Straight out of Morrisville: In which I benefit from improbable good fortune and wins

July 5, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 5, 2014

The main dining area of Oh’ Mulligans, a sports bar in Morrisville, N.C., is almost empty but for me and a woman whom I’ll call P. We’re heads-up — vying to determine which of us will be champion and which the runner-up in the second and final World Tavern Poker tournament of Thursday evening.

P. is dealing. At this stage, with only two players, this means that I am big blind. As such, I’m committed to playing the hand unless the dealer folds or raises to a level I don’t care to match, in which case I’d fold. Blinds right now are 10,000 and 20,000 notional units. We’re using gray chips worth 5,000 apiece, so the betting boils down to two and four chips.

P. checks her hand and calls by adding two chips to her small blind. I knock without checking my cards. Out comes the flop — a 10, an eight and either a jack or a queen, I think.

I check. “All in,” P. says.

For the first time in the hand, I peek at my hole cards. I have a nine and a two, off-suit. I have a huge stack of chips, though, and when I look at P.’s chips, I realize that it would cost me only two chips to call.

“Well, I don’t really have anything,” I say, “but…” I throw in my two chips.

We flip our cards. I forget within moments what P.’s hand was, but with the flop, she had either two or three 10s. P. deals the turn and the river, and I start to laugh…

Thursday night’s card-playing was a tale of two games. I didn’t last long in the first game; I got a few good hands that didn’t pan out. The weakest hand that I played was king-seven, which hit, thus boosting my stack from completely pathetic to weak. Immediately after that, I went all in on ace-king or ace-queen; I got one call, from a player named Scott, who had ace-four. I was ahead until fifth street came — a four. The low pair cleaned me out.

“Nice hand, jackass,” Scott said as I stood up.

I started laughing.

“Well,” I said, “I was thinking that, but I didn’t want to say it.”

Scott chuckled amiably as I left the table. I went to a nearby coffee shop and did some editing.

When the shop closed at 9 p.m., I drove back to the sports bar and picked a seat at the table where I’d (briefly) played the first game. My favorite spot in Oh’ Mulligan’s is on the corner of that table, which I think commands the best view of the various screens, but there was already a stack of chips there. I shrugged and placed my chips one seat in from the end.

I believe the second game started with two tables of 10 people. A very strange mishap occurred shortly into the game, when a thin red-headed player named David went all in with a short stack. A few people participated in the pot.

The man sitting to my left — a 30-something white man I didn’t recognize, who had a woman’s name (Beth, I think) tattooed onto the right side of his neck — was dealing the hand. He threw the flop down right in front of me. He’d dealt the turn and river, and betting was all wrapped up, when I noticed that the border of one of the flop cards in front of me, a two, was strangely thick.

“Wait,” I called. I reached out to the two and rubbed the two cards. There were two cards stuck to each other; both were twos. One of them was genuinely part of the flop; the other should have been a burn card.

We called John, the tournament director. Unless there’s a misdeal before the flop, wherein a player’s card is flipped face up, the general rule in World Tavern Poker is to fix the problem if at all possible.

John asked if we knew which cards were the burn cards. However, the dealer had mixed them all together with the muck; it was essentially impossible to distinguish the folded hands from the burn cards. As a result, John told us that the hand had to be declared a misdeal; all the chips would be returned to its original bettors, and the hand re-dealt.

The normally ebullient David looked crushed. He only showed his hole cards to John, so I never found out what he had, but David seemed to think he was going to collect the entire pot. To his credit, he said he wasn’t angry at me and that he was glad that the situation was resolved the right way.

An even more dramatic moment came early on, when one of the first actors, a player named Mark, shoved all-in with his stack of 6,200 chips. A bunch of people started to fold.

Normally, I don’t check my hand until the action comes to me. I made an exception in this case.

To my dismay, I found pocket queens. That’s a fine hand, but it is by no means a guaranteed winner. (Technically, I suppose, no hand is.) And the more people are participating, the greater the chances of a suck-out — that is, of a fluke in which a weaker starting hand beats a stronger one.

So I knew that when the action came around to me, I’d have a decision to make. And I knew that laying down queens would be a dumb move, even if playing them ultimately cost me big-time.

Everyone between Mark and I folded. I was under the gun. I started hemming and hawing. I picked out 6,200 and began counting the remainder of my stack.

Kevin, a boisterous player whom I believe was dealing this particular hand, laughed and heckled me. “You know if you call you’re going to have to go all in?” he said.

I knew. It was one reason why I was still trying to decide. The fact that Kevin was big stack at the table and acted after me made the decision that much harder.

So did the fact that Josh was sitting to my left, near Kevin. Both of those players were apt to call with weak hands. And while “the more the merrier” works for picnics and parties, it’s definitely not a good situation for poker…

In the end, though, I felt I had no choice. “All in,” I said, setting out one stack to match Mark’s treasury and pushing in the other chips. The total came to around 10,500, if memory serves.

What followed was something out of a nightmare — or a dream. Josh called, leaving behind just 500 chips in reserve. Kevin called, too.

So we had a hand with four players, including, technically, two live bettors — Kevin, with a ton of money, and Josh, with almost none.

The flop came out — what it was, I can’t recall — and Josh went all in. Kevin called, of course. All the cards were flipped.

I was surprised: My queens were the best hand. Kevin had pocket 10s. Mark had either an ace or a king and a second face card. (His hole cards weren’t paired.) Josh had an astonishingly bad hand — an eight and two, or maybe a two and a five.

Mark’s high card didn’t pair. Kevin didn’t get the third 10 that would have given him a set. Josh’s cards did nothing. I took the main pot — the chips in front of Mark — and the first side pot. Kevin’s pair earned him rights to 1,000 chips — his 500 plus Josh’s. Josh and Mark left the table.

It took me quite a while to stack up my winnings. I was astounded by how many gray chips I kept finding as I sorted through the piles. Every time I thought that I’d come across the last one, I’d pick another gray out of a mix of lesser-denominations. And now I also had so many greens, worth 500, and blacks, worth 1,000…

Having a big chip advantage over most of the other players is a great way to feel at ease at a poker table. For a long while, the game was very comfortable for me.

As players kept being eliminated, replacements kept arriving at our table. One of them was a man I didn’t know well — whose name, in fact, I don’t know. I’d played against him only once before, that I can recall, and I’d found him to be cocksure and pugnacious. Worse yet, this guy had far more chips than I did.

That was about to change. If memory serves, I called the big blind with the king of hearts and a lower heart. The flop included two hearts. The other guy made a big bet, and I went all in.

I held my breath as he thought things through. He called. A third communal heart came out on either the turn or the river, and I collected another big score.

My opponent did not take it well, as I’d feared. He groused repeatedly about the hand I’d played, insinuating that I’d made a silly bet. At one point, he started counting up my chips under his breath. I had about 100,000 at the moment, and hearing him count annoyed (and even frightened) me slightly. I decided not to show it, and flashed a quick smile instead.

It seemed inevitable that we would go head to head again, and that’s exactly what happened. I forget the exact hand, but I think I flopped two pairs. The other guy was hoping for a flush, but he fell one card short. Instead, fifth street was a jack, which completed a full house for me.

That reduced the other guy’s stack radically, and enriched mine tremendously. He grumbled about how he’d twice tried to get the nut flush against me and missed. I think he lasted a little longer, and that I ended up taking him out.

When the man stood up from the table, I decided to try to be magnanimous about it. “Good game, sir,” I said.

Without meeting my gaze, the man smirked and turned to leave.

I smiled and said, “Huh. He didn’t say anything.” I didn’t bother to lower my voice, even though the man had just started to walk away.

P., who was sitting, to my left, said, “Nope.”

I softly laughed to myself. It seemed I wasn’t the only person who had noticed certain things about my defeated foe.

Around the same time, I paid 28,000 chips or so to call an all in against a player named Marcus. I believe I had pocket sevens, and he had a couple of overs. It was a bad call on my part — he paired or hit a set on the flop. I started laughing at my foolishness.

But the flop, I noticed, was all clubs. The turn was a club too. And…so was the river! Neither Marcus nor I had a club, so a flush on the board saved me from my foolishness (and made me about 3,000 in winnings to boot). I laughed the whole way through.

Marcus and David ended up placing fourth and fifth, respectively, I think. Marcus later went all in on a big pot, but he split it with P. when it turned out they both had king-six or queen-six or some such.

Before it got down to that, though, a balding older man named Peter, whom I take to be German, went all in with a small stack. When the action came to me, I checked my cards, chuckled to myself and called. I had bullets, a.k.a. pocket rockets, a.k.a. American Airlines, a.k.a. a pair of aces.

Peter flipped over big slick — ace-king. I announced my hand. “Uh oh,” Peter said.

John, the TD, was standing by the table, watching as the hand played out. “It’s over,” he said.

Technically, Peter might have won if he’d hit quad kings — but that was not to be. I wound up with a full house, eliminating Peter.

I wasn’t always so lucky. As the number of players dwindled to five, I called an all in by a woman named Lisa and lost. My stack started to seem comparable to hers, rather than much bigger.

But all in all, I was pretty damn lucky for most of the game. I think I got pocket queens a second time, and pocket jacks on another occasion. I must have won three-quarters of all the hands I played, if not more than that.

I wound up winning on a later showdown against Lisa. When it got down to three players, she shoved against me and I emerged triumphant.

That left just P. and I, and my chip stack was much, much bigger than hers.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this story — and the end of the tournament.

I laughed as P. dealt the final cards, because it included just what I needed to win. I had a straight — eight-nine-10-jack-queen. Against all odds, nine-two had decided not just the hand but the entire tournament in my favor.

It was simply a wild night of good fortune.

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