Apr 23, 2009

Full Boats (and when to bail).

Note: this article was originally written for Chill magazine, and is available online, here.

Pop quiz: Who's more respectable - an investment banker or a professional poker player? Well, if you got burned in the recent market-meltdown, I'm guessing you'd vote for the guy who gambles with his own money. Am I right?

Did you ever notice that anyone who does something fun for a living has to add 'professional' to his title? 

Professional comedian...  professional baseball player... professional poker player. As far as I'm concerned, if you can actually pay your mortgage with trips, flushes and full boats; you've already impressed me more than any adjective will. 

Rounders - card players who live off their winnings - do exist. You've just probably never met one. And much like professional baseball players, you better believe there's more to it than 'fun'. Just as some people are born to hit dingers over the left-field wall, others were born to compete at the real World Series. And like the chosen few who make it to 'the show', true rounders do something the other guys won't: they practice 'til it hurts, and they treat it like a job.  Which leaves the rest of us fish: garage-league losers who will happily go all-in on a busted straight, because the next game is two whole weeks away. 

A recent stat indicated that 70% of Canadian men think they have "above average" intelligence. That explains a few things, wouldn't you agree? As an admittedly below-average poker player, I've read a lot of books and scanned a few dozen web sites, trying to figure out why I'm not carrying my winnings around in Loblaws bags yet.  I decided to ask some pros, and if you ever want to be humbled, have a seat with a professional card sharp... then be prepared for a dash of cold water while you're eating crow. 

He might win all your money, too. Did I mention that?

I recently spent an evening with the two guys behind www.OutstandingPoker.com. Tim (27) and Errol (26) are kind of like the Canadian odd couple. They're friends, they share an apartment, and they love playing poker. But Tim is mainly onto online, while Errol prefers getting up close and personal. They definitely agree on one thing: there's a reason why a huge majority of players consistently lose money. A little thing called discipline. 

Here's their advice, if you're interested. (If you're not, they'd be more than happy if you'd pull up a chair sometime.)
  1. Match your bankroll to your skill level. Play with an amount you're comfortable with, and don't play with money you need in your pocket right now.
  2. Play at table stakes that are suited to your bankroll. They recommend about 1/15th to 1/30th of your bankroll as a single buy-in for a cash game. It keeps the stress - and inevitable swings - manageable.
  3. Be patient. Play the right hands, against the right players from the right table position. If you're just playing your cards, the other guys are playing you.
  4. Don't chase losses. If you're down significantly, and risk going 'on tilt', leave the game. The cards will be there tomorrow.
Sounds simple, right? Well, if people listened to 'simple', why are there so many diets out there? 'Eat Less and Exercise' is still the best diet in the world. Too bad nobody's listening.

And just as every diet promises to 'melt', 'burn' and 'blow torch' fat from your body, every poker site claims you will 'flatten', 'crush', and 'dominate'  those schools of fish out there, so long as you buy their 'unbeatable' system. But you know what they say, if you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.  If they're so dang smart, why don't they make themselves rich by actually playing? Well, some do.

Daniel Negreanu is Canada's best-known poker celebrity - you've probably seen him on High Stakes Poker, happily raising Sammy Farha with seven-deuce offsuit. He has a Kreskin-like ability to guess what other players are holding, and could probably take you to the felt without even looking at his cards. His site, www.fullcontactpoker.com, is crammed with great free advice and links to his virtual training site, www.pokervt.com. The guy knows his stuff, and he's certainly proved his skill.

"But he's rich", you say. "I only play $10 games, for cryin' out loud!"

True, D-Neg can toss chips around like an old man throwing birdseed. But he's willing to go back to his roots, just to prove a point. Negreanu is currently taunting naysayers with his personal "$10 - $100,000 Challenge". He started with a $10 buy-in, and plans to turn it into 10 stacks of high society. Umm... Dan? I'll stake you five bucks.

The first thing a bad player will tell you is that at low-limit tables, players don't respect the mathematical odds. It's true. Online donkeys always seem to spike their flush on the river, when they had no business being in the hand in the first place. But Negreanu says, "If you can't beat the micro limit games, you aren't going to beat the higher limit games.  They are really easy to beat since you can win by playing pretty robotic and don't have to worry about bluffing at all." In other words, by using discipline.

Which brings us back to Tim and Errol.

I watched Tim play six games simultaneously. He had about $5,000 in play, was browsing through a couple of other poker apps, and was answering my bonehead questions to boot. I was operating a tape-recorder - without chewing gum, I might add - and still couldn't keep track of his game.  Tim and Errol suggest starting small. One table, grinding out a bankroll bit by bit, using aggression and position, and above all... checking out their website! They have scores of videos showing their actual online play, explaining the reasoning behind every decision. These guys are real-world players, on the same tables you and I play at. 

Like I said, Errol prefers live games with real people. He regularly travels to Vegas, Atlantic City and Niagara Falls to extract money from Matt Damon-wannabes. Why travel? I ask. You have a computer right in your bedroom. Simple, says Errol.  The players are actually worse - especially the tourists who come for the weekend; dying to put the skills they've learned on ESPN to the test. You can almost smell the blood in the water.

To be fair, there really is no substitute for chatting with real players, raking in real chips, spotting tells... and then looking some shark straight in the eye and saying "I'm all in, pal". 

But Ontario isn't Nevada. You just can't cab over to some neighbourhood poker room and start playing strangers for money. Trying to find a legit table game can leave you more frustrated than a squirrel with a nut allergy. There's an easy solution, though. Check out Fallsview or Casino Niagara. They have the "largest and most popular" poker room in Ontario - with tables starting at $1/$2. You're going to see some world-class poker - along with some that will be much kinder to your stack, if you're patient.  The falls are right outside, there's player comps, and if you're lucky you might even end up heads-up with yours truly. Tip: when I have pocket aces, I giggle like Baby Elmo on nitrous oxide.

Remember, just because you drove all the way to Niagara Falls does not give you license to go on-tilt the first time some donk sucks out a straight-flush on the river.  The whole point of a game is to enjoy yourself. If you don't have the emotional control, you're better off finding a barrel and a guy with box of nails. "Know your limit, play within it." Best advice out there.

*I am known to poker buddies as Mimico Muck for trashing the winning hand, thinking I didn't have to show it.