If you can\’t spot the sucker…

I am a fish.

In poker lingo, a fish is a weak player, losing player, or a straight up newbie. I seem to fall in the middle category, well, all of the time I play live. This is especially irritating because I do quite well online but I can\’t seem to find the disconnect between online play and my live game.

I have been playing poker, starting with plain old Five-card Draw, since I was a kid. My grandmother taught us how to play and we, being my brother and myself, would play with friends for fun, inspired by westerns like Tombstone, with no real understanding of how to bet or play properly. Eventually I learned Stud and other poker variants but never took it seriously at all; no more than a hand or two at the rare family gathering. I knew of Texas Hold \’Em as the Cadillac of poker games. I\’d seen Rounders and a few high school buddies and I even attempted to play a little bit but to no avail. I knew about the big tournaments, I\’d heard of the \”River\”, and the cool, semi-criminal, and seemingly dangerous world of the poker player always appealed to me – I just never did anything about it.

It wasn\’t until about a year ago that a buddy of mine in my graduate program got me into Texas Hold \’Em more or less full time. In the interest of protecting my sources, he will remain unnamed but he played at Full Tilt a lot in class. Apart from one outburst after a tough beat, he kept it pretty quiet and was never called out on his habits save by one rather irritable classmate. It seemed fun and that strange fascination with seemingly criminal, mysterious, or underworldly things was enough to shove me into that strange world of poker. I started on Pokerstars a month or so later and played very badly. I soon found out more people I knew played on Full Tilt and made the switch. It also helped to discover many coworkers played as well.

I had my first live game that summer, at a church tournament where I made a lot of stupid calls and got my proverbial butt handed to me in the second round. What I thought would be an easy transfer of knowledge was not; playing live is a different animal. I have been playing live when I can, at least once or twice a month, and online when I feel like it. I do much better online where the whole table is in my field of vision, with pots and stacks having a numerical designation that I don\’t have to calculate myself. People also make stupid moves while playing for free chips online so I can capitalize on my ever-tightening style.

I am growing to love the game, especially Texas Hold \’em, because there is a beautiful blend of luck and skill. There is always random chance (that\’s why it\’s gambling) but the game is about bending the odds in your favor by playing certain hands, presenting yourself a certain way, and/or acting like the odds are in your favor when they\’re certainly, and sometimes obviously, not. It\’s fun to learn and notice myself play better, little by little. Normally, difficult competition pisses me off, especially a game like poker where there is luck to blame and I can walk away, but I feel like I\’m over the initial hump and on my way to becoming a solid player and simply enjoying being at the table.

That was proven this week.

I played twice: once at a bar and once at the church tournament I frequent. I said I was getting better but there is still a great divide between what I know to do at the poker table and what I actually do, and thusly my self-proclaimed fishiness. Here\’s the hand, or at least what I remember:

I\’m second to act, my hand comes 9♥ 9♦. At my position this isn\’t a premium hand but I had been seeing crap all night and had won only one other hand. I was in need of money to pay the blinds. I raise four times the big blind and end up with three callers.

The flop comes 4♦ 7♦ 6♦. It checks around to the button who raises big, enough to put me all in. I think for a second, figure I have the flush draw, straight draw, and a potential set if that magic 9 shows up. I call all-in, followed by one other.

The two in front of me A♦5♦ and Q♦J♦. I lose. In hindsight, actually a minute later, I realized I did have some outs but my most likely one, the flush, would have been outkicked from the start. Not a smart call, but I get to go home early and play LotRO.

The other factor in poker that is annoyingly unpredictable are players who rely too heavily on luck. This was proven at the WSOP main event last year when the final two competitors, not bad players but certainly not the best at that table, seemed to have gotten there almost solely on luck. Two nights after the bar game I\’m playing at the church, feeling really good, winning a few hands here and there when I had the cards (which I mostly did not). I even managed to double up once when the chips were getting low. But I was at the table with Maniac. Maniac is a true maniac: he plays most hands and calls most shoves. I\’d lost way too many hands to him in the past and so I was playing very tight, my previous double-up had even shown my 10\’s hold up against his 8\’s. Finally, I get my best yet: JJ (sorry, I don\’t recall the suit). I bet three times the Big Blind, get a re-raise and the rest of the table folds. At this point I\’m ready to bring the hammer down. I shove and, of course, he calls. He flips to show A8. I\’m thinking I have him dominated, though there\’s always a chance of an A showing up.

The flop shows A 8 5. What the crap. 

And, no, no Jacks arrived to save my day. I mean no discredit to my opponents game; I definitely admire his insanity/ballsiness. He played a very risky hand and won. That\’s poker, even if it isn\’t the \”right\” way to play.

The real victory here is that I didn\’t tilt and have a meltdown. I had played decent poker and gotten a tough beat. There are always more games to play and it\’s not like I\’d had money on the table so I live to fight another day.

Now, where\’s that poker MMO…


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