My Brain on Poker: 5 Fundamental Beliefs

  1. Everyone is most concerned with their own game (aka personal gain) and I must take full responsibility for the direct and indirect consequences of my actions. Sometimes we poker players purposely “misplay” a hand or two to make our opponents doubt our skills. We set them up to pay us off on a larger reward in the future. I believe corporations with great power have utilized similar tactics to ensure their success and I try not to play into their game. For example, I do not wander around my local stores looking for something I want and/or need and would prefer to see in person before purchasing, then turn around and buy it online because it is $10 cheaper. Cheaper is not necessarily better. One of the easiest ways to go broke as a poker player is to participate in every inexpensive hand that comes your way. The path to success requires pondering and maximizing the value of each bet placed. In life, that means pondering what kind of jobs the companies I support create in the world and how they influence our culture as a whole in addition to evaluating the true worth of the products themselves – be it a cab ride, pet sitter, vacation rental, paperback book, or article of clothing – because each choice matters more than we imagine at the time.
  2. While just playing the game is fun, it’s more fun when you’re winning. Everyone isn’t so much “out to get you” as they are “in it to win it”. Most people (or businesses) don’t want to step on your toes to move up, but they will happily do so if they “need” to. The thing is, we actually need each other to succeed as a whole. Progress comes from working together. Exchanging ideas is an invaluable aspect of life and everyone, everywhere is playing off the information they receive on a day to day basis as they live out their game plan. It is human nature for us each to put our own wants and needs first – to try to win – so, if you let the world make your decisions for you, don’t be surprised when you aren’t overjoyed with the results. Play your own game and play to win.
  3. You must know both when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em in order to play a good game and only you will know when those times are for you. Everyone is dealt a different hand in life, just like they are at the poker table. Even among those playing “the same hand”, each is looking at it from their own unique perspective. We might share five cards in common, but we have two of our very own to use with them and a position that could change everything. What works for one person may or may not work for another, so take each piece of advice with caution, remembering that each of us is ultimately responsible for looking out for ourselves. We should begin our game using the knowledge of those who have already proven successful, then allow our own unique experiences to teach us the modifications that best suit our own needs.
  4. The only thing I can control is myself. We need to respect the fact that everyone is playing their own game and take pride in devising our personal strategy. We cannot make people like or want us, but we can grow into the person we want to be one step at a time. Once you have devised (and mastered the daily implementation of) your own unique strategy, you will be more content and likely to succeed in life. However, in order to achieve long term success, you have to be adaptable and change up your game from time to time. Predictable players face predictable problems. In fact, being flexible is likely the most important component of any life plan or poker strategy as change is one of the few things we can expect with certainty. Also, change is far less scary when you anticipate its arrival (if only by acknowledging its continued presence) and take control of each opportunity to react in a way that helps you grow into the person that you want to be.
  5. Always be willing and ready to go all-in, but wait for the opportune moment. Winning players spend a lot of time preparing before they venture into high stakes poker. I believe they personify the statement, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s why I’m not rushing to the felt as often as some might think I should if I really want to play. I do really want to play poker, but I believe that “extra” cash will appear when the time is right for me to take my game to the next level. In fact, one might say it began trickling in this week when I received a few ridiculously generous cash tips. Coincidentally, right before the money began to appear, I learned that my favorite local game has started up again. I may not have my desired casino bankroll yet, but somehow it feels only a hop, skip, and a jump away. If you do find me seated at the World Series of Poker’s Main Event in less than eighty days, it will seem an immensely lucky feat. However, it is a ridiculous dream for which I believe I have been preparing my entire life – a lucky moment I would not be surprised to see in my future. You can’t push me all-in, but you can be sure I’ll call that bet when the time is right.

Digging Out of the Muck

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It dawned on me sometime shortly after I began working on what will (hopefully) forevermore be known as the longest transcription session of my life – I am my problem. (Transcription is when you type out a tape recorded conversation verbatim.) On the one hand, perhaps I had been right to believe the voices that have told me not to be bothered by my continued struggles because I always figure something out – adversity brought out my fighting spirit and has led me to do some amazing things. On the other hand, I always seem to be complaining about the same problems and the words my interviewee had used to explain his life were screaming truth at mine: “Under pressure, you can dig holes faster.” I thought about the 10,000+ seconds of tape I had left to transcribe, how many more moments I would have to endure listening to myself mucking up my interview with personal asides, how many years I’d been working on improving my writing skills already, and burst into tears. I realized that I was stuck in a bad cycle and would need to start taking steps that seem illogical to break it since clearly none of the steps that I have taken – the ones that seemed logical at the time – are producing the results I desire.

It was far from the first time I had interviewed Stefan Dobrianov (aka Tedo) and I remembered him saying something to my thoughts about the beginning of his art career – how he broke his bad cycle by deciding to move away from his home country, Bulgaria (something illogical to him at the time), and, later, by making art with leather. I also remembered the many times he had encouraged me to do something that’s never been done before. I then decided that my problem is me. I can’t decide exactly what I want. I haven’t pictured myself on a path of success. I thought I would struggle to pay my bills while building my writing career… and I have. I never believe I have enough time to complete my writing projects, so they all sit partially finished. I had chosen to learn certain writing skills “on the job” and ended up collecting a three and a half hour rambling session to punish myself into figuring out how to better conduct an interview. I had put myself under pressure and ended up digging a really big hole.

That was nearly two months ago and I’ve been trying to slip-slide my way up out of that hole ever since. I’ve been working on seeing myself as a successful writer, artist, and poker player – whatever combination my heart desires – and trying to begin living that life now. There must be a way, if only I dream big enough. Ironically, it has led me to realize that my desires are circular. I want/need to play poker to complete the research for my novel and collect the type of stories I might be able to sell to magazines in order to make money from my writing and live life as a full-time artist. However, I need a proper bankroll of $5,000 or so to begin a career as a grinder at the $1-$2 NL Hold’em tables and, currently, I can hardly pay my bills, much less afford to gamble. (Side note: I am also committed to becoming completely debt free and am not very close to acheiving that goal.) To get a bankroll without saddling myself with potential additional debt, I need a really incredible plan. So, I’m working on it.

My day to day life doesn’t look much different yet, but it feels different. I am refusing to worry about money. I already have two jobs that I work at every week outside my house, several businesses that call me when they need a bit of extra help, a candle business, and my writing. The only thing I want to worry about is whether or not I am growing as a person every day and working hard to make my dreams happen. My income will likely always fluctuate and wherever I focus my effort is where my money will come from in the end. So, I have allowed myself to entertain some completely outlandish ideas about how I might obtain a bankroll right now. (Maybe I’ll tell you more about that another day.) I’m also trying to ensure I work on all aspects of my dream – poker, writing, and my candle business – every week and, since I can’t indulge in my favorite part of the game right now (reading people), I will focus on learning the aspect I’ve long been neglecting – the math. I thought I would hate it, but thanks to Alton Hardin’s book, Essential Poker Math, and the simple fact that he explained how to convert odds (i.e. 4:1) to a percent (20%) my attitude has changed completely. I’m putting together digital flash cards to help simulate the knowledge I would acquire if I could afford time on the felt. Step one is to memorize the precise odds each hand has against any random hand in the deck pre-flop. I have two decks – over 200 cards total – which I’ve been quizzing myself with daily. I’m about to start creating decks with pot odds, number of outs, and estimated equity questions to take my studies to the next level. My cycle is not yet broken, but I am digging out of the muck slowly.

I can see myself succeeding. I am becoming a better poker player every day, at least according to my StudyBlue scores. (Would you be interested in poker math flash cards?) I am a writer who spins out new articles, essays, and poetry regularly. (Did you see my latest poem?) I am a creative entrepreneur who has built a small fan base for her artisan candle line. (Care to try some now and help me pay my taxes? Use coupon code “SpringCleaning” to take 15% off your order of $30 or more in my Etsy shop now through April 29th.) I am also a budding collage artist with half a dozen creations to her name. (Follow me on Instagram to see the more snapshots into my life.)

All In collage
Collage by Rachel Hoyt

It is only on the days that I lose sight of this vision and fail to believe I am living it right now, every day, that I end up lost in a mess of my own doing. So long as I remember I’m all-in, living my dreams, creating the life I want with every passing moment, that reality will continue to come together… but just to be completely safe, I signed up as an on-call transcriber to give transcription the chance to cure both my bad attitude and my financial woes.

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ~ Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass

Sixteen Wishes for 2016

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There is one story within Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life which I feel she mentions a bit too quickly. It is at the end of her chapter on set design and involves a novelist’s need to know things their characters know – an issue with which I am intimately familiar. Ms. Lamott mentions a time when she was trying to put herself inside the mind of a gardener and felt ill equipped to create her character’s world solo. She called her local nursery, told the gentleman what she was doing, and he proceeded to help her design the garden of her character’s dreams. She even checked in with him every few months to find out how her garden would be doing that season.

Ms. Lamott sums up the effect of that experience by saying, “And in the years since, I have asked all sorts of people to help me design sets. I’ve asked them to describe what the world looked like in certain American cities or African villages, inside a particular car in the rain, or down by the water when hoboes still came to town on the train.” She doesn’t specifically say it, but the advice I heard while reading was, “People want to tell you their story. They want to help you. All you have to do is ask.”

I took baby steps towards living out this implied advice in 2015 and ended up landing an interview with my poker hero. I also started asking more questions of strangers and acquaintances and that habit has been producing immeasurable rewards. So, I thought I might start 2016 by throwing out a list of wishes to the world – stories that I hope will find their way to my ears or eyes. While many of my wishes do revolve around the game of poker, you need not be an experienced player to help. I need to hear stories from gamblers and non-gamblers alike to finish bringing the characters and scenes of my novel in progress to life. In fact, if this works, I will likely type my questions for the universe to see far more often. There are plenty more topics of interest where these came from:

Language – I know that, in England, a fag is a cigarette, but I’ll bet some of you know language quirks that I don’t know. Does your little corner of the world have a favorite word that few others use? If English is not your first language, is there a particular word or phrase you find strange or awkward? (I’m interested in all words, not just those related to poker or gambling… but very interested in poker terms in languages other than English, if you happen to know any.)

Food – What is your favorite food? What food(s) would you feel deprived to live without? Does your city/country have a signature dish I shouldn’t live without tasting? (Keep in mind you are talking to a vegetarian who also limits her intake of non-organic and processed foods, so all knowledge on modern junk food is appreciated. I fear I’m forgetting how the average person thinks about food.)

Luck – Do you believe in luck? Recall a time when you or someone you know was extremely lucky (at gambling or otherwise)? Have a lucky charm you carry in your purse, wallet, or car? Or, vice versa, do you feel you are unlucky or even cursed? How does that happen to someone? What are the signs? Can you change your luck? How?

Fortune Telling – Do you know everything about a type of fortune telling I may never have heard of? Do you think fortune telling be used to improve one’s poker game? To predict the winner of a horse race or a set of lotto numbers? How? Has it been done already? By who? Do you know anyone who tells fortunes using playing cards? Has had a fortune read using playing cards? Are you an expert on fortune telling with a theory on why it cannot be used in conjunction with gambling?

Religion – Are you a person of faith? What does your religion or moral system say about gambling? Does it look differently upon games of skill (i.e. poker) vs. games of chance (i.e. the lottery)?

First Game of Poker – If you have learned to play poker, whether or not you enjoyed it and kept playing, I would love to hear all about it. Who convinced you to give the game a chance? Did you risk any cash that day? Use traditional chips, coins, snack food, clothes, or some other imaginative substitute to place wagers? What was the room like? How many people were playing? Who won and lost the most? How did you do? Were there other activities happening simultaneously that you found distracting or enjoyable? If you don’t play anymore, why not? Tell me everything!

“Home Games” – Do you host or attend a poker game in your community? How many players attend? Are women allowed? How often do you play? What night (or day) of the week? What are the stakes (buy in, ante, blinds)? Tournament style or cash game? Texas Hold’em? 5 Card Draw? Omaha? 2-7 Triple Draw? Badugi? With or without wild cards? Are you a woman who knows about and wants to attend these games but isn’t allowed to play or only gets invited when the table is far from full?

Women Poker Players – Are you one of them? Do you know a female who has played a long time and told you her stories? Are female poker players different from other women? Are you a male player who dislikes having women in the game? Or, perhaps you like having women players but think they are inherently weaker players? Why?

Isolated Communities – Have you lived (or do you wish to live) on your own private island or in a commune, monastery, ranch in the middle of nowhere? Why? What do/did/will you have there that you can’t get elsewhere? What might/do you miss out on when isolated from most of society?

Boats at Sea -How long can a boat sit “parked” in the ocean without issues? What safeguards are needed in various weather conditions? Would either a smaller or larger boat wear better or worse than the other?

Cruise Ships – Have you worked on one? What was it like to live onboard? What did you do? For how long? Did you meet anyone you would consider a frequent traveler? What were they like? Have you been on a poker cruise ship? How was it different from a traditional casino experience (beyond the obvious)?

Life at Sea – Do you dream about it? What do you fantasize about? What makes you want to get away? What comforts from home would you be sure to take with you? Have you lived at sea? For how long? What were you doing? What did you like or dislike about it?

The Ocean’s Quirks – What is happening on the ocean floor these days? How does it affect the stability of a pier? An oil platform? An island? A harbor? A coastline? A continent?

Sea Life – Do you know a sea creature with a fascinating habit or ability? Perhaps it can see, hear, or smell things others can’t? Maybe it always does ___ before it pounces on its prey?

Poker Art – Who is making gambling themed art? Please send links.

Poker and Gambling Themed Books and Movies – What is your favorite gambling themed story any why is it better than others? Is there a gambler’s quote you are known to recite?

Contact me via Facebook or Twitter if you don’t have my personal email. (I will also give a phone number out and schedule interviews with those who have longer stories they don’t want to type out.) Those who have proven they are not robots or spammers, but rather actual humans who want to help, should also feel free to send me links to articles and websites you believe I would be interested in based on this list in lieu of personal tales. Or, if you like, you could send magazine and newspaper clippings, or whatever else you think might help, to PO Box 23804, Santa Barbara, CA 93121. Thank you in advance and no hard feelings if you don’t want to share a story with me. I just wanted to throw it out there. Just in case.

50 Ways to Build a Bankroll

There must be at least fifty ways to build a bankroll, so why don’t I have one? This question began to bother me as I wandered the World Series of Poker in June, noting the vast number of people who had shelled out more than a grand for the big tournament of the day. It officially began to haunt me when I learned the $235 WSOP Deepstack was the recommended “cheap” tournament of the series and had to admit I couldn’t afford that. My entire bankroll for the trip was $200 and I’d already risked and lost a bit that morning in a super satellite.

The next night, I won a healthy stack in a cash game at the Aria which enabled me to leave Vegas with the hope I could build my bankroll on my own, but it didn’t last long. I had to spend half my winnings on some necessities I was too poor to purchase otherwise – clothes that fit my quickly dwindling figure and another jar of the luxury eye cream that keeps me aging as slowly as possible – which left me with only $400 for poker. I won a little bit here and there, but overall the second half of 2015 showed a trend of one step forward, two steps back.

I had been trying not to dwell on the fact that a healthy bankroll would help propel my writing career forward by lending me the ability to be an active member in the poker world, constantly exposed to real life characters who can provide inspiration for my novel in progress, when I came face to face with an unexpected challenge. One of the very handsome celebrities that make Santa Barbara their home came by the scooter shop and, after innocently asking how my day was going, ended up sticking around to discuss poker, which he learned I’d been up late playing the night before. Long story short, his final words were, “If you come up with $5,000, I’ll give you the other five and we’ll go play in the main event together.” I have never felt more motivated to build a bankroll in my life.

It was October 1st and I’m not sure how serious he was, but it got me thinking. It was the third time someone had offered to stake me despite the fact I have yet to score a truly big win to justify such offers. I might want to build my bankroll alone, but what if I don’t have to? What if there was someone out there that just wanted to make my life easier and bet on the little guy (or gal, in this case)? Just before I headed to Chumash to risk my final $60 in a tournament on my birthday two months later, I received a text message from the only man I could think of who might fit that bill.

Sherif didn’t know it was my birthday. He just knew I hadn’t been to the casino in months and wondered what I’d been up to. I didn’t want to tell him I’d thought of him at least once or twice, because it mostly revolved around the fact he was my first backer and the most likely to offer me a bankroll, so I just said I had been well and was on my way to the casino right then. Sherif didn’t enter the tournament, but he was there waiting for a seat at the $1-$2 table when my patience crumbled and I lost it all on pocket sixes. He offered to buy me in to the cash game, but I knew I was too grumpy to play well and declined. Of course, when I let it slip that it was my birthday, Sherif insisted I couldn’t go home. So, I let him take me to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants instead.

Pried open by two glasses of white wine and a decadent seafood pasta, I told my poker pal the highlights of my life outside the casino – my many jobs, my paltry budget, and my novel. As suspected, when Sherif learned a few of the many reasons I hadn’t been to the casino recently, he became inclined to rescue me further. He agreed that I couldn’t play my best game using my personal funds and offered to take me out to see what I could do under optimal conditions. “How much would you need?” he asked.

I let myself blurt out the honest answer: “You’ll never get a number out of me.” I wanted to give him one, but I hate asking for money. It’s like I told him – the poker experiences and my desired writing career are intertwined. I know I need a real bankroll to make that happen, but that doesn’t mean I’m capable of picking a number. Instead, I told him how much I normally play with and he offered to double it. I agreed, but said I wanted to face a real crowd. I want to play at Commerce.

He said he would take me to L.A. that Saturday to see what I could do when I’m not afraid to lose my money, but by the next day he was having second thoughts. He wanted to spend the night on the town as friends instead, “looking for appropriate romantic partners.” I said no. I took it as a sign that he only wants to be my backer if he gets to date me and that wasn’t exactly the deal I had in mind. I’m certain there must be at least fifty ways to build a bankroll. I hope to find my way in 2016.

Forced Blogging Break for NaNoWriMo

Today is one of those days when I have to admit I can’t do it all. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts on Sunday. For the second time in my life, I will be trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days or less. The first time I participated in 2013, my goal was to break through the fear that had me writing chapter one over and over for a decade. I succeeded in producing a bad first draft then began the arduous task of editing while researching poker history for details to enliven the good ideas squashed between all the muck.

This February, approximately one year into the editing process, an idea hit me which changed everything. I decided the entire setting was wrong as a new world came into view. To my surprise, I became excited to scrap everything I’d written thus far and start anew. Not too surprisingly, that’s been easier to conceive than to do. So, I gave myself a deadline – NaNoWriMo. I have three days to finish sketching my plot, ponder character motivations, and paint the details of the world where it all takes place. Sunday, the next draft begins.

It’s time for me to focus. I will post sporadic updates on Facebook and Twitter, but, for the most part, I will be immersed in writing my novel until December. Until then…

Sometimes You DON’T Want to Go Where Everyone Knows Your Name

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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.

Meeting My Queen of Poker

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When your life’s work is a solo mission, it can be hard to find “help” in hard times – a bit of recognition or validation to put the spring back in your step. Often you have to just keep trudging forward with whatever energy you can muster, knowing things will eventually get easier. I had been stuck in a depressive funk for weeks, yearning for something or someone to get me excited about working on my novel again, when my parents called and spurred a chain of events that landed me an hour in Bobby’s Room, interviewing poker legend Jennifer Harman.

I’d promised myself a year prior that I would visit the World Series of Poker (WSOP) that year to do research for my book, but accepted the fact I couldn’t afford to follow through days before my dad’s call. His voicemail said he was going out of town for a week and mom wasn’t recovering from hip replacement surgery as quickly as expected. They wanted to pay me to come to Arizona and help around the house for the week. I thought it was the perfect excuse to stop in and visit the WSOP and emailed my only friend in Vegas immediately to inquire if I could “book” a room for the days before my parents needed me. Once she agreed to provide me lodging, I confessed my entire plan to my dad and, somewhat to my surprise, he happily agreed to pay enough to cover whatever spending money I would need for my time in Vegas as well.

As soon as the plan was set, I felt like my dynamic self again – the girl who can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Staring at a former art class project I’d recently uncovered, I remembered that, for some reason unbeknownst to me, Jennifer Harman had begun following me on Twitter before I’d ever looked her up. (I wasn’t actively following anyone at the time.) I took it as a sign and began drafting a letter to request an interview. I spent the entire evening trying to find a concise way to describe the moments that had led me to that day and my dream of writing a poker themed novel with a character inspired by her. The next morning, I messaged her a photo of my art project to prick her interest and request her personal email address so I could send the full story.

RH painting

Less than five hours later, Jennifer Harman had read my email and decided she would “love to sit down with [me]” while I was in Vegas. She also offered a bit of advice in regards to the career struggles I’d admitted to: “Remember that you don’t ever have to be off track on your goals. You just go for it. It’s only you that you have and this very very short life.” Suddenly my problem became floating down from Cloud Nine long enough to prepare for my interview and pack for my trip. I was going to meet one of the women I admire most in the world despite having a sparse resume and two throw away drafts of a novel as my only qualifications.

Before I knew where the time had gone, I found myself seated in Bobby’s room at the Bellagio, inches from Doyle Brunson’s backside, discussing life and poker with Jen Harman between hands, on tape. For the first time in my life, I was the writer interviewing a celebrity. I felt like somebody and my hero had made it happen. For an hour, Jen let me peek into her life like a friend. She taught me new variations of poker, showed me all her hole cards, and answered any question my heart desired. At one point she stopped Johnny Chan to ask what game he was going to play and lost the chance for an answer by introducing me instead. And, even though she’d hugged me upon arrival and I was departing because she’d just lost ten grand, Jen gave me a second hug and told me to feel free to contact her with any questions that come up later. She even waited patiently while I tried to calm down long enough to hold my cell phone still so I could get a good selfie.


In the months since, one thing Jen said keeps popping in my mind, “We were all living in a cave before TV came along.” It was right before she pointed out multiple players she called some of the best in the world who most people wouldn’t know because they mostly play cash games. Being the type of rare specimen who hasn’t had cable in over a decade and has never subscribed to a streaming service, I hadn’t truly pondered how publicity might affect a poker career beyond the increased competition it could bring until those words continued to echo in my mind. On the other hand, I am intimately familiar with the hermit’s life. When the Poker Hall of Fame (PHOF) nominees were announced, it finally hit me. Perhaps those words stuck with me to help me see that one thing Jennifer Harman’s career currently lacks is the same thing my writing career was lacking before I met her – proper validation and recognition.

Of course, most poker players know who Jennifer Harman is and would say she’s a great player, but she has yet to win a title the men (aka the vast majority of players) truly covet (other than those two WSOP bracelets). Possibly due to prodding from fans like me, Jen continues to enter the WSOP main event in hopes she can set another female milestone (with no luck) and, time after time, she has been passed over for the PHOF. Perhaps the judges can’t see what I see – the facts that the figures can’t measure. The life Jen has lived away from the table has been just as stressful (if not more so) than her time on the felt. She’s a single mother and kidney disease survivor who went from being a hermit to being a celebrity, all the while being called a degenerate by at least some. She became a poker player to make a living and has spent the majority of her career battling the fiercest high stakes competitors in the land. On top of all that, Jen dedicates time to improving poker’s image by being available for interviews and mixing poker with philanthropy, i.e. her annual Nevada SPCA charity poker tournament.

Poker is, was, and always will be a big part of Jennifer Harman’s life. I dare say she inspired a fair portion of today’s players to join the game. Jen doesn’t actually need the validation or recognition. Not getting it will never change who she is. However, if years of service, dedication to the craft, and raw skill are the marks by which one establishes themselves as part of the elite, then Jennifer Harman has long been a member and I hope it will soon be official via the Poker Hall of Fame. In the mean time, she’ll have to get by knowing she is, has, and always will be the Queen of Poker in my book.

Push Or Get Pushed Over

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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.

The First Time I Played Poker

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No matter how much you try to shelter your children, they are bound to encounter bad influences. All you can do is train them how to react and hope for the best. I’m fairly certain that’s the logic my parents used when they went to a movie and left their three small children with the crooked arrow of the family – Grandpa Hoyt. He’d raised three fine men after the war and was retired and living comfortably despite his penchant for drinking and gambling. A few hours alone with him wouldn’t change their children forever, would it?

When I remember that night, I feel a little like Alice of Wonderland, perched on a toadstool, listening to the Caterpillar wax poetic on cards a midst a cloud of smoke. My twin sister and I were around five or six years old. Our brother was nearing eight. We lived in the Bible belt at the time – Garland, TX – and our parents normally kept us surrounded by good Christian influences. We’d never seen a casino or heard adults discuss gambling before in our lives. I recall being wild eyed and bubbly enough I might have accidentally bounced off the chair if I made my hand. The poker face was definitely not my forte at the time.

He taught us both Blackjack and Five Card Draw that night. As I picture it, I’m holding two cards, discarding three, and gleefully declaring, “Hit me, grandpa!” His smile merely grows wider as he tosses three cards across the felt and takes another drag off his cigarette. We were in “the train room” – part study, part game room, and home to grandpa’s model train collection – an offshoot from the dining room, sandwiched between the garage and back yard. It was dark, despite the track lighting which illuminated the train, and little of grandpa’s cigarette smoke was choosing to exit through the sliding glass door he may or may not have remembered to crack open. My brother is on my right, sister to my left, and grandpa is straight ahead. It may be the only time in my life that I recall my status as a middle child earning me the best seat in the house.

My dad says that when they found us like that their jaws dropped. My uncle claims there’s a fair chance we were playing with a pin-up girl deck that contained PG-13 imagery. I don’t think grandpa pushed things that far. I’m pretty sure he pulled out a brand new deck of plain old Bicycle playing cards every time we came to town, but the details are pretty murky. The only thing my dad could think to say respectfully was, “Dad… what are you doing?!” Grandpa promptly waived him off with a nonchalant, “I’m babysitting,” which included enough sass to imply that fact should have been obvious.

We played poker many, many more times over the years and grandpa eventually began dumping a bucket of pocket change on the felt for us to use instead of chips. I remember learning that he always left his wallet in the car, carrying only what he was willing to lose into the casino. I still love hearing my dad tell how he and his brothers scored an all day boat rental at Tahoe after their dad had a profitable evening at the casino. It wasn’t until long after I could tell that story myself that I finally heard the most important detail – he’d been playing Blackjack, not poker. Grandpa only ever observed the poker games at the casinos. He never dared to sit with a table full of strangers attempting to swindle each other honestly, without pretense, over a few hands of No Limit Texas Hold’em.

Grandpa may have let me get bitten by the poker bug, but I am the one who chose to scratch that itch over and over and over again. He passed on long before I first dared venture into a casino for any reason. Nonetheless, I feel he’s watching me every time I play. Sometimes, although I’m not sure he ever actually said it in real life, I imagine grandpa telling my five year old self to, “Leave while you’re ahead.” If he could have the opportunity to explain why he’d chosen to teach his grandchildren to gamble that night oh so long ago, I believe he would tell you he wanted them to learn to dream big and fight tough. Everyone has to start learning how to play the hand they’re dealt sometime. Why not today?

What Kind Of Poker Girl Do You Think I Am?

I had just finished calculating my mid-year tax payments and discovered I was around a thousand dollars short when I stumbled onto a poker girl ad on Craigslist for the umpteenth time. I had been ignoring them for more than a year, because I don’t respond to ads that seem too good to be true, but suddenly the thought of men paying women $500 for a night of scantily clad drink service and a shoulder massage didn’t seem entirely far fetched. I had earned nearly $200 working at a catered birthday party for a dog once. Clearly a Las Vegas style poker night wasn’t out of the question. I emailed myself a link to the first ad to think about it a bit longer, then stumbled on a second ad I found even more intriguing:

Poker Girls Are Wanted ASAP (Santa Barbara)

compensation: $1500-$3000 + Tips

“Private Poker Events”
Compensation: $1500-$3000 + Tips.
Date/Time: Friday’s and Saturday’s 9:30 PM – 2:30-3:00 AM
Please be between the age ranges of 18-35.

Hello we’re a group of gentlemen who host poker parties on a frequent basis. Our events take place in a private mansion in Calabasas (near Tarzana and Woodland Hills). Currently we’re searching for 7 attractive open minded girls who are energetic, social, friendly, and who love to have a good time! You will be required to be in lingerie or bikini throughout the night. You’re more than welcome to bring friends, but please make sure they are able to follow the same requirements and comfortable with this type of work. Overall, if you have an open mind have a body build of; curvy, thin, athletic, skinny, average, or anything within those boundaries you will most likely be a better candidate for our summer events.

Job Description: You will be required to socialize with people, take drinks to the tables, keep the party going (keep people awake), and help with anything else that is needed at the poker tables. There might be times when you have to give back rubs at the tables. You must be 100% discreet. There will be live music playing, a full bar provided, and a Jacuzzi/pool for you to enjoy. If you know how to pole dance or anything similar please let me know!

If interested please send 3 recent pictures and state your name/age. References are available if needed. Hope to see you there. Thank you!

It sounded so professional, comparatively speaking – they weren’t demanding we get touchy-feely with the players (maybe we’d have to give back rubs) and they even offered references. I had been hoping to find a new game to observe players at which would inspire characters for my novel and had only had one prior opportunity to sit in a room full of high-rollers. I had to find out if this was my lucky break… didn’t I?

After gaining eight hours of turbulent sleep and one confidant’s blessing, I decided there was only one way to find out. I sent an email letting them know I was a bit out of their desired age range and hoped to use the experience as inspiration for my writing, while reassuring them I could be trusted to be discreet as I am not a gossip columnist and don’t wish to be associated with that type of writing. I put on a black lace dress (which I usually pair with a full slip) over aqua lingerie, snapped a few selfies, attached one along with two recent fully clothed snapshots to the email I’d drafted, then sent my wish into cyberspace.

A few hours later, the green felt jungle pimp responded. He (or she) forgot to sign their name, but sent their number and requested I text them ASAP and include my name in the message. I did as instructed and received a fairly quick response which said he was too busy to talk then, but wanted to talk later. I said after 5 PM would be best for me and went back to work, excited beyond belief for what could happen that evening. I floated through the afternoon imagining some venture capitalist, stock broker, or Hollywood big wig was considering hiring me to fluff egos at his poker game. It wasn’t until the sun went down that night without further communication from the mysterious man that the way this scam might work finally hit me. Was my interview going to be some creep’s attempt at free phone sex? Or… worse?

When he texted the next day (Friday) to say sorry he hadn’t called, my hope in humanity was restored slightly. He said he was busy organizing that evening’s event, but hoped to use me the following Thursday night and to please text back if I was still interested in interviewing. I wrote back immediately to confirm my interest and ask if he’d gotten the date wrong – the ad had stated the games were Friday and Saturday night – but he didn’t respond, at least, not to that question and not right away.

Nearly the entire weekend went by without further communication. Then, just as I was about to crawl up to my loft to go to bed on Sunday night around 11 PM, I got a message that made his intentions painfully clear: “Hey [sic] if you want to speed up the interview process and work with us right away I can meet you right now or in a bit [sic] I’m in Camarillo. Sorry for the late response, but I’m taking care of my cousins house and have free time. I thought of you.” I laughed at the audacity of his proposal (most pathetic booty call ever) and tucked myself in bed without responding.

The next morning I pondered a myriad of snarky come backs, but decided that upsetting the green felt jungle pimp was not in my best interests. Instead, I asked a few reasonable but poignant questions: “I thought we had been trying to pick a time for a phone interview? I still don’t know your name… Is there a business I’d be working for?” I didn’t actually expect a response. I figured that would be enough of a signal to get him to move on to some other fish. I couldn’t believe he had tried to pull his routine on me, an admitted poker player, a woman who reads people. Perhaps he’s part of the population who believes that type of femme to be purely mythical? Maybe he doesn’t even know how to play poker, just watches it occasionally on TV while plotting ways to get his hands on that type of girl – the ones hired to fawn all over the winners.

A few hours later, I was surprised to learn the saga wasn’t over. At least, he didn’t seem to think so. “My name is Chris,” was all the message said. I ignored it. I saw no need to elicit further half-ass answers. A little over 24 hours passed, then I received a much more specific, even more indecent proposal. He said he would like to meet Friday (one day after the supposed event) at a hotel room he was going to reserve “due to the large number of applicants”. I would have the option of a solo or group interview and would earn $1500 as a server or $3500 for anything goes, private engagements. Reading between the lines, I heard, “We’d love it if you could come star in a porno flick this weekend for free. If we like your work, we’d be happy to recommend you to our clients who are interested in purchasing private sessions.” Although he offered to answer any questions I might have and I certainly wished to know what percentage of women this works on and if he even really plays poker, I merely said, “No thanks. I changed my mind.” He immediately wrote back offering $4,000. I laughed for hours wishing I was brave enough to respond and risk insulting them. I wanted to say, “Maybe for four billion.”

I haven’t heard from the green felt jungle pimp since that night, but about a week later I got a last minute invite to play at a game which sounded eerily similar to what I’d imagined from the ad. The invitation came from a fellow female player: free dinner, free alcohol (served by scantily clad women), free weed, and $100 bounty on the host. For some unknown reason, my phone had delivered the message around 7 PM with a time stamp of 4:17. I had to leave soon if I wanted to play. There was no time for me to concoct a rationalization for exceeding my poker budget in order to attend. My snap judgment said that anyone who had recently imagined her happily ever after coming from what turned out to be a scam to recruit hookers via Craigslist was in no shape to take on a table full of wannabe high-rollers. It was a tough fold, but I managed to find the bright side: life had dealt me three unexpected pokertunities in the past month and the game was far from over.