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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."

With a pair of pocket aces, though, you'd think that drawing in as many players as possible would be a good thing. Not so, says McEvoy. "You want to get just one player to call you. You don't want a whole bunch of people in there with you because there's a good chance then that somebody will get lucky and draw the cards to beat you. If the blinds are $100 and $200, make it $600 or $700 to go."

Whether they're playing tournaments or not, McEvoy says, mediocre players tend to raise without fully formed ideas of what they hope to accomplish. To a poker pro this would be the equivalent of a trial attorney reading weather reports to the jury in lieu of a closing argument. You should have a concrete goal in mind when you raise, he says. "Maybe you're trying to build up the pot because your hand will be strong enough to hold up and win. Or else you are trying to drive out people who would limp in with the hope of drawing a flush or straight. Mindlessly raising will only make the pot more attractive to other players and force you to spend more money." There's one other thing to keep in mind: "If somebody bets too much or too little, it looks like he doesn't know what he's doing. In late position [regarding how close you are to the dealer button], you want to bring it in for four or five times the size of the big blind."

A night later McEvoy sits alongside me for a $40 buy-in tournament at the Orleans Hotel. In the casino's utilitarian poker room, he watches as I play decent poker for a couple hours, only to get beaten when I go all in with queens. McEvoy deems my tournament play respectable, suitably patient, but a bit tight and predictable. Considering that he's a self-described "tournament specialist" with four gold World Series of Poker bracelets to his credit (he won the big game in 1983 and snagged the others by finishing first in smaller WSOP events over the years), I take this as a confidence-buoying compliment.

When I find myself in Binion's Horseshoe a couple afternoons later, flush from a nice run at an open Hold'em game, I decide to pony up the $225 and take my chances for a seat at the World Series. Upstairs, in the Horseshoe coffee shop, I happen to run into McEvoy, who offers me a quick refresher course on basic Hold'em tournament strategy. One thing I want to know: What makes him a winner in a room full of losers?

McEvoy is working his way through a rack of barbecued ribs, and he takes a moment to consider the question. Wiping his fingers, he says, "First, I'm more selective with the hands I raise with; I play very aggressively with big hands but hold back if I don't seem to have the best of it. Second, my patience level is probably higher [than that of other players], so I'm not going in with mediocre hands and trying to chase cards. Third, I'm good at reading people. But the fact of the matter is that play becomes more predictable in tournaments than in ring games, where guys tend to gamble on a lot of different hands."

I think about all this when I sit down at the table. Unfortunately, I'm also thinking about a lot of other things: how great it'll be for this story if I make it into the Series, what sort of image I want to maintain at the table, how to riffle chips and look as if the Horseshoe is my second home. I'm thinking about so many things that the game passes in an ugly blur -- sort of like a car accident where you know what's happening but you can't do anything to stop it, so you close your eyes and prepare for impact. I can't even tell you about the hands I play, but suffice it to say that I play them badly. I'm betting when I shouldn't, seeing raises that are ridiculous, not watching the other players. Operating like that, it's no surprise that my stack is promptly depleted. I lose my final hand with a boneheaded play and walk away from the table feeling as if I've been mugged.

Things go so badly that I find myself wondering if it's even sensible to enter another Super Satellite. Is it just throwing good money after bad? The next morning I have breakfast with a savvy pro named Ken "Skyhawk" Flaton. He eats his cereal and listens to my woes. He's probably just trying to make me feel better when he tells me that this even happens to the best players. But he does offer some good advice: "When you're getting ready to make a big play -- especially if you are not 100 percent certain -- just sit there for a moment and silently count to 10," Flaton says. "It gives you a chance to consider your next move and prevents you from doing anything hasty."

McEvoy pep-talks me with tales that illustrate his penchant for hanging tough under adverse conditions. "My strength is that I don't ever give up," he tells me, just after I've bought in for another Super Satellite. "I fight till the last chip; I like to say that I fight until the last drop of their blood is spilled. I am an expert at surviving in tournaments."

McEvoy explains that the best test of his high-stakes survival skills unfolded during a tournament at the Peppermill Casino in Reno. Down to $75 in chips, he waited for decent starting cards and went all in with king-jack -- not a great hand, but time was not on his side. McEvoy made a straight and won six times his money, but it still left him far from solvent at this table. "I wound up throwing away two-thirds of my stack with blinds" -- a particularly gutsy move, as it can leave you depleted of chips without even attempting to win a pot -- "while I was waiting for a playable hand, and it turned out to be a winner. By the time we hit the final table…I had over $100,000 in chips, accumulated after being down to $75. I went on to win that tournament."

With McEvoy's words still ringing in my ears, I sit down at the Super Satellite fired up but focused, adamant to treat each of my chips like valuable ammo. I bet big with good hands, lure people in, fold when somebody's getting over. One guy stays in alongside me and looks shocked when he sees my straight. "You played that perfectly," he says with resignation, bummed out over the way I let him lead the betting up until the last card, when I hammered him with raises and he felt too committed to do anything but stay in. By the first break, I am either the chip leader or damned close, with $900. McEvoy walks past the table and seems impressed. "I bet you're having fun now," he says with a smile.

And I am having fun, throwing my weight around, able to afford the occasional semi-bluff, and luxuriating in the fact that I have enough of a cushion to take risks and weather small mistakes. Clearly, however, I should be more concerned about the big mistakes, like going all in with king-queen, suited, when a guy raises me hard after I make a modest bet of $400. We flip our cards and he has ace-queen, unsuited. Fine, I still have a chance. But then a queen comes on the flop and nothing else helps either of us. His ace gives him the hand -- and all my chips. Suddenly I'm no longer one of the elite players. I'm another schnook who made a dumb move and got bounced out of the tournament. McEvoy offers little sympathy. "That was a terrible play," he scolds, pointing out that my king against his ace made me a major underdog. "If he raised into you, what else could he have had besides an ace? You fold in that kind of situation. Or else you should have made a big bet. Four hundred dollars was a pussy bet and it did not telegraph strength. He gave you credit for a medium-strength hand."

"So," I say, "if I had a pair of aces, what I did would have been a good play, a good trap."

"You're not a sophisticated enough player to lay a trap like that," McEvoy counters dismissively. "You wouldn't think to do it."

I'm tempted to reply, "Wanna bet?" Then I think better of it. Who knows? One day McEvoy might be sitting at the same tournament table as me. Maybe I'll get dealt a pair of aces. And maybe he won't be expecting the trap. But it will be waiting for him.

 

Michael Kaplan writes on gambling for Cigar Aficionado.

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