The Maze

I turn and see Shaky, nice guy and poker mark, going home with 2.5k.   The two of us stare at his chips in disbelief.

Shaky is a lean, handsome man, late fifties, brown eyes, recently haircut and shaved. His arms are wiry, unmuscled but overly tanned from good vacations, bad golf, and a well-managed diet.  Someone, it seems, is looking after him, which is unusual enough in the poker world, with its forgotten spouses, charmless loners, and shifty escapists, to merit attention. (For instance, who knows if anyone in the Banker’s family even knows or still cares where he is at this moment, with his seamless thirty hour workweek and fifty hour poker schedule?)  Shaky’s glasses are thin and steely, suggesting the natural minimalism of effectiveness, along with a strain of Nordic seriousness; in any case, no ironic polymers for this Organization Man.  He is here because, like many high IQ humans without much trauma or creativity, he has a natural love of puzzles and is not prone to lethargy: Shaky is the true hobbyist.  Weekdays, he may be a mid-ranking lawyer or a particularly buttoned up VP (not a CEO based on his mumbling humility), but he certainly is not one of the unwashed, happily indentured IT servants who fill the Village with cash and comradery.  Likely dressed by his wife (still fond of him, the evidence mounts), Shaky sets himself apart from the greasy keyboard warriors with a new pastel polo, clean khakis, and fading loafers probably demoted from weekday use at the firm- the very uniform of upper middle class productivity, a low stress empty nest, and comfortable sexual boredom.

Today, though, Shaky has had some racy good fun with the programmer gamblers- I wouldn’t call most of them players, exactly- and I really am having a hard time tearing my eyes from his departing racks, now escaping me unmolested.  I look around for an explanation to this travesty, but spot too few guilty faces.  However, this in fact makes sense: it’s the shameless ones who are usually most at fault.  In the Village, the software immigrants in aggregate generate the most rake and exchange the most chips, while killing time and a decent fraction of their nearly meaningless paychecks.  These friendly imported cogs spend most of their time clicking and whirring profitably for the virtual machine of mobile apps and commercial aptitude; away from their keyboards, they are under no obligation to do anything rigorous or efficient or productive, and so, at long last, without structure or directive, gamble recklessly.  The pack of sweet, dopey smiles and unshaven, relaxed faces confirms: if you don’t know what you’ve done wrong, it’s hard to do anything right. And if you don’t care, well… thank the spoiled modern consumer.

Normally, I’d be happy for Shaky.  I’d smile.  I’d pound the table and deliver that stupid “shiteating” grin we all do from time to time without understanding it: Irony For Dummies.  Just not today, because I am in the Maze.  Deep in the poker Maze, lost in the labyrinth of the poker struggle, the confusion all of you know or will know, when nothing is easy or encouraging.  When your only satisfactions are Pyrrhic or moral.  When you have a collection of one dollar chips in your pocket from being felted at the end of the night, and you are going to add them to the small but now growing pile on your desk. And yes, when other people’s scores do give you jealous fits, banally, pathetically, miserably.  Quo vadis, Shaky?

Small things, such as being late to a good game, matter most when times are lean and you are lost in the Maze. For instance, normally Gargamel would have been here hours ago, and lit up the sky with the Smurf Signal for me.  Instead, he’s apparently away on some sort of relationship renewing road trip, and now I’ve missed the good ship lollipop in part because he’s tilting madly through his private life.  Even my secondary consolation at this table is disappearing. With a promising stack, the Banker sits directly across from Shaky, but when I greet him with my usual respectful but challenging stare, he doesn’t meet it.  Banker looks away, he looks at Shaky, he calls for racks.  If he wanted to fight it out, like he would normally prefer, as he is, like most rich people, prone to the ennui of privilege plus confidence in his star, he would have smiled and asked me a question.  Instead, the Banker is closing the books on another win- as if that mattered to a man who collects German sedans like ChipXtractor collects poker books- so that over the course of one hand and few pointless seat rearrangements, half the chips on the table vanish.

The Banker is no fool, unfortunately, and I can’t hypocritically blame him, because it’s the perfect moment to leave: Shaky is out; the Banker himself looks untypically fatigued (did he pull a double? Or has his absurd number of hours finally caught up?); and because he doesn’t want to deal with me.  The Banker is a poker Buddha; pleasant, charming, happy, high cholesterol, high EV, in touch with the balance of the universe.  No one takes a loss as stoically, and that means he’s also humble enough not to push himself too far; the Banker’s mental game effortlessly surpasses mine, even if his strategy does not.  Overall, our games are closer now, I will admit, but he is still below me on the food chain and I wanted him at my watering hole, with his overcalls and his strength tells hanging around his neck. Instead, this game has turned sour. For fuck’s sake; now everyone is shortstacked or nitty, and on a Saturday night, no less.

One-eighty degree spin. Without oblivious Shaky and the sticky Banker, my strategy changes dramatically. I have the perfect position for playing loose aggressive:  Nitty Hiroko on my left has the only remaining reasonable stack, and all the shorty software charlatans are on my right.  I break even for a few orbits as I establish the new order: I raise, they call, clearly looking to stack me with a lucky hand and an easy decision.  Left turn.  Right turn.  That’s okay.  This is how it is supposed to work.  I duck and weave, they crash and burn.  I’m the protagonist in the car chase, they are the cops.

I open raise A10o from EP, and pick up Hiroko and three programmers for $125 in the middle.  Her range is as tight as theirs is wide; one pair will be the nuts against them and a trap against her. I check a 1085hh flop, repping AK for the moment- and looking to raise the right action.  Unfortunately, it’s Hiroko who makes the first bet.  The overcallers scatter in fear.  This is not good news.  Hiroko generally balances the nuts with the second nuts.  I’ve hit a wall and have a decision for my entire stack.

I look left.  There are no two pair combos in her range. While tens are possible, she would check/call it with action behind her nearly all of the time.  There are a few distinct possibilities, however.  They start with sets, and end with flush draws.  She will sometimes bet 76o, true, but multiway this fades into just a couple combos, maybe one.  She called from MP, meaning she would pitch 76o for the most part… but play the suited version. It’s a profitable fold now, if that is the bottom of her range… unless I can pin her down to the draw and the draw nearly alone.

I look right.  I don’t have the ace of hearts, which means she can have it.  This is a big start toward winning the hand. I think about her behavior; I think about the way she put out the chips.  She bet toward the players in the field.  She has forgotten about me, foolishly, putting me on air, and is thinking about the programmers in late position.  She is looking at them, wanting their attention… it’s a threat…. she’s threatening them with the directed bet and gaze… but why would a nit behave this way?  I think about her sets, which would be the real problem… but would involve coaxing action, not being scary. Half the time she will check the sets, which means I’m looking combinatorically at a draw.  Could it be true?

I dig deep into the memories.  Back to a year ago, at a different casino, in a hand she will never know I remember, when I observed her flop a set against an aspiring pro who misread her completely.  She had played passively, and he had tried to blow her off her hand.  So, if she will give into her passive instinct even more often, say seventy five percent of the time, now, I can name her likely hand: Axhh or 76hh.  I make the read: she’s on a rare semi-bluff.

I rip in my stack, looking for the maximum mistake.  Hiroko’s face registers befuddlement; the techies tingle and talk. If she folds out her equity, it is a victory; if she calls, it is a victory as well, but I will have to hold.  (She has JJ in her range and will fold it face up for sympathy and to show how well she plays.)  She thinks for a bit, not exactly unhappy, which has me nervous.  She looks like she wants to call, and I can see I have judged her well but I’m not comfortable with how strongly she feels about her draw.  After evaluating her now limited options, she calls, and we see a heart pair the board on the river.  Like a true amateur, she uncordially makes me turn over my hand, pointing at me rudely with an unattractive grunt, even though we both know I am beat, before revealing her flush with the quasi slowroll.  The software slaves praise her for her hand- as if she designed the graphics upon it herself- in an irritating act of psychological collaboration and pointless white knighting.

Dead end.

I could be anywhere.  I could be on vacation.  I could be writing.  I could be at the empty matinee dinner cinema, my second office, double vodka on my right, nachos on my left, answering texts and talking to the screen. I could be in Paris where a friend’s apartment sits déserte et riche.  Or I could just be at home in my apartment, that happy sanatorium of opioids, Manhattans, and Lana Del Rey. Instead, I came here, to a grasping, ill-managed Native casino in the backwoods of the provinces, a casino that just eliminated player comps, and which sports the worst buy in structure in the entire state. I gave up all my other options to get to work and pick off that ripe, low hanging Village fruit.  What I didn’t come for is to see Shaky break the game, listen to him apologizing for leaving (don’t apologize, Shaky, ffs!), and imagine him going home to slippers and pot roast and Netflix and that damn doting wife of his.  And then get felted by a player who deserves nearly zero action.

I retrace my steps reflexively and rebuy.  For a while, I watch in mute, seething horror while Hiroko continues to chip up, the giggling geeks giving her action at the top of her range, over and over and over again.  They’re like fifth graders smelling each other’s’ farts.  They are actually trying to lose, I am sure. It’s exasperating. I want to throw up.  I want to shake them into playing better.  No wonder Gargamel goes so nutso here and is (relatively) calm everywhere else. I can’t blame him, but I’m not going to be tearing out my hair or tearing up the cards.

Either I’m going to get over this or not.  I think about who I am.  I think about what I want this evening to be.  Poker can be a maze, and when he’s put in his fight for the day, the loser falls asleep where he is.  He makes progress here, he regresses there.  He has no idea where he has been or where he is going, how much he has won or lost or will win or will lose.  The Maze owns the loser, because for the loser, poker and the Maze are one and the same. The Loser wakes up somewhere in poker and starts over.  Must be fun, actually.  Am I losing… or am I a loser?

That’s when I smile again and the tilt subsides… because I’m not even close to a loser.  I’m here to beat the Maze because that’s what I do.  I’m not here to win one hand or take all the chips at the table.  So this session is nothing. I could take a bow, say good game, and head home to that cozy apartment these people pay for.  I can still catch the late show at the cinema or the bars for companionship; their money buys the tickets and the drinks.  We all have weaknesses, I’m far from a great player, and everyone has rough days, but I don’t need to tilt or feel bad or wonder why Shaky and Hiroko have all the chips.  It’s out of my control.

What I can do is make great choices.  So what’s the smart thing right now?  I have the time to play, am invested in the commute, and other tables look deep.  With Hiroko owning the chips and my image crumpled here, a table change is in order.  The small thing that could make the difference.

New path, new walls.  Familiar faces, though.  Moron Caleb, the Goose, others I see a lot of- plus a very competent player I haven’t seen in long time on my direct right.  A small blessing, possibly, that he didn’t shift to the left.  He’s one of those ageless, thin dudes whose mind and body are equally alert. After a quick orbit of folding, the Goose open raises from early position; he has a lot of broadways and small pairs based on his sizing, behavior, and frequency.  A king jack kind of moment for him; the Goose can’t help but want to play a hand regardless of his position, as weak players love to dream of flopping two pair, to dare fate to help them out, when they should be meditating on the next turn.  Behind him, the competent player three bets small.  This gets my attention, and I pause to consider his holding. He is bobbing his head and shoulders slightly; he looks down in mock humility, a mild reverse tell.  His body language is conveying strength; what he is doing is inducing a call from the fish.  I know this guy fairly well; in fact, we have a lot of history and he has some gamble and as much game.  I respect him as a player, but he’s not light here, ever.

I peek at my cards and see a red queen and a black queen.

Left or right?

1 thought on “The Maze

  1. !! Now that is hand reading!

    I can’t believe I can even play this game. I see so little. And that which I see I probably misuse or see fuzzily.

    I feel like it’s all I can do in my games to look left to see who’s folding. But to watch how people put their chips in, microexpressions, leaning forward as interest, or anything else that gives clues to hand strength, or hand type, is so beyond me now. It seems a herculean task to develop those skills. Is it possible? I’m an optimist but… I’m think such a thing might remain beyond me.

    Did you train yourself to observe such things? And then to correlate them to holdings.

Leave a Reply