Vegas Loose Ends

Part of my plan for Las Vegas was to play a lot of poker. I did just that.

The first table I sat at, a $100 + $15 ‘sit ‘n go’, paid off! I thought the week would be easy money.

After that one tournament, I couldn’t win. If I had good cards, someone had better cards. Or, I’d have awful cards for extended periods.

It was depressing. I know Helaine could see that in me, and she told me so.

What was bothering me was, I was playing well, but still losing. I think I’m a good (not great) player, so this steady losing was making me question what I was doing. A good player should be able to win at poker over a long enough period of time.

Was it the Las Vegas competition?

Maybe I had moved up to competition that was too tough for me? Or, it could have been just the cards. You can’t tell while it’s happening.

The difference between winning and losing, even over a week, can come down to one or two hands! Seriously. The difference between winning and losing could be, as an example, plus $150 (win) or minus $80 (loss). That’s a delta of $230.

The more I played, the more I lost and the more I questioned my play. My goal was to play tight; a conservative player. It is easy to succumb to temptation and play hands you shouldn’t play. I did that a little, not a lot.

Finally, two days before we left, the tide turned. I finished that day up around $150 – though still seriously down for the week.

On Sunday, my last poker day, Helaine gave me a pep talk. It was like a scene from Rocky and she was Burgess Meredith!

First I sat down for a $100 + $15 ‘sit ‘n go.’ I came in second for a $185 profit.

I moved to a $10/$20 limit table. This had been the bane of my existence all week. Suddenly, I could do no wrong. In a few short hours I had made back another $400+.

We had dinner and took some family time. Then I returned for one more session. I was still smoking! My tight reputation allowed me to steal at least one pot with what I’m sure were losing cards. I won a bit less than $200 before calling it quits.

After being a net loser all week, two nights turned things around. Between Saturday and Sunday I made up my losses and added on a profit of a few hundred dollars. Spread over our week plus there, my hourly rate was pitiful – but I was a net winner!

What did I learn in this week of live playing? More than anything, over the short term (and that can be a few days or more) cards can be fickle. Steady play will pay off if you have enough time. You have to be able to weather setbacks without going on tilt.

Oh… and it’s cool getting a pep talk from your wife.

Steffie – Reoriented

Tuesday we took Steffie to college and came home without her. Maybe she doesn’t realize this was a seminal moment, but Helaine and I did. We may joke about diapers and Desitin but it’s all true – all part of the fabric of our lives.

Steffie should still be a baby in much the same way candy bars should still be a nickel, phone calls a dime and the subway fifteen cents.

We came home ’empty nesters.’

With nothing to do Wednesday (I took another vacation day), we decided to head to Foxwoods Casino&#185 to try our luck. We’re lucky because Connecticut’s two casinos are close enough to get to with no problem and far enough to keep us from going more than a few times a year.

As a poker player I’m always looking to see how my brick and mortar skills stack up against what I do online. I think I’ve become a good player and this would be a test.

I sat down at a $10-$20 table, hoping to hold my own and setting a ‘stop loss’ amount in my head. With a break for dinner, I played around nine hours.

My bankroll went up and down like a cork bobbing in a stormy sea. I was up early, then watched the money bleed away. After a few hours I went ‘all in’ on a hand, risking my limit, but winning the pot.

As I approached our time to go home, and my last hand, I was down enough to note, but not enough to matter. I was big blind – forced to bet. My two cards were King and Four of Spades.

Normally, I’d throw them away, but I was in by virtue of the blind bet.

The flop came with two more spades… and then the betting. The odds were less than 50:50 I’d pick up another spade. On the turn, nothing – what poker players call a rag.

More betting. Now, with one card left, my odds were under 1:4. Because of the substantial money already in the pot, over the long run it made sense to invest in this hand. Sure I’d lose most times, but when I’d win it would more than make up for the busts.

The river card brought the Ace of Spades. My flush was made – and I bet.

I had ‘the nuts’ – an unbeatable hand. The one other person in the pot (I’d later find he had two aces already, giving him 3 of a kind) immediately knew I’d hit. He called my bet, adding twenty more dollars to the stack of chips.

That one hand took me from small time loser to substantial winner.

I got up and cashed in my chips. Then I walked across the casino floor to where Helaine was playing Caribbean Stud Poker. She was sitting at a moderately full table with at least one semi-obnoxious drunk. Everyone else, including the dealers and bosses, were very nice.

After a few minutes my cellphone rang. It was Steffie and she was very upset. There had been a dance to culminate her orientation session. When she returned to her room, her Ipod was gone!

She had done all the right things – spoken to campus security and filled out forms. That isn’t the point. Even the cost of the Ipod, substantial as it is, isn’t the point.

Having someone enter your private space and go through your belongings, then take something of yours, is unnerving. You feel unclean. You have been violated. It has happened to me and I feel her pain.

That this would happen in her second night in a dorm is awful.

I told Helaine my hope was there would be a silver lining in this cloud – and there was. The kids Steffie had become friendly with stayed at her side. She said a contingent actually slept on the floor of her room.

Today, when we came to get her, it was obvious she had been bruised by this experience – but not scarred. That is an excellent sign.

Other than the Ipod incident, everything went perfectly. She got the classes she wanted at the times she wanted. She wouldn’t go to school too early on Mondays nor too late on Fridays.

I am so jealous.

I have a good feeling about this college thing. Steffie exudes a confidence and maturity I haven’t seen before. She wears it well.

She had always been told, kids from her high school found college to be easier than what they’d just experienced. As she began to hear this year’s expectations of her from the school administrators, she realized that was no fairy tale. They were scaring kids with stories of work less demanding than what she’d just completed!

She has the preparation and ability to thrive.

I will miss Steffie when she goes to school. The truth is, life with her has never been better or more fun. I’m not writing anything she doesn’t already know.

&#185 – Connecticut has two casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. They’re both quite nice. Mohegan Sun is a little closer. It used to offer poker, but mysteriously (about twenty minutes before the big poker explosion) they closed their room and moved in slot machines.

Poker Observations

Earlier this evening, while I was out at the Gateway Community College Hall of Fame Dinner, a woman stopped me to say she had been reading my website. “You write about poker a lot,” she said.

That reminded me. I really haven’t written much about poker at all recently. Let me change that.

Our poker playing had become hot as could be over the summer. The original $250 stake had rolled itself to well over $1,000. I was feeling good and maybe a little too confident.

My play started to suffer. I took foolish chances. In poker parlance, I was on tilt. Before long – actually last week – we were back to that starting $250 and still sinking.

I knew my play was poor, yet was unable to play correctly.

It’s the strangest thing. I knew my moves were foolish as I was making them. Everything I knew about the math behind risk/reward in cards was out the window. Maybe it was a desire to rapidly leverage my winnings or the thought that I was such a good player I could do no wrong?

As I realized I’d soon be out of money (and it seems foolish to want to send more to Costa Rica under these circumstances), I took a long hard look in the poker mirror. Changes were necessary.

First, I made a vow to play conservatively. There would be no chasing or bluffing. My biggest, hardest losses had come when I was too aggressive.

Second, I stopped playing in turbo games. In these games the blinds (forced bets) go up in value very quickly. If I was going to be conservative, I’d have to have enough time to wait for the right cards to come. Slow play, not turbo was what I needed.

Even where I had good cards, I wouldn’t try to take it all at once. That’s a sure strategy for failure in a game where you can win a zillion small and moderate hands and bust out with one single loser.

So far I have been playing this way for over a week. I am a much more consistent winner than I had ever been before. I’ve made up the deficit and am well over my original stake.

Helaine, whose play remains steady and dependable, is also moving the needle upward.

Now, the question is, can I avoid this temptation again? If I got up a moderate amount, will the small incremental wins I’m getting be enough to make me happy? It was my undoing before. Maybe I’ve wised up?

Big Boys Playing Poker

I am watching the 2003 World Series of Poker on ESPN 2. This is… oh, maybe the ten thousandth time this has been on TV. I know who won, and have seen much of the action before, but still enjoy watching. The reason is, TV has added an angle to the game which never existed before.

Let me backtrack a second. I was in Las Vegas, playing at a $3/$6 Texas Hold’em table at the Mirage Hotel. Two players were head-to-head. The first raised and the second paused, thought and then folded. As the cards were being mucked, he asked the winner what cards he had. The reply, “This is a pay-per-view game.”

It’s true. Unless you pay to see them, the winner’s hand is never shown. Was he bluffing? Did he have the nuts? You’ll never know unless you pay for the privilege. That is major power for a poker player. Without his hand being exposed, his true strategy remains a secret.

Enter TV. Now every hand is exposed from the deal. There is no secrecy. The play of a master can be dissected and understood. The huge advantage that a very good player might possess is gone.

Of course TV has brought so much new blood (and money) into the game that it isn’t quite a pact with the devil. Still, the curtain has been parted.

The players at the WSOP level aren’t that much better than those I’m playing with… but they are better. Every time I sit down (online) at a low stakes, one table tournament, there’s guaranteed to be someone who really doesn’t know what he’s doing. Yes, that person can win – Kenny Rogers was right in saying “Every hands a loser. Every hand’s a winner.” But over the long run, he’s going to get drained.

I am fascinated to see the odds displayed on the screen as the games plays out. Calculating pot odds is something I should be better at. I have a sense of where I stand, but if I could really make the calculations of my chances versus the pot, it would make me stronger.

Meanwhile, Helaine and I continue to do fine playing our online games. At last check we are up about $300 since August 2003.

Over the course of this weekend, I will try and play in some of the larger tournaments available (larger in participants, not stakes). Though the payoffs can be large, it’s unlikely I’ll cash out in any given weekend.

Poker Philosophy

Poker is such an exceptionally intricate game. It has elements of skill and elements of chance. On any given hand, chance can turn a losing hand into a winner. Over the long haul, the effect of chance is greatly diminished.

It is fascinating to play. I am surprised that there are people who find it fascinating to watch on TV.

Last week I wrote about a streak of bad luck that had brought our stake from +$200 to -$25 (or so). It was frustrating because I was losing consistently while playing well. I lost with Aces. I lost with Kings. I lost to someone who stayed in with 7-2 off suit (statistically, the worst two cards you can get) and drew a full house!

Since that time we’ve come back. In fact, we’re a little under +$200 again.

Poker philosophers talk about going into ’tilt.’ That means you let your emotions get the better of you and play with a vengance… almost as if you had a grudge against the cards. Going into tilt is something losers often do. It is something a good player should watch for and take advantage of.

I often see players on tilt, winning big early in tournaments. I’ve gotten to where I can often predict their final outcome. They nearly always bust out.

I tried my best not to go into tilt while we were down, and I think I succeeded. Just to make sure, I even stepped down in stakes – going back to $5.50 tournaments.

Luck changes – or at least it disappears over the long term.

I was reading while playing last night and came across some poker philosophy which might help me be a better player. In the tournaments we play in, the top three finishers get paid. That’s very different from playing in a ‘live’ game where each hand means profit and loss.

The article pointed out that busting other players was not an obligation or even objective of playing. Players busting would take care of themselves. My goal is to survive.

This philosophy comes in to play toward the end of tournaments, where a player might be hanging by a thread and so will go ‘all in’ on hands which he might not have played earlier. Instinct says, if you have a lot of cash, keep him honest by calling. It’s everything to them, and much less significant to you. That’s a bad move… or so said the article – and I agree.

Often, going in will stake that opponent and allow him to play on. I have done that in the past and had it bite me in the tush. I will attempt to restrain myself in the future.

In the meantime, I’ll be playing against real people at Foxwoods this weekend. It is something I seldom do, but look forward to. The games will be much slower than what I’m used to online. I have no idea how the play will stack up, though I anticipate the game having more better and more worse players with fewer in the mid skill level. I will be playing against some people who are earning their living.

It will be interesting to see how I fare. Even if I run into bad luck, I think I understand cards well enough to gage my play.

Meanwhile, as I typed this I was also playing in a $16 turbo tournament. A little run of bad luck at the end held me to third, for $27 or $11 net profit.

Blogger’s note: If you’re interested, all my poker entries are chronologically strung together by this incredible blogging software (all the way back to sending my money to Costa Rica) and can be read by clicking here.