Good hands and bad hands: Ruminations on recent poker plays

March 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 26, 2014

I think the first time I ever played poker was in college; senior year, if I recall properly. I played occasionally with friends and friends of friends since then, but never regularly — until last year.

After making the top 10 of a charity poker tournament in early 2013, I decided to start playing World Tavern Poker. This is a free no-limit Texas Hold ’Em league hosted by hundreds of bars around the country. There’s no money at stake, and there’s no signup fee. (The business model of the league seems to be that people playing poker at bars and restaurants are more likely than not to purchase food and drinks at said establishments, which splits revenue with the organizers.) It’s been an interesting ride.

Recently I’ve had a stretch of playing WPT a few nights in a row. (The prospect of simultaneously playing cards and watching college basketball motivated me to play on Saturday and Sunday.) I wanted to write about some hands that I played on Sunday and Monday.

On Sunday, I won…not a single hand. (There may — may — have been one walk, which is what happens when no player calls the big blind, and she or he recoups that blind plus the small blind, if applicable.) I don’t think I played particularly badly; things just didn’t fall my way.

There was one memorable hand that I didn’t play early in the evening. I believe it was queen-nine off-suit, a combination I won’t normally bet. It stuck in my head because the pot ended up being split between two players holding queen-ten; as it turned out, my queen-nine would have been the winning hand with two pairs.

Bars typically host two holdem tournaments at a time, often starting at 7 and 9:30 p.m. I lasted past the break of the second-tournament. I went all-in with my last black chip as the small blind. One player called the big blind of 2,000 chips, so the main pot was three black chips with a side pot of two black chips: 5,000 in notional currency at stake in all.

I was holding ace-seven. Out came the flop. It included an ace. No one bet. The turn came, and then the river. Still no bets.

“Who’s got two pairs?” I asked mournfully before flipping up my cards.

It turns out that both of the other players had two pairs — they were holding matching hands, aces and sixes. I showed my cards and belly-ached about not having won a single hand all night. Then I sat down at another table and signaled for my check.

Cut to Monday night. My showing in the first tournament was nothing special: 18th or so, which is enough to garner a very modest number of ratings points.

I’m doing OK in the second tournament, and I’m sitting at my second table, when I’m dealt pocket queens. I made a significant raise pre-flop.

A genial burly ginger-haired mustachioed man of about 50 was sitting to my left. This fellow, Tom, was likely the tournament chip leader at that point. He said he was going all-in.

The action rotated around the table back to me. Just Tom and I remained in the hand. I had to think about my decision, and I said so. I peeked at my hand and looked at Tom and closed my eyes as I mulled things over.

Pocket queens is, of course, a great hand. Starting out, I’d basically be ahead of anything except pocket kings or pocket aces. Of course, this is holdem — an ace-king combo could hit a higher pair than me, and any low pair might make a set (three of a kind). Two suited hole cards might form part of a flush (five cards of the same suit), and connectors could fit into a straight (five consecutive cards, such as ace-two-three-four-five). Any of those hands would beat my pair of queens.

And if Tom’s hand beat mine, I was out of the tournament. He had far more chips than me.

Jenny, the player to my right, dashed off to the bathroom. Tom asked if he’d have time to do the same. No, I told him; I wasn’t going to take that long.

A moment later, I declared that I was going to call. Much to my surprise, Tom had queen-four off-suit. I showed my queens. Things were looking good.

The flop, turn and river came out, and my hand held up. I collected my pot, which gave me a sizable stash.

A while later, I was sitting at the final table with three or four other players. I was the small blind; my hand was eight-two, both clubs. This is a junk hand, obviously: two low cards, no straight possibility. The only way eight-two becomes a winning hand is through a bluff or through luck — if a flush or full house is dealt. But for some reason, I felt that I could work with this hand.

No one called, and when the action came to me, I doubled the big blind — I added three gray chips, making the total bet 20,000 in notional currency. The player in the big blind, a skinny guy of around 30 whose first name starts with A., called my bet.

Out came the flop: eight-four-three. I was the first to act. I hesitated, then I went all-in. I counted them out for A. and stacked them: 13 gray chips.

A. had me covered, but he had to think about it. He matched my stack, and I thought he’d called, but then I realized he was still deciding. After a few moments, he decided to play.

Out came A.’s cards: ace-six. An ace would beat me; he also had the chance for a straight. I held my breath for the turn and the river, but, amazingly, my measly pair of eights stood up. A. was still in the tournament, but I’d just taken the bulk of his chips.

The tournament was not long for this world. It came down to four players: A., Jenny, Justin and me. Justin had a hoard of chips that a dragon would envy; I had about a third of his treasury, while Jenny and A. each held only a few chips. I sat out a hand as A. and Jenny went all-in against Justin. A. had pocket eights, and Jenny had two higher cards, but Justin had the best cards. Because they had the same amount of chips, and because she technically had the better hand before the flop, Jenny took third place over A.

That left Justin and me. He asked to take a break so he could run to the bathroom. I agreed.

When he got back, we posted blinds and I dealt the cards. I liked my hand: pocket aces. I doubled the big blind. Justin called without blinking.

I dealt the flop: king-eight-six.

“All in,” he said.

I considered. Did Justin have three of a kind? I doubted it.

I called.

Justin rose to his feet. “Two pairs,” he said as he revealed a king and an eight, both diamonds. I had a sinking feeling.

I showed my aces. Justin blinked.

But he was ahead and he stayed that way as I dealt the turn and river. King-eight held. Hand over; tournament over. Justin was the winner; I finished in second place.

I stood and looked at the cards. I mumbled something to the effect that with the king and the eight of diamonds, I was unlikely to push Justin off his hand. He agreed, saying that he might have called even if I’d shoved all-in pre-flop.

The bottom line is that eight-two turned out to be a big winner for me in a crucial spot, but my aces were cracked.

I thought about that repeatedly as I drove home, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

Poker. It’s a funny game.

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