An Honest Man at the Poker Table
CW: Gambling, strong emotions
Long read, a short story about Poker. This just happened earlier tonight and it has seared itself into my brain so hard that I feel compelled to tell you.
The banter at a poker table can be fun, especially when you’re at a table with a loose-knit cohort of regular players who you’re happy to see and are happy to see you, because there’s this wonderful sense of cameraderie that can’t help but appear when you see each other regularly and play together on-and-off for more than ten years.
Usually the banter is pretty boring though, especially among strangers. Common topics include sports and hands that were recently played.
And often when the banter’s not boring, it’s unpleasant. It’s common for people to just openly discuss strategy out loud, monologuing about what they think happened and what cards they think people had and what they think would have happened.
Occasionally, there’s an annoying type of person I mentally dub ‘retroactive psychics’, psychic because they TOTALLY KNEW that X was going to happen (where X is whatever just happened), and retroactive because it’s their hindsight that’s always 20/20. You’d think this wouldn’t be impressive, but retroactive psychics seem to think that is, because nobody ever asks them but they’re always adamantly set on telling you anyway.
It’s also fairly common for people to get angry, upset or resentful at the table since money and luck are both sensitive topics and losing one due to the other is doubly so. Plus, people who are upset or emotionally tilted are generally prone to making ruinous blunders, and in the game of poker, that’s profitable to others.
So sometimes, people will chirp at each other. Chirping is the act of trying to goad, trick, persuade, upset, or otherwise influence another player.
And it works.
For example, earlier tonight, I heard an old man from the next table over loudly shout, “Oh yeah? Well, at least I’m leaving still up for the night! How many people in this room can say that, huh?” I remember it word for word because I was in the middle of a hand, calculating and analyzing, lost in possibilities and probabilities, when he angrily yelled it to the whole room. I rubbernecked (cuz how could you not?) and saw a guy sitting across from him scooping in a mountain of chips. You’d think that’s the kind of thing the old man would say as he was leaving, but the guy who was scooping in the chips finished stacking the chips that were now his, said something to him, and the old man sat back down and time moved on.
The old man finally got up again half an hour later, now empty-handed, but still furious. He walked over to the pit boss of the poker room and I watched him talk at the poor man for, must have been more than fifteen minutes, before he finally flounced out.
And rarely, there’s this exquisite kind of person who just talks to talk.
He was at my table. You could sit still as a statue, responding to nothing he says, and he’ll still talk at you just to hear himself speak. He’ll think out loud, agonize and sweat over every decision like the TV cameras are pointed at him and he’s at a WSOP final table, even though he doesn’t even know it’s his turn cuz he’s too self-absorbed in whatever he’s saying and doing to actually pay attention to the game we’re all playing. We didn’t know it yet but we were all in the presence of the Main Character of the universe.
He’s here from Florida he doesn’t have a place to stay yet he’s watched ALL the poker specials on Youtube and he knows all the pros and did I know he’s a pro himself? The money he’s got on the table is all the money he’s got right now anyway hey guys what’s a good hotel around here to stay at?
People answered and gave him suggestions, tried their best to be helpful, and he politely tried to wait his turn to speak again but this one person who was replying had already listed three places and it sounded like he was gonna keep talking but LOL look everyone he has pocket 55s! Everyone folded and he had already won but he flipped his cards over to show everyone his pair of Fives anyways and did we know that pocket Fives and pocket Tens are his favorite cards and he’ll always go all-in with them no matter what? He does it to be random and mix up his strategy and he loves multiples of 5 because he’s a genius at math and that’s why he’s so good at poker.
The guy who was trying to tell him about the places he could stay at swallowed his words. Mister Main Character began to explain to us about what a ‘strategy’ is and why having one is important when playing poker. We all grit our teeth, grimaced, and endured.
A while later, I get dealt an interesting, not overwhelmingly strong, but potentially very powerful hand. 88, a pair of Eights. MC and three other players decide to play their cards too. The first three cards of the table are dealt: 8, K, Q. My hand just SMASHED its potential. I now have three of a kind Eights, which is so statistically strong that even the most basic strategies of poker play treat your (admittedly nonzero) chance of losing in this situation as a non-factor in analysis.
There’s a pittance worth of money in the pot. It’s MC’s turn, and he sits as stonefaced as a TV poker character for ages before he bets… ALL of his money. Um. What? Also, okay. I called his bet because folding is literally unthinkable, and he flips over TT, a pair of Tens. Just like he said.
The 4th and 5th card come out. He yells at the deck in the dealer’s hand to give him one of the two remaining Tens in the deck but that didn’t happen. My 88% chance to win came through and I scooped up the stacks of chips that were his and are now mine.
I suppose at least he’s honest?
He leaves, but asks the dealer to hold his seat, and comes back with another stack of money. Didn’t he say that money he just lost was all that he had?
So much for honesty.
Not long later, I find myself looking down at QQ, a pair of Queens. Hello and welcome, we’ve just crossed the border into Overwhelmingly Strong-landia. And MC is in!
This time, the three cards come out: 5, 4, 7.
I make a sizable bet, and he… tries to bet all his chips like they do in the movies (with a string bet), but he doesn’t know that string-betting is against both the rules AND the etiquette of actual poker. He accidentally commits himself to merely matching my bet instead, but I know he wanted and intended to bet everything again. If he has a pair of Fives, one of his two favorite hands, he has three of a kind Fives and his cards have mine completely crushed, and I’d be in danger of huge and ruinous loss. Shit. Okay, what can I do here?
I decide to just try asking him outright. “Hey, do you have your pocket Fives this time?”
He chuckles and cooly goes, “heh, I wish I did”.
I believe him, he bets all of his money, and I call.
Just like he said, he doesn’t have 55, three of a kind Fives. He has TT, a pair of Tens again. He’s on the wrong end of an 88% chance to win, again. I won, again.
He gets up to leave again, and tells the dealer that he’s done and not to save his seat.
The guy who was trying to tell him about the regional hotels earlier speaks up.
“Hey,” he says, in a charming, kind and helpful tone. “If you’re still looking for a place to sleep, there’s a highway overpass right next to this casino.”
For the first time, the MC was completely at a loss for words. He just walked away.
The game carried on. Time continued to pass.
And the amount of psychic damage it took to keep a straight face through this whole scene still BURNS IN MY SOUL.
(Another incident, another time)
After lunch I decided to go play some games, and at the poker table just now someone gave me all of their money, $306, for nothing.
After he bet it all and I called, when I flipped my cards over and announced my hand, he looked at my cards, looked again at his cards, then threw his cards away face down. The dealer swept his cards into the muck and started to push the pot towards me when the guy sitting next to him who saw his cards too pointed out that he fucked up and based on his cards we should have split the pot, he should have got all his money back.
It was a huge mistake and a total unforced error on his part. He was a middle-aged, muscular, bald white guy with a pot belly who looks like he could have been a cop, and instead of accepting that gracefully he decided to do the exact opposite.
He demanded that the dealer give him his cards back, and the dealer explained that he couldn’t do that.
Then he got in my face like “you going to just keep that? If I was you I would give it back”, and trying to provoke a fight. I shrugged nonchalantly and said that I’ve made that mistake before too, and it’s the kind of mistake that everybody makes, hopefully only once and never again. The dealer explained that he could not allow me to give him that back either, even if I wanted to. He sat back down and seethed for a while, then got up and left but said he’ll be back.
“Yeah, with a gun,” someone quipped, and everybody laughed but it wasn’t too funny because, after all, this IS America. But he came back with another 300 and sat down, grunting and growling and obviously still mad as hell, and I didn’t really feel like sitting with someone that angry at me personally so I left to continue enjoying the rest of my day off.
I don’t know if I would have had the audacity to demand that other people cater to me like that and save me from my own mistakes, but I guess the world’s full of many kinds of people.
Zi Teng Wang is a dreamer, thinker, and nerd who thinks too deeply about things, does research in molecular biology and genetic engineering, performs magic professionally, enjoys science education and outreach, and often writes about whatever’s on his mind.