The Agony of the Slow Player

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.

12 Responses

  1. The art of Poker is being
    The art of Poker is being able to get the biggest pot out of the hand that you know is a winner. If you come on too strong, you will scare everyone out of the game unless they, too, have a good hand. If you lay back in the weeds and let them come to you, your chances of a big pot increase. So I like your strategy. There is a Taoist feel to it that a frat-boy or stand-up comic could never fathom.

    As for life, there is an old saying, that no one thinks about anymore in our loud-mouth society: “Still waters run deep”.

  2. i really enjoyed this
    i really enjoyed this article. I’m a mix-it-up player as well and have played poker since I was a kid. I have never read a book on poker. My mix-it-up strategy invites a lot of criticism from my poker friends. Good article, keep it up man.

  3. Nobody actually wins at the
    Nobody actually wins at the game of life, the ending is always the same for everybody, ya end up holding a dead hand. The only thing to do is to try is to play the game with some kind of passion,that is off center, that brings knowing looks for those around you, knowing that you see life as more then just some straight set of rules from some book or governement above you, yet doing your obligations towards family and friends. In the end you just vacate your chair so somebody else can sit down and play. Hopefully you set an example to be followed.

  4. Slowplaying a set can get you
    Slowplaying a set can get you in a lot of trouble, but I think it’s the right play on a flop and turn like that with no straight or flush draws, especially since Fratboy overbet the hell out of the pot on the turn, certain that you were a complete donkey. But why do you not check-raise all-in on the river? Is there any real chance that he has QQ or, even more unlikely, 33? Worst case scenario, he all-of-a-sudden decides you’re not a donkey and makes a big laydown, in which case your winnings are the same as if you just call his river bet. More likely, he snap-calls without even considering that he may not have the best hand, and you’re a lot richer.

    I realize that that’s all beside the point of your post. But I guess my point, as a fellow poker- and lifeplayer inclined towards slowplaying, is that it’s valuable to let people underestimate you most of the time, but if action falls right into your lap and you have the option either of shocking people mildly or blowing their minds (and chipstacks), you make your move. No reason to be prudent on that river. You said you could tell he didn’t have the nuts; make him pay even more for having a read on you that is inferior to yours on him.

  5. My brother gambles for a
    My brother gambles for a living – yes – that is his ‘job’. Much of his gambling is at the poker table. I’ve seen him in action and he is a slow player like you. He actually wants other players to think he doesn’t know how to play. That’s his strategy. He comes away winning every time and still manages to make the table think he was just ‘lucky’. It’s genius and I’ve witnessed it. Difference between him and you is that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass if the other players think he sucks. He’s got their money.

    So my advice, ditch the pride and play like you play and keep on winning. As far as life goes, well, you are on your own!

  6. Thanks for comments, all.
    Thanks for comments, all. It’s good to see a poker-related blog post gets this kind of healthy response.

    Baroque, your point that I could have gone all-in is a good one. In this case, I had a specific personal reason not to — I was playing this tournament with my brother, my father and my stepmother (poker players all), and since it was a “family affair” I did not want to risk being knocked out so early in the match even in the unlikely circumstance that frat-boy was sitting on queens full or (even more remote) four threes. So, yeah, I failed to make the “balls of steel” move and risk my participation in the tournament on the hand. I hedged my bet. One could say I didn’t play this perfectly for this reason, but given my desire to enjoy a long tournament with my parents and brother, I do think I played it perfectly for my specific circumstances.

  7. The other night I was at
    The other night I was at dinner in Las Vegas listening to the man next to me unburden himself of his poker tactics to me. In the process he also included his credentials, which were more impressive than mine given that he had lived for an extra 50 years. Most of his information sounded like a basic college statistics course. He included favorites like pot odds, percentage bets, and necessary raises. Other proffered information included never to raise low pairs pre-flop and such book-heavy advice.

    I am always ready to listen to strategy arguments as it helps me to hash out my own to hear it out loud, whether poker, political, literary, etc. But when I brought up my point, hardly revolutionary, that although it is important to know the odds, you cannot play them every time. If you did play the book every hand, anyone at the table who knew the book would know your hand every time. Plus it takes all the fun out of it. And I know theres money involved, but I generally walk away as soon as it stops being fun.

    That same night I wandered into the poker room at The Wynn around 4.30 am on my way home from a long night, also with family. I bought in, sat down, and started playing. The rest of the table turned out to be all local players waiting for slightly intoxicated people to come in and try their luck. The whole table underestimated us and tried to bully us around, which I allowed until I hit trips on a flop. I let him bet every time and reluctantly called. On the river I checked, he bet big, I raised small to appear weak, then he put me all in. Which I called immediately. This caught quite a few chuckles from his local buddies at the table. Having been more than doubled up I cashed in after a few more hands, went to bed, and slept well, pondering what the book would have told me to do.

  8. Nice description of the poker
    Nice description of the poker game. It could be part of a novel. Maybe a follow-up to Summer of the Mets.

    And remember, maybe the guy meant for you to “overhear” him, as a tactic to make you careless. I’m not much of a poker player, but we used to play spades in the Navy, and one guy would always rag somebody about “sandbagging” – bidding low – until the victim would feel “shamed” into overbidding and lose bigtime.

  9. I’m not sure what “the book”
    I’m not sure what “the book” that everyone is referring to is, but neither conventional wisdom nor any actual, reputable poker book advocates playing transparently at a poker table. You vary the way you play based on how everyone else is playing and to keep from being predictable.

    Plus, slow playing is not an unheard of or unconventional tactic. In fact, the reason many poker books generally advise against it is that people do it too often.

  10. Baroque, “by the book” is
    Baroque, “by the book” is actually a misnomer that means “by the numbers”. A player who flops three of a kind is making a statistically smart move by betting big, thus preventing his opponents from catching a straight or a flush or a bigger hand (which is exactly what happened when I failed to bet big on my three eights in the story above).

    I agree that most actual books encourage players to mix it up. That’s exactly my point. A conformist, “by the book” approach to poker is obviously self-defeating, and yet if you sit at a poker table today I bet you will hear a lot of the same kind of “me too” rules-based betting that I describe. It’s amazing to me as well.

  11. I know the tale above is
    I know the tale above is about the hands played but rather than “frat-boy”: “His hair had so much mousse, the lights reflected it giving a halo effect. The brand-of-the-month swiss chronometer and the Cohiba cigar in the pocket of the sports shirt that cost the price of a rack of discount t-shirts completed the image of a man projecting an image, a man so alone and uncomfortable with himself, that the uniform said what the absent frat pin would have.”
    There could be descriptions of the other players.
    This is only a suggestion.
    Sometimes the cookie-cutter stereotypes work best in flash fiction.

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