You can't spend five weeks playing high-stakes poker in Las Vegas without learning a few things, no matter how numb you might be. Here are a few things -- some of value for would-be poker tyros, others just useless curiosities -- that I picked up during my eventful stay:
Be careful what you wish for.
In the middle of a key hand in this year's world championship, Barny Boatman, one of England's top players and a member of the Hendon Mob (a group of four friends sponsored by PrimaPoker.com, the largest online poker network in the world), found himself thinking, "How am I going to get all my chips in the pot and get this guy to call me?"
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here was the situation: There were about 350 players left of the original 2,576 entries, and Boatman had about $50,000 in chips -- an average amount per player still in action. He was in the small blind (the blinds were $600-1,200), holding J-J. Everybody folded to the guy before the button, who limped in (poker jargon for "just called"), as did the button.
Boatman bet $6,000, and the button called. The flop came J-3-2 rainbow (poker jargon for "three different suits"). In other words, Boatman not only had the nuts (poker jargon for "the best hand at the moment"), it couldn't even have been close. The best hand the button could have was a set of 3s or a set of deuces. He couldn't even have a flush draw. The problem was this: He almost couldn't even have a good enough hand to call any kind of bet. So Boatman checked, trying to figure out a way to get all his chips into the pot and have the button call.
Even as this thought was richocheting around Boatman's brain, the button pushed all $100,000-plus of his stack into the middle of the table. Boatman smiled, and happily called.
The button turned over the 4-5 of diamonds. He was on a big-time semi-bluff (poker jargon for a big bluff that contains a few possible outs if the bluff is called -- in this case, either an ace or a 6 to complete the straight). So Boatman was more than a 3-1 favorite to win the pot. Even in the unlikely event that an ace or 6 came up, Boatman would still win the pot if a 2, 3, or matching ace or 6, or the last J fell on the river.
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By the time I talked to him about it a couple days later, Boatman seemed pretty calm, which makes sense because a Zen-like detachment is an important weapon in the arsenal of any top poker player. Unfortunately, I was only too aware of the level of detachment necessary to survive poker, having suffered a mini-version of the Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For syndrome myself about an hour earlier.
I was playing in a $230 buy-in, one-table, no-limit, hold-'em satellite mini-tournament, where the top two finishers, regardless of stack size, would split about $2,200. There were three of us left, and we had similar-sized stacks -- about $3,000-$3,500 in chips each. What I was wishing for was obvious: That the other two guys would go all-in against each other, which would eliminate one of them and leave me as one of the two guys still standing.
And that's almost exactly what happened!
Unfortunately, when the hand was over, the loser still had two $100 chips ... which, though that wasn't even enough for a full blind and thus he had to play whatever he held, he then improbably proceeded to double up four hands in a row. And he never had better starting cards than J-8. So, we were back to where we started -- about $3,000-3,500 each. After a half hour of back-and-forth, I busted out, walking away from the table with nothing, where, only 30 minutes earlier, I had $1,100 about one inch from my pocket.
The old guys are still cool.
During the senior no-limit hold 'em event ($1,000 buy-in, open only to the 50-and-up set), our lady dealer cheekily asked: "The question is, are they going to give you guys more potty breaks than usual?"
At which point, a good ol' boy from Kentucky in a PokerStars.com hat deadpanned, "I didn't take a chance. I wore a diaper."
Mothers, don't let your children grow up to be dealers.
They have to take a lot of crap -- people throwing cards at them, cursing them out and the like. And sometimes, they have to take a ton of crap. One lady dealer, who, after dealing a losing hand to one ungracefully-aging poker legend, overheard him complaining to her supervisor that she "smelled bad." What did the supervisor do? "He came over and smelled me," the dealer said, cringing at the memory.
Casinos have their own peculiar sense of values.
One of the dealers hired by the Horseshoe had recently been released from prison after serving time for a manslaughter conviction. As a WSOP insider explained to me, "The only thing that can disqualify you from getting work as a dealer in Vegas is if you've ever been convicted of stealing from a casino."
There are a lot of poker players that need to learn how to say, "Hell-ooo," to Mr. Salad Bar.
It ain't easy being the New Face of Poker.
Poker cover boy Chris Moneymaker -- he was featured on two magazines that debuted during the WSOP -- was eliminated after less than three hours of play on Day 1 of the championship. Though his out-of-nowhere run to the title -- and $2.5 million first prize -- last year is widely credited (along with great poker ratings on ESPN and the Travel Channel, and the invention of the card cam) for the current poker explosion, Moneymaker is not a great player. Of course, as is customary in these cases of instant cultural sainthood, he is nowhere near as bad as many people think, either.
Though I could not possibly care less about your bad beats -- yawn! -- for some reason, I'm totally convinced that you are fascinated by mine.
Actually, since the worst beat I saw while I was in Vegas didn't happen to me, I feel OK about passing it on. During the first hour of the senior hold 'em event, a woman with a short stack went all-in with the 9-4 of hearts and was called by a guy with J-J (apparently, the bad luck hand of this year's WSOP), including the J of spades. The flop came K-Q-10 of spades. This meant that the guy with J-J had by far the best hand . . . and an even better draw -- to a royal flush -- while the woman with the 9-4 had to hope a third jack came up (which, though it would give the guy a set, would give her a straight), and then that no ace, none of the remaining three kings, queens, 10s or 9s, or the last J, nor the 8-7-6-5-4-3-2 of spades fell on the river. Needless to say, a J came on the turn and a blank on the river.
Hey, nobody ever said this poker thing was going to be a picnic.
Advice you can take to the bank.
"How's it goin'?" I asked.
"Pretty good," he said. "I'm down $70,000 for the trip, though some of that was from the Bellagio."
Now that, folks, is a pro's pro.
* * * * *
ATTENTION, IRS -- HOW JAY IS MAKING OUT IN HIS NEW CAREER:
Days 1-24: minus $636
Day 25-28: DNP; Day 29: minus $585; Day 30: minus $355
Total for Vegas trip: minus $1,576
Or, as Nolan Dalla, media director for the WSOP, put it: "Real value of WSOP experience (last year at the Horseshoe): Priceless"
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker starting July 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.