First Live Poker Experience
Last month I had my first taste of live poker, playing in the Venetian 7:00 Tourney (Dakota’s tourney, if you will). I’m finally getting around to documenting my experience. Hopefully some of you will find it interesting, if not inspirational. Any insights, comments or personal experiences are welcome.
I believe there were 266 entrants, each contributing $100 to the prize pool and another $20 to the house/staff. The final 27 were paid, starting at $278 and reaching a top prize of $6,065. I tried to reproduce the payout schedule from the flyer of payouts, blinds and antes that I brought home, but it didn’t work out precisely.
As an introduction, I should mention that I was at first quite intimidated by the whole experience. There’s an element of anonymity inherent in online poker that is obviously absent in an actual casino poker room. I was worried that I’d look like a fool in how I approached the registration desk, much less how I handled my cards, chips, body, eyes, and facial expressions.
As we waited for 7:00, my loving wife helped me relax by calling me a loser and punching me in the gut. Well, not really, but she hung around long enough to get me settled before setting off to spend at least an equivalent buy-in at her own pastime – shopping. Unfortunately I can’t post a picture of myself at the tables. She thought my opponents didn’t need the added advantage of an extra tell. Although I think her exact words later were something along the lines of “I didn’t want you to look like a dork”.
In any case, my strategy going in was to observe a few hands to get comfortable with the surroundings, get a feel for the process and the way the other players carry themselves. We started with $7,500 in chips, with the initial blinds at $25/$50. So I saw no reason not to ease into things, especially given my initial nervousness.
Interestingly, when the organizers announced the beginning of play, at least half the room was empty. And only 4 of the 10 players at my table were there. So, of course, I was the first player present to act and looked down at my A-Q suited, knowing I couldn’t simply fold. I calmly raised to $150, and after one player folded, another called my bet. The big blind then raised to $500 or so, and I wondered “WTF have I gotten myself into? Is every hand going to play out like this?” Well, I wasn’t going to be sucked into a big hand and go out first (plus I was sandwiched here and out of position post-flop). So I folded, with minimal damage to both my stack and my pride. Incidentally, the original caller folded too, but the raiser told me at the first break 80 minutes later that he had A-A the first hand. I don’t doubt him, since he also mentioned the only other hand he’d played during the first 4 levels was K-K. Now that’s patience.
After that hand, the tables filled up quickly and the table dynamics unfolded before me. The players at my end of the table seemed relatively conservative, as opposed to those at the other end, who seemed intent on actively playing as many hands as possible. For most of the first 20 minute level I didn’t get any playable cards, although I won a hand from the big blind against a couple of limpers when I bet after a harmless looking flop and turn. My nerves settled down, and I realized I had as much right as anyone to be there. Tourist and virgin live player or not, I do know how to play the game. It helped that my side of the table was pretty animated and friendly, and we discussed some of the donks at the other end (aren’t they always at the other end?) while our stacks dwindled slowly.
The guy to my right had just played in the WSOP main event the day before. Funny, I assumed he didn’t make it to Day 2, but I don’t know that for sure. The player to my left, an elderly Asian gentleman who arrived about 8 hands late, was extremely talkative and showed me a handful of buy-in receipts for that day totaling $1,700. A sweeping look around the room included a mixture of players of all ages, perhaps 80% men (half of which I could call boys). The WSOP player said he recognized someone else from a televised event, and one or two others seemed familiar.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t really getting any cards, so I spent most of my energy observing the play around me. Most of the pots were pretty small, and only one player from my table busted during the first two levels (seeing every flop probably isn’t the best way to get your money’s worth). Incidentally, more than half the players were checking their hole cards before their turn to act. Going in, I really thought that would be a no-no. But frankly, it seemed like a time-saver, and the room wasn’t particularly well lit – so I figured there wasn’t much downside and followed suit (no pun intended). I think I nailed the expressionless peek pretty well.
The older guy to my left turned into quite the riot, apparently on a mission to teach everyone else how to play: “You really should have checked there; only a better hand will call.”; “You can’t chase a draw to the river.”; ”What’s taking so long; the blinds are going up.”, etc. At one point he decided that the dealer needed some instruction as well, but I tuned him out in pursuit of more interesting stimulation.
Somewhere along the third level, he got into a hand with two others, and pushed all in after the turn on a Q high board with two hearts. The first guy folded, but the second quickly pushed forward his chips and flipped over his cards, proclaiming “I’m just on a flush draw”. The older guy shook his head in disgust as he flipped over his A-Q, but didn’t have time to admonish the caller before the dealer turned over a 3rd heart. As he started to berate the shorter stack he had just doubled up, the other guy indicated that “It’s just $120; I don’t care about the odds”. Well, that wasn’t a satisfactory explanation to him, so he went on a little rant about outs and probability. It started to get old, so I told him quietly that the other guy had already said he didn’t care about the money, so he was wasting his breath. He actually paused for a moment, not knowing what to say, before he smiled and said “You’re right” and moved on. I think I earned a few brownie points from him and the table, for whatever that’s worth.
Shortly thereafter, at the start of the 4th level, the antes began and the pot sizes were suddenly significant out of the box. I couldn’t afford to wait for premium hands, but a round or so later I actually found one in Q-Q. Coincidentally the flush drawer from above bet from middle position before me, and I contemplated what to do before going all in. He thought about it for a while, then mucked his cards, declaring that his kicker was weak (A7 I think). Between his bet, the blinds and antes, I almost doubled up on the hand, which kept me from having to loosen up too much.
Another round or so later, a slightly larger stack made a standard bet out of position, and no further action occurred until it reached me on the button. I glanced down at my A-K and decided to call, rather than raise. Unfortunately, the older guy to my left went all in behind me, having recovered enough of his stack to have us both covered. The initial bettor folded, and I went into the tank, not sure what to do. He knew I was pretty tight, so I eventually decided at best I was headed for a race. I didn’t really want to go out without being pretty sure I had the best hand, and I muttered “take it” as I flipped my cards face-up towards the dealer. The raiser turned over his K-K, which confused the dealer who momentarily thought I had called. But the table knew I’d folded, and I received some congratulations on the great fold. I sensed a little surprise as well from some who thought they’d surely call in a similar spot, but I was happy with my play (mostly because he didn’t show me A-Q).
I’m not sure if it was the blind structure, the dynamics of my table, or coincidence, but eventually the haves and the have-nots began to look like a class structure with no middle class. Half of us began looking desperately for places to get in our chips. The WSOP guy to my right ended up all in with a tiny pair, A-rag, and something I wouldn’t want to scrape off my shoe. Each time he caught the cards he needed, in one case against two monsters that just happened to be missing the suit he had for his 4-flusher.
In my case, I wasn’t able to find a decent position to play anything, much less call, raise or shove with the endless stream of unconnected low cards. Eventually I felt I had no choice, and with no action ahead of me I knew I had to push any two cards. Luckily, the two cards were Q-Q again, and the larger stack who called with A-Q didn’t catch the A or the straight I was expecting (clearly there are differences between online and live poker).
Two hands later a large stack bet from under the gun, but two spots behind someone with slightly more than me shoved all in. From the small blind I found a friend in a pair of Aces, and I pushed my stack forward, not sure if I wanted a third party in the hand or not. He thought long and hard, as I tried not to give anything away, but he eventually folded, saying he would call with anything better than his A-Q. My Aces held up against the Q-J, despite the scary Q that was part of the flop. Suddenly my stack was slightly larger than the average, but things were about to change as they broke up my table and sent me off to a new home.
Near the end of the 8th blind level and just before the 2nd break, I found myself surrounded by a new set of players. No longer intimidated by the game, I focused on the relatively quiet group. I immediately missed my old friends (who I’d known for less than 3 hours), as this new group was generally just not much fun. One player seemed to have amassed a large percentage of the chips, but he wasn’t exactly throwing them around like a chip leader might. In fact, he seemed more interested in the young woman next to him than the poker in front of him. At one point he casually checked the river during a small pot involving just those two. She checked as well, and he turned over a full house he’d made on the turn. While she joked that he must have been trying to trap her, I was mildly concerned that there might be a bit of collusion going on, even if it was one-sided.
I only played, and won, a few hands over the next hour. On two occasions, only limpers called my big blind. Once I bet a low card, rainbow flop and the others folded; the other time we all checked to the river and my 7-2 turned out best. But I really had become card dead, and it didn’t help that once again half the table was looking like short stacks, all looking for their spots to shove.
One player across from me looked quite familiar, although he was very young (I was thinking I might have underwear older than him – thankfully not the pair I was wearing). He clearly had undergone some Phil Ivey instruction, as he had mastered the darting eyes, mouth open, otherwise expressionless (one might say dumb) look that so many young male poker players have adopted (maybe there is a class for such training).
He and the woman to his right doubled up to stay alive, the latter at the expense of the player to my left, who had risked much of his stack with K-J off-suit. I could almost feel the tilt coming off my neighbor, but a hand later from the button I had a chance to shove and did. I don’t even remember my pathetic starting hand, but he thought long and hard before eventually folding. It was the one hand I played where I was worried that I might be an easy read. Nevertheless, I doubled my stack, thanks to the blinds and antes; but I was still looking for spots as the 10th and 11th levels arrived.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any more decent cards, and the young woman I mentioned earlier kept shoving any time she acted before the three shorter stacks behind her, the last of which was me. As we approached the 3rd break, near the end of the 12th level and 4.5 hours into the tourney, she shoved again and I called with my suited K-Q. She sheepishly giggled while showing her 10-8 off-suit and murmured something about having previous success in such a situation. Only a 2-to-1 underdog, she paired her 8 on the flop, but two hearts gave me a flush draw, in addition to the two overcards. Neither came through, and I was suddenly a spectator as the dealer waited patiently for me to move my chips toward him and remove myself from the table.
I finished 40th, mostly pleased with my play if not my payout. It probably took another hour to reach the bubble, but I only watched a little while after the third break before deciding no one from ESPN was going to request an exit interview. As an investment, it was ultimately unprofitable. But as a first live poker experience, it was priceless.