Haplessly Turning the Tables on a Poker Ace

By Max Gross

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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the hapless jewish writer once lost $50 in less than five minutes, playing texas hold’em.

The loss occurred at a somewhat sketchy underground poker room that was run by Orthodox Jews in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and featured free punch and Hydrox cookies. The HJW asked for $50 in poker chips (the lowest amount they were willing to give him), sat down and played two hands before another player put all his chips on the table and declared, “I’m going all in.”

The HJW looked at his king and queen — of the same suit — and decided they were worth matching the insanely large bet. (He was feeling lucky.) His opponent threw down two aces, and in a matter of minutes the HJW was wandering the streets of Brooklyn in a daze.

The loss — happening as swiftly and coldly as it did — scared him enough to abstain from playing poker again for months.

Poker is a dangerously attractive game for hapless types….

Most people who follow poker closely know that the biggest part of the game is losing. For every champion like Barry Greenstein or Daniel Negreanu, there are dozens of burnouts: guys who mortgage their house, empty their children’s college accounts, hawk their wedding rings.

Most of these hapless types are incurable optimists. They see “possibilities” in egregiously bad hands. They talk themselves into boneheaded plays and suffer the horrible consequences.

But despite his haplessness in other areas of his life, the HJW was very determined not to be hapless at poker.

After his Brooklyn poker loss, the HJW disciplined himself. Regular readers of this column will note that a few years back, he took lessons from a poker pro (Avery Cardoza) and he reread the strategy books, eventually developing the essential skepticism to talk himself out of making stupid bets. The HJW came to believe that virtually no hand he was dealt was worth betting on.

Thus, by believing he was a destined loser, the HJW ironically became — more or less — a winner.

Last week the HJW’s status as a “winner” faced its most severe test when his friend and editor, Andy Wang (another poker fiend), was invited to a media versus professional poker players tournament and asked the HJW along.

“It’s free,” Andy said. There would be prizes at the end of the tournament but no cash.

“Oh,” the HJW said. “I’m there.”

So Andy, the HJW and an advertising executive named Bill Fink crossed Times Square, went up to the fifth floor of a W Hotel, and drank with other writers and players as they waited to take on the best poker players in the world.

PokerStars.com, the online casino sponsoring the event, promised a roster of megastars: Greg Raymer, the heavyset 2004 champion famous for trying to hawk “fossils” and other polished stones to fellow players during tournaments; Joe Hachem, the good-natured Australian who was the most recent champion; Isabelle Mercier, the svelte French Canadian who was the World Poker Tour ladies champion and — this was the coup de grâce — Chris Moneymaker, the aptly named 2003 champ, who beat Phil Ivey and Johnny Chan to win his title and was now married to a Playboy model. (One of the HJW’s friends liked to call Moneymaker the Bobby Fischer of poker. It was a pretty good comparison, except Moneymaker isn’t living in exile, convinced that a cabal of Jews is after him. But they both popularized their respective games.)

As the players were introduced, the HJW sat in the back of the room — vodka tonic in hand — wondering how long he would last. Fifteen whole minutes? “Let’s not get cocky…” he thought.

The HJW was seated with Raymer, and when Raymer put on his trademark sunglasses, the HJW was suddenly terrified. His hands trembled when he touched his cards. Raymer, on the other hand, looked relaxed and happy. He took out a polished black “fossil” and asked the people at the table if they had $80 they wanted to spend.

The HJW’s first attempt to enter the game came when he was dealt a jack and a 10 of clubs. Raymer stayed in, as well. Three more clubs came with the flop; the HJW raised, and Raymer promptly folded.

The HJW was ecstatic: He had won the pot off a poker champion!

Suddenly the HJW was no longer trembling when he reached for his cards. He felt a little giddy. “Please don’t get cocky…” he kept telling himself with every passing hand.

Raymer doubled his money in a few minutes, and then doubled it again. But for the oddest reason, he couldn’t seem to beat the HJW. Raymer and the HJW had another showdown a few minutes later, and Raymer dropped $200 to the HJW before folding.

The HJW was in rare form: Straights, flushes, full houses all came to him with ease. An hour into the game, Raymer was the chip leader at the table — but the HJW was nipping at his heels.

“All right, we’re going to combine tables,” the president of PokerStars.com said when most of the players had been knocked out of the tournament.

The HJW took a seat with Moneymaker, who also had accumulated an enormous stack of chips. (Mercier had been knocked out of the game by a shy, good-looking reporter who never had played before. A few minutes later, Hachem, too, was knocked out. On getting up from the table, Hachem said, “I’m never playing this stupid game again.”)

They played for roughly an hour, and the HJW saw his own, more modest stack of chips grow.

More players got knocked out of the game (Raymer stepped away to chat with reporters), and after a while the table was down to about five players. What had started out as $750 in chips had ballooned into more than $7,000.

The HJW was dealt a pair of kings and bet heavily. Moneymaker, no longer the chip leader, put his still-sizable fortune in the middle of the table. “I’m all in,” he said.

It could be called “a painful moment” for the HJW. There he was — a former bed wetter, a zhlubby Jewish writer who had stumbled into the tournament almost by accident — facing down the world champion. A guy who wrote a book about poker. A guy who was married to a Playboy model, for God’s sake! He looked at Moneymaker and then at his cards again. With his heart pounding, he thought that if he was going to go down at least he would go down with the best.

“Sure,” he said. “I’m all in, too.”

Moneymaker flipped over a single ace and a junky card. The flop was dealt with no help to either player. A fourth card was dealt. Again, no help. A fifth card was dealt, and suddenly the HJW was declared the winner.

Moneymaker stood up, shook the HJW’s hand and went to carouse with the journalists.

“You knocked out a champion?” the president of PokerStars.com asked.

“I knocked out Moneymaker,” the HJW said quietly.

He was given a hardcover poker book and a massive, brand-new set of poker chips.

As Moneymaker was about to leave, the HJW asked him if he wouldn’t mind autographing his book.

“Sure,” Moneymaker said, good-naturedly.

Underneath the HJW’s name he wrote, “Thanks for the lesson — Chris Moneymaker.”

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