Three fives

Tilt – “letting your emotions disrupt your ability to play”

I’ve spent six months losing. I’ve walked the thirteen steps down to Jim’s basement, sat down at the blue felt table top, constructed by his father and already beginning to pill with the movement of thousands of cards, and stared at my cards with no sense of how to play the game. For whatever reason, I found myself staring at two-six off suit, throwing it in, picking up my next hand, and betting anything that was higher than a seven.

As soon as I threw some money in, I was on tilt at Jim’s house.

Let me give a little back-story. I’ve played poker for about eight months now. I’m not a gambler – I never understood throwing money at something and hoping that you would get it back – but I do love playing cards. I can’t handle risking my money on something I can’t control, but with poker, in a way, I do control my actions. There’s no randomness – just a little luck and the knowledge of what to do with whatever you’re given.

Because of the current Texas Hold-Em boom, poker has become quite a fixture at the various houses I hang out at. Now, by saying that I conjure up images of smoke filled dens of debauchery and gambling, with cigars and hard liquor flowing through the walls and players slamming down chips and throwing cards in an effort to win thousands of dollars. On the contrary, it’s usually just a few of us that, every couple of weeks, sit around a dining room table slamming down chips and throwing cards in an effort to win six dollars. Regardless, I had an aversion to slapping money down and playing cards in order to get it back, so I withstood the urge to play. Eventually, though, I caught the bug. I wanted to play.

So, after a few off handed comments of how I needed some “Hold-Em guidance,” Jim coached me a little in his basement and helped me to understand the game. I found, eventually, that at some point I had learned to play poker. Then, after a few months, we started playing at my house – a true amateur hour with a whopping one dollar buy in – and we all learned together to refine our skills. I consider myself a decent card player. I’m no Doyle Brunson, but I’m certainly no chump. I know better than to bet on shitty cards, and I know when to raise, and when to call, etc.

Still, I couldn’t manage to scrape anything together in Jim’s basement. I would play for two dollars. I would lose my two dollars. Eighty percent of the time I was out within the frist two players. The other twenty percent I would place third, but only because I wasn’t betting aggressively and my chips had just run out. I wouldn’t know what to do with the cards I had, or I wouldn’t get the cards at all. I had psyched myself out that, no matter what, I was never going to win in that damned basement.

Last night, I finally did.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have to lose before I could ever win. Two dollar bills went in, and I lost both of them. Fourth place out of eight players doesn’t pay anything back. So I sat, and sulked, and thought about how I got bad cards, or how I hit some bad beats (which is when I’ve got the best cards, but my opponent catches his or her card at the last possible moment and wins.) I never considered that it was my fault that I was playing so poorly. It never occured to me that I had convinced myself that I was never going to win in Jim’s basement, unless I got great cards and played against bad players.

So, when Jim (a good player) started a five dollar tournament with Andy (another good player), Jeremy and Denise (two more good players, one of which may become a dealer), Pete (Jim’s dad, and someone who always seems to beat me) and himself, I should have just got up and walked out. Five bucks is a lot to lose when I don’t feel like I’ve got a shot.

Of course, I just threw the money in.

One of the early hands brought me a full house. There were three kings on the table, and I had a pair in my hand. No one was left in the hand but me and Jim. I tried to raise, he called, and I laid my full house down.

And Jim had the fourth king. Damn.

I could tell that I was going to have troubles. Soon, Pete was out, and Jeremy followed. I was still steamed from getting smacked around by four of a kind, and I only had enough chips for two more hands. So, when I picked up an ace, I decided to go all in. Two people called me.

I won.

My chips dwindled down again, so I went all in again. This time, all three remaining players called me.

I won again.

That was twice that I had gone in with my last breath and pulled back with a big pot. Finally, with Denise out, I went all in for one last time. And I won again. At this point, I was close to being the chip leader.

I knocked Andy out with a lucky card on the river (I had jack and king, Andy had queen and ace – a jack showed up, saving me from his cards) and the game was down to me and Jim. And for once in my poker career, I had the upper hand in Jim’s basement.

I was getting cards, finally. I had a few pairs, doubled the bet, and watched as Jim, hand by hand, slowly gave me his chips. I had put Jim on tilt in his own basement. It was great. But I didn’t revel in the fact at the time. I know enough that I’m a poor loser, but I can be an even poorer winner.

Jim was starting to just go all in. He had enough chips that it was a scary move for me – I certainly didn’t want to double up his 42 chips and leave an opening for him to sneak up and smack me around. On the last hand, I looked down to find I had “pocket” fives. The flop showed a third five. Jim went all in. And he looked in stunned amazement when his two pair was shit on by my three of a kind. Of fives. Measly little fives.

It felt good. Jim got his money back, and I took home an extra 25 bucks, which evens me out pretty much for all the money I’ve lost in Jim’s basement.

Poker is a funny game. It’s partly about luck, and it’s partly about the innate skill of reading your opponent – of playing the enemy, and not the cards. Hold-Em is a game of power swings, of false security, of a little clairvoyance. There’s a lot of emotion involved in poker. Ask a few of my friends – we’ve all been on “tilt” a few times. Even the best are tilted, at one point.

But, as much as I never wanted to become any semblance of a poker player, I have to admit, last night, when I left Jim’s house, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my card playing confidence. It felt like I could take on anyone, and have a striking chance of pulling something off. For all I know, I had the luckiest string of cards ever known in the poker world, and there was nothing I could do to lose the game. I don’t really care. I finally took on Jim’s basement, in all of its dingy, smoke filled glory, and I left with its sanctity lying on the floor, heaped in the corner with some old socks. I took on Jim’s basement, and I won.

This was lovingly handwritten on April 4th, 2005