Straight out of a nightmare: On royalty and ruin in Texas holdem poker

June 5, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 5, 2016

Author’s note: The following post contains imprecations and “curse words” that may not be appropriate for younger readers. MEM

I recently wrapped up a very enjoyable stay at the home of my parent, part of which involved walking the dog. Some of it involved visiting with old friends (“visiting with” — a phrase I may have picked up down South), while some of it involved playing poker.

This has been a generally lackluster season of play for me, but I managed to pick up four wins in about three weeks up north. But as is so often the case, in some ways, the most memorable hand in these no-cash poker tournaments wasn’t one where I struck it big.

Picture if you will a moderate-sized Irish bar in the New York City exurbs on a mostly quiet Wednesday night at the very beginning of June 2016. The poker crowd is modest — just a dozen players for the early game, 11 for the late one.

I notched a third-place finish in the first tournament and limped along in the second one until I started hitting a few big hands (what they were, I no longer have any idea!) after we’d eliminated about a third of the field.

Eventually, as these things go, we got down to three players: Myself, a woman with the initials B.B. and another woman with the initials E.A. At this point, I had a pretty big stack, E.A.’s treasury seemed to go up and down pretty dramatically every few hands, and B.B. was limping along. Since the blinds were rising relentlessly, I was in a pretty good position to collect my seventh win of the season (which runs half a year) if I could just avoid major bad luck or a significant act of stupidity on my part.

I was sitting in the big blind with blinds at 30,000-60,000 when it happened. E.A. was the button, or the dealer, and the first player to act pre-flop.

“All in,” she declared. I eyed her stack, which was big but not as big as mine at this point.

B.B. was short stack, and since she was in the small blind, she had already had to commit a little shy of half her chips into the pot. She responded to E.A.’s move by going all in herself.

I hadn’t yet looked at my cards — that’s something that I generally avoid doing so until it’s my turn to act. When I lifted my hand, I found paired kings. This is generally considered the second-best starting hand, after paired aces, and this meant that I had a tough decision to make.

Had my hand been, say, 10-4, I would have instantly thrown away my hole cards and let the two ladies battle it out. But since that I held two premium cards, I had to contemplate what to do.

B.B.’s stack was just 80,000 chips, so she was of minimal concern to me. The big issue, of course, was E.A., whose war chest was about two-thirds of mine. If I called and lost, I would suffer a big blow.

I pondered things for a while, judging the odds, before I made my decision. “Call,” I announced.

I put in my chips and we set aside a main pot of 240,000 for B.B.; the rest was the side pot, which she could not claim but would go either to E.A. or me — or which, if the odds were defied, she and I would split equally. (That’s called a chop.)

As I understand it, the person who made the first all-in bet is the one who should show her or his cards first. But I had a strong hand, and the order in which hands were shown didn’t matter, so I flipped over my cowboys.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my opponents both held queen-eight. E.A.’s hand was superior because she was suited — both of her cards were diamonds. B.B. was in a far less appealing position: her cards were unsuited, meaning that she would need the five-card board to have four same-suited cards to give her a flush. And I forget the specific suits that she and I held, but my flush would be superior in any overlapping suits that the two of us held.

As it turns out, I wouldn’t have to worry about a flush…

I remember the first four community cards including a nine, a seven and a five. (The fourth community card was harmless — a jack or a three or something.) The fifth community card, however…

Sometimes as one of these all-in hands are developing, I’ll realize as fifth street is about to emerge that there is only one card that can beat me. In this case, I realized that one specific card would give both of my opponents a straight to the nine. As I often do, I tried to whisper to myself the name of a harmless card — a superstitious attempt to conjure a favorable result. But as I often do, I got confused as to which card to call for. A seven would have been great, because it would have given me two pairs (kings and sevens) while affording both of my foes but a single pair (just the sevens).

However, instead of calling for a seven, I accidentally whispered six to myself — and watched, transfixed with horror, as a six was dealt on the river.

That catastrophic card gave both E.A. and B.B. a nine-high straight (five-six-seven-eight-nine), far superior to my lonesome pair of royals. B.B. and E.A. split up the main pot, with each getting 120,000. E.A. scooped up the considerably larger side pot.

My stack had been badly diminished, knocked down to roughly the size of B.B.’s, while E.A. was left in the catbird seat.

This was extremely bad luck, and as a consequence, something in me broke. “I don’t usually cry about bad beats,” I said, “but that…” I searched for a way to complete the sentence.

“That was bad,” someone said.

“That was bad,” I agreed. “That was fucking bad. That was really fucking bad.”

A derivative of “fuck” became every third or fourth word out of my mouth. (Examples: “I fucking fold.” “I fucking call.” “I’m fucking all in.”) B.B.’s husband and a few other eliminated players looked on, bemused, as I made a spectacle out of my discontent.

The game proceeded. I went all-in with ace-nine off-suit, just because. Then I went all-in with a pair of aces on the very next hand. No one called me in either case — to my relief when I held ace-nine, to my disappointment when I had pocket rockets.

B.B., whose stack was unimpressive compared to E.A.’s, went all in a few times, winning on each occasion. She made a dent in E.A.’s collection of chips and then surpassed it. Eventually, one of us eliminated E.A. from the game.

My fortunes waxed and waned, but when we got down to the end, B.B. had more chips than me. I think I was the dealer — and, in heads-up holdem play, the small blind — when I looked at my hand and found king-queen (both clubs, if I recall correctly). This isn’t nearly as good as pocket rockets or twin cowboys, but it’s not bad, either. Out of 169 hands, this chart ranks king-queen suited as seventh-best and king-queen unsuited as 20th best.

And so I went all in.

B.B. called and we flipped over our hands. She had a queen as well — queen-eight, off-suit if I recall, which is 115th out of the 169 possible Texas holdem starting hands. (Queen-eight suited is the 43rd-best starting combination of hole cards.)

Unfortunately for me, queen-eight prevailed. And eight came out on the board, but no king was in sight. I believe that the river was a queen, giving me one pair and B.B. two pairs.

I congratulated B.B. and shook her hand. Then I started saying “Fuck!” and pounding the table. I was not by any means angry, and I hadn’t truly been genuinely upset at any point in the evening, but I made enough of the ruckus that a bartender loudly called out my name and told me to cut it out.

“OK,” I said. I stopped pounding the table and reduced the volume of my lamentations.

B.B.’s husband shook my hand and said, “Matt, you may not have won, but you were the star of the game.” I thanked him and smiled, feeling both pleased with myself and guilty about the scene I’d been making.

I helped the tournament director clean up and paid my tab. At some point I hugged B.B. and congratulated her once again and told her that despite my acting out, I hadn’t really been angry with her. She said she knew, and she remarked, aptly, that she had been on a streak where she couldn’t lose, no matter what I did. “Everything I did worked” or “Everything I did was right” was the phrase she used, I think.

And it was true. She even admitted that when she’d called my king-queen while holding queen-eight, she’d been tired and had wanted to end the game quickly.

My friends, so it goes…

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