Poker reminds me of golf. You can spend hours playing in torment, the taste of defeat lingering like a bad fish sandwich. But one good hand — like a miss-hit five-iron that goes stiff to the pin — is all it takes to make things right. It's also a bad idea to play either game when you're shitfaced. Usually.
I love poker. I love raking pots without ever seeing a flop because my big raise scared the other players away. I love the rush of excitement when you're holding pocket aces, and the challenge of playing it cool. I love folding every hand for about an hour or so, and then taking down a huge pot with junk cards. I love losing track of time while my chip stack gets bigger and bigger.
Am I really good at poker? Honestly, no. Not really. I've probably spent more money on golf balls than I've won playing cards. I'd say I'm just good enough. Good enough to keep the guys guessing at a home game. Good enough to play online regularly without going broke. And good enough to know what I'm not that good at. Such as playing heads-up — that is, one-on-one.
No-limit hold ’em tournament-style poker is so interesting, in part, because the value of hands goes up as the game progresses. The “blinds” — two forced bets designed to ensure there is always action in the pot — increase at pre-determined intervals. And as players go bust and leave the game, the stakes increase with each hand.
That means you can't sit on your hands late in the game like you can early on. You’ll go broke that way. When it's down to heads-up, you ought to be prepared to play every hand. And that's where I still run into trouble, because a K-7 offsuit (a king and a seven of different suits) still looks the same to me when I'm playing heads-up as it does when I'm under the gun at a table of nine: pretty crappy. It's something I need to work on.
It could be worse, though. I was playing online recently and came up with Q-Q (two queens) for pocket cards. I was on the dealer button (the most favorable position — playing after everyone else), and nobody ahead of me had raised more than twice the large blind. So I pushed my chips all-in (cyber style) — happy to pick up the blinds and those sorry-looking small bets.
Except everyone called me. Everyone.
I held the best hand, by far, going into the flop. The player under the gun (the most unfavorable position) had a very bland A-3. One player had J-Q. The next-best hand out there was, I think, a pair of fours. But I bet you can see where this is going. A three came on the flop, and yet another on the river. So Mr. A-3, with three of a kind, took the huge pot as reward for playing poker like a rank amateur. He should have folded when I went all-in; his hand wasn’t that strong. But then, how do you actually diss a guy for winning?
That goofy all-in with A-3 from an early position is like the miss-hit five-iron that leaves you a birdie putt. It ain't right. But it's still pretty nice.