Monday, February 17, 2014

Sometimes, there is justice in poker

January 28, 2004

This is a story about justice. I'm big on justice - not necessarily in the legal sense, but in a larger, more karmic sense. There used to be a terrific TV show called In Plain Sight that closed each episode with a quote, sort of a mini-monologue, and this one, from the last episode of Season 3, describes how I feel on the topic better than I ever could:
I am what many would call, often as accusation, a non-believer. It's a charge I consider unfair. Because all of us, no matter the connection we feel, or don't, when sitting under the stars, or feeling the world closing in, doing what comes naturally or rearranging the furniture, all of us believe in something. I believe in many things. I believe in first impressions, and second chances, for strippers, priests and hopeless, hapless sisters. I believe in telling the truth to people you love at every possible turn, and lying, just a little, at what seems the appropriate time. I believe in finding people you'd run through a brick wall for, and making sure they know it, if not in so many words. But mostly, I believe in justice, sweet, street and otherwise. Justice. That's my church.
Back in 2004, Sharon and I were working incredibly long hours at PokerStars. But the poker boom had just taken hold, and all over the country, people were walking into poker rooms and saying "I want to play that game where you get to push all of your chips in," usually accompanied by a forward motion with both hands. 

By that time, Sharon had effectively become a professional poker player - she made more money playing poker than she did in her regular job - and I was struggling to keep up with her. So despite the long hours we were already working, we believed it was our duty to the poker boom to provide a pleasant experience for those new players.

Back in early 2004, there were only a handful of 'big-bet' poker games (pot limit or no limit) anywhere in California - in fact, anywhere in the US. I would venture a guess that there were less than ten in the entire state, and the most vibrant game back then was the $5-5 pot limit hold 'em game at Hollywood Park. Although in a very dodgy neighborhood, Hollywood Park was a booming poker room in those early days of the boom.

In case you don't know what $5-5 pot limit hold 'em is, here's a very brief lesson. When it's your turn to act, you can bet any amount from $5 to the total amount of money in the pot. For example, if it's your turn to act and there's $25 in the pot, and you want to raise, you put in your $5 call, bringing the total in the pot to $30. That's the maximum you can raise; you would put in the $5 bet plus the $30 raise for a total of $35. There's now $60 in the pot (the original $25 plus your $35). The next player can do the same thing - call the $35 bet, bringing the pot to $95, and then raise as much as another $95.

This is quite a different game from no limit - in no limit, well, there's no limit. There's a lot more finesse in pot limit. I've heard it described as fencing, as opposed to no limit, which is more like fighting with sledgehammers.

This information, by the way, isn't critical to this story, but in addition to being big on justice, I'm also big on stage-setting.

There was a group of regulars in this game that usually included our friends Betsy, Nick and Danny. This was the core group - there were a few other regulars who tromped through from time to time, but several of those five were almost always in the game. We didn't exactly take it easy on one another, but we were all close in skill, so there was no real equity in any of us taking on any of the others on a regular basis. 

Betsy lived in a massive mansion in Malibu, and clearly was in this game for amusement, not profit. And every now and then, she would organize a home game, composed of the five of us plus a handful of invited guests. She would hire one of the dealers from Hollywood Park, who would deal for tips, always making far more than from a typical night at the casino.

On this particular night, Betsy had invited a guy that none of us really cared for. In fact, most of us despised the guy - he was a loud, mostly unpleasant character who wouldn't hesitate to push the rules, or actually cheat, given the opportunity. I'll call him Adnan.

Adnan was from Lebanon, but had lived in the US for a long time. He had a very interesting computer-related business. Adnan would vanish from time to time, returning weeks or months later flush with cash and wanting to spread it around.

Adnan knew he was one of the 'producers' in the game. A producer is the one guy who makes a game worth playing - someone who generates so much action, and plays so poorly, that there's little doubt that he will leave broke. He often made self-deprecating jokes about his bad play. On one occasion, Sharon and I were about to take our first vacation in four years, a week in Hawaii (our first time there). Adnan heard about it, and asked where we were staying. Sharon told him. 

"No!" he said. "You have to stay at the Grand Wailea."

"We'd love to," Sharon said, "but we're buying a house and this place is all we can afford right now."

Adnan did a quick calculation. "You'll need another $3,000 to stay at the Grand Wailea, right?" Sharon agreed. Adnan called a floorman over and said, "I need a marker for $3,000. My friend here needs to stay at a better hotel." And sure enough, over the next hour, Adnan spewed almost exactly $3,000 in Sharon's direction.

This might make him sound like a nice guy. He wasn't. Adnan was a first-rate douchenozzle. He had been suspended from Hollywood Park at least five times that we were aware of. One or more of us always came to his defense, because despite his often-reprehensible behavior, he was the producer. You buy this guy drinks, make sure he's having fun, keep him around. The last time he was suspended, it was for flipping over a poker table. I don't know how, but Betsy had a lot of juice at Hollywood Park and performed some incantation that got HP's management to relent.

It was not very long after that episode that this story takes place. Betsy organized the home game, putting out an incredible spread of food and drink. When she did these events, everything was always way over the top, and she would never accept any compensation from any of us. She was a wonderful host. Even with a big win in the game, there was no way she would ever break even for the night, since she regularly let us raid her amazing wine cellar.

I should also note, although you surely have this sense already, that there was no amount of money Betsy could win in this game that would have any impact on her life. She was stinkin' rich, knew it, and just wanted to have fun and share it with her friends.

The game had only been going for about an hour when this hand came up. I don't remember the early action in the hand, but once the last board card was dealt, there was about $3,000 in the pot, a large pot for this game. Betsy had been leading the action until now, raising early and then betting on every street. Once the river card came out, the board read 99737 (the suits are irrelevant to the story). Adnan and Betsy were the last two people in the hand.

After a lot of thought, Betsy decided to check on the river. Adnan thought for a long time, pulled out some bills from behind his chips, counted out twenty of them and said "$2,000."

At this point I was standing behind Betsy and got a glimpse of her cards. She had the ace of hearts and the king of hearts. There had been two hearts on the flop, and she had bet right along in the hope of either another heart, an ace or a king. She now had two pair, nines and sevens, with an ace kicker. 

Betsy agonized for what amounts to hours in a poker game - it was actually about five minutes, but that's an incredibly long time to consider a single decision in a poker game. No one said anything. There was a lot of money at stake, and no one wanted to rush her, especially because we were eating her food and draining her wine cellar.

Now Adnan started to talk. "You really need to fold, honey," he said (he called most women "honey" - except for Sharon). "You can't win this hand."

Betsy kept thinking. I knew what was going through her mind - what hand could Adnan have that he could call big bets on the flop and turn with that she could beat?

"Look, you're a good host and I don't want to see you get hurt in this hand. You can't win. I'll show you my hand after you fold."

More thinking. I could see her trying to talk herself into folding. She was pretty sure she was beaten. There was a small chance they were tied, but it wasn't likely in her mind.

"Please, I really don't want to take more of your money. Fold and let's move on to the next hand."

Finally, reluctantly, Betsy pushed her cards towards the dealer, face-down, folding. 

Adnan jumped out of his chair and exclaimed, "YES!" He flipped over his hand to show the identical hand that Betsy had folded - ace-king, but of different suits. Had she called, they would have split the pot.

Betsy immediately left the table, clearly very upset. Sharon went after her. Once she left the room, everyone left in the game made it very clear to Adnan that he had crossed a very big, very serious line.

"What? It's poker - I thought we all played hard against one another," he said.

"You're missing the point here," Nick said. "It's one thing to play hard, it's an entirely different thing when you shoot an angle on your host." 'Shooting an angle' is a poker term for not exactly cheating, but using the rules of the game in a way they weren't intended. He's allowed to say whatever he wants, of course, but disguising his manipulation as an attempt to "save her money" was just not something you do to your host. Especially when you're drinking your second bottle of her 1985 Georges de Latour Private Reserve. 

In the meantime, Sharon was with Betsy, who was in her bedroom in tears. "I open my house, I give everyone everything, and then I get treated like that," she sobbed. "I don't know why I let it get to me, but it gets to me."

"It should get to you," Sharon said. "What he did was disgusting." They sat on Betsy's bed and commiserated for quite a while (or it seemed like quite a while to me, waiting for the game to start again). Betsy composed herself and got ready to return to the game. 

"I got this," Sharon said. 

"You got what?" Betsy said. "The hand's over. There's nothing you can do."

"Oh, yes, there is. You know how he plays, and so do I. I'm going to watch for the first opportunity to bust him, and when I do, I'm going to give you your $1,500 back right in front of his angle-shooting nose."

Sharon and Betsy returned to the game. Adnan spoke right up. "I'm sorry if I did something that offended you," he said. "I thought I was just playing the game."

"No, you didn't," Sharon said.

"Let's just drop it and play," I said. Sharon had some sort of gleam in her eye. I wasn't sure what it was, but I suspected I was about to find out. And I did, exactly two hands later.

Adnan was third to act - two other players had called. "Pot!" he announced, the standard way that a pot limit player indicates that he wants to raise the maximum. He put in $30. Sharon called, as did two other players. Betsy, last to act in the big blind, folded. Five players saw the flop of 236 of different suits.

"Pot!" Adnan said again and put $160 in the pot. Sharon looked at him, then briefly at the other players. "I raise the pot."

A full pot-sized raise at this point made the bet $640 ($160 in the pot, Adnan's $160, Sharon's call of $160, and then her raise of $480). Sharon reached for some bills, but before she could count them out, Adnan stood up and exclaimed "Pot!" one more time. Everyone else folded back to Sharon.

(In case you're interested in the math - Adnan's reraising the pot was a total bet of $2,080. He called Sharon's total bet of $640, so there was now $640 + $640 + $180, or $1,440 in the pot; he was raising $1,440 on top of his $640.)

Sharon did a quick count of her chips and money and realized that she wasn't far from being all-in - she had about $2,800 total including the bet she had already put out. "All in," she said, making what became a trademark finger-wave over her chips. Adnan said "Call" before the words were completely out of Sharon's mouth.

Adnan now looked at Sharon and said, "You want to run it a few times?"

I'm not going to explain this in detail, but what Adnan was suggesting is something that poker players sometimes do to reduce the impact of luck. When there's a huge pot and the betting is over, players can choose to divide the pot in half or thirds. If they divide in half, they deal a turn card and river card for half the pot, and another turn and river card for the other half. If they divide in thirds, they deal three outcomes.

Sharon usually agrees to multiple runs in this situation, but this time she just sat there. "Come on, at least let's run it twice." Still nothing. Adnan turned over his hand in an attempt to get a reaction. He had two black kings.

Sharon tried to keep a straight face, but failed. "You put all your money in with a pair there? What do you think I have?"

"I think you have queens," Adnan said, even though everyone in the room, and a few people walking by on the street outside, knew that wasn't what she had.

"Let's just run it once," Sharon said. The dealer dealt two card that changed nothing. Sharon turned over the four and five of spades for a straight on the flop that held up. The dealer pushed her the gigantic pot, piles of chips with hundred dollar bills mixed in.

Sharon dragged the pot, fishing for the hundreds. She looked up at Betsy, who was almost directly across the table. "How much was it?" she asked.

"Fifteen hundred," Betsy said.

Sharon stood up, purposefully leaning over Adnan, and counted, "One, two..." up to fifteen. "See, I told you." In all the years I've known Sharon, I rarely recall her looking quite this satisfied.

Justice. It doesn't always happen as it should, but when it does, man, is it sweet. Justice - that's my church.

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