This is a story about poker. If you don't know the rules of poker, it probably won't make much sense and isn't worth your time. If you do know the rules, it should make sense, but still won't be worth your time. You have been warned.
My battle with the drunken master took place a fortnight ago, in the concrete jungle of Hawaiian Gardens, California. We dueled with our wits and our chips in a regulated game of "no foldem" holdem. In the end, I left humbled and humiliated, clearly no match for the intoxicated wizard. But before I take you there, I shall provide some historical context...
Sometime in the last two years, poker made that elusive transition from game to sport. Tune into any sports channel these days, and odds are poker is being played, complete with an audience, theme music, and even scantily clad ladies. The "athletes" of this "sport" feature overweight couch-potatoes, metrosexual Euros wearing too-tight outerwear, and scrawny hippies with ADD issues. A slice of the global pie, if you will. But whom am I to judge, for these people are the best at what they do and make hundreds of thousands of dollars doing it. They do not interest me. The poker fad, however, does. Or did.
At some point I came to the conclusion that perhaps I could take advantage of the poker craze and make a bit of money without trampling on too many toes. Unlike other gambling games (like blackjack or the lotto), poker is waged against other players and not the house (which always wins). So theoretically the key to winning is to find people who play worse than you do and outduel them for their money. I had a grandiose plan to construct a "poker simulator" that would understand the game and allow me to destroy the competition behind the confines of my computer screen (online poker being all the rage). However, before I embarked on this task, I spent a few months sporadically playing at the casino for the purposes of "research". This is where my tale begins and ends.
The popular game these days is no-limit holdem, AKA the Cadillac of poker. That game, however, is far too risky for my tastes so I play limit holdem, AKA the Volvo of poker. The rules of holdem are simple: there are up to ten players at a table who each receive two cards face down. A round of betting ensues. Then three cards are "flopped" upright on the table, to be shared among all of the players. Another round of betting occurs, then another card is added to the community pile (the "turn" card) Then another round of betting, another card (the "river"), and a final round. At the end, whomever has the best five-card hand (like a flush or two pair) from their two down cards + the five shared cards is the winner. The only difference between limit holdem and no-limit is the betting-- in limit you are only allowed to bet up to a certain amount each round, so it's cheaper to play. If none of this makes sense you can learn more here. But actually I encourage you not to, as gambling is pretty pointless!
According to all of the TV shows and poker books, the strategy of poker is to know when to bet/fold, how to guess what cards opposing players have, how to bluff like you have a strong (or weak) hand, etc. This turns out to be nonsense! After careful study and collaboration with my fellow players, I've concluded that there are really only two skills in poker:
(1) Knowing when to quit. Luck doesn't last forever!
(2) Knowing how to smack-talk at the table to get everyone mad at you so they will play recklessly. Actually, I don't know if this helps the game so much as add entertainment value, which IMO is the best part!
Right from my first session, my smack-talking game was strong, dare I say precocious? I would be dealt some pretty lousy cards like a 9 and a 10 off-suit and start hootin' and hollerin' as if I had a pair of Aces. On the flop, I'd bet strong to throw people off my trail. Sometimes everyone would fold their cards and I would win with my nothing. When they didn't fold, I would get damn lucky! I'd land some miraculous cards to win the pot and start chirping away like I was invincible. The table hated me!
In particular, I kept victimizing this one lady, who would always have a slightly worse hand than me. When she had a pair of Kings, I had two-pair. When she had two-pair, I had three-of-a-kind. One time, she eyed me down at the river, bet into me, and showed her hand with a gusto:
"Straight!" she triumphiantly declared
"Ah, I'm sorry." I said, showing my flush.
"Nnn..nyeh!" An almost inhuman sound escaped her. I felt badly.
That first night I won $500 playing $4/$8 holdem (the amount of each bet at different stages of the game). I began to suspect a real skill here, but knowing the nature of addiction (having been addicted to unemployment for some time), I had to be careful. I did not return for two weeks, at which point I won another $200. Then I played a few days later and won $100. Amazing! Perhaps I did not need my poker simulator at all, this was good enough. I played a few more times and won or broke-even every time. It was almost too easy. But I was worried, because I didn't believe I was this skilled. I knew that time would catch up to me.
And it did. One Saturday night I wandered into the casino at the top of my game, ready to take a few bucks off the locals who had amassed fortunes off the ludicrous CA real-estate boom. I sat at a table and was up $180 in about two hours. I remember thinking that I would go home when I had $200 in profit off my $100 initial investment. Unfortunately, that never came. Instead, the drunken master joined the table.
He was a skinny, bald, bespectled Chinese man, perhaps sixty or seventy years in age. He smiled as he sat down, showing all six of his teeth. When he spoke to the dealer to request chips, I knew something was awry. The slurring of the words, the redness of the cheeks ... this guy was sloshed! I felt a bit guilty about taking his money, but since I was going to leave soon anyway I figured it was no big deal. Besides, compassion is for sissies!
On the very first play with the drunken master at the table, I was dealt two Queens .. a monster hand! There are many ways to play such a hand, but I elected to raise the bet in order to force people at the table to fold their cards. That way, my strong hand would be less likely to be beaten by some lucky draw on the flop, turn, or river. I bet strong and everyone folded except for ... the drunken master. In fact, I could swear he didn't even look at his cards. What??? The dealer flopped Q 9 2, all of different suits. Yes!! I now had three Queens with no other draws on the table. I bet and the master called. The turn card was a 5. I looked at the board and confirmed that nothing could beat my Queens. I bet and he called. Obviously his intoxication was getting the best of him! The dealer flipped a 7 for the river card. So we had Q 9 2 5 7 with no flush draws. Yes! I was safe. I bet and the master raised me. Huh? I raised him back and he re-reaised! We went back and forth until the pot was "capped". At this point we had both invested about $60.
I flipped my Queens, sure that they were good. He showed a 6 and an 8. I looked at the board, baffled at what he might have. The dealer spoke:
"5 6 7 8 9 .. straight" He scooped the huge pile of chips towards my nemesis
"What?" I yelled. "How.... why...?"
"Aheeee heee heeee... you bet you lose!" blurted the master, as he took a sip from his flask.
Well, I should have left right then and there but I didn't. Over the next hour, the master obliterated my once massive stack of chips. My whole gameplan was shaken from the core. I would try to bluff pots and he would call the whole way, beating me right at the end. When I had something strong, he would have something stronger. The other players cleared out of our battles, until it became obvious that I was a shell of my former self. Then they all piled on me, forcing me to invest heavily to stay in the pots only to get devastated by the master. I began to doubt my skills, taking time to decide what to do instead of relying on my once powerful instincts. This only made matters worse. When I took too long, I would hear:
"Aheeee heee heeee.. you bet, you lose!"
And it would agitate me into doing just as he willed. My initial investment gone, I reached for more cash, and soon, that too was gone. Finally, I left, having lost $300, almost excusively to the drunken master who didn't even need to see his cards. I limped off the table, physically and mentally exhausted from my dual with this amazing little fellow. Before I left, I had to ask him one question:
"How... how do you do it? How could you call my bets with your 6 8 off-suit?"
He smiled. "Come... come close."
I walked over to him. I could smell the whisky on his breath as he leaned in towards me and whispered, "Aheeee heee heeee... you bet, you lose!"
Just like the master he was, he would reveal nothing.
I have since stopped playing poker. Although I enjoyed my time in the casino, the futility of it all set in, not just from my losses, but my victories too. Ironically, it took an encounter with a drunken master to sober me up!