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Learning Curve

Playing With The Big Boys You don't need gobs of money to play poker in Vegas. But, as the author discovers, it takes skill and knowledge to win.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

You sit at a poker table in Las Vegas, playing no-limit Texas Hold'em. A couple of thousand dollars in chips are stacked in front of you. All around the table, players dip their heads to discreetly check cards. Tall stacks get pushed toward the table's center in a casually practiced way.

Calling a $400 bet and raising back with a tiny bit of fear, you feel like Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid. Or at least Matt Damon in Rounders. You reexamine the two cards you've been dealt: ace-king, suited. The cockiest guy at the table, a weedy Brit in a fishing hat, habitually bets large and scares out players. Not this time. After he calls and raises back, with the confidence of world-renowned poker player Phil Hellmuth on a rush, you push your entire stack into the pot. Players fold quickly. The Brit considers for a while, tries to check your eyes, but you're looking downward, holding yourself stock still, betraying nothing. Finally he mucks his hand. With a flourish, you roll your suited cards for all to see, smile big, let them realize that it was no bluff, and rake in the pot like the champ that you surely are. Bye-bye, Brit, you think, a hand later, when he pushes his seriously reduced stack into the pot and goes all out with the kind of hand that's a desperation play.

Notice that this is written in the second person. It's you, not Doyle Brunson or Huck Seed or some other high-stakes poker genius throwing around those plastic disks as if they're potato chips. And this is the kind of no-limit Hold'em game in which you don't need to mortgage your house to get a seat at the table.

If you want to get a taste of how it feels to play with the big boys, to partake in the game that Brunson characterizes as "the Cadillac of poker," there is no better place than one of the regularly scheduled tournaments at the Mandalay, Orleans and Mirage casinos (all with buy-ins of less than $100). At the Mandalay the required kick-in is as little as $25. You won't get rich at this table, but it's a chance to play no-limit (after the first hour of play) with a low-priced entry fee. Break 29 other players, and you walk away with $300 (the remaining prize money gets split among the other top three finishers). Get really good, build up your confidence, and you can take a shot at a Super Satellite, a pre-World Series of Poker tournament that you enter for $225 with the hope of gunning your way to a $10,000 Series seat. It's a serious event where you're liable to find yourself seated alongside any number of pros who'd rather beat a hundred or so other entrants and win a seat in the Series rather than pay for it.

That's what I've got my eye on when I arrive in Vegas a couple weeks before the big game. The idea will be to warm up with a bunch of small tournaments, sit down for a coaching session with former World Series of Poker champion Tom McEvoy, and then take a shot at winning a Series spot. But first, a primer on how Hold'em tournaments work. They're often described as freeze-outs, and for good reason. Everybody begins with an equal amount of chips; once your chips are gone (and, no, they can't be converted to cash), you're out of the tournament. In the end two players hold all the chips, playing heads-up against each another. Often for the first hour of play there are rebuys, meaning that if you go bust or your chip pile dips below the buy-in amount, you can rebuy; after that hour everybody gets a chance to buy more chips. Then you play with what's in front of you till it's gone or till all the chips are yours.

Texas Hold'em is a fast-paced, bluff-intensive form of poker in which the pot is initially fortified by a pair of rotating blinds. Each player is dealt two down cards that precede a round of betting, then three community cards are turned over in the center of the table (this is called the flop) and more betting ensues, a fourth card gets revealed (called the turn or Fourth Street), the players bet again, and a fifth card comes up (it's called the river or Fifth Street, and initiates a last round of betting). You use however many community cards you desire plus one or both that you've been dealt to make your best possible five-card hand. A dealer button rotates around the table.

One morning at the Mandalay I have made it to the final table and I'm sitting pretty with a pair of pocket kings. A couple of players limp in, one guy makes a good-sized bet, and I push all my chips -- not as many as I need to seriously intimidate anybody here -- to the center of the table. It's the right move at the right time and has a chance to turn me into a formidable contender. That's when a bald guy in a cardigan sweater sees my bet and pushes his bigger pile forward. Whoops. He's got ace-king. If a king comes up, great. If an ace comes, with no kings, the pot is his. His second ace rears itself on the flop. Rags follow. I'm toast. Unlucky? Sure, but people will argue about that being part of Hold'em's beauty. "If no luck was involved," says one pro, "you'd have the same three people winning the World Series every year."

Later that afternoon, at Binion's Horseshoe, I watch McEvoy make it to a final table of his own. Albeit, the stakes here are a bit higher than at the Mandalay: a $2,000 buy-in tournament of SHOE (alternating rounds of Stud, Hold'em, Omaha Eight-or-Better and Eight-or-Better Stud) in which the top prize is $140,455. Wearing a garish purple silk shirt, the gray-haired yet still baby-faced McEvoy goes down fighting and rakes in a third prize of $35,115. A day later, between big-money games, he's in my room at the Mandalay, playing hypothetical hands of Hold'em and showing me what I do wrong -- bet too tentatively, fold too often, don't read my opponent clearly enough. "Other than that, though, everything is fine?" I ask.

He tells me that, actually, it is. With a bit of focus and practice, McEvoy says, I can work my way into being a decent tournament player. He even figures that I handled myself all right during that last hand at the Mandalay: "When somebody re-raises your pair of kings, you can take a chance by calling [and risk that the person will hit on a winning hand]. Or else you can try to claim the pot right there [by going all in]. You bet the shit out of your cards and remove the guesswork." He lets this sink in and becomes philosophical. "Look, this isn't the World Series of Poker" -- where one player folded pocket kings at the final table, correctly believing that his opponent had aces -- "and kings are the hardest hand to get away from. So you won't get away from it. If you get dealt two kings you'll play them. If you come up against two aces, well, that was the luck of the draw."

Less luck-oriented are a few stock moves that McEvoy suggests keeping in mind. "People make a mistake of checking to the pre-flop bettor; but if you have a top pair with a reasonable kicker, you should lead into him," he says. "Also, if you have, let's say, 7-6, suited, I wouldn't go in against one player, but I would go in, in later position, against a few of them [because it promises to produce a richer pot and makes the call more potentially profitable if your straight or flush hits on the flop]. When you make a bet and somebody comes in over the top of you [with a big raise], good players bump back. But if you do bluff, make sure it's against a good player -- bad players probably won't even recognize what you're trying to convey and it will be completely ineffective."

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