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A writer gets a lesson in poker

A writer gets a lesson in pokerThe chain-smoking woman sitting to my left chuckled. "If you're staying in, I'm folding," she rasped, and she shoved her two pocket cards toward the dealer.

She should have stayed in. My luck didn't turn; it stayed bad. After a round of betting, I folded at the flop.

I was in the card room at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, sitting between an unsuited pair of cigarette junkies at the low-limit Texas hold 'em poker table. I had taken a brief class the day before to learn how this variation of poker is played in a casino. (I had played a few hands of hold 'em poker in kitchen table games.) Soon I was about to get a real-life poker lesson, courtesy of a player named Simon. Like a freshman English major who stumbles into a graduate mathematics seminar, I knew that a lesson was being taught when Simon cleaned out our table, but I didn't understand it. Weeks later, I'm still scratching my head, wondering if I played poorly, if Simon was lucky -- or if he simply outplayed us all.

I have always enjoyed poker and have always been bad at it because I'm naive, a lousy liar and too arrogant to take these personality defects into account when I play. I have more character flaws than anyone living outside of prison, and one of them is my belief that I'm always the smartest guy in the room. So, at the poker table, I behave as if all I need is a clear head, and I'll beat everyone. My customary haughty modus operandi is to sit, sober as a Mormon missionary, at kitchen tables crowded with pot-smoking, beer-chugging players, and try to take advantage of their altered mental states. Then they empty my pockets.


My boss knew only about the character flaws, not the poker incompetence, when he gave what many people would consider a dream assignment: Go to Las Vegas and gamble -- on the clock and at company expense -- and then write about it. I asked for a $500 gambling bankroll and got $300. My game plan went something like this:

  • Read a book on Texas hold 'em poker;
  • Learn how to conduct myself at a casino table (when to put in the "blind bet," a type of ante; how to let the dealer know that I'm folding; how to place bets without committing a faux pas);
  • Impoverish my enemies in a low-limit game.

Of those three things, I accomplished approximately one and a half. I didn't commit any faux pas. I read about half of "Hold 'Em Poker," by David Sklansky. As far as impoverishing my enemies -- well, I didn't do that. Simon did.

Simon joined our table soon after that chain-smoking woman sitting beside me folded because I hadn't folded. A player on the other side of the table picked up his chips and left. It was a nonsmoking seat, so I bade adieu to the heavy smokers I was sitting between and moved. A new player took my old seat. Simon.

I never asked him what he did for a living, but I pegged Simon as a salesman -- cars or stereos or big-screen TVs, maybe. He had black, slicked-back hair, a small tattoo on the neck under his right ear, and supreme self-confidence. He greeted the three guys sitting to his right. It turned out that they were buddies visiting Vegas together. The guy farthest to Simon's right, a redhead with a colorful rosary tattooed on his left forearm, was Simon's brother, Solomon. Between them were two friends.

Simon was capable of swaggering in a chair. Whenever he wagered, he thumped the chips dramatically on the table. He talked like a character from "The Sopranos" and probably could recite the dialogue from every episode. He barked an endless stream of patter. His favorite saying: "A scared gambler never wins."

And he meant it. Simon was betting almost every hand -- and winning. One time, he won with a full house -- 4s over deuces. "You mean you stayed in with a pair of 4s?" one guy asked incredulously. Simon shrugged and said, "A scared gambler never wins."

Meanwhile, I was getting terrible cards. In one stretch I folded about 25 consecutive times before betting. I sat at that table for nine hours that night, and the best deal I got was a pair of 10s. I rode that hand all the way to the river, continuing to bet in the face of reason. When the showdown came, all I had was that measly pair of 10s, which got annihilated by the winner's flush.

Simon didn't win that hand, but he won a lot of others. He kept playing cards that he had no business playing, at least according to Sklansky's book. Invariably, Simon would be dealt a 5 and an 8 and get the winning hand on the last community card dealt. "A scared gambler never wins," he would say in the manner of a man who doesn't know much, but knows what he knows.

Solomon, the redhead with the rosary tattoo, occasionally studied me like I was a specimen in an entomology lab. He, too, probably knew every episode of "The Sopranos" by heart. The two buddies sitting between the brothers seemed content to cheer Simon on, remarking on his amazing luck.

Occasionally, the four spoke to one another in Arabic. For all the rest of us knew, they were saying, "I have two clubs, so don't go for the club flush." Finally, the Chinese-looking guy sitting to my left said, in a not-friendly way, "Hey, Dealer -- this is an English-only table. Will you please enforce the rules?" Simon and Solomon and his friends apologized and stopped speaking Arabic. An hour later, a new player joined the table -- a Chinese man -- and he and Mr. English-Only exchanged pleasantries in Chinese.

Spots opened at our table as players got sick and tired -- or suspicious -- of Simon's winning streak. He came to the table with $100 in chips. Soon he fetched another tray to hold another $100 in $1 chips. Then another tray. Then another. "A scared gambler never wins," he said over and over, as he repeatedly won with atrocious hole cards. As if he knew what cards were coming up. Other players stayed in hands instead of folding, just to force Simon to a showdown. More often than not, Simon won.

Simon's endless talk, his chip-thumping, his Jersey wiseguy manner of speech, his obvious love affair with himself -- they infuriated the rest of us. Was his loathsomeness a deliberate strategy, designed to provoke us into playing badly? Was he merely a repugnant, but lucky, player? Were he and his buddies cheating? I'll never know, but in hindsight I suspect it was an act, and he was a good player taking advantage of the rubes at the low-limit table.

As for me, I estimate that I won less than one hand per hour. At one point I went "all in" -- bet all of my remaining chips -- and won about $30. It was getting late, and if I had been playing with my own money I probably would have cut my losses and called it a night. But it was the company's money, so I played for a few more hours until I had lost all of the hundred bucks. By this time, Simon had parlayed his $100 into more than $600.

I stewed about it for days. A week later I flew home and got in my car at the airport garage (new dent in the left rear door). As I drove toward the tollbooths at the exit, I cut off a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan. There were queues at all the tollbooths and I picked the shortest. The guy in the Mercedes got in a longer line. I kept my eye on him. Sure enough, he got through his booth and out the exit five minutes before I did. Thus did I conclude bitterly that I was enmeshed in a vast karmic conspiracy to endow me with bad luck only.

Two months later, after my poker-dealt psychic scars had faded, I made a pilgrimage to the dog track, home of a spacious, smoke-free card room. I couldn't get a seat at a Texas hold 'em table, so I joined an Omaha hi-lo table, blithely disregarding that I didn't know how to play the game. I quickly got the gist. The highlight of the evening was my four-of-a-kind -- kings -- and I walked out with more money in my pocket than I had walked in with.

Luck had nothing to do with it. I won because of skill. Hadn't I made the same conclusion about Simon?

Ready to play? Learn about Texas hold 'em.


-- Posted: May 13, 2004
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