Killer Poker Online/2: Advanced Strategies for
Crushing the Internet Game
by John Vorhaus
Chapter 16: The Day of Living Derangerously
DATE: AUGUST 6, 2005
TIME: 3:26 AM
MENTAL STATE: NOT AWAKE
This may be the stupidest idea ever.
Twenty-four hours of internet poker, chronicled all the way in diary form.
Yep, stupidest idea ever.
But it’s one I’ve had in mind since I first started writing this book, and with my deadline just weeks away now I can put off no longer the so-called “day of living derangerously.” So what’s the plan? Just me, Microsoft Word, music, DSL, my choice of online cash games and tournaments, and lots and lots and lots of coffee. When I cooked up this scheme, I thought it would be enlightening, or at least a lark. Now that it is upon me, I think it must be insane.
I mean, seriously, what is to be proved by this? That I have the endurance and dumb stubbornness to sit at my desk till my ass goes numb? That I can get far enough into sleep debt and poker overload to piss away my entire online bankroll? That I have enough Visine to keep my eyes from dying of screen burn? That I’ll do anything to generate a few thousand words of text? That I really know how to throw a solo poker party? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s to be proved. I just know that I told myself I’d do it, and I won’t cower out — not on so meaningless and grandstand a challenge as this. So when I awoke just now in the middle of the night, instead of doing the sensible thing and rolling over and going back to sleep, I thrust myself to my feet, forced myself across the hall into my office, and hit the power up button on my computer.
Okay. My eyes have adjusted to the glare of my monitor. My fingers are warmed up, and as soon as the coffee kicks in my mind will be, too. Let’s get some tunes going (quietly, for the civilized world is still well asleep) and get this demented party started!
TIME: 3:38 AM
GAME: TEN HANDED NO LIMIT HOLD’EM
MUSIC: THE CLASH, LONDON CALLING (ON HEADPHONES)
MENTAL STATE: GIDDY WITH ANTICIPATION
I’m thinking it’s a good idea to start slow, so I’ve signed myself up for a ten-handed single table sitngo. There aren’t enough other maniacs online at this ungodly hour (ungodly, at least, across the face of North America) to fill the table immediately, but I’m sure I won’t have too long to wait. Online poker favors the insomniac maniac; I set the over/under at ten minutes. Meanwhile, I didn’t get up at this ungodly hour to sit on my hands, so let’s jump into a cash game. I find a tasty looking NLHE game and buy myself in.
First hand: pocket queens. Oh, it’s gonna be a good day. I go to bet the maximum — and realize that I can’t. I have accidentally signed up for a limit game. Oh, man, I haven’t even played a hand and already I’ve made my first mistake.
Okay, let’s try this again.
I leave that table and go to the main lobby to find the no limit game I’m looking for, when suddenly I’m called to my sitngo. Not the ten- handed regular speed tourney I thought I’d signed up for, but a six-way turbo that I apparently accidentally signed up for instead. Cripes, I am definitely not awake yet. Nor can I leave the tournament now; it’s all bought and paid for.
TIME: 3:53 AM
GAME: SIX HANDED TURBO SITNGO ($50 BUY IN)
MUSIC: CLASH, CONTINUING
MENTAL STATE: DEMI-DAUNTED
I need to play this thing very slowly. Give my brain a chance to catch up. Think I’ll just sit here and fold a lot and listen to the Clash.
So I sit around for 20 or 25 hands and do nothing. I play one hand, A-T on the button, and steal the blinds. By the time I play my second hand, my image is so tight that of course they all fold, right? Right?
I raise from the small blind with some egregious cheese. The big blind calls with 9-9. He’s not frightened by my bet into a flop of A-Q-x, so I deem it prudent to shut it down, check it down, and minimize my loss. Did I do it right? Would he have folded if I had bet the turn? Doyle Brunson says that sometimes you’ve got to fire that second shot. Well, I held my fire and now my stack has taken a hit. Plus I’ve lost a lot of bluff equity. My next hand will need to be a real one.
And so it is. A©-K©. With the blinds already at 50 and 100, I don’t have time to get cute. There’s a small raise from a frisky player in front of me. I reraise all in and he calls with A-7. Can you guess where this story goes? Folks, I am not the type to gripe about bad beats, but seriously… a seven on the flop… I pick up a flush draw on the turn… no help on the river.
I played three hands in that sitngo.
Time of death: 4:14 AM.
TIME: 4:26 AM
GAME: NLHE, TEN HANDED
MUSIC: CLASH, CONTINUING
MENTAL STATE: ADRENALATED
Yikes! A reckless adventure! I pick up 2©-3© in the small blind. There are six calls and no raises when it gets back around to me, so of course I complete. I’ve got implied odds for anything, right? The flop comes 9©-7©-4©, all hearts. I’m not thrilled to bet my flush, for fear of a better flush or at least a draw to one. But I’m damned if I’m going to check. I bet the pot. Big blind calls. It’s folded around to late position, who raises all in, covering me. I call. Big blind calls. Turn is a heart and I’m sure I’m dead, but no! Big blind has 9-9. He flopped a set. Small blind has 9-7. He flopped two pair. I almost triple through.
In the chatbox I read, nice all in moron. I write back, what do you want? I flopped a flush. He writes back, not u, the other moron. Seems to me the moron may have been the guy who didn’t raise with top set. Not that it would have moved me off my hand. Anyway, he seems upset. A moment later, he leaves the game, trailing a stream of profanity in his wake.
Internet players are nice.
TIME: 4:51 AM
GAME: TEN WAY SITNGO (NORMAL SPEED)
MUSIC: BECK, GUERO (ON HEADPHONES)
MENTAL STATE: GUARDEDLY OPTIMISTIC
Let’s try to play this one better than the last, shall we?
Well, we all try to play right all the time, don’t we? Don’t we? I don’t know… maybe you do. Me, I know I’m prone to loose calls when I get bored. One thing about being in this for the 24 hour haul, though: I have no need for loose calls. There will be plenty of time for calls of all types. Loose, tight, collect, local, and long distance. What I mostly have need for is patience and pacing. Maybe one of the problems we face with this online poker business is we try to cram too much vitamin p into the small corners of our otherwise busy lives. If we just gave ourselves nice, long sessions to play, perhaps we could play more correctly, knowing how long a haul we were in for.
Or maybe longer sessions would just make everyone more insane: This sitngo isn’t five minutes old and already a chat war has broken out. It’s a nasty one.
You’re the worst dumb azz I have seen on thi site yet.
can u be my bich?
(All quotes in this diary, by the way, guaranteed 100% verbatim; you can’t make this shit up.) As a writer, I pride myself on the precision of my prose. I don’t mind the chat wars so much. I find them amusing, in fact, because people can get so earnest in their insults and macho posturing. What I mind is the heartless mutilation of the written word. Tom Robbins said, “Intelligent speech is under pressure in our fair land and needs all the support it can get.” It’s sure not getting much support here, u no whut i meen?
Not that I’m above wading into a chat war from time to time. If I think that a few well chosen words will push a tilter past the tipping point, I’ll certainly throw them at him. I just spell my barbs correctly, that’s all.
Or no, you know what? I don’t. When I’m chatboxing, I try to be as unlike me as possible. Bad grammar, bad syntax, bad attitude… they all seem to go hand in hand. Hey, maybe that’s what everyone else is doing. Maybe they’re all actually brilliantly literate writers and thinkers, but for the sake of disguising their true selves, they put themselves across as f***ing morons. Nah, probably just they are.
I think that keeping this diary is helping my discipline, though. It definitely gives me something to do between hands, and gives me incentive to fold (I’ve got to fix that typo now!) On the other hand, it also definitely drags my attention away from the game. Apart from the ongoing chat war, I just know I’m missing valuable information about my foes. It’s a tradeoff, I suppose. If I keep my head in the game, I get antsy and want to get involved with inferior hands, just for the sheer hell of it. If I divert myself with words, I play with much greater selectivity, but much less awareness. Well, if it’s true, as Graham Parker says, that “nobody hurts you harder than yourself,” I’m better off playing with patience, even at the cost of awareness. If I could just master the trick of both…
Forty hands into this s&g, having played virtually nothing up till now, I reraise all in with A-K and get called by A-Q. This nightmare again? Nope. This time the hand holds up. Confirmation bias says we always get the bad beat, but confirmation bias is horseshit. My luck… your luck… everyone’s luck… it’s no better or worse than anyone else’s.
On hand 62, already down to three handed, I raise again with A-K. This time no caller. Amazing when you think about it: Aside from trying to slide into a couple of unraised pots (with no success; I folded to raises), the only two hands I played between the start of this sitngo and the bubble were A-K and A-K. Only got action on one, but that action was good enough to back me to the money. Interesting application of the principle, “less is more.” Think I’ll try it again. But first, more coffee.
TIME: 5:57 AM
GAME: NLHE, TEN HANDED
MUSIC: GRATEFUL DEAD, LIVE AT FILLMORE EAST, APRIL 29, 1971
MENTAL STATE: TRUCKIN’
I decided not to play another sitngo right away. I noticed that the same damn yammerheads had already signed up for it, and I just couldn’t subject myself so immediately to another noisy chat war. I shouldn’t use this criterion, I know; these are bad players, and I should be eager to mix it up with them. But there are other bad players out there, maybe ones less noisy, so I think I’ll play a cash game, and catch up with a different sitngo later. Not for nothing, but if I can’t at minimum enjoy my online playing experience, I don’t see much point in even having it.
As soon as I finish this cup of coffee I’m going to go walk the dog anyhow.
Meanwhile, what I’m doing in this particular $3 and $6 blind hold’em game is pretty much completely not playing. I’ve been at it almost half an hour now, and haven’t done anything but dump my blinds. Even for a preternaturally frisky player like myself, I can’t find a hand to play. Though in fairness this is a ten way game, as opposed to my standard six way (action junkie that I am) and I know that patience is a pearl of great price in so crowded a field. Maybe I’m just folding playable hands because I’d rather write than bet. Nah. I’d play aces if I had ’em.
It’s getting light outside. The sun will be up soon, and we’ll have another toasty Southern California summer day on our hands. I will spend the whole entire day inside playing poker on the internet. I won’t be at the beach, or brunching in street cafés with friends, or hiking in the hills. Seriously, what kind of fool am I?
On the button I get K-9 offsuit. There’s one limper, deucemoose, in the cutoff. I raise. The blinds fold, and deuce folds. In my note box on deucemoose I record the observation that he’ll LF — limp fold. I may not play against him ever again in life, but so long as we’re together at this table, and so long as I have position over him, I’m going to look to sweep every limpet he lets me.
Dumb: I’m in the big blind, unraised pot, five players. I’ve got 7-4 offsuit. Flop comes A-Q-7 rainbow. I check. It’s checked around. The turn is a 3. As it’s lower than the board, I take it into my head to take a shot at the pot. Dumb. Too many players. Too great a chance that someone is unwilling to bet a bad ace or a good queen, but happy to call with one. Or just plain dragging a monster. I get one caller. That’s one too many. I check the river and fold to a big bet. Wrong time, wrong position, wrong flop to try to steal. Dumb.
Time to walk the dog.
TIME: 7:50 AM
GAME: FULL FIELD TOURNAMENT
MUSIC: DEAD (CONTINUING)
MENTAL STATE: CHIPPER
We’re off headphones now. If the neighbors don’t like it, screw ’em. Meanwhile, I’ve registered for a full field tournament that starts in ten minutes. I’ll probably open a second window and play a cash game, too. I shouldn’t, but I will. What can I tell you? I don’t do everything right.
But I did do something right by walking the pooch just now. I had made a dumb play and was berating myself for it. I know from long experience that dumb plays followed by a stern self-rebuke do not normally eventuate a renaissance of strong, solid play. In fact, the opposite is usually true. It’s as if the dumb part of me wants to prove that dumb isn’t dumb by being dumb, but getting away with it. Getting away from it is a much better idea, so that’s what I did. Now I’m back, and the derangement continues, with this tournament that’s just getting underway…
I pick up a couple of strong hands early that I’m able to play strongly and show down. This puts me in the uncharacteristic tournament position of playing many hands in the early rounds. I’m usually content to lay back, go to school on my foes, and wait for prime opportunities. But my image is such right now that no one wants to mix it up with me, which gives me an unusual degree of early-round latitude. Provided I don’t overuse this club, I should be able to smack the table around with it for a while now.
And oh yeah, I decided not to play a cash game at the same time, at least not now. I know that some people swear by multi-tabling, either to maximize their hourly win rate or just to fill the empty spaces in their heads. If it works for them (for you), fine. As for me, I’ve tried it enough times to know that it’s not likely to enhance either my win rate or my online playing experience. I’m not saying that way lies madness. I’m just saying, “Concentrate on the task at hand,” or maybe, more direly, “Self indulgence equals self destruction.”
Speaking of self destruction, I just saw somebody reraise all in with K§-3§. Of course his hand didn’t hold up. In the name of all that is right and holy, there’s no way it should. I just want to know how he got himself into such a mess in the first place. He wasn’t short on chips. Just short on brains, I guess.
Meanwhile, I got myself into a tight little bind just now, but was able to bet my way out of it. Nobodyhome made a small raise in front of me. I had pocket queens, so I came over the top with a pot sized reraise. The flop came A©-J©-3¨ and I kicked myself for not going all in preflop, for if nobodyhome has an ace here, I’m toast. He checked to me. I wasn’t all that keen to bet, but I couldn’t just check behind him, not unless I was prepared to surrender without a fight. As “surrender” is not my current table image, I decided to take a stab at it. I bet 250, about a quarter of the pot, in hopes that nobodyhome would interpret this as a hoover bet. Get this: Not only did he fold, he folded and showed pocket kings. Wow. Good laydown, I type as I wipe the sweat from my brow. Kids, never show your good laydowns. What does it avail you, except to make you feel boastfully good about yourself?
Like this other guy in another hand who just now chatboxed, almost tried to bet you out, but not worth it. This is not the sort of thing someone says for deception; he is speaking his mind. And I can’t figure out why he would do that. His opponent, who won the uncontested pot with bottom pair, said, ida probably folded. This at least has a chance of being a lie. But that other? Pure information giveaway. I just don’t see the point.
Just got Q-Q again. Bet pot preflop, got three callers. Bet pot postflop, got three folders. Next case.
Happened to have a squiz at the pay table for this tournament just now. It pays 20 places, but on a $50 + $5 buy in, the bottom ten money winners get $62.50. Hardly seems worth the time and effort. Guess that’s why so many double or done types reckon if they can’t put themselves in position to win big, they’d just as soon not play. I buy that as an argument for taking appropriate risks, but — especially early on — it just seems like a rationalization for kamikaze plays or unprofitable bully behavior. Still, “the ocean is blue but it’s also wet.” There’s more than one right answer and more than one right way to play these tournaments. Even within my own mind I find myself bouncing back and forth between naked aggression and canny trapping. I know that with poker everything is “it depends,” but, with the exception of folding crap hands and raising with A-A, I rarely have the feeling that I know 100% correctly what to do.
Yet again they chat, and yet again I can’t see the logic of it. I’m in the small blind, stealing with K-4 offsuit. The big blind, ubfree, says, lol, stealin my bb. Well, he certainly has me read right, but then he adds, i want to call so of course I know he’s not going to. More to the point, though, I now know that he’s alert to blind steals. Not everyone is, you know. A lot of people, when you raise from the small blind, being out of position and all, they’ll credit you with a real hand. Well, I’ve got this character on my left until the table breaks, so I can plan my moves against his blinds now with a certain enhanced knowledge. Based on what he’s told me, I can rate him as more likely to defend (by reraising) with crap or semi-crap, and much more likely to trap himself if I should happen to catch a real hand one time.
Our next blind on blind confrontation, however, makes me rethink this a little… that maybe there is an argument for his line of chat. He has gotten me wanting to probe him, to find out if his talk was just talk, so I raise from the small blind with Q¨-J¨ He slaps me back by raising all in, forcing me to fold. Then shows A-5 offsuit. Well. He certainly has me thinking about his defense of blinds now. In a sense, he has taken control of our little battle. All it took was a little chat, followed up by a pretty bold “walk the walk” reraise. Apparently I’m going to need a real hand to come after him again, and if I credit him with being a thoughtful player and not just a yammerhead I’ve definitely lost some edge here. Interesting.
Then again, maybe fixating on blind confrontations isn’t that good an idea. Ubfree just made his own steal raise in the small blind and ran spang blam into pocket aces in the big blind. The aces flopped quads, not that they needed to, ubfree lost a big pot. Uhm, “Live by the blind, die by the blind?” Or something.
But our friend ubfree is not eliminated quite yet. A lap later, he’s got less than a thousand in chips, and he’s in the small blind. I’ve got A-J offsuit, and I reraise him all in, knowing that he’ll call with any two high, or even highish, cards. Sure enough, he climbs in with K-8 offsuit. Hits a runner-runner straight, and now I’m short stacked and imperiled. Gee, this is an interesting way to spend a Saturday.
If by interesting I mean suicidally maddening, that is.
A few hands later, ubfree goes overboard when his pocket tens lose to an ace on the river. “Live by the…” oh, never mind.
As for me, my time of death is 9:57 AM. I finish two places off the money.
I didn’t want the lousy ten bucks profit anyhow.
TIME: 10:00 AM
MUSIC: STILL DEAD
MENTAL STATE: DETACHED
It’s not altogether surprising, but I’ve been playing for more than six hours now and I find I’m starting to not care about outcomes. So I lost that tournament? So what? Did I play it correctly? Well, more or less, but I don’t even care about that so much. Like I said, this is not altogether unexpected. We know all about passing the point of pain, losing so much that you stop caring how much more you lose. I’m not losing — yet — thanks to that lucky 2©-3© triple through at about 5 AM. But the mere passage of time is cutting into my usually urgent need to play correctly and to win. This might be good in a way, for I certainly feel a sense of calm tranquility (or fatigue, you decide). Then again, it could be a recipe for disaster, especially if my equanimity inspires me to jump into a really big game looking for a big, quick score. Let’s call it acute what-the-hellism, and hope that something other than coffee will inoculate against it.
And it occurs to me to wonder: If I’m already this cognitively displaced at 10 AM, how will I be twelve hours from now?
Okay, I’ve decided to do two things: 1, play a heads up sitngo, which I frequently do, and 2, play under my own name, which I almost never do. I feel kind of naked, exposed, not cloaked behind my secret identity. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if “the real John Vorhaus” comes off as a playah, or just another slackjaw. As it’s heads up, I won’t have time for commentary. I trust you’ll understand.
Well, that was fun. Got into a heads up match with a guy who knows me and totally disrespects my work, while someone who likes my books and claims they’ve made him money sweated me from the sidelines. I won two out of three matches, but that’s not really the thing. Here’s the thing: It took everything in my power to focus on the game and not on the chat — and there was a ton of it. I’ve been in this situation before, where I get all caught up in being “that Killer Poker guy” and forget to just play good poker. I find that my best defense in such circumstances is false humility. I chat actively about how badly I play but how lucky I am. It’s a page borrowed from two outstanding sources: Mike Caro and Annie Duke. Mike is always promoting his “just having fun and just getting lucky” image, and — the proof is in the long historical pudding — it works. People like to lose to Mike, and they honestly don’t know how he wins. I know how: He plays well and talks up the luck. As for Annie, many is the time I’ve seen her smile and say of her (seemingly bad, but good according to a different idea) play, “What can I tell you? I’m a donkey.” She made that word household, at least in poker households, and uses it to — well, how shall I put this? — lull her foes into a false sense of stupidity. Of course she’s not a donkey, and of course everyone knows it. But when she talks down her own play, she creates a disconnect between what she says and how she acts. Even if you’re aware of the disconnect, it can be very unsettling… and very hard to play against. Are you battling the image? The skill set? Neither? Both? It’s enough to make your head spin.
But anyway, that was fun, so I think I’ll go do it again. Play under my own name, I mean. It seems to spark a fire, though it’s an open question as to who, exactly, will get burned.
TIME: 12:01 PM
GAME: TURBO SIX WAY SITNGO
MUSIC: PAUL SIMON, GRACELAND
MENTAL STATE: TRANQUILO
Not for nothing, but you should definitely give this a whirl. Not the sensory overload part. Not the sleep debt part. Not the 24 hours part, God knows; These men are professionals, kids. Don’t try this at home! No, the diary part. That part you should try: playing poker and writing madly about what you play and how you play while you play. That’s a useful exercise. Much will be made clear to you about you.
Seriously. Consider it homework.
Okay, what we have going on now is a turbo six way sitngo. These things play fast — by definition — so I need to be prepared to play a variety of hands, push small edges, and try to build a big stack if I can. At the same time, I don’t want the need for speed to rush me into rash action. You have time, JV. Not a lot of time, but time.
Eleven hands in, we already have one player overboard, Spizz Energy. I’ll bet he’s already signed up for another sitngo, too, and he’s not even playing “day of living derangerously.” For him it’s just, you know, Saturday. I suppose the dialogue could go like this.
SPIZZ: Fricka-frackin’ slackjaws, how come they always suck out on me?
MRS. SPIZZ: Honey, you said you’d mow the lawn.
SPIZZ: I’m in a sitngo. It just started.
MRS SPIZZ: That’s what you said an hour ago.
SPIZZ: I’ll do it when I’m done.
MRS. SPIZZ: That’s what you said an hour ago.
See, this is why I hire a gardener.
The deeper issue here, of course, is getting your spouse or other loved ones to recognize that your depraved hobby is a serious depraved hobby, and when you’re doing it you can’t be bothered about mowing the lawn or not mowing the lawn. It helps if your hobby can show a profit (or win the odd trip to wherever) or at least not bust the family cookie jar. But it mostly requires that we (I, you, they, everyone) be able to impose limits, so that someone else doesn’t forcibly impose them for us. To borrow from the booze advertisers, “Know when to say when.” Seriously, there’s a time to play poker online and a time to mow the lawn. If you don’t respect the lawn, they won’t respect the poker.
This sounds comical, I guess, coming from someone in the midst of a 24 hour online poker jag. The difference is (ha!) this is my job. Experimenting, I mean, and reporting my findings in print. God help me if I had to just play poker for a living. I’m quite confident that I wouldn’t have to worry about any lawns, except, perhaps, the one in the park where I’d sneak in at night to sleep. Nor would I want it to be my job. I’m happiest with poker as my unhinged avocation, and a convenient scratching post for my writer’s itch.
Oh, man! That’s another reason I wouldn’t want to have to do this for a living. I just got all the money in with A-J versus A-T and lost to a ten on the river. The universe hates me! I don’t really believe that’s true, of course, but I’m certain I could come to believe it if I had to take beats like that all day every day for work.
Ah, well. Right back on that horse.
Or rather “those horses.” I know I said I have a rule against double dipping, but what can I tell you? Rules are made to be broken. So: A six seater full field tournament (paid for with player points) on one side, heads up sitngo on the other. Don’t tell me I’m insane. I figured that out before dawn.
I wonder if there’s such a thing as playing a tournament out of the corner of your eye. I do seem to be more bold, unpredictable and intuitively correct when I’m fitting my tournament decisions into the spaces between my match play choices and my word carving. Or is that just the causally unconnected coincidence of a couple of happy flops? The latter, I hazard to guess.
Weird. I’m starting to see trails, little pixilated afterimages, as the cards are dealt and folded and otherwise flashed across the screen. I wonder if that’s normal…
And my right wrist is starting to throb just a little. I wonder how many mouse clicks it’s been so far…
And I don’t seem to be making such crystalline decisions right now. I wonder why that is…
And I know it’s just confirmation bias, but it’s sure starting to feel like the Day of a Thousand Suckouts to me. And not, needless to say, in my favor…
Ah, finally, a foe I can beat in match play! He’s lost his internet connection, and he’ll be blinded off until he gets his connection back. If he just stays away long enough, I’ll… rats, he’s back. Guess I’ll just have to beat him by guile and good looks. A card or two wouldn’t hurt, though, swear to God.
Or maybe a little nap…
TIME: 2:35 PM
GAME: SIX WAY NLHE CASH GAME
MUSIC: BLESSED SILENCE
MENTAL STATE: SLIGHTLY FRAYED
Yeah, I knew that wasn’t gonna work. Considering that my blood composition is now three parts adrenaline and two parts caffeine, trying to nap was a joke. I just lay there, staring at the ceiling watching flops dance before my eyes. I wouldn’t let me drive a car right now, yet here I am, back playing poker. Does anyone like my chances? Good thing I got a reasonable advance for this book — though as I recall (and I’ve looked) nowhere in my contract does it say that I have to dondo off my money as a human guinea pig in some diabolical, self-imposed poker overdose experiment.
But I’ve staged a modest comeback here, in my post non-nap hours. It’s amazing how quickly you can win a lot (okay, or lose a lot) in no limit cash games online. I’m glad I’m a responsible adult, or was anyhow before this exercise began. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t trust me with internet poker if I were a testosterone fueled twenty-something with too much disposable income and not enough respect for money. I don’t want to be your mother about this. That’s not my job and it’s not my inclination. But do go to school on my experience here today. I’m deliberately bingeing on online poker, just to see what it feels like. And you want to hear something funny, not funny ha-ha but funny sort of sad and pathetic? Right now, I can’t stop. In about two hours I’m going to get a blessed break because some friends have invited me over for a swim, and I’d be depraved (and have to admit to it) to decline the invitation, just so I could do… more… of… this. Which doesn’t change the fact that chair glue, and I mean serious chair glue, has me by the ass right now. I’m not surprised. I knew it was coming. I’ve hit exactly the fugue state of poker I was aiming for. Of course, just because I’ve achieved my goal doesn’t make it any less moronic.
And I’m only twelve hours in. What kind of shape am I going to be in at midnight?
On the plus side, my wrist doesn’t seem to hurt anymore. I have literally passed the point of pain. Now’s the time to try four simultaneous sitngos, oh yeah…
Yeah, no, I didn’t do that. I stayed here in this tranquil little cash game, building my stack bit by bit and bet by bet. I seem to have entered a new phase where I’m playing correctly once again. Steady on my feet. Making good, crisp decisions, aggressive bets, shrewd laydowns. It’s probably just an artifact of poker poisoning, like nitrogen narcosis. No doubt I’ll start to hallucinate in earnest soon, probably see a mermaid. They say sailors do that just before they drown. Still and all, I am having fun. Sure beats mowing the lawn, right, Spizz?
I just won two monster pots back to back, first by sucking out and then by victimizing my foe’s insta-tilt. Two points. First, no, the luck doesn’t always go against me (you, anyone). Second, if you hang around long enough, without digging yourself too deep a hole, the luck will show up and it will be meaningful. Third (okay, that’s three points, I’m having some trouble counting now), if you ever make a tilt raise into me and I reraise you all in, chatting, give you a chance to get well, probably don’t call, because I probably have big slick. That’s applied luck — the A-K sure arrived at the right time — along with the judicious application of needle.
You know, I’m just replaying that suckout hand in my mind, and I’m not sure it was all that much of a suckout. Let me lay it out for you, and you judge. I had red pocket jacks in middle position. The guy on my immediate left had a habit of reraising all in to steal the blinds, and I flat called, hoping he’d do that here. Not obliging me, he folded. But the guy to his left (we’ll call him insta-tilt) made a minimum reraise. I thought about coming over the top, but insta-tilt had shown a tendency to soft play big pairs, and I wanted to know where I was at before I made my move. So I just called. The flop came Q-x-x with two spades. I bet two thirds pot to see how he felt about that queen and those spades. He just called, so I guess he wasn’t all that enamored. The turn was an offsuit eight. Again I bet, and again he just called. At that point I started smelling trap, and thought I might have to shut down on the river. But the river came a jack, so I felted myself and got an immediate call from insta-tilt… who had pocket eights. Now you tell me, did I put a bad beat on him, or did he kind of do it to himself by not reraising me on the turn when he made his hand? I grant you that I got lucky, but he gave me the chance to. Protect your hands, campers. I think it’s better to win a sure thing big pot than to get cute in the name of grabbing the other guy’s last dime. Remember, you don’t have to get lucky (or not get unlucky) if they fold.
It’s what happened next that I really want to point out, though, because it’s a textbook example of the price of psychic pain. Here I’d just put this beat on this guy (though he was an unindicted co-conspirator in the crime), and so what does he do on the very next hand? Puts $20 of his last $100 into the pot. There I am with my A-K and my give you a chance to get well. There was no doubt in my mind that he would call, and call with a substantially worse hand. He was so suddenly and completely out of control, there was no way he could not call. If the poker gods had been kind, they’d have given him a truly trash hand there, just to keep him out of trouble, but it was not to be. He called with K-T and my hand held up.
ty, I type sweetly as insta-tilt leaves the table.
Internet players are nice.
So my whole history in this particular cash game has been fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, try to see some cheap flops, stay out of trouble and try to get lucky. It’s not a very interesting strategy, and not at all my typical reckless/aggressive modus in six way action, but like I said, there’s more than one right answer, and waiting for guys to fall apart is another way to do the job.
Well, that was a mighty successful session. I did many things right and no things particularly wrong. I changed gears, made good reads, bluffed and semi-bluffed, bet for value, all that good stuff. Also got lucky, let’s not forget. Now I get to go for a swim. That’ll be nice. My friends don’t play poker, though, but maybe I can teach them.
TIME: 8:47 PM
GAME: THIS OR THAT; WELL, THIS AND THAT
MUSIC: BOB MARLEY, KAYA
MENTAL STATE: BEST NOT TO ASK
That was a fine few hours off. Nice dip in the pool. Good chow. Spirited persiflage with intelligent friends. I told them about my grand experiment, and of course they all agreed that I was six different kind of nuts. Won’t get much argument from me right now, but, “Anything that’s worth doing is worth overdoing,” so let’s get back to the game.
More poker. Oh, goody.
I feel a little like a kid whose father caught him smoking a cigarette and, to prove a point, made the kid smoke a whole pack. “If that doesn’t teach him a lesson, ” barks dad, “I don’t know what will!” It has been pointed out to me that this “lesson” is self imposed and, truly, I can quit any time I want. But I’ve come this far. I kind of want to see it through. I hate to glorify this depravity by likening it to exercise, but it’s as if I were running a marathon and somewhere up ahead I’m about to hit the wall.
What happens next is anybody’s guess.
I’ll tell you one thing: I am way too old for this shit. I understand there are kids (and by kids of course I mean adults of legal age) who can do 24 hours of online poker standing on one leg. Me, I’m pushing fifty. By the time you read this, I will have pushed it clear into the next half-century. I just don’t have that kind of stamina. Oh, I’ll make it past midnight and into the beckoning arms of the new day, I’m sure of that. I’m no quitter. I’m just hoping I get a second wind before I hit that wall. Otherwise, things could get ugly.
Well, running provides a second wind in the form of endorphins. Poker provides its second wind in adrenalin. I just knocked off a sprightly heads up match and that made my heart beat a little and my head clear a little. But the real hand of note was over on the full field tournament side. It’s one worth talking about, too, for it illustrates a vital “don’t” of no limit hold’em: Don’t price them into the pot!
I’m in the big blind. Three of us see a flop containing two clubs. There’s about 250 in the pot, and I have the K-x of clubs. Small blind checks, I check. Button bets 30. Thirty! Small blind calls. I’m delighted to call, for I’m getting better than 10-1 pot odds on my draw. The turn is a brick, and the pattern repeats: check, check, min bet, call, call. The river is my club. Small blind checks, I check. Button bets 200 or so. Small blind raises to 600. I come over the top for all my chips. Yes, I know there’s a possibility that I’m up against the nut flush but what is life if not risk? Well, sleep debt plus risk, but whatever. The min raiser folds, and the small blind goes broke with Q-x of clubs. I don’t know what the min raiser had, but if he had any piece of the flop, he did an execrable job of protecting it and if he was bluffing, he did too weak a job of that, too. How many times do we need to be reminded? Don’t give ’em proper odds for their draws. This is one of those no limit basics. If you don’t feel strongly enough about your hand to bet it, then check it down and fold if they bet. But if you’re going to bet, bet. Otherwise, it’s just like handing them a big bat to beat you with.
Anyway, now I’ve got some chips in the tournament and now I’ve got a little jolt of artificial energy. It won’t last long. I can’t see myself making quality decisions for much longer (if, indeed, I’m still making them now). I’m about as far from sharp as I can get and I know it. So why am I still playing? Because I’m stupid and stubborn and I glorify these things by calling them “dauntless.” At least I’m protecting myself by playing in cheap tournaments and sitngos. The point of this experience is just to have it, after all, not to set money records. Reminds me of a time I participated in a three day novel contest, where the object was to take a long holiday weekend and write as much novel as 72 hours allowed. Mine was crap. I like to think “inspired crap,” but probably just crap. I did spend 72 hours whacking away at it, though, and I learned something important about myself as a writer: that I could do what a writer does, plant his ass in a chair and write. In that sense, the experiment was a success because, at minimum, I did what I set out to do. Folks, sometimes your goals are odd ones, off-kilter maybe, flat wrong maybe. Still, they’re your goals, and fulfilling them, for better or for worse (maybe even for better and for worse) must necessarily make your life rise, because you get to see yourself as someone who did what you set out to do.
Take professional poker. We all know that for most of us a viable playing career is a crazy longshot, something on the order of making it big as a movie star. The job requires so many things — smarts, heart, strength, social support, math, memory, intense dedication, oh that list goes on and on. Most of us are bound to come up short in one crucial area or another. Does this mean we shouldn’t try? Does it mean you shouldn’t try? Of course not. If you have a passion for it, and if your life circumstances allow you the freedom to roll those dice even once, I think you’d be crazy not to. To wax philosophical for a moment, I believe that in this life it’s not the doing but the trying that counts. You don’t want to look back and say you never tried. And if it’s a fabulous failure, all you’ve lost is money, mere money. But what you’ll gain, in terms of defining your character and testing yourself against a formidable challenge, well, to me those things are worth money, and quite a lot of money at that. Not to mention that you might succeed if you try, but certainly won’t succeed if you don’t.
Oh, man, listen to me. I’m getting all Oprah Winfrey on your ass. That’s the sleep debt talking. You’ll have to forgive me. Look, do what you’re going to do. It’ll either work out or it won’t, but as long as you’re alive and walking around on the planet, still breathing in and breathing out, you’re so far ahead of the game that the rest of the game doesn’t even count.
TIME: AFTER MIDNIGHT
GAME: WHO KNOWS?
MUSIC: JAZZ RADIO
MENTAL STATE: DETERIORATING
Where am I now? How did I get here? Whose dumb idea was this in the first place? I have been up for more than 21 hours, and have spent a good 17 of them doing nothing but playing poker and writing. I’ve won and lost in some cash games. I’ve won and lost in some sitngos. I made the final table in my last full fielder of the night, but I really couldn’t even tell you how. It’s like it happened when I wasn’t even looking. I don’t know, I guess my mind was elsewhere. It’s been untethered these last few hours. I suspect you’re not surprised. I suspect you wrote me off as daft a half a day ago anyhow. So be it. I feel daft. But good. Good and daft. Like I’ve left something behind. Need, I think, is the thing, the thing I left behind.
At my worst when I play online I can get so unspeakably cranky. Bad play or bad luck or a toxic cocktail of the two can leave me muttering to myself in a dark, cancerous glower. All my negative prophecies start to self fulfill, so that no bad beat surprises me. After a while I come to expect them and I’m actually surprised when a hand holds up. This is a common self protective cynicism, I know; it’s not unique to me. But what informs this darkness? Why do I get so down? Looking deep within myself, I see a certain thwarted need. It’s not a need to win money, for I’m never, ever playing for need money. No, it’s just a pure need to win, to see myself as someone who wins. When that need isn’t met, or is explosively disappointed, my world turns black. I guess what I’ve gotten tonight, well, last night, this morning, this afternoon and tonight, is a mainline poker fix so big as to blow all that need away. I’ve experienced so many outcomes — good and bad hands, lucky and unlucky board cards, clever plays and boneheaded lapses of all reason — that they all blur together into one. Suddenly I see what I’ve known all along: Individual outcomes don’t matter. They don’t. They never did.
I don’t get this sensation in a short session. All the outcomes matter because my need is so palpable. Tonight I have shed the need, or rather seen it swamped and swept away by the sheer volume of play. How could I possibly care about any one outcome when there are so many outcomes out there? How can one matter? Answer: It cannot. Not if I don’t let it.
This feeling may pass. An artifact of my weary and bleary mind, it may fade by tomorrow and be kicked aside by the usual grumps next time I play and things don’t go my way. Tonight, though, I’m in touch with the oldest idea, the Buddhist idea, detach from outcome. If I can just hold onto that one idea, if I can just get that one thing right…
I played poker with Orel Hershiser once, at Bellagio in Las Vegas. At that time the former Dodger pitching great was the Texas Rangers’ pitching coach, and as our conversation turned to coaching he taught me the difference between a bad coach, a good coach and a great coach. A bad coach, he said, can tell you what you’re doing wrong. A good coach can tell you how to fix it. A great coach can tell you one thing that will fix five things. I feel like detach from outcome is that one thing. If I marry that thought, everything else falls into place.
And if I that happens, my day of living derangerously will have been worth every minute of sleep I lost, every twinge in my wrist, every blood swollen vessel in my eye (every blood swollen vessel in my ass), every crick in my neck, every ache in my back. It will have been worth all the words typed (8,000) and all the money won ($800). It will have made me a much more complete and comported poker player. It will have taken my spirit, if not my game, to the next level. And that’s not bad for one day’s work.
DATE: AUGUST 7, 2005
TIME: 3:26 AM
MENTAL STATE: COMA
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