So I’m at the Hilton Poker Room in Atlantic City last Monday evening, waiting for the late-night Hold’em tournament to start (because that’s my idea of fun). And I’ve got my usual problem — the 500 chip is a light gray blue, the 5000 chip is a light gray, and since I’m color blind they look exactly the same to me. A couple of other color blind players in the tournament have the same problem, but we’re all used to it. There are a whole lot of colors in the rainbow, though, and I really wish the casinos would go to the trouble of picking colors that color blind people can tell apart.
The first hand is dealt — nothing, I fold. On the second hand I call the blinds and flop a pair of deuces. Nothing to get excited about, but the bets are small and I stay in. On the turn the board pairs tens and a frat-boy across the table tosses in three brown chips, a bet of 300. But I have a moment of color-blind short-circuit brain freeze and put him on a bluff, confusing his strong bet of 300 with a weak bet of 30, and before I know it I have raised him to 600. As soon as he calls me I realize my mistake, and I’m not at all surprised when he turns up trip tens to my tens over deuces.
It’s a small loss — 600 out of a starting chip total of 25000 — but I can tell that several people at the table saw my raise and my lame deuce pair and now think I have no idea how to play poker. Which is fine with me, because I specialize in the slow play, and I never try, as some other experienced players do, to intimidate with a confident style. Still, I have my pride, and I hate looking dumb.
A few hands later, I’m in early position holding pocket sevens. I call the blinds, call a small pre-flop bet, and am happy to flop trip sevens with a three-seven-queen board. Now I’m in great shape. Unless somebody’s holding pocket queens or an unlikely straight or flush comes through I’m not likely to lose control of this hand. So what do I do? Most players in this position would either bet small or bet big, but like I told you I love the slow play, so I calmly check, wanting to keep as many players in the hand as possible, making sure to maintain the dullest expression in the world on my face. I even do a little bit of acting, announcing my check with a grimace of bored frustration, like I’m sick of looking at one bad hand after another.
Somebody places a moderate bet, several players call along with me, and the flop is a three, which is great for me because it turns my trip sevens into a full house. I check again, still “bored”, and the same frat-boy who earlier beat me with trip tens places a gigantic bet, a 5000 chip. I find it hard to believe that he’s holding pocket queens, so I call his bet, and on the river, a six, he throws in another 5000 chip. I’m not even nervous; I can see this guy is not holding the nuts, and when he turns over a set of threes it all makes sense.
But when he sees that I was hiding pocket sevens, the shock hits him like a brick, and he reels back in his chair. The player next to him, I see, is equally shocked, and gasps out loud, and I can see that these two have been whispering about the guy across the table — that is, me — who doesn’t know how to play. It’s clear that they both thought I was throwing chips around like a monkey, that they expected me to be holding two pair a second time.
A huge hand like this always energizes a table and gets people chatting, but these two guys and a couple others on the other side of the table obviously don’t realize I have good hearing, because I make out his neighbor, the guy who gasped, mumbling “He didn’t even realize he had a full house”. Another guy intones, “Yeah, you expect to hear an all-in with a hand like that”. I see that they identify me as an example of an annoying type we have all seen at poker tables: the lucky moron. They truly believe, just because I checked my trip sevens and then checked my full house (both times allowing frat-boy to place a huge bet), that I didn’t know I had the winning hand.
Now, I’ve been playing Texas Hold’em for about ten years, whereas these guys look like they’ve taken a few lessons and read a few books. If you play poker by the book, you’ll usually bet big on three of a kind and go all-in on a full house, and if you favor a power-player style you certainly won’t miss a chance to dominate your opponents with a strong hand like this. This is how most poker players with a little experience will play trips or a full house.
But if you’re a really good poker player, you don’t play by the book. You mix it up, you read your opponents’ minds, you brush up your Shakespeare and do some acting. I played the hand perfectly, and if I had just bet strong on my trip sevens after the flop I would have collected maybe 500 or 1000, instead of the 10,000 I swiped from frat-boy. I was very proud of the way I’d played the hand, but as the tournament wore on it burned me that these guys thought I didn’t know how to play.
They figured it out gradually, I noted begrudgingly as I watched each of them drop from the tournament one by one. They didn’t have a chance; nobody who plays strictly by the book does. I ended up coming in sixth place in the tournament, one of only two players from our starting table to wind up at the final table. But the incident with frat-boy still bugged me. The incredible fact is, something just like this had happened once before.
In that incident, I was facing a loudmouth standup comedian and superb poker player who had an annoying device: when he bet, he flicked his wrist in a certain way that made the chips jump. It was a slick move calculated to aggravate, and after two hours at a table with this obnoxious player that’s exactly the effect it had on me. On one hand I found myself facing this loud player with trip eights at fifth street, and again I checked them, hoping to conceal my strong hand and make him open the betting, as I knew he would. He did, but then my trips didn’t fill up, and he pulled a straight. When he saw the trip eights I had hid for nothing, he stared right at me and said, for the whole table to hear, “You don’t know how to play poker”.
He had me good. Of course, then as well as now, I knew very well how to play poker. But it seems to be my eternal fate to play in such a way that people aren’t quite sure if I know what I’m doing or not. When I think about the way I conduct myself elsewhere in life, I find that I also frequently choose a “slow play” approach. I never try to dominate a situation, but rather prefer to watch other people dominate while I hang back and select my own particular path. This is how I live, and always have lived, and in many different capacities — as a poker player, as a software developer, as a writer — I have often invited people to underestimate me. It’s something I do so naturally, I don’t even notice it much of the time.
But I sometimes wonder about this life-strategy’s cost. In poker, I can lose the hand, or I can win the hand but still not earn respect. But should I care about this respect, about the shallow regard of poker dilettantes, rather than my own self-respect? Strangely enough, sometimes I do care.
The slow play is a great technique when you’re playing poker. It’s won me a lot of money over the years. In the tournament of life, though, I sometimes have to wonder what I’m winning, and what it’s all good for.
Well, mixing it up is good. Maybe it’s time for this slow player to mix it up again.