A city boy, accustomed the shine and noise of his urban landscape, would probably feel a little off-balance crossing the county line on Highway 124. It's a dark place, void of streetlamps, often void of cars all together. The road winds its way along the Saluda River, skirting a local NASCAR-lite speedway, all of it promising it will eventually dump you somewhere in the middle of civilization. But anyone who has seen "Deliverance" and knows it was filmed about an hour and half from here knows that civilization is never quite close enough for the city-minded.
Then again, as I took the S-curves as quickly as I could in a big SUV, massaging the radio buttons, listening for something hard-driving and full of menace, I knew this for a fact: I'm a country boy a heart.
And I'm on my way to a poker game, which makes this drive even better.
At first, I thought I was going to be late. Start time was 8pm and I had forgotten if my shortcut through the county backroads actually worked. Whether my eagerness fueled the drive or my shortcut was actually effective, I made it on time--early even--and pulled into a dark parking lot. Cars lined the buildings and a fairly large crowd of people stood in small groups, talking quietly, smoking cigarettes, sizing each other up through the milky light of a nearby convenience store.
I found a parking spot in a dark corner of the parking lot and parked Emilio. Something was wrong with my nervous system. It had regressed back to the first times I played live cards. My leg was bouncing, my fingers were tapping, and I had a pleasant tightness in my chest. I remembered this feeling. Women do this to me. The first breath of casino air does this to me. It's fear wrapped in sex, wrapped in risk.
I walked through the darkness to an open door in the back of the building. At first I was taken aback by a lone ugly table in the entryway. This is what I showed up for? I'd heard this was supposed to be a nice room.
There was a line snaking out the door. I took a spot in it and craned my neck to try to see the host. He was sitting at the head of the line, marking names off the reservation list, taking cash as he went.
Eventually, the line led me into the main room, where I was pleased to see five beautiful, 10-seat tables, fantastically appointed, and beckoning me to sit down.
I made my way to the front of the line, pulled out my $80, and gave my name.
The host looked at me from his seat. "Otis? You were referred by BadBlood, right?"
"That's right," I said, spotting BadBlood across the room talking to Teddy Ballgame.
In a few short seconds, my money disappeared from my hand into some unseen recepticle.
"Thanks, Otis. We'll start in just a few minutes."
Fifty people signed up for the $75+$5 NLHE tournament. Forty-nine showed up. I drew Table 2, Seat 10. I sensed there might be an organizational problem when a discussion began about which seat was which. I sat down in the ten-seat and waited for someone to figure it out. There were some obviously casino veterans there, so I had a hard time believing when the table agreed to seat itself counter-clockwise. I thought for a moment about protesting, but I didn't want to walk straight into an unknown game and start playing table captain. So, I took the one-seat, which isn't the ten-seat, but apparently plays one on TV.
After a tiresome discussion about chip values, the host stood near the front of the room and addressed the players.
"Alright, if the cops show up, keep playing. There's no money this room. You're playing for points and pride."
From across the room, sosmeone asked, "So, what's our rally point if we have to bug out?"
Obviously, whoever it was didn't understand we wouldn't be "bugging out." I think he just wanted to say "rally point."
As the preliminaries continued, I sized up my table. It was a good mix: a couple young kids, the requisite talker, a couple of guys in their mid-40's (one of whom had driven almost four hours from the coast), a lady, the ubquitous Big Man, and a thirty-something goateed guy.
Several of them seemed like solid players and I wanted to play as best I could. I vowed to either raise or fold for the first two levels. No limping.
As it turned out, it wouldn't be a hard vow to keep.
The first hand at our table was quad sevens. I didn't feel good about my chances.
I developed a rockish reputation, but not of my own will. In the first three levels, the best hand I was dealt was AJo. That hand was a misdeal.
For three levels, I played no hands out of the blinds, raking just one pot when the J6 in my unraised BB flopped top pair and I bet out.
Midway through level two, the lady at the table turned to me and said, "Do you work for...." she finished the sentence with the name of my workplace.
"Yeah, that's me," I said. I was a little worried someone might recognize me and think I was...
"He's here doing an undercover investigation," someone joked.
Yeah that's what I was worried about.
Instead of protesting, I simply lifted my lapel and asked the four-seat to speak a little more clearly in my direction.
After three levels, I was up all of $3 from my original starting stack of $85. After racing off the whites, I had $90.
This was not going well
After a short break, we returned to play with the blinds at $5/$10 and threatening to go up at any moment. My stack looked flacid and small. The lady at the table was shortstacked and pushed in with jacks, getting two callers. Her hooks held up and she became the table bully.
After the guy to my right busted out, The Lady started trying to exploit my rockish-reputation. I had to play along. When she raised my BB from the SB, I had to fold my 95o (a hand I saw way too many times last night).
As it turned out, it might've been that hand that kept me in the game so long.
On the next orbit, the table folded around to us again and she raised my BB again. I peeked at my cards and saw Big Slick. As short as my stack was (about $65 now), I had no choice but to push in.
The Lady went in the tank, then began to consult with a lady friend who had sidled up and sat down at an open seat at the table. At first I thought about reminding them it was one player to a hand, but I discovered I could hear their conversation and they were having serious trouble deciding whether to call me. I decided I wanted the call.
When Team Estrogen finally decided they were calling, I figured I'd have two overs to a medium pair. Instead, The Lady turned over AJo. She was dominated.
The flop came QTx. The turn was an eight. Then the river...
I had actually turned my head to look at The Lady and had to whip my eyes around when the table erupted.
The river was a jack. At first, some of the players were cheering for The Lady's good fortune at hitting her jack. The Road Gambler at the table corrected them, so I didn't have to. The jack made my straight and I doubled up.
Two hands later I picked up TT in late position, raised the amount of the BB's short stack, and got no callers. I sat at about $140T when we re-drew seats.
Okay: Here's my petty short-stacker's complaint:
I believe in keeping even tables and consolidating tables as soon as you can. That wasn't happening nearly as much as I would like. I started to get a little hot when we were down to 16 players and we were still playing on three tables. The blinds were already going up every 20 minutes. Playing five and six-handed when we could've sat two tables of eight was just silly.
Okay...end complaining. After all, the tournament made up for in good, nice players and prize money what it lacked in a clear sense of a plan on how it would proceed. Maybe I'm just too much of a stickler for the details.
Eventually, we convinced the host to let us break to two tables. We sat eight at each. The blinds were up to $15/$30 and my stack was down to $90. I didn't have long. By the time I had a hand even close to playable, I was down to my last $30. I pushed it in with AQs. It held up and I took down the blinds.
I still didn't have long.
As the orbit came back around to me, I looked down and found KQo UTG. I pushed in again. Everybody folded around to the BB. The Road Gambler thought for about a minute before calling with J5s. He caught his jack on the turn. I caught my king on the river, but it happened to be the king of diamonds, filling in my opponent's flush.
I was out in 13th place, which somebody reminded me paid the same as 50th.
To whoever that was....up yours.
I wandered the room for a moment. There was a full $1/$2 NL game going and a full $2/$4 limit game running, as well. Rather than walk out a 13th place loser, I wanted to sit and win some of my entry fee back. With no seats available, I walked to the store next door, bought a beer, and walked back toward the games.
By the time I got back, the tournament had collapsed to one table and a seat had opened up at the $2/$4 table. I bought in for $50, sat down, and thought about how I played in the tournament.
In short, I decided that I played every good hand I was dealt the best I possibly could have. I laid down trash when it was dealt. The only regret was the memory of a hunch. I had 89s in middle positition and felt like I should limp in with it. My good sense got the better of me, though, and I laid it down. An eight and nine fell on the flop. Another nine fell on the river. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
As I worked my way into the loosey-goosey $2/$4 game, I found myself sitting to the right of a psychiatrist. He was the tightest limit player I'd ever seen, but he talked a lot. Since he wouldn't play his cards, I decided to chat him up.
"I feel emotionally vulnerable right now," I said.
"My dad never took me to the circus," I continued.
"That can lead to a lot of problems," he said.
"I'm still scared of clowns," I said, tossing in a raise. "And every time I see a bear on a bicycle I fall crying into the fetal position."
That made him laugh and it made me remember that, at its roots, poker is a social game.
Within an hour, the story of the room was of another lady player who took her literal chip-and-a-chair status and turned it into enough chips to chop first place for a cool grand.
I rolled down the windows as I cut back coss the county line on Highway 124. I sucked down the autumn air as it filled up the cabin of my vehicle. My pocket was a little lighter, but I felt good about how I played. Consider it a lesson, I told myself.
Sometimes I feel like a more interesting personality when I'm driving alone at night. People who drive alone at night usually have somewhere mysterious and interesting to go.
This night, that feeling had actually been real.
And as I returned in the darkness (unscathed, to my wife's relief), I felt good.
And I didn't even if to call on BadBlood to save my life.