I was home recently to keep an eye on my father during some non-life-threatening surgery. Afterwards, With my father safely back home and conked out for the next 24 hours my mother and I done with our quality time, I went out to run some errands and play some cards. I ended up at the President Casino, an old riverboat moored to the cobblestone shore of the Mississippi underneath the Gateway Arch.
I’d ridden on the boat a number of times growing up when it still did tours up and down the river. I think my parents took me because of the sights, but I rode it because it had an enormous video arcade that covered at least one entire deck.
The boat was one of the few places with a sizable arcade. In a city with only a few true arcades like the President, my friends and I used our newfound teenage driving priveleges to perform a broad circuit of St. Louis county, hitting up McDonalds drivethrus for McDonalds Monopoly game pieces, 7-11’s and gas stations for their video games, and usually some place like the airport because of their decent collection of video games and pinball machines. With four guys crammed into a Corolla driving through as many as a dozen McDonalds in two hours it wasn’t hard to score a free meal out of the handful of game pieces you got. Beware the cashier who attempted to force us to buy something, as they got a chorus of quotes from the contest rules we all knew by heart, "No purchase necessary!"
Quite often we’d find a cashier who would just dump an entire handful into a bag for us, and we’d go through them piecing together a sandwich, fries, and soda for each of us.
Thusly satiated, we’d return to our hunt.
Nowadays the only attraction the President boat held was a casino. The boat never left the shore, and Missouri had done away with it’s arbitrary rules that pretended that the boat actually "cruised". For a while you could only get on for thirty minutes every two hours, in order to simulate travel. In actuality you stood at a velvet rope while a security guard watched the clock. Nowadays you just enter at will.
I found my way downstairs to the new poker room, a sad, dirty room under perpetual construction that offered only $2/$4/$8/$8 Texas Hold’em and $50+$5 one table tournaments. I put my name on the tournament list and bought $400 in chips to buy into the cash game while I waited. As they called the tournament I sat down and waited for the last person to buy in. Killing time I chatted with Sarah back in DC and then told my fellow players that my wife often admonishes me, "Don’t come home crying cause you lost all your money playing Ace-Eight suited." It’s a point of pride for me that Sarah understands the game well enough to know the danger of the hand, and to have an interest in my hobby enough to tell me such things.
As the tournament started, the impatience of live play and non-cash chips caused me to play my worst game. In the first twenty minutes I was dealt several awful hands which I played out of position, all of them I should have known better than to play. Ace-four suited, Ace-two suited, and so on. Finally I saw a flop containing an Ace and two rags while holding Ace-six suited. One other player came along holding Ace-jack offsuit.
I foolishly called his raised bets to the river thinking my Ace might be good, something I would never do in a $5 online tournament, but that I impatiently did in this $55 tourney. It was no surprise I was put out of the tournament first, and right before I was out of earshot I heard the table erupt into the laughter. I didn’t hear it, but if one of them said, "Should have listened to his wife", I know I deserved it.
I then sat down for five hours of a $4/$8 game of Texas Hold’em where the big blind is only $2. This seemed like an incredibly cheap draw for me, and I saw a lot of flops in late position regardless of what cards I was holding since it was only $2. On the flop the bets were all $4 increments, and then $8 on the turn and the river.
I was good enough to not be a complete fish, and only lost about $10 an hour over five hours, with occasional jumps back up to even. I saw crap for cards, and so I think I did my best considering. I was short on sleep though, and expect that had an impact on my play.
As I sat and observed the other players and the dealers, I began to realize I wasn’t a favorite in this game. Players occasionally made jokes like, "Oh, Gary, you love to play those small pairs." (No, it’s not very funny, but everyone laughed for some reason.) The fact that they all seemed to know each other by name suggested I wasn’t engaged in a particularly fair fight, given the fact that they had all probably logged ten or twenty hours a week at this table, and most of my play was online. The table had it’s regulars.
The guy in a Roto-Rooter shirt named Chris knew each of the dealers by name, and discussed his grudge with them against one dealer who dealt only ten to fifteen hands per shift and didn’t seem to be able to determine the winner of each hand without table help. ‘Gary’, seated to my left, knew how to compute the percentages in any situation, and gave a long explanation of why he thought you should bet your flush draw. Everyone at the table rolled their eyes, suggesting they had heard him give this speech before, further underscoring the fact that I was sitting at a table of guys who were at least as good as I and could pick up on each other’s subtle cues much better than I could.
Note, of course, that Gary didn’t take into account the fact that with four other people in the hand, a player is making money probabilistically by betting that draw, assuming they all call.
Also, when the one female at the table, nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ because the dealer said "she’d call a mad dog off the porch", made fun of Gary for bothering to compute statistics, I realized I knew who the sucker at the table was.
Around midnight the attention of the entire table left the cards to focus on a well-dressed African-American man in a knee-length leather jacket with "Mr Glass" hair (from the M. Night Shymalan movie, ‘Unbreakable’.) He was standing at the next table with the poker manager. He was explaining the game of Texas Hold’em to him and the man looked like he was actually learning something. We had a seat open at our table and I heard someone say very softly, "Oh come sit over here" loud enough that only our table and the dealer heard it. I didn’t check but I’m sure someone licked their lips.
Leather Jacket did indeed come sit on my right and the other players at the table went into "Encouragement Mode", much to my dismay. I always find this to be a transparent and obvious tactic, and if I use it on someone who seems new at poker, I try not to overdo it.
He played his very first hand hard, repeatedly asking how much he could bet, betting and raising every street until the showdown, where he finally caught the miracle cards he needed to beat the grinder sitting two to my left who didn’t know enough to give someone like this a wide berth. His did this twice more, growing his original, too-small-to-be-useful $40 stack to about $150. The grumbling was palpable around the table, but unspoken.
The player directly to my left, a savvy tourist who, like me, ordered non-alcoholic drinks from the sexy cocktail waitress and tipped her $2 just to see her smile, kept prodding Leather Jacket in an insipid sort of manner. "Man, that worked well!" "I think he likes this game!" "I’m staying out of HIS way!"
This last statement was advice most of the table should have heeded but didn’t. I’ve seen many a professional poker player say that you need to give a new player in the game a lot of credit before you start pushing on them, and Leather Jacket was no exception.
Leather Jacket played every hand he was dealt, making everyone pay dearly for any draw by betting and raising at every opportunity. Since he was on my right, I said to the man on my left that it wasn’t possible to play anything but big pairs since he would make any flush, straight, or small and medium pair an extremely expensive gamble.
His naked aggression got the best of him, as he played every single hand, twice showing down 73 offsuit to get beat by someone with a naked paired Ace. His stack dwindled down to nothing and he left about thirty minutes after he arrived, having redistributed $150 of the wealth at the table from the decent players to the decent and lucky players.
For the next ninety minutes I sat amid the rocks, watching Mad Dog, our one fish at the table call every hand to the river. Whenever she had top pair with any unpaired kicker she wouldn’t lay it down for love or money. I failed to realize how I could use that knowledge to my advantage. However to my right sat down a young man who quickly revealed that when he was playing two cards, any two cards, he would start betting if either of those two cards hit the flop.
For example if he was holding King-Three offsuit, he’d play it (yes!) and if the flop was 3-6-Jack, he’d bet at it, even though he had bottom pair. If he hit the flop with King-9-4 he’d bet the same way. And when he didn’t hit the flop at all, he’d check.
We found ourselves alone together in a hand with me having the advantage of acting last. I raised, he called, and we saw the flop, Queen-Eight-Four. As he checked, my poker mind quickly assembled the pattern I’d been observing. Realizing he would have bet the flop if he had caught any old piece of it, I realized when he checked that he’d missed it entirely. I had missed it too, holding King-Jack suited, but I bet at it. He sat and worried for a second, then folded his hand.
Suddenly, someone had turned on a flashlight in my head.
All good poker sessions provide epiphenies, and this was definately one of them. It was at this moment that I realized I could hold my own at a table statistically, but that the areas of my game I needed work on were my patience for live play, and my ability to read people. I will always need to keep my ability to compute odds fresh and practiced, but where I was really lacking was in the ability to recognize betting patterns and bad habits of other players, and when recognized, work to exploit them.
The best player at my table could do that, and I had been in awe of him for hours. I once called him down with a King that paired the board and no kicker despite the fact that there was an Ace on the flop, because my gut told me he was faking it. Indeed he was, holding a pocket pair of fives. When asked how I knew, I said "my gut said you were lying when you bet at that Ace flop." In actuality it wasn’t my gut. Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in "Blink", I had assimilated enough information that I could make a judgement without being able to reason through. There was still a high degree of risk in what I did, but I was right, and I wasn’t just guessing. I had seen him make that bet when he had excellent cards a dozen times before over the last four hours, and this one just felt different, fake, not genuine.
It’s something to work on, and as I had the epipheny, I also realized it was after two am, and my lack of sleep wouldn’t serve me well. I left, exhilirated in the knowledge that I had learned something, and resolved to work on it when I’d had more sleep.