Thursday, May 29, 2014

Poker, it's a very strange game

[note: I've been absent for a while, and it's cost me $300 so far. I'll get better if only because I can't afford to do otherwise.]

The World Series of Poker just got underway, and someone at one of my first tables started a conversation about the strangest things they had seen at a poker table. Since I've played over a million hands of live poker (a sad commentary of its own), I figured I was in a good position to tell a few interesting ones. I haven't really planned this out, so I have no idea how extensive this will become - I'm going to divide it by casino, so at least there's some structure.

Hollywood Park, 1998
Back in the day, I played almost every day at Hollywood Park, usually 15-30 or 20-40 limit hold 'em, eventually moving up to 40-80. The quality of the games varied widely, but at least 2-3 times a week, especially during racing season, the games were crazy, rock 'em-sock 'em poker. This was one of those days, although that really only accounts for the pre-flop and flop play in this story.

I was playing 20-40 in a game where nearly every hand was capped before the flop. In this hand, I was in the big blind, and it was capped to me; I looked down at Ac Kc. I'm totally OK with putting in three more bets with this hand (duh), knowing that I can get away quickly if the flop doesn't hit me well. The small blind, two other players and I see the flop. 

You could say it hit me well: Qc Jc Tc, my first-ever flopped royal flush. My first thought was, "Lucky for me that this was one of those capped-preflop hands, since no one can really have much of this." But as this thought was forming, the small blind bet. I resisted the urge to kiss him, and called. To my astonishment, it went raise-raise-raise behind me. I'm OK with putting another $60 in.

The turn was a blank. The betting action was exactly the same - bet, call, raise, raise, raise. I called.

If it's possible for me to hit a bad card here, I did: the river was the eight of clubs. This was a scare card (like the board wasn't?) - the lone nine of clubs made a straight flush, and even if someone didn't have that, the lone Ace of clubs was good for the nut flush.

This, of course, slowed down the action. The small blind checked. I was pretty sure that I was only getting called here by the nine of clubs, maybe the Ace of clubs if he acted last, so I bet, and was further stunned to see all three players call. As the player in the small blind called, he said, "Hit your flush on the river, eh?" I said, "Not exactly," and showed my royal.

Postscript: One of the resident maniacs at the table asked to see all of the hands. The first two raisers both had AK; the small blind had QQ. So the flop hit everyone, me the hardest. But this brought up a question that I have never been able to fully resolve. I understand one player calling, although how he could do so without a club I don't know. But how do the other two overcall? 

The best answer I've gotten to this question was from Lou Krieger, who was at the table when this happened. "I call it pot-blindness. Imagine snow-blindness, but with chips. The last guy probably thought something like, 'I know I'm beat here, but there's almost $2,000 in the pot and it costs me $40, so I only have to be right 2% of the time.'"

I've mostly given up trying to figure out what people were thinking when they made terrible calls against me. They were probably thinking, "Mmmmm, doughnuts."

Hollywood Park, 2004
Sharon and I started playing big-bet poker in 2003, mostly in the $5-5 pot limit hold 'em game at Hollywood Park. At the time, I doubt that there were ten big-bet (pot limit or no limit) cash games anywhere in California.

This story features two despicable human beings, one of whom I've written about before - see "Sometimes there's justice in poker" for a much different story about Adnan. The other player was someone I had never seen before this particular night, and have never seen since. We'll call him Abe.

Abe is a poker stereotype - angry, abusive and convinced he's unbreakable. Adnan is a good foil for him, particularly in this game, because he has very deep pockets and not a lot of skill. He also drinks to excess - and I know something about alcohol and excess. He was tossed out of Hollywood Park for, among other things, flipping over a table after a particularly nasty beat. A confrontation between them was almost inevitable.

The game itself was a little odd by today's standards. The minimum buy-in was $200, with no maximum.  Most players bought in for $1,000 or more. Occasionally, one of the $10-20 or $15-30 limit players would take a shot at the game, usually for $200 or a little more, get skinned and skulk back to the limit games. But sometimes the game played very big, and this was one of those games. 

Before this hand started, Adnan had about $10,000 in front of him. Abe and Adnan had already gone at it a few times, and Abe had (correctly) identified Adnan as the fish. Of course, we all had, but we tried not to spread that around too much; Abe, on the other hand, wanted everyone, especially Adnan, to know that he knew. After Adnan won a very big pot, Abe asked him how much he had in total. Adnan told him that he had $8,000. Abe immediately pulled out more cash, and every time Adnan won a pot after that, Abe added to his stack to make sure he had Adnan covered.

The hand started like any other - someone put in a small raise, and a few players called, including Sharon and me. The flop came 764 unsuited. There was a little action, Sharon and I folded and three players saw the turn, which paired the 4. At this point there was about $200 in the pot. Adnan was first to act. He stood up to look at the board more closely (which he often did), then pointed to the pot and said "I bet the pot" in slightly Arabic-tinged English (he was from Lebanon). The dealer announced the pot size. The next player folded, setting up the confrontation.

Abe, sitting next to the dealer in seat one, scratched his scraggly beard for a minute, looked down at his chips, then at Adnan's. "You really have something?" he asked.

Adnan, still on his feet, bounced a little on his heels and said, "I always have something."

Abe scratched a little more, counting out a call. "You some kind of Arab?"


"Well, you might need to pull some money out of your head rag, 'cause I'm raising," Abe said. Seriously, this is exactly what he said. He announced a pot-size raise, making the bet about $800.

Adnan pointed to the pot again and said, "Pot." Before the dealer could tell him how much it was, Abe announced that he was raising the pot again. It took only another minute before the pot in this $5-5 game ballooned to $20,000.

In many big-bet games, players are given some flexibility to make deals before the outcome is decided. Back in these days, there were two types of deals. Players sometimes made money deals - for example, if there's $1,500 in the pot, and one player has a set and one has a flush on the turn, the player with the flush is about a 3.5:1 favorite. Sometimes players would agree to take some money out of the pot based on pot odds and play for the rest - for example, the player with the flush might take $700 out and the player with the set $200 (3.5:1), and then deal the last card for the remaining $600.

Another type of deal that players often made was "running it twice" or "running it three times." If they decided to run that same $1,500 pot twice, the dealer would put out one river card for half the pot, then a different river card for the other half. If they ran it three times, same thing, but for 1/3 of the pot each time. Players make these deals to reduce variance - this way, a single lucky card can't have a devastating effect. In the long run, though, it doesn't change things much - the odds are still the odds.

Adnan signaled to the dealer not to deal any more cards yet, and asked Abe if he wanted to make a deal. Abe said something like "I doubt there's any deal we can make, since I'm pretty sure you don't have a chance here."

In these situations, the players usually expose their hands, but neither did. Adnan said, "I wouldn't be so sure about that." Abe looked back at his hand, then at the board, and finally said, "OK, but I don't like to run it twice; I don't want us to chop the pot. How about we run it three times?" Adnan quickly agreed.

Reminder: the board was 7644. The dealer put up the first river card, a 7. He burned a card, put out another 7 for the second river, then burned again and exposed the last river card - a 4. Adnan announces, "Send me the whole pot."

Now, we had played a lot with Adnan, and had heard him say this before, both when he had it and when he didn't. Abe stood up and said, "I might have gotten unlucky here, but I think I get at least 1/3," turning over 66 for sixes full.

Adnan held his cards. Finally he said, "Which one do you want to see first?"

Abe said, "I don't give a fuck, you raghead camel-jockey, just put your fucking cards on the table." Seriously, I can't make this stuff up.

Adnan laughed. He's been called worse. He slams one hand down on the table, removes it and shows the 7 of hearts. Abe shook his head and said, "How can I get that unlucky?"

But Adnan wasn't done. "Don't you want to see the last card?" he taunted. "No," Abe said, "Let's just split the pot and get this over with."

"I don't think so," said Adnan, slamming the other hand down. He removed his hand and we all saw the 4 of spades.

Just in case you're not a poker player (but if you're not, your head probably exploded a few paragraphs back), Adnan got all of his money in with exactly three outs (cards that would win the pot for him). He needed exactly a 7 (two remaining in the deck) or a 4 (one remaining in the deck) to scoop. The odds against this are about 12,600:1, although I have seen it happen twice.

Abe stood up, put on his jacket and left. As I said, I had never seen him before, and have not seen him again to this day. If it were me, I might have sworn off poker.

Next up: Tobey Maguire, Dave Foley and a few other names I'll drop


  1. glad you're back Dan, looking forward to more!

  2. Dan, hopefully you will post some good stories from your recent rungood at the WSOP this year.
    P.s. Your latest post is over a week old :)
    But then again you've been having almost too much fun at the tables.
    Looking forward to rail birding your wsop action

  3. In the great minds category, while I was reading the part about the AK overcalls and what could they be thinking, I was thinking they were thinking... "Oooh.. I have a straight! Mmmmm.... Donuts". Somehow very few players appreciate that callers are more dangerous than the better. Shrug....

  4. how are the odds 12,600:1?
    he only needs 1 of the 2 remaining 7's for 7s full of 4s (or running 4s for quads)

    1. There was a minor typo that may have confused you, although it didn't change the outcome. The turn card was a 4, meaning that, at the point where they decided to run it 3 times, the board read 7644. So Adnan needed to hit all 3 of his outs (two 7s and one 4) to scoop.

      That having been said, the calculation was still wrong. Since we knew only his cards when the money went in, there were 46 unseen cards. The odds of his hitting all 3 outs are 1 / ( (3/46) * (2/45) * (1/44) ), or 15,179:1.