Odd Job: Playing poker over the summer
Pay: $3500 in profit
There is perhaps no time when I am less fun to talk to than after losing at poker. I only half-listen to my friends as they talk, and I speak with an anger that has nothing to do with our conversation, and everything to do with that damn jack of diamonds on the river.
Unfortunately for my friend Rudy, he was the guy I owed a phone call to as I drove back from a frustrating tournament finish at Rockingham Park. “Well, I’m seeing this really great girl.” I told him, my teeth gnashing in the background. “Oh, I love my job, it’s awesome” I said like I was gonna punch someone in the face. “Yeah, I can’t wait to see you when you come to town in December,” I said as though I were scheduling a colonoscopy.
When my after-school job stopped this past summer, I needed a way to fill the income void. Most people would call that a bad time to go gambling. I am not most people.
It had been a little over a year since I stopped playing poker full time. All the work and studying I put into improving my game stopped shortly thereafter.
There’s a line people say, “Every day you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” Good players are constantly studying the game and strengthening their skills. Meanwhile, bad players, by definition, lose their money. The struggling economy makes it harder for the bad players to replenish their poker funds and forces them to play less often or stop altogether. With the strong players improving and the number of bad players dwindling, people standing still might not actually be getting worse, but their place amongst the competition is definitely dropping.
New Hampshire is the exception to this rule. Its laws represent a unique concession to people’s fears that gambling can lead to financial ruin. New Hampshire allows gambling, but places a low cap on how much people are allowed to wager.
With so little margin for profit, the people who know how to run card rooms don’t bother starting casinos in New Hampshire. Low buy-ins coupled with crummy card rooms mean the sharks don’t show up. And low buy-ins coupled with the sharks not showing up mean the bad players don’t go broke. As a result, New Hampshire may be the only state where everyday you’re not getting better, at least you’re not getting worse.
So that’s where I went to play my first tournament in quite some time. It felt good sitting back down at the tables. Squeezing the cards, shuffling the chips. I missed outthinking and outleveling opponents. Stealing pots and making thin value bets. Adjusting my play based on the situation and opposition.
As the tournament progressed, people started folding more. Afraid to risk their chips and hoping other people would get knocked out so they could have a higher finish and correspondingly make more money. So I amped up the aggression. I started raising almost every pot. Stealing hand after hand. Players started complaining. Started teasing me for being reckless. Started rolling their eyes every time I raised. “I know you don’t have anything,” they said as they folded their hands anyway. They could keep talking. I would keep raking pots. I finished first, snaring a little over a thousand dollars.
I had found my summer job.
I played six or seven times over the course of the summer, finishing with a net profit of roughly $3500. Driving to New Hampshire each weekend, I kept doing the same math equations. 3500 over seven visits equals 500 a visit. Why did I stop doing this full time again?
Of course, I knew the answer. For starters, I was riding a hot streak. I might be able to keep winning, but not at this clip. No one consistently shows a 600% return on investment for tournaments over the long haul. But second, I had changed since I stopped playing full-time. Now, I wanted to be a professional poker player the way a father of two hopes his band catches on and he becomes a rockstar. It’s fun to dream about, but if he was ever given the chance, he’d have to say no, because he’d rather spend his nights with his kids, not on the road. And I want to spend my nights with the people I care about.
The good card games run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. These are also the days friends have birthday parties, go on camping trips and host bad-movie marathons. These are the days girls go on dates, my mom makes her famous roast beef, and the Patriots play football.
I wanted the fun of playing cards, the big paydays the can potentially come with it and none of the missing out on a social life. The only chances for that were online poker (currently shut down in this country) and the big tournaments where you could win life-changing amounts of money. Winning one of those was enough to pay the bills for a long time without having to disappear every weekend. And it was two such big tournaments that had me driving to New Hampshire last week.
A few of the tournaments I won this summer earned me entry into the Eastern Poker Tour semi-finals: Two events where if you finished in the top 10 of either one, you would gain free entry into a televised 40-person tournament. A tournament where last place earned you $300 and first place was good for a little over 20 grand.
So it was, that I found myself driving up I-93 North. With all my success this summer, I had to remind myself not to be too cocky. But I spent most of the ride picturing my first place finish.
I sat down to a table with what had now become familiar faces. I had a file on each of them. That guy is afraid to bet anything but huge hands on the river. That guy always thinks I have something and can easily be bluffed. That guy hates folding and when I have a hand I should bet the hell out of him.
Within two hours, my starting chip stack of 20,000 doubled in size. Twenty hands later, I got all my money into the pot with an 83% chance of winning the hand. If I won, I would have 80,000 chips, far more than anyone else at the table with a legit shot at a top-10 finish.
Well, anytime a poker player tells you how high a percentage shot he had at winning a hand, you can be pretty sure he ended up losing. The final card was the eight of spades, one of the 17% of cards that had the ability to end my day. And just like that I was heading back to Boston.
The next day, driving up, I didn’t feel quite so bulletproof. I started to wonder just how many more big tournaments I was going to play in in my life. I’ve been playing poker less and less, the rest of the world is getting better and better. The chances for big paydays that had been commonplace when I played online full-time were further and further between. There certainly weren’t any more on the horizon.
I sat down. 266 people in the room. A long way to go to the top 10. I took a couple big hits early and saw my stack shrink from 21k to 11k. I put my head down and kept grinding through the tournament. Trying to win back chips here and there. The day moved along. Players got eliminated. I knocked out one guy and doubled up against another. Got lucky with a garbage hand in one spot, then watched as my strong hand held up in another. The casino workers started folding up the tables as they emptied.
Then we were down to three tables and only 30 people left. Top 10 wasn’t quite so crazy anymore.
My chip stack was running low. I had to gamble if I was going to outlast 20 more players. I would wait until it was just me and very tight, cautious players in the hand, then shove all my chips into the middle, hoping they had nothing. They would fold, afraid to risk such large chunks of chips. I did it again and again. My stack grew as others continued to fall.
Down to 26 people.
I again pushed my chips into the middle, now with jack-queen. But this time, the tight, cautious guy didn’t have nothing. He had the best hand he could have in that spot: Two aces. And now I was the one with an 83% chance of losing.
If you’re not familiar with Texas Hold ‘em, what happens next is five cards come out in the middle, and you have to combine your two cards with those in the middle to make the best hand. Whoever has the stronger hand after that fifth card wins the pot. Since he was starting with a pair of aces and I only had a jack and a queen, the odds weren’t in my favor. Even if a jack or a queen came out, it would only give me one pair that would still be weaker than his aces. I would need something short of a miracle.
But this is why they call it gambling. And as you know, whenever a poker player starts telling you how unlikely something is to happen, there’s a good chance it’ll happen.
The first three cards came out. 7-9-10, leaving me one card short of a straight. If one of the next two cards was an eight or king, I was winning this thing. My chances of winning had improved from around one out of seven to around one out of three. You could feel the tension extend to the whole table. If my opponent won, there would be 25 players left and everyone would be guaranteed to make at least $200 for the day. If I won, a dangerous player would have suddenly gained a lot more chips. I may have been the only person there rooting for me.
Then came a three.
Damn. Useless. Then I had a feeling. Like this was it. I was gonna get my eight or king.
The dealer pulled the top card off the deck and flipped it over.
No help. And then it was over.
Somehow, it didn’t feel real. It felt like maybe someone would come over and say, “Whoops, there’s been a mistake. You get to keep playing.” But they didn’t. People shook my hand and said good game.
I slid out of the casino and into my car, then started driving. I didn’t even turn on the radio. Just drove in silence, staring at the road. No top 10 finish. I didn’t know when I’d have another chance in a big tournament. Only that it would be awhile. That these were getting less frequent. That between now and then, I wouldn’t play much. That I would be getting worse as the bad players went broke and the good players got better.
-  Though a close second is whenever I say, “No, seriously, I’m going to start eating healthy and getting in shape” followed by, “I know I always say that, but this time I mean it.” This is annoying when anyone says it, especially when, as is the case with me, the person saying it always spends the next few days eating right, then caves and shovels a large pizza down his gullet while making noises usually reserved for orgasms. ↩
-  Or as Obama calls it, “The soaring economy.” ↩
-  This gambling setup, state-run liquor stores and insisting they don’t have a sales tax while still taxing food purchases are three of the 8,000 reasons New Hampshire should be forced to stop claiming to be the state of small government and to rip the words “Live Free or Die” off their license plates. Ooo, they don’t make you wear seat belts. Such anarchists.
And as long as we’re on the subject, here are some other states that should change their license plate slogans on grounds of inaccuracy: Arkansas claims to be the land of opportunity despite having both an education system and a level of state wealth that consistently rank at the bottom of every study. Georgia’s plates say “…On my mind,” despite never being on anyone’s mind unless they have to change planes on their Delta flight. New Jersey is called the garden state despite being a total dump. And Oregon claims to be a Pacific Wonderland despite being, ya know, Oregon. ↩
-  My friend’s latest bad movie marathon included Theodore Rex whose imdb summary reads: “In an alternate futuristic society, a tough female police detective is paired with a talking dinosaur to find the killer of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals leading them to a mad scientist bent on creating a new Armageddon.” I love poker and all, but who says no to that? ↩
In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed either to protect identities or because I don’t remember the events perfectly. In every post I did my best to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.
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