Push Or Get Pushed Over

When people say that “nice guys finish last“, I wonder if they equate kindness with never standing up for yourself. If that’s the case, I agree and recently witnessed the perfect poker game to prove it. It was an ordinary Saturday night at Ventura Players Casino and, at first glance, they seemed like the average spread of John Does.

Standing hunched over the table, scooping up his latest exploits, was a young man with the vindictive aura of a forgotten college athlete or failed prize fighter. We’ll call him the Baller, if only to justify his aspirations. The only bets he seemed to respect came from a silver haired silent fellow, so seemingly unengaged you might think he was napping between hands. I opted to lay down everything I’d brought at once for the maximum buy-in ($100) upon seeing the two of them held $300 or more.

I could’ve elected to sit between the Baller and Old Silver in seat four, but chose the head on view from seat nine instead. On my left was a man who earned the title Mr. Meek by being quick to call the minimum, quicker to fold to a raise, and eager to explain his actions. His friend in seat seven, who we’ll call Mr. Clean Cut, played nearly as detrimentally honest a game, but was a bit less verbal about it. A dead silent middle-eastern fellow spent the evening smiling at me from seat eight while the remaining seats were filled (and refilled) by young guns on leave from one of the military bases nearby.

I played ridiculously conservatively at the start – folding mostly, but participating often enough to determine if they’d play differently against a woman than they did against each other, and winning enough small pots to keep my stacks from dwindling. The more I watched the Baller bet and raise the weaker players out of the pot, the more eager I became for the chance to shut him down. To my dismay, the Baller bowed out of my first big hand.

I went heads up against Mr. Clean Cut with two black aces. He was in the big blind and had recently hit a lucky streak, winning the last three hands. He called my $5 pre-flop raise and $20 continuation bet without hesitation, having hardly finished straightening his chips. When the turn put QQJ9 on the board, Mr. Clean Cut pushed all in. I wanted to call, wishing I could fully believe he didn’t have the straight or better, but something didn’t feel right. As I hesitated, I remembered I was up against one of the guys who hadn’t shoved all night. Mr. Clean Cut wasn’t the type to bluff against that board. He normally bet friendly (if at all) and had folded in many similar situations when the Baller had bet $20. I still had around $80 left and decided there would be a better hand to fight with. Mr. Clean Cut kindly flipped over pocket Jacks to reveal a full house as he raked up our pot, squashing any ill feelings my mucked aces could have caused.

Two hands later, just before midnight, minutes before I’d promised myself I would head home, that bigger better chance came along. The Baller had been raising virtually every hand he played $5 pre-flop and that time I called along with two others from the big blind, despite holding a mere T9o. The flop fell 876, giving me the highest possible straight, and I checked the bet to the big stack along with the others. True to form, the Baller quickly tossed $20 out to try to buy the pot. (He’d built his stacks to well over $500 following this pattern all night.) Both of the others were ready to fold long before I pushed all in to prove the Baller wasn’t as eager to call raises as he was to lay them on the felt. He merely flashed an “okay, you got me” smile and mucked his hand. The others grinned sheepishly, possibly believing the bluffer had finally been out bluffed.

My subsequent small blind was eerily similar. I flopped an open ended straight draw holding JTo against the Baller and two others. This time he only bet $7 into the $28 pot on the flop and I was the only caller. I completed my straight on the turn, the Baller bet $20, I shoved, and he mucked his hand. The fish on my right was the first to whine about the fact I was bullying the bully: “Will someone please call her so we can see what she has?” While the majority looked pleased I was taking a bite out of the Baller’s chip stacks, a few seemed worried I would turn on them next, as if they were sure it was just a friendly home game until I came along.

I was snidely remarking, “that is how you find out,” when I discovered I’d been dealt pocket kings. The Baller threw out his usual $5 raise pre-flop and everyone except the blinds had already folded when I made the choice not to re-raise. I was certain a second raise would scare the blinds out of the pot and wanted to build it as much as possible, despite the statistical risk of allowing three opponents to draw against me. Lucky for me, Mr. Meek was the only one to stick with us for the flop – J87, two diamonds – and he quickly bowed out after the Baller opened with $7 and I raised to $27. When a ten of diamonds fell on the turn, the Baller tossed out $50 and succeeded temporarily in making me fear the flush, straight, and full house possibilities.

Eventually I realized he was likely still betting in proportion to the number of chips his opponents held, rather than gauging them to the size of the pot. He might be hoping I wouldn’t want to risk half of my remaining chips to see the river, even though there was around $75 already in the pot. He’d been pushing people out in that manner all night long with no better than middle pair and might be hoping my strength was wearing thin. I decided to go over the top, all-in for $116. I put him on the Ace of diamonds and eight of clubs or spades, which somewhat explained his disgust at my re-raise. Although he had appeared to want me to call when I was deliberating, it took him several minutes to decide “to gamble with me”. When another diamond came on the river, I was sure I’d been out drawn. Lucky for me, the Baller was a bit dumber than he looked. He had pinned all his hopes on a pair of tens with a six kicker, neither of which was a diamond. Apparently I’d convinced him that I was the one making a stone cold bluff.

As I stacked my chips, Mr. Meek told me that it was the most exciting thing he’d seen all day. Mr. Clean Cut agreed: “That was an amazing read and a fantastic play.” I thanked them and said it was the best moment of my day for sure, keeping the rival plot arc moment to myself. Part of me wanted to tell Mr. Clean cut I wouldn’t have lived to win that hand if I hadn’t folded my pocket aces to his full house, but I decided that sometimes friends must let friends learn for themselves. I’d shown them what they needed to see and they’d clearly enjoyed the show. If watching the Baller squander away nearly $200 overplaying T6o against my pocket kings didn’t inspire them to do more than call or fold without the best possible hand, then perhaps they needed to get pushed around a bit more to learn their lesson.

Every time they refused to call the Baller’s big bets with anything less than the nuts, he was encouraged to do it again. Vice versa, I was easily alerted to the fact Mr. Clean Cut held the nuts when he pushed all in against me because it was such atypical behavior. A wise opponent will force such weak players to face raises continually, bleeding them dry gradually rather than truly risking their stack. Think of them like the type of friend who’s always asking for little favors and promising to be there when you need assistance, but is somehow always unavailable when your time of need comes. You keep helping them because they’re fun to be around and (at least sometimes) make life more exciting. You could enjoy the good times, ignore the bad times, and just play the game for fun, but over the long run that “friend” will drain you completely if you let them. In life and in poker, you either push or get pushed over.

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