It’s the accidental discoveries that are sweetest.

Last night at the weekly Mindshare home poker tournament I finally got a chance to put some walk behind all my talk of being a badass poker player when I took first place in our twelve person tournament.

I’d like to say it was all skill, and to some extent it was, but I got pretty lucky too.  I played my carefully honed $5 Sit n Go game and it paid off.  Twelve players paid $10 a piece (no juice) to compete for a 50%/30%/20% split of the $120 pot at No limit Texas Hold ’em.  We started out at two tables of six, intending to combine when both tables played down to three.  For the first several rounds I played "solid poker", as my poker coach Al Spath describes it.  (He’s banned the phrase "playing tight" from my vocabulary, saying it suggests that playing "tight" is too negative.  While it’s just semantics, I do agree and have changed my use of the phrase.)

We set up the two tables and then everyone sat down ad hoc.  When Doug, one of our poker hosts , looked at the tables he realized that one tables was all beginners and one shark, and our table was all sharks of varying degrees.  That won’t do, and he proceeded to make everyone draw red and black cards for random table placement.

We all ended up in exactly the same tables anyway.  This was going to be hard.  I really didn’t want to be on Doug’s right, and I really didn’t want to fight my way through the best players in the game just to make the final table.

I refused to play draws at all for a long stretch until the blinds went up.  My proudest moment was when we were down to four players at my shark table, and the blinds were at $4/$8.  They had started at $.50/$.50 and so we were on the fourth round of play, and it was starting to get expensive just to see a flop. 

I was first to act after the blinds and saw an unraised flop with a pair of 3’s and two other players.  The flop came 8-6-8.  I passed on my turn to bet (checked) and it came back to me with a sizable bet.  I thought perhaps I might win the hand if both other players were drawing and didn’t hit their hands, but the risk that someone had a pair already bigger than me, or had already made trip 8’s and was playing possum was too great and I dropped out.  Even someone with a 6 who had paired the board had me beat, so I just let it go.

It was still early in the game, and I had vowed that I wouldn’t put my chips in unless I had the best hand.  I had a good hand, but not the best hand and there was a lot that could happen before the end of the game.

Then, the next card came.  It was a 3.  Oh crap, I thought, I laid down the full house, a monster hand.  I sat stonefaced, not wanting to give any information that might help either of the other players still in the hand.  As I sat kicking myself for laying down a full house, the remaining two players shoveled more money in the pot.  I thought "No way, someone’s already beating me, I should be glad I dropped out."

The final card (the river) came and it was a 6.  The board read 8-6-8-3-6. I had laid down a full house, 3-3-3-8-8. But anyone with an 8 or a 6 had me beat with 8-8-8-6-6 or 6-6-6-8-8, and both remaining players appeared to be tossing their money in without reserve.  I have learned over time that it will just cost you money to play a "small" full house.  It’s a big hand, but is often beat by a bigger hand, so I had a good idea I had made the right decision.

One of the two remaining players turned over an 8 to show he had me beat from the fourth card on.  Had I stayed in, I might have pushed all my chips in, at which point I’d be out of the tournament and playing Halo2, waiting for the other players to finish their game.

We were down to four players.  After another forty minutes of play the last three players at our table were out.  First to go was Doug, a diligent student of the game.  Doug put all his money in with the best hand on the flop and got called by Tim, a solid player with a healthy love of the game.   Doug had King-Queen spades for top pair (Kings) with a strong kicker and both a flush draw, and a straight draw.  (and a straight flush draw).  Because Tim had a spade, there were eight spades left in the deck that helped Doug, and because of his straight draw, another six cards for a straight.  Fourteen cards would make a better hand for Doug, thirty cards would help neither (giving Doug a win).  Tim had only three cards that could save him, and with two cards to come, he had a roughly six in forty six chance of seeing one of those cards.

I don’t need to tell you that Tim hit his miniscule shot and sent Doug packing, do I?

A few hands later I took out both remaining players at my table at once and found myself with three racks of chips.  The beginner table still had three players with even stacks, so I was the big stack.  I realized at this point that winning your table and then being moved in a tournament is an excellent thing.  Unless you’re joining other table winners, you are probably going to be the big stack at the new table and that provides some excellent opportunities.

As I moved tables and dropped my three racks of chips into my spot, one of the players said, "Those racks of chips are intimidating."  I would have a distinct advantage of being able to put my opponents into life-or-death decisions at any time of my choosing.  Since they had a tendency to play weak hands, I intended to punish them for it.  This style of play is sometimes called, "big stack poker", and has as much to do with psychology as luck or skill.

A crucial element of my success in this phase would be my ability to intimidate the other players.  Should I start throwing around chips loosely, losing a couple of hands and doubling people up, the other players would start to look at me like an ATM, and start playing crazy hands against me.  Over time the statistics of three other players playing any two cards would work against me and the redistribution of wealth would make us all evenly matched.

What I wanted instead was to isolate them, one at a time, and make each one consider that any hand played against me had the potential to put them out.  They would start to play more conservatively then, and since I could make them pay dearly for each hand they played, they’d only be able to play the very best hands.  Since the blinds were high ($32/$16) they were more likely to get blinded off in four rounds.

Our fourth player got crippled in a hand and was left with a single red chip (a chip and chair!) and saw no miracles before he was put out and became our dedicated dealer.  The last three of us were a somewhat scary group.  Jon, a player who will play a wide range of hands and can be deadly when he hits a good hand but doesn’t reveal it, and Warren, a new student of the game who had engineered one of the most impressive comebacks I’d ever seen.  Warren went from a single stack of about twenty chips to taking half of Jon’s stack.  He and Jon were pretty evenly matched in chips at this point.  I had enough to put either one of them all in at least three times over.

In the end it was my big stack and some lucky cards that won it for me. I routinely started betting an entire rack of $1 red chips (a $100 bet), both for convenience and intimidation’s sake. 

On the final hand with Jon and I, I was dealt A7 of diamonds, raised it for the Ace, and saw a flop of A-6-5.  I put a $40 sized bet in and got called, then the fourth card came as an Ace.  The other player bet, and I put all my chips in and got called.  I figured it was fifty fifty to see if he had a higher kicker, but in the end he didn’t have an Ace and I won the tournament.

A later cash game taught me an important lesson about position, as I sat myself to the left of a strong player and to the right of a passive one, but that’s a story for another time.