Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ceci n'est pas une poker story

Under the gun, I was dealt a suited 7-2. Spades. I knew it wasn't a great hand, but I felt like I was pretty deep into the tournament and that I should hold--at least until the flop--to see if this should be where I made my move. It was the kind of hand that could have turned into something surprisingly great (with an unlikely-but-still-possible set of spades or a 7-7-2 on the flop). Nobody expects you to hold on to a starting hand like that, especially not in early position--so if it works out, you become that story of dumb luck that everyone wags a finger at while wishing it had happened to them. If it doesn't work out after the flop, you fold. Life isn't full of rabbit-cams; nobody would ever have to know how bad that hand was--how bad a decision I made. I called the big blind. Some called, some folded. The guy to the right of the button put in a min-raise. 

Now I had another decision. How much did I want to see this flop? The slim chance that it would come down exactly the way I needed it to--was it worth another chunk of my already-dwindling stack? My luck so far hadn't been good. This was the closest thing to a playable hand I'd seen all night. I worried that this hand, pathetic though it may be, might be my only shot at playing in this tournament, so I took a gamble. That's what this all is, anyway, isn't it? Ultra-high-stakes gambling?

I threw my chips into the pot, if not confidently, then with bravado. 

The flop came down all black. My heart leapt until my eyes were able to focus on the cards themselves: Kc-10c-Qs. 

In hindsight, seeing the flop wasn't that bad of a decision. I mean, it was bad, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as what I did next. The small blind checked it, the big blind put a minimum bet out there into the pot, and before I knew what I was doing, my fingers were dropping my chips into the center of the table. Even with a minimum bet, I was now officially pot-committed to this thoroughly mediocre hand. 

I just wanted to play. I'd been folding what I perceived as even worse hands all night, steadily being blinded down, waiting for my moment. I just wanted to feel like a part of the game for once, not like some railbird who had convinced herself that by staying above the fray, she was the kind of student who should be taken seriously. 

Although I immediately felt that "oh shit" sinking feeling of having made a bad decision, I tried not to let it show on my face, in my body language. I consciously avoided touching or looking at my stack (a sign of a player who is scared of losing it) and I put on my best fa├žade of unruffled calm. Having observed the tournament while folding until this point, I had some idea of how people generally acted when they had a solid draw. I attempted to act that way, trying out tics I'd seen in other players. They didn't know me. This was the only time they'd even seen me play. I imagined that this hand would be the one that catapulted me into the final table--right into the money. But by then it wasn't even about cashing. It was about making the most of what I was dealt because I was the kind of superstar who could play a hand that most experienced players would have dumped pre-flop without a second thought. I was just that good. Folding without seeing that spade (I was sure!) on the turn would be admitting defeat. 

I had already processed all of those thoughts of my imminent poker stardom when someone a few seats to my left decided to kick in a raise. It was more than a min-raise, and it was carefully calculated (I see now) to be a little less than half my stack. 

Thoughts of one's own poker greatness make one more likely to call a raise like that. Last round's raiser called, and then it came back around to me. 

Seeing the turn wouldn't cripple me entirely, even if it wasn't the spade or pair that I was hoping for. Right? My chips made a particularly piercing clatter as they splashed the pot. 

I took a deep breath and exhaled as the turn hit the felt: 9h, each red pip searing my retinas. This wasn't what I wanted. It wasn't what I deserved. I had been so patient, so trusting. And what of my superstardom? Suddenly, it was all shit. 

All I'd wanted was to play, but it turned out that I hadn't been ready even for that. To play with true confidence, one must be prepared to lose everything--I learned that lesson the moment I saw that red 9, too late of course. The hand I'd faithfully held had betrayed me, and even though I'd had every reason to expect it, my stomach still ached with surprise, grief, and surprise at the intensity of my grief. 

My fingers instinctively reached for my stack, not to bet, but to shield it from further damage. I checked, and second-raiser put out another calculated bet--a quarter of my stack. First-raiser raised again, to about twice my stack. Even then I was calculating the pot odds in my head, though I could be fairly certain that any help I might get on the river would be too little, too late. With the other two players throwing chips around like that, I could be sure that at least one of them was concealing a jack for the straight. Any money I put into the pot now would be the price of being emotionally attached to my own bad decisions. 

So I let that hand go. 

There were a lot of confused faces around the table. My suited 7-2 was the kind of hand that looked like it might be worth something with a little luck. It looked so close to right that I had easily convinced myself (and everyone else) that I was holding a winning hand. I had stayed with it as long as I could have, longer than prudence would dictate, even. And when I laid the cards aside, I surprised everyone--including myself. 

I was the big blind for the next hand, and I checked it down until I had to fold. Then I was the small blind, and got a chance to fold in the first betting round. 

Life isn't full of rabbit-cams, so I'm not going to tell you what I was dealt when I was on the button. It's a good hand, though--a real one. You probably don't trust my poker sense after reading about how I played that first hand, but I learned a lot from it. More than you'd know. Ultimately, I already knew what made a hand good, but I ignored that knowledge in my eagerness to play the game. I didn't have to wait as long as I'd expected to wait for it, but I did wait for a good hand before making another move. I liked that hand so much that I put the rest of my stack in with it. And now, I'm feeling like I might win this tournament after all.