From Fish to Horse

One night several years ago, while working at a catered dinner party, a complete stranger convinced me to keep an open mind about poker staking. (We had been discussing the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and my desire to write a novel about a woman finally winning the main event.) When he asked me if I would ever play, I’d told him I couldn’t imagine spending $10,000 on a tournament, but that I would love to win my way in through a satellite (like thousands of other people). When he suggested that someday I might find a backer, I admitted I didn’t think I would play well with that added pressure and hinted at the dismal odds of that possibility coming true. (At the time, I had yet to take first place in any tournament at my local casino.)

He seemed surprised I thought the chances were so low and proceeded to explain how all investments are the same to people with plentiful equity and that they calculate a certain amount of risk into their overall investment plan each year. He was certain there were people who might buy me in without expecting a dime if I lost, just for the chance of being on the winning team, so to speak, if I managed to prevail. His logic made sense to me, but I still doubted my modest skills would draw any backers’ attention. To my surprise, just a few months after I began playing at the local casino more regularly, that stranger’s prediction came true.

It was already past 10 PM and I was down $200. I had been playing smart, but getting busted in nearly every battle I braved. I knew the text books said that my conservative play could eventually triumph against the table full of aggressors, but I had a budget to stick to. I stood to leave, but my newest friend insisted I couldn’t go and pulled out his wad of hundreds. I’d attempted to warm up to him in hopes of subduing his aggressive tactics on the felt a little and had managed to sweet talk him into the seat on my right (so I would rarely have to act before him). He had also allowed me infinite peeks at his hole cards when I wasn’t in the hand.

Gaining insight into the poker room pariah was unexpected enough. The moment he pulled out his money on my behalf, the experience turned surreal. Sherif not only offered to front me $100, he didn’t expect a share of my profits nor anything in return if I lost. It crossed my mind that he likely hoped a date was part of the package, but with nine witnesses to vouch for the official agreement, I sat back down. I was getting tired and beginning to lose steam, but felt it would be wrong to dismiss such an opportunity, even if it came from someone I didn’t trust, hardly knew, and wasn’t sure I liked (though he was growing on me by the minute).

I ended up all-in against my backer and one slightly smaller stack a few hands later with pocket queens. Sherif (once again) stole the pot with an inferior starting hand, but he immediately threw down another $100 to forbid me from heading home just yet. By that time, I was beginning to believe his unending aggression was destined to prevail against the more conservative players like myself that evening, but I sighed and accepted his additional advance. Fearing he would simply throw down yet another c-note if I busted again, I cranked up my conservatism another notch and settled in for the long haul. Before I knew it, I was paying back Sherif and going home with $165 in my pocket.

Yet, as satisfying as it was to recoup my evening’s losses, the real thrill was having someone believe in me and being able to live up to my backer’s expectations. Although Sherif did eventually prove that he had hoped the experience would earn him a date, it only served to boost my belief I might get the chance again someday, somewhere bigger. In my quest to improve my game and study the personalities that converge at the felt for my novel, there was no telling who I might meet and what doors might be opened just by being myself. After all, I was merely trying to befriend Sherif when I stumbled into the first opportunity. I hadn’t flattered him with a pack of lies to procure his favor. I just told him who I was.

A little less than a year later, that bigger, better, far more surprising opportunity I had predicted finally arose. I was in Las Vegas to visit the World Series of Poker for the first time in my life, though primarily to observe and research my novel, as my bankroll had been on empty for months. I was in the Amazon Room at the Rio, surrounded by green felt jungle warriors, thankful for the intrigue my Chumash Casino ball cap seemed to have added to my outfit. My favorite poker playing author, James McManus, had agreed to meet me while I was in town and had been chatting with me in-between hands during his tournament. I was bubbling with excitement because he had offered to take a peek at any poker stories I had to see if they were worthy of being passed on to an editor (despite the fact I had none written) and pondering where I would lay down my final hundred or so dollars for poker with the help McManus’ table mates (in hopes of procuring a story worth writing). Everyone there agreed the afternoon deep stack tournament, starting as we spoke, was the best value – $235 to win $50k or more – but that was out of my price range. If I hadn’t “wasted” $80 that morning on a super satellite, I could’ve played, but it was too late.

Apparently, one sharp female observer saw my inner conflict in my eyes, because she approached me while being shuffled her off to another corner of the room. “Do you want to play in tomorrow’s deep stack tournament?” she asked in the sort of whispered tone spies use in the movies. “Meet me here an hour before and I’ll buy you in.” I had a hard time believing she wanted to back a total stranger, but I gave her my number anyway, just in case. To my surprise, this benevolent stranger did call… and she showed up the following day, true to her word.

Her stated reason for backing me was that she could see I really wanted to play and she wanted to make that happen, despite the fact her friends had advised her to back out when I’d demanded a 40% share of my winnings. She told me that to have offered an unknown like myself 35% was quite generous and she had decided to take a chance on me anyway. I felt that “greedy and naive” might be an accurate assessment, so I quickly revised the contract – a photocopy of my Driver’s License with the agreement hand written below – giving her back the 5% I’d strong armed over the phone the night before. I took a photograph of her ID and her signing the agreement, then handed her the only copy of the paperwork. (Ideally, I should have brought two copies, but I didn’t think of that until I arrived.)

She handed me the cash and I went to stand in line, officially a horse in a race for the first time. Again I had been lucky enough to find a backer who didn’t require make-ups (repayment of lost entry fees) and this time the potential payout was enormous. Greg Raymer (2004 WSOP main event champion) was mingling with the common folk just a few feet away from the cage as I waited to purchase my seat. As I watched the fishies swim over to bask in his greatness, I couldn’t help but think the fact that I had just finished interviewing Jennifer Harman and shaking Johnny Chan’s hand when my backer phoned to finalize our agreement had helped me seal the deal. I hadn’t yet proven my abilities on the felt in any grand way, but I was beginning to prove my ability to utilize my skills in real life. Perhaps the fact that I’d gotten to spend an hour in Bobby’s Room and, in so doing, fluffed my own ego would propel me to the next level as a player.

What I didn’t know until after the tournament started is that re-entries would be allowed for the first two hours and twenty-five minutes. If I had known, I might not have felt as confident in my abilities as a horse. Personally, I hate re-buys and re-entries because the players willing to reinvest always make it extremely difficult for those of us trying to survive on a single buy-in. They play like Sherif. It’s rare to find yourself battling for a modest pot when re-entry is an option. However, once again, I got lucky and was seated at a fairly mellow table of moderately conservative players for the first two hours. Unfortunately, I got few playable hands and zero premium cards. When we reached the first break, I was down but not completely out, standing strong with a bit more than ten times the big blind.

I ran into my backer in the restroom and learned she was on similarly shaky ground in the tournament . We both felt we were putting up a good fight considering the hands we’d been dealt. We exchanged encouraging words and went our separate ways. Just after the tournament resumed, I got moved to a new table and began feeling pressured to make my move. I felt I needed to make my presence known and ensure no one thought I was a weakling. I shoved against an opponent who had raised pre-flop when I nabbed a pair of tens with my ATo and was quickly eliminated by pocket Kings. I suppose I was hoping he would think I had flopped trips, but perhaps he did and didn’t care. He had me covered. I knew better than to push with anything less than trips or top pair with a straight and/or flush draw, but I did it anyway.

I left wondering if my backer’s friends were right – she shouldn’t have risked her funds on a nobody like me – but wanting to believe I played a nearly perfect game up until the moment of ultimate blunder. Had the turn or river been a ten or ace, I would’ve won the hand. It was far from the worst odds I’d faced that day. Perhaps there would have been a better time to make my move a few hands down the line, but I couldn’t be sure the end result would have been any different. It wasn’t my day to win, at least, not there or right then. I still had $100 of my own money with which to make a move and I decided to venture to the Aria because Jen said she had played there before meeting up with me at the Bellagio the night before.

It took well over an hour to get a seat for $1-$3. The waiting list was forty to fifty people long the entire time I was there. There were only two other women in the poker room and the men had been eyeing me hungrily for quite some time when I finally got a seat. They were buying in $300 at a time and clearly thought they could easily nab my only $120. I was deep in conversation with the table’s self-proclaimed shark when I doubled up against an overconfident young fish the first time. As the shark babbled on about his seven card stud skills to bolster his Hold’em reputation, I doubled up again, against the same fish.

Shortly thereafter, the silver haired Chip Reese fan left for the evening, citing a self-imposed curfew as the reason he exited before battling me on the felt. He was replaced by a younger, less mouthy, stalwart opponent who had his girlfriend in tow. He and I seemed to sense there was no need to battle each other. He and his girlfriend seemed to be the only two able to see the stars aligned in my eyes. They watched with amazement as I was dealt a stream of playable pockets that I deftly used to my advantage. I left $765 richer in just over two hours – my biggest cash game win to date. I pondered calling my backer to offer her some reimbursement, but decided a real poker player would never cave in to that guilt. (Plus, it was really early in the morning.) Instead, I let fate decide.

I wagered that if I ran into her during my final visit to the WSOP area at the Rio before leaving town, I was meant to return the money in full. If she was nowhere to be found, I was meant to keep the funds and keep playing poker. When I became a regular at my local casino, my original bankroll was a mere $1,000. I’d won two-thirds of it back in a single sitting and that seemed like a sign of its own. I made one final long, slow lap through the WSOP area of the Rio that Tuesday morning before I left town, stopping for coffee and souvenirs, but my backer was nowhere to be found. (Truth be told, the odds were in my favor there. It was far too early in the day for most poker fiends.) I left Vegas feeling confident that stranger had played an important role in my poker career which and determined to prove her instincts correct and make her proud of her investment.

That’s what I think both of my backers share in common – a desire to be the one who noticed something special in someone before anyone else. It turns out, gambling with money is fun, but gambling on people is far more exciting… and I find the life of a horse suits me better than I ever imagined. I don’t care if I get to keep all of my winnings. I just want to play. I no longer doubt there might be others out there willing to put me in a game at the risk of gaining nothing. I long for more opportunities and feel confident they will come. In fact, I also look forward to the chance to do the same for other promising fish some day. Knowing these strangers could see my tenacity at moments when I could hardly feel it myself has brought the type of hope that money can’t buy. I’ve been turned completely. I’m a happy horse who hopes to become a stable master some day. May what goes around come around. The poker world could always use a bit more kindness. Heaven knows it won’t be found at the felt.

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