Seven-Two Off Suit: Confessions Of A Poker Failure

From a passing interest to a full blown obsession, absorbed by strategies and cyber tournaments, but can just anyone cut the mustard when actually sat at the green felt?
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From a passing interest to a full blown obsession, absorbed by strategies and cyber tournaments, but can just anyone cut the mustard when actually sat at the green felt?

It all started a year or two ago.  My drinking pal and all round good egg, whose on line poker non de plume is Mr.Dogwitch, was always  telling me how great this game of poker was. Had I ever tried it? Was I a player ? ‘Can’t say I am, Dog.’   Mr. Dogwitch is the sort of bloke who will never take no for an answer. He would routinely turn up at a drink session in the pub armed with two packs of cards, a rolled up square of green felt, poker chips and a fucking digital clock. Do you want to know how to play?   Soon I was being lured into his landing net. The name of the beautiful game was Texas Hold ‘Em. It all looked and sounded so easy.

You get two cards in your hand , then comes three on the ‘flop’ quickly followed by a fourth and fifth on the  ‘turn’ and the ‘river’ respectively. With the arrival of each new card you are invited to bet on the strength your hand. You are looking for nice little groups. Three of a kind, straights, two pairs, flushes, and so on.  Underpinning this new found interest was the somewhat romantic and existential image that a lot of poker players seemed to effortlessly exude. At the table they seemed to be self contained, economical pragmatic looking figures, soloists in a world of herds. A lot like stand up comedians in fact who step out in front of an audience with nothing but a microphone and their jagged wit to sustain them. Deal me in.

I also picked up some very useful entry level information from ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys” which stated clearly that  “every boy should know how to play this game…”

My first port of call in the learning process I had embarked upon was to read “Big Deal” by the journalist Anthony Holden.  This affable, intelligent sounding guy had decided to turn his very serious weekly habit into something even bigger and turned pro for a year and really give it a lashing. He actually turned this dream into a reality and was soon winning cash in Vegas in between flying off around the world to play in big ‘invitation only ‘tournaments. Whilst being comped all the way with free hotel rooms and bottles of Champagne.  Blimey.  I also picked up some very useful entry level information from ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys” which stated clearly that  “every boy should know how to play this game…”  Soon I was filling my head with the exotic lingo that drives poker. As a card carrying member of this new fraternity I was expected to know about good and bad flops, being ‘on the button’, how to spot ‘nuts’ and how to put someone ‘on.’…something or other. Not to mention watching out for ‘tells’ and when to fold.

It was around then that I dipped into up a few basic strategy  books. Tomes written by professional players which listed key insider information such as the twenty best hands to hold and the twenty hands to always fold.  Books which rated possible hand combinations like horses in a race. Once I’d figured out the basics I was ready to dip my toe into a game.  This was no big show down at Atlantic City rather it was a cheaply purchased computer disc game that allowed you to play at a variety of skill levels with a gang of affable looking cartoon characters. It was fun. It got you to think. I was able to hold my own with these colourful guys. Next up was more yet more intense reading coupled with viewing some late night poker games on TV.  The success of TV poker was entirely enabled by the innovation of the see through panel in the table. Suddenly you could see what had always previously been hidden, the cards players were holding whilst actually in play.

Twats in dark glasses, blokes who looked like characters from MASH dressed in Hawaiian shirts and sporting three day stubble. On a good day I could beat these guys too.

You could now watch in amazement as they took down massive pots with what often started out sometimes as a really naff hands. The sort of hands that the strategy books were telling you to never play. I was also now putting faces to the names of some of the big hitters. Doyle Brunson.  Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Gus Hansen not to mention the seductive charms of Jennifer Tilly and Victoria Coren. Who also wrote a very sassy weekly poker column in the Guardian. It has to be said that whilst many of these TV merchants seemed like stand up guys a lot more of them came over as little more than Grade ‘A’ Kidult fare. Normally people sporting dark glasses whilst sat indoors under bright lights  and wearing logo heavy baseball caps  would not be my normal idea of  ideal bar company. A lot of them were little than more petulant kids who demonstrated their playground level personalities by the way they chucked their  stack  of chips onto the  card table or sledged an opponent with a  ironic comment about their playing prowess. Whatever they were like- I wasn’t going to be that sort of player. For some reason I had Humphrey Bogart or Bob Mitchum more in mind.

After the  computer game foray Mr. Dogwitch instructed  me to step up to the next level and sign up with an online site . I chose ‘Poker Stars’. Gave myself an avatar and a daft name and soon was playing for play dough with people around the world with equally funny names.  This was real fun. Games could go on for several hours.  I was by this time understanding the cards more, getting a feel for how to read a table and anticipating what other players held. Most of the online banter was positive.  A friendly remark here and there really jollied it all along when you took down a pot. On other occasions you could stand back and witness two players letting their hatred for each other spill out onto the comments line. It was like watching two birds peck each other’s eyes out. Venom would sometimes be directed your way when you actually had the temerity to win a pot and hey you had out witted some twonk who thought he was in a film starring Paul Newman.  On those occasions the best response was simply to hit the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz button and let them fry in their own juices.

More background reading was going on all the time.  Through “Cowboys Full” I got into the whole history and evolution of the game. Learned about card sharps on the Mississippi riverboats and what Presidents of the US were held in high regard simply because of their poker prowess.

Like an athlete in training I was getting stronger. More confident. On line I was winning games. Even tournaments when I saw off twenty other players

This was now being coupled with some regular ‘head to heads’ with Mr. Dogwitch and his mobile casino in the pub on a Sunday afternoon.  Nothing daft. Just play money but still pushing the learning curve.  Like an athlete in training I was getting stronger. More confident. On line I was winning games. Even tournaments when I saw off twenty other players. I had also discovered by now that I could download a pretty nifty game on my iPod. Still cartoon players but a tad more realistically drawn.  Still the usual suspects. Twats in dark glasses, blokes who looked like characters from MASH dressed in Hawaiian shirts and sporting three day stubble. On a good day I could beat these guys too.  Dogwitch was now pushing me to join him in what he regarded as the next step up in my poker education.

This required attendance at the weekly Friday night event. Real players. Real money. Real attitude. It was for Dogwitch the pinnacle of his working week. The moment when he really started to fly. With a seat reserved for me I started to get nervous at the whole notion of sitting down with these seasoned players. Whilst I had realised by now that Poker, like sex, was alright on one’s own it was certain to be much, much better with two or more real life players. I still decided to decline the seat and remain in the nursery.

As ever Dogwitch was monitoring my progress. Despite the small cash loss, overall I was getting better. I was actually able to beat him in our regular head to heads

What really backed me out was the revelation from Dogwitch that we would be playing ‘dealers choice’- in a nutshell other variants of Poker that I had no understanding of. Games with names like Irish, Omaha, Low Ball and Stud. All poker games but fuck, deal me out Scotty. I just knew that I was not going to be able to carry this one off. Not yet.

Another six months of study. Hours sat on the commuter train hooked up to the iPod. Then more late night on line action -during which period I had foolishly got cocky and had actually played   for real money. Guess what?  I won some then lost it all.

As ever Dogwitch was monitoring my progress. Despite the small cash loss, overall I was getting better. I was actually able to beat him in our regular head to heads. It was now time for me to finally turn up at the Friday night game and perform. Another seat had been reserved for me. I was in.  I duly turned up to meet the guys. Located in a basement flat in the heart of the city. The guys, who were all sat round a round table in white plastic garden furniture with the lights set low, a very affable crew.  Patient as hell with me, the newly introduced poker virgin who was about to lose his cherry. First thing you notice when playing for real is that you actually have to think much more about what is going down. Online everything is done for you. Live also have to actually handle the flipping cards.  You have to cut them, deal them, and worst of all shuffle the fuckers whilst people are looking at you. Even dealing the cards out across the table required a whole set of etiquettes coupled with a deft  flick of the wrist otherwise  the cards landed face up for everyone to see.  Very shabby.

If only I could learn to shuffle the deck without dropping the cards all over the floor.

The guys round the table were all patience personified. They helped me that night to cross the poker motorway and I was a little lost lamb. Or perhaps a chicken. The game wrapped at two in the morning. I had won a couple of hands here and there. I had done it. I had played a real life game of Poker.  I went home feeling like I could give the likes of Doyle Brunson or Vicky Coren a real run for their money.

A couple of months later and I’m invited back. This time I’m feeling more relaxed. I’ve been online for a while and am routinely a winner. Hot dickety! I think I know what I’m doing. I can also play the variants.  A recent read of Gus Hansen’s book ‘Every Hand Revealed ‘a blow by blow account of how he took down a pot of 1.5 million Australian Dollars had imbued me with an aggressive confidence that made me feel like I could take this game out. If only I could learn to shuffle the deck without dropping the cards all over the floor.

This second session would prove to be a turning point.  Sat around the felt were the same friendly teamsters, joking, smoking , drinking and  eating peanuts. They were all still holding my hand telling me when I was on the button, when to check and when to raise. Problem was whilst I was trying to think like a pro I was acting like a wus.  At some point in the evening I realized with total clarity that actually I couldn’t focus on the nuances of the game. Once I’d actually got some real cards in my paw all  my  detailed knowledge of strategy and playing attitude , religiously absorbed in the previous months ;reading books, watching TV tournaments  and having countless post mortem chats with Dogwitch, just went out the window.

Poker is a difficult game. The golden rule is that if you can’t spot the sucker at the table –it’s you.

I had a strange dawning realization that, unlike everyone else sat round the table, I couldn’t care less about any of it. I simply lacked that killer diller attitude that all poker players need. Sat at this table I was really just going through the motions. I was at a place where poker was being played but I wasn’t a poker player. I was a spectator. The showroom luster as buffed up by Dogwitch over many months was fading fast. I realized that actually I really couldn’t play this game for toffee. I had lost the plot.

Hand in hand with this rapid mental decline was the realization that poker is actually a little like football. Everyone in the world can kick a ball. That does not make us all footballers. It is the same with poker. Also there lingered the vexed question of what actually drove the game. The real answer of course is money. Big piles of cash. Poker without money is more a hand shandy than full congress.  You can for example have over seven million dollars of toy town play chips in your online piggy bank but you can’t ever hope to have the same sort of success with real money. So what’s the point?

Finally I had to conclude that whilst Poker is a fascinating game; one with endless possibilities. From the off me trying to become a tight little player was always something of a daft romantic ideal. I had a good look at it and in the best tradition of tyre kickers everywhere walked away from it. Of course I should have paid much closer attention to that chapter in ‘ The Dangerous Book for Boys’- which closes with the following ” …poker is a difficult game. The golden rule is that if you can’t spot the sucker at the table –it’s you.”

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