Well, the food was good, anyway

Sunday, April 4th, 2004, 4:10 pm

When you play in a poker tournament and the best thing you can say is that the buffet was good, you know you’ve had a tough day. As I did yesterday. I’d like to say I played brilliantly and got knocked out on a terrible beat, but only half of that is true. I did get killed on the river, but I certainly didn’t come with my A-game. Or B. Maybe D-minus.

The tournament was held at the Highland Country Club, a place I drove by hundreds of times when I used to live in this section of the ‘Burgh. Never went inside the club, of course, tho the golf course looked nice, if a bit hilly. So it was neat to actually invade the posh interior of a place I’d normally be thrown out of on the spot. The tournament was held in the main ballroom, fifteen long tables that were covered by green-felt-covered toppers. You had to be careful if you were sitting on the ends, because if you put too much weight on the overhanding corners you could upset the whole table. Wish I’d thought of that.

I got there early and scoped out the scene. I was pretty keyed up, determined to play well and finish in the money. The folks running the tournament were very friendly and hospitable and obviously knew what they were doing. Unlike me–I always seemed to be standing in someone’s way, either dealers carrying chips or waitresses bringing boxes of doughnuts. I decided to sit in a $20 single-table tournament just to get out of the way.

When I play with my uncles and cousins my Uncle Bob invariably wins the first hand, and he always says, “You can’t win ’em all if you don’t win the first one”. So the very first hand I look down and find Big Slick. I raise it and get three callers. An ace on the flop and I bet out. Fold, fold, fold, and I take down my very first tournament pot. Rather pleased with myself. Until I realized that there were no straight or flush draws out there and I might have checked and trapped someone. Oh well, the chips were in my stack and there was nothing to apologize for.

A few hands later I had Ad8d. I called along with four others and two diamonds appeared on the flop. The guy next to me went all-in with a short-stack, and calling him only cost me a bit more than I’d won that first hand. I called, and he turned over A-Q. I didn’t catch my flush and he doubled up. I didn’t get a decent hand for an orbit, and during that time the blinds increased. I paid my blinds and pretty soon they went up AGAIN. I didn’t have many chips left and knew I’d have to play my next good hand. Which I did–I was dealt A-J in the big blind and went all-in. Two callers, who had enough chips to cover me. The guy to my left, who’d beat me earlier, made a big bet when a queen appeared on the board and the other guy folded. We flipped over our cards, and he had A-Q again. The jack I caught on the river did me no good, and I was out.

Out, but heartened. The quality of play had been sub-Party. Sub-Party on a Saturday night. One guy got knocked out of one mini-game, sat down in ours, and got knocked out when he went all-in on the third hand with A-5 unsuited and the flop showing K-J-7. The other guy had a king and he was out again. Most of the players tossed in bets holding cards I wouldn’t be caught dead in a ditch with. There were a few players I thought weren’t gambling like drunken sailors, but this was certainly not going to be a tight, tense affair. I talked to my friend Matt, who had shown up after I got knocked out, and resolved to batten down the hatches and prepare for a long period of folding.

I sat at my table and looked over my prey. Two guys were talking about watching poker on TV and wanting to give this a try. They both hoped they’d last an hour. One player, who looked like Truman Capote in a baseball cap, obviously had no clue what he was doing. He folded out of turn, asked if he was allowed to bet, and didn’t seem to be having an especially good time. I wondered what the hell he was doing there. The player two to my left was a high-school kid (the fundraiser was for their wrestling team) named “Santino”, who told the dealer he could call him “Sonny”. I resisted to urge to ask where Michael and Fredo were, assuming that was a joke he’d probably heard about 800 times by now. Plus, for all I knew, he DID have brothers named Michael and Fredo, a sister named Connie, and an adopted German-Irish brother named Tom Hagen. As the kids say these days, I didn’t want to go there.

The player directly to my right was your typical aggressive gambler, he wasn’t there to wait patiently for good cards, he was there to play. He was in just about every hand, and took down a couple nice pots with big raises. After about 10 minutes a guy from the table behind us yelled to him, “Hey, you’re still in? Good job!”.

The player to my right was an older gentleman who also played a lot of hands–and won the biggest early pot of the day. He and three of the more clueless players went down to the river, and one of the other guys turned over a queen-high flush. The guy to my right showed a boat, tens full of eights. This gave him a nice early stack, and he started betting and raising pretty aggressively.

How about yours truly? Well, sandwiched between the two most active players at the table I didn’t get much action myself. I did one one hand–I had Q-9 in the big blind, and a queen appeared on the board. I bet $150 and instantly regretted it, because if I was raised I’d have to throw my hand away, a hand I felt was the best one at the moment. Capote called me, and king popped on the turn. I checked, he bet $100, and I called. Another beautiful queen showed on the river, and when I tossed in a $500 chip he mucked. But even as I stacked my chips I berated myself. What if he’d gone all in? This guy could have had pocket kings and played them this way. $500 was too big a bet if I was beat OR if I had the best hand. Oh well.

I folded, folded, folded. Five hands in a row I had 10-garbage. No problem, this was how I was going to play early on, I’d gather some chips and THEN get more aggressive. We started with $5000 in chips and the blinds were only $25-50, so I wasn’t concerned. Thing is, the blinds doubled every 15 minutes or so. It didn’t take me long to realize that at that rate I’d need to get some chips fast or else be blinded to the felt post-haste.

I watched the action and was amazed at some of the plays. There was one hand where four diamonds were showing after the turn card. There were three players still in, and one bet $500. Call, call. The last card was a blank, the same player bet $500 again, call, fold. The two remaining players turned up their cards…and neither had a diamond. The guy who led out had Q-3 offsuit, no diamonds, and won with a pair of queens. I don’t know what the other guy had and I don’t think I want to know.

That hand, alas, might have precipitated my downfall. In early position I looked down and saw A-J unsuited. AJ had killed me earlier in the day, but for $100 it was worth a flutter. No one raised and five of us saw the flop come Q-J-3. I checked, two other guys folded, and the player who had won last hand with Q-3 bet $200. Another fold and the action was on me. I called. Sure, he might have a queen–but he also might have a trey. Or, better yet, a jack, meaning I had him outkicked. The next card was a deuce. He bet $500. I thought about it…and called. Gene, why did you call? Raise or fold, raise or fold. Did Brunson teach you nothing?

The last card was an eight. He bet $1000. You see where this is going, don’t you? I called, turned over my jacks, and he showed me 9-10. He’d had an open-end straight draw and filled it on the river. My instincts had been right, he didn’t have me beat, he needed one of eight cards to fall to beat me–and he got it. I could have pushed him out with a raise but I didn’t. I could have, and should have, saved myself the grand by realizing he had a ten. I didn’t. I pissed away half my stack on one terrible hand.

The director came around and told the dealer that his table’s shortstack was to be moved to a new table. The shortstack was me. I was at a table with at least 5 terrible players and I was the shortstack. I moved to my new table, and saw to my dismay that I was at a table with guys who not only seemed to have a lot more on the ball than my previous playmates, but also had big stacks of chips. It didn’t occur to me until later that I’d gotten screwed–why take a guy with a low chip-count and put him at a table with six guys who had more chips than the chip leader at my old table. I learned that two previous players in my seat had already busted out, and another two players had also been bounced. So I was at a table where there were good players, with lots of chips, and I had by far the fewest. This, as they say, sucked.

I did my usual fold, fold, fold. There were some big hands–the guy next to me went all-in and caught his flush on the river, then the guy who lost that pot won a big one when he made a full-house on the river and smacked TWO players who had flushes. I just sat there and drank it all in and hoped a time would come when I’d hold the nuts and these guys would come gunning for me. There was little use for subtlety–if you bet, you’d probably get called.

Which I learned a few hands later. I was in the big blind and saw K-8 unsuited. No one raised it so I got to see a rare flop. And a rare flop it was–K-8-Q. I looked at it, the dealer said the action was to me, and I frowned and checked. Not an Oscar-winning performance, but definitely worth a Golden Globe nomination. The player next to me, now flush with chips, bet $500. Call, fold, call…and now the action was back to me. There was already about $1800 in the pot, enough to get me back over $4K and back in business. I didn’t want to give someone a chance to catch me, so I went all-in. I doubted anyone was holding KQ, and if they were, more power to them.

This was the only instance in the whole time I played that anyone check-raised. Fold, fold…I waited for the third guy to fold and when I looked at him found him staring me down. He was glaring at me, trying to get a read on me, and this is when I think it finally hit me that I may not become a top poker pro–I nearly bust out laughing. I mean, he was giving me the full Howard Lederer Vulcan mind-meld, and I nearly wet my pants with mirth. “Dude, I’m sorry, but you aren’t going to get inside THIS head,” I wanted to say while tapping the ‘ol coconut. He finally realized that my face, now a blank mask of scorn, didn’t promise good things if he called. He mucked.

The last guy in the hand was next to me, and he looked at his cards and said, “I have to call you”. He had about 8K, and it cost him about $2500 to call the bet. He flipped over K9. Would you risk about a third of your stack with a nine kicker? Me either. He saw my K8, was happy for about half a second, and then realized I had 2 pair. I took a deep breath and prayed for blanks.

A six on the turn answered one prayer. I forgot to issue another. The river was another queen. There was a sort of murmur around the table, and the dealer announced I won. I knew the truth even before the first voice said, “Wait a second, wait a second”. The paired queens on the board made my eights worthless. The winning hand was now kings and queens and… the nine kicker.

I was out.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d been an 86% favorite before the last card came up. Only a queen or a nine could save him. I’d played the hand as well as I could, and I was out. I didn’t bitch, I didn’t knock over my chair or throw my coat. I didn’t belittle the guy who beat me. I shook his hand, walked over to tell Matt I was out, and I headed straight to the bar.

That first sip of beer helped a lot, and I got out my notebook and scribbled some notes. My first entry, while not on a literary par with Shakespeare, I think sums up my feelings perfectly. I wrote, “Losing sucks”.

The first beer went down fast, as did the second. The 2003 World Series was playing on the TV, ironically enough, and I watched Chris Moneymaker knock out Johnny Chan for the 50th time. Moneymaker enters his first live tournament and wins the biggest prize in poker. I enter my first live tournament and play like I’ve got my head up my ass. The Capote guy was still in. I was out. I couldn’t believe it. I really, really believe I was one of the best players in the tournament. I hadn’t played like it, and now I was done. I felt disgusted with myself. I was consumed with self-loathing. I drank some more beer, smacked my lips, and came to a very important conclusion, “Ah, sometimes shit happens”.

The second beer made me feel a lot better. A guy from my original table came in, looking like he wanted to throw a chair through the window. He’d been knocked out when a guy holding 2-9 offsuit called him all the way to the river, then spiked a nine on the river. “He called fucking $3000 with absolutely nothing, and then hits his card on the fucking river,” the guy snarled.

“Take it easy,” the bartender said, gesturing with his hands that we should turn down the volume. There were other folks eating lunch in the dining area, some older women club members fresh from the links who probably wouldn’t appreciate hearing the F-world over their linguine. He apologized and gave me a PG rated version of the hand.

Another guy came in looking like someone kidnapped his dog and mailed him the tail along with the ransom note. “I had 2-3, flopped a full house, went all in, and the guy turned over pocket kings. He caught his king on the river,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. He ordered a big gin and tonic and went back to the ballroom.

Matt came by to hit the head and said that he was shortstacked, so I grabbed my stuff and watched him play his final hand. He had Kc9c and went all in, about $2000. The woman to his left called, as did the man to his right, who had so many chips a call was obvious. The flop came J-9-3, giving Matt a pair. Junk on the turn, the man on the right bet, the woman on the left called. Another Jack on the river, giving Matt two pair with a king kicker. The man bet, the woman called, and she turned over…AK, meaning she had squat. Matt showed his two pair, he was THIS CLOSE to tripling up…and the man turned over pocket tens. So close, and yet so far away.

We went back to the bar and I had another beer. We signed up for another $20 tournament in the hopes of getting our buy-in back, and soon I was back in the fray, this time fortified by forty ounces of God’s sweet nectar. I took a nice pot from Matt when my A-3 blossomed into a full house, beating his A-10. Dinner was announced in the middle of our game, so I snuck off after folding and loaded up with wings, hot sausage, a strange but tasty pasta dish with tomato sauce, onions, peppers, olives, kidney beans, and what seemed like pulled pork. Also had a pastrami sandwich and potato salad. And a piece of a REALLY good cake, vanilla with this chocolate icing in the middle. Good spread, like I said.

Matt got knocked out, and the blinds went up so fast it made the game a total crapshoot. We only started with $100 in chips, but the blinds were soon $64-$128–as you can see, patience was no longer an option. I made yet another blunder–I had A-10 and the flop came K-K-9. The betting was checked to me, and I should’ve gone all-in. I would have taken in a nice pot, enough for me to survive another round with ease, giving me that many more chances to catch a hand. I checked. PWOOOOOOCK-PWOCK-PWOOOOOCK. I didn’t get my ace on the turn and the hand was taken away from me.

The last hand was against this guy who kept lecturing the dealers on what to do and pretty much bossed the table. I had Q-5 and, since my blind took up my stack, decided to play it. He called me and turned over 5-3. “Got you dominated!” I crowed, and watched a three come on the flop. I got up, stretched my legs, and watched my poker day come to an end. One terrible hand, one bad beat, one hand that was totally beyond my control. I left Matt trying to win back some of his buy-in at the 3-6 tables and headed for the homestead.

So, was it worth it? My bankroll will be down to a minimum, but I feel I can get it back up again. But it was worth it. I had fun. I only won three pots in 5 hours, probably only saw the flop 8 times. But it was good to play against human beings instead of computer avatars. Not all good–there is, I found, a reason why Vanity Fair and GQ don’t feature amateur poker players often in their glossy pictures. There are some, uh, aesthetically challenged people who play cards. The game itself no doubt contributes–you’re indoors, in dark, smoky conditions, eating fatty food and not moving around much–but still, some folks there weren’t even trying. I know now why so many poker players wear track suits–you sit without moving for hour after hour in jeans and see how comfy YOUR crotch is–but wearing sweatpants that look like you wore them cleaning out the garage last year and never washed them isn’t something Martha Stewart would approve of.

There were several female players, a few quite fetching, and one woman player gave me an idea for the story/novel/whatever I’m writing. I was having some trouble visualizing a character, and now I’ve got her in my head. When I left she was still in the tournament, still had a nice stack of chips in front of her. I resisted the urge to tell her that I’m going to commit her to immortality in my fiction, as that would probably have creeped her out.

Will I play live again? Sure, sometime. With summer coming I’ll be playing less, but I’m sure I’ll return to the tables for another go. I’ll make some changes in my play. Stay away from ace-jack, for one. Buy a nice, sleek track suit so I look like a junior member of the Soprano crime family. Remember that raising is totally legal. And save room for two pieces of cake.

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