And Know When to Run

I am playing great cards -- a pair of kings -- on the button. It’s the kind of rare opportunity that begs for careful play. I see people all the time go all-in pre-flop and leave big cards on the table with nothing but the big and small blind to show for it. Ahead of me four players fold and two others limp in. I don’t want to run anyone off so I simply call, now committed to soft playing a strong hand. Small blind folds; big blind checks.

The flop comes, a queen and a smattering of low unconnected cards. Two opponents quickly check, and I begin to fear that my hand won’t earn me much of anything. Then the player to my right bets four times the big blind, a play that says he just flopped top pair. He could have two pair, perhaps, maybe even he's holding a pair of aces and is soft-playing them like me, but I'm comfortable with the odds and call. The other players fold, and now my eyes turn toward my remaining opponent’s stack.

The turn card is a king, and now my hand has become a monster. My opponent considers his options and when he checks to me, I’m more certain than ever that he’s sitting on a queen. His tight play over the past hour belies his fear of the over card. I consider checking back, but that seems too soft. I decide to mix it up a bit and lay out a value bet, just half the pot. I figure that he can’t fold his pair of queens against that, and so he does not.

The river is a queen, and while he’s now sitting on trips, I have a full house. It just couldn’t go any better. He quickly opens big. I go over the top, doubling his bet and he comes back all in. I call. There they are, 3 queens with an ace hole card, but they might as well be a pair of deuces against my full boat.

I have just won $1.37 playing online poker.

It’s pocket change; money that I’d give away to a mall-front, bell-ringing Santa Clause without a second thought, but at this moment right here, it is the prize of a mighty champion. I might as well have won a golden goblet, ever flowing with mead, and the princess’s hand in marriage for the accomplishment. The surge of adrenaline and dopamine is a potent cocktail. Oddly perhaps, I compare it to the sense of accomplishment I get in video gaming from finishing a boss battle.

Online poker is long stretches of boredom counter-pointed by moments of extreme tension, like war or driving through Illinois. It is both exactly like most video games I play and entirely unlike them at the same time. The context and environment are all achingly familiar, as is the occasional rush, but were this a traditional video game I would never put up long turns of the clock where nothing meaningful happens, at least for me. For every pair of Kings, I have seen a hundred 7-3 offsuits. I have watched far more pots than I have actually played.

The game makes the grinding downtime of the most egregious MMO look like a orgy of chaos and joy.

Perhaps it’s the reward, that sense of being able to win and accumulate something tangible, if insignificant, that is the siren’s call. Where I’ll never actually be able to touch, hold or lick that Vorpal Sword of Elven Apathy that dropped of D’nn’rrll, the underworld vizier of glazed doughnuts, this is money I can withdraw and to which I can do any or all of those things — hygiene concerns not withstanding. But, no, in the end I think it has almost nothing to do with the money, at least at this level.

What gives me the rush is not the cash, it's the sense of having risked something, anything, real to beat my opponent. I’m not betting with pretend chips, plucked fresh from the ethereal poker-chip tree whose fruit is always in bloom. With my bet I’m saying to someone real that I’m fifty cents sure my hand beats your lousy queens and if you don’t call then you’re probably nothing more than a dirty mud-dwelling newt with Communist leanings. It is the meaningful competition and certainty that what you risk losing might not ever be regained that fires those happy chemicals.

Even the best online shooter or MMO ultimately forgives the worst or most unlucky play. Wipe your entire raid and you still get to hop back in to give the effort another go. Leap into the line of fire, and it’s at worst a few minutes til the next round begins. but go all in on a river flush draw against what you’re sure is a pair of aces, and this dollar that you might otherwise have tossed casually into a vending machine for a month-old Twix takes on meaning far beyond its value.

I suspect that games like Xbox Live’s 1vs100 are building off this unexplored country of high visibility risk/reward. It will never be about winning a handful of Microsoft space money — it will be about taking stage as The One to match wits and daring against foes in something more meaningful that a scoreboard no one will remember in ten minutes.

For a bankroll of, so far, $10 I have gotten two weeks of something enticing, something a little bit dangerous, something that explores a realm that is like and unlike video games at the same time. My $20 in winnings to date will not last, I know, and I have little doubt that the inevitable string of bad beats will come soon to weaken my resolve, as is the way of things. I have no illusions of taking a permanent position in the rich underbelly of high-stakes poker, which I would classify as any game where a limit is measured in dollars instead of pennies. I am simply buying brain chemicals on the cheap, and while the ride will be short it is one I do not regret taking.

So far.

Comments

Nevin73 wrote:
I have several friends who are crazy deep into poker. Once they started telling me about calculating odds and pot percentages, it started sounded to me like people talking about maxing out DPS in a MMO. For me, poker is about hanging with friends and drinking great quantities of beer. When I have to start doing math, it becomes work. That's why I never jumped on the online poker bandwagon. I'd be one of the people funding the winner's bank rolls.
Everything is math. Really to get the jist of odds just get some simple combination formulas down and you're good. !52 is your friend.

Back in the day I played at Party Poker for about six weeks. I would play four tables at once on the .50/$1 or $1/2 games. I cleared about $1,000 in a month but I was playing like 3 hours a night. I quit because it took a lot of time for the money and in the end it was just a bit too stressful a way to spend my leisure time.

About a year ago I got the itch again but by then the way the nanny state has locked down the funding options for the poker accounts just made it too much hassle.

Clemenstation wrote:
Playing poker with nothing on the line - even chump change - is a worthless endeavor. If you don't care about losing your share, wagering becomes an exercise in ridiculous grandiosity.

This was more or less my reaction when I got to the part of the article where Elysium revealed that he had only won $1.37. I completely understand the potential brain chemicals generated by winning, but personally, I would be incapable of mustering anything near that knowing that if I win/lose, I would only be up/down such a meaningless amount. I guess if I grinded away for hours and hours, I could accumulate something actually worth getting excited about. Meh.

Great article as usual, though. I was tempted to add the following comment to my sig:

I’ll never actually be able to touch, hold or lick that Vorpal Sword of Elven Apathy that dropped of D’nn’rrll, the underworld vizier of glazed doughnuts

With those first four paragraphs you could have been playing Calvin Ball for all I know. Which is why Texas Hold'em is a sport reserved for the kids and my brother-in-law at my house. You see it as a golden competition opportunity - I see it as getting them out of my hair while I'm in the kitchen trying to get a holiday dinner on the table. We all win.

This was more or less my reaction when I got to the part of the article where Elysium revealed that he had only won $1.37. I completely understand the potential brain chemicals generated by winning, but personally, I would be incapable of mustering anything near that knowing that if I win/lose, I would only be up/down such a meaningless amount.

I'm sure as one rises in the ranks of poker, the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head. I would assume this article is meaningless to anyone who has spend substantial time in the trenches.

Elysium wrote:
This was more or less my reaction when I got to the part of the article where Elysium revealed that he had only won $1.37. I completely understand the potential brain chemicals generated by winning, but personally, I would be incapable of mustering anything near that knowing that if I win/lose, I would only be up/down such a meaningless amount.

I'm sure as one rises in the ranks of poker, the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head. I would assume this article is meaningless to anyone who has spend substantial time in the trenches.

The thing about serious poker is that it really is a grind. Generally, you sit there folding hand after hand, playing one every once in a while. It's fairly rare to get into the big pots that you see on ESPN. Granted, you can play many more hands online than live, but you still should be folding more than 80 percent of the time.

However, the big pots (no matter the dollar amount) make it all worth it.

I'm gonna try the giftcard route to getting some money into my account, and I intend to play some this weekend. I may even pull out one of my poker books tonight to get ready.

For possibly the first time in my life, months of watching late night WPT shows while blitzed out of my mind have paid off.

Elysium, I owe you for a lot of podcast-generated laughing fits. So, here's a simple poker truism.

With KK, raise, don't overlimp, behind 2 limpers, you will make significantly more money in the long run.

Hollowheel wrote:
Elysium, I owe you for a lot of podcast-generated laughing fits. So, here's a simple poker truism.

With KK, raise, don't overlimp, behind 2 limpers, you will make significantly more money in the long run.

QFT, with a large pocket pair your odds of having the winning hand at showdown get considerably lower the more callers you have on the flop. You generally want to isolate and play heads-up especially since you have position. If you just limp, you have no read on your opponents and any flop that's co-ordinated can burn you. General rule of thumb is if you have suited cards or connectors, you want to see the flop as cheaply as possible with as many players as possible. Once you start running into the higher stakes, you will have to play more of a LAG style in order to keep your hand disguised.

I used to play a lot of online poker until the government really started to crack down on funding methods and Neteller stopped allowing fund transfers to poker sites. It's become too much of a hassle now to get my money in and out.

Excellent article. It strikes me that I've occasionally felt a similar parallel between going "on tilt" and the feeling you get when you're just playing really badly in Halo 3/COD4/as appropriate. Although the Rage Quit of losing all your money is a little more severe!

There will be a follow up post of equal verbosity and wit when you lose that $20 and rage quit, right?

I'd be willing to bet I'd be ready to write that as early as next week. In fact, I'd bet thirty-seven cents on that. You game?

I'll take that bet!

Of course he could have been dealt a pair of queens, which would have made you very grumpy (although being unlikely since he limped in, but you never know on small money tables where the play/players can be pretty random at times)

I started playing online 4-5 odd years ago, first on 1 table then as the boredom set in I eventually went up to 5. After a bit of practice you learn to manage the multiple tables quite well and I found that it reduced the boredom quite a bit (although on occasion when you suddenly get 5 good hands it can get a bit hectic).

I liked playing low stakes as well. Sure its fun to win $2000 in one hand, but for mere mortals without a proper bankroll we have to aim quite a bit lower. Winning $1 is useless by itself, but the nice thing is just to know that you won and came out ahead for the day.