of $2, and ends in increments of $4.

Of course it’s always just a poker chip, or maybe two. It’s so easy not to realize you just tossed away the cost of a movie ticket when you toss four chips into the middle. You don’t even think twice about it. In fact when I went to dinner (peking duck, mmmm) on Saturday night I “colored up” my chips, meaning I got them in the largest denominations I could get, so it would be easy to carry in my pocket. They gave me a black $100 chip, and I have to confess, I was a little weirded out by that.

It occurred to me that I could really wing that $100 like a weapon across the floor, or lose it, or something foolish like that.

Anyway, I like the lower limits. There’s lots of “fish” (beginning players with money to spare) and if you’re a decent player you’re usually the favorite. At these games, you basically make your money in poker in two ways: by playing great hands, and by folding really crappy ones.

This sounds really easy, and frankly, the first half of it is. I don’t really have to explain to you how you should play a straight flush or four of a kind, do I? You just get everyone to put as much money in the pot as possible, perhaps by acting like you’ve got a weak hand, or whatever. “Now, would you fellas explain to me again which hands beat which? I just don’t understand all this funny terminology..”

You’ll make money with those hands, without a doubt. Over time you’ll learn how to extract the maximum amount of money from your opponents with it, but frankly, that’s just fine tuning your skills. Everyone who sits down at a table knows how to play these good hands to a win. This means that if you sit at a poker table long enough, you’ll see almost everyone around the table win a pot. The joke about Texas Hold’em is that any two cards can win. Occasionally, any two cards does indeed win a sizable pot.

However how you play in between getting good cards is where the real skill lies. What if you get a hand that’s second best? Can you tell that it’s second best? At the low limit tables where I play, usually not. When you get your first two cards, they could win, but odds are good that most of what you’re dealt is crap. You should fold it and hum a tune to entertain yourself until the next hand.

This is where I make my money, and when you understand how people play at low limits, it can seem like an ATM machine. (Albeit one with really small denominations of bills) You make money consistently but in small increments.

Writers are fond of talking about a character’s “arc”. Poker players have an arc as well. Low limit players in particular get spikes of good hands and spikes of lucky hands (also called “suckouts”) that build their chip stack. However in between they usually end up pissing away their chips a bit at a time. What they don’t realize is that statistically this leak in their game is why they are losing players.

They win a big one, then they piss it away (and a little more) until they hit another big one. Then they piss that away (and a little more…).

Eventually they don’t have any chips. Psychologically they know they won some, so they figure it’s just luck. It’s not luck.

Age doesn’t matter, everyone has leaks. I’ve played with Grandmas and kids too young to get into the casino who all had leaks. It’s best not to explain it to them as well. The only thing more annoying to a beginning poker player besides having someone more lucky than him beat him, is to have someone explain that it’s not luck, he’s actually just incompetent.

Last weekend I was sitting in the middle of a table of beginners of various states at the Foxwoods. On the left side were all the people who felt they had superior knowledge, and were appalled when people at the other end played illogically. I refer to these pompous guys as the Kvetchers.

At the other end of the table were the Wild Beginners. They were the Riki-Tiki-Tavis of the poker table. Wild Beginners are great. They’ve got money and they’re happy to play. In fact, that’s why they’re here. They’ve come to play poker. And gosh darnit, they’re gonna try and play poker with every hand they get regardless of how crappy it is.

The Kvetchers bitch and moan endlessly about how lucky the Wild Beginners are, and how they make stupid plays. I want to tell them, “Shut up! They might stop doing that before I get some cards to take advantage of them!” But I usually keep my mouth shut. It’s better that way.

Last weekend one of the Kvetchers got into a hand where he had two pair and three of the Wild Beginners all had incomplete hands. They all had decent odds to wait for more cards to come up, but the Kvetcher was unhappy. Every time he bet, he got raised and re-raised. He just couldn’t take it anymore and slammed his cards down to fold them and grumbled, “These guys just don’t know when there’s a better hand out there.”

Well it turns out his two pair was going to get beat by two Wild Beginners who had flushes. They had decent odds to wait for the last card they needed, but the Kvetcher didn’t have odds to wait for one of the four cards he needed to leapfrog them.

I listened to him and his buddies bitch for five minutes and then, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I broke my silence and said, “Was there $88 in the pot?”

Kvetcher: What?

Me: Were there 44 $2 chips in the pot? If there was, then you had the odds to call their raises and wait for one of the last four cards you needed. But I don’t think there was, and so folding your hand was the statistically correct thing to do.

I got a totally blank look from the Kvetcher and his buddies. No verbal response at all.

Well that was the wrong thing to say. A pall descended over the left half of the entire table and all the Kvetchers shut up. The one who’d folded the hand stood up and went off to play a higher-limit game where the players would take his money and were smart enough not to brag about how much they knew about poker. The other Kvetchers started playing more conservatively and I don’t think I made more than $15 that day, after having cleared $350 earlier that weekend.

During a break in between hands that were too awful to play I went over to see Bradley. “Tell me again what’s the most important advice for playing with beginners?”

He looked at me and said, “Don’t tap on the glass. Don’t disturb the fish.”

“Got it”, I said, and returned to my now-unprofitable table.