Treasure Island

Seven hundred big blinds in front of me, Q3o in the hole, six callers, getting lazy; something else is on my mind.  Sorry, it’s on me; can I cbet this monotone board?  Yes, apparently, as I watch my hands pushing chips. Chinese Eager Beaver next to me, raising his body upwards and erect in a literally pointed display of strength, shakes his head in parodic frustration while putting in half of his stack, screen testing well for his future role as Old Man Green Tea in a shitty casino near you.  He has the nuts; my check/fold for the next street is already marked on the box. I can go back to ruminating about Treasure Island and why something feels slightly wrong. This should be great fun, but I can’t put my finger on it…

I certainly wasn’t here for the lucre, at least, not now; my remaining opposition in total probably has same amount of money as I do on the table.  It’s Saturday night, and the WSOP has pushed the Vegas card room capacity to previously unknown limits, but these guys are the dregs of the dregs, the reserve reserves.  I wasn’t in the zone, either, so I had no serious incentive to continue: I had left a bunch of value on the table and had exceeded my mistake quotient, breaking mental game guidelines.

Of course, the game could have been great- the buy in is a generous max of $500 at TI.  It’s unheeded and unused.  Instead, a bunch of hyenas with $150 have gathered.  In fact, this is the moment they have been waiting for, these beta hold’em imposters: the moment where I just start spewing out of boredom, the moment where they finally start to bring me down, one stack, one leg at a time.

Well, they have something right: I am bored. Most of the Red Chippers have left; the party is long over- I was excused but am still here with the lampshade on my head.  As Eager Beaver is collecting his pot, proud and happy at having outplayed me by cleverly being present to receive his holding, he suggests to his buddy that they should leave for the Wynn and turn their $180 into further glory.  Good luck, little fellas.  Here’s my prediction for you two:  The Venetian.  What? Why? Because when it’s 3 am, and you are gathering at a Wynn slot machine to get a free drink on the server’s route and to tell your buddy about that terrible beat you took with A9 from the small blind, you both realize you can’t afford any more 1/3, you don’t want to go back to TI, but that the Venetian has 1/2 and you can both short stack it if you divvy up the money.  It’s the shortest walk south. Hey, are you listening to me?  I’m trying to save you time!

Leaving this place would never have occurred to me a few years ago. Treasure Island wasn’t always just another 1/2 hole in the wall; once, it aspired to better than a Monte Carlo minus racetracks.  Nor were the games spread in this obnoxious, unprotected room next to a horrible deep fry, faux diner, the shitty soundtrack of forgetting blaring from the edge of the slots.  The TI poker room was originally a quiet dream, a cozy poker beanbag nestled in the hallway leading up to the parking garage.  It was red and black, dark, comfortable, and a tad cheap, like a good bar or a well-appointed Camaro.   The TI in those days spread 2/3, an unusual game that was low limit but could get deep.  Opens were often to fifteen or more, and big pots were played.  Once I had found it, the hotel itself became my favorite place to stay: mid-priced, good rating on the bed bug registry, near the classy Wynn.  I also loved it for the most obvious, sympathetic reason of all: it was the first casino cash game I played in.

It must have 2007 or 2008 when I made my first acquaintance with poker.  I had been invited to a house party featuring a $10 poker tournament.  The game, Texas Hold’em, was a confusing one.  It required money to participate in, which seemed in dubious taste (hadn’t I already spent enough on the bottle of wine), and worse, if you busted out you had to sing Karaoke; not a strength of mine, then or now.  I have never been much of card player; the mere suggestion signaled to me tedium, physical debasement, and a lack of imagination (to some extent this final one still comes up, but not at all in the way that it did then).  One step removed from the Bored Game, the card game.

I was shoved a little rectangle with hand rankings, like a diagram on how to use an oxygen mask before the flight; for fuck’s sake, how am I going to remember this in the middle of trouble, I remember thinking. The straights and flushes and full houses seemed complicated, ambitious and unlikely.  If there was a full house, was there just a house?  A half house, perhaps?  It made so little sense.  So, I decided on a strategy I could handle: I was going to concentrate on making pairs.  Manageable and sane.

Thanks to my minimalist approach, I was not the first to sing, but I remember when I did.  There were not many chips in front of me remaining, which itself was frustrating and depressing, as I had barely pushed any forward, it seemed.  The egg timer the host used kept going off, and suddenly I was worth even less in this supposedly fun thing I would certainly never do again, all based merely on time passing.  Poker was about pressure and hysteria, apparently; no wonder Americans love it, I deduced.  I looked down at what would be my final hand, and identified that if some certain cards arrived, I would make a straight.  This much I had advanced in my poker knowledge; I pushed in the chips, making my first semi-bluff ever, in complete ignorance. Wait, maybe I would make a flush, let me check! I fumbled with the instructional rectangle. Either way, I was ready to move beyond pairs. I heard Call, and they wanted me to turn my hand over.

He’s got a draw.”  A novice at the game, I could still clearly tell there was something shameful or wrong about being on a draw, whatever that meant, judging from the host’s tone.  I was directly in front of him, but I was being addressed in the third person; this was remedial, parental, not really polite (I have never liked this aspect of poker conversation, even now).  The draw did not arrive.  I rose, put in a fairly convincing Puff the Magic Dragon, well suited to my three note range.  Thank god that was over.

Or was I thankful?  As silly as all that was, with the stupid surprises and the incomprehensible randomness that seemed to tickle everyone so inexplicably (that never changed), the problem was how competitive I am.  There was a winner among all this nonsense, who laughed, was paid in my money, and best of all for her, she didn’t have to sing the damn karaoke!  Like some degenerate variation of Pavlov’s experiments, I could tell I would be back, with plan to salvage my cash- and no singing required.

That home tourney was probably enough to kick start my interest, but poker kept showing up in my life; she wanted me, for reasons completely obscure, and sped up the process.  A separate group of friends started their own tiny tournament; now I had two games per month.  A friend on Facebook pointed me to Zynga, where I could learn all about those complex straights and flushes (and virtual drinks).

Still, this wasn’t enough to conquer the game, I felt: without more regular practice, how would I really do?  What I needed was a controlled environment that duplicated the Karaoke game, real live poker, not people online throwing virtual pies at each other- minus the threat of punitive performance, of course. I found some crappy chips, those plastic, unslugged, undenominated clinkers, dug out those cheap paper cards that somehow everyone has in a drawer they never look into and from a casino they never visited, and gathered the amici.

We started with the typical tiny tournament.  When I upgraded the buy in to a steep $15, we lost some of the players but started gaining others.  These guys, willing to put in three hours for the hope of winning nearly $100, seemed to have a better plan than the previous contestants.  I watched them carefully.  My player pool grew, and soon, I couldn’t stop playing.  I hit Craigslist, finding a $.10/.25 game.  I loved it, and manfully risked up to $50 each session, thanks to its unusual forced second buy-in.  (The host has a lot of control issues for a musician.)  I stumbled into 2+2, and from there, onto the major poker sites, where I dabbled in the smallest of games.

Then, the real development: a smart player self-interestedly suggested we try cash games.  I sold the cheap chips, got some mid-grade heavy sluggers, inherited some plastic cards from the home game circuit, and started a $.25/.50 cash game.  Once again, massive turnover.  The tournament guys who seemed so clever couldn’t handle the swings, and I had to advertise the game.  I poached players from the other games now I sat in, as many as once a week; I was grinding the home game scene and getting known.  My game filled, my experience widened.  I was nitty.  I was winning, never much.

Then, that’s when I got the call, summer of ‘09: will you visit me in Vegas?  We’re staying on the strip. And there I am, at Treasure Island.

My first day playing outside of the home game circuit is awkward.  I have to wait to get into the game, which I am not used to doing; I feel like I am being set up for something.  I warm up by dumping off $60, four times the amount I have ever spent on a tourney, in a nooner.  I can’t really shuffle the chips, and I feel like a complete tool whenever I raise- surely they know what I have?  I survive for a while, get to the final table, and then dump it all on top pair, knowing I am beat but defeated by the pressure of the gigantic tournament.

It’s then that I do something much braver.  I take my remaining trip money of $75 and plop it down on the cash table.  I play as terribly as one would expect, but queens hold up in one pot (I get one scared street of value), and I crack AK with AQ like a pro.  I pay someone off, eating up my precious suck out money; I’m horrified.  I make a hand, blow my opponent off the second best hand, and get some back; I’m relieved. When I get up, a scary reg who had talked about “bracelets” and called someone a “student of the game” (which was puzzling to me at the time, as wasn’t that all of us?) tries to stop me: “Where are you going?” he barks.  “Gotta go,” I choke out, but what I want to say is: Can’t catch all the fish, buddy.  I go back to my room, elated, up what feels like thousands of dollars (I think it was actually $179; I have a good memory).

So tonight, years later, sitting with a giant stack and making my living from a game I could barely play a few years before, I should be enjoying myself more, here at TI again.  However, I’m not feeling remotely great or even sentimentally satisfied.  Maybe these twerps have the right idea: I should go to the Wynn, too?  No, that’s just more indulgence.  It’s late and I should sleep, yet I want to feel like I’m at some milestone.  I want this night have meaning.

That’s when I realize what it is:  I’m not actually feeling sentimental about this place.  It’s just an expectation or wish.  The truth is, everything has changed.  The room itself is unrecognizable.  More importantly, I have changed. I couldn’t have predicted this moment, even when I naively thought I could change my life and move here, a daydream at the height of my obsessional first learning phase.  There’s a lot to do, a lot to think about, and I am very grateful to have spent some time with half of the RCP founders and a few subscribers; yet this turned out to be just another night of battle, with my roll in play and my expectation on the clock.  I am in the middle of the war, and it’s not quite time to look back with satisfaction or regret.

I ask for racks.  Never mind the Wynn tonight; I’ve got dates with 5/5 there the rest of the week.  It’s time to go, before I start punting to a bunch of shortstacks who deserve a small loss and a consolation hoagie at the diner.  I grab my bag and head to the front desk- there isn’t even a cage, this room is so small.

“Are you leaving?” someone asks.  “Yeah. I’m tired.”  “Fun playing with you.”

I hear a little fatuous disappointment in this aspiring shark’s words, and briefly look him in the eyes.  He’s an unshaven nobody in a stupid hat and a worse t-shirt, but he’s studying me, fixedly, telling me he is in control. He’s in fact done nothing special tonight, but I can see he still thinks, in the back of his mind, that he’s going to own me, if only I’d stay.  He believes in himself; this newb believes he can beat the game.  I’m amused by this, and now, at this last moment, I finally feel happy and good about the evening.

“Sorry buddy,” I tell him, “Can’t catch all the fish!”

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