Saturday, May 20, 2006

Hold 'Em Up

Below is an old article I almost wrote for a magazine. It also appeared on my old blog, but my old blog sucked out loud and this article doesn't. It's a few months old, but it clearly lay the ground work for my current style of writing.

Hope you enjoy it!

Friday comes again and I get the expected phone call from Jeff, poker’s tonight, just as it was last week, and the week before. He’s outside with Cris and Eymar as I slip on my shoes and head out the door.

For the past year, and maybe a little more, our roaming games have been the staple of our Friday nights. We play Texas Hold ‘Em, tournament style, each throwing in five, ten, and sometimes twenty dollars apiece. The games have been as small as six people and as large as twenty, the cash pot once rising well over 200 dollars.

We always start two hours later than we planned, usually close to midnight, giving the games a noir feel, even below the fluorescent lights. The stakes are always high and it isn’t a rare occurrence that an argument may arise over even the smallest of suspicions.

“Don’t show him your cards.”

“He’s not in the hand!”

“Doesn’t matter!”

“Did you see my cards?” “Did he stack the deck?” “Those aren’t the rules!” Some of my friends have banned family members from playing when it was believed they were cheating. To this day Cris still curses his cousin’s name: “F***ing cheater,” he mumbles to me as the street lamps light his face. I realize that while these games may not be life or death, to my friends they’re pretty damn close.

Poker, specifically Texas Hold ’Em, for those of you just emerging from under that rock, has taken the nation by storm. Everyone and their mother, (and I’m being serious here), is playing Texas Hold ’Em. My father has occasionally joined in the games, schooling us young’ins what it means to play poker. He once defeated eight of us in only seven hands. We still talk about it to this day.

I cannot count how many poker stories I have seen in the news this past year. ESPN2 and other channels dedicate hours to poker tournaments. Even Hollywood has caught the poker bug. There’s “Celeb Poker,” “Celebrity Poker Club,” and “Celebrity Poker Showdown.” I’m sure we’re not too far from “Dead Celebrity Texas Hold ’Em Poker Tournament 3000,” where you can watch Brando, Einstein, and Nixon battle it out for the cash pot of $2,000 from beyond the grave.

In retrospect it seems as if poker was always there, beginning sometime after high school and midway through my college career. I remember calling up Jeff one night and asking him if he were free that Friday night. No, that was poker night, and I should come play one day; and I did. I’ve never played that often, maybe once a month during school, every other week during the summer and I admit that I am by far one of the weakest players in the group. I play conservative, so I always end up in the top four, but shrink away quickly in the final rounds. In the end, for me, at least, the games are meant to be part of my weekend wind downs; my occasional disregard for the responsibility of the upcoming week, where I can be with my friends in an environment of modern masculinity.

There’s something exciting, almost fictional about poker. There are times you almost feel as if you’re in the middle of Western film. You can almost feel the six-shooter at your side, as you try to finish the game before the sheriff comes to get you. You get three-of-a-kind on the flop and decide to go “all-in,” watching your opponents begin to sweat. They look at you, trying to judge if their hand can beat yours. You put on a sardonic smile as they look at you nervously, their eyes asking: “What do you have?” Tension builds, your eyes meet, and sometimes, you can almost feel yourself move your hand towards the six-shooter that isn’t there, ready for the gun battle that will never happen. They call, “all-in.” You both stand up and show your cards, he’s got a high pair in the hole against your low three combination. You watch the turn, and he gets three-of-kind; the prognosis looks grim. The river comes, and your three-of-a-kind becomes four and you win. You pull the chips to your end of the table, satisfaction ringing in your eyes.

Texas Hold ‘Em is a relatively simple game. The rules are based on classic five-card poker, using a standard 52-card deck. The dealer, (a position that moves clockwise to each player, usually marked with a circular “dealer button”), deals out two cards per person, face down. These two cards are the player’s hand, or “hole cards.” The player to the dealer’s immediate left is the “first blind,” he or she must put in half the minimum bid. The second player to the dealer’s left is the “second blind,” and they must place the full minimum bid. The minimum bid usually starts off at twenty cents, or two white chips, at our weekly games. The blind periodically goes up after a predetermined amount of time.

From there, each player will either place in the minimum bid, raise, or fold, depending on his or her hands, (or the hands they could potentially have). The dealer then discards or “burns” the first card on top of the deck. This is meant to prevent cheating. The dealer then flips the first three subsequent cards from the deck onto the table. This is called the “flop.” Players will begin trying to make any combination with their “hole cards” and those on the table. After the flop there is another round of betting, beginning with the first blind. A player can either check, (which means they choose to keep their cards without raising), raise, call another player’s raise, or fold.

(Still with me so far?)

After betting has finished, the dealer will then burn another card and flips another card onto the table. This is called the “turn.” Players will then try to incorporate this new card into their potential combination and another round of betting commences. Once this is over, the dealer then burns another card and flipping over one last card onto the table. This is called “the river.” It is now up to the player to create the best five-card hand using any combination of their two hole cards and the five on the table. Another round of betting commences, and by this point egos, and bets, are running high, each player trying to essentially scare the remaining players into folding. The remaining players then flip over their cards and whoever has the winning combinations wins the cash pot.

I take back what I said earlier. Texas Hold ‘Em is not a simple game. There is so much more to it than just simple rules. To truly play Texas Hold ‘Em right one must be able to read the other players; understand their subtle “tells.” This is not as easy as it sounds, in fact it may be what makes the game so engaging. Sometimes someone’s “tell” is a muted as a slight flaring of the nostrils. There are those who are masters at this, able to read people like books. They know that your momentary glance at the ceiling means that you’ve got nothing; that your licking of your lips means you’ve got the winning hand. My friend David seems to be a master at it, I don’t believe I’ve won a single hand against him. Cris never smiles during a game, and he smiles even less when he has something. This particular “tell” is very hard to discern, but if you look very carefully, you can see it.

Some say that my “tell” is that I only bet if I have a winner. I think it’s that I tend to rub my nose whenever I get a high pair. I’ve always found that odd, as I seem to have little to no control over it, my nose actually itches. Don’t ask why, I’m not even sure myself.

Another key to winning is the ability to see all the possible combinations that are on the table. It’s not enough to simply play your hand; you have to know what someone else might have. Just because you have a pair of jacks, doesn’t mean no one else has the straight. Don’t make an ass of yourself, like I have many times, betting everything you have on that possible two pair when someone else has the royal flush.

“Poker is a game of numbers,” my younger brother once told me as he pulled in all my chips. We were playing on the floor, his legs crossed like some revered Jedi. “You have to see every possibility that can be played; and always remember: Sometimes the table can beat you.”

Thank you, Yoda.

On a recent trip down to George Washington University I played a tournament at my brother’s fraternity. The tournament itself was part of the fraternity’s rush week, which meant it was “sponsored” by the University, which meant no cash-games, as gambling would be illegal. However, we were all given cigars on the way in, as it wouldn’t be poker without a huge stogie burning in your hand. It was as if the University said: “Give yourselves cancer, just don’t gamble. We want the money more than you.”

I didn’t win, of course, but no one really cared about that game either way, there was no cash to be had.

My brother admitted that most games played at GW were nothing like that. Campus games, he pointed out, are nothing like the games I’ve grown accustomed to playing. “Basically, my friend and I get to win a lot of money from a lot of rich kids.” Most games, whether they be tournaments or cash-tables, are played in small, cramped dorm rooms by kids who’s understanding of cards ranges from: “The black clover is called a ‘club,” to “’A’ stands for ‘Ace.’” These are the kids who sit in their dorm rooms playing World of Warcraft while they watch “Celebrity Poker Showdown” all day, facing the sunlight only for class and the occasional meal.

World of Warcraft, for all two of you who don’t play video games, is the extremely popular fantasy-based Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG, where users can play as humans, elves, the undead, etcetera, in a vast simulation with thousands of others players from around the world. The culture that surrounds the game is so undeniably large and so excruciatingly nuanced that it warrants its own separate article, if not its own anthropological study.

Having attended New York University it was interesting to be in GW, a school with an actual campus… or something close to it. There’s a different mentality to campus schools, something that was, for better or worse, severely lacking at NYU. When Jeff attended SUNY Binghamton he talked about a world where dorm-room doors remained opened 24/7, where everybody knew your name, and they were always glad you came. It was like Cheers, except it was your dormitory and the beer you held in your hand would probably get you expelled.

Now Jeff attends CUNY Hunter in midtown Manhattan and he admits the mentality of the school is notably different. While the entire floor shares two bathrooms (one for each sex) everyone lives in a single, and social interaction is only attained via small cliques, where if you don’t know someone, you wont meet someone. “It’s much colder there,” Jeff admits, and the weekly poker games he sometimes plays there are much more blood -thirsty cash tables. “These aren’t my friends, so I don’t take it easy on them.” But while Jeff doesn’t particularly care for these dorm games, I can’t help but feel that they are nothing but beneficial.

How many hours, let alone days, have I spent sitting in front of the computer, playing World of Warcraft, talking my friends on AIM, or just browsing the Internet? While I could argue that through AIM, and even World of Warcraft, I can interact with my peers every five seconds, (there’s nothing quite like battling dragons with your friends), its not quite the same as human-to-human interaction. In a time when everyone is bound to their computer, poker, even the most “blood-thirsty” of games, can give us real social interaction.

Our most recent of our roaming games was held after (or during, depending who you ask), my brother’s birthday party. Not that this surprised anyone. In fact it was almost predetermined that we would be playing that night. My brother had mentioned earlier that evening that he was planning on “crashing the party” with a tournament. Jeff and I laughed to one another: “Of course.”

By the time we sat down to play, we were all a little bit more than tipsy, and I admit to having to support my head with my arm. On the third hand I was dealt a pair of eights in the hole. Bolstered by this decent, (at least I thought it was decent at the time), hand I decided to go “all-in,” hoping to scare the other players away with a well timed bluff. I knocked two of the remaining players out, but Jeff called my bluff. We flipped over our cards, showing the world my eights and his pair of jacks. We watched the “turn” and then the “river.” Nothing.

Poker is a harsh, but social, mistress, comparable to your high school sweetheart, the one that left your heartbroken mid-way through college. It spins your emotions around until your not sure if your happy or angry that your brother just won the game. You don’t exactly enjoy losing, but hey, you’re glad if anyone were to win, at least it was your brother. Then you swear that if only, if only you hadn’t played that one hand you would have beat that snot-nosed little creep.

I spent the rest of the night regretting ever playing that hand, cursing Texas Hold ‘Em poker. I swore to myself I would never play again, damning the game to the depths. Another ten dollars wasted. Why do I even kid myself into thinking I can ever win a game?

My phone rings. It’s Jeff, again. There’s a game tonight.

I slip my on shoes and head out the door.


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