It’s a funny one, playing poker. Tell most people that you’re a poker player, and they will instantly assume you have some kind of gambling problem. I could talk about tournament successes or cash wins till the cows come home, but the average person will still always assume that you’re losing, and that it’s out of control. Certainly, it is an addiction of sorts. But I don’t really consider it to be purely gambling. If I play in a casino, I don’t play any other games while I’m there as I consider these to be games of pure chance, where the house has an advantage. And yet, as Dave, who’s sharing a lift with me on the way to this event in Swansea, reminds me, according to the United States government, poker is classified as a game of chance, not skill. I’m not so sure though – surely my seven years of playing this game relentlessly counts for something? Surely, I’m better than a total novice, just starting out, and therefore the skills I’ve picked up will give me a better chance of winning?
It was always likely that there were going to be few novices in this tournament. The buy-in for this one is a not-cheap £165, acting as a deterrent to any potential donkeys, you might think. I don’t think there was a single female player, which means they either don’t consider themselves good enough, or they are far more careful with their cash! Some players will have satellited in (played in a lead-up tournament with a much smaller buy-in, with the prize being a seat), or perhaps obtained a ticket in some other way, but still, the buy-in for this one means it is likely to be a tournament full of players who take their poker a bit more seriously. We’re talking about the cost of a flight to most places in Europe, and a couple of nights accommodation, after all! The potential to win perhaps the equivalent of a 6 week around the world trip (the £5000 first prize) is on offer though, plus the prestigious Welsh Poker Series trophy, of course!
In my case, most of the buy-in had been afforded by a rich (and kind, handsome, etc.) uncle. I had put the proposal of him stumping up the cash for one of these events to him while staying at his luxury villa in Majorca in the summer. He had agreed with some reluctance, on a “just this once” basis, and as my birthday is approaching, we agreed that it would be for this particular event. Obviously, it changed the dynamic for me – I was playing to win cash for myself, but I also very much wanted to do well so that my uncle would not feel it was money wasted.
Well, we arrived at the Grosvenor Casino in Swansea. It’s hardly the most glamorous casino. I visited the Hippodrome Casino in London recently, which is a stunning venue. This place does not even look nearly as nice as its much more recently built Cardiff counterpart. However, it still has a certain charm. As a Cardiff City fan, I’m always a little wary whenever I’m in this city – badge removed from front of car as necessary precaution – but in fact, usually I find the people far more friendly than I’d anticipated. Football aside, the people of Swansea have a much more relaxed approach to life, it always seems to me – Cardiff people can be very uptight!
So anyway, I say hi to a few of the regulars I know, as well as to dealers I’ve also become acquainted with, including Krisztian, who runs the poker room in Cardiff’s Grosvenor – a charming fellow, always with a smile and a joke, just a shame he’s an Arsenal fan. I am given seat 8 on table 1. This is not too bad a seat. As all poker players will know, on a 10 player table, seats 1 and 10 are always the worst. Seated on either side of the dealer, it is difficult to have a clear view of the table, having to constantly crane your neck to see all the action. You would think something could be done to counter this clear disadvantage some players will experience.
The tournament starts at around 4pm. At this stage, there were not more than around 50 players. With a guaranteed prize pool of £15,000, at this stage, the casino itself would have had to stump up a large amount of the “overlay”, and with fewer players, each person could anticipate an easier chance of winning part of the cash. However, late entries were permissible up until the end of Level 6. Rebuys were also available until this stage. That is, if you lost all your chips, you could indulge in paying that hefty entry fee yet again! With each level (that is, the stage at which the blinds go up) lasting 3/4 of an hour, that’s a whole 4.5 hours away! So a lot of time for the guaranteed prize pool to be made up of entries and rebuys.
I would not normally consider myself to be a cautious player. Especially early on, I play a lot of hands, and I especially like to see a lot of cheap flops. However, in a tournament of this nature, some amount of caution was definitely called for. I made a slightly over-cautious fold of my very first hand – King/Six off-suit – to a just-over min-raise, and this became my first regret, as two sixes appeared on the board, and I think I would have won the hand.
It wasn’t long though before I won a reasonable sized pot of about 15,000. I flopped a set of 5s (ie. holding a pair of 5s, with a 5 appearing on the flop), and slow played it right up until the river, allowing my only opponent to bet at me on every street. An interesting thing happened here as, although he went to fold his hand, I asked if I could see it. I’m never exactly sure of the rules about who has to show their hand or not. I think in this case, as I had called him, I was entitled to see his hand, but as he was motioning to fold, I was informed this was bad etiquette. My opponent did reluctantly show his total bluff (something like 5/6, he had missed his straight draw, but still bet big on the river, hoping for a fold). As someone else at the table said, I had gained some information about this player – that he was a bit of a bluffer – but I was not going to be a friend of his, having taken a good number of his chips, and also forced him to show his hand.
I felt reasonably comfortable at this table. It seemed to be a table of keen card players, and the standard was quite high. Further down the table to the dealer’s left was a guy who reminded me of Mike the cool person, from the Young Ones, in a smart looking shirt and shades. Immediately to my right was a guy whose profile – in spite of the fact that he had no hair – looked exactly like Rhod Gilbert! In between Mike the cool person and the bluffer was a guy called Martin who I’ve known from playing in Cardiff. Martin also looks quite cool. He has an incredibly confident air about him, and whenever he announces the word raise, you absolutely know to be fearful.
Martin became the person who we all decided was “running like God”. There’s usually one player who will just seem to have an incredibly good run of cards. You can play as well as you like, but if you also happen to consistently have good cards, there’s not much stopping you. The flop would come 9/10/queen, and of course, Martin would have king/jack to complete his straight. This sort of thing was happening on an absurdly consistent basis. However, Martin was not varying his play. He was betting quite large every single time. Of course, we found it hard to believe that he was always hitting the hand, but still, it meant that he was not getting many callers. This meant that although he kept winning hands, he was not winning very big pots. He built up his stack size, but if he’d played a bit more tricky, he could have won a lot more. He was finally out fairly early, when the flop had come 3 low cards, and he’d moved all in – about 18,000 I believe – with his ace/queen. Not necessarily a horrendous move – the majority of hands would be forced to fold – but he was unlucky to bump into a set of 8s. This just went to prove that even getting a ridiculous run of good cards will not guarantee success!
In the meantime, I was a little bit unlucky. I made a full house, with a queen, the board including a queen and 3 aces, but incredibly, found myself just checking the river, and then just calling a bet of 2000 – not an enormous bet – as I had suspected my opponent of having an ace, which indeed he did, to beat my full house with his quad aces. I made a flush, but the river card that gave me the flush, meant the board was paired, and again, I just called a large-ish bet, and again, my good hand was beaten by a better hand – a paired board can often mean a full house, which turned out to be the case.
So I was down to around half my starting stack. Each player started with 25,000, and I had around 12,000. Not a great place to be in. I now had no choice now but to play extremely cautiously. One bad move, and I could potentially be out of the tournament. It just meant I had to concentrate, and fold an extraordinarily large number of times. In some ways, I was fortunate to pick up an extraordinarily large number of rubbish hands, which were easy to fold! However, even still, I would pick up ace/jack suited for example – a relatively premium hand – but following a raise, and then a large re-raise, I felt I had to put it down (turning out to be the best choice, as the re-raiser told me he had had a pair of queens, a much better hand).
It might not have been the best policy, but the way I was looking at this tournament was to try and achieve certain goals along the way. The first goal was simply to make it to the end of Level 6, when the rebuy period ended. I had absolutely no intention of rebuying – the mistake I’d made when I’d played this tournament back in March, and had had to resort to getting out the credit card! – so to at least get past this stage would be something. Of course, I could not exactly announce to the world that I wasn’t rebuying – people could take advantage, knowing this – but then again, I suppose there would not have been too many players who were particularly enthusiastic about this option.