A winner is me

I won my first poker tournament today. It was a small charity tournament at work, and only 11 people entered — but hey, I was still tops out of 11 today. I was actually crippled about halfway through and down to a handful of chips; I thought I was going home. But I played aggressively when I needed to and sent enough strange “am I bluffing or do I have it” signals along the way that people didn’t know how to read me. It was a good step forward for my poker confidence.

There goes my Vegas virginity

I’d been to Las Vegas before on business but rarely done anything cool or vaguely scandalous. Some years back I played a little blackjack at the Showboat (so off the strip, you might not know the strip existed) and was so nervous and clueless that I didn’t enjoy it. I’d gone to a nice dinner at a steakhouse once on a biz trip, and gone swimming once with Kat. Most of time I’ve been there for meetings or conferences or trade shows and I was just focused on business.

Midway had an event this week and I went to get the scoop on their upcoming games. After the demos and the parties, I went to the Luxor to finally play poker for real. My local card room is a little expensive for my tastes ($3/$6, which means you kind of have to buy in for $100 to be competitive) and both times I’ve gone, I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was assured that Vegas was more relaxed, more fun, and more drunk.

All in all, it was good. I did not come out ahead. In fact, I was $100 down after two $50 buy-ins, and with the second one, I was all-in and pulled a straight to win a $40 pot, which kept me playing for a good while longer. But I enjoyed playing poker in Vegas for several hours, so I know I was buying the experience more than anything. That win just bought me more time.

I saw the kind of play I expected on a low-stakes table ($1/$2 limit), which is to say “reckless and hoping to catch a card on the river, which happened to me once and everybody else a lot.” I mean, I can’t complain because at low stakes, some people literally play any two cards and see what happens. Tonight, they won a lot — lots of unsuited, disconnected cards took the pot. One of the Mandalay Bay employees said he felt 60-70% of limit games were decided on the river, and that held up at our table. And like I said, some of the play was just horrible so you find yourself going “You’re kidding, THAT won?” But again, that’s poker, and lousy play/crappy cards being rewarded sometimes is part of the game. A lot can happen in seven cards.

The only thing that left a bad taste in my mouth is when a few side conversations were struck up in Spanish. I don’t mean that to sound xenophobic, but I’ve read a book or two on poker cheating at casinos, and collusion is the number one way to cheat. Speaking in a different language is the easiest way to do that. Mandalay Bay’s rules actually explicitly prohibit table conversations in any language but English for just that reason…but I wasn’t playing there. So when these chats en Espanol showed up at my table at the Luxor and were not addressed for a very long time, I did get a little put off. I kind of stayed around longer because I wanted to take some of their possibly-ill-gotten chips, so I might have quit a little earlier if the rule had been handed down. Then again, maybe not. And maybe it’s not a rule at the Luxor, but the third or fourth dealer in did finally say something, so I have to believe it’s common across all the casinos. It didn’t help that one of the Spanish-speaking guys said “Talk, talk!” when I casually struck up a conversation with other people. And then he changes his seat to be right next to his buddy? It all just seemed suspicious.

That said, my mistakes were still my own, and many times I simply didn’t have the cards when someone else did. I was victim to a lot of overcards. I played pretty smart overall, though I did chase a few things I shouldn’t have, and I probably was not aggressive enough (or consistently aggressive). In the end, it was $100 of education. I’d do it again. But when I do, I’m gonna bust out some Latin or something.

Ace in the holes

Well, those who don’t occasionally write for a poker magazine may not be aware of it, but a bill passed this week (as a rider to another bill altogether) that basically makes it illegal to play poker for money online. I’m not surprised. I’m just disappointed. This just in: government is teh stupid.

I know this is going to sound like more liberal California claptrap, but hey, geniuses in Washington: What if you embraced and taxed the shit out of it? Do you think that might pay for some of the huge national debt, or even offset a fraction of the staggering costs of this extended vacation in Iraq? Or are you actually going to tell me that low-stakes online gambling ruins the moral fiber of the country that installs puppet dictators worldwide?

I didn’t play online that much or for any notable stakes–I’ve actually won more in friendly live games and local card rooms, and even the sum total of all that activity wouldn’t buy a decent guitar–but this is just dumb. And yes, this probably spells doom for my freelance outlet. So I guess I do have something invested in poker’s popularity!

iPod games

New iTunes 7.0 came out today. Love the new integration of the iPod updater with iTunes; it makes a lot of sense. But when I heard they had honest-to-goodness iPod games available, well, hey. I bought Texas Hold ‘Em immediately.

It’s like any other game system–use the controls available to you wisely and it will be a fun experience. Katamari Damacy gets it. Brain Age gets it. And after playing tons of crappy portable poker games, I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Texas Hold ‘Em gets it. Use the clickwheel to choose whether you want to raise, check, or fold. Simple, clean and minimal animations don’t get in the way of the game–and they’re skippable. Increase your bet but scrolling. The thing’s so damned intuitive. Five bucks well spent.

We’ll see how the AI holds up in the long term, but so far, so good.

Texas Hold ’em XBLA

Wow. Even against the worst poker players in the world, I seem to be unable to place higher than fourth.

Every game of Texas Hold ’em on Xbox Live Arcade starts roughly the same: At least three people go all-in on a pair or less. Since the top three places pay out, this is great for thinning the field. If you just cease to play for the first few hands, you can often make it into the money by default. If you do happen to have a moderately strong hand, like three of a kind, you can often take down that first pot and be aggressive for the rest of the game with little risk.

There’s also usually one guy who then mocks everybody who went all-in and proceeds to offer–at no additional cost to you!–all the poker advice and wisdom you never wanted in the first place. HE knows how to play. HE will tell you. And then in a few hands, HE usually chases some stupid straight draw and winds up out of the game, too. The quiet, smart players that remain then get on with the game.

I like it. The AI is atrocious, the music is obnoxious, and more than half of the players don’t know what they’re doing. But I like it.

EDIT: Well, okay, I liked it until tonight. Pocket aces, twice in one tournament, both times in the big blind. That’s fantastic luck! And both times, cracked by the river–once by a straight, once by trip 3s. Oh, the pain. Guess I’m just not betting enough to scare people off.