Between 1994-1999, I played a lot of poker. Mostly TEXAS HOLD’EM, usually in Casinos in Las Vegas and Legal Card Rooms in Southern California. I was totally emersed in the poker world.
As near as I can recall, I played my last hand of poker Fourth of July Weekend 1999 at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. I literally haven’t played a single hand of poker since. I didn’t go broke. I don’t have to go to meetings. I’m not in therapy. I just quit. I’d had enough. I was a winning player but, to borrow a phrase from Ross Perot, I’d have made more money working the night shift at the Dairy Queen. Luckily, while I was in the poker world, I was also active in the stock market which was, at the time, in a raging bull market associated with the boom in internet stocks.
Recently, I started to thinking about poker. I miss the game, the language, the characters, the humor, and the challenges that different players present. And, how demanding the game is if you want to compete and succeed at higher level tournament play. It’s a different game now, than it was 21 years ago. The players are younger, more aggressive and more creative. I’m sure one truism is as accurate now as it’s always been….”it’s a tough way to make an easy living.”
I feature myself a writer of sorts. So, as I started thinking about poker and what that life was about, I decided to put my thoughts in writing. Why not? Much of that life is not only fun, but funny. At least in retrospect. So, let’s start with the language of the poker world and some of its customs and traditions.
LIVE ONE. A player who is not very good and plays a lot of hands is considered a “live one”. Live ones are great for the game. The term comes from an actual poker game where an actual player in the game had a heart attack, fell out of his chair, and died. One of the players in the game, not noted for sensitivity or compassion, called out to the Card Room Manager, that they needed another player saying “send us a live one.” There’s an old poker adage, that if you look around the table and don’t see a “live one” you’re it.
CHIP AND A CHAIR. The culture of poker holds that everyone at the table is equal. Anyone can call for a new deck of cards or ask for a ruling from a floorman. Well known people have no extra status at the table. If they’re smart, they don’t try and claim any. As long as you have one chip left, you’ve got a chair and the same rights as any other player in the game. A poker game may be one of the few places where everyone really is equal, at least at the table, during the game. When you lose your last chip, get up and go. No Irish Farewells. There’s someone waiting for your seat. You don’t want to hear the dealer say “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” I love that saying. First time I heard it was in a poker tournament, fortunately not directed at me.
COOLER. A cooler or cold deck, is a deck of cards that has been arranged to accomplish a scam. In a no limit game, its designed to win all of someone’s money on one hand by cheating. The scam is accomplished by introducing a deck into the game in which the cards have been arranged to give the victim a “close to perfect” hand that gets beat at the end by a better hand. A subterfuge is used to introduce the deck into the game, without shuffle or cut. I heard a grizzled old Texan talk about working the scam saying, “the trick is to protect the integrity of the cooler. “(Meaning, keeping the cards in the exact order for the scam to work.) Every time I think of that guy, it makes me laugh. The coupling of the word “integrity” with the intention to take all someone’s money by scam just strikes me as funny. Maybe it isn’t funny. I was never an Eagle Scout either. I guess it’s funny when it happens to someone else.
ONLY GAME IN TOWN. Poker players are famous for being willing to play anywhere under any conditions. A story has it, of a country boy who loved poker so much that he lost the family farm in a game that he knew was crooked. When asked why he kept playing in a game where he knew he was being cheated, he responded “it’s the only game in town.” I understand that impulse. When I was between College and Law School, I was in Washington, DC. I was playing a lot of poker with guys I met while attending Georgetown University Summer School. Sometimes, when there was no game, I’d play in a game above a Greek Restaurant in downtown DC. I’d heard about the game and showed up at it once, unannounced, played a few hands and left. I didn’t like the situation and thought there was probably some cheating going on. However, I went back. After all, it was the only game in town. I lost a bit but never should have been there in the first place. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.
TEXAS HOLD’EM. When I was emersed in the poker world, I played HOLD’EM. It’s a great game involving art, science, and luck. A rank amateur can win against experts in the short run. Over time, the best players get the money. It’s sort of like how Warren Buffet described the stock market, “in a bear market, money is returned to its rightful owners.” HOLD’EM, played in a limit format is a grind. That was the game I played most of the time. (If I were to play poker again, I’d play no-limit tournaments. You get an early verdict and the possibility of a big payday.) In LIMIT HOLD’EM, you have to put in the time for your “edge” to produce a profit. One can “run bad” for a number of poker sessions. I remember sitting next to an excellent player who was a good friend of mine. He had a penchant for gallows humor. We were talking about streaks in poker and running bad and he blurted out, sort of out of the blue, “if I ever lose seven sessions in a row, I’m going to shoot myself.” I gave him that “tell me more” look, and he told me he had just come off a six-session losing streak. As to where the game got its name, “TEXAS HOLD’EM”, there are competing theories. There is evidence that General Robert E Lee‘s fondness for the storied Texas Brigade, in the Civil War is part of the game’s name history. At the Battle of the Wilderness the Texas Brigade performed particularly well causing Lee to take off his hat and shout “the Texans always move them.” Let’s assume he said they “Hold Them”, some other time when no one was there to hear him. I like the story. It honors the game’s Texas roots.
STUCK. If you are losing in a poker game, you’re “stuck.” It’s the universal language of poker. If you lose a few bucks on the first hand you play, you’re stuck. If you’ve been at the table for 48 hours and lost the family dry cleaning business, you’re stuck. The word “stuck” describes more than just the fact that one is losing in a poker game. Players can allow their emotions to overcome their reasoning power so that they literally cannot get up from the table. Stories of players going three of four days straight were not unusual. It’s a rare player that hasn’t had an overlong session when he/she stayed way past their “effective play” period. I thought my “effective play” period was about five hours. I think my worst “stuck” session went about 16 hours. I can remember a bad session in California. I was sitting next to a black guy a little younger than me. We were both losing. The vibe between us was not good. I’m sitting in silence next to him for about five hours and out of the blue, he looks over at me and says “how long are they going to make us stay here?” Under the circumstances, what he said was both ridiculous and hilarious. The only thing that was “making” us stay there was our own stupidity and lack of discipline. I laughed (hard to do when you’re stuck) thanked him and couldn’t get out the door fast enough. He broke the self-induced “stupid trance” that I was in and saved me a lot of money.
THE THINGS YOU HEAR
If you sit down at a poker game and get a pair of Aces dealt to you on your first hand and lose a big pot you can count on someone saying “how do you like the game so far.”?
If a brand-new player shows up and gets phenomenally lucky and wins $5,000 in a game where a decent win is $1,000 someone will say “you know, they play here every day.”
A friend of mine who was a streaky player capable of booking outsized wins would come into the poker room, if he was on a three or four day hot streak, look around at the regulars and say “the thing that amazes me is that you guys still have money.”
I remember being in Las Vegas in an election year, 1996, Clinton v Dole. As a political junkie, I was always up on the news. It was way past the election, past Thanksgiving even, and I’m playing in a not so hot, low energy game. A player looks up and says “hey, who won that election?” I thought it was funny, but poker being poker, it was even money that someone at the table didn’t know. Maybe two or three, for that matter.
You’ll never get in trouble at the poker table keeping your mouth shut. Someone at the table may have all the money they have, on the table. The kind of stress they’re under may make them a ticking time bomb. Be careful what you say to someone who has just lost a big pot. I thought there was a period of at least 15 seconds when the loser of a big pot, especially on a bad beat, doesn’t want to hear anything from anybody. I named it the “15 second rule” and, it sort of caught on.
“They tighten up right before they hit the rail.” Translation: the rail is the separation barrier surrounding the poker room. Tourists will gather on the rail and watch play, out of curiosity. If you see a player there it’s often a bad sign. It’s possible/probable that the player is broke…like down to zero. They may be hanging around seeing if anyone they know is winning a lot and they’ll try to get a loan. If a player is known to be an aggressive gambler all of a sudden becomes quite conservative, he/she may be close to broke…they tighten up right before they go broke. For a player, “on the rail” means broke.
I was known as a difficult person to get money (a loan) from. I made a couple of exceptions. I did really well in one of the Tournaments during the World Series back in the mid 90s. I was at the final table, of a LIMIT HOLD’EM EVENT. There were maybe forty people watching us. A guy I knew was rooting for me. It felt good and I appreciated it. I took Fourth Place, and won $35,000. After, he asked me for some help and I turned him down. I didn’t like the way I felt saying no, so I asked a friend of his how the guy, Mike, was doing. He told me, not good. I called him in his room and lent him $1000. For the next few months, I’d see him in the poker room and he’d give me 200, then 100. He paid off 700 and all of a sudden, he couldn’t see me when he came in the room. After a couple of times of “not seeing me”, I said to him, “Mike, you don’t have to give me money but you gotta say hello.” He reached into his pocket and gave me the final $300. The other guy I gave money to was a poker room legend. He was from Arkansas, a reckless player, but, World Class Hilarious. I gave him 100, then another 100 and told him that was it. A little time went by and he calls me and asks me for another 100. I said absolutely not. He keeps me on the phone and then says “you know Tom, before I made this call, my hands were shaking thinking you might say that.” He knew the magic words. How am I going to say no to a guy that says that? I gave him the third 100, and haven’t seen him since. No regrets. He was a funny guy. We had a lot of laughs. I put it down as professional entertainment. If I saw him now, I wouldn’t even bring up the subject of money. I have a feeling he wouldn’t either.
Here are my own personal poker truisms:
ONE. Protect your bankroll and your attitude. Know how much you can lose in a session and sleep well that night. Attitude is everything. The best attitude for poker is cheerful and optimistic.
TWO. You can’t beat a giddy player, or a player on a rush. Stay out of their way let someone else be a hero. The rush will end and the giddy player will return to earth. That’s the time to take them on.
THREE. Good cards will not go into a black hole. If you’re sad or depressed, don’t play. You’re going to get beat like a red-headed stepchild.
FOUR. The difference between people who pray in church and those who pray at the poker table is that the people who pray at the poker table, really mean it.
FIVE. Bad beats are part of the game. Laugh them off. The worst one I can remember taking, went down like this. I’ve got two black Aces. My opponent has a suited two gapper, 7-10 Clubs. Flop comes A, A, J(Clubs). I’ve got four Aces and my opponent has to hit exactly the 8Clubs and the 9Clubs. I made maximum bets on all streets. No free cards. Of course, he made a straight flush. We’re talking about bad beats. Guy at the table says “that’s the most interesting hand I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know how I felt…maybe like a stuffed animal at the Smithsonian Museum…or maybe not that good. Actually, there wasn’t that much money involved, so it could have been a lot worse.
You thought I was done, right? So, did I. But that bad beat hand brought back memories I didn’t even know I had. It was shortly after that hand, maybe a couple of weeks, later that I left Las Vegas. I was done. It was over. In fact, I’d stayed too long. I went over to California and spent a couple of weeks in a Monastery that I had visited from time to time. Then, I headed east. I’m an East Coast guy. I have to be near New York City and the Coast of Maine, where my Father grew up. I wouldn’t trade my time in Poker, for anything. I may give it a go in some tournaments from time to time. Why not? Only young once.
Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.