A (Very) Long Poker Story

How do you go from being a kid to being an adult? Is there a magic moment? Does it happen gradually and sneak up on you – like putting on weight? For me, there was one moment that marked my transition to adulthood, and it came while playing poker.

In 1978 I was a disk jockey in Philadelphia. On paper, it was a pretty good job: morning man on WPEN radio. In reality, we were a second rate station with a poor signal and bad ratings.

In 1978 I also had some tooth problems.

A cavity had gone south and I was faced with root canal. Through a referral I ended up at Dr. Bob Seltzer’s office in South Jersey. And, as it turned out, he was a listener. As he fixed me up, Bob told me of a group of guys, around my age, getting together to play poker. Would I like to join them?

Of course I did… but I didn’t know how to play.

Actually, I did know how, in a very rudimentary way. I knew a pair beat a high card and that three of a kind was even better, but I had no clue there might be a strategy involved.

Unfortunately for me, lessons are given at every poker table! I was a consistent loser, week-after-week. It was never a lot of money, and it never changed my life, but I was consistent.

More importantly, as I looked around the table every Thursday, I saw a bunch of guys with similar backgrounds and mindsets and they were all adults. Ipso facto, I must be an adult too.

It changed my life. My attitude toward lots of things became different, more long term and thoughtful. Whatever I lost in that Thursday game was well worth it. As I learned about poker, I learned more about myself and who I was.

I left Philadelphia and over the next few years stopped playing. That Thursday night game, floating from house-to-house (though not at mine until I was embarrassed into it) was special, and mere poker would not scratch the same itch.

By the mid-80’s, married to Helaine, we’d visit her parents and drive from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. Knowing poker, I felt it was a game I could play and limit my losses. Other casino games are much more favorable to the house (In fact, poker is the only game at the casino where you are not playing against the house. In poker the casino ‘rents’ you a seat by taking a percentage or ‘rake’ and makes its money that way). I still lost, but slowly and had a nice time playing.

With the advent of casinos in Connecticut, we started going 3-4 times a year. Again, as a defensive move, I played poker. I was getting better, playing closer to even.

The same was true in Las Vegas. We’d go on a vacation in July and I’d play poker. I never made a lot. I never lost a lot. It was a way to gamble with little downside risk.

The Las Vegas poker competition is very tough with professionals at the larger tables and locals who play every day at the smaller ones. You can’t make a living at the stakes I play, but these local residents, often retirees, could kill a day and come home with something in their pocket. I was getting better, though still not as good as the better players I would sit with. To them, I was a fish.

With the advent of online poker, and after hearing about Chris Moneymaker’s miraculous win in the World Series of Poker – starting at a $35 satellite tournament and parlaying that to the big score – I decided to play on the computer. I had met someone from Pokerstars in Las Vegas and that’s where I went to play.

For a variety of reasons, getting money to an online casino is not simple (I have yet to try and get any back). On a Saturday in August 2003, I went to the local Stop & Shop and sent $250 to Costa Rica via Western Union. To make a deposit at Pokerstars, you had to send the money to a man (the name changed from time-to-time) in San Jose. Even in retrospect, it looks like a scam.

During this entire time, my thought was I had just thrown $250 away. I’d never see it again. Even if it did get to Costa Rica and was credited to my account, I expected to play it for a few days or a week, have some fun and be done with it.

I am still playing that money six months later!

I started stupidly, playing in games above my head. By the time I realized my error, I was already down. Helaine was playing too. We both became active in $5 ‘sit and go’ tournaments. For $5, plus 50&#162 for the house, 9 players fight it out. The winner gets $22.50 with $13.50 for second and $9 for third.

We were excellent at placing fourth.

Our fortunes fell and rose. At one point we climbed up over our original $250, only to have it fall again. By January, Helaine decided she had enough – too many bad beats – and stopped playing (though she was the superior player in lur family). It’s tough to play well, only to lose to someone holding awful cards and then got very, very lucky at the last possible moment.

I was down to my last $40 when I started to crawl out of the hole. For a week I couldn’t lose. My bank swelled to $150. I was still down $100, but in an August to January time frame, that wasn’t terrible. Every time I played, the house was taking 10%, which adds up quickly.

By last night that $150 had shrunk back to $84.64. With Helaine and Steffie away, I was looking for a way to kill time. I sat down at a huge, low stakes tournament.

It’s called a $10 tournament, but that’s misleading. You buy in for $10, plus $1 for the casino, getting $1500 in tournament chips. Then, during the first hour you can re-buy another $1,500 for $10 more. At the end of the first hour you can spend another $10 and add-on $2,000 more in chips.

My decision was buy in for the $11, see what happened during the first hour, and if I was OK at that point, spend another $10. That’s exactly what I did. My total investment would be $21.

The game started at 10:15 PM. There were 1267 players. By tournament’s end, those 1267 had re-bought 1927 times with 825 add-ons. The prize pool was $40,280! It was possible to turn my $21 into the first place prize of $10,700.

I vowed to play conservatively. I would fold everything but the very best hands. Sometimes in Hold’em, the type of poker I play, you get forced in, as I was early on with a Jack and King of Diamonds. The flop (three common cards) came, Ace, 10 and 7 – all Diamonds! Unless a pair came in the next two common cards, my hand was a guaranteed winner. I sat back and let others bet into me.

The two other common cards came, and they were in poker parlance ‘rags.’ I was sitting with ‘the nuts.’ – a hand which was unbeatable. Only I knew that. And the other players started betting. Since I had ‘slow played’ they had no way of knowing what I held. Then, I bet back, pushing my electronic stack to the center of the table.

All my chips were in play. A loss would wipe me out… but I couldn’t lose with the nuts.

After the hand ended, I called a friend in Florida, a professor of meteorology at a major university, on Instant Messenger to say:

Geoff (11:50:19 PM): My wife and daughter are away, so you’re the only one to tell. I’m in 1st of 790 in a $10 tournament. Winner gets about $10k

Bob (11:50:32 PM): !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Geoff (11:50:43 PM): it’s early

Geoff (11:50:52 PM): there were 1200

Bob (11:51:09 PM): damn wow

Bob (11:51:15 PM): best of continued luck

Geoff (11:51:31 PM): thanks – I have $45211. Avg is $8594

That one hand was as important as any I’ve ever played. But, the tournament wouldn’t be over for me until 3:39 AM. I would not be the big winner – I would win cash.

As I continued to play, I continued chatting with Bob. We were talking about the weather and some computer programming questions. I realized our conversation would be good documentation of what went on.

Geoff (12:07:58 AM): 2 of 651

Geoff (12:08:31 AM): #2 gets $5600

Bob (12:08:44 AM): ha

Bob (12:08:46 AM): yeah

Bob (12:08:46 AM): well

Geoff (12:08:51 AM): I’ll take ANY payout

Half the original field was gone. Most of the new players, people entranced by what they’ve seen on TV, were gone. The field was playing tighter. As the players began to bunch moneywise, my position changed often. Often I would move up or down in the pack without having my chip count change at all.

Geoff (12:11:11 AM): 3 of 598

Geoff (12:11:21 AM): 2nd again

Geoff (12:17:14 AM): now 4th

Geoff (12:17:16 AM): slipping

Geoff (12:18:09 AM): little hand – 3rd again

Geoff (12:18:13 AM): I can’t stop

Bob (12:18:54 AM): no

Geoff (12:19:10 AM): I just don’t want to embarrass myself

Geoff (12:19:18 AM): I’d like to be top-99

Geoff (12:23:19 AM): you watching SNL?

Geoff (12:31:47 AM): back in 1st

I’m leaving these comments as they were typed. Some language has been sanitized, but the content remains as it was. Often, I was trying to get some words out while hands were in progress, hence some bad spelling, capitalization and punctuation. Bob probably didn’t know what I meant when I said, “I can’t stop.” I meant I couldn’t stop winning. I had taken a series of small hands. Some of that was probably by virtue of my large chip stack. People were intimidated. One wrong move against me could get them knocked out. One wrong move for me would only wound me.

Geoff (12:35:18 AM): now 1st of 453

Bob (12:38:12 AM): ha nice

Bob (12:38:14 AM): wow

Geoff (12:38:43 AM): 3 of 411

Geoff (12:38:54 AM): just got AA

Geoff (12:39:57 AM): holy sh**

Bob (12:40:05 AM): sweet

Bob (12:40:07 AM): good luck

Bob (12:40:08 AM): 2 more

Geoff (12:40:13 AM): got KK

Bob (12:40:15 AM): !

Bob (12:40:18 AM): are you sh**ting me

Geoff (12:40:43 AM): didn’t win much

Geoff (12:40:48 AM): now 2 of 395

Geoff (12:41:48 AM): got $73K – next is $61K

The thought that I could win some significant money was starting to sink in. I kept looking at the payout table. First place was over $10,000. By ninth, it was down to $604. Even 99th was good for $60.

In retrospect this seems silly, but I was scared of winning it all and facing the tax liability. And, even though my investment was only $21, would winning $10,000 make me look like too much of a gambler? What was I thinking!

Geoff (12:46:29 AM): 1st again – 1 of 360

Bob (12:46:56 AM): so far so good

Geoff (12:47:04 AM): yeah – I’ll say

Geoff (12:47:14 AM): big blind A8 clubs

Geoff (12:47:35 AM): someone bet $26

Geoff (12:47:38 AM): I folded

Geoff (12:47:41 AM): 26k

Geoff (12:48:06 AM): would have lost

Geoff (12:48:08 AM): to JJ

Geoff (12:50:49 AM): have fallen to 4th

Geoff (12:57:21 AM): 5 of 299

My body felt like it was full of coffee. I was getting a little jittery. I became obsessive looking at the payout table. Where were the breaks? What would I have to do to win some cash? I had been this deep into a tournament before, but never so high in the standings so late in the game.

Geoff (12:58:44 AM): got an AQ

Geoff (12:59:10 AM): won

Geoff (12:59:15 AM): 71k

Geoff (12:59:27 AM): still 5th

Geoff (1:01:33 AM): blinds are now 600/1200 with 75 ante

Geoff (1:02:37 AM): 4 of 276

Geoff (1:04:03 AM): 6th

Geoff (1:04:48 AM): 8th

Geoff (1:05:46 AM): 4 of 254

Geoff (1:05:53 AM): heart racing

Bob, who had been typing every once in a while, as he played against some friends on his Playstation, started paying more attention. His responses to me came faster.

Geoff (1:08:17 AM): back to 6th

Geoff (1:15:07 AM): 10 of 221

Geoff (1:15:09 AM): falling

Geoff (1:16:47 AM): 13

Geoff (1:37:29 AM): 19 of 158

Bob (1:37:37 AM): rough

Geoff (1:37:56 AM): blinded in w/Q5o

Geoff (1:38:16 AM): 22nd

Geoff (1:38:30 AM): and blinded again

Geoff (1:38:39 AM): 25th

Geoff (1:38:47 AM): AKo

Geoff (1:39:33 AM): sh**

Geoff (1:39:44 AM): 41st

Geoff (1:40:53 AM): big win

Geoff (1:40:59 AM): 16th

Bob (1:41:26 AM): wow

Bob (1:41:26 AM): nice

Geoff (1:41:41 AM): I’m in the pack so movement will be rapid

Geoff (1:41:49 AM): 17 of 142

Geoff (1:41:58 AM): 99 get paid

Geoff (1:42:46 AM): it will get very conservative as people try and break 100

Geoff (1:42:59 AM): at some point they start holding so tables play hand for hand

Geoff (1:43:11 AM): so there’s no advantage to slow play

The cards weren’t coming. I had fallen back. The distance between first and the rest of the pack was opening up. The first few players had large leads, but the distance between the other players was small. Only a few hundred dollars separated players whose stacks were in the tens of thousands.

Geoff (1:46:33 AM): 25 of 132

Geoff (1:46:36 AM): less pressure

Geoff (1:58:56 AM): 34 of 108

Geoff (2:05:19 AM): 33rd of 100

Geoff (2:05:27 AM): one more and I make money

Geoff (2:08:18 AM): all right – at least $60

Bob (2:09:19 AM): nice

Bob (2:09:21 AM): very nice

Geoff (2:09:29 AM): cost me $21

Geoff (2:09:46 AM): I am still playing on the $250 from August

Geoff (2:10:25 AM): 42 of 94

Geoff (2:10:27 AM): dropping fast

Geoff (2:11:27 AM): at 81st – the prize pool goes up $20 more

Geoff (2:12:25 AM): all in

Bob (2:12:47 AM): good luck

Geoff (2:13:00 AM): 26th of 83

Geoff (2:13:48 AM): they’re holding again to keep the tables even

Geoff (2:16:50 AM): this is so silly – because at Foxwoods, I would win or lose more than this in this amount of time

Bob (2:17:20 AM): but you can’t play in your underwear at Foxwoods

Bob (2:17:21 AM): =)

Geoff (2:17:35 AM): correct

Geoff (2:17:57 AM): or, in this case, pj’s

Geoff (2:18:49 AM): 34 of 72

Geoff (2:19:33 AM): got 84k in chips

Geoff (2:21:40 AM): now at least $100 payoff

Geoff (2:22:34 AM): 23 of 61

Geoff (2:22:43 AM): at $114k

Each time we approached a milestone, players would get very tight. Since 99th to 84th place all got the same payout, no one wanted to go out at 84. To compensate, Pokerstars synchronizes the games at that point, playing hand-for-hand.

It was obvious, these were better players than those I had seen earlier. Anyone who was a bluffer, playing a macho game, was long gone.

Geoff (2:23:52 AM): won again

Geoff (2:24:00 AM): 16th of 58

Geoff (2:24:09 AM): I will save this

Geoff (2:25:13 AM): won with jacks

Bob (2:25:21 AM): nice

Geoff (2:25:22 AM): $163k

Geoff (2:25:29 AM): 12 of 58

Geoff (2:25:44 AM): 12 would be $362

Geoff (2:25:57 AM): 9th is a huge break

Geoff (2:26:08 AM): $604

Bob (2:26:11 AM): damn

Bob (2:26:14 AM): that’s impressive

Bob (2:26:20 AM): $150/hr?

Geoff (2:26:21 AM): well, first is 10k

Geoff (2:29:12 AM): game now 4000/8000 400 ante

Geoff (2:29:42 AM): big blind – got 10k – fold to 70k all in

Geoff (2:29:52 AM): small blind aq

Geoff (2:30:26 AM): won 9 of 52

Geoff (2:30:34 AM): 187k

Bob (2:30:57 AM): wow

Bob (2:31:02 AM): now I’m beginning to sweat

Geoff (2:31:05 AM): me too

Geoff (2:31:14 AM): like have ten cups of coffee

Geoff (2:31:28 AM): 12 of 50

Geoff (2:32:35 AM): a10s in for 32k

Geoff (2:32:38 AM): stole pot

Geoff (2:32:46 AM): 9 of 49

Even at this level, it was possible to have one good hand and lose to a better hand, busting in one fell swoop. Pots were astronomical in size.

It was becoming tougher to keep a perspective on the value of bets. Was $30,000 a large bet or small when there was this much money in my stack and on the table? I am used to playing at much lower levels. I didn’t want to lose because I was strategically over my head.

Geoff (2:35:09 AM): AA

Geoff (2:35:36 AM): won

Geoff (2:35:38 AM): 223k

Geoff (2:35:47 AM): 10 of 48

Bob (2:36:28 AM): wow

Geoff (2:36:47 AM): KQ – bet and stole blinds

Geoff (2:36:50 AM): 226k

Geoff (2:36:52 AM): 9 of 48

Geoff (2:36:57 AM): on 5 minute break

Geoff (2:37:09 AM): I am buzzed

Geoff (2:38:34 AM): 10 of 45

Geoff (2:38:43 AM): as tables finish

Bob (2:39:01 AM): you should be

Bob (2:39:05 AM): this is serious sh**

Geoff (2:39:30 AM): well, I’m still only guaranteed $120 at the moment

After every hour of play there is a 5 minute break. I didn’t want the break to come. I wanted to play. I was full of adrenaline.

We had started at 10:15 Saturday night. It was now 2:40 Sunday morning and I was still in the thick of it.

Geoff (2:42:18 AM): now 6k/12k 600 ante

Geoff (2:45:58 AM): a10 – opened

Geoff (2:46:01 AM): got called

Geoff (2:46:04 AM): he went all in

Geoff (2:46:05 AM): called

Bob (2:46:07 AM): damn

Geoff (2:46:09 AM): he had 2-8’s

Geoff (2:46:16 AM): I made straight!

Bob (2:46:19 AM): !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Geoff (2:46:19 AM): now 315k

Bob (2:46:21 AM): sh**

Bob (2:46:21 AM): damn

Bob (2:46:27 AM): inside straight?

Geoff (2:46:52 AM): 5 of 39

Bob (2:46:56 AM): crap

Bob (2:46:57 AM): man

Bob (2:47:07 AM): this is far more entertaining than my game

Geoff (2:47:59 AM): QQ

Geoff (2:48:07 AM): 120k

Geoff (2:48:30 AM): trying to steal blinds

Geoff (2:48:31 AM): did

Geoff (2:49:01 AM): table now 7 players

Geoff (2:50:13 AM): trying to be conservative

Geoff (2:50:17 AM): and play position

Geoff (2:50:22 AM): enough money to scare some

Bob (2:50:43 AM): wow

Bob (2:50:44 AM): sure

Geoff (2:51:35 AM): now guaranteed $141

Geoff (2:52:10 AM): KQ

Geoff (2:52:18 AM): as big blind

Geoff (2:52:30 AM): will call 36k

Geoff (2:52:40 AM): nada

Geoff (2:52:54 AM): lost

Geoff (2:53:05 AM): 6 of 36

Geoff (2:54:30 AM): all the wide open players long gone

Bob (2:55:23 AM): a historic night

Geoff (2:55:27 AM): yes

Geoff (2:55:32 AM): biggest win ever online

Geoff (2:55:52 AM): folded 10Q

Geoff (2:56:18 AM): 8 of 33

Geoff (2:58:18 AM): 2J on big blind

Geoff (2:58:29 AM): folding to all in for 194k 🙂

Bob (2:58:48 AM): wow

Geoff (2:59:22 AM): 8 of 31

Geoff (2:59:57 AM): 27 is another milestone point

Geoff (3:00:23 AM): at 27 I will be even since August!

Geoff (3:01:16 AM): at least $181

Geoff (3:02:48 AM): very conservative – 3 hands to try and get down to 27

Bob (3:03:02 AM): wow

Geoff (3:03:04 AM): slow because it’s hand for hand

Bob (3:03:30 AM): sure

Geoff (3:04:03 AM): have played 303 hands so far

Geoff (3:04:12 AM): During current Hold’em session you were dealt 303 hands and saw flop:

– 12 out 35 times while in big blind (34%)

– 13 out 35 times while in small blind (37%)

– 29 out 233 times in other positions (12%)

– a total of 54 out of 303 (17%)

Pots won at showdown – 11 of 16 (68%)

Pots won without showdown – 25

Those statistics are telling. With 9 at the table, unless forced in, I’m only playing 12% of the hands. Of the 54 times I bet any money at all, and often it was the minimal forced ‘blind’, I won 36! That’s the value of playing only quality cards, and part of why I was in so long. Of course luck entered into this as well, because it’s easy to lose with good cards.

Geoff (3:10:38 AM): not there – hanging on

Geoff (3:10:41 AM): 17th of 25

Bob (3:10:42 AM): guaranteed $362?

Geoff (3:10:45 AM): not yet

Geoff (3:10:48 AM): if I make 18

Geoff (3:11:04 AM): this is the 1st big split

Geoff (3:11:09 AM): prize doubles at 18th

Geoff (3:11:17 AM): 17 of 24

Geoff (3:11:42 AM): but, I am now even since August at worst

Geoff (3:13:01 AM): 15 of 23

Geoff (3:13:13 AM): 2j on bb – check or fold

Geoff (3:13:28 AM): 98 on small blind – fold

Geoff (3:13:37 AM): now 20th of 23

Geoff (3:13:48 AM): fold a9o

Geoff (3:15:58 AM): no cards

Geoff (3:16:07 AM): still 20 of 23

Geoff (3:16:19 AM): bb AA

Bob (3:16:28 AM): wow

Geoff (3:16:40 AM): all in

Bob (3:16:45 AM): gl

Geoff (3:16:52 AM): I win

Bob (3:16:57 AM): sweet

Geoff (3:17:01 AM): 251k

Geoff (3:17:07 AM): 14 of 23

Geoff (3:17:19 AM): is this exciting

Bob (3:17:23 AM): yes

Geoff (3:17:24 AM): because it’s exciting to me

Those two Aces would prove to be the second most valuable hand I played because that win allowed me to continue.

Geoff (3:34:24 AM): looks bleak

Bob (3:34:26 AM): ick

Geoff (3:35:13 AM): 67

Geoff (3:35:15 AM): had to fold

Geoff (3:35:23 AM): 6j

Geoff (3:35:28 AM): down to 21k

Geoff (3:35:37 AM): one more hand

Geoff (3:35:54 AM): 6-10

Geoff (3:36:18 AM): 10-As

Geoff (3:36:20 AM): all in

Bob (3:36:34 AM): !

Geoff (3:36:49 AM): winner

Bob (3:36:51 AM): wow

Geoff (3:37:01 AM): that’s why you wait

Geoff (3:37:08 AM): 14 of 14

Geoff (3:37:15 AM): you never know

Geoff (3:37:18 AM): don’t chase

Geoff (3:37:19 AM): wait

Geoff (3:37:22 AM): be patient

Bob (3:37:23 AM): sure

Geoff (3:37:52 AM): 59s

Geoff (3:38:19 AM): straight!

Geoff (3:38:29 AM): AQ

Geoff (3:38:35 AM): all in

Bob (3:38:35 AM): sweet

Geoff (3:38:41 AM): not a great hand

Geoff (3:38:45 AM): decent

Geoff (3:38:51 AM): that didn’t help

Bob (3:39:08 AM): 🙁

Reading through this last little conversation snippet, it’s tough to see what actually happened. I held and held and held and finally was forced to go in with an Ace and Queen, only to lose to a player with more money and a worse starting hand… which paired up.

I was out.

After 352 hands, I received this email from Pokerstars:

PokerStars Tournament #954571, No Limit Hold’em

Buy-In: $10.00/$1.00

1276 players

$7240.00 added to the prize pool by PokerStars.com

Total Prize Pool: $40280.00

Tournament started – 2004/02/14 – 22:15:00 (ET)

Dear ctwxman,

You finished the tournament in 14th place.

A $362.52 award has been credited to your Real Money account.

So, playing since August I am actually up! My $250 is now $426. And, I had one hell of an evening.

I signed off Instant Messenger and got ready for bed, but I couldn’t keep away. I turned the computer back on to watch the end of the tournament. With only two players left, and the chips evenly split, they decided to ‘chop’ the pot. I had never seen a casino host come on the screen, but one did. He made the arrangments and within seconds, they both left with over $7,500. Though the money is in Costa Rico, I have never heard anyone complain about not getting their money… though so few are in a position to do so.

Blogger’s note: As I wrote, I often abbreviated the cards. It should be obvious that 2-10 and J,Q,K,A are cards. What’s not so obvious is the use of other letters. JQs means Jack and Queen of Spades. JQo means the Jack and Queen were not the same suit.

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