Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yeah, probably

I have found Sunday afternoons during NFL season at Mandalay Bay to be both profitable and enjoyable--in spite of the football, not because of it. So with the first big game day upon us, I prepared myself to be there. I went to bed early last night so I could get up early this morning, get started soon after the first kickoff, and stay as long as it seemed to be going well. Unfortunately, today it went badly from the beginning, but I'll get to that later.

The main purpose of this post is to tell you about a character at the table, an older gentleman who was one of the purest specimens of calling station I have ever come across. Two of his sons were at the table, too, apparently all here as part of a wedding week. In one of this guy's first hands, he called a river all-in bet on a board that had four to a flush and four to a straight--with bottom two pair. As it happened, he was right to do so in this particular case, as the opponent was bluffing with flopped top pair that had gone sour.

But--and you'll just have to trust me on this--the call was not the result of some deep, amazing soul read; it's just who he was. Immediately after the hand was over, one of his sons, in a shocked tone of voice, said, "Dad! What are you doing there?!" The reply: "What? I had two pair--I had to call!" He ruminated on it a bit, however, and well into the next hand, out of nowhere, muttered, "That was probably a bad call."

This became something of a refrain for him. Sometimes he would say it in anticipation, as he put out the chips: "This is probably a bad call." More often, though, it would come after the hand was over and he was reflecting on his performance. "That was probably a bad call." Mind you, this wasn't said to anybody in particular. It wasn't posturing, not a gag line, not apologizing. It was just his own mild self-flagellation. It happened whether he lost the hand (which was most often the case), or whether he won (because once in a while somebody at the table, apparently not having received the memo, foolishly tried to bluff him).

Because I'm going to be riffing here on what a terrible player this guy was, I feel an obligation to also emphasize that he was an extremely nice, pleasant person. He conducted himself with dignity and flawless manners--never got upset, never gloated, never complained. He had some sort of neurological disorder that gave him trouble with both walking (he came to the table via motorized scooter) and fine motor control. He was inadvertantly flashing his cards sometimes because of an inability to handle them with the ease that most of us take for granted. But he persevered without making a fuss about his handicap, and, fortunately, nobody was so gauche as to call attention to the technical problems he was having. (I caught one player on his left sneaking a peek at the man's poorly protected cards, shot him a dirty look for it, and didn't see him try it again. My usual approach would be to ask the dealer to help the player understand how to protect his hand better, but in this situation, that seemed like it might embarrass him, so I kept my mouth shut.) He was there to have fun, to spend some time with his boys playing cards and watching football while celebrating the wedding of one of them, and he seemed just as happy to be there as one could be. He was a pleasure to share the game with. But he was a horrible, horrible player, easily the weakest at the table.

He couldn't help himself. Calling was not just what he did, it defined who he was as a poker player. Why did he call in hopeless spots? As the scorpion famously said to the frog as they both sank into the river, because that is his nature.

At one point, he got check-raised on the turn by his own son--he called, no surprise--then was put to an all-in decision on the river. The young man even said, "Don't call, Dad." (Highly improper, I think, but under the circumstances, I wasn't going to be so nitty as to make a stink about it.) Want to guess what action he took? That's right--he called. He had top pair. His son had flopped a set, turned a full house. He exclaimed, "Dad! What are you doing???" His father just shrugged, made a remorseful face, and said, "That was probably a bad call."

He never delivered this line self-consciously. It was never directed at anybody. He wasn't needling opponents, nor explaining himself to a listener. As far as I could tell, he had no audience other than himself. It was just his own internal dialogue, made barely audible.

Of course, no matter how many times he chastised himself for making bad calls, and no matter how many times he had to go to his wallet for a reload, he didn't actually change how he played. He limped in to about 90% of hands, and would almost always call whatever raise somebody might make after having limped. One time, somebody rather ridiculously raised a bunch of limpers to $32, and got one caller. Guess who?

He calls because it's the only way he knows how to play poker. He has almost certainly heard, multiple times, from multiple sources, the standard advice that most of the time you should raise if you think you have the best hand and fold if you don't; that calling, absent specific reason for doing so, is the worst of your three options and should be the action you resort to least often. But when it comes right down to it, he can't quite bring himself to pull the trigger on a raise--what if somebody reraises him? Then what? The thought is just too scary. But at the same time, every hand seems just a little too good to fold; it has just a bit too much potential to throw away. So he splits the difference and calls. He's not trying to play badly. He's making every individual decision the best he can. But he is caught between fear and hope. Fear makes him reject the raise, and hope makes him reject the fold. Calling is what's left. To him, this likely feels not like bad play, but like carefully steering between the dual dangers of the alternatives. Raising is his Scylla, folding his Charybdis, and, like the ancient mariners, he can feel safe only by steering a course right down the middle of the Strait of Messina.

He calls because he can't help it. He calls because he has always called. It is his nature.

Hannibal Lecter tries to teach young, naive Clarice about understanding people in "The Silence of the Lambs": "First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?"

He calls. That is what he does.*

As for me, despite my best efforts, nothing was working. It was one of those maddening one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back days. Flopping sets while others flopped flushes, etc. Yada, yada, yada, no need to detail the misery, as you all know just the sort of day I'm describing. The table was so soft that I found myself wondering, "How is it possible that I do not have every dollar these good folks brought to the casino today?" But I just couldn't make it happen.

I was down to my last $134 out of a $300 buy-in several hours into the session. In middle position I looked down at Kh-Qh. Plenty good enough for a raise at this extremely passive, limpy/cally table. I made it $9. I was not surprised to pick up three callers, including the subject of this post.

The flop was Kd-4h-5h, which is about as friendly and welcoming a flop as a fella can reasonably expect to have delivered. I bet $30 and reduced the field to one caller. Yes, that one. LDO.

The turn brought me a lovely sight: the 6h. Ding! Second nut flush. With the pot now $91 (after rake), and with only $94 left, and facing an opponent who would find any possible excuse to call, I saw no need to milk him with a small bet or otherwise get sneaky. I declared myself all in. The dealer counted it down. My opponent counted out the amount for a call, checked and rechecked his hole cards, looked at how much he would have left if he lost, etc. Based on his hand motions, I was first convinced that he was going to call, then convinced he was about to fold, then back to calling again, then folding again.

But in the end, he did what he nearly always did. He called. I showed my cards. He grimaced, as if he had known the news would be about that bad, and rather sheepishly turned over the Ah-Jd. He had called--of course--on the flop with nothing but backdoor draws and one overcard, and had called--of course--on the river with just seven outs to a higher flush.

There was no time for any comment or prediction, because at nearly the same instant, the dealer was peeling off the river card: the jack of hearts, cutting me off at the knees with that effin' axe of his. Nut flush for the calling station.

When I lose my composure at the poker table, it's not in the form of a verbal harassment of an opponent, like Tony G or Phil Hellmuth will unleash. It's not anything that's going to get security called on me, or for which I'm going to feel a later need to apologize. As physical manifestations of frustration go, I'm about as undramatic as they get. But this beat resulted in one of them: I plopped my forehead down on the table in disgust.

I knew that that was enough for me for the day. I was done. So after about two seconds of wallowing in self-pity, I stood up, grabbed my things, and started to walk away, without having said a word.

I'll bet you can guess what I heard our friend say as I left the table behind:

"That was probably a bad call."

*While proofreading this, I got a feeling that I had seen somebody else use this same quotation when describing a poker player. But I read so many poker blogs--who was it? After thinking about it a bit, I decided it might have been Grange95. I searched his site, and, sure enough, back on June 21 of this year, he began a post with the same words, and the context was a discussion of calling stations. When I used it above, I was not consciously copying Grange's usage, but I suspect now that the memory of that post was, in part or in whole, responsible for my brain coughing it up when I got to thinking about the "nature" of a calling station. BTW, you should go read that post, if you haven't already. It's an insightful analysis of different sub-types of calling station, based on what psychological needs their actions are filling.


Crash said...

A very enjoyable post. Not grumpy at all. Very forgiving, and understanding, of the dad.

Michael said...

I second Crash's comments, very enjoyable and entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't the line be, as they both sank into the river? I only mention it because I love reading you because your grammar is almost always spot on. Loved the post as well.

Rakewell said...

Yes. Thank you. Fixed.

Grange95 said...

Ouch! How frustrating, to set your opponent up, maneuver them into the horrible call ... and then see the ugly river peel off in slow-mo. You're a better man than I for your measured reaction.

P.S. Thanks for the link back to my post. As for both of us using the same Silence of the Lambs quote, it's clearly because we both like good films (setting aside your Woody Allen fetish, obv). Great minds (and mediocre minds) do think alike!