Warning: This post contains poker content, and is probably boring to 96% of people the people who will it.
Saturday night, Anne and I went out to Santa Monica for the All-in for Scleroderma poker tournament. About 100 people played, and I made the final table with one big blind left, finishing in 10th place.
I had all kinds of fun, and for the first time I think since I started playing poker, I didn't feel like I was one of the weakest players at the table (I guess I need to stop playing with Otis and Absinthe.)
When I was playing poker weekly, hosting the WWdN poker tourneys (does anyone else kind of miss that? Would you play if I started them up again?) I always felt out-matched by at least half the field, many of whom were gunning for me, which I guess was part of the fun (though people keep telling me it's great to have players gunning for you, I don't like it. It makes it nearly impossible to bluff, because people will call you down with bottom pair or ace-high, just because they want to tell the story.)
When I played on Saturday, something clicked in my brain, and all the games I've played, all the books I've read, all the studying I did to be a better player all came together, and I had one of those nights I've always heard about, where I could play without looking at my cards, as they say.
I didn't keep notes, but I wanted to recount a couple of hands that made me very happy.
I raised from middle position with some bullshit hand, just because I wanted to steal the blinds. The big blind, a guy who I'd watched chase the most unlikely draws at any price only to fold on fifth street, called. This didn't displease me, because I was fairly sure I could outplay him.
The flop was something like Jd-7d-x. He checked, and I bet. He checkraised me about 1/3 of the pot. I'd watched him do this before, and he'd shown the bluff both times. So I remembered something I heard Gavin Smith once say about a call in this position being a very strong play, much stronger than re-raising, so that's what I did. I knew if a diamond hit or a big card came, he was likely going to fold to any bet (it's worth pointing out that he didn't semibluff at all, so I put him on a suited cards that didn't hit the flop.)
The turn was another 7. He bet really fast, which is a pretty reliable tell of weakness. The logic says that if someone made a set with that card, they'd take some time to figure out how to best get paid off. "Should I check? How much should I bet?" If a level 1 or level 2 player makes a very quick bet, it's almost certainly a bluff, intended to scare the other guy out of the pot.
"I have you now," I thought, in my best Darth Vader voice. I thought for a second, counted the pot, looked at his chips, and bet about half the pot. He thought for several seconds and said to the guy next to him, "I knew it," as he folded.
"See?" I heard Lee Jones say in my head, "poker is easy!"
When we got down to three tables, I got into it with the same guy. Several players limped into the pot, and I called with 67 in late position. I flopped a seven, with two hearts on the board. Everyone checked around, so I made a feeler bet that got everyone except this guy to fold. I turned the six of hearts, so I had two pair with a flush on the board. This is not a position I like to be in, especially when the other player in the hand likes to chase draws. He bet, though, which made me almost positive that he didn't have a hand. I'm not the most experienced player in the world, but I had a read on this guy. He was very predictable, and never bet his made hands. Was he the kind of player who would know that I know that? That's deeper poker thinking than I'd seen from him, so I trusted my gut and called, planning to put him all-in on the end. I was very confident that I had the best hand, and I was pretty sure that he still had a draw.
The river was a blank, putting two diamonds and three hearts out there, and he jammed for just about the entire pot. I expected this, and I was still pretty sure that he had a busted draw, but I took my time and replayed the hand in my head. Based on everything he'd done up to that point in the tourney, and based on everything he'd done in the hand, I was pretty sure I could call and win. It was about 1/3 of my chips, though, and if I was wrong, it was going to suck.
"Don't see monsters under the bed," Lee Jones said in my head.
There was a chance he had the flush, and had chosen this hand to mix up his play. It was possible.
I counted my chips again, and asked for a count of his chips. My math was correct, it was about 1/3 of my stack to call, and I was getting well over 3:1 on my money. Maybe for experienced players this is an easy call, but I wasn't sure, so I looked up at him . . .
He gave me what Paul Phillips once called "the sly smile," just turning up the corners of his mouth. "It's a 100% reliable tell," Paul told me at MGM a few years ago after he picked it up from me.
"Trust your instincts and make smart plays," Greg Raymer said. How did all these poker players get into my head? I didn't think there was room for them around the d20s and zombies.
"Okay, I call," I said. "Do you have the flush?"
He flipped up his cards to show a busted diamond draw. "I don't, but I was hoping you'd think I did!"
While the dealer pushed the pot to me, we both stood up and shook hands. "You're damn good," he said to me.
"I don't know about that," I said, "but thank you."
"How could you call me?" He said.
"I trusted my instincts," I said.
The hand that crippled me was . . . sort of lame. We'd been playing short-handed for almost a full level with two tables left. I was getting absolute crap cards, and the other players were making it impossible for me to steal. An erratic player open-raised from early position, and got one caller. I looked down at K6 in the big blind, and decided that I'd go ahead and make a squeeze play. The blinds were about to double, cutting my M down to 3, so I didn't have to think about this one very long.
Open-raiser, who was really willing to play almost any two cards, insta-called for 3/4 of his stack. Oh shit. The other guy thought briefly, and called for all his chips. I'm done.
Before I tell you what they had, let me explain the squeeze play. Dan Harrington introduced it to me in his awesome Harrington on Hold'Em books, and it goes like this: when someone raises and gets a caller, you come way over the top of both of them, representing a huge hand. Most players will fold nearly everything but AA-QQ, so you've got a very good chance to pick up all the dead money in the pot without a fight.
The thing I forgot, though, was that this play only works on people who know that they're "supposed" to fold. Whoops.
Insta-caller showed the ace and the three of spades. Are you fucking kidding me?! The other guy showed a pair of eights.
The eights I could understand. He was getting massive odds thanks to the A3 guy (WTF?) and he'd already told me that he wanted to bust me so he could get my book. I couldn't fault him for calling.
I asked the dealer to please pair my live king. He did his best, but the poker gods had other plans, tripling up the pocket eights guy as the board didn't help any of us.
While I was busy getting crippled, someone busted on the other table, so they combined us into a final table of ten players. I had one big blind left, so I announced that I was all-in blind. Everyone folded, and I thought that I may have a chance against the equally-random cards in the blinds . . . but the guy to my right raised, they folded, and he tabled pocket kings.
He let me keep my cards hidden until the whole board was out, and I hoped for the improbable two pair to stay alive and mount the greatest comeback of my life . . . but I missed. I don't even remember what the cards were.
There was some applause, and I wished everyone good luck. I signed my book for WWdN reader K, who was one of I think five readers who came out (this made me deliriously happy; over the 60 or 70 shows I did at ACME, I think 12 people ever came when I mentioned it on my blog, so getting about half of that number at one event was unexpected and totally awesome - thanks for coming if you were one of them!)
In no-limit poker, one mistake or lapse of judgment can knock down the whole log jam. I'm not sure if I'd take my squeeze play attempt back; the blinds were coming up, I needed chips to have a chance at making a run for the top three places, and I had a position where I thought I had a decent chance to make a play. Under normal conditions, I'm not playing K6 to a raise in any position, but I wasn't playing my cards, I was making a move, and even though it didn't work out the way I wanted it to, I was happy with myself for having the guts to make it. I was playing to win, instead of playing not to lose.
I'm not fooling myself; I'm not some kind of expert poker player, and I'm okay with that. But for one tourney, I felt like I was in complete control of my game, and playing at a slightly higher level than the people I was playing against. That was a tremendously satisfying feeling, almost as good as knowing that I helped raise a lot of money to help people who need it.