Midway through the week the cheerful Club de Soleil would add an extra guest, one not on ChipXtractor’s official docket. Both taller and bigger than you might suspect from his class-trip-to-AMNH-to-examine-the-lives-of-chips avatar, Fausto Valdez gives the first impression of a young man dressed as a hockey player, an impassioned American Gladiator fan, or a roller hockey villain. He seems to be all backpack, knee and elbow pads. His clippered, round head looks like it has experience slipping easily into a helmet. His trainers imply, appropriately enough, action. Here is someone who might break a lamp or knock a drink off a table if he moves too quickly, being unused to the domestic indoors and fragile things in general. That is appropriate enough, as well, as this dangerous Dominican dumpling is an impressive and ecstatic improviser at the poker table and seems to love, above all else, getting everyone, including himself, into trouble.
Chip would assign Fausto the stowaway bed in the living room after picking him up from the airport. Our spacious flat had room for all of us to be comfortable, and our housing arrangement would work very well. When we all went grocery shopping together, Fausto revealed his diet to be mostly large portions of fruit and Coronas – a tip for all you wanna-be loose-aggressives. As social maestro, it would only be later in the trip that Chip discovered the many joys of Uber (no one seemed eager to tell him), of which one meant that our host could stop shuttling everyone around. Alternatively, he could have investigated and recommended the leisurely walk from McCarran, but that would kill 99% of poker players, I suspect.
Like all aspirants to poker greatness, Fausto has gamble on his mind and in his bones. You can always tell these types from others because their happy place is to let it ride. Watching Fausto play made me forget, and then remember, how long he, you, or I have has been playing. We become artists of the cards after enough time and enough devotion, each in his or her unique way. At some point, those of us who have not been dumped out of poker, most kicking and screaming and lying to themselves on the way to the exit, have colors and strokes that we prefer, and we create a body of variations with them that become our style. Attaining this particular level of expertise usually takes a fairly significant amount of time. Fausto himself seems to be barely in his mid-twenties, but I can tell he's has passed well beyond his novice phase, even if he plays at novice stakes.
Fausto’s particular poker palette draws on the combinatorics of aggression and exploitative aggression and other forms of aggression, including aggressive aggression and, as an alternative, aggressing aggressively. He will isolate and reisolate until, at last, he has all the chips or the leash snaps back and we hear a mentally painful yelp as his chip stack cracks and disburses across the table.
There's a little Jenga mixed into Fausto's poker game.
This style gives Fausto a strong table presence, placing him in the top percentile of Red Chippers and certainly all low stakes players. When all that is said and done, whatever and wherever poker takes Fausto, what you can count on him to do is let it ride.
That is, until The Soto, who he is clearly in thrall of, commands him to limp.
In fact, all of us will start limping, even before Fausto joined us. At the Golden Nugget, in June of 2016, at long last, here at its true heart, $1/2 with the tourists and leathery Vegasites, we broke poker.
The first gathering of the $5pkrclub had abandoned the Linq and its disappointing PLO game, taking the highway and watching the posh strip disappear for the earthier downtown of Vegas. For those of you who don’t know, real stuff happens here. There are municipal buildings, medical facilities, museums, and condos for people who don’t know what happens in a casino. Go further north and you will even begin to see the grimness of the urban American southwest and the trappings of this desert way station, encapsulated in the almost hard to believe Silver Nugget Casino, and more seriously, the Catholic Charities complex, surrounded by paper and human trash, where thin, hard men and women, often dark and migrant, the ones who found no easy answers in the roulette of the Vegas economy, congregate. They share the long stares of suffering and want.
Later on, when Gargamel showed up in Vegas, just before his manic twenty-four hour Adderall inspired poker marathon, I was visited by one of these ghosts of Vegas and her own stare. They always find me, as I look like no one in particular. After all, everyone claims to have met me before or seen me somewhere, even sharp ole’ Limon himself, who I have never played a hand with or been within miles of before the LATB trip.
While I was relaxing in a lounge with Gargamel, having a terrible drink but feeling good, a young, aging black woman in something of a hurry suddenly appeared beside me and asked me for a cigarette. I pulled it out but while she grabbed it she changed voice and became exceedingly urgent. She asked for a dollar. I will give her that, too, but I did not understand her urgency at first. I tried to light her cigarette but couldn’t get it going: she wouldn’t lean forward and I couldn’t get the flame to settle.
Meanwhile, she told me to hurry, and growing hysterical. I got the dollar out, which she pinched instantly while her eyes darted around us. I saw that despite being less than thirty, her skin was horrible and her eyes beyond tired. I was now irritated, but I didn’t have to tell her to go – she wanted to leave. Instead of thanking me, she told me how horrible I was. She repeated herself, and I assumed she was done, but her outrage at my behavior mounted. While Gargamel and I talked, she paused at the lounge entrance, and found her voice again. “It’s terrible how you treat me, just terrible. You’re awful.”
I had no idea what it is I had been supposed to do- I'm thinking now I'm supposed to be more respectful of her likelihood of being tossed from the casino- but clearly there was something afoot I was not aware of, possibly some standard of treatment she had fallen into, in a strange inversion. Unfortunately, there is no pity in the universe for us but what we give and earn. Human solidarity is natural – it is the first act of free men, who will always assume the best – and cannot be forced into systems or obeisance without becoming something else entirely – where they learn they must always assume the worst. She got my cigarette and my dollar but her strange attitude lost my sympathy until much later, finally looking back on the trip and Vegas itself. I've looked into the hellish places we can go to and know that the pitiless truth is that we earn all our pain. The nights are never be dark enough to cover up her unhappiness, and the days never bright enough to warm her. This I can understand.
Meanwhile, the helpful Nugget staff got the Red Chippers our own table, as they would every night we came, understanding customer service without being need to be told and without excuses. I bought in for my standard 300 bbs, the point at which actual poker can be played, as there is room for two raises on multiple street – the true non-numerical definition of deep stacks.
Soto, at first to my surprise, did not buy in deep, but I soon deduced an explanation. He was not here to crush his peeps and subscribers, but to play moderately, watch, be of use, and, most of all, relax. He was playing a fairly full tournament schedule and had no real interest in wearing himself out, even in a small cash game, or, really, by making anyone too unhappy. This was a reasonable and fair decision, and though he did sit so deep, later, at Live at the Bike, I think, even if he wasn’t doing it expressly, he was not going at full throttle with his students. There was a thread in RC that expressed some dismay at his profit level, but I think, among other things, this ignores a psychological, pedagogical, and sort of “on-display” undertone to the game and his approach to it. Yet he could not say this aloud, if you think about it. Nevertheless, stick Soto with Harry and Cyrus and Bearjew and Israeli Ron and I think we would have seen some of the pillage and wreckage that the ever-hungry peanut gallery always wants to see – and expects as a plebeian right. ‘Follow the meta’, those boys like to say: it can explain even things that seem to warrant no explanation or that no one thought to ask.
I had stepped back to table when we broke poker, for good and unknown to even some players at the table, having been smoking at the nearby bar, a desperate and Mississippi Grind sort of hole I kept going back to, satisfactorily. Soto made of those remarks which is supposed to sound cryptic but isn’t cryptic and so it sounds all the more cryptic and therefore is both cryptic and aggravating at once. “All this fastplay,” he said, undoing, in a word, years of poker training and expectation.
I’d always been on the trail of Soto’s game. It wasn’t he who first taught me the virtues of the PFR check raise. Gargamel and I, flummoxed by the incredible action of the Village, had to find, painfully, a way forward in six-way raised pots and four-way three bet pots on a regular basis. We could never protect our hand, and we would go broke with our PFR range too often. We discovered that balancing our flop range and trapping our opponents for bets accomplished what betting out, the standard TAG industry answer and the dull medicine lazily prescribed by the hacks at 2+2, was what we needed.
Soto had given me, through his hints and analysis, a more formal, academic way of looking at it, one that I could incorporate as part of a strategy, and not just be a handy tactic. As I reverse engineered his game, my work and reflection upon it led me to a great overthrow and refinement of my own.
So in a word, when Soto spoke about limping, I knew he was right. I felt it right in my gut, and was mad I hadn’t found the full logical conclusion of my own philosophy. But then, I've always been a bit of a fool, needing pain to enlighten me, alas, despite all my self-reflection. Life, even for the bright, perhaps especially for the bright, is best lived simply and without endless involutions.
That said, it was all little awkward that first night. The Red Chippers seemed to think in absolutes, so where they would have raised, now they’d limp – way too much, although it was natural, I suppose. They were, uh, fish crawling out of the ocean. I’d been experimenting with open limping for a year, but somehow one needs permission, sometimes, and as foolish as it sounds, from somewhere or someone, to take one’s game to the next logical conclusion. I limped a few times in profitable spots and punished their unbalanced limps with the same hands they were limping, which was right then, but would become an action that would become dangerous as they grasped some of the the nature of the strategy by the final night.
One of my limps yielded the most interesting hand of the first night, created strange action, and pushed Soto into an hour of raving, starting in the casino, on the rooftop parking spot overlooking the strange and neglected Plaza Hotel (home to downtown Vegas' only bingo room) and then into the night drive home.
We’d been limping for a good half the night: The local regs were happy, they didn’t realize what was going on, not realizing they were still losing but in a different way. At the time it happened, I covered the table and had another solid win in front of me when found a limp myself with the 69cc, a fine hand for my purpose. I considered raising but the hand would play too well where it was. Further, and aggressive player in the blinds awaited me. While not Fausto in being subject to hair-trigger inducement, Skors could still find a reisolation over an almost dumbly obvious steal attempt, the ole’ button raise.
So when Jason did raise from the blinds, I was ready. Again, I considered the limp raise but two factors were against this. First, Jason likes to go to showdown, and secondly, my plan was to play in position with a limping range that should be perceived as fairly strong, once I flat the 8x iso.
I made the call, and we saw 6s3c2s. Skors began, from the big blind, with a check. Since he will be continuing with most of his range on this board, his check means, importantly, that he is not likely checking to fold. Therefore, even if I have a vulnerable hand, I should not be betting. I will face the check/raise fairly often, and although my hand can stand a bet, it does not want a check/raise. So by checking back, I accomplish several things at once. One, I play my hand in synchronicity with both our ranges, as range advantage is fairly neutral, and I do not have to create a dynamic that does not have to exist. Two, I defeat my opponent’s plan to check/raise. He now cannot protect his equity and I can improve to the winning hand, if I am not ahead. Three, I use position wisely, the real advantage of the button.
The turn brings the 5c, and at the same time, I can see Jason squirm in his seat. This hand and perhaps now, the runout, is not going his way. On 6325, range advantage has now tilted decidedly my way. He does not have many fours, and I have many. I have also picked up pat equity, and now this hand is going to be very hard for him to win over many reiterations. He is forced to check again, which is a good play, and now I bet pot to force out his equity, which must be considerable since he elected to the check the flop and not fire the one and done.
Now things get interesting. Jason raises my bet large, check raising me from 35 to over a hundred. He has about $150 or so remaining, more than enough to play for but only one real bet left. He is attempting to put me into a bad spot, but his line is not working on me. With the exception of a very unlikely suited ace-four and a few other ambitious squeezes, all of which he could have checked safely in the blind, the five should not have helped him.
Therefore, with my six no kicker, I have the best hand. I put all the dollars in, three betting the turn for protection and thin value. I expect him to fold, boxed in with a draw.
However, remember what I said about wanting to showdown? Skors now sits back in disappointment, looking up at the ceiling and the table in despair and confusion. He goes to his happy place fairly quickly, and sticks the money in. It’s not a generally profitable call with a draw, but in this case he’s very live, as he will show the KQss, giving him the flopped draw, missed check raise, and now desperation call off with one street to go, boxed in by my shove.
The river is the 9s.
That restrained look on Soto's face, as if he wanted to talk but was forbidden, was put aside, when he saw KQss turned over. While at the Nugget, he looked, for the first time, shocked. All that intention to relax, to moderate, to offer a philosophical attention, to, above all, observe, left him after this showdown, because now he cared. From the moment we cashed out until he exited the car, Soto went over the strategy of the hand, the implications of the board, the tactics of the players, over and over again, finding different angles and working everyone’s understanding to the maximum. I said I was glad the hand happened, because it was interesting and Jason learned something, but Soto cares so much about playing well that he strongly disagreed, incensed and only interested in excellent play.
This, in poker terms, is called having The Fire. He wasn't even in the hand yet he cared more about it than its participants!
Jason left the car a little shaken, but having been given a free one-hour lesson, in addition to several of my stacks, would get over it. In the end, I think I am right: it's good that it happened. It was a worthy night and the hand was simply destiny given the dynamic we had created under Soto's supervision. There is nothing you can truly do wrong at the poker table, until you quit, because every error is an opportunity to learn. I myself made the right decision, and every one that we make reinforces our game, just as Skors learned a great deal about using the board to excellent or detrimental effect. We are gamblers who aren't here to gamble, but to try to make perfect choices in a game of imperfect information. We need these moments of clarity and conflict to throw light and contrast upon our strengths and weaknesses.
In fact, there would be more of these great hands, and with the dynamic and supercharged Fausto soon in the mix, a player who takes up two seats worth of play and action, I’d again get into key and meaningful pots, our handreading put to the test and stacks getting in for good and bad.
But for now... the surprising peace of the Vegas night. The street lights flashed, the occasional vehicle hummed by. Chip and I enjoyed the cool air on the patio and finished more smoking. He had felt himself a step behind the table, and expressed the desire to play better and compete, foreshadowing his eventual entry into "Soto University." (Morning classes unavailable.)
It was also the final night with the place to ourselves: the trip felt like it was moving on, for the first time. More Nugget action was ahead of us, but it was all too soon for Chip, already regretting the short length of his stay. At three a.m., he retired to sleep, needing strength for more poker, the coming Red Chip meetup, his Push-Up Challenge, and the long ride to Los Angeles where we would play for the public on Live at the Bike.
I stayed up, enjoying every last moment of the darkness, not wanting to sleep until just breaths from the dawn.
Coming soon: Fights with Fausto and Lessons in Tindering at the Red Chip Meet Up!