Guess Who’s Playing Poker

I’ve been playing nickel-dime poker for most of my life, but I didn’t discover Hold’em until around 2000.

Some friends in the Magic: the Gathering community, spurned on by the revelations that Rounders brought to their lives, had invested themselves in limit hold’em, and when I heard they were pulling in a quarter- or half-million dollars a year playing online, I couldn’t help but invest myself in the latest of a string of games to obsess over that have dotted my life.

Sometime in late 2002, I started playing for a living. I mean, I was only grinding 5/10 limit online, playing anywhere from 2-4 tables in a time when people were only figuring out that you could play more than one, but the level of play was awful and i was happy to provide lessons.

I made my living for the next couple of years doing that, but after Moneymaker came through, so too did legions of Moneymaker wannabes who were far more diligent about studying the game than I was.

When my profit margin slimmed and my eventual business partner approached me about writing about poker, it was obviously time for a change in my life.

When I started, I made the conscious decision to stop playing altogether. My game had gotten stale, I was getting bored of playing and it seemed obvious that in an industry where everyone was trying to get to the table, continuing to work while they got there was a sure way to get ahead. For the next three years, I barely played at all.

When I was traveling with the WPT, I might have averaged about two hours a day all told, but I wasn’t playing when I wasn’t on the road; there was more work to do, and playing with rust barely seemed better than playing at all.

What’s the point of all this? It’s background to the revelations I’ve gone through as a player these last couple of months. When I made my way to Vegas for WSOP, I had no real plans to get back to active again, but many conversations, pledges of help from influential friends and a couple of otherwise slow night drew me back to the table. Now, I’m finding it tough to get away.

That night was preceded by my wondering aloud where I might find a low-stakes, tourist-laden gave full of drunkards late on a Friday night. I got a couple of good suggestions, but it was Dan Michalski of who gave me the answer that ultimately satisfied. “Paris” he explained “Doesn’t have a lot of tables and they have no parking. Parking is the key.”

I went to Paris, not a five-minute drive from the Rio, and took a chair in a $1-$2 game. On my first hand, I got paid off with aces. On my third hand, I flopped four tens, then showed them to amuse myself after the action folded on the turn only to find out I’d won a high-hand jackpot by showing. ‘Winning,’ I realized ‘is fun.’ That night, I walked out with $700 after less than six hours of play.

Since that night, there have been highs and lows. There was a night where I lost $930 in that same Paris $1-$2, mostly due to getting called on large turn bets by the same flush-drawing moron only to have him hit and check it down three times.

There was a $1,500 win at the Caesar’s $2-$5 which included a hand where four players were all-in before my action on the turn with the board reading A-J-J 10 and me holding pocket aces (No, there were no pocket jacks to be found). All told, i finished the summer up about $5,000, a good payout for the time invested and the stakes I was playing. By the end of the summer, I’d decided to start taking my poker game more seriously.

Before the summer, my cousin Dave invited me to join him at a game he’d been a regular at for a couple of years. He sold it to me as ‘$5/$5, $500 buy-in. A fun game amongst young white collar professionals’.

I went just before heading for Vegas, not realizing the $500 ‘buyin’ was just a way of giving the players a taste before the real buyins started later in the night. There’s usually a total of around $20K on the table. I was under-rolled and under-prepared for that reality.

I lost $860, and while the offer was made to “put me on the sheet”, I knew I was outmatched, especially by a proudly Asian ‘kid’ (he’s a lot older than he looks) named Justin sitting to my left who repeatedly outplayed me post-flop.

Embarrassed and seeking escape, I breached etiquette by leaving early and emptying a chair. I got a lift home from Dave, stopping at a bank machine to get him the extra $360 he’d provided for my one rebuy (My stack was at $140) and then thanking him with an apologetic tone to my voice, feeling as if I’d let him down as I left the car.

Last night, I was more prepared. I showed up with a couple of grand this time, understanding the game was a little beyond my roll, but at the same time weighing that with a) the potential for whales b) the importance of networking (there are some influential folks in this game) and c) the need to appease my newfound fever.

I sat down between our host-who-will-not-be-named (a very good guy who asked that his name not be mentioned here) and a new player to the game. By the end of the night, the new player would drop nine grand.

All told, this was what a good home game should be. There was a beautiful dealer named Hazel who deflected random come-ons and locker room jokes like a pro. There was comaraderie, good jokes and good times, even enjoyed by the losers. There were three plasmas, sports talk, plastic cups full of this and that and I can’t say that a single person left without having had a good time, including the $9,000 man.

With my moderate skills reawakened in Vegas, my results were indicative. This time around, I felt confident identifying the fish and the sharks, spotted a couple of tells, kept tight when the game got really, really loose (5/5 blinds, raise pre-flop to $45, six callers??), withstood Justin’s mocking my refusal to play more than Iwanted and made $3,000. More than the money, the night was about continuing what I’d started in Vegas, getting myself started in Toronto and making some new friends along the way.

After the game, Hazel, Justin, a friend Steve (who plays like a pro but insists that he isn’t) and i went for some pancakes at 5:30AM, the right way to end a long night at the felt.

We talked over hands, talked about my work a little bit and by the end of the meal, I’d been invited to head to another game tonight. I’m going back to the host-who-will-not-be-named’s place for another game on Sunday. The $9K man may be back too.

It’s good to win. There’s nothing quite like leaving a table feeling like you’ve earned the victory. I didn’t flop a set, straight or flush at any point, survived my making one truly atrocious play where I ignored an obvious read, costing me $700 early in the night. I survived the panic and steam that came with it and lived to see the other side. That’s a satisfying feeling.

I get the feeling I’ll be writing about Justin, Hazel and the others more and more in the weeks to come. Justin especially is insistant upon it, so as long as he keeps entertaining with his sharp tongue and lessons in post-flop play, I’ll be happy to oblige. If the wins keep piling on, you should reap the benefits if you keep coming around. I mean, I have to share my love of the game with someone, right?