The arrival of my longtime poker pal, Gargamel, caused me to extend my stay in Las Vegas. I was not eager to leave, after all, and the extra bed for me at the curious and uneponymous Mandalay Bay was a great excuse to swallow an airline flight change fee. Live at the Bike, despite my having played relatively poorly, worn out by the five hour trip and lost in the production lights, had been kind to me. The days had been fruitful, fun and uplifting.
The Red Chippers themselves gathered one more time at the Nugget, but soon it was just me, working on my deepstack game at low cost. I would ultimately end up taking a low stress 20 bbs/hr out of these games, making me rethink just what and where I need to be to survive and carry out my projects.
The dead of night, my time, on the patio of the Club de Soleil, could have gone on forever. Inevitably Steve had to leave, and after tossing most of his groceries and several six packs of Corona into the dumpster, we made our farewells.
To what chilled city was I returning? Couldn't I just stay here, jump out of the car, miss my flight? What exactly is keeping me tied down?
How free am I, exactly?
Why didn't I know the answer?
Gargamel, chief villain of the Village, slayer of Smurfs, has recently reached a crossroads of his poker career. Look around the local rooms... he's no where to be seen.
No familiar berating of players, no careful tanking, no slamming of doors. When he does wander out and put in a rare session, it's all complaints, like a girlfriend at the end of a relationship.
What's he up to?
Is Gargamel breaking up with poker?
(Oh, and that Village all-star team they have been going on about? Not a single mention of Gargamel. Don't let the screen door hit ya.)
It's taken many, many years, but he seems to be worn out by the endless hours, the bad beats, and the general callousness of game itself, which respects no one, not even its winners.
And, naturally, not its villains.
While we cash game players often laugh at the tournament scene and its participants, the ring games themselves are not unlike an escalator that never ends. A tournament, at least, provides closure. It's an elevator that dumps off only a few at the top- then everyone rushes down the stairs and starts over: f'ing tournaments.
An escalator disguises its cyclical, limitless nature. The cash game winner slowly moves along, maybe skipping a step or two if particularly energetic. Many of my friends have been spit out by poker, the challenge too great, the reward too little, the horizon too endless.
I get on, look around but don't recognize anyone on the escalator.
More and more, I find myself at the casino alone, with new players I don’t know. My edge, especially in the small cap games, declines somewhat as my interest in circus poker plummets. I find myself on my phone more and more, incurious about the flow of the game and overconfident in my ability to function at eighty-percent.
If I am going to make this happen, I need to move on in every way.
However, for Gargamel, the answer is not so obvious. With a house and a life, he cannot simply pull the plug. Worse, he expects profits and results, like a prize or a reward, but that escalator has grown too long and too slow for him. We’re constantly arguing over how to get him through, but the question as to why do you play never seems to be answered. We’ll see. He texts me about the games while I am there-but does not come.
Does a villain exist without his victims? Does Skeletor do yoga and water his plants while He-Man visits his family in Schenectady? What is Gargamel without unhappy 3/5 players?
What, in other words, does all this time spent in poker mean to us? What does poker give to us? What credits have we earned from the Goddess and do they spend well anywhere else?
One of the easy answers to a fading interest in poker is to play bigger.
The two of us met at the Nugget, of course. I am always pitching its virtues, like a drunk at an empty bistro barking at the passerbyes. Come on in, it's great. Sit down, you'll love it! He'll accept it, the first time, of course.
Gargamel checks out the board. Always a little flashy in dress (an East Coaster at heart), if you saw him in your game you might think he was a nightclubber looking for cheap thrills after a dry outing.
Noticing the 5/5 on the Nugget’s board, Gargamel perked up: Big pots are what he loves best. Pulling in and reassembling that mess of chips so large the dealer needs two or three swipes to get right. Maybe one or two greens end up near another player, whose heart starts racing, greedily and absurdly: don't touch my &*^%$ chip!
My attraction to the uncapped 1/2, a crossroads of the future of poker and Vegas and America, was a mystery to Gargamel that he would merely tolerate.
He said he’d check it out, this happy-surprise big game. I'd convinced him to play with me, but his heart was not in it. I put my name on the 5/5 list as well, and we railed the game for a bit.
Emphasis on surprise, it turns out: this was anything but a 5/5 game. There was easily a 100k on the table, most of it in bricks of cash. I recognized several players from television and poker news outlets. I realized the perfect atmosphere of the Nugget had not gone unnoticed by true big bet professionals, who saw an opportunity to run an uncapped game the way they wanted it – including some worthwhile novelties.
I’m a bankroll manager, so I had to reluctantly pass when my name was called, but Gargamel flew up from his small stakes seat when his name was called. I had given him a little report on the game, noting a few players, including one extremely lovely one I could only name later – Sophia Lundgren. Beautiful people are rare in poker and it was strange to see her doe eyes and creamy figure, upright and elegant, in the G-nug. She pushed grungy chips with her delicate hands, touching them just a little less than you or I.
While I wondered how the big game was treating Gargamel, I was busy making hay. An ex-football player, probably a few years out of college sat down at my table, sporting a full rack of over 400 bbs, almost matching my stack. He had clearly kept up his physique and seemed to take pride in it. However, I immediately decided much of this was for show, and that his dedication to being the biggest man in the room was built out of certain insecurities, so I decided he could make a mistake.
It didn’t take long for me to find the spot. He opened large from EP. I immediately read him for strength, so to speak, because of the false casualness of bet. He picked up some calls (that kind of game, of course, and a lot of chips at the table), and I found the A2hh.
When I saw the 753hh I decided Musclehead was never going to win this hand.
He found a cbet into four people. Only I made the call. The turn brought an offsuit six.
Musclehead checked. I bet three quarter pot, and he called.
The river was a nine. I have ace high, but things are looking grim for Musclehead. I pile in $400, a 200 bb bet, and wait for him to fold.
Musclehead stares at his cards, the board, and me.
None of them tell him anything helpful.
In the middle of his game, Gargamel drops by. He’s a little excited. The big game, it seems, isn’t quite what it was advertised as, or even as we observed from a distance. See, they are requiring a twenty-five dollar straddle, and there is an ante of $5 each hand. That’s eighty dead.
The game is bigger than straight 25/50! There’s more, though. On the dealer change, the table participates in “bomb pots,” where everyone foists in $100 pre, and they go straight to flop, essentially playing a nine-handed pot with $955 in the middle.
Gargamel didn’t even bring enough to Vegas to properly play this game, I’d imagine. When he sits down, he gets the inevitable grumbles from the pros, who don’t want a short stack at the game.
Worse for them, Gargamel cracks AA with JJ right off the bat. Grumbles.
Then he wins a bomb pot. Hello, top trips!
In a only a few downs, he's quadrupled up.
Gargamel has always had a knack for showing up with the right hand at the right time. Back when I was first learning poker by way of the home game circuit, I found a particularly affordable, sitngo style tournament not far from home. It might have been $10 for a seat. I ended up taking it down, but I got short stacked early on, thanks to Gargamel.
I had opened 88 from early position, picking up a single player on the button. He was of average build and was wearing a black leather jacket. I wasn’t able to correlate my ability to understand people into poker terms in those days; in fact, I often fell for the now obvious ham acting that seems to plague our people. I had no idea of what he was up to, and could be calling with any two cards, as far as I knew. I did notice the badboy leather jacket though, so I was onto one thing.
This guy was a little bit of trouble and liked it that way.
The flop came queen high, and I continued, almost all of us did in those days, just firing away like it was required. This fellow made the call. I remember giving him an evaluating look, and he returned this dopey smile, like I was supposed to be in on something and whatever it was happened to be a little under par.
I didn’t like it. We're not in this together, bub.
I think we checked it down from there, or maybe I called a bet on the river. Either way, he turned over Q10 and dragged the pot.
I had no idea that I’d be losing money to this guy for the better part of the next decade.
Later on, as I moved out of tournaments, encouraged to play cash by another friend, I would regularly risk monumental sums to play .25/.25 cash in monthly game. A few of these players I still hosted at my own game only a few years ago and saw in the casino. Only two have stuck around.
One of the guys was Q10: Gargamel.
Without exaggeration or even a trace of poker player revisionism, I very rarely have the best hand by the river with Gargamel. It’s difficult to explain, like a seat, that well, really is hot. It’s just one of those twists of our game and the endless possibilities of probability.
At the .25/.25 game, hosted by one of those rather uptight people who live a carefree existence on the surface, Gargamel was three betting me quite a bit. I couldn’t believe he always had it, and eventually I took a stand putting in my very first live 4bet with A10o, and of course losing a whole $25 bullet to his pair of queens.
Put me in a hand with him, and it’s never good. I don't think he was even half-joking when he told me once that he gets excited if I open at his table, wondering what treasure was on the other side of his two cards backs.
After enough action at the deceptive 5/5 game, he decided to pull his money off the table. Gargamel’s always been very wise to results- possibly driven by them over all other factors in poker. Ripping out the cost of his trip over just a few downs of poker had, not surprisingly, put him in a great mood.
Then he sat down at my deep but essentially tiny 1/2 game, and proceeded to outplay the table.
We left to celebrate with a meal. He was sharp, his senses and mood heightened by the big game.
However, it wasn’t just adrenaline, it turned out. He had a little information to share with me.
Gargamel was partaking in a little experiment: he was on Adderall.
This drug, commonly used in the poker scene, apparently takes a long time to wear off, because after dinner, he wanted to see Russell Westbrook at the Wynn playing in a giant PLO game. I didn't see the appeal, but okay. This turned out to be exceedingly dull, as all the German pros sitting with him were just as interested in the soccer match as talking with the NBA star. He was dressed in those warm up clothes –essentially a glorified sweat suit- that cost a buy in at a 10/25 game.
Adderall-high Gargamel is a restless fellow. Tiring of the NBA star, he soon joined me at a PLO table, not far from where Joey Ingram, the frenetic, pretty, and ridiculous Pokerlife star, who would later make a few cloying comments. The Poker Toy was looking a tad depressed. (What gives, Papi?) Not much went our way at first, but Gargamel did get a chance to be himself, in additon to doubling. When a dumpy, silent Korean kid, one of those guys who looks like his breath stinks and no one unpaid has touched in years, wearing a backback sat down, Gargamel ridiculed him mercilessly, calling him out as a grinder.
“That’s right, take your chips out of the backpack.”
“You have a lunch in there?”
The witless kid moved slowly and sullenly, a miffed poker tortoise determined to win the race that mattered.
“Could you be more obvious? Could you add less to the game? No response?”
Gargamel went on and on with his always heavy-on-the-nose insults.
I was beginning to like the affect Adderall had on him. The old villainous spirit, the fourteen-hour-session-just-to-stack-someone-you-can't-stand, die-so-you-can-live attitude.
What really changes? After the .25/.25 home game one time, Gargamel and I agreed to share a ride to a casino. While I’d played some 1/2 and 1/3, this place only had 2/5. I’d be risking extraordinary amounts of money, it seemed to me. Gargamel told me the story of losing with a flopped straight and walking around the casino in a daze after his opponent turned quads.
I would run badly, too, those early days, before I became Friday night regular, grinding out my mediocre wins, bad TAG style. When I went broke, I’d tell Gargamel, well, I’ll be at the bar. Sure, he’s say, let me finish this orbit.
Twenty minutes later, I’d come back to the room. The button had passed him.
I’d go back to the bar. Another half hour.
Back to the poker room. There he was, in a hand. Tap on the shoulder.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"I'm almost even."
Back to the bar.
Here at the Wynn, Gargamel on Adderall was more himself than ever, but so was I. Around midnight, as is typical, I ran out of steam and gave up my seat.
Sure, Gargamel told me, let me finish a few more hands.
Sure. My night consisted of sonamublating the Wynn, sweating hands, sitting intermittently at hold'em, and finally, a long writing session at an audaciously overpriced bar. We dare you to pay this much. Any takers?
We left at five a.m.
I woke up, dead tired, to some rustling around 7:30 a.m.. What’s going on? His girlfriend, a conventioneering queen on a convenient work trip, lay dead asleep, buried in blankets, but Gargamel was upright and dressed and on the phone.
“What games are you running?”
Soon after, the hotel door shut strongly with that familiar metal on metal brush I went back to sleep. I luxuriated in the cool, wide bed, resting beautifully, long after the room was mine alone.
At 3:30 p.m. Gargamel returned. When I, refreshed and comfortable, looked at him, I knew something was wrong.
Usually Gargamel is a pale, sunless tint. Now, he was actually green. I had look twice. It was the color Maugham described in Of Human Bondage. He looked like a ghost in a pneumonia ward, waiting for his pills.
I started to ask, but I knew better: Gargamel, man of results, had not run well.
Like so many times before, I took him out for steak and listened to his session. Pro tip: Medium rare cures poker pneumonia.
Lately, it’s been too much for him, these bouts of losing. The big game at the Nugget had not been a coincidence. This low stakes warrior, one time slayer of Smurfs, has needed bigger games to excite him for a while now. The stress and frustration of losing in high variance but unrewarding crapshoots no longer is appealing. The losses hurt more than the wins. He needs the score, the heaps, the piles, the chips, to console him. His obsession with maintaining streaks and winrates and technical knockouts, which sustained him and pushed him to poker victory in the most dry of circumstances, is no longer enough.
We’ve discussed his quitting before, but for once, after a thousand wolf cries, I believe this particular howl.
As I face the future, I see an era closing for myself. Many of my good friends have left poker, but none have been more stalwart than Gargamel. He was the scourge of the Village, a player all the donks feared would sallow up their stack given one misstep. Our endless email chains of strategy, resting peaceably in a server somewhere, attest to our commitment to win and deep distraction, the rabbit hole that even low stakes poker at your local cardroom can be.
So used to seeing the future, these days I am confused by my lack of direction. I left the beaten path, and though I saw a glimpse, for one night, of how I might rescue and redeem my life, I am more out of position than ever before.
Nevertheless: If this is the end for Gargamel, I salute him. If it’s just a needed sabbatical, he’s earned it.
It turned out, we were in this together, bub.
Our conclusion: The end, the future, and, oh yeah, a little Doug Hull.
This post was shared on Alec Torelli's Best of Poker Series