Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Anatomy of a Shaky Hand



"Fuck!" I said to myself, softly. I had known what was going to happen, predicted it even, and yet still somehow found myself unprepared when it did. Mike Tyson once famously said "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." The $200 raise I was facing sure felt like a left hook to my lips. I leaned back and re-considered the situation. Things were simple.

I had just bet $55 into a $90 pot after everyone had checked to me and was now facing a check-raise of $200 from the pre-flop raiser. Two other players who had called pre-flop between me and the raiser had folded and the two behind me didn't seem like they were calling the raise either. So it was basically going to be between me and him.

The pre-flop raiser (we'll call him C.) leaned forward in his black Yankees cap with the lime green bill, white 'NY' and matching Polo shirt that was stretched across his muscles like Saran Wrap and glared. At me, like it was personal. Which it was. And this is where things begin to get complicated. In poker, one is supposed to make decisions based on cards and odds and reads, but never, ever on emotions or tangential factors. And one should never, ever make a hand of poker, personal.

The simple part was that I had called on the Button in a 2/5 NL game with A2 of Diamonds after C. made a small raise to $15 from early position and two others had also called. After a Flop of A63 rainbow (with one Diamond), I held a pair of Aces with no Kicker to speak of. Now, I was facing a $200 raise from him. And either I was winning, or I wasn't. Plain and simple. In poker parlance, my opponent's range was polarized. In plain English, I was in a dark alley armed with a knife, but my assailant had a gun. The question was whether it was a toy gun, or a real one.

One side of my brain was saying "Fold, you idiot!" mainly because my hand wasn't that good and could only likely beat a bluff. But the other side was saying "Call this dude!" because my read was that he was in fact, bluffing. That he was just trying to push me off my hand. And whatever else happened I couldn't possibly let him outplay me.

I knew that C. was a very aggressive player and since he had raised, if he had hit anything at all he would have continued with another bet on the flop. Check-raising flops wasn't part of his style unless he had a really big hand like a set. But he was leaning forward, watching my every movement, and I could tell from his body position that under the table he was on the balls of his feet. All of which are the signs of a bluffer. Card sense said fold, but my gut said call, or maybe even raise.

The complex truth is that I knew C was going to raise me before the hand started, before he even sat at the table actually. Partly because his M.O. was to try to bully the table with bets and partly because we had history. History that involved a woman. A woman he was going to be kissing and calling "Sweetheart" later on that night and I wasn't. And I couldn't let him get the girl and the pot. Could I? None of which should have mattered, because I'm a grinder who plays the odds and gets it in good and it's as simple as that.

Except, when it isn't. And it wasn't, simple that is. C had been playing at a table behind me for most of the night, a night which saw me steadily losing until I was into the game for $1400. Which shouldn't have been a big problem, but my total bankroll was only about $2100 at that point. And no, I shouldn't have been playing 2/5, but there I was against the tenets of sound bankroll management. And once I got stuck, I felt like I had to try to play my way out. Because sometimes I'm stubborn like that. And besides, the odds weren't going to help me now, not in this dark alley of a poker hand.

C had beaten his other table game for about $500 and then got up and started checking out the other games; and I knew he was going to chose mine; and that he was going to try to outplay me the first time we got in a hand together. So, when he swaggered over and plopped down $500 on my table and went to cash out his winnings, there was no surprise, just a delicious sense of anticipation.

When he returned to the table his swagger was ridiculous, but yours would be too, if you had a new girlfriend as gorgeous as his. A woman I knew too well, but not the way I wanted. Which, once again, should have had no bearing at all on the poker hand. But of course did. Because at the end of the day, no matter how many thousands of hands of poker one plays to mathematical perfection, one is still human. And still has a heart, that sometimes beats bolder than at other times. Like now.

So, I had to call $200. But it was more than that, because calling would put $600 in the pot, leaving me with about $500 behind and two streets of action remaining. I had started the hand with slightly more than $800 and if I called here, I wasn't likely to fold, so it wasn't a $200 decision, it was an $800 decision. My whole night was riding on this wild horse of a hand.

Above me ESPN was showing highlights on SportsCenter and behind me a waitress was singing "Coffee, Soda, Juice." Inside me, there were two trains running. In opposite directions. At different speeds. One was a long train of freight cars filled with the black coal of self doubt. The other was an Express filled with passengers who were as certain of their destination as they were of which song was currently playing on their iPods. The issue was- of which train was I the conductor?

The song on my iPod was Rebecca Ferguson's "Nothing's Real, But Love." I've always been a fool for love, but was I a fool in poker too? The hand on my chips was pulsing to push them in. I couldn't breathe. I decided to call and then wait to see what he did on the next card. If he could bet into me, then I was most likely beat (or worse, he was a better player than I had originally given him credit for.) When I finally pushed the chips across the line, C. leaned back with a quizzical gaze. He didn't like the fact that I had called, that much was certain.

The Dealer peeled the Jack of Clubs, a card that changed nothing, unless he held a pair of Jacks (which I doubted) or he held four cards to a gutshot straight (which was still a longshot to hit.) He tapped the table with two fingers and trained his gaze in my direction. There comes a time in every man's life when he has to commit to something fully and I was committed to this hand, to this read, to this moment. "I'm All-In," I announced. C.'s hand came up across his face and pushed his cap from his head. He took a deep breath and then asked "How much?"

I didn't like the fact that he wanted to know the amount because that meant that he was at least considering calling the bet, and if he did I had likely made a bad read and was way behind. The players at a table next to us burst into laughter at something unknown to us, the lights seemed to begin to burn brighter, the sounds in the room grow dimmer. C. looked at his hand, then at me, then back at his hand. He counted out the amount to call, $467, then counted his remaining chips. At this point I was sure that I had him, but still didn't want him to call. If he called with a worse hand and somehow managed to win anyway, that could be even more devastating than losing to the best hand.

He put his hand flat on the table behind the chips he had stacked to call. He looked up to guage my reaction. And then slowly slid his hand forward towards the chips. I closed my eyes to prevent any reaction. I waited for the Dealer to announce that he had called. And waited, and waited. Now it seemed like I could hear every chip in the room being shuffled and re-shuffled.

Finally I opened my eyes, his hand had stopped just shy of his chips and he was staring me down. I closed my eyes again and relaxed all the muscles in my face. I focussed on the only four letter word that meant anything to me at that moment. FOLD. I took a quick peek. He looked again at his cards, then looked at me, then again at his hand, as if it might change, then he tapped his cards against the table. "Nice hand" he said, then tossed them in to the center, where the rest of the cards lay waiting like a drain in the middle of a sink. "Nice Hand" I said, exhaling like a smoker who just taken the longest drag ever from their last cigarette.

The truth is that no matter what, win or lose, that he was going home to her voluptuous lips and I was going upstairs to a used bar of soap and a long shower. But at least I would be soaping myself down with a grin the size of the Hoover Dam.


And until next we meet, may all your potatoes be sweet (and dusted with cinnamon.)




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