The Worst Play Ever

pocket-acesFor my birthday last year, Kay my girlfriend enrolled me in a fiction-writing course at Stanford. “Maybe you could get rich by writing a book about being broke,” she said. “Others have.”

I went to all ten three-hour evening sessions. I did my homework and I paid attention in class. The teacher told us, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” That hit me where it helps, and I was forever changed as a writer, no longer confined by an allegiance to the truth.

But the story I will tell you now is true. It must be, or there would be no point in the telling. I am like an astronaut who walked on the moon and returned to write of feelings unimagined on earth. I am like a man who for years lived alone in a forgotten forest and returned to write of his trials and triumphs. For I am the poker player who longed to fold pocket aces before the flop at $20-40 limit hold’em, and finally did it. Here is my story.

Thirteen years ago, my career as a performing musician had become too financially unreliable. I needed something I could count on. So I quit the band and became a professional poker player. I played in low-limit no-rake flop-games, in homes, and apartments, and church basements after bingo, and wherever else the action was. The games were very, very loose. I read a book that said to fold a lot. So that’s what I did, and that’s why I was able to live well, which I define as: To never pass up a concert because of the ticket price. As a poker player, I was successful, which I define as: solvent.

I studied the best player, the guy who got everyone’s respect and money. He did it different. He didn’t show cards or indicate in any way what he had after a hand was over. And he didn’t share his opinions on how others played or behaved. And he never got upset — by bad luck, by bad dealers, by bad anything. He was immune to it. And I thought, I could do that, and I should. I will train myself — after a lifetime of spewing information and emotion — I will teach myself to keep secrets.

And somewhere around then is when an idea landed on me like a nearly unnoticed insect. To fold pocket aces before the flop. Just to do it. To see if I could. To see how it felt.

An inner voice asked, But why? Why do such a self-destructive thing?

Because it is there, like a mountain, waiting to be climbed.

But some mountain climbers lose fingers and toes from frostbite. Some get brain damage from oxygen deprivation. Some die. “Because it’s there” is a stupid reason to justify a stupid act.

You are correct. And now, if you are quite finished pestering me, would you please be so kind as to point me to the mountain?

Okay. But are you really sure you want to climb it today? With rent due and all?

You’re right. Never mind.

Fast-forward ten years to 2003. I was playing hold’em and I lost a pot with pocket aces. For no good reason I did a quick calculation to see how many times that had happened before. I multiplied out the years, hours, and hands-per-hour, and as it turns out, I’ve played a million hands of brick-and-mortar hold’em. That means I have had pocket aces over 4000 times. If I lost one out of four, then I have lost with pocket aces 1000 times. I have lost with pocket aces 1000 times. I have lost with pocket aces 1000 times.

What if? What if the next time it was on purpose? The bug was back and this time it bit.

I mentioned this idea of folding aces to some of my poker buddies. After the expected fleering, the ensuing discussions produced two more reasons to do it:

To make folding easier. Perhaps if I folded aces one time before the flop, it would then be a wee bit easier to fold any hand, at any time, especially when I know I should fold, but don’t. Yeah whatever. I didn’t buy it.

To make the worst play ever made before the flop at limit hold’em. Now here was a reason I could sink my silliness into. Billions of preflop betting decisions have been made at hold’em. It was irresistibly appealing to the hotdog in me to be able to lay claim to having made the worst one.

In May 2003 I went to Vegas. I was in a $20-40 game next to a friend who knew of my quest. I got pocket aces. My friend folded in front of me. I raised. Both blinds called. The flop came 8-8-2 and I lost to an eight. Then I remembered, damn, I could have flashed the aces to my friend before the flop, and folded. The quest would have been over, and witnessed.

Couple days later, the same thing happened, with a different friend sitting on my right. He folded, I got aces, and I forgot to flash and fold. The board came K-J-x, 10, x, and I lost to a straight.

Days later, driving home through the Mojave Desert, I got to thinking about this whole folding aces thing. Maybe it would be best if I kept it a private matter. Maybe I should do it, to see if I could, and then not tell anyone, to see if I could do that too. It’d be the worst play, and the best secret, all in one. And besides, who would believe such a tale? I mean, besides my buddy Alex.

And why is this simple task so daunting? Is it the monetary sacrifice? Apparently not. I could give away a hundred bucks, or set fire to it, without much effort or pain. But folding pocket aces before the flop, at any limit, even $3-6, would be far more difficult. So it wasn’t the money; it was something else holding me back.  Perhaps the anticipation of engaging the enemy while holding the best possible weapon is too much for a good warrior to relinquish, under any circumstances.

(In an online discussion, someone asked the actual dollar value of pocket aces at $20-40. The answers ranged from $60 to $100. Lee Jones replied: “How much is it worth to know that those aces are two little pieces of plastic, that you control them, and not vice versa?”)

A few days later, on May 19, I went to Lucky Chances at 4:00 AM to play $20-40. The game was shorthanded and fast. I got pocket aces. Just as my raise hit the table, I thought, damn, there goes another shot at the Holy Grail.  Next time I get ’em, I’m gonna muck. I think I can do it. I just have to stop and remember. I lost that hand to a flopped flush.

Four hours later the game was full and I was stuck $800. I got pocket aces again, and I forgot to fold, again. An ace flopped and I folded on the river when a four-straight came and it was two bets to me.

Only because of the quest was I aware that I had lost with pocket aces four consecutive times in two states. Could it be that I must fold AA before the flop before I can ever win with them again? I was feeling pressure of the oddest sort, like I had to get this over with, like an impending coming-of-age torture.

Four hours later I was stuck $1600 with my last $400 on the table. The game was loud and reckless, every pot swollen. I was quiet, and snug, waiting for a hand, waiting for a flop. My last money would not go in wrong.

The first player folded. The second player folded. I was next. I looked at my cards. And there they were. One red and one black.

Time conveniently stopped so that I might have a little chat with my selfs.

What are you waiting for? Do it!

I can’t. I’m stuck too much.

Do it!

I can’t. I just can’t. I never could. I know that now.

D O  I T ! !

I did it.

I mucked those aces and I felt a surge of confidence and power. I bolted from my chair and over to the no-limit game, where Alex was.

I whisper-screamed in his ear. “Alex! I finally did it! Just now! Like we talked about! I folded aces before the flop!”

Alex is all about results. He asked, “Would you have won the pot?”

What a question. Like I cared! I went back to the $20-40 game and sat down and hid behind my cap bill because I was afraid to look anyone in the face because I was very much aware that the chemistry in my brain had been recently and drastically altered by a recent and drastic event, and that the ends of my mouth were stretched toward my ears. I couldn’t make it stop, even if I wanted to, which I didn’t.

Eventually I regained sufficient control of my face so that I could speak. I started babbling, as if I had won some pots. I was up out of my chair ten times in the next hour after not moving for two. A few hours later, I got even, the game got tight, and I got in my car, still high.

It took two days for the buzz to wear off. Now, one month and a dozen pocket aces later, I can report that I am unchanged by what happened at noon on May 19, table 41, seat nine. I don’t play or think any differently. I am like the moonwalker who returns to say that the earth is indeed round. I am like the wilderness dweller who returns to say that the forest is in fact full of trees. Nothing remains, in mind or matter, from my journey, except that now, when I lift the corners and see ace-ace, it’s like I’m getting winked at.