Category: texas holdem

As I was saying…

Okay, so I took some time off.

Since the last post, I visited Barcelona, Grenada, and Almeria, Spain, courtesy of the lovely Rhonda K. and the wonderful folks at Cosentino. Much eating and drinking was involved (was that a roofie I quaffed?). No casino visits, however. The rules for table games are just too wacky in Europe. And I just wasn’t willing to play poker in a non-English-speaking environment. It’s enough of a struggle playing in my native tongue.

Other stuff happened: A long stream of charming AIRBNB guests visited from around the globe, and I wrote a series of articles on casinos and gambling for the Oregonian, our local paper here in Portland. I’ve pasted one of them below for your edification.


AC: Will the last one to leave please kill the lights?

An article in the September 7th New Yorker Magazine takes a deep dive into the choppy waters of Atlantic City. You’ve probably heard some of this stuff before: the cataclysmic failure of the Revel, declining gaming revenues, the closing of this casino and that. But NYer staff writer Nick Paumgarten does a solid job of putting a human face on this tale of woe and also frames it in the perspective of New Jersey politics. Could Chris Christie’s presidential bid (such as it is) be put into jeopardy, smashed to smithereens, because of the Revel’s spectacular flameout?NewYorker, Sept 7

Who knows? But reading Paumgarten’s piece had me thinking about the several times I’ve visited AC. I’m not sure why I returned, especially after my initial visit.

That first time was actually three strange weeks I spent there in the summer of 1979 developing a stage play (“The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Jesse James”) with nine other like-minded artistes, and bedding down in the damp basement of a Quaker school. Water bugs the size of baby rats frolicked in the shower stalls, begging to be squished, while we taught acting classes and emoted in the gymnasium upstairs.

Gambling had just been recently legalized and we walked snootily through Trump’s crowded new boardwalk casino, decrying the glitz as offensive to our sophisticated Manhattanite sensibilities. The glitz stood in sharp contrast to the grungy streets immediately nearby, upon which pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers openly plied their wares.

Yes, this was one strange town, a fact eerily demonstrated on our final night. As we were partying in the gym, lighting hit the school. Lights flickered, came back on. Partying continued for awhile, until someone pointed to the big clock on the gymnasium wall.


It was running in reverse.


Gambling Tips x 9

As mentioned earlier, I landed a nice writing gig for The Oregonian, which allowed me to expound on the topic of gambling tips. Here are the ones I landed upon as they appeared in the newspaper. I’m sharing this with you courtesy of the Oregonian Media Group, which published the following article in the September 9, 2015, edition:


No doubt about it: Luck plays an important role in all casino games. And everyone who plays experiences swings of luck, both good and bad. But you can sidestep bad luck and improve your chances of winning by following these simple bits of advice.

Tip #1. Join the club.

Spirit Mountain has the Coyote Club, Chinook Winds has the Winners Circle, the Mill Casino has the Mill Club. In fact, virtually every casino offers you the opportunity to participate in their version of a players club.

The concept is simple: The more you play, the more the casino rewards you in the form of free or discounted meals and hotel rooms, as well as giveaways, special offers and merchandise. If you’re not already a member, becoming one should near the top of your list on your next casino visit.

Tip #2: Double your money.

In blackjack, always double down (that is, double your bet) when your first two cards total 11. Also, double down when you have 10 and the dealer’s face card is nine or less. Caution: This move is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to experience a pulse-pounding jolt of adrenaline.

Tip #3: Split those cards.

No, you should not physically rip your cards in half. In blackjack when you hold two aces or two eights, you should split them into two hands by doubling your bet.

Tip #4: Assume the position.

Texas hold’em is a challenging game. If you’re a newbie, an important thing to learn (after the ranking of hands, of course) is the importance of position at the table. Simply stated, the closer you are to the dealer’s button, the freer you are to play a wider range of hole cards. An example: you’d might very well fold a pair of pocket deuces in early position, but (assuming no one else has entered the pot) raise with them in a late position.

Tip #5: Read the fine print.

Rules and payouts differ from machine to machine and table to table. Whether it’s video poker, slots, or a table game, take half a minute to look over the rules, even if you’ve played the game previously. Occasionally rules and payouts will have been adjusted since your last visit, and it pays to be prepared by knowing the latest ground rules.

Tip #6: Take slots to the max.

To win the jackpot in progressive slot machines, there’s no choice: You must make the maximum bet. But jackpots on non-progressive slots often pay disproportionally more when you make the maximum bet versus the minimum. Take a few seconds to see which type of payout will yield you a better result then adjust your wager accordingly.

Tip #7: Can you afford more? Then bet more.

The payouts are often more generous on slot machines that have a higher minimum bet. That means, for example, that many times playing a dollar machine versus a quarter machine is a better choice.

Tip #8: New to video poker? Start with Jacks or Better.

Although you’ll find banks of video poker machines situated among slot machines, the two games could hardly be more different.

When you play a slot machine, nothing you do can affect the outcome; your only decision is how much to wager. In video poker, however, you must decide which cards to keep and which to throw away; this directly affects how much you win.

If you’re new to video poker, cut your teeth on Jacks or Better. It’s the original version of this electronic game and it’s simple to learn. The goal, as its name implies, is to get a hand that contains at least a pair of jacks. The higher the hand, the more you win.

FYI, payouts at the casino are generally better than the Oregon Lottery version of the game.

Tip #9: Visit the web

It will come as no surprise that the Internet contains a cornucopia of information about casino games. Many casinos, including Spirit Mountain, Chinook Winds, and Seven Feathers, post rules on their websites.

To dig a little deeper, check out the free basic strategy charts all over the Web. is a good place to start.

Plus there are dozens of sites—free and paid—devoted to poker and tailored to players of all skill levels.


Texts from the Battlefield: Sam and the Main Event

You might remember that several months ago on this site, I profiled my friend Sam (“The Nicest Guy You’d Never Want To Sit Next To“), currently one of the most successful poker players in Portland. Several months ago his skills at the table really paid off and he won a $10,000 entry in the World Series of Poker Main Event.

He was generous enough to share with me the text messages he sent to his “rail back home” as he progressed in the tournament, which for him began July 6.  FYI, each player starts with 20,000 chips. Spoiler alert: Despite his enthusiasm and crafty play, he did not make the November 9. And a caution: The texts are lingo-heavy.

He started texting on day one start and continued through his final hand. Here they are, for the most part verbatim…

Monday 2:19pm

Rough first level. Got down to 17.5k [chips] at one point from 30k SS but managed to climb back to 23.6. Got coolered in one hand AQ<AK when he doesn’t three bet me pre and board runs out KQ6A6. I check called three streets. Lotta time to recover tho….Let’s fucking goooooooo!!!!

Monday 4:36pm

Second break…roller coaster level. Got back up to SS then back down to 23k. Now back over SS at 31k or so. Maniac at table keeps wanting to mix it up with me. Just won a big pot off him so prepared for fireworks going forward. Thank u all for the texts and well wishes!!! I will update every break which is every 2 hours. Thanks for all the support!!!!

Monday 7:15pm

Dinner break. Another roller coaster level. But ended with 26.5k coming back to 150/300/25. Let’s keep it going!!!!!

Monday 10:55pm

Horrible level. Good news is I still have chips. Gonna focus and not text any more until bag and tag after one more level. Thanks again for the support guys!!!!!

Tuesday 12:55am

Bag and tag!!!!! Got down as low as 6k but climbed back to 14k. Coming back to 500bb on Wednesday. Thankful for all the support. U guys are the best. Not what I envisioned…but day 2 is day 2.

Wednesday 10:24am

Day two starts at noon today. Coming back to almost 30 bb’s. Making day 2 was my first goal now I am hopeful to be able to chip up. Loooooooong way to go but I’m def excited to get back to the table. Same as last time…will update on breaks. 😎👍🏼

Wednesday 2:12pm

19k at first break. Table is good…no one has gotten out of line yet. Been all in 4 times. Once AIPF TT vs TT for a chop against a 14bb stack. Then bvb all in on KT9 flop….we both have KT lolol

Three bet cram AK and got thru twice. Then lost a flip AQ<JJ vs 13bb stack.

Coming back to 300/600/75 so surviving but looking for spots to gain chips.

Wednesday 2:33pm

Bust….Second hand after break I’m BB. There’s an EP open and a 3b from the CO. I have JJ and 4b rip. First guy recrams and is CL at the table. JJ<KK. Blah. Thanks for the support guys.


And then there’s this

Apropos of nothing, here’s something I just received in the mail.

IMG_1289It’s an envelope that asks the eternal question: How can something be free if it’s prepaid? Or vice versa?

The nicest guy you’d never want to sit next to

“I don’t like going around telling people I’m a professional poker player,” says the professional poker player across the table. “Because A, they don’t know what it means. And B, a lot of people think that means I’m a degenerate gambler. And I’m not.”

I can understand his conundrum. Because this guy Sam isn’t in any sense of the word degenerate.

We’re imbibing caffeine at World Cup Coffee, several blocks from the Encore Club, Sam’s poker venue of choice. It’s about 11am, and we’re meeting here and now because Sam wants to play in his “most profitable” tournament, the daily nooner.

This is the first time I’m really talking to him, and I’m not surprised at how articulate he is. encore logoIn our casual encounters in front of the Encore Poker Club in northwest Portland, he’s handled our brief conversations with a casual, smart, polite deportment. I’ll put it this way: He’s an engaging, all-out nice guy. So, degenerate he’s not.

“When I try to explain it to somebody,” he says, “I liken it to somebody who’s into investments. They’re kind of gambling their money,” he continues, “but they’re not doing it on a whim. They’re doing their research, they’re making decisions that they know will have positive outcomes. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But for the most part it does work. And people who do it on the side don’t make money.”

He means people like me.

Play at your own risk

Let’s back up. I’ve played poker with Sam just a handful of times and each time it’s always pretty much been a good news/bad news situation.

Good news: “Hey, it’s Sam! He’s always a fun guy to be around!”

Bad news: “Uh-oh, it’s Sam. He’s a killer. I’m doomed.”

You’ll find Sam’s name at or near the top of Encore’s leaderboard month after month. There’s a reason for this: Over the past four years, he has been relentless in his pursuit of excellence at the poker table, some weeks putting in as many as eighty hours.

But the road to becoming a pro—he quit his day job two and a half years ago—was hardly a straight line.

Curriculum vitae

Son of a minister. Youngest of five kids.

Married at 19.

Degree in psychology.

Divorced at 29.

Job as a social worker for the state, going into homes and assessing cases of alleged child abuse, an occupation he calls “extremely intense and draining.”

Job as a waiter at a relative’s restaurant.

“Aha” moment when amateur Chris Moneymaker parlayed $40 into $2.5 million at the 2003 World Series of Poker.

Home games.

Home games.

Home games.

Turning point in 2011 when Encore opened its doors. “And I still wasn’t good at it.”

Observed others. Got good at it.

Quit the restaurant.

Turned pro, earning his livelihood by forcing poor saps like me to make poor decisions at the table and scooping up all their chips.

An existential moment. Tilting. Assholes.

There are moments in poker when everything falls together: You’re catching good cards, your chip stack is growing, every decision is a wise one, fellow players shake their heads in wonder at your uncanny prowess, and you march without a hitch to the final table and take your fair share of tournament winnings.

And then there are moments when it all goes sideways: no cards, no hope, and you shake your head at what a buffoon you are. Afterward you need a few shots of Old Overholt to restore, however temporarily, some semblance of self-respect.

WSOP and meSo I take comfort at a hand Sam shares with me, a hand from last summer’s WSOP. Sam bought into the Monster Stack tournament for $1500, the largest buy-in of his poker career. He caught a full house and it came down to him and one other player who wouldn’t back down, firing chips relentlessly at the pot. Finally, Sam backed off, folded, putting the guy on a better full house. That wasn’t the case.

They each showed their hands and Sam saw that he was bluffed off his full house by a handful of trash, the highest card of which was a nine.

It was a stunner. “It really made me question everything about poker,” he says.

Take note, however, that he didn’t display anger. He never does, at least at the poker table.

“There are some things I really hate,” he says: “When people get angry at the table. If you lose a hand, you lose a hand. I personally have lost many hands, but at the end of the day, it’s just one hand.”

Another pet peeve: Assholes

“Some of my really, really good friends are assholes at the table and I just don’t get it. Why? It doesn’t serve a good purpose to be an asshole at the table, only bad.”

Me: Some people are just assholes.

Sam: “Yeah, but some of my friends aren’t assholes. They’re just assholes at the table. I don’t get it. When you’re an asshole at the table, you automatically get a target on your back. And I don’t want a target on my back.”

Walk of shame

The other night, not too long after our coffee date, I made a bad decision on a hand at Encore. Sam was not the perpetrator; rather it was some smirking chubby kid.A.k.a, Carte de Jeu

My demise was particularly pathetic because Sam had advised me not to do exactly what I ended up doing: I went all-in with 10-10, putting my tournament life in jeopardy for a less-than-premium hand. My opponent had J-J, which inevitably held up. As I skulked away, I mentally smacked myself. How had I forgotten this simple pearl of poker wisdom bestowed upon me by one of the best players in town?

I stepped outside and, of course, there he was, Sam The Man, standing on the sidewalk. I had to do my walk of shame right past him. I offered a wan smile, exchanged a few words, and drove my sorry ass home.

(End note: For personal reasons, Sam requested that I not use his last name in this article.)


Objects in the Mirror, part one

There it is. The sign. Right there. The airport-shuttle driver is pointing at it from the driveway in front of my hotel.

The Rio, home of the 2014 World Series of Poker.

Wow, so close.

It’s 11:30pm on a steaming hot Thursday night, I just landed, but what the heck, maybe I’ll just stroll on over to—

Wait a minute, jocko. Are you insane? Sure it looks like you could reach out and touch that Rio sign, but everything in Las Vegas is farther away than it might seem. Much farther.

A pocket pair, for example. Also, luck.

Also my hotel room at Bally’s: an inexplicable 40-minute wait to check in. Also, the Internet at Bally’s: $20 a day if you want to use that iPad. Also, restaurants at Bally’s; because of the stupid 40-minute wait to check-in, everything is closed, so it’s a 15-minute underground hike to a pathetic Sbarro’s where there’s a 10-minute wait for a cheese slice. Post-slice, it’s too late to catch the shuttle over to the WSOP, so that’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Also far away: the Amazon Room at the Rio, where the WSOP Main Event is being played. From the front door of the Rio where the shuttle from Bally’s drops you, it’s a half-mile trek through the casino then down one hallway after another. Past the oxygen station, past Hash House A Go-Go, past the “Welcome to the World Series of Poker” sign – still a quarter mile to go. Past two signs with the headline “Stone Cold Nats.” Past the Poker Kitchen (hey, it’s beginning to look like a poker theme park!), past the Brasilia Room—where I’ll play in a WSOP side event later this particular day—past the stacks of All In magazine and Ante Up, past the souvenir stand and the book stand, until you arrive at the nexus of the poker world, at least on this Friday afternoon: the Amazon Room.

Inside is Day Four of the Main Event.

Awww, they knew I was coming.
Awww, they knew I was coming.

In contrast to the Strip, where chaos reigns 24/7, the Main Event is a paradigm of quiet efficiency. Conversations are muted. Video crews—there are several—glide with precision from table to table.

On the north side of the room is ESPN’s featured table, lit for TV, ringed with cameras and several dozen spectator seats, with an announcer providing the play-by-play. From my angle—behind video village, where the crew from Poker PROductions is milling about—it’s difficult to see the faces of the players.


I turn to the guy next to me, a Serbian fellow from Denver, and ask, “Any famous players at the table?”

He points. “Well, there’s Phil Ivey.”

There he sits: cold-eyed, expressionless gaze. Downright scary. How scary? Let me tell you.

A few minutes later, I’m on the outside patio, where a handful of players are milling about with their cigarettes in the 105-degree heat. A 40-something Brit who’s just busted out of the Main Event has an Ivey story to tell.

Seems Ivey was seated at a neighboring table, where a young opponent with 180,000 in chips announced “all-in.” Ivey, with 250K, thinks it over and calls. The two players flip over their cards. The flop (the first three communal cards) have given the kid an open-ended straight draw. Ivey has a set (i.e., three of a kind). Ivey plainly has the lead. Two cards to go.

The turn card is revealed, giving the kid his straight. One card to go. The kid stands up and begins to walk away from the table.

Ivey: “Where are you going? You’re ahead.”

Kid: “Yeah, but you’re Phil Ivey.”

The next card pairs the board, giving Ivey a full house. File this one under The Power of Negative Visualization.

At this point, out here on the smoker’s patio, Central Casting delivers The Crazy Old Gambler: toothless, unshaven, on a stream-of-consciousness rant about Whitey Bulger and Whitey’s brother and corruption in Boston and The Crazy Old Gambler’s cross-country trip by bus which has landed him here on this cement patio and—

Clearly it’s time to exit stage left.

WSOP featured table
WSOP featured table

Poor 695

Day One of the Main Event began with 6,683 players, who each shelled out $10,000 or made their way into the tournament through much less costly satellite games. Now, back inside the Amazon Room on Day Four, they’re down to 695 players, of which 693 will finish in the money. “In the money” means that you’ll go home with anywhere from a few thousand dollars profit up to the grand prize of ten million smackeroos.

Was there a sadder tale of misfortune than Mr. 695, two players away from the money?

Mr. 695 has a full house. Mr. 695 goes all-in. Mr. 695’s opponent catches quads on the river. Mr. 695 takes the walk of shame.

Everybody who plays tournament poker at one time or another takes this walk, and it can take many guises. In a tip o’ the hat to Monty Python, let’s lump them together under one category.

The Ministry of Sheepish Walks

Your chips are all gone. You’ve busted out. There’s no rebuy, no salvation, no poker-chip-shaped life preserver. And so—no getting around it— now you must leave. How you do so defines your emotional state of mind and to some degree your personality.

Mr. Nice Guy. You’re played your best, you’ve been legitimately outplayed and so you’re gracious. You smile at the guy who just took all your chips and say, “Nice hand.” Then you turn to the table and say, “Good luck, everybody.” You turn and walk naturally to the exit. Everyone should be so pleasant.

The Mangy Mutt. You are top dog. Look at that pile of chips! Oh, yeah! It’s been growing and growing and you are numero uno, buddy! Or at least you were. Let’s admit it: You’ve kind of been a bully, gloating when you win (“You guys are my personal ATM!”), scowling when you lose. And lose. And lose. You’re on tilt because you’ve been entering pots with marginal hands using all those “extra” chips you’ve won from all these chumps. Until that one-two punch in which two of your actual good hands get eaten alive by bad beats (just like the ones of which you were the beneficiary) and suddenly you are not gloating anymore, because you’re all in with a pair of jacks against ace-king and… you’re toast.

You rise slowly from your chair, shaking your head. Your shoulders slump and you skulk way, a mangy mutt who’s pooped on the kitchen floor.

Mr. Shellshock. Hey, wait a minute. There’s something wrong here. I’ve got three kings, but the dealer is sliding my chips over to that idiot kid across the table who turned over five-three off-suit. What do you mean, I lost? What? What do you mean he caught his straight? I don’t see a— Oh.

You sit there a moment. Your fellow tablemates offer words of commiseration (“Wow, man, that was ugly”) and you exit the room, exit the building, go to the parking lot, shift your car into drive, and realize that you’ve left your iPhone at the table. Back you go, across the parking lot, into the card room, crossing the battlefield, retrieving your phone, unnoticed by your former fellow players because, let’s face it: To them you no longer exist.

The ER Patient. Pocket aces: You’re golden. The showboat to your right raises. You reraise. He reraises. You go all-in. He calls and shows pocket deuces. You simply cannot lose this hand!

The flop comes. No ace, no deuce. Your aces are holding up.

The river card is flipped over. No ace. No deuce. You’re at the finish line, baby!

The river card is… a deuce.

Owwwww. That really hurt. Bad. Tears-welling-up-in-the eyes bad. A sinking feeling that extends from your cranium to your pelvis.

Nurse, get the defibrillator. Clear!

Jaws agape, you stumble away in a haze. But you need medicine to numb the pain. Lucky for you the dispensary is open until 2am and they will gladly provide any number of elixirs guaranteed (almost) to help you forget that damn river deuce.

The WSOP Walk. Yes, everyone gets their chance to demonstrate their walk of shame. I got a chance to strut my stuff at the Rio’s Brasilia Room at about 9:30pm Pacific Daylight time on the final Friday night of the WSOP.

 WSOP Main Event banner

Casino Buffet

More than the hole-cam

Until Henry Orenstein came along, the game of poker was nearly unwatchable on TV. (To some, it still is.) He’s the fellow who invented the hole-card cam, which revolutionized TV coverage of the game and contributed mightily to poker’s resurgence. But the hole-cam wasn’t his most impressive achievement. He’s a Holocaust survivor who spent his teenage years in five concentration camps. PokerNews has a brief yet enlightening story about the man.

Pumping up the AC

Atlantic City is on the ropes: No big surprise, but it’s encouraging that they’ve come up with a new game plan.

The Return of Action Dan

Last decade, Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie co-authored the “Harrington on Hold’em” series, arguably the best available set of poker manuals. Now the duo is back with “Harrington on Modern Tournament Poker,” which presents a significantly revamped version of their earlier, conservative approach to the game.

Like the earlier books, this one is nicely written and presents smart, useful, clear-headed information in an easy-to-digest format. Reading it will pretty much guarantee an improvement in your game, so please do not buy it, especially if you plan to play hold’em in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon.



The Mind-Meld Mambo

You know that moment—that classic moment—in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love? They’re at a gymnasium for a neighborhood dance where tensions are running high because the Jets hate the Sharks and both groups are snarling at each other across the dance floor. The hatred is mutual, but for some reason, everyone is doing the mambo. I guess that was the tough guys’ dance of preference in 1961.

But then… then Tony and Maria simultaneously spot each other across the room, and everyone else blurs away, leaving these star-crossed lovers in their individual halos of light. The mambo music fades away and suddenly these two are performing a pas de deux to a music-box version of “Maria.”

The Jets versus the Sharks or "What happened to the mambo?"
The Jets versus the Sharks or “What happened to the mambo?”

The same kind of thing (except the pas de deux part) happens when fellow gamblers find each other in a non-gambling environment, like a wedding reception or birthday party.

“You mean, you… you play blackjack?” The other partygoers disappear into a mist of irrelevance as the two of you mind-meld over topics like card counting and eight-deck shoes. Your date listens politely, indulgently, like the mother of a five-year-old who’s happy that little Johnny has a new friend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a wedding reception out in the small country town of Yacolt, WA., I found myself sitting near Jessica and Tony Quain, an entirely charming couple from the east coast. She I’d previously met. He was a stranger. We were making small talk when the conversation turned to their recent vacation in Scandinavia. Evidently they’d had a swell time cavorting (a Scandinavian-sounding verb if ever there was one) until they reached Aarhus, Denmark.

Tony was relaxing outside the Royal Casino taking a break from a blackjack session when two men in black masks raced past him into the casino wielding semi-automatic weapons. (You can see actual footage of the robbery here.)

Wait a minute. What did he just say? “Casino?” “Blackjack?” Is that a mambo I hear in the distance?

He’d uttered the magic words.

Let the mind-meld begin!

Turns out that Tony has been a card-counter for a bunch of years, a skill he took with him during college to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he was able to profitably slog his way through those humongous eight-deck shoes.

We traded our stories of being thrown out of casinos: me from the El Dorado in Reno, him from the Trump Plaza and Claridge in AC. Oddly, they didn’t throw him out for being underage, which he was, but for his advantage playing. Evidently they don’t care much about corrupting the morals of youth and taking their money, but if Junior counts cards, they’ll toss his ass out onto the boardwalk. That was in 1991. I’m guessing there’s a statute of limitations (or institutional amnesia) because he’s returned since and played with impunity. That’s good news: Maybe I’ll return to the El Dorado.

No, wait a minute: That would mean going back to Reno.

Destination: WSOP

Tony to me: “So how does a blackjack player become a poker player?”

I’d told him I’d more or less forsaken 21 in favor of Hold’em, but the steps that led me there were kind of random.

Here goes.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuBlackjack can be a grind. You’re down, you’re up, you’re even. And if you’re counting cards your torturous inner monologue might be something like Ace plus king equals minus two… subtract that from negative 20… I’m down…. Deuce plus three equals plus two… add that to minus one… I’m up…

God help you if someone attempts even the most innocuous bit of conversation; simply processing an answer to “Nice day we’re having, don’t you think?” can give your brain a hernia. And the simple fact of life about card counting is that to really make money at it, you’ve got to have a fat bankroll—one that you’re ready to lose—at your disposal.

And then there’s the element of repetition. In blackjack, after a few hundred hands, you’ve seen it all, every combination of cards, every type of bad beat, every single way you can watch your bankroll swell and contract.

So, boredom was a factor. Then came the poker boom. Around 2003, everyone was talking about Hold’em, a phenomenon that coincided with the introduction of the hole cam, which enabled viewers to see the hole cards of players in major events. So, in effect, via televised editions of “The World Poker Tour,” you could have a front-row seat in a weekly series of poker seminars taught by the top players in the game.

That same year, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street hit the bookstores. The book has two main threads: the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion who is credited with devising the World Series of Poker; and color coverage of the 2000 WSOP. McManus’s writing style was smart, literary and approachable. He painted such a rich portrait of the game and its players that I was hooked. Also, the fact that he—a lowly writer, mind you—made it to the final table of the Main Event was enticing.

Eleven years later, after innumerable tournaments and cash games, I’m taking the next step: the WSOP. Just one of their smaller buy-in “Side Events,” but still…

As I post this, I’m five hours away from stepping on an Alaska Airline jet, destination Vegas.

A full report will appear here next time around.

Casino Buffet #2


Turns out that my new friend Tony Quain is a lot more than an accomplished card counter. He’s a true smarty pants, with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. A fine writer, too, with a provocative blog on free-market economics.

Walk a mile in his shoes

While researching poker strategy, this blog popped up: It explores gambling from the dealer’s point of view. It’s a highly entertaining and informative site. Check out the very observational post on empathy.

Ivey Update: The Baccarat Flapdoodle Continues

A few posts back, we talked about the suit lodged against poker pro Phil Ivey by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Their claim: Ivey and an associate bilked the casino out of nearly ten million dollars by exploiting the flawed patterns on the back of Gemaco playing cards.

The Borgata wants the money back because (they say) he cheated. Ivey says no way: his big wins were the result of “sheer skill.”

And so he’s firing back by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. If Ivey’s attorneys are as skilled in legal matters as Ivey is in poker, you’ve got to pity the Borgata: They don’t stand a chance.

From “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death”

“The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest.”

No, Doubleday never sent me a reviewer’s copy. But I’m not going to hold that against them. The book is an absolute hoot and Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise he’s been getting.




Business as (un)usual in the poker room

The 3 Commandments

Life in the poker room is a pretty placid affair. Low-level chatter punctuated by laughs or the occasional cheer. The shuffle of cards. Pop music—Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Eagles, The Beatles—on low volume.


Occasionally you’ll also hear “Shit,” “Dammit,” and the stray “Fuck,” but the unspoken ethos and the printed rules that hang on the wall discourage profanity.

A sense of calm celebration prevails. And when it doesn’t, when the calm is shattered, alcoholic beverages or controlled substances are usually involved. Outbursts or fisticuffs are extremely infrequent, so that when they do occur, the effect is jolting.

Recently at an area poker room, for instance, a guy juiced up on booze and Adderall loudly and profanely questioned his bar tab. The bartender—a professional and cool-headed young lady—sought to placate him by refunding, out of her tip jar, the amount in question. No dice. His rant continued unabated and before long, security ejected him.

But the show was just beginning. Out on the street he started throwing punches and soon the security guy and two poker players were—with great difficulty—wrestling this bantamweight drunkard to the ground, not before he smashed a window and started yelling for his mom. Police arrived. Next stop: the drunk tank.

To be clear: These things rarely happen, but when they do, they live on for days in poker room discussions, providing a nice break from the run-of-the-mill, that-guy-called-my-pocket-kings-with-ace-three-off-and-sucked-out-on-the-river conversations.

The saphead has been banned from the club and condemned for breaking a cardinal rule of the poker room: Thou shalt not abuse the female bartender.

Also, thou shalt not imbibe Adderall and Hennessy then attempt to play Texas Hold’em.

Also, thou shalt not be a jackass.

I’ll drink to that

We enjoy drinking for a variety of reasons: to loosen up, to commiserate, to take a little vacation from the here-and-now. Sometimes, of course, the alcohol will prompt philosophizing.

Here’s an actual conversation that took place in the bar at the Encore Club in Portland some months ago.

The characters: A 40-ish player who, while not given to moping or self pity, has just busted out of a Texas Hold’em tournament and is not feeling too good about it; and Encore’s off-duty cook, a bald-headed, tattooed guy also in his 40s, with horn-rimmed glasses and a sour, studious demeanor—in a prison film, he’d be the lifer hitting the law books in hopes of winning exoneration.

They’ve both had a few drinks…
Player (re: poker): Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth the time and effort.
Cook: Isn’t that the big question?
Player: I guess…
Cook: I ask myself, is it all futile? Aeschylus talks about that in “The Libation Bearers.” Have you read it?
Customer: Well, I’ve read my Aeschylus, but I’m unfamiliar with that one.

( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aeschylus is probably wondering how the hell he got dragged into a gambling blog…
Hold on: “The Libation Bearers”?? And at least three people in a bar in a poker room who’d actually read Aeschylus?? Had I slipped into an alternate universe where the denizens of poker rooms read Greek playwrights in their spare moments? Or is the moral of the story that you’ve got to give credit to people for being a lot smarter than you might think?

In a matter of weeks, the cook had moved on to a different job, no doubt spreading his joyful message of futility and Aeschylus to the unsuspecting clientele of another barroom.

Casino Buffet #1

At the casino buffet, you plunk down a modest amount of cash, in exchange for which you can sample a smorgasbord of dishes from near and far. Hey, that guy in the white hat is carving a hot turkey! The other guy in the other white hat is making crepes and omelets! And that other guy… shouldn’t he be wearing a hairnet or something?

In the spirit of the casino buffet, here are some tasty news tidbits from casinos near and far. And don’t worry, I’m wearing a hairnet.

There’s an acronym for that

I recently discussed that awful blackjack rule in Britain wherein the dealer takes his second card after all the players have acted. In a few short yet brilliant paragraphs, I illustrated how lousy this rule is and just how it might play out using as an example a hand in which you’re dealt two eights.

Turns out that there’s an actual acronym for this rule: ENHC, which stands for (drum roll, please…) European No Hole Card. You can find out more about this rule as well as a basic strategy chart that’s been adjusted for ENHC at Golden Touch Craps. Interestingly, the author, Dan Pronovost, uses virtually the same situation as I did to demonstrate the considerable downside of ENHC.

Eldorado killing

Awhile ago I wrote about an incident at the Eldorado in Reno in which a patron reportedly met his death during a scuffle with the hotel-casino’s security detail. Thankfully, justice is being served: one of the security guards has been charged with murder. Here’s a news article about it: “Security guard charged in man’s death.”

Whitehead’s WSOP

Colson Whitehead is a writer who’s earned a reputation as a “serious” novelist. Apparently he’s loosened up a bit. A novice poker player, Colson has written a new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. It’s a first-person account of his experiences training for the World Series of Poker, then playing in it. Reviews have been mixed, but the New York Times seemed to like it. (Read the review here.)

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Colson Whitehead, author of “The Noble Hustle,” a reviewer’s copy of which is on its way to my mailbox… right, Doubleday?
This kind of book has been done before, somewhat recently—and very successfully—by James McManus. His Positively Fifth Street is brilliant and became an instant classic when it was published in 2003. Don’t know if Whitehead’s book reaches the stratospheric heights of “Fifth Street,” but I’d sure like to read it and judge for myself. (Ahem, Doubleday: Where’s my reviewer’s copy? Huh?)

A tale for the telling

Speaking of classics, Zach Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells has pretty much become required reading for those interested in this topic.

Now the Zelwood Empire has expanded with the publication of his new book, Verbal Poker Tells, and a series of seminars he’s giving in Las Vegas during this year’s WSOP. Recently I was Zach’s guinea pig in a test run-through of this seminar and was impressed with his mastery of this complicated topic. You’ll find out more about his books and his seminars at

Jackpot summer, part one

Life-changing events come in two flavors:

#1. The Unexpected. You know, it’s the inside fastball that whacks you in the cheekbone before you can duck.

#2. The Anticipated. You’re not happy, but you’ve got a seat in the dugout and you can study the dangerous southpaw as he makes his long, slow walk from the bullpen in deep right field.

If you’re lucky, the seismic shifts in your life fall into category number two, like mine did in the summer of 2003, on August 29 to be exact.

Next stop, Eden!

I knew well in advance that I was going to drive my black RAV-4 three thousand miles across the country to the University of Pennsylvania with my 18-year-old daughter. This is the part I knew I was going to like.

I’d prevailed upon AAA to issue me a TripTik (remember TripTiks?) that would guide us mile by mile. So yes, we would be spending one night at the Amber Inn in Eden, Idaho. Yes, we’d have stopovers Cheyenne, Des Moines and Strongsville, Ohio, alternating nights between places rated two diamonds (welcome to the Bates Motel) and three diamonds (a nice step up from Motel 6) by the esteemed travelers of AAA. And yes, it would take us precisely five days to reach the City of Brotherly Love.

I knew I was going move Julia into a dorm room, then leave her among strangers in a strange city, and I knew that saying goodbye was not going to be easy. But I did not know that it was going to affect me quite the way it did: emotionally, sure, but also physically.

Thirty miles outside of Philly, sad and shaken, the image of her growing smaller in my rear-view mirror still fresh in my mind, I pulled into a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Deep breaths, a few sips of water. I needed to pull myself together because I was going to retrace the five-day route that had brought us here. But not only would I have to do it alone; as a special bonus, at the end of those five days of driving, I was going to have to grapple with the sad state of my marriage. It was on the verge of implosion.

Lucky for me I had a knapsack full of printed material guaranteed to distract me:

• A Rand-McNally road atlas of North America;

• AAA travel guides for every state I would be driving through;

• A recent copy of Current Blackjack News, which listed every blackjack-playing casino in the US;

• And a copy of Blackjack Autumn, which held the blueprint for at least several days worth of distractions.

I pulled back onto the road and pointed the car west towards Jackpot, NV.

Jackpot, Nevada -- a chip toss away from Twin Falls, Idaho.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Jackpot.

The Limits of Obsession

No matter how obsessed you are, there are limits. You can’t stand in a stream waving a fly rod or park yourself at a poker table seven days a week. Well maybe you can, but I can’t. That’s why God created books: So you can experience vicariously what may be too expensive or time-consuming to experience on the river or in the casino.

While there are a profusion of high-quality narrative books aimed at certain hobbyists—travelers, for instance, and sports fans—most gambling books fall into the instructional category.

Travel fanatics get Kerouac’s On The Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

Sports fans get Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four and Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring Seabiscuit.

Blackjack players get Blackjack for Blood, Blackbelt in Blackjack, and Blackjack Attack. I’m guessing that these titles offer valuable advice for BJ players. I’m also guessing that they lack the literary heft of A River Runs Through It or The Innocents Abroad.

As a source for literary endeavors, blackjack is the Mohave Desert. You’d have to go way back to 2003 to find a book that made any kind of splash. That would be Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich, a “nonfiction” account of the escapades of a team of card-counting M.I.T. students. The book is an enjoyable read, although Mezrich took some well-publicized hits in the press for—shall we say—embellishing the aforementioned escapades. The Kevin Spacey movie 21 was based on Bringing Down The House and took the already fictionalized nonfiction story one more giant step into the realm of fantasy.

The closest thing in the genre of recent blackjack nonfiction that approaches the literary is Barry Meadow’s Blackjack Autumn: A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history and part instruction, the book is based on a simple premise: Over the course of the autumn of 1998, the author was going to play blackjack in every casino in the state of Nevada. He ended up putting about 4,000 miles on his odometer as he traveled to nearly 200 casinos.

Back in 2003, just the idea had me drooling. That’s what obsession can do to a guy.

The first time I read the book, I was struck by Meadow’s sardonic humor (he writes that the Reno Philharmonic is “an odd juxtaposition of two proper nouns”) and his skills of observation (“Partial truth is about the best you can expect in Nevada”). In re-reading it, which I’m doing now, I realize just how much I learned from this book, how it informed the way I play the game and how it influenced me to begin counting cards.

But ten years ago, the book provided me a bit of hope, inspiration for a way that I might both mend myself and prepare myself for the traumas that lay ahead. As Meadow writes, “One thing about the casino world—real life never gets to intrude upon it.”

So here’s the deal: It was about 2400 miles from Philly to Jackpot, and there were a few casinos along the way.





The road to Las Vegas, part one

In my former life I was a fly fisherman.

For nearly two decades I tromped around in wading boots, waved my fisher-stick in the air, gently placed teeny flies on the surface of streams and lakes in British Columbia, Montana, Alaska, Washington and Oregon, trying to induce creatures with brains the size of a pea into biting a hook disguised with feathers.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved it. At times I was obsessed by it. What I enjoyed most, in retrospect, was traveling to remote, rugged places, soaking in the beautiful landscapes and relaxing in the comradeship of my fellow fisher folk. It was fun flying into remote, woody areas. It was fun complaining about the crappy food back at the lodge and about the stupid, mostly unresponsive fish. It was even more fun when you caught one.

But here’s the thing. It was not an inexpensive hobby. Hell, a single fly alone cost a couple of bucks; then there were the rods, the lines (floating and sinking and floating-sinking). the leaders (of absurdly varied lengths and strengths), the waders and other accessories, all essential to one’s efforts in trapping a 14-inch rainbow trout. Plus there’s this: On the vast majority of rivers and lakes, catch-and-release ordinances mandate that you toss back the little fuckers!

In short, most of the time you’re paying for the experience of not catching fish.

As a (REDUNDANCY ALERT!) struggling actor, then as a (DITTO!) struggling writer, these summertime fishing journeys were way too costly for me to foot any part of the bill outside of the gear.

My benefactor was Robert Unger, DDS, my (at the time) father-in-law. Bob was a unique character: whip smart, generous, funny, insanely left-wing and dangerously fast with a barbed comment. He’d learned to fish during WWII, when he was stationed in Canada, and it became a life-long passion for him. As he became more and more successful in his dual careers of dentistry and real estate, apparently the price-per-fish became less and less of a factor. Then, once it became clear that I was going to become part of his family and that there’d be no escaping the utter klutziness of me, I guess he thought, “What the hell. Take the goy fishing.”

Photographic evidence that I caught a fish. Or at least hooked one.
A rare occurrence: The goy actually hooks a trout.

The goy liked it. And in our particular crucible of traveling to remote fishing destinations – fighting off mosquitos the size of squirrels, riding horses that farted, losing fishing leaders in trees (me), hooking a dry fly into your scalp because foolishly you didn’t wear a hat (brother-in-law Alan), nearly drowning because you made a false step and your waders filled with water (again, me), sharing platform tents in Alaska with yahoos drunk on schnapps, losing an actual king salmon because you just couldn’t get leverage on the deceptively muscular little guy (yet again, me), then finally losing a trout on your forever-final cast when the pea-brained-size fish in a moment of survival-motivated clarity scooted under a rock and snapped your line (Bob) – over the course of fifteen summers, fish were barbecued, family stories were shared, drinks were imbibed, drugs were ingested, secrets were shared and not shared, bonds (you know, the male kind) were formed.

So what changed? Why did I hang up my neoprene waders for good?

Looking back it’s clear that I, in effect, traded away the healthy pastime of fly fishing for the morally questionable one of gambling; traded away bucolic scenery and lungfuls of healthy air for casino smoke and rooms with no windows. I simply swapped one out for the other. It was not a conscious decision. In fact, for the longest while the notion of casino gambling had zero appeal to me. Casinos, after all, were for degenerates and those with money to burn. But my attitude shifted in the spring of 2000 when I came under the influence of an unlikely exacta: Cirque du Soleil and Evil George Taylor.

Doug, Bob and Alan in Wyoming.
The Three Amigos (Doug, Bob, Alan) at Darwin Ranch in Wyoming. Cue the farting horses.