Rewind: May 2006, Part 2–Turning Stone

A mere one day after returning home from Vegas, I set off for my next poker meet: The Turning Stone Classic at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York. It was a familiar venue, and not only because I’d played poker there in March.

My first visit to Turning Stone took place in the fall of 1993, at the start of my junior year at Cornell. Word had filtered through campus: a new Indian casino had opened its doors less than two hours away. This was very exciting news. Still more exciting was the news that the casino’s doors were open to anyone over the age of 18. The reason why New York State’s gambling laws (i.e. 21 to gamble) were inapplicable at the new casino was a mystery, but it really didn’t matter to me. All I knew was I was gonna go gamble, and I wasn’t gonna have to use my very amateur fake drivers’ license to do it. One weeknight, selected at random, my buddy Sherm and I hopped into my car and headed off on the very first gambling junket of our lives.

Upstate New York is filled with nice places. These include bucolic expanses like the Catskills and the Finger Lakes Region, charming towns like Saratoga Springs, Lake George and Cooperstown, and crusty old industrial cities like Syracuse, Schenectady and Rochester. But Verona, where Turning Stone is located, is none of the above. Turning Stone Casino is instead situated just to the side of the New York State Thruway’s most boring stretch. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. This, of course, was of little significance to me and Sherm. We merrily made our way north from Ithaca to Syracuse, then turned east on the dark vacant highway towards our destination, our pockets containing an unusually large number of $20 bills.

Back in 1993, on the side of the road, an actual turning stone, a large rock, illuminated by footlights, mechanized in some manner so that it rotated, presided over the entrance to the Turning Stone Casino’s parking lot. Recognizing this wondrous landmark as our destination, I pulled my car in and found a space in the surprisingly small lot. Sherm and I hopped out of the car and hurried towards the strangely nondescript building that housed the new casino. Inside, the building was also nondescript, more reminiscent of an Elks Lodge than the busy, ornate Atlantic City casinos I was used to.

We found the casino floor and saw that it offered a grand total of about 30 table games. It also had a large bar set up at one end, but Sherm and I discovered that no alcohol was being served (apparently part of the casino’s deal with New York State, allowing 18+ gambling). Noticeably absent were the noisy rows of slot and video machines prevalent at every other casino I’d ever seen. Also conspicuously missing was the throng of excited customers. There were maybe 120 people in the joint. This was of absolutely no import. Sherm and I were wild-eyed, excited and nervous as we fidgeted with real clay casino chips for the very first time.

The rest of the trip went exactly as expected. First we “scouted” for a good blackjack table. I don’t recall what the “scouting” was expected to accomplish beyond making us more excited about finally plunking down our money. Then we sat down at a $2 table and proceeded to lose about $40 each. We declared ourselves finished there and moved to a $5 craps table. That didn’t go any better, and after about 2 hours, Sherm and I exited the casino each having lost about $80, which is a lot of money when your average cost per meal is less than $5.00.

Still, the experience was strangely invigorating, and as we pulled back onto the highway, I was replaying the blackjack hands and craps rolls in my mind, trying to envision what I could have done differently to alter the result. But then again, I also felt very guilty about my maiden casino voyage. After maybe 5 minutes of driving, I turned to Sherm and said “you know, we just lost $80 of our parents’ hard-earned money.” “I know,” Sherm replied. “Sick.” “Yeah, I feel like shit, it’s disgusting,” I continued. We drove along in quiet contemplation for about a minute before I broke the silence. “So when are we going back?” The answer was ‘in about a month,’ and I believe the results were similar.

Now it’s 2006, and some things have changed at Turning Stone. The illuminated rock at the entrance is gone. A hotel, spa and golf course have been added. The casino now features a poker room (hence this blog entry, I’m getting to the point, don’t worry). And the proprietors have secured a license to install video machines. As a matter of fact, the casino in its current form is predominantly video machines, with very few table games.

On that topic, there is a widely accepted psychological theory that there are two different types of problem gamblers. The first is the “action” gambler. This type of gambler craves the tactile sensations associated with gambling: holding the cards, shaking the dice, writing down the roulette results. This gambler thinks he or she can achieve the impossible, that he or she can “beat the game.” These people are predominantly male, and they favor table games.

The other type of gambler is the “escape” gambler. This person wants to forget the rest of their life and lose themselves for awhile. These people are predominantly female, and they favor slot machines and video games. And Turning Stone has today found its niche with escape gamblers. The place is always rammed full of people staring blankly at the monitors in front of them, lost in the flicker of light, light years away from the cold, boring, painful lives they live away from the glare. As you might guess, I find the 2006 Turning Stone a rather depressing place.

Many things about Turning Stone remain the same as they were in 1993. The place is still in the middle of nowhere. It’s still a rinky-dink operation. Rooms cost $75 per night, and the rate is the same on weeknights and weekends. $5 blackjack and craps are always offered, even on weekend nights. The nicest restaurant on the premises would probably rank fourth on my block at home. In both its 1993 and 2006 incarnations, nothing about the Turning Stone facility feels like a casino except the casino area itself.

But for the purposes of this blog entry, the most important similarity between 1993 Turning Stone and 2006 Turning Stone is the legal gambling age. The place is still dry, you can’t get any alcohol anywhere, and you still can gamble as long as you can prove that you’re 18 years of age. And that had a profound effect on the 2006 Turning Stone Poker Classic.

As I’ve mentioned before, the world of online poker is a very young one. There are thousands of successful high stakes players in their young twenties and late teens. There are even a few 15 and 16 year olds with more skill (and money) than a solid player like me could ever fathom. And the hordes of young online players are able to communicate with one another through online message boards like 2+2 and PocketFives. And, naturally, they are all eager to square off in the real world, to play “brick and mortar” poker with one another. And the Turning Stone Casino, in late May of 2006, offered them that opportunity.

By late March, the online message boards were lit up with plans for meet-and-greets, challenges, and juvenile threats of “ownership” at the ‘Stone. By early May, it had become clear that this would be an unusually well-attended event. And on May 15 hundreds of poker-obsessed kids from all over the country, many of whom were under 21 years of age, flew and/or drove long distances so they could all meet in Verona. They descended upon Turning Stone for what could be accurately billed as the “underage WSOP.” The Turning Stone hotel apparently ran out of rooms. No matter to these kids: all this required was a post to one of the message boards seeking a space on another player’s floor.

Having booked this tournament two months prior, I arrived on May 16th and checked into my room. Then I made my way downstairs. Gazing around Turning Stone’s poker room at the overflowing mass of adolescent humanity, I was an old man in a sea of baby-faced poker savants. The action was fast and furious, and the stakes did not match the ages of the participants. Throughout the room, like Sherm and I thirteen years earlier, enthusiastic kids were experiencing their very first real live gambling. But instead of risking 80 of their parents’ dollars, many of these kids were sitting behind towers of $100 and $500 chips. It was money they had earned playing poker online.

Watching a pimply-faced 18 year old kid calmly call a $1200 flop bet with only a gutshot straight draw is pretty extraordinary, but something else about the scene at Turning Stone made a more lasting impression, and I think it says something about the current state of poker, and something about the nature of the game in general.

As I looked around the room, I noticed that a disproportionate number of the young men in the room (I’m discounting the handful of women for now) suffered from an obvious affliction of some sort. Some were missing limbs, some had a condition which had stunted their growth, some were morbidly obese. There were an unusual number of wheelchairs in the room. But even many of the able bodied kids had another readily identifiable issue: they were nerds. All manner of geeks were present. In short, this was not an attractive collection of people.

Contemplating the assembled mass, it occurred to me that poker and the internet had joined forces to create a real life Revenge of the Nerds.

Poker is a very competitive endeavor. Doyle Brunson has attributed his poker success to the training he received, in the form of competitive athletics, as an adolescent. And poker does bear a resemblance to certain sports. Like many sports, poker is geared towards players who are able to shape an opponent’s behavior through sheer willpower. Of course, poker differs from those sports in that one must be physically capable of competing to participate in the sport, but not at the poker table.

Physically speaking, there are no prerequisites in poker; the playing field is level. Anyone with some cash can sit down and play. But which individuals are most likely to turn to poker to satisfy their competitive desires? The answer: those who are incapable of or have been discouraged from competing in other arenas.

A short, fat, uncoordinated kid cannot be the star of his high school basketball team; he’d be laughed off the court if he even tried out for the team. But that same short, fat, uncoordinated kid can teach himself to play poker well. And if that short, fat, uncoordinated kid has a good intellect, and if he practices enough, he might even develop into a dominant, fearsome poker player. And with the advent of online poker, this exact scenario is playing itself out all the time. Doyle Brunson had to drive from game to game over the course of many years to hone his chops. A modern-day Doyle only needs to sit his fat ass down, turn on his computer, log onto his favorite poker site, open eight tables and settle in. Instant experience.

Fat Billy may not have scored 25 points last night. Fat Billy might not be dating the homecoming queen. Fat Billy might have no friends. But Fat Billy has more money in his bank account than the homecoming queen’s entire family. And Fat Billy has achieved a sort of national fame in certain internet circles. And Fat Billy makes grown men cry on a nightly basis, without ever leaving his bedroom. Fat Billy was at Turning Stone. Looking for his pound of flesh.

Having sized up my opposition for the next few days, I decided I’d play the $300, $500 and $1000 NLHE events. The kids were as good as advertised; all three tournaments were tough sledding all the way. Somehow I ended up cashing in the $300 and $500 events, but despite over 20 hours of hard work, all I had to show for my troubles on the eve of my departure was a few hundred dollars profit.

So I took a break from the tables and drove 40 minutes into Syracuse and treated myself to a sumptuous dinner at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Q. My last visit to this place had been in 1995. It was just as awesome as I’d remembered. Best food, best ambiance, best music, just all-around bad ass. Satiated and hopeful of achieving another measure of immediate gratification, I drove back to Verona, went to the poker room, and sat in a 2-5 NL game.

Immediately I could see that this was going to be an unusual game. It was populated by a couple of whiz kids and a handful of locals (members of each category were easy to identify). The locals were exchanging amazed looks with one another. A large crowd of spectators had gathered to watch. What was going on here? I unracked my chips and sat down.

On the very first hand, an Asian kid, first to act preflop, moved all in for the maximum buy-in of $500. He hadn’t looked at his cards. The action was folded around to a very young kid in a mesh baseball cap and he immediately said “call.” He hadn’t looked either. There were no more takers. “You wanna look now?” said Mesh Cap to Asian Kid. “Nah, let’s wait till after the dealer runs ’em,” came the reply. And so the dealer dealt the flop, turn and river, at which point Asian and Mesh each slowly turned one of their hole cards up. Mesh had a 3, matching with one of the board’s cards. Asian’s jack did not create a pair. Then the second hole cards were turned over. Both had nines. No help for either player. Mesh raked the $1000 pot with a pair of 3’s. They had played the $1,000 pot blind.

On the next hand, Asian, Mesh and a third whiz kid in a baseball jersey tried a new trick. Someone open-limped for $5, then Mesh, without looking at his hole cards, raised to $10. It was folded to Baseball Jersey, who raised blind to $15. It was folded to the original limper, who called $15. Now Mesh reraised to $20. Remember, this was a no-limit game, not a 5-10 limit game. Next, Asian, giggling uncontrollably, blind min-reraised to $25. And so the open limper was whipsawed, caught in the middle of the whiz kids’ hijinks. Realizing that this would continue until his entire stack was committed, the original limper folded. At that point the three whiz kids went all in. Once again, they didn’t look at their hole cards, viewing them for the first time after the entire board was dealt. Mesh won again, smirking as he raked the $1500 pot. Each time one of the whiz kids went bust, he’d laugh, pull a wad of $100 bills out of his pocket, put five of them on the felt, and rebuy. The crowd was going nuts.

They were just passing the time. There were no seats available in the bigger games. So, having already drunk their smuggled six-pack of Coors Light up in their room, these kids were entertaining themselves by playing way below their normal levels. These players had bankrolls that belied their looks (i.e., very young and very nerdy). They were accustomed to playing online no limit games with blinds at the $25-$50 and $50-$100 levels, where pots of tens of thousands of dollars are commonplace. This $2-$5 NL game with a $500 cap was a complete joke to them, so they were having a little fun. Or perhaps they were flooding the table with enough chips to create the playing conditions they were used to. Either way, it was good news for me. While I could not afford to treat 2-5 NL like a joke, I was not scared of losing a few buy-ins. I figured I’d just wait for a solid hand and gamble it up with them. It didn’t take long.

I was seated right in the middle of the three crazy kids. On my button I was dealt A9 offsuit. Asian open limped blind. Mesh min-raised blind. I called. In the small blind, Baseball Jersey min-reraised blind. This pattern continued until I had about $50 invested. When the action returned to me I announced that I was all-in for $500. Baseball Jersey looked at me, laughed, finally checked his hole cards, and mucked them. But Asian was undeterred. He fixed me with a prepubescent stare and a faux-grave expression. Then he said “nice move, I call” without checking his hole cards, and slid his $500 forward. Mesh, having witnessed Asian’s act, was now laughing hysterically. Gasping for breath between his guffaws, he called as well, also without looking at his cards. $500 of his chips went into the middle. I had just bet $1500 on A9 offsuit against two random hands.

The spectators, energized by the audacity of the old man in seat 7 (that was me), pressed forward. One kid behind me asked me for a “hole card cam,” i.e. to see my cards. Without turning around I obliged, flashing my A9 over my left shoulder to the crowd behind me. The dealer burned and turned: a flop of 9s-9c-6h. Nice. I felt someone behind me grab my shoulder and give it a little congratulatory shake. The turn was the king of hearts and the river was the 2 of hearts. I flipped my hole cards up, hoping that neither of my opponents, who still had not looked at their hole cards, held two hearts. They did not, although Asian also had trip 9s, but with a worse kicker. I raked the $1500 pot amid much fanfare. I heard one of the kids behind me tell another that I had made a “sick bet.” Sick dude… sick.

I picked my spots for another hour or so, increasing my stack to around $2200. Then, satisfied with my first brick and mortar encounter with Fat Billy and his cohorts, I retired for the night. I drove home in the morning, happy that no travel plans were on the immediate horizon.

And so I had returned to Turning Stone, the site of my very first gambling adventure. And at this sacred site I saw the future face of poker. It was disfigured and nerdy.

Getting kicked around/WSOP qualification

I had a new blog entry planned for yesterday. In it, I was going to admit that I was in the middle of the roughest stretch of my career. I was going to admit that my self confidence had virtually evaporated. I was going to admit that I had endured a three week marathon of bad beats and lost coin flips. I was going to admit that I had reached a mental state I describe as “presumptive loss.” Whenever my chips went in, I expected the worst.

I was going to compare myself to a dog that had been kicked repeatedly. I felt that skittish about things. I think I may have actually whimpered a few times.

One redeeming aspect of all this losing was that I could finally write a blog entry with an unhappy ending. I figured that writing about how bad things were would be therapeutic. At the very least, it would have been honest. But technical difficulties got in the way.

The only thing that kept the “kicked dog” blog entry from being published was my inability to understand HTML coding. You see, in the midst of my losing streak, in an otherwise uneventful sit-n-go, I flopped a royal flush. I won almost nothing on that hand, and didn’t cash in the tournament. But flopped royal flushes don’t come around very often. So in a desperate effort to reverse my luck, I was going to close my catharctic “kicked dog” blog entry with a PokerXFactor flash animation of my royal flush. That would have shook off the bad luck. The problem is, I still don’t know what the hell i’m doing with this website, and my webmaster/mentor Jon wasn’t around to help. So “kicked dog” never made it to press.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that everything above this point was phrased in the past tense. That’s because something very good happened last night. I finally conquored the primary source of my frustration. I won a World Series of Poker satellite.

For over a month now, I have been banging my head against the WSOP wall. For a professional poker player of my stature (i.e. one that can’t afford not to think twice about plunking down $10k), qualifying for the WSOP main event through an online satellite is a formality. Well, it’s not quite a formality, but it’s something you are expected to accomplish.

The fields in the WSOP satellites are weak. These are tournaments full of dreamers who don’t bring that much skill to the table. Someone who plays for a living is expected, given enough chances, to eventually prevail. But for quite a long time, that was not happening for me, and it was creating a heavy financial and emotional drain. I was nearing the point of no return–a place where so much money has been sunk into my futile efforts to qualify that the only sensible thing to do was to give up.

But last night, just as I approached the precipice of that cliff, I entered yet another Pokerstars WSOP double shootout. This was the same tournament through which I qualified last year, but I had been struggling mightily with them this year. Four hours later, I found myself heads up with a very tricky opponent with the seat on the line. Mercifully, a couple of won coin flips (what dog!?) later, I was officially WSOP-bound.

Last year, I was positively ecstatic when I won my seat. I literally danced around, alone, for about half an hour. This year, no ecstasy. Mostly I felt relief. Relief that the “no seat” albatross had been lifted. Relief that this project wasn’t going to drain any more of my bankroll. And especially relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with the disappointment of coming in second. Finishing second in a big satellite tournament that only pays one seat is a fate I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

When my win became official with a “congrats! you’ve won the tournament” appearing on the screen, I felt only a trace of last year’s giddiness. Instead, I was suddenly cognizant of how tired I was, both physically and emotionally. I hugged Janeen, who was by my side watching, and collapsed. That was that. I guess that’s the difference between being an amateur and a pro.

And now, for good measure, here’s the instant repaly on my royal flush. I held the same hand in both my career royals. Queen-Jack of spades!

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=13113&fn=1275_20060622_005801&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]
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Hand Analyses: Pocket Jacks.

Pocket jacks are the most reviled hand in hold ’em. They look so pretty, what with the two matching painted cards. But you know the deal: they’re so vulnerable to overcards that they become very difficult to play after most flops, and they’re not quite good enough to play with any confidence against a big reraise. Nobody likes to get too involved with JJ.

Theories on how to handle them vary. Some say to commit preflop, that hands as good as JJ don’t come around very often, and so you might as well gamble with them. Others will tell you to treat johnnies like they were pocket fives. Try to see a cheap flop and catch a set. The truth lies somewhere in between. JJ is a hand that requires a lot of subjective, situation-specific decision making, both before and after the flop.The following are two illustrative hands where I held JJ. As you’ll see, the johnnies didn’t disappoint. Both hands were nasty, treacherous affairs.

JJ HAND #1

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=11791&fn=1275_20060612_193421&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]

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The situation: The Pokerstars $10 rebuy. This is a tournament with a big field and a surprisingly large prize pool. When this hand took place, about half the field was eliminated. The blinds are 300-600 with a 50 ante. My stack of 53,000+ was way up near the top of the leaderboard, in the top 10 total stacks. I’m in the small blind. The only other player at this table with a comparable stack is sitting in the cutoff, with a top 20 overall stack of 48,600.

Preflop action: As advertised, I have been dealt JJ. The action is folded around to the other big stack, and he makes a standard 3x the big blind open-raise to 1800. I was faced with my first decision of the hand. I was obviously playing my JJ. So should I have flat called or raised, and if I chose to raise, how much should I have raised? First of all, I was way ahead of this player’s range. At this point in the hand, I knew nothing about “$portyJ,” but a player in the cutoff with that stack could have been raising with a very wide range of hands. The second consideration was the fact that I’d be out of position after the flop. Third, the stacks were very deep, so trapping with the jacks (dubious idea at best under any circumstances) was out of the question. So I was raising.

How much to raise: All-in would have been ludicrous, risking 46,000 to win 3,000. Basically, I wanted to represent AA and end the hand right there. The number I settled on was 7,000. I thought this would look scary to the cutoff, basically sending the message “the rest of your stack is at risk if you call. ” It also was an amount that would allow me to get away from the hand somewhat cheaply if I was reraised all-in. I made my raise and “$portyJ” called. Hmm.

Analyzing the other player’s possible hands:

AA, KK: Many players would reraise with these holdings, but he certainly could have been trapping with them. I think QQ almost always would reraise all in. Pairs smaller than JJ: Many conservative players would throw away hands smaller than 99 here, but aggressive players have no problem calling off 15% of their stack, knowing they will probably double through if they hit a set. The odds he also holds JJ are so slim that I’m ignoring that possible holding.

AK, AQ: Many, if not most, players would reraise all in with AK here, but calling with it in position is possible. An AQ that wants to see a flop is also possible.

Something else: A conservative player would probably throw away everything else here. But a LAG (loose-aggressive) specialist, a new school player, would have no trouble calling my reraise and trying to outplay me after the flop. At this point I had no idea what kind of player “$portyJ” was, so this is roughly the analysis I did.

Postflop action: The flop came a dangerous, but not terrible, Qd 6s 5d. What now? Well, the flop only had one overcard in it, and since the ace was the overcard that really would present a problem, I felt my hand was best. In an effort to end the hand, I made a solid continuation bet of 10,000. And this is where things got hairy: “$portyJ” raised all in. Now my tournament was on the line. This situation called for quite a bit of analysis. What was going on here? Well, I figured these were the possibilities:

  1. “$portyJ” had flopped a set of sixes or fives;
  2. “$portyJ” had AQ;
  3. “$portyJ” flopped some kind of diamond draw; or
  4. “$portyJ” was putting a move on me.

This was one of those situation where you needed to know something about the player. And so, as my 60-second time bank started to tick down, I opened internet explorer and looked “$portyJ”‘s results up on ThePokerDB.com. I learned that “$portyJ” was a pretty accomplished player, with a lot of final tables in many rebuy tournaments, including the $109 rebuy on Pokerstars, widely considered the toughest tournament currently offered online. The vast majority of the players who do well in these tough tournaments are loose-aggressive new school players who get involved in a lot of hands and apply pressure in big spots. In other words, I felt that “$portyJ” was a player that was capable of calling my preflop reraise with a strange hand, and a player capable of putting a big postflop move on me. So options 3 and 4 were in play.

Next, I considered my standing in the tournament. I noted that I could fold my hand and still have over 36,000 chips, leaving me squarely in the top half of the field. So I would have lost this battle, but I’d be in good shape to win the war. Fine. I actually put the cursor over the fold button before I said “what just one second here,” and reconsidered the meaning of the comfort with which I could get away from my JJ. If I could comfortably fold, wouldn’t an accomplished player know this, and prey on it? Yes! Plus, which hands with a queen in them was I really afraid of? Only AQ. Did he have a set? Meh, not likely. In an instant, I was suddenly convinced that “$portyJ” was full of shit, or at best, on a draw.

And so I called with 12 seconds left on my time clock.He had A8 offsuit. I actually said out loud “what a call!” My exuberance was squelched 1.5 seconds later when an ace appeared on the river. Jesus.

JJ HAND #2

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=12035&fn=1275_20060614_053453&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]

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The situation: A $109 multitable tournament on Party Poker. I have played solid for the first half of the tournament, and later got lucky when I picked up AA on a hand where two others held KK and QQ. I shot up near the top of the leaderboard, but now, with about 80 people remaining, a long run of cold cards has left me with an average stack. The tournament pays 40 players. As is the case in most online freezeouts, the stack-blinds ration is relatively low, i.e. the stacks are not especially deep.

The preflop action: The blinds are 300-600, I have almost 18,000 in my stack and I am 5th to act with JJ. The player to my immediate right raises to 1500, or 2.5x the big blind. The raiser has almost the same sized stack as me.

Analyzing the other player’s possible hands: With stacks as short as ours, both the raiser and I cannot afford to commit ourselves speculative hands. Plus we have to expect the very short stacks across the table to push all in with a lot of reasonably good hands, so it does not make much sense to get involved with anything but solid holdings. Plus, the raiser is in early position. His range is probably something like all pairs from AA through 88, plus AK, AQ, AJ, and KQ. Even a hyperaggressive player will not get involved with junk under the table conditions I have outlined. He has to have a serious hand here (notice how position and stack size severely alter this player’s range, contrasted with my opponent in example #1).

So what’s my play?: Here is an approximation of what went through my head:

Well, my JJ is ahead of his range (only QQ, KK and AA are crushing me), even though it’s a fairly tight range. Still, we are close the money and our stacks are fairly short, which means I am likely to get a call from many of the hands he could be holding, including AK and AQ. Do I want to race for all my chips so close to the money? Plus, there are still 5 players left to act behind me, and one of them could wake up with AA. So maybe I should just call here and see what flops. But wait, my stack is pretty short, and how many more JJ or better hands are gonna come along? But then again, JJ is so vulnerable, maybe I should just fold. nah. But JJ is so vulnerable ugh. This is a great example of how tough a hand JJ is to play. In the end, I decided I was ahead of the raiser’s range and should raise.

How much to raise: Well, there was 2400 in the pot and I had about 18,000 behind, so an all-in move would have been perfectly reasonable. But, since I was holding JJ and did not want a call, I decided to represent AA. And what would AA do in this situation? AA would make a smallish raise designed to further commit the original raiser to this pot. I gave this player credit for being able to recognize that a smaller than all-in raise signified more strength than an all-in raise, raised to 7500, and prayed for a laydown. Instead, what I got was a push from the small-stacked button and a flat call from the raiser. What does all this mean?

Well, the push from the short stack was of little concern. He could have a wide variety of hands and didn’t have enough invested to hurt me. But the call from the original raiser should have set off an alarm in my head. Why in the world would he flat call for almost half his chips? The answer is simple. Because he has pocket aces. All the other hands in his range don’t want to play after the flop. This is especially true of AK and AQ, which want to see all five cards for the same price, and also true of QQ and KK, which don’t want to have to make decisions when overcards flop. He would shove with those hands. There is an outside chance that he would try and stop-and-go (flat call then shove any flop) with a hand like 1010 or 99, but more likely he’d just fold them preflop. His flat call equals AA and no other hand.

I want to take time out and let you know that the information contained in that last paragraph did not make its way through my brain in that exact format. All that went through my brain when this hand took place (around 2:00 am last night) after his flat call was “hmmm, how peculiar. He must have a big hand.” And that’s a problem. The flop came K 9 6 rainbow. And what happened next was atrocious.

Postflop action: The original raiser checked. I did sense that something was amiss, so I checked too. Fine so far. The turn was the 7d. Now the original raise made a feeler-looking bet of about 2850, leaving him with a measly 5600 in his stack. What now? Well, if I had bothered to apply some simple logic, I would have long since deduced that he held AA and was trying to suck me into this pot. Further, almost every other hand in his range was beating me with that board. KK was now trip kings. AK was top pair. 99 was a set. What was I beating? 1010? AQ? The only logical conclusion was that he had made a suck bet designed to lure me in.

So what did I do? I made a strange, implusive decision to shove all-in, walking right into his trap. Pathetic. What was I thinking? Honestly, I don’t know. Brain farts like these are bad things.

See, I told you I would post hands where I lost. Now I’ve posted one unlucky one along with one where I played like a complete fucking fool.

So what lessons are there to be learned from these hands? Well, I hope that I’ve outlined some of the basic considerations (e.g. stack size, position, etc. ) that go into preflop and postflop decisions, not only with pocket jacks, but in general.

But also, the outcomes of these two hands make another important point. And that is how important it is to concentrate and stay “in the moment” when you’re in a tournament. While I was playing the first hand, I did a detailed analysis of all the evidence in front of me, and reasoned through it. I enabled myself to make a great call (regardless of end result). While I was playing the second hand, I was mentally lost in space. I was perfectly capable of making the detailed analysis I presented in this blog entry in my head as I played the hand. But I didn’t, and I ended up doing something impulsive and incorrect. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was distracted. Maybe I was drunk. It doesn’t matter.

My point is that a good player will always focus and be able to reason through a hand at his fullest capacity when necessary. A lot of people think that putting an opponent on a specific hand is a gift, a magically acquired ability, but it really isn’t. Those with this supposedly innate quality have the acquired ability to think with extreme clarity when they are under pressure. This is something that can be learned. As you can see, I’m still a work in progress.

Rewind: April 2006

You just won $85,500 in your third month as a professional poker player. What are you gonna do now? Go to Disney World? Nope. The correct answer is… you find out how much gamble you got in ya. My answer: not much.

There are many stories of pros who made their first big score and then “never looked back.” So after giving myself a few days off, I had to decide what came next. Some 50/100 NL cash games? $1,000 sit ‘n go’s? Some $5,000 heads up matches? Buy directly into the $10,000 WPT Foxwoods main event?

I chose none of the above. Instead, I drove back up to Foxwoods and tried, unsuccessfully, to cheaply satellite into the main event from the $230 level. Then I drove back home and returned to online play at the same stakes I’d been playing before. What kind of gambler was I? What a wuss!

As it turns out, priority number one was maintaining my self confidence. I could have tried to turn the 85 grand into a million, but I was more concerned with proving that I was a solid winning player, that Foxwoods wasn’t a fluke. The downside of blowing through my profit far outweighed the upside of possibly joining the upper echelon of poker pros. I told myself that slightly bigger tournaments, buy-ins of one and two thousand dollars, would now be fine, but in the afterglow of the shining achievement of my young career, I didn’t take even one big shot.

I settled right back into the daily grind of $109 tournaments online. I sat on my 85k, protecting it like those March of the Penguins guys protected their eggs. A part of me was surprised and disappointed. I have told people that Stu Ungar is one of my heroes, but Stuey never would have taken the shopping bag full of cash to the cage. The truth is I don’t have much in common with him beyond playing cards.

I wondered what I would have done if I was younger, if I had never worked a paycheck-to-paycheck job. If I hadn’t gone through three years of bullshit just so I could fill out timesheets every two weeks to validate my existence. If I hadn’t spent my days, for months at a time, looking through boxes of meaningless papers. If I hadn’t forced myself to smile in the hallway. If every morning hadn’t been the same, put on one of my four suits, catch the subway, read the Post, walk to court, sit and wait. Good morning, Your Honor.

Yeah, if I was 21, I’d probably have flown to Vegas and taken my big shot. Sat down with Doyle and the rest of ’em. But I was about to turn 33, and I understood how many days of drudgery $85,000 was. More than that, I understood that I didn’t want to even think about going back to that world. No way. *penguin noise*

I suppose I probably did the right thing, because I opened April on a hellacious losing streak. Nothing was going right at all online, so I decided to visit one of New York’s poker clubs for a little live action.

When I walked in, the proprietor (name withheld of obvious reasons), who I’d known for many years but only made occasional small talk with, approached and congratulated me, giving me a hug. It was a nice acknowledgment of my recent win. I played a three-table $100 tournament, and caught cards the whole way, winning easily. The proprietor gave me a funny look, which I interpreted to be one of newfound respect, and paid me my first place share. I shrugged, thanked him, tipped the dealers and walked out, passing on the 1-2 NL cash game. It would be the last time I’d play in his card club. The cops shut him down the next week.

I resumed playing online, and resumed losing. But as the month drew to a close, I pulled another rabbit out of my ass. On April 30, a Sunday, I entered the $500 Pokerstars event at 4:30. I played well. I won a few races. Before I knew it, I was in the money. Then it was 9:30 and there were 3 tables left. Another major score in the works?

I was doing my thing, picking my spots, when I noticed something funny. All the spectators, all the railbirds, were rooting for me. The online version of the rail, the chatbox, was filled with words of encouragement for me. Huh? Why? I’m not a chatty player and no one knows me. I scrolled up, and then I discovered the reason. None other than JohnnyBax, the undisputed king of Pokerstars and my PokerXFactor mentor, was watching and rooting for me. Everyone else followed his lead. Such is the power of the almighty Bax.

His reason for doing this was personal: being able to cite the winner of online poker’s biggest monthly tournament as a subscriber to your brand new instructional website would be a nice selling point. The short testimonial that I’d undoubtedly write would bring in new customers. But the chat also indicated that Mr. Bax at least knew who I was, and that felt good. And, I must admit, so did all the other assorted chatter from the less accomplished people.

Down to 18 players, two tables. The big stack, to my immediate right, made a standard open-raise from the button. He could have a wide range of hands. I had the KcJd in the small blind, and roughly 4x the amount of the button’s raise in my stack. Easy shove. I pushed. He called and showed two red queens. The flop came all babies, with one club. “kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk,” said the chatbox. The turn was the 4 of clubs. “kkkkkkkkkkkk, club club club club club club,” said the chatbox…

The river was a harmless ace of hearts. I was out 18th, but had made enough to salvage my month. And that was fine for now.

Hand Analysis: min reraise by excellent player

This is a test to see if I can post a hand from the PokerXFactor hand replayer. And if it works, I’ll review a key hand from the Party Poker tournament I finished 2nd in Friday Night (woot!).

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=10577&fn=1275_20060604_151009&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]

If you are a registered user of pokerxfactor, then click here to view a large version of the hand.

It works (Jon rules)! I intend to use this tool to discuss hands that illustrate important NLHE tourney concepts, or were otherwise instructive in some manner. I promise I won’t limit the selected hands to ones I won.

This particular hand took place in the middle stages of the tournament. I had a mid-sized stack, and I made a standard raise from under the gun with 10-10. It was folded all the way around to the big blind, a big stack, which is where things got interesting.

The big stack made a very small reraise, almost a minimum reraise. Now the wheels started turning. What to do? First of all, a minimum reraise in online play almost always means one thing: the reraiser has KK or AA. This is a very common play. The player has a monster hand, wants to get more money in the pot, but doesn’t want to scare his opponent off. He wants to get all in on the flop, so he makes a small raise that will commit his opponent further. I happen to hate this play, and I never employ it unless i’m playing a complete donkey, because all solid players know exactly what it means. The correct response against a normal or unfamiliar player is to call and try to flop a set. If you don’t flop a set, you give no action.

But notice the terms I chose to put in italics in that paragraph. I said that MOST opponents who make this move have AA or KK. But what did I know about the player “ibite123”? A lot, actually. I know that he’s a very tricky, very good player. So good, in fact, that he’s currently ranked #35 amongst online tournament players by Pocketfives.com. So what was this excellent player trying to accomplish with the small reraise? It was one of two things. He either: 1) thought I was a donkey and was trying to trap me with AA or KK; or 2) had some kind of hand–probably AK or AQ–that wanted to see the turn and maybe the river for free, and was trying to accomplish that, i.e., freeze the action, with the min reraise. I was unsure of which, so I decided to call.

So as the video shows, the flop came Jd 4c 2d. “Ibite123” checked, and I was still unsure whether he was trapping me, so I checked as well. I would have happily shown this hand down, as his play had succeeded in confusing me. The next card off was the 3c, which put two 2-flushes on board, and now ibite put me all in. And so we arrived at one of those super-crucial tournament moments. What now?

I had to put this guy on a hand. The only ones I could imagine were AA, KK, AK or AQ. I felt that with QQ and JJ, this player would have put in a bigger reraise preflop rather than invite action with the min reraise. I figured the odds were about 60% AK and 40% AA or KK. As I stated above, if i was not familiar with the player, I would have automatically assumed AA or KK. In light of this information, I was compelled to call, which I did after thinking for about 30 seconds (isn’t it amazing how much information the human mind can process in a short period of time?). And as you can see, in this instance it was the correct decision. He didn’t fill his flush, hit either of his overs, or make his gutshot straight (wow, he had a LOT of outs) and I won the hand.

In short, my opponent knew I would respect the min reraise and managed to freeze me on the flop by employing it preflop. Because I knew that he’s a very good player, I was able to figure out that he wasn’t making the min reraise to trap me with a monster. I used that knowledge to alter his range of holdings and thereby made a difficult call. I guess the lesson here is “know your opponent.”