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They say that poker is all about reading people and that the money is just a way of keeping score. I’ve heard it a million times and have never disagreed with the sentiment, yet I realized recently I hadn’t fully embraced the correlation between cash and credibility. I began to put it all together as I drove home empty handed from Chumash, two nights after tripling up at Ventura Players Casino. I hadn’t lost all of my winnings, but I had lost a bit of my pride. It was the second time this year I’d lost a good chunk won elsewhere at my local stomping grounds. As I consoled myself by singing Don’t Put Dirt On My Grave Just Yet and Walls of Jericho – “my time’s coming, but it’s not tonight…” – I felt it might be time to admit I’d formed a pattern.
To analyze my current predicament, I dug deep, beginning with a cherished moment that happened about ten years ago. It was hardly past dawn and most of the Hoyt clan was sleeping in to enjoy the beginning of their Thanksgiving vacation. I had “bought” my uncle in to the fake money high roller cash game on Poker Stars and we were sitting on opposing ends of my parents kitchen table, playing No Limit Texas Hold’em, discussing our opponents hands (when not battling each other) as my dad observed. Every time my uncle asked, “What do you think he has?” and I gave a close to dead accurate read, my ego swelled with self-righteousness as two of the most important men in my life beamed with admiration. Looking back, I began to wonder if I wasn’t trying a bit too hard to recreate the joy I’d felt that day in the present.
Anytime I call a bullying bluffer on the river with something akin to bottom pair, raking in a pot he probably could’ve stolen if I cared more about odds and pot equity than I do about trusting my gut (or, should I say, about my gut being right), I feel a bit of that joy. My first double up that night at Chumash was exactly that kind of hand. I held pocket Kings, but with something like QQT69 on the board, I checked the river despite having gradually pushed nearly half my stack into the pot on the offense thus far. My opponent revealed the grizzly under his teddy bear demeanor by pushing all in to prove he knew my hand wasn’t invincible. I thought about the range of cards he’d been playing in the few hands I had seen thus far and weighed the odds he had the straight, trips, or a full house, then decided to call. Although I’m a known player there to some extent, his face was unfamiliar and my gut said he was just seeing if the little lady could hold her own. That time, I was right. He told me I “had it” the second I pushed in my chips, then mucked his cards upon seeing my kings.
A few hands later I went up against a different foe with pocket Aces. The bet pattern and board possibilities were eerily similar, but I didn’t bat an eyelash until my entire recently doubled up chip stack was gone. That time my opponent had flopped the nut straight and I was Mrs. Predictable. I wanted another chance to catch a man bullying the little lady. My new opponent had seen that and used it to his advantage. I took a break and tried to remind myself that the actual greatest play during my most recent win was the decision to fold my pocket aces, but never fully recovered from the blow. I played a bit more wisely the rest of the evening, but received far worse cards and was in no way hanging tough.
As I drove home that night, I began to understand why I had been on a bit of a losing streak at Chumash. It wasn’t so much that I waited patiently for hours, only to lose everything as luck fell on someone else. It might be that I was a bit too relaxed around my poker family and often not too hard to figure out. In fact, it might be time to admit that money was proving it did and does keep score. I’d long known the $1-$2 tables at Chumash are often half full of players who would prefer to play for higher stakes but aren’t willing to drive to a casino with ample like-funded poker enthusiasts. I can count on facing five or more local sharks on any given night between the retirees and younger avid gamblers that frequent their felt. I might not remember all of them, but they know me and right when I start to feel at home, they pull the rug out from under me.
While it’s nice to play where everyone knows your name, I promised myself before bed that night that I won’t return to Chumash until I’ve sharpened my game or they attract a larger crowd. After all, my family isn’t there (nor anyone else I should care to impress), the most fun is reading new people, and when I’ve found chances to do that, I’ve made decent monetary scores. Besides, poker isn’t about staying in your comfort zone, it’s about pushing beyond into the great unknown. Therefore, perhaps there’s an advantage to be found playing where no one knows your name or remembers if you ever came back for more.