Haven’t Talked Poker In A While

I was speaking to a friend yesterday – someone on his way to Las Vegas next week. We talked a little bit about what he did there and how much he would win or (more likely) lose. I told him he should learn to play poker.

At least with poker he’s got a fighting chance.

I continue to play online and it amazes me how much I play – nearly every night. It also amazes me how well Helaine and I have done since we deposited $250 in August 2003.

When I say how ‘well,’ I don’t mean we’re running out to buy a new car. We’re up from the $250 – and that’s enough. To put it in proper perspective, we could use the winnings for a few fancy dinners.

I find, much like a baseball player, my play goes through streaks. Some of them, like a terrible run last spring and fall, are because of bad play. I buckled down and became more focused and disciplined&#185. My latest bad streak has been luck induced. Hey, stuff happens.

Helaine has said in the past she feels the online games are fixed. I read people complaining constantly about bad beats in online games – the implication being they’re crooked.

If the games were crooked, could we be playing this long on the house’s money?

Every time we play a game the house gets something. I’ve been playing $20 + $2, single table, sit and go tournaments lately. That means every time I sit down (and the tournaments run anywhere from an hour to hour and a a half) the casino makes $2. The fee the house takes is called a rake.

Over the last year and a half we have paid thousands of dollars to the house in rakes. They’re coming from someone… just not us.

We’d actually be doing even better if I could resist the temptation to play in 1,000+ player tournaments. The payoff for a win in those is amazing. I’ve been in some where the winner walked away with over $10,000. Unfortunately, the payoffs are structured so a huge percentage of the pool goes to the top three finishers.

Skill aside, the odds of being one of those top finishers is minuscule.

If there’s one part of my game that has improved over time, it’s how I play in these sit and go tournaments when we get to the last two or three players. Since the winner gets 50% of the pool versus 30% and 20% for second and third respectively, placing well becomes as important, maybe more important, than just placing! Third place makes a net profit (after the rake) of $14. Coming in first brings a net of $78.

Maybe I’m making a mistake by playing at the $20 tables. If the competition is less at $5 or $10 tables, I might make more over the long run. I’m just not sure.

In the meantime, it’s fun. I enjoy the analytic aspect of it.

The is one poker truism. I read this somewhere, and it struck me as correct at the time and seems even more correct now, that poker players never remember their winning hands and never forget what they were holding when they lose.

I guess that’s because a decent player doesn’t stick around in pots where he thinks he won’t win. An ugly loss is much more unexpected than an ugly win.

&#185 – This might be the first time in my 54 years on the planet that I have been referred to as focused and disciplined. Admittedly, even then it came from me.

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.


We spent yesterday, and a significant part of today at Foxwoods. Helaine and Steffie both wanted to see Rick Springfield perform. I wanted to play poker with real people.

Though Foxwoods is only about 1:15 away, we decided to spend the night. The hotels on-premises are beautiful and quite pricey. This isn’t Vegas. Still, it was a good idea because we weren’t under the restrictions a drive home would require.

Check-in was a breeze and we ended up on the 21st floor of the Grand Pequot Tower, overlooking the woods of Eastern Connecticut. The room was spacious by hotel standards and the bathroom immense, with big towels and strong water pressure (the two criteria by which I judge all hotel rooms). There is no high speed Internet access and the dial-up connection wasn’t very good, and quickly disconnected.

Though Foxwoods is the largest casino in the world, it is in a part of Connecticut that had languished in obscurity for deades. If you think of Connecticut as the “Gold Coast” of Fairfield County, you are not thinking of Eastern Connecticut. If it weren’t for the casinos, Fairfield County residents wouldn’t know this area existed.

Near Bozrah and Occum, not far from Uncasville, Foxwoods is surrounded by the town of Ledyard (Foxwoods itself is in the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation) . Without Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, I’m not sure what the economic state of Eastern Connecticut would be. I do know, with these two casinos, people working in service industries can have jobs with benefits… including insurance. In Eastern Connecticut, a working family can own a home.

I headed to the poker room and got on a list to play, then joined Helaine and Stefanie in the coffee shop. Again, this is a beautiful place, but not Vegas. It was a little more expensive for similar food.

After lunch, while the girls schmoozed with the cult members (Rick’s fans), I went and played cards. I sat at a $5/$10 fixed limit Texas Hold’em table and bought in for $100. Unlike the tournaments I favor on the computer, I’d be playing live cash. Every bet was real money – win or lose.

Almost immediately, I faced one difference between online and brick and mortar poker – the dealer wasn’t perfect and the players weren’t saints. An older man at the opposite end had ripped into the dealer for a minor transgression which put her on tilt. For the next 15 minutes she was awful; once beginning a deal without shuffling!

Almost immediately I found an inner peace I had never experienced at a poker table before. Everything was crystal clear. I was totally confident. I watched as players went in and out, betting, checking, folding. I knew what they had… or was pretty sure.

My game is very tight. I only play ‘premium’ cards, and only play under specific circumstances. I had no trouble folding hand after hand after hand as the action went on around me. As tight as I was, the players at the table were the opposite. Of the 10 players, often 6 or 7, sometimes more, would see the ‘flop.’

Compared to my online games, things went slowly. But, I wasn’t bored. I had ample opportunity to take in the game and the players. This is something I had never been able to do in the past. I knew how I’d play my cards almost as soon as they were dealt, so I watched them play my opponents play theirs and started to form opinions about their style and technique.

I have been thumbing through poker books for years. The authors always talk about doing things like this, but I had never been savvy enough. At times, it was as if the other players were moving in slow motion with their cards exposed to me.

OK – Hold on a second. Let me stop patting myself on the back. I am going to tell you I won, but make no mistake about it. Just because I won tonight doesn’t mean I will be a consistent winner. But, as I wrote before I went, I thought I’d end up with a pretty good idea of my skill – win or lose. It was fun to realize all the computer games I’d played had sharpened my skills.

I played through the early evening at $5/$10 and won $112. I was beat on a very big hand when my pocket Kings didn’t hold to pocket Aces, or I’d haev won more. Poker players always remember their beats more than their wins.

When my cellphone rang around 10:15 I picked up my chips and cashed in. Steffie had called from the concert, asking me to bring more memory for the camera. She didn’t think the 200+ pictures available would hold her when we went backstage after the show.

I got the memory and headed to the theater. I was lucky enough to see someone who knew me and was let in for the last 20-30 minutes. Helaine and Steffie were out of their seats in the first row, pressed against the stage. Steffie had my camera against her eye and was snapping away.

I moved down to see them, then said hi to Mark Davis, our chief capitol correspondent, who was there with his wife Betsy. From there I moved to the back of the theater. I have seen Rick Springfield before. His fans really are cult-like in their fervor. It is fun to stand back and watch him perform and them react. And, it’s fun to see Steffie and Helaine having such a good time side-by-side.

After the show the three of us and the Davis’s went backstage to say hello and take some photos. It’s really a spectacular theater, with great acoustics and better lighting. Backstage was the perfect spot for the meet and great (last time it had been in a basement stairwell). As he had been in the past, Rick was gracious and took time with those who had come to see him.

It’s obvious he enjoys the adulation his fans give him. How many other rockers will have a career that spans four decades?

We took Steffie upstairs to the room, then joined Mark, Betsy and two friends of theirs in a very nice lounge on the 24th floor. They were driving home, so the night didn’t last long, and Helaine and I were soon back in the casino.

The $5/$10 table I favor wasn’t available, so I tried a weird no limit game with $1/$2 blinds and a buy in limit of $40-$100. If it sounds confusing now, I can assure you it was extremely confusing then!

It didn’t take long to give back $50, and I’m still not quite sure how. I stood up and walked away.

This table is obviously there to cater to folks who’ve watched poker on TV or played on the Internet. The math involved when one player goes all in against another player with less money makes the action unwieldy. On top of that, it’s slow. I could never get into the rhythm of the game, if there even was one.

There were still no seats at the $5/$10 table, so I sat down at $10/$20. This is way over my head. I had never played at stakes like this before. My thought was, even with the $50 I’d just dropped, I was up. I’d take my winnings and another $100. Whatever would happen, would happen.

The $10/$20 games was very similar to the $5/$10 – loose. It didn’t take long to win a pot and I recouped the $50 from no limit and a little more to boot.

This table was expensive to sit at. If you folded an entire round, not playing a card, it would still cost $15 for the blinds!

I held my ground and played tight. I gave back what I’d just won and a little more before winning again. The pots were large – often well over $200. My night was not spectacular. But, I felt really good about how I was playing.

Dealt two 4’s, and with little action before the flop and then a third four with the flop, I quietly sat back and watched my 3-4’s turn into 4-4’s! They had been played so silently, on a table where others could be depended on to do the raising, that when the river came, another player bet into my four of a kind. I gladly bet back.

On the hand I decided would be my last, I took an AK all the way to the river without pairing. The others at the table, having seen me fold hand after hand, respected my final bet enough to let me steal the pot.

Not every hand was played correctly. I slow played two Queens, even after I caught a third one. When I checked, it allowed a player to stay in and make his straight, taking me out. Had I bet the three Queens, he surely would have folded to me.

I cashed out $265 ahead, which with my earlier winnings put me up $377.

Was I lucky? Probably. Will I always win? No. Consistently? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly more likely than ever before.

Before I went to play, I had written in the blog that win or lose, my goal was to judge my competence at poker. I am confident in the fact that my skills have greatly improved thanks to the thousands of games I’ve played on the Internet. I think that will translate to profit… at least I hope it does.

I can’t wait for Vegas this summer.