I played in a charity poker event last week, believe it or not, at the same temple where I had my Bar mitzvah so many years ago. Nothing like pocket tens and torahs to brighten up an evening. Before I took my seat, I wondered how the big man upstairs felt about a bunch of old Jewish dudes gambling in his sacred place of worship. Maybe he was just upset he didn’t get dealt in.
The tournament organizer was an older gentlemen, doing his best to consolidate tables, distribute chips, etc. I don’t want to say the tourney was poorly run but it wasn’t exactly a night out at the Hard Rock.
I knew I was in for a frustrating night when he announced that, in order to avoid confusion, he didn’t want anyone dealing to burn cards. My old poker regulars would have stormed out in protest at the unheard of change in protocol but I went with the flow since my stepdad graciously funded my buy-in.
Since my bankroll has been a touch light lately, I haven’t played much hold ‘em, so my chops were a bit rusty. By evening’s end, I fared well, finishing in the top 10 out of about 70 players, but still unfortunately out of the money. Only the top three paid.
An interesting thing happened, however, as I was knocked out of the tournament. With my chip stack dwindling, I was running out of options. Facing reasonable pot odds with two bets, and both small and big blinds in front of me, I was dealt a somewhat playable hand: Queen-Nine of spades. I put one of the bettors on an A-x and the other on a pair. Had I waited two more hands, I would have been blinded out anyway, so I decided to take my chances to quadruple up. I went all-in.
When no face cards and two spades fell on the flop, I felt good about my hand, knowing a flush would probably win me the pot. Since I was all-in and could bet no more, and the two blinds had folded pre-flop, the two remaining players checked down their hands to try to eliminate me from the tournament. A fifth spade failed to fall but I did hit a nine on the river, meaning I likely had any A-x beat. I was toast, however, to any higher pair.
I flipped over my cards, assuming my pocket nines would not hold up depending on the other guy’s hand. When I flashed my nine, the player seated directly across from me waved his hands as if too shoo me off and said “Just go away!”
Now I had just sat down with this guy. I had built up a friendly rapport with most of the other players at the table but this guy had only played three hands with us, having just been reseated. He finally turned over his pocket jacks and rudely repeated “Just go away!”
Now I’m a peaceful, loving, non-confrontational guy but when this guy said that a second time, it was all I could do to not leap across the table and smack the knit yarmulke right off his smug head. After all, this was a small-time charity event, wasn’t it? Was there a need for such attitude?
Poker by nature is a cutthroat game, the idea to rid your opponents of their money by any means necessary, but as in any competitive event, there’s still etiquette.
Mike Matusow is professional poker’s most well-known trash-talker. His shtick is to belittle his opponents any chance he gets, telling them how lousy they are in an attempt to take them out of their game. A millionaire several times over, his approach has obviously worked well for him. But I had not sat with this guy all night and at that point, there was no need to take me out of my game. My chips were already in the middle of the table. I don’t regret making the call with the suited Q-9. In two more hands, I would have been blinded out anyway, a more playable hand likely not coming my way.
As I stood up, my opponent stuck out his hand as if to shake mine and say good game. I looked at him in amazement, at first not shaking his hand, then deciding to bite my tongue, rise above and accept. Let’s just say the handshake occurred with Belichick-like swiftness.
In the past, I’ve preached the importance of good sportsmanship. Psyching your opponent out is a crucial part to many sports, but being gracious and being a champion are not mutually exclusive. At that point in the game, my opponent’s banter was pretty much pointless, not to mention this was a charity event held in a temple.
So I walked away, out of the money, irked but still somewhat satisfied with my play for the evening. There will be other tourneys.
Let this be a lesson to the sore winners out there. Winning with pocket Jacks when an opponent is already all-in doesn’t require skill. Being gracious in victory does.