I’m A Poker Millionaire

Last Wednesday was the televised playoff between the final three players in the World Series of Poker. Earlier in the year, thousands of folks made the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas and paid $10,000 to enter the competition. After playing twelve hours a day for at least a week, the final table of the “November Nine” was set.

On Tuesday, the November Nine played twelve hours before only three were left. And on Wednesday those three faced off for the championship. Although poker is an “American” game, and Americans were in the November Nine, the final three were all Europeans.

The winner was a Swede, who won $10 million. Second place went to a Norwegian, who won $5.8 million. Third place winner is Dutch, and won $3.1 million.

I’m a poker millionaire too! Of sorts…

Unfortunately, the 1,000,000+ “play chips” I’ve amassed on an Internet poker site aren’t worth even a dollar. Nor are they worth much in bragging rights, from my perspective.

The fact that I have more than a thousand times the starting 1,000 play chips each players receives is less a testament to my poker skills than it is a reflection on how much “sushi” (think about it) there is on those “play tables.” Which explains why my appearances on the free tables had been very limited since I began playing tournaments for money in mid-2007.

After playing some 500 cash tournaments and finishing 2007, 2008, and 2009 profitably, with a slight loss in 2010 but still ahead overall, it’s difficult for me to play the free tables. They are absolutely useless for preparing to play for money and actually debase all that I enjoy about poker.

Then, poker’s “Black Friday” came in early 2011 when a U.S. Attorney in New York went after Internet poker sites, shutting two down completely. Two others agreed not to allow folks in the U.S. to play for money on their sites.  Most other online sites also banned players from the U.S. from cash tables.

That left me with only the “play tables” and I began playing now and then. I usually play only single table tournament and finish “in the money” about 75% of the time but I do not enjoy these tables as much as $1 to $5 “real money’ tables I used to play.

Despite outward appearances, whatever is happening on those free tables does not qualify as “poker”; it is “faux poker.” Looks like the real thing but isn’t authentic.

Because money changes perspective and behavior. To borrow from the Vegas ads: “what happens on the free tables, stays on the free tables.” Because if it doesn’t stay on the free tables, then that player won’t stay on the cash table any longer than it takes for a veteran player to swallow the fish in one gulp. (Remember that “sushi” reference?)

My online poker face gets a few bites

My online poker face gets a few bites until I eat sushi

For example, I was on a single table tournament with a 5,000 chip buy-in, thinking that these players wouldn’t be too crazy since they had to win enough to even have 5,000 chips. We all started with 1,500 chips and the first level (10 minutes) had gone by with no craziness. (When I won those million chips, the highest buy-in was 3,000 chips and the top payout was 15,000 chips; now, there are much higher buy-ins.)

I didn’t play a single hand in the first level. We had just started the second level when I decided to play J-Q suited on a full table with everyone in since I was in late position and could get in for the blind. (A full table with everyone playing the hand almost never happens on a cash table.)

Flop comes out A-10-10 rainbow (three different suits). Making an inside straight is 11-1 against me, so I know I’m folding since I missed a flush draw and the flop’s “texture” is not favorable to me.

There’s a check and then player #2 puts out half his stack (about 700 chips). On a cash table, I’d read that as either representing an Ace and praying that no one has the 10 or, more likely, a ten hoping to get an Ace (which probably is out there) to fold by making it too expensive to draw to Aces full, which would beat tens full. One or two players after him fold but then the next player goes all-in with his 1500 or so chips.

Hmmm…does this guy have the 10? Or does he have a strong Ace (Q-K kicker) and believes the first guy only has a weaker Ace? A few more folds and then another player goes all-in too. Three all-ins.

Now wait a minute….the probability of both 10s being out is low, as is the probability of two Aces. Someone’s bluffing. Maybe that first player has the 10 and was “value betting’ it, hoping to induce a sushi to go all in. If so, he found two sushi.

Since the remaining three players are all-in, their cards are revealed before the last two cards come out. The first player, who bet half his stack, shows a 2-4.…DON-KEEEY! The second player, the first to go all-in, shows K-Q…DON-KEEEY! The third player shows the 10 and another card. His trips win it and the two donkeys leave the table to the guffaws of everyone else, including me

That’s how it plays on a free table. Sushi and donkeys playing garbage, hoping to get lucky. Even on a 5,000 chip buy-in table.

I play $50-$65 buy-in tournaments in Vegas and I don’t notice that much difference in play from the $1 buy-in tournaments online. Since at least a couple of the players in Vegas are “tourists” who don’t have much tournament experience and are just playing “for fun,” the competition in the $1 tournaments is often tougher because many players are “regulars.” They may have bought in for only a dollar but they’re at the table to build their experience so they can move up in the tournaments to $2, then $5 and higher.

Even a $1 buy-in brings a discipline to their play which is mostly absent from the free tables. Free table players know that if they lose all their chips on the first hand, they will receive another 1,000 chips to play again. So why show any restraint?

It is a fact that pocket aces (best starting hand) have about an 88% probability of winning against 2-7 off suit (worst starting hand). But if you play that 2-7 enough times, you will win with them. And if the chips are free, it’s just a matter of when you win with them.

When a dollar of your own money is on the line, folks think more than twice about going all-in with that 2-7. Money changes perspective fast.

Which is why I enjoy even low stakes poker. Like any sport, it is competition and demands skill. Folks who say poker is just “luck” betray themselves if they would be unwilling to put $100 into a “heads up’ tournament against a poker pro. Because if it is just luck, like flipping a coin, then the term “poker pro” is meaningless.

Yes, poker has an element of “randomness” but experienced players know how to address that. The concepts of “draw odds” and “pot odds” come into play. As does position. As does “playing the player” after you’ve observed his style of play, which is very critical.

Which is why I prefer poker to intellectual discussions. In poker, the whole table sees you go down. And when that happens, it’s not debatable. I kicked your ass and everyone knows it, including you. The only issue is whether you played intelligently and lost, so you leave with respect, or whether you played like a donkey and leave to snickers. Snickers which you will not understand because you’re a donkey and don’t know how poorly you played.

Santa, all I want for Christmas is tables without donkeys or sushi. I don’t mind losing to a good player. But losing to donkeys and sushi is cruel and unusual punishment.

Shuffle up and deal!