By: James Gesner
I started playing poker online in 2004 just a few times, then again in 2006 after my wife and I moved back from Houston, after a small health scare that left me with a serious case of heart failure and chronic neuropathy pain in my leg. I was feeling a little useless since getting sick, not being able to contribute in any way. Being told not to have any stress in my life; well that got fucking stressful. Emily didn’t care, she was just happy that I was alive, and getting better care now. So I talked to Jack, my older brother. He got me hooked on poker. He told me to just go to CVS, buy a 50$ Visa gift card, and then use that to start an account on Paradise Poker. I did, but before I even played a single hand, I wanted to read up on the aspects of no limit hold-em vs limit hold-em, and the other types of games that I was going to be playing. So I read every poker book I could get, some helped, some didn’t. This was in contrast to my brothers method of; watch Rounders, assume it’s that easy, and go win. But I watched Rounders too, and every other video of the World Series of Poker I could find as well, among others. “You’re a jiggawatt, you’ll clean up at this.” Jack’s way of saying he thinks I’m intelligent.
This began as a nice little hobby, something to do. I never thought it would turn into a way to actually make some real money, that would enable us to pay bills, move from a rental to buying a house, and allow my wife to keep going to school to get her doctorate. So I put my 50$ in my new account, and then got to work.
I jumped into a low limit cash game and started to play. My brother was staying with us, so he would come in and check in on me every once in a while. He’d peek his head in around the corner of the door to the sunken living room, look at me in my big green recliner and ask, “Lose all your money yet?” I must have been playing for a few hours at that point, I had no idea, but I just beckoned him over with one finger and pointed at the screen. “Check that out.” Showing him the account balance. After just under three hours of play, that 50$ had turned into just over $400.
“You’re such a fucking luckbox! Good job buddy.”
“Yeah, I have great luck, have you seen my health lately? Ass.”
“Maybe the universe can repay you in poker chips, who knows?”
I took a nap after my win. I was having a really great dream, something involving Katie Holmes (pre crazy-town w/ Cruise), but then getting woken up with what felt like a brick being tossed at my stomach. It was Jack, tossing his heavy laptop on me. “Ahh! What the hell? You know it’s bad to scare people with heart conditions, right?”
“You got drool on your cheek…and pillow…and…” He pointed his stupid long finger at me and all the areas he mentioned.
“Yeah, yeah, what the hell?” Still pointing at me.
“…your hand. Can you finish this tournament for me? I gotta go pick up Laurel and Keegan. Whatever you win, we’ll split it.”
“Yeah, OK, Christ, go, I’ll do it.”
Jack was already in his truck and rumbling down the street, and I was still trying to wake up and clean the drool off my face. You don’t get a timeout in online poker, so there I was, playing hands of poker on the laptop in the bathroom, like an asshole. Figured I was home alone, my wife Emily was at work on a 12 hour shift at the hospital, so I had to keep myself occupied somehow. I carried that laptop around the house with me everywhere. As I made myself meatballs in the kitchen, I was winning a pot with my aces over kings, and pumping my fist like a Tiger Woods wannabe lunatic, getting sauce on the ceiling. “Man, that’s gonna stain.” I wasn’t paying attention to the number of people left in the tournament, just the fact that I was still playing, and had more chips than most of the people at my little green virtual table.
I made it to the final table of the tournament. I know this because a little window popped up saying “Good luck! Final table play begins in 5:00!” So, we get an intermission? Sweet, I can actually go to the bathroom without bringing in the laptop this time, I had thought. So I took my little break to go to the bathroom, sans laptop this time, and to take my night-time medication, as it seemed to be night out now; it was dark all of a sudden. When I returned, the little timer was under a minute, so I sat back down and readied myself for ultimate battle! Or cards. I readied myself to play cards. Playing online is a lot different from playing poker live. You don’t have the chance to read the people you are playing, you are just basing all your information on math, statistics, and maybe betting patterns and timing habits.
Playing online, even in that short amount of time, I picked up some good habits. I bet behind the button, I used my stack to throw chips around and scare people out of pots. I tried to defend my blinds when I realized some idiot was just trying to steal them. I never played weak starting hands, trying to chase down some miracle straight or flush. I did play Jack-Ten suited, because that’s my favorite, and it does have the highest percentage of any other starting hand to beat pocket Aces, just because of the variables it provides. I slow played monster hands, a lot. When I had the nuts, as in the unbeatable hand in that particular game, I tried to keep as many people in that pot as possible, to milk them for every penny I could get. A lot of people get way too excited, push in all their chips and scare everyone off and end up winning 5% of what they would have if they played it correctly.
I played for another hour, ended up finishing in 3rd place. I was pissed, because I was taken out on a bad beat. I had a straight, and lost to a flush when the person I lost to got his final card on the river. He had a less than 7% chance to hit that card, so I was upset. I got up and left the laptop in the living room, and went to go get my phone to call Emily to check in on her and make sure she was going to be getting home on time. In the middle of my conversation, Jack came home, trudging in the front door. Obviously in a fantastic mood, since he had just had to deal with his ex-wife. He tried to ask me how it went, but all I could do was shake my head. He went over to look for his laptop while I finished up my call.
“Did you grind it out on your leather ass….” I really need to burn his copy of Rounders. “holy sh…” Guess he found his laptop.
“Honey, I’ve gotta go. Yeah, I dunno. Jack’s nuts. Love you too.” I ended that conversation to go deal with my brother, thinking he was pissed at something. “What’s wrong? I know, I didn’t win, I came in third when this asshat screwed me on the river.” This was my first on-line tournament remember, one that Jack had started, and I had no idea what the payout structure was when he signed up for it. Some, especially way back then (God, I’m old) were winner take all, sit and go pays top 3, guaranteed pot pays out top 10%, etc. I was used to playing straight cash games, where my chips are my actual money, easy to follow. Tournaments are much different. You can re-buy in if you get knocked out in some of them, add-on chips at certain breaks, all sorts of craziness. So the pot keeps fluctuating, and you never really find out what exactly the pay out is until everyone is finished playing for some tournaments.
“Dude, you won almost four grand!” So, he wasn’t pissed.
“Huh? Third place…Four grand, what now?”
“Yeah, it says: third place, 3725.00. Pay that man his money!” More Rounders quotes. Bad Russian accent and all.
“Sweet, I’m definitely going to play in more tournaments.” My eyebrows were raised and I nodded at him. My wife was the only one bringing in an income, and we desperately needed to start saving up to buy a real home again. Every cent helped.
“Yeah, you are. Give me your screen name, and I’ll transfer half of this to you.”
I had a nice little surprise for my wife for when she got home that night. She was thrilled, which was a more rewarding feeling than winning that money. She got home from the hospital, after a 12 hour shift and a two-hour drive back in traffic from Boston. She was exhausted. She opened the door and immediately started stripping off her blue scrubs after kicking her Aasics off.
“Hey now!” I must have been grinning like a fool, but she just sighed while stripping. She put up a hand to stop me from Road Runnering my way over to her.
“I was taking care of MRSA patients all day, I have to get all this off of me and then jump in the shower and either wash these scrubs or burn them. I’ll see how tired I am. Probably burn them.” She had told me about this before, she basically had to strip even before getting in the house, and then jump in the shower and start scrubbing, so she wouldn’t risk infecting me and killing me.
But I had good news, and told her how much money I had won, while tossing her a towel to cover up with, and a bag to toss her stuff into. She was happy, and I could see some of the stress just release from her shoulders.
“I also made meatballs, check it out!” I pointed at my Jackson Pollock ceiling masterpiece. She got a kick out of that, her laughter is the best medicine I could ever take.
“You’re an ass, but thank you. And you’re cleaning that.”
“Dammit. But…money…” I pouted out my bottom lip, which always got her.
“Step stool is in the closet, I’m getting in the shower, then we can eat together.” My lip superpower must be dwindling. “And honey, that’s great that you won today. It’s even better that you had fun.”
She was thrilled that I found something that was giving me a little bit of a mental break from being in pain all day. I told her that playing and keeping track of all the statistics helped take my focus off my leg, even if it was for a few minutes. Instead of taking 24 pills, like the day before, while playing cards I only took 19…hey, it was something. Emily told me, “If I could take your pain as my own, I would do it. If you find anything that gives you relief, do it, no matter what the cost is. It’s worth it, if it makes you happy.”
But playing online wasn’t something I wanted to continue to do, it was too solitary. I asked Jack to hook me up with some home games, as he is pretty well-connected with people. He got me into some home games that were run out of his friend’s house in Stoughton, just a group of about 20 people, and he also got me into a game through one of his best friends who works for the Red Sox. The guy who ran this game used to play for the Red Sox, but I can’t remember his name. All I remember is his house, it was huge. It was a giant white house in Medfield, and he had his own game room set up with about 20 custom poker tables, and he ran his own little tournament there every month or so. His wife looked like a Barbie doll come to life, and sounded like a high-pitched cat getting strangled. But, very nice people.
I won routinely at the small groups home games, and at the ball players house I finished second and first the two times I went. My live play evolved with every game. At first I was engaged with everyone, listening to everyone chit-chat about whatever was going on. But I was there to make money, not expand on my social status, so I focused strictly on my cards and the hands in question. I never picked up my cards when they were dealt, until everyone else at the table looked at their cards first. It gave me a good read, seeing their initial reactions to their hole cards (first two dealt to the player). As much as everyone wants to keep a straight face, almost everyone gives something away. If they liked their cards, they might put a chip on top of them, indicating they were going to be playing that hand, betting into the pot, a strong hand. They might shuffle some chips around, paying no attention to anyone else, usually a fold coming or a bluff. One hand on their cards, the other goes straight to their face, or lifts a drink to their lips, they are trying to hide their tell, probably a monster hand. Little ticks like this you get to notice after playing a couple thousand hands, you get to be an expert at reading micro-expressions and body language. Leaning in to the table, they are going to engage; leaning away and slumped in their chair, obviously trying to distance themselves from their shitty cards. This is just a usual, not an always going to be, scenario. There are lots of players where you just have to read their playing style and not their mannerisms. How often they bet, how much they usually bet per card on the flop, turn and river if they have a hand or if they are bluffing. Do they check-raise when they hit big hands or do they push their chips around, scared that someone will luck their way in to a better scenario.
After doing this for a few months, and getting into the habit of reading people, and developing my own habits on how to deal with other people at the table, I felt it was time to go down to Foxwoods. I told Jack, who was all for it.
“I’ll see if Timmy or Dave wants to go too then, they always clean up playing blackjack.”
“OK, well, we’ll go down Friday night. Figure out who’s going to drive.”
As I talked my wife into letting me go away for a weekend night, Jack got everything else set up for our trip down. “I’ll be fine, I promise. If I get dizzy or anything like that, I’ll go back to the room and go lay down.” She was skeptical, but knew how much I wanted to go.
“Ok, just make sure you bring your pill boxes, and call me and text me every couple of hours please.” She would have come with us, but she had to work 7pm-7AM for the weekend shift. “And no picking up hookers in the lounge.”
“There’s no hookers in the lounge…right Jack?” Jack, who was getting into his best ensemble, looking like a shorter Tom Brady (he got all the looks), just looked blankly at me.
“Sure…” and with that, Emily gave me a big hug and a kiss.
I knew exactly what game I was going to begin playing when I got there, which had a starting table maximum of $500, so that’s all the cash I brought to the casino. I assured her, that if I started to lose I would walk away, and not dig myself into a hole. So Timmy picked Jack and I up, in his black Maserati, and we began our two-hour drive down to Foxwoods. Tim is a world-class trainer for professional athletes. He’s also an avid blackjack player, and every pit-boss at the casino knows him, and he receives VIP treatment. Jack and Timmy talked the whole time about what they were going to do, when they were going to meet in the club. But I just started to pass out in the backseat.
Nearly two hours later we pulled up to the valet, and made our way in. As soon as you step into Foxwoods, you’d never know if it was daytime or nighttime outside, everything’s so bright, bells are ringing, people are laughing, yelling; and the air is being pumped in, full of oxygen and a cool 72 degrees. Lots of people, everywhere. The place was mobbed, and especially once we headed toward the Great Cedar Casino floor, there must have been at least 2000 people, all Asian, who were playing a domino game, and betting huge sums of money. Timmy told us he was going to the high stakes blackjack tables down at the other side of the casino, and Jack and I went to the poker room. As soon as I got my chips and requested a seat to go play, I noticed a few different things about the casino atmosphere, compared to the home games.
First, most people are assholes. They may seem nice, and chatty, but in almost every circumstance, they will begin asking you questions every time, and only, when you are playing a hand. This is to try to irritate you, or glean any information about any tells you may show subconsciously. Any mannerisms, hesitations, timed responses, shaking hands and fingers, any information is worth money in a game like no-limit hold-em. By the way, being on medication that controls your heart rate and blood pressure, seems to be an advantage, as my hands never shake when making a huge bet. Call the medical journals; I found a bonus for heart failure. Secondly, I can only play no-limit hold-em. Limit hold-em is just ridiculous. Every asshole stays in the hand, no matter what they have, since it costs them max 4-6$, it just turns into just a roll of the dice type of game. Then every donkey at the table playing stupid hands. No thanks, that irritation would drive me to an early grave, so I stayed far away.
Thirdly, all drinks are free. Dangerous. But also a huge advantage if you plan ahead. Know when most tourists are going to be down on the tables, sloshed out of their minds, and you can slide in clear-headed and take some easy money. Fourth, don’t ever sit down with money you are absolutely never willing to lose. You have to assume you’re going to lose every penny, and that has to be OK, otherwise you shouldn’t be gambling. Last, have fun. Find a way to humor yourself while sitting on your ass for eight or ten hours, taking other people’s money while they curse you under their breath. I found my way, and it’s amusing to me. Maybe not to my opponents, but to me, it’s fun.
Going back to my first piece of advice, you know, people are assholes, I learned this after chit-chatting when I sat down at my first table and immediately started up a conversation with some older gentleman who was raking in chips left and right. I quickly figured out what he was doing, as his questions always seemed to coincide with right after I checked my cards. So, what I did, and what I did from then on, is, I’d pop my ear-buds in and just karaoke back whatever 80s or 90s song happened to be playing on my mp3 player.
“Good cards, then?”
“Don’t go chasing waterfalls! Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to…”
Don’t smile! Just nod at them like a lunatic. Raise one eyebrow. Throw him a wink. It’s fun for yourself, and the dealers start to get a kick out of it after a while too.
“You got that Ace? You do, you sonofabitch, will you show me if I fold?”
“Put my tender, heart in a blender, watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion..”
“Da Fuck?” Calm down, sir. You have stupid sunglasses on and way too many gold chains for not being Mr. T, you get another verse from Eve 6:
“Rendezvous then I’m through with you…”
After almost an hour of this fun, the dealer decided to really throw our table into a hotbed of action. He dealt ideal hands to 6 out of 10 of us, the six of us who put up the $40 pre-flop bet to stay in the hand, and see the next three cards anyway. After just that round of betting, that pot was already up past $250. I had pocket 9s. I assumed everyone else you stayed in the hand was holding an Ace-King, Ace-Queen, or something like that. I was betting that they were all canceling each other out with their cards. So the dealer laid down the next three cards; 6-9-2. All different suits. I almost bumped the table from the erection I got from seeing that 9 hit the felt. More betting. I just called, I didn’t want to scare anyone off. Next card out: Jack. No help. I hoped someone had Ace-Jack in their hand. Some betting, then the guy to my right, in the big gold sunglasses and cowboy hat, raised big.
“Family pot? You all stayin’ in?” There he is. My new buddy, Mr. Ace-Jack.
I called, two other people did as well and the rest folded. Last card: 3. “I’m gonna win some money, I’m gonna win some money!” Is all that was going through my head, but I just sat in silence and waited for Cowboy Bob to bet. He goes all in. I took all of 2 nanoseconds to call, and to my surprise, the two other players also called. “Odd,” I thought.
But, we called his bet, so he showed his cards first. I was right, Ace and a Jack and a big smile on his face. The older gentleman to my left with the weird porn mustache also flipped over Ace-Jack and they both shared a guffaw together, thinking they were going to split the pot. The only woman at our table, who hadn’t said a word, turned over her cards, showing pocket Kings. Too bad, so sad, you should have bet bigger before the flop, I thought. “Yoink” pretty sure I said that out loud as I turned over my pocket 9s, and the dealer started shoveling chips in my direction, I hadn’t even been keeping track of what was in the middle. Everyone grumbled, “Nice hand.” Yes I know, thank you for the free money. I tipped the dealer and then started stacking my chips. I quickly realized that I just made a little more than $2,000, in less than an hour.
I felt amazing, I felt useful and in control of something. I was using a skill to control a situation and doing a great job at it, getting instant feedback of a job well done, in the form of mountains of red chips. I racked my chips. Took $500 worth, went to the cage and cashed them out. Put that $500 back in my pocket, and now was playing with free money for the rest of the evening, and I went looking for my brother to tell him.
“Are you done already? Did you catch a bad beat or something?” Jack was in the middle of a hand with a kid from Harvard, I could tell from the jacket and pin. His stack of chips was about the same as when he started, he might have been up a hundred dollars or so. The Harvard kid was cleaning up at the table, and was scribbling in a pad after everyone bet, folded or said anything.
“No. I just quadrupled my money on one hand, so I cashed out, it was crazy. I think I’m gonna go play 5/10 no limit next. I just wanted to go see Timmy playing blackjack first, and see if we were gonna eat soon.” My interests were peaked to also try blackjack, since Jack and Timmy did talk about playing it a lot, but I wanted to see someone who was great at it, play first.
“OK, I’ll meet you over there, once I finish up with these donkeys.” As he said this, two of his competitors, Eastern European, started talking to each other in their native language, which Jack used to quote Rounders again. “Hey! English only at the table! If you want to see this last card, you will stop speaking fucking sputnik! I’m sure you’re just talking about perrogi’s and snow and shit, but let’s cut that out.” The Harvard kid was the only one who didn’t start laughing, but just started writing in his pad, I’m sure just writing what Jack just said.
“Ass.” I was just glad everyone else was laughing and got the joke, and began my trek across the giant Foxwoods layout, to the other Casino area, where Timmy was playing blackjack. Just walking all that way tired me out. I got a drink from one of the waitresses when I finally made it over, and went looking for the high stakes area. I noted a few 25$ per hand blackjack tables along the way, noting to myself that I might try blackjack at one of them, if I had the energy and inclination to do so later.
Timmy was in the high-rollers area, with a group of six or seven people around him, watching him play. He was sitting alone at one of high stakes blackjack tables. A young guy was dealing the cards and one of the pit-bosses was watching the action, which was memorable because when the pit-boss tried to switch out the dealer, Timmy told him if the dealer left, so did his money, because the kid was giving him good cards. Timmy had a huge stack of $500, $1000, $5,000 and $10,000 chips in front of him, and he was playing $10,000 a hand blackjack. This was not uncommon, from what I’ve been told about his betting. He was winning, but he looked pissed. I tapped him on the shoulder, just to let him know I was there, and he gave me a smile, but then I figured out what was bothering him. When he went to put up his next bet, his $10,000 chip, an older woman who was watching him, went “Ooooooo!” and then the hand was dealt, Tim lost and she says “Oooohhhhhh!” Again, same bet, “Ooooooooo!”, this time he wins, older lady gets more excited and louder, and exclaims while clapping her hands just once, and her stupid pink hat bobbing up and down on her head as she bounces with excitement: “Ooooooooooooooooooooooohhhooooooo!” Timmy’s face was turning a nice shade of Harvard kids jacket.
He finally put up one finger, gesturing for the pit-boss to “Come here.” The short bald gentleman in the penguin suit waddled over, and he and the dealer both leaned over and asked if there was a problem. “Yeah,” And Timmy threw up his left thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the older lady, “Get this fucking owl away from me!” I was sipping sprite at that moment, and then I wasn’t, because it all started to come out of my nose. As I was cleaning myself up, the older woman was escorted out of the VIP area. Timmy was a lot more relaxed now, and his face was not the color of that kids Harvard jacket anymore. When Jack showed up, he stopped playing, and the pit-boss counted up his chips for him and gave him a marker slip, so he could go back to playing and not have to worry about going back and forth to the cage.
“So, how did you two do so far? You hungry?” Timmy gave the dealer a $500 chip for his tip, and we headed off toward David Burke’s.
“I’m up a couple hundred, but James hit it big quick.” I nodded at Jacks statement, and then chimed in.
“Yeah, I won over two grand in a single hand, it was crazy. You were doing well, how much are you up now?”
Timmy wouldn’t ever give you an exact figure, but in his own way would let you know. “About a Corvette.”
“Jesus.” That just struck me as awesome. I’ve been around other people who were high stakes gamblers as well, like my father, but Timmy definitely the biggest gambler I’ve been around. But it never intimidated me, I could beat him at poker when he played in some of Jack’s home games, and he could clean up at blackjack. I’d find out later from Jack, about stories of their trips to Vegas, where Timmy went on one run so hot, he won over $600,000.00 in one night. Then lost it all back the next day, then hit on a $10 progressive slot machine on his way out when they were leaving. “The guy has a horseshoe up his ass.” According to Jack. I can not confirm the presence of a horseshoe. I’ll assume he’s just lucky.
After dinner at David Burke’s, which was fantastic, I went up to the suite to take my night medications and take a nap. I ended up just sleeping until the morning, and the two of them woke me before breakfast. I’m sure they never came up before then to get a minute of sleep, and played all night. Apparently Jack decided to play blackjack, and didn’t lose every penny, which is amazing. I didn’t get the chance, that night, to play in a higher stakes game like I had wanted to. But on my next trips down, I did. I started driving down by myself every weekend or so if no one else was able to, and it really became like a job. I started to know the dealers and the other regulars who were down there. I recognized the tourists who were there just to lose money, and the millionaires who were sitting down at a $10,000 max table game, just to try out poker for a change; they were the best, I loved those drunk guys. Those guys helped pay for the house we were able to buy in Carver, I’d sit down fresh and sober when they were on their eighth drink and just throwing chips around, playing in hands just because. They would lose $500 or $1000, then hit the ATM and put up another $500 and lose it all again in the matter of an hour. I’d thank them for their deposit with a song quote and a wink…
Best out of all of this, was I got to go home to Emily, and give her this money. I walked in the house late after that first trip with a wad of hundred-dollar bills. Emily was sound asleep. Well, she was snoring like a freight train.
“Honey. Emily, look.” I gently shook her shoulders, trying to ease her awake so she wouldn’t just reach up and punch me.
“Hmm?” Her eyes opened slightly, and she was grumbling at me with nonsensical sounds. I just laid a stack of money down next to her. “Holy shit, James!” She grabbed it and sat up, clutching the bills into her pink and purple pajamas.
“I did pretty well, I think. So, can you put that in the bank? Just leave me $500 so I can go back down again?”
She just put the money down on her night stand. She hugged me tight, kissed me gently and pulled me into bed with her. “Did you feel ok? Did you have fun?” That’s all she cared about. Even if I had come home and told her that I had lost that $500, instead of bringing home a pile of extra money, I am 100% sure that is the exact same response and affection she would have given me. This money was just icing on the awesomeness of the fact that I found something to do with myself, something I enjoyed, something I was good at. It made me happy, so that made her happy, and this money that she didn’t have to work herself ragged for, that would help with our bills, and help us work towards getting out of a rental house in Brockton, and back to owning our own home. First, it was a smaller house in Carver. It was small, but it was all ours. She was able to continue going back to school to get her doctorate degree, too. Emily was the one who accomplished almost all of this, I was just happy to be able to contribute in some way. Then, after our son was born a few years later, we knew that we were really going to need a bigger place. Poker helped with getting us a place in Marshfield, in a great school district. Out of all my trips down to the ‘Woods, I’ve lost a lot of hands of poker, but only ever came home down a large sum once, and I was right, she never yelled at me, I got the same hug and kiss. I stopped going down there regularly a few years ago, when we decided I’d go back to school. It was easy to stop going down there, I never had an itch to go, a need to fulfill with a casino. I wasn’t addicted to gambling, I was just a pretty good poker player and had fun doing it. The blessing in all of that is, that with no mortgage to worry about for 30 years, if I were to get real sick again, I know that my family has a home they don’t have to worry about paying for.