Willy’s Game

When discouraging forays at the felt freeze your bankroll, there’s nothing quite like wandering into a penny poker game to revive your spirits. It was a Monday afternoon and I’d been cooped up with my own thoughts for more than 48 hours. I’d been on the hunt for more humorously titled poker stories in America’s news archives for a piece I wanted to write and playing play money poker online with all of my free time all week. I was in dire need of some actual human interaction to enliven my spirits. I didn’t know there would be a game that day. Willy doesn’t plan in advance or send out an invitation. If the right people show up and want to play, then they play. He’s one of those seemingly eternal bachelors that it seems half the town enjoys spending beer-thirty with. The odds that I would be the only person to stop by on any given week day are extremely low, however, most of the time everyone is just drinking, smoking, and trying to ensure their tales of woe and wonder are heard over the TV and other competing conversations. There is rarely a hand towel to dry your hands with in the bathroom, but there is always enough beer and tequila to go around and plenty of left field ideas to revive an uninspired writer. I like to go there to clear my head, usually with a coffee in hand. I find it impossible to sit there unchanged with so much enthusiastic nonsense happening right in front of me.

I was ecstatic when I wandered into Willy’s back room “bar” that day to find him enjoying a bit of dealer’s choice pocket change poker with Liz and Glen. I didn’t try to hide my excitement as I asked if I could join (assuming my WSOP ball cap had already given me away), but Glen seemed to be having as hard a time noticing those obvious tells as he was remembering my name. (I only bumped into him once or twice a year and that clearly wasn’t often enough for him to associate his sister’s name with my face, though he assures me every time we meet that he will remember the next time… for sure!) I hadn’t gotten to play poker with that crew in more than a year, but I remembered they really like to gamble and it wasn’t a true penny poker game. There are no blinds and the dealer chooses both the ante amount ($0.25 to $0.50 on average) and the variation he or she will deal. It doesn’t even need to be a known variation. You can elect as many wilds as you want and there are usually Jokers in the deck. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed games with so much luck mixed in, but ever since I watched Jennifer Harman play at a mixed table, I’ve been wanting to change up my game.

Without trying, I had wandered into the perfect place to do just that while testing my skills – three true poker fish vs. one wannabe poker shark. I pointed out my World Series of Poker hat to Glen before I sat down, then pulled up my selfie with Jen to show off to Liz as we began to play, feeling hiding my perceived talents would wreck my chances of playing with them in the future. I recalled cleaning up the last time we all played, when they’d mostly chosen Texas Hold’em, and wasn’t there to beat up on my friends. It was recess and I wanted nothing more than to be the cool kid on the playground – the really cool kind that didn’t prey on misfits. They’re inhibitions were being lowered ten gulps per minute and would induce them to verbalize their missed hands in no time.

I started with $5, folded after seeing a few flops, then nearly doubled up on one good hand of Hold’em just before the deal got to me. They seemed a little relieved when I said we should change things up and play the games I never play, i.e. no more Hold’em, unless they really wanted to. They were already laughing and saying they were willing to donate to a good cause ( my novel), but I could see the strain in their smiles. I wanted to keep the money flowing around the table a while and hope it ended up in my lap at the end, not snatch it all right off the bat.

I got us started with Seven Card Stud (which was apparently so old school Liz had never played it), then they began pulling out every variation they could think of – seven card flip-up Baseball, Five Card Draw with three wilds, and something they called Glen’s Game. I kept introducing more traditional forms, beginning with Omaha and Pineapple (which both fascinated them and pissed them off, due to the need to choose a discard pre-flop), then brought up Lowball when Willy said he couldn’t get any high cards. It turned out to be the hit of the evening.

I first attempted to teach them Badugi, but learned after the fact I gave the wrong rules… so let’s call it Badummy. They loved it so much they kept dealing it three of four hands, despite the fact I was winning just as often. So, I looked up the rules for Deuce to Seven Triple Draw on my phone and added that to the mix. (I suppose overconfidence had kept me from doing the same before introducing Badugi.) Despite the frequent change up of games, a new player, and a long break for horseshoes (which I was beyond terrible at), the money just seemed to keep coming my way. Willy had to pull out a second mug of change he’d hidden under the bar. Glen emptied his pockets and traded me a scratcher worth $6 for $5 of cold hard cash to get back in the game.

I felt a little guilty going home with a bit over $21, but I couldn’t help it. My minuscule knowledge of odds and uninebriated wits wouldn’t allow me to lose. It was painfully obvious when any one of them had me beat. They sat much more still and confident when ahead and swayed or slouched whenever behind. There was no point in bluffing as none could be bullied out of seeing a flop with a halfway decent hand by some silly three-bet and you only stood to win $0.75 by scaring everyone out with anything larger. So, in essence, I had played the entire evening similarly to a game of limit poker. I’d stuck with the odds and it had paid off big time, relatively speaking.

As I stowed away my precious pocket change that night before bed, I couldn’t help but wonder if my kindness and empathy for my fellow man has been getting in my way. If only I played in more games like Willy’s, I might be more successful. Perhaps I should seek out more local games and continue staying away from the casino? Also, maybe I should branch out and play more variations more often? Like so many, I thought I could only feel that poker rush I love so much from games of No Limit Hold’em, but experience had repeatedly shown me I felt the same joy no matter the cash involved in the game. Perhaps choosing where to play should be treated with as much care as choosing who to date. I don’t seek romance where I don’t feel a spark, so why should I gamble where I don’t feel like a shark?

I concluded that it’s time I cleaned off grandpa’s poker table (home of Rachel Hoyt Inc.) and dealt a few hands of my own. My usual casino only deals No Limit Hold’em and the occasional table of Omaha. I want more than that, so I’ll have to create it for myself until I can afford to venture to a casino that offers me more. There must be someone I can talk into squaring off with me in the mean time, if for no other reason than to say they contributed to my writing career. I’m flexible on stakes and have yet to cross “play strip poker” off my bucket list. All I need are some suitable opponents. If someone could please create a Match.com for the poker playing community, it would really help me out. Of course, you understand I expect the site to screen for wolves in sheep’s clothing.

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