Tales from the free poker postseason

February 8, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 8, 2018

Author’s note: This post includes a brief reference to criminal activity that may upset some readers. I’ve placed a trigger warning to mark the relevant text. MEM

It’s been nearly nine months since I last wrote about poker. But my experience Tuesday night makes it time to revisit the topic.

For the season that concludes this week, World Tavern Poker retooled one of the various contests that it runs at each venue, replacing Big Spender with Best Customer. There are some similarities: Then and now, for each game, a tournament director awards a point to one or two players.

Previously, though, people were selected for (as the name states) spending the most money at the venue. Now, people are selected for making positive contributions to the competition. You can get a Best Customer point for bringing new players to the game, being friendly to other players, helping the tournament director or the servers at the venue or, as before, spending the most at the restaurant or bar.

There’s another change. Previously, a tavern’s Big Spender prize — a medallion — was handed to the person who accumulated the most points at that venue over the course of the season. Now, the top eight to 10 point-getters at the bar or restaurant face off in a short tournament. The winner receives the Best Customer hardware.

I’ve winnowed down my poker significantly over the past couple of years; now I play almost exclusively on three nights: Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. (I’m the TD, or tournament director, of the pub where I play on Sunday evenings.) I didn’t realize until recently that I might qualify for a Best Customer tournament, but that’s exactly what happened at the Big Easy, where I play most every Tuesday that I’m in North Carolina.

Nine of us participated in the Best Customer tournament on Tuesday evening. Each of us started with 3,000 in chips; the blinds were run on a tight schedule, just eight minutes a level. Normally, a player gets at least 10,000 — more with bonuses — and blinds will often run 12 minutes or longer.

The tournament went fast, but otherwise it was similar to normal tournaments. Chips went out from my stash; sometimes they came back, sometimes they didn’t. I was up a little bit early; then I was down a bit; then I was down more; then I got back to where I’d started.

Thing is, I started to hit hands as the tournament went on. Sure, there was a little bad luck: My ace-king chopped a pot with an ace with a lower kicker when the river card formed a second pair. (The final hand was 7-7-5-5-A for both of us, so neither of our kickers played.)

We got down to me and three women who play together regularly. Then N— got knocked out. Then P— got knocked out. And then it was me and J—.

J— had been the chip leader for much of the tournament, but I hit on a few hands at the end. The very last hand we played, she had jack-two or jack-three and I had a king with the same kicker as J—. She went all in and I called. (I may have taken enough from her stack at that point that she was forced to go all in by the blinds.)

The flop came out with three cards, as it always does. The first one was a brick. The second one was a jack, which helped J—’s cause immensely. The third one was a king, which put me back ahead of her.

The turn and river were both bricks, and there it was: I’d won the Best Customer tournament.

Shortly afterward, we started our second event of the evening, the Tournament of Champions. This time, there were 28 participants, divided among four tables of seven people each.

My experience this time featured something that I happen to like: I got to play at a bunch of tables. One of these ended up not being a table at all; the TD initially set up a group of people on an elevated island, but when it turned out that we’d only need four tables instead of five, we relocated to the place (a traditional table!) where the Best Customer tournament had been played.

We lost two players in short order, so the tournament director told us to split up among the remaining three tables. I sat down near the opposite end of the room.

Unfortunately, things weren’t going particularly well for me: I’d made a very modest score on one hand, but then I’d been slowly bleeding chips by calling with cards that weren’t hitting.

I ended up striking gold on one hand not long after my first table broke up. After limping in with the ace and king of clubs, I saw two more clubs on the flop and bet. Everyone cleared out except for H—, an older player sitting at the far end of the table.

Although I still had only four to the flush after the turn came out, I made a big bet on the turn to try to get H— to fold. He stood up and peered intently at the cards before deciding to call.

Luckily for me, I made my flush — that is, got the third community club to give me five cards of the same suit — on the river. I was first to act, and I took my time considering how to bet. The board hadn’t paired, and I had the two highest clubs, so there was no chance that my flush could be beaten by a higher flush, a straight flush or four of a kind. In other words, I had the nuts. I decided to “slow play” and bet just 600 chips, the minimum wager allowed at that point in the contest.

H— thought things over and raised to 2,500, which was exactly half of what I had in front of me. I pretended to be unhappy and then declared all in. H— called with minimum fuss, so I turned over my flush. He folded and complimented me, confessing that he hadn’t spotted the flush possibility among the five community cards.

Eventually that table broke up and I moved to a new seat beside J—, who had a massive stack. My luck had cooled, so my treasury, which hadn’t been especially big at any point in the game, was much smaller than hers.

Despite having limited resources, I hung in there. A couple of times, including once when I was under the gun, I got king-jack and shoved all in. Most of the time, no one called me, and I collected the posted blinds.

J— hit a bit of bad luck and was eliminated, and we consolidated to the final table — my fifth move of the event. Here again, my fortunes waxed and waned.

A crucial moment came as I held (again) king-jack unsuited. I sat and contemplated what I wanted to do before going all in. P—, the tournament director, hemmed and hawed before calling me with ace-10 off-suit. A jack hit, taking a modest bite out of P—’s then-considerable stack.

I started to rally when I found myself holding pocket queens; I bet big on them and won. An orbit or two later, holding pocket kings, I went all in again for maybe 18,000 chips. This time, I got called by the two men to my immediate left, V— and Jason.

Since both of them still had chips and I had none, the pot was put in front of me and all three of us kept our cards face down. I think the flop contained two jacks; both of the players checked, but V— went all in after the turn. (I don’t remember what the turn was, but it didn’t help me.) Jason called.

I stood up as I turned my hand over, saying something to the effect that I guessed my night was over. However, much to my surprise, neither of my opponents had a jack; in fact, V— had shoved with complete junk, presumably because he was tired and ready to go home. Jason’s hand was inferior to my queens, so I collected the main pot while Jason took the side pot and V— was eliminated.

(Quick side note, and also trigger warning for assault: I was not that sad to see V— go. This was due in part to a comment he made at the final table suggesting, unbelievably, that some of the women who accused disgraced osteopath Larry Nassar of sexual assault had been lying. I murmured my belief that, based on the majority of the available evidence, the former USA Gymnastics team physician was definitely guilty of abuse.)

And so it went. I mostly sat back and waited as the field shrank to seven players, then six, then five…

When we got down to four, I moved to a different seat so I’d be near the other remaining competitors. Then Tim got knocked out, and then P—, and then…

Then, it was me and Jason.

I had a pretty big stack at this point, and I was able to bully Jason with some bets. But my luck faltered a bit, and Jason started taking my chips bit by bit. When I bet on a flush draw that didn’t come, I had to fold to his bet on the river, and he had nearly as many chips as I did.

And then I came back. My pocket cards improved, Jason folded to a few of my bets, and soon I was holding at least two-thirds of the chips.

My last hand was, if memory serves, ace-king of clubs. I didn’t bet on them too heavily, but I was pleased to see two clubs on the flop. Jason went all in and I called; he had ace-seven, neither of us hit, my king kicker played and I had won the Big Easy’s Tournament of Champions.

I’ve played World Tavern Poker for nearly five years, and I’ve won ToCs and other championship events before. However, never in all that time have I won two tournaments at the same venue on the same day.

I’ve been in the top three of both events more than once; I’ve won the first event and been runner-up in the second one at least once, and I’ve been runner-up in the early event and winner in the late one at least twice. But this was my first ever double win.

Granted, the Best Customer tournament isn’t a standard tournament. But hey, a win’s a win, and I would have been happy to take down either event, let alone both.

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