Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A few more stories from the felt

I realized after my last post that I had suggested previously that I'd tell a Dave Foley story, and forgot. Here's that one and a few other poker/gambling stories:

Commerce Casino, February 2004
By February, 2004, Sharon was tearing up pretty much every game and tournament she played. After a huge showing at the WSOP 2003 (no cashes, but massive returns in smaller tournaments, side games and satellites), she posted nine consecutive months of profitable play, mostly in cash games at The Hustler and Hollywood Park. She was also killing online poker, mostly playing nosebleed stakes on UltimateBet. 

In February 2004, Sharon played in a satellite on PartyPoker, attempting to win a seat in the World Poker Tour $25,000 Main Event. After an epic struggle, Sharon won the satellite. As relative newcomers to the World Poker Tour (PokerStars had just conducted our first WPT event a few weeks earlier), neither of us realized that every player who buys into or wins a satellite into the WPT Main Event is invited to play in the WPT Celebrity Invitational Tournament, a $200,000 freeroll with an entertaining blend of celebrity dead money and professional poker players. 

About 15 minutes after Sharon won, our phone rang. It was 2:00a, a time that might be shocking for others to receive a phone call, but we're poker players. It was Linda Johnson, often called the "First Lady of Poker" (a misnomer - first ladies are typically standing next to the big star, whereas Linda was always the star on her own). Linda and I had played Omaha High/Low together over the years at the Mirage, but we had really gotten to know her during the PokerStars WPT cruise the prior month.

"I was sweating Sharon during this tournament," Linda said. "Please put her on so I can congratulate her." Turns out that she had more than congratulations - the Celebrity Invitational was the following day, and Linda was calling to invite Sharon to play. 

I'll write more about the Invitational itself another time. Suffice to say for now that Sharon had both a great time and an impressive run. I couldn't stand to watch, so my friends/coworkers Lee Jones and Rich Korbin went out for dinner at a nearby steakhouse. When we returned, the ten tables we had left were pared down to two 6-handed tables. Sharon had Dave Foley to her immediate left, and was in a paroxysm of hysterical laughter when I arrived. 

"Oh my God, he is the funniest person on the planet," Sharon whispered to me as the next hand was dealt. Sharon folded, Foley raised and only Antonio Esfandiari called from the big blind.

The flop came (I have no recollection of the cards), Esfandiari checked and Foley made a sizable bet. Esfandiari called, and the turn card was delivered.

Esfandiari checked again, and this time Foley went all in, a huge overbet to the pot. Esfandiari went deep into the tank for what seemed like two or three minutes (eons at the poker table). He finally did what he always does in these situations - he tried to get his opponent to talk. 

After a few minutes of this, Foley, who was quite drunk, stood up, spread his hands in a gesture of supplication and said, "Don't bother trying to pick something up on me. I'm an idiot."

Esfandiari folded.

The Mirage, September 1997
I had made trips to Las Vegas pretty regularly starting in mid-1996, visiting a woman I was dating there, and then going just to have fun and play poker. I had played some Omaha High-Low over the years, but was far from being even a respectable player - I still really had no idea what a good starting hand was. That may explain the following hand, which I'll charitably describe as "despicable."

Back in 1997, The Mirage was at the very center of poker in the US - that's where everyone played when they went to Las Vegas, and it's where all of the big boys played. There was a railed-off area in the corner with a few tables where there was always a 200-400 or higher game going.

I had been doing quite well in my consulting business, and was playing 10-20 to 20-40 limit hold 'em pretty regularly (also doing well). I had hoped to play at those limits, but the lists were 30 or more names deep for every game up to 80-160. Just as I was considering going elsewhere, I heard an announcement: "Seat open, 15-30 Omaha High Low." I (thought I) knew how to play that game. I called "lock it up," headed for the table and bought in for $1,000, which looked about right based on the rest of the stacks. The dealer informed me that the game had a 2/3 kill (meaning that the stakes went to 25-50 on the next hand if a player scooped the entire pot).

The game appeared to be driven by a few super-aggressive locals, who regularly raised and reraised. I didn't realize at the time that the rest of the seats were occupied by crazy, drunken marginal players who were there mostly to gamble it up and consume as many free drinks as possible. I blame them for what happened next.

I won a few hands in my first round, and was up to about $1,500 when this hand developed. I was in the big blind, and by the time the action came back to me, it was capped (four raises had already been put in). Someone had scooped the previous hand, so this was a kill pot, and all nine other players were involved. It was about to cost me $100 just to see the flop, but it was clear that everyone was calling all bets, so the pot would be $1,250, offering me a very nice price. I called with 7d 7h 8d 8h, a hand that any sane Omaha High Low player would toss in the muck for a single raise, although I think I could still defend my play to this point.

The flop came a very interesting 9h 9d Td. I had flopped an open-ended straight flush draw. The small blind and I checked, someone bet, and by the time the action was back on me it had been capped once again - and everyone was still in. It was going to cost me $125, but there was now $2,500 in the pot, meaning that I was getting 20:1 odds to make my draw. I was a 22:1 underdog to make a straight flush on the next card, so I wasn't exactly getting the right price to make the call, but I rationalized a few reasons for doing so: (1) I'd get some considerable action if I did hit my hand, and (2) I really, really wanted to play. There's also the fact that I was pot-blind at the absurd size of the pot. The game was played with $5 chips, and there was already the equivalent of five full racks of chips in the pot. I called.

The turn was the somewhat surprising Th. I now had two straight flush draws. The action went pretty much the same way, although when it was my turn to act, there were only four players remaining besides me. There was now about $3,500 in the pot and it would cost me $250 to call. I was an 11:1 dog, but the pot was laying me 14:1, and besides, holy shit, there was a lot of money in the pot. I called.

The river was the incredibly beautiful 6d, giving me the nut straight flush. I bet, and almost immediately the guy to my left, who had his chips stacked in gigantic towers of at least 50 chips each, knocked most of them over. Someone jokingly said that it seemed like an awfully big raise. He did, in fact, raise, as did the next guy. I dutifully put in the fourth bet, and now, for the first time, both of the other players just called. I proudly tabled my hand and said "Straight flush."

I wish I had words to describe the next few seconds. The table, previously raucous, went deadly silent. The chip tower guy to my left didn't move a muscle, but I saw his jaw drop a little. The guy to his left said, "Don't say a word. I have you beat, too." 

Chip tower guy said, "Oh yeah? Can you beat quad nines. douchebag?" and tabled 99xx for flopped quads.

The guy to his left didn't say anything, but quietly showed pocket tens for a flopped full house and one-outer quads on the turn.

The dealer shoved me the pot, but "shoved" doesn't really describe it. By this time, the pot had swelled to nearly $5,000, ten racks of red chips. I pushed a stack, $100, to the dealer. As I did, the player to my right, who had been in the small blind, said, "You had less outs than you think." He then told me that he had folded Jd Qd - he had also flopped a straight flush draw, but I had one of his cards and he had one of mine.

OK, it was ugly. I'll still take it.

Four Queens, May 2004
Pai Gow has long been one of my favorite casino table games. It's an easy, fun game, and there is almost no amount of alcohol that can make you play badly - if you don't know what to do, you can just put your hand down face up and the dealer will tell you how the house plays it.

In case you don't know the game, here's a simple summary: you are dealt seven cards, and you split the cards into a five card poker hand and a two card poker hand. The two card hand is composed only of high cards and pairs (no straights, flushes, etc.). The only rule is that your five card hand must outrank your two card hand. To win, you must win both hands; to lose, you must lose both. The house wins ties, so if you lose one and tie one, you lose.

In most casinos, there is an additional bet you can make called the Fortune Bonus. If you make any hand higher than two pair, you are paid odds on the Fortune Bonus hand. The odds aren't very high for most hands, but there are some that pay nicely.

Sharon has never shared my affection for the game, but if she ever had any positive thoughts about Pai Gow, this hand cured her. We were in the middle of the World Series of Poker, and had decided to take a night and have dinner and some fun. We went to Hugo's Cellar for dinner, our favorite restaurant in Las Vegas to this day. We had a few bottles of wine with some friends, and a few drinks, and decided to play Pai Gow.

On one of our first hands, Sharon was dealt a hand that I have only seen once before - quads and a pair of Aces. The complete hand was 9999AAK. This hand is an absolute monster in Pai Gow - being dealt quads is rare enough, but being dealt the best possible 'front' (two card) hand along with it is stunning. It's a no-lose hand...almost. There was a lot of chatter at the table about what an amazing hand it was. I have absolutely no recollection of my hand.

After everyone had a chance to admire the beauty of this stunning hand, the dealer turned over her cards. The 'window' card (the first one you see) was the Joker, which isn't good - it can be used as an Ace, or to complete any straight or flush. When she spread the rest of the cards, they were all red, and it took me a few seconds to work out what she had - in fact, it took her a few, as well. Not only were they all red, but they were all hearts, including an Ace. She didn't touch the cards for a minute as we all reordered them in our heads. 

Sharon was the first person at the table to work out what had happened. "You can't be fucking serious," she said. The dealer tentatively started rearranging the cards. The pit boss came over to watch as she moved the Ah and the joker to the top (front hand) and rearranged the rest of the hearts. At first, it just looked like an ugly tie for Sharon - Sharon won the back hand with quads over a flush, and the dealer won the front hand with AA vs AA. But as the dealer rearranged the back cards in order, we all realized what Sharon had seen immediately - the dealer had an even more shocking eight-high straight flush plus AA.

The worst part of this story: not all casinos had implemented the Fortune Bonus bet yet (almost all have now), and the Four Queens was one of the holdouts. Sharon lost the hand straight-up with one of the best hands you can be dealt in this game.

It was almost five years before Sharon played another hand of Pai Gow.