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Do You Want to Feel Really Gross?

A smoky tournament experience

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


Do You Want to
JV here, reporting again from the limited outpost of poker known as Managua, Nicaragua. I’m not playing much poker these days. I’ve occasionally made my way to the midnight game that I mentioned the last time out, but it hasn’t been enough — not nearly enough. I mean, I’m glad for this gig, and all (“saving the world one TV show at a time”), but I still yearn for the comforting confines of the Bike or Bellagio, or any other poker club I can think of that starts with the letter B.
It’s slim times in southern climes.

Poker, as we know, is an itch that needs to be scratched. To quote the sage, “Do you know anyone who started playing poker who’s stopped playing poker?” To quote the other sage, “If you’re doing something and you can’t stop doing it, you will keep on doing it.” To quote the other other sage, “Poker is not the answer. More poker, that’s the answer.” (And yes, all quoted sages are me. Anyone got a problem with that?) And yes, there’s always the online game, but I can’t help thinking of a certain SAT analogy: Real-world poker is to online poker as sex is to [BLANK].

One positive thing about Internet poker is that (in my apartment, at least) nobody smokes. Outside these walls, everybody smokes, as Nicaragua is one of those places where the legislation hasn’t yet caught up to the Joneses. Look, I’m no smoke Nazi. When it comes to individual rights, I’m a liberal, a libertarian, a librarian almost. And in the context of a column about meeting the needs of my poker habit, far be it from me to criticize anyone’s smoking habit. But I come from California, where smoking is quickly going the way of the California grizzly bear (Ursus horribilis californicus, the official state animal, ironically hunted to extinction in 1922; that is, it’s ironic that the state animal is extinct in the state, not that it was hunted in an ironic way, which would probably be no more nor less effective than the normal way, but I digress). When I play poker back home, people don’t smoke, can’t smoke, probably wouldn’t smoke even if they could smoke. Here, people smoke where they work, play, walk, drive, eat, drink, talk, and, for all I know, shower or sleep. Needless to say, they smoke when they play poker, and in spades. 

I was reminded of this one Sunday when I got wind of a little private tournament being held in a pizza restaurant on the south side of town. I knew there’d be smoking, but what the hell. For the sake of some live pasteboard action, I figured, I could put up with a few lungfuls of methanol, butane, cadmium, acetone, and whatnot. I had the afternoon free; how bad could it be?

But here’s the part I hadn’t counted on: the heat.

Not that it should have surprised me, as it’s always hot in Nicaragua, with humidity consistently at or near the top of whatever scale they use to measure such things. Therefore, any given Sunday afternoon in Nicaragua will always feature a big bucket of hot — with a hot, steaming order of wet on the side.

So now let’s put it all together.

Take one small pizza parlor on the south side of Managua (not, in fairness, that the south side is any hotter than any other side). Add three wooden tables in a room big enough for two. Stir in 30 poker players, most of whom are smoking as if their lives depended on it (an ironic construction not lost on Ursus horribilis californicus, who, for the record, did not smoke). Heat to a million degrees, and what have you got? A fair working definition of gross; I mean, really gross. Hot gross and sticky gross and stinky gross and coughing gross and my God, this is just not anything even vaguely approaching fun gross.

And it went on and on and on. These guys really wanted to get their money’s worth out of their tournament buy-in, so we started with 3,000 in chips, 40-minute levels, slowly rising blinds, and unlimited rebuys for the first six levels.

Eventually, my eyeballs bled.

There was one moment of glory — OK, not glory, but a decent discovery — before my brain went completely south. Holding pocket kings, I had reraised an early-position raiser and taken the flop heads up. On a board of A♥ Q♠ 6♥, my Nicaraguan foe led out for about half the pot. It always rings certain alarm bells when the enemy takes the lead away like that. I mean, has he never heard of “Check to the raiser”? In other circumstances, I would have seriously had to consider that he had an ace here, since he had to call my reraise with something, right? But in my smoke-addled condition, I remembered that such a bet in such a circumstance is often called a weak lead. And why is it called that? Because it’s weak. It’s a feeler bet from someone who wants to find out if his hand is any good. Suddenly, I didn’t fear an ace — certainly not a good ace, for a good ace would likely try for a check-raise there. This meant that he was on a bad ace, a good queen, a draw, or air, all of which would have to fold to a raise.

Still, I wasn’t sure. So, I took a moment to take a read. I studied my foe through the murky blue haze, until … he turned to take a drink of water! That’s a textbook weakness tell if ever there was one. So, I raised, he folded, and the tournament went on.

Did I win the thing? Ha! Are you kidding? I barely survived. In the end, I busted myself out on a brain fart so dumb that I can blame only heat prostration or oxygen-debt stupidity. I staggered away from the table, left as quickly as I could, and made my way home to shower off all 16 layers of gross.

Now I feel better.

But I don’t regret the foray, not at all. I’m happy with the way I played, happy with the discoveries I made, and happy to be in the company of other jugadores de póquer, even under such adverse conditions. Like the sage says, “Even bad poker is better than no poker at all.”

And that sage knows what he’s talking about, you betcha. ♠

John Vorhaus is the author of the Killer Poker book series and the poker novel Under the Gun. He resides in cyberspace at Photo: Gerard Brewer.