May 24, 2011

My First Big Bluff

The recent closure of the Sahara had me reminiscing about my first trip to Vegas in 2006. At that time, I had been playing poker in Iowa casinos for a couple of years, though the standard game had only recently evolved from limit to no-limit hold 'em. The game played a lot differently then, as well, with lots of soft players who could be run over by my uber-maniac style. Ah yes, the good ol' days!

In any event, my vacation was mostly focused on hanging with college buds who weren't into poker, so I had only two days / one night left to myself at the end of the trip to devote to poker. I had booked a West Wing room at MGM, a mere minute's walk to the MGM poker room. At that point, the MGM room was easily the biggest and most impressive poker room I had ever played in. The marble ring around the tables was the most decadent thing I had ever seen in a poker room, and the crazy vibe from the Centrifuge bar nearby (with its bartenders and servers dancing on tables and the bar) was just too wild for my innocent Midwestern mind to comprehend. I had brought along $1,000 for gambling, so I should've stuck to $1/$2 NLHE. But the action was slow, limited by the max buy-in of $200. So, young arrogant me decided to jump into the $2/$5 NLHE game. Predictably, my stack suffered the wild fluctuations inherent in the LAG style (and the Stupid Style), and I quickly found myself putting my entire roll into play via rebuys and top offs.

Now, back in those days, there were plenty of soft spots at the $2/$5 level, and I managed to build my stack to nearly $2,000. But with several stacks twice that size in the game, I was always at risk of busting out. I played through the night, with a strange new sensation of tense anxiety clawing at my gut the entire time. Yup, for the first time in my poker career, I was actually scared money. As good poker players know, scared money might as well be dead money. But hubris wouldn't let me leave the game, whispering that there was tons of easy money to be made. Apparently God watches over drunks and poker newbies, and somehow I managed to dodge any big confrontations. Surprisingly soon, morning was rolling around, and I was thinking about cashing out to head to the room for a nap and shower before heading to the airport. Then, the hand happened.

I wish I could remember the details of the hand better, but all I can recall now is that I called a small raise on the button with a middle suited connector. I flopped a monster draw, which normally I would've played aggressively. But I was scared money, and with $2,500 behind at that point, I was looking to play cautiously. I called near-pot-sized bets on the flop and turn, figuring if I hit one of my draws, one of the two characters in the hand would pay me off for decent value on the river with an overpair. On the river, I missed my draws, but hit top pair no kicker on a raggedy board. Preflop raiser checked, so sensing weakness, I pushed all-in, getting the second yahoo to fold.

My remaining opponent was a young kid, one of those short, scrappy guys who liked to do a little good-natured trash-talking. He and his buddy at the table were fraternity brothers celebrating their recent graduations, and the three of us had grown friendly while playing together for nearly 20 hours, as other players cycled through the game. There was a sense of rapport between us, and we'd exchange knowing glances at yahoos and donkeys, while informally soft-playing each other, overbetting with big hands and checking it down with marginal hands.

My river shove on this hand was a major overbet of the pot, and was consistent with our practice of betting our big hands when playing each other. My opponent tanked. Then, he asked me, "Can you beat a set?" That fist of anxiety was clubbing me even harder in my gut. I was going to go home broke from my first Vegas trip.

My opponent rolled over a flopped top set. I threw up a little in my mouth. I casually said, "Wow, I didn't know you were that strong!" This was probably the first honest thing I had said in over twelve hours. My opponent said, "Why bet so much? Did you hit the straight?" I looked at the board. Yes, the river had made an open-ended straight draw get there. I said, "Do you think I'm crazy enough to call you with a draw?" and laughed. My opponent laughed, too. "Yeah, you love your draws!" Yes, yes I did.

I had one last card to play, literally. I casually rolled over my non-paired card, which was one of the cards needed to make the obvious straight. I leaned back, took a swig of my Captain & Coke, and said, "You'll have to call to see the other card." My opponent tanked, but finally said, "I have to believe you. You haven't lied to me all night." As he mucked, he asked to see my other card. I obliged as I raked the monster pot. My opponent came unglued. "How could you do that to me? After we've played together all night, you do that to me? That's bullshit!" Suddenly, his baseball cap went flying across the poker room, landing near the Centrifuge bar.

His buddy laughed.

Hilarity ensued.

I racked up and cashed out with a very fortunate profit.

And so began my love affair with poker in Sin City.