By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 13, 2015
Buck’s Billiards, a joint just on the Cary side of the Raleigh-Cary municipal boundary, is a popular World Tavern Poker venue. Tournaments there frequently have four or five tables. It’s not unheard of for contests to attract six tables’ worth of players with about 10 people apiece.
If you win a game at Buck’s, you’ll typically earn many points toward your regional, state and national standings. If you win multiple games at Buck’s, you’ll earn respect. That’s true if you win the tavern championship, too, of course.
But winning the tavern championship is a tall order. If you’re ranked in the top 10 at a venue, you have automatic entry into the finals. If you have at least 15 games that season and scored any points in a tournament but aren’t ranked in the top 10, you have automatic entry into the semifinals. Ten percent of the entrants into the semifinals get a seat into the finals.
That’s been the tavern title format since I started playing World Tavern Poker. But a new wrinkle has been implemented this season: Players in the top 10 can participate in the semifinals as spoilers. Top-ranked individuals who crap out in the semis can still play in the finals. Those who finish at the top of the semifinal tournament have essentially taken a spot that otherwise would have gone to an unqualified competitor — in other words, they’ve cut down the number of rivals that will be opposing them in the title game.
So entering Saturday evening’s tavern championship at Buck’s, I had hopes, but not expectations. I knew the odds of me making the finals — let alone winning them! — were long. Extremely long, in fact. But hey, you can’t win unless you play, right?
So play I did.
I was assigned to the fourth table, which mattered not at all to me. What did bother me were the other players at the table — or at least two of them. This is not an indictment of the individuals in question, who may or may not be fine people. But some are just annoying to play with. They’re constantly talking about stuff (a fault to which I’m overly prone), or they’re not paying attention and repeatedly have to be reminded about what’s going on, or they don’t understand what’s happening in the game and repeatedly need some sort of prompting, or they take a very long time to make what should be very simple decisions, or they celebrate loudly when they win, or they’re just plain annoying, or some combination of these traits.
My seat happened to be facing a player named Richard, an impish older man who was playing at another table. Richard loves to poke fun at himself and others, and as the game got under way, he sarcastically remarked how I was sitting at the fun table. I rolled my eyes at this remark, which I felt was unkind but entirely apt in its way.
I eventually got so frustrated with the peccadillos at the table that I unspooled my earbuds, plugged them into my phone and began playing music — something I rarely do, while playing poker or in any context, for that matter. (I am, however, typically plugged into my laptop computer, often to hear podcasts, although I’ll keep the earbuds in even when the laptop isn’t actually playing any sounds.)
As it happened, right around the time I began doing that, I started catching hands. I got trips — three of a kind — twice in a row and hauled in decent pots.
The second time this occurred, Thomas, the tournament director, broke up our table. When the hand ended, people from table four were still relocating themselves. I stood up and saw someone at one of the other tables say that there was one spot remaining.
I claimed it eagerly. Moving there meant that I wouldn’t have to endure the foibles that had been annoying me so much throughout the early hands.
And you know what? I did OK there. Three tables became two, and then we went to the final table, and I was still hanging around. I wasn’t big stack, but I had some margin for error.
When we got to the final table, one of the players whom I find irritating was still playing. But he was small stack; unless he caught some lucky breaks, he wouldn’t be around for much longer. I sat down at one of the open spots near him.
As it turned out, this player (let’s call him Y—) happened to be the focus of a minor brouhaha at the final table. When it came time for him to be big blind, Y— had only 4,000 chips — the exact amount required by the big blind at this level. A player named Dan called Y— without raising.
Then a player whom I’ll refer to as Jake raised. I don’t remember what the raise was, but it was significant.
I was surprised, and I think a lot of other people present were too. The object of tournament poker is to eliminate opponents. (Or, as I often do, to endure while others eliminate competitors for you.) When a player is all in, it’s generally not a good idea to raise, because that scares off people who potentially could take out the all-in player.
Jake’s move was especially unusual because I think when he made his move, the only players in the hand were him, Y— and Dan. In other words, if Jake prompted Dan to fold, Jake would basically be boosting Y—’s odds of winning from 33 percent to 50 percent. This was an especially strange thing to do because Jake had a big stack; having another player eliminated provided him with much greater value than the 8,000 chips he stood to win with a successful raise. (That number includes 4,000 from Y— and Dan’s call of 4,000. If Dan called Jake’s raise, Jake’s potential winnings would rise)
Dan folded, which was the right thing to do. He didn’t seem too happy about it. He said* something like, “I fold, but I’m not happy about it.”
“I don’t blame you,” I said.
Dan wanted to show the hand he was giving up, a pair of nines, so he threw them across the table.
At least one of them hit Jake — not hard, of course, because it was just a playing card. But Jake looked pretty annoyed. He said something to Dan, who apologized.
Then Jake looked at me. “I could have you banned from playing here,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows and contemplated this. I replied, in mild tones, “All I said was that I didn’t blame Dan for being annoyed.”
The hand got around to being played without further incident. Y— showed a jack and something else. Jake showed deuces — pocket 2s, the lowest possible pair.
At this point, I was thinking that Jake’s move was even more ill-advised than I’d first thought. Deuces are the weakest pair.
And in fact, Y— hit one of his cards: A jack came out, giving him a pair. (I forget what his other hole card was.)
But Jake got even luckier: Out came a two, providing him with three of a kind. The board also paired, strengthening Jake’s hand — full house, triple deuces over fives. Y— was out, much to the relief of pretty much everyone except himself.
The field continued to dwindle. Finally, we got down to five. The short stack at this time was a player named Eddie. When he went all in, the two players to his left — first Jake and then me — got in on the action.
I was holding the ace and 10 of hearts, and when Jake checked, I was tempted to bet it.
But I reminded myself that my hand was not particularly strong, and it was far, far more important to get Eddie out of the game than to take chips from him or Jake. And there was a better chance of Eddie getting knocked out if he was facing two opponents (Jake and me) rather than just me alone.
I checked, another card or two came out, and my hand didn’t improve. “I have ace high,” I sighed desultorily, certain that Eddie or Jake (or both) had me beat.
In fact, neither did. Eddie bowed out, I collected the chips and Thomas the tournament director froze the action.
The game was over — we had reached the final four, the maximum number of players who could advance from the roughly 40-person field into the tavern championship finals.
We counted chips. Because I had the most chips — edging out Jake, thanks to the winnings collected on the strength of my ace-10 — I was listed as the winner.
But the real work was ahead of me…
* Standard disclaimer: Since I wasn’t taking notes or making recordings at the time of these events, all dialogue and thought bubbles are guaranteed to be only kind of, sort of accurate. Fortunately for you, the valued reader, this free blog comes with a money-back guarantee!