I’ve been playing poker a lot the past three years. It began with friendly home games… pizzas-‘n’-beer, hip music, the occasional ice-cold tequila shot, and such wacky variations on the Great Game as “Pass the Trash” and “Black Mariah.”
When I finally got up the nerve to sit amongst the hard-eyed gamblers in the Mandalay Bay poker room, I was hooked for real. From then on, I’d be in a home game thinking, “To hell with all this yakkin’… I didn’t come to hear about your fucking mortgage. Deal cards!”
The focus of mind required to compete with strangers who wish to take your money and humiliate you while doing it… it’s like an altered state of consciousness, and very addictive.
Then there’s the coolness factor. At L.A.’s Commerce Casino, where I’ve spent many hours, I’ve seen big movie stars like James Woods and Don Cheadle, mid-career talents like Paul Rudd and Morris Chestnut, and old-timers like Bill Macy and Robert Costanzo, all mixing it up with a veritable United Nations of nameless poker degenerates. And the sound of clattering chips fills the air like castanets.
I’m not a winning player. I lack what fine poker players possess – a head for numbers and a will to study the game like a Talmudic scholar. But I do have my moments.
The key, for a non-gifted player such as myself, is to stay out of most pots. Think about it: If there are nine players at a table, the laws of chance dictate that you’ll have the best hand only 11 percent of the time. So why in hell would you play half the hands you’re dealt? (Thankfully, some do.)
Patience. Discipline. It’s about waiting for a solid starting hand. In no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em, that means either a pocket pair, two high cards, or possibly suited connectors. Of course, you can go hours without catching cards of that quality.
Such was the case this past weekend. I came to Vegas to check out Prince at his new nightclub, and to get a little poker in. Alas, I got dealt more than my share of crap cards, so I spent most of my table time as a mere spectator.
In no-limit, though, one hand is all it takes.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, I realize that telling a poker story is like scratching you where you don’t itch. Hell, most poker players don’t want to hear a blow-by-blow account of somebody else’s huge win (or, worse yet, somebody’s bum-luck “bad beat”).
Yet the urge to tell such stories is part of the addiction. So I’ll try and make this quick.
Yesterday afternoon at the Mandalay Bay, the game was 1-2 No-Limit (meaning the “blinds” – the obligatory bets – were $1 and $2 for the first two bettors). An easy-going low-stakes game. I bought in for the minimum: $100. When I lost that, I re-bought for another $100, most of which was still in front of me when the magic happened.
For 90 minutes, I’d been getting nothing but garbage. So when I looked down at a pocket pair of 8s, I was happy to stick around and see a flop.
I was the big blind, meaning I was already in this pot for a forced bet of $2. As the big blind, I’d be the last player to act prior to the flop, so I had the option of raising before seeing any more cards.
With four other players limping in, I decided not to raise. You gotta figure, with five people in the hand, somebody’s holding a J, Q, K or A. If any of those cards came on the flop, my wired 8s would be worthless.
So the flop comes 8-6-6. Holy mama! Can’t ask for better than flopping a full house! Now, what do I do with it? How do I get the most out of it? As the big blind, I was in “early position” for the rest of this hand; I’d be the second player to act.
The woman in first position bets $20. Thank you, Jesus.
I call that $20 bet. Why not raise it, you wonder? Well, that’s a no-brainer. With three players still to act, why should I reveal my strength? Hopefully one of them’s got a 6 and will raise the pot for me, thinking his three-of-a-kind is golden.
Sure enough, the third player bumps it up big-time: $50 on top of the initial bet. Allahu akbar! It’ll cost the fourth player $70 to continue. He has about $250 in front of him. He ponders. And then…
He goes all in! All of his money, into the pot. Hail Satan!!
Fifth player folds like Superman on laundry day. Ms. First Position, who got this party started with her $20 bet, throws her cards away.
Of course, I push my remaining $70 across the betting line without saying a word. All in, baby! Only wish I had more chips. Then I was puzzled, in a good way, to see Mr. Third Position move all in too.
Now, if I had a head for numbers, I would’ve realized right there that I was unbeatable. But due to my previous lucklessness, I started thinking the unthinkable: Could one of these bastards be holding pocket 6s? Did one of ’em flop the stone-cold nuts, four-of-a-kind?
The smarter spectators at the table knew the truth before I did: the other two players each held a 6. (How else could they go all in? Even if you were holding pocket aces, you'd have to get rid of them once the pot has been raised and re-raised.) This meant that my 8s full of 6s was the nuts.
With no more betting to do, we showed our hands. The other two guys held identical cards: 6-7.
The turn was a 3, the river a 7. I raked in a $300 main pot. (I can’t remember how big the side pot was. I wasn’t getting any of it, so who gives a shit? But with both my adversaries holding 6s full of 7s, they got some of their money back.)
Wah-lah! In just one hand, I went from $110 behind to $100 ahead. By the time I walked away, I had all of that in my pocket and then some. A decent day at the races for ol’ Davey Boy, regardless of all the crap hands. And I had reason to feel good about my play.
Sure, I was hugely lucky to flop a boat while two other players – two! – flopped trips. But I also made every correct decision along the way. Didn’t raise pre-flop (which would’ve chased away those 6-7s). Didn’t raise in early position after the flop (which might’ve inhibited the subsequent action). Instead, I totally flew in under the radar and took down a monster.
Moments like that are why card-players play cards.