I come by my paranoia naturally.
Born into a family of second-generation Eastern European paranoiacs (the perfect breeding ground for a poker player) -- it was an article of faith in my household that we were never going to be allowed to climb that golden stairway to the American dream -- my working philosophy soon became, "You are not paranoid if they really are after you."
I mean, it isn't like we didn't trust banks or anything -- we had all our money in savings accounts that paid monthly interest in pennies -- but really, if we weren't worried about what others thought of us, we would have kept the cash in a shoebox hidden under the bed.
Hey, who knows if you can trust the goyim who run those banks? In other words, Conspiracy Theories "R" Us.
So introducing me to online poker was like waving a PCP joint under the nose of Darryl Strawberry, or saying to Phil Hellmuth, "Kid, what do you think about these TV cameras?"
Long before I ever played a single hand online, I asked my readers to send me their thoughts and anecdotes about online cheating. Boy, did they ever!
There were some real doozies in the bunch -- even my father would have laughed at some of the craziness -- but most of the complaints/revelations fell into one of the following four categories:
1.) Collusion -- Almost everybody agreed that tons of this goes on. In fact, at least 50 readers acknowledged doing it themselves.
2.) Chip dumping -- Toward the end of an online tournament, a guy with a smaller pile of chips conspires to dump his chips to a partner with a larger pile ... they then split whatever the remaining partner wins. As with collusion, definitely a recurring misdemeanor to which several readers confessed.
3.) Bots -- The use of programmed software to play limit hold 'em online. Most people were concerned about other players using bots, though some readers believed that the online sites themselves were using bots as the electronic equivalent of shills, only shills that would always play "correctly."
4.) Super hands, super showdowns, super bad beats -- A lot of readers seemed to believe that online sites were programmed to give players better-than-average hands and/or arrange for better-than-average success rates on draws leading to more horrendous bad beats than one would normally encounter in the "real" worlds of casinos and home games. Why? Because more excitement equals more hyped-up and addicted customers, which in turn equals more money for the sites.
Some readers even seemed to think it's possible that hackers could break the codes for the supposedly random-hand programs the online sites use, and then know exactly what everybody was holding and what cards were coming on the flop, the turn and the river. In fact, a couple of readers seemed to believe that some sites provide co-conspirators with the codes, so they could cheat the legit customers out of their hard-earned moola.
My thought: Wow, my readers are nuts.
However, I am chastened to say, there would soon come a time when I was not quite so sure of that. Which leads us to ...
(Jay wrote about THE GOOD and THE BAD in last week's column.)
Getting used to the speed of online poker proved to be relatively easy; getting used to the frequency of insanely bad beats was another thing altogether.
It wasn't so much the two-outer draws on the river -- that happens everywhere. It was the hands in which the betting seemed to indicate that the bettor "knew" one of his two outs was coming on the river.
For example, I was playing on my regular site in a $5-10 no-limit hold 'em game. I had $320 in front of me, pretty much what everybody else was sitting with, with the exception of one guy who had about $1,200.
In the hand that began to tilt me into the dark side of poker, I was sitting in fourth position with Kh-Jh. The guy in third position limped for $10, and I raised it to $40. I got two callers -- the big blind and the limper.
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The turn card was the 7c, a bit of a scare card because of the flush possibilities. But I put the big blind on some kind of bad king or maybe a middle pair (not 8-8 or 10-10, since I expect I would have already heard from him if had hit a set on the flop). I bet $80 -- I believed I was value betting here -- and he raised me all-in. I was not happy about this, but I had to put my last $80 in, since there was more than $500 in the pot.
Another 10 came on the river -- not the 10 of clubs -- and he turned over A-10, neither of which was a club.
As I e-mailed to my mentor, the up-and-coming young poker pro Matt Matros:
Maybe it's just me, but isn't that a little suspicious? The worst hand I could possibly have had was a K-something ... I might even have had a flush, no? ... and he's calling with a pair of 10s and no club, and then putting me all-in on the turn ... and one of his five outs just happens to come on the river (that is, five outs if I don't have the flush, in which case, of course, he's drawing dead).
It's not the kind of thing that inspires confidence, if you know what I mean.
And Matt, who is only 27 (which means I'm supposed to be quite a bit wiser than he is), e-mailed back:
I'm not sure what you find suspicious about the hand. You were playing a six-handed game, and your opponent decided to go with second pair-top kicker. He might have made a bad decision, but what's suspicious?
You wrote: 'It's not the kind of thing that inspires confidence, if you know what I mean.'
Actually, I have very little idea what you mean. Do you think your opponent somehow knew the river card? If not, do you think the administrators of the site are cheating you in some way?
In all seriousness, if you're going to continue to be suspicious of online poker based on hands like this one, you should just stop playing online. The bad beats and bad play are more obvious online because you see more hands and you see more hands per hour. But if you're paranoid, the beats will drive you crazy. You might be too scared of the Internet to play online poker (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).
Well, needless to say, I felt foolish and more than a bit chastened (though I did admire the little dash of irony, "and I mean that in the nicest possible way").
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Playing in a $1-2 NLHE, six-handed, I was sitting with only $100. (I was in the middle of a vicious "Alice in Wonderland"-like e-mail dispute with NETeller about how much money I could transfer from my bank account via InstaCash, but that's another tale for another time.) Holding A-9 suited in two to the left of the big blind, I raised to $6. Only the blinds called.
The flop came 9-5-3, rainbow. The small blind checked, the big blind bet $20, and I went all-in for my last $94. The small blind called (!), the big blind folded. The turn and river were K-K, which combined with the small blind's A-K unsuited gave him trip Ks.
Translation: He called my $74 raise with $129 in the pot, getting less than 2-1 on his money -- and no implied odds, since I was all-in. If I had any pair, I was almost a 3-1 favorite. If I had what, in fact, I did have -- a pair with an A -- then he only had three outs, making him about a 6.5-1 underdog. And, of course, if I had 9-9 or 5-5 or 3-3, which was certainly possible off the betting, he was an infinity-to-1 underdog.
After the hand, instead of going ballistic, I thought about Matt's note. And then I used Norton's prescription from "The Honeymooners" to remain calm. "Needles and pins, needles and pins, it's a happy man who grins," I crooned to myself, smiling grimly through clenched teeth.
Later that same day, I played in a 10-handed sit-and-go. With four players left, I was sitting with more than half the chips -- when I suddenly got a "lost connection" message. No amount of crooning -- and no amount of smashing the mouse against my kitchen table -- really helped.
And then came the following hand in a six-handed $20-40 limit game ...
In first position after the blinds, I looked down to find A-5 suited. I raised, and got four callers (it gives one a warm feeling to know that one's opponents really respect one's raises, does it not?).
The flop came A-Q-5, rainbow. I checked. Someone else bet. I called, and the other three guys folded. The turn was an apparent blank. I bet. The other guy raised. I re-raised, and he took the final raise.
"A set?" I thought to myself. "Has to be. Just my luck."
A Q came on the river. I checked. He bet. I called.
He turned over a Q-9 suited.
And I couldn't help myself. I started to think, "It's as if he knew that card was coming." Off the betting -- especially my re-raise -- I had to have at least an A with a good kicker and probably two pair. Which means he had, at most, five outs -- or, more likely, as was in fact the case, two.
I'm not even sure what purpose the first raise served, unless he thought I might fold an A with a bad kicker (unlikely, in the extreme, at that point). But there was no purpose at all -- even theoretically -- to the second raise.
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I know, I know. That way lies madness. But that's the diabolical ugliness of online poker. Once the possibility enters your mind, it's there to haunt you.
I actually had trouble falling asleep that night -- not so much for the money I lost (about $1,000 that session), but because I felt so foolish and vulnerable.
Logical people, among whom I usually count myself, will tell you that such thinking is craziness, that no respectable site would ever allow such a thing to occur or, worse, indulge in cheating themselves. Online poker sites are gold mines, the thinking goes, and nobody in their right minds would jeopardize a gold mine.
And that does seem logical ... at least until you think of those two magical words:
NEXT COLUMN: A Toxic Mailbag limited to e-mails about online poker. So, dear readers, flame away.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
Online results so far: Lost $3,500 (Yes, I know, this could have a lot to do with how crazy I am getting)
Career-to-date: Plus $15,439
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.