Fate and Destiny? Or Chaos and Insanity?

About eight years ago, my poker mentor and I were tucking into our fourth plate from the Bellagio all-you-can-eat buffet when I decided to bemoan the bad run of cards I had experienced that week. My guru ordered a jug of coke before telling me a story which has stayed with me every day since then: an old gambler who had come to town many years previously to play in The Big Game but now, 15 years later, was reduced to passing chips around the $3-$6 Limit Holdem tables downtown. His bankroll, once nearly a million, now stood at just $6,000 – a sum from which he eked out the most basic of returns and humblest of lifestyles.

“Most of his income came from the occasional handout from his son and the buffet comps which he received from the casinos after every four hours of live play. It was humiliating to queue for them at the cashier’s desk every day, but necessary. Necessary.”

“One night, after drinking too many free White Russians in The Freemont, he goes “on tilt” and burns through $1500 in four hours. Chasing flushes, inside straights and trying to fill up on the river; by midnight, he’s lost another $2000. He knows that there’s no coming back from this. It’s double or quits time. Move up or cash out. For good.”

“He heads across to Binions and takes everything he has out of his strongbox before putting his name down on the No Limit list. When a seat becomes available he sits down with $2,460 avoiding eye contact with players probably glad to see him there. A loser at the table. Better than that, a man who used to be somebody. Someone to say you’ve beaten.”

“The first few hands pass without incident before there is a raise and then a re-raise before him and he looks down and sees aces. He thinks for a while; frowns; gives the impression that he’s considering his options, knowing full well that this might be the last hand of poker that he ever plays. Then moves all-in. I guess his opponents saw it for what it practically was: the last play of a desperate degenerate. They call him. His aces stand up against their queens and jacks. And suddenly he’s trebled through and on a roll.”

“Two more wins later and he’s on $10,000 for the first time in two years and ordering Evian.”

“After three hours at the table he’s in the zone. Making great reads. Laying down straights. Playing like the young man he once was. Acute. Alert. In the moment. And once again, the money’s rolling in: $20,000, $25,000, $30,000, back down to $20,000 before doubling through to $40,000. Some berate the last gasp of a long-term loser. Others don’t begrudge their losses having taken so much from him for so long.”

“Sitting up straight, his hubris and bravado now restored announces his intentions. ‘Ah know ah’m gettin’ lucky and you know ah’m gettin’ lucky and ah know you know what’s happening here but let me make it very clear: Ah’m gonna play tonight until ah make two hundred thousand. Then ah’m up. I’m out. And gone for good. Ah’m not going til that happens so… who wants to donate to mah fund?’”

“Sensing that he’s not joking, the players start to laugh and relax into the game. He might be playing well, he might not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. But one thing is obvious, he’s getting lucky. Some have to think hard to remember a rush like it. His pairs trip up, his middle pins hit, he flops quads twice! The point is that if he’s really gonna sit there til he turns $2500 into $200,000 he’ll be there for quite a while. Long enough, they reason for his luck to turn and the hours to take their toll on his ability to make any kind of meaningful decision. They place their faith in the long run and take him on; happy to lose money in the meantime.”

“But the long run in this game is pretty long as we know” my mentor said, taking a sip of his coke “and that rush never ended.” He just kept on making money: $50,000, $70,000… $55,000 then a huge pot which took him up to $120,000! But still he didn’t walk away.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because he had a goal, I guess. I don’t know for sure. By two in the morning, he was physically and mentally spent but still resolved to make it to the $200,000 mark. I guess he saw it as his retirement fund. Enough to buy a small farm in Wyoming. Enough to never have to play the game again. Enough to move on. His price of freedom. I don’t know.”

“Then after nearly 6 hours of play, he looks down and sees aces once again and once again two players raise it up. Once again, he re-raises, this time to $6,000, a price which one young player calls and another more experienced player passes up. The flop comes 3 K 10, his opponent checks, he bets $12,000 and his opponent raises it by $30,000 more. At this point, in a different game you might well throw your hand away.  The check raise is so powerful there that – well what you gonna put him on? Ace King?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know the opponent.” I say. “King Ten is possible. A pair of tens in the hole. Even a pair of kings is possible I guess.”
“They’re all possible. Everything’s possible. The guy could be stone cold bluffing. Reckoning that if all you have in this world is $120,000 you don’t want to bet $30,000 of it on anything but the holy nuts. The question’s not what’s possible but what’s likely and how likely. Given all the likelihoods, what would you do?”
“Once again, I don’t know the way the other guy plays but… how much money does the other guy have?”
“Correct. How much money does he have. Not a question we would usually ask but in this case, playing with our entire bankroll on the table… crucial. The other guy has $96,000 left on the table. We have just over a hundred. If we lose everything on this hand we’re back down to $6,000. Exactly what we had 12 hours ago. Our bankroll for the last 3 years. So what would you do?” He paused. Probably waiting for an answer which never came.

“What he did was to go all in. Again. He reasoned that either a pair of aces were the best hand there and then or that by pushing $100,000 into the middle of the table he would do a good enough job of persuading his opponent that they were. He was wrong. In reality it was a nothing bet. If his opponent had less than a pair of aces he would have folded, more and he would have called. As it was, the young fella barely paused for breath before calling the bet for everything he had and turning over two kings. Trips.”

At this point in the story, what you need to understand is that our man has a pair of aces – a hand he started with in his first two cards – but his opponent has used the king in the middle of the table together with his two kings to make three of a kind, Kings. A better hand. The best hand, in fact, at this point in the hand: “the nuts” – so-called because in the early days of poker when one had the best possible hand, one would bet the nuts from the wheels of one’s wagon outside; literally the proverbial “keys to the Porsche”.

Crucially, though, Texas Holdem is played with seven cards in total from which the best five cards play. This means that two cards are yet to be dealt out into the middle of the table and with two aces left in the deck and two chances yet to hit one of them (to give him three aces) our man had a 10% chance of winning by the last – or river – card.

“People said that as the dealer made to deal the turn neither player moved a muscle. Probably terrified by the potential loss or gain ahead of them, they just stared impassively as the next card came out – a 2 of diamonds. While the young gun was now a 95% favourite he’d played long enough to know that this was not a certainty. By any means. As the dealer burnt the last card, the old man stopped him and addressed the table, earnestly, his Texan drawl more noticeable than ever:

‘Whatever the river… ah’m staying. Ah’m leaving here with $200,000.’ People felt genuinely moved by his resolve and belief. They knew deep down at that point that that was now unlikely but hell… they’d all seen much crazier things happen at a poker table. They rooted for the underdog but sensed the inevitable…”

“The point is, son” my mentor placed his empty glass on the table “you come to me tonight and you tell me that you’re feeling sorry for yourself. That you’re missing flops and draws and everything’s awry. Next time you feel like that, you remember this man’s story. You think how it must feel to come so close to having everything you ever wanted for the last 10 years and seeing it snatched away on the turn of a card. Don’t tell me that the luck just ain’t with you, man, if you need luck you’re not playing right!” After a three month run in which I found it hard not to hit my hand I felt suitably ashamed for complaining about a bad five days..
“What happened in the end?” I mumbled out of curiosity. My mentor paused…

“Sonofabitch caught his ace on the river and won himself a $233,000 pot. Went from $2,500 to 100 times that in less than a working day.”

“More remarkably, he went on to do exactly what he said he would. He didn’t play another hand, didn’t try and ride his luck, he just got up and fetched a chip tray to take his winnings to the cashier. Once there, he had it counted and recounted then bundled into Benjamins. To the cashier’s astonishment, he even closed his strongbox, signed out, put the cash into his pockets and walked casually out of the casino – the eyes of the whole poker room upon him.”

“He only had two hundred and thirty thousand on him but he must have felt a million dollars as he walked out that door and into the warm night air.”

“Once outside, he took a deep breath and allowed his shoulders to sink by two full inches. What to do now? He looked up at the clear sky above him at the billion twinkling stars that you used to be able to see in the desert night sky before they erected that Freemont Street Experience thing and took the first step of the rest of his life.”

“A split second later the night bus applied its brakes with a screech but could stop from hitting him at forty miles an hour. Paramedics arrived but pronounced him dead at the scene. Police arrested a couple of people who went round picking up some of the hundred dollar bills that blew out of his coat and wafted around the sidewalk.”

“If he hadn’t gotten so lucky he would probably still be alive today.”

My mentor poured himself another glass of coke before offering me one from the jug which the waitress had left at our table. A lot of the ice had melted so I declined.