Friday, February 24, 2006

I have always been the type of person that keeps my addictions deep under wraps. I do not want people to know, exactly, what it is I am addicted to, and how deep that addiction has its claws into me.

When I was younger, I was the only person out of my social group that was an avid reader. And by avid reader, I really mean avid fantasy novel reader. My friends made fun of me mercilessly at times.

In college, I had a deep, dark secret that I shared with only one other person: I was a fan of the first Third Eye Blind album. We were shunned.

Even today, as a professional educator, my addiction to the phrase "Keep It Real" earns me nothing but open disdain from students who do not know me. And my colleagues are beginning to fear that they'll never understand me.

This post, in effect, has become a personal intervention. There is something I need to confess.

I am addicted to online poker.

[Pocket Queens. Lost to a guy with pocket Kings. He had the heart, too, and ended up with a flush. I laid down my pair to a final $500 bet. The person that called him had pocket Jacks to the flush. Good lay down by me. I lost too much in the process, though.]

It's true. I'm one of those people that you hear about. You think to yourself, Who plays online poker? What kind of a nerd does it take to sit on the computer and pretend to play a gambling game for fake money? The answer is simple. Me. I'm that nerd.

[Lost $350 more with Ace/Queen off-suit. I'm currently in a 4000 person tournament on Pokerstars.net. The buy-in was $2100 in play-chips. It's all fake money. Everyone starts off with $1500 in play-chips, and is left on their own to wade their way through the field. The top 270 finishers are rewarded for their efforts with prize winnings ranging from $4800 to 1.6 million in play-chips (PCs).]

I don't know when this happened, exactly. I started playing no-limit Texas hold'em with friends last summer. It began innocently enough. My close friend, Scott, bought my wife and me a very nice set of weighted chips as a wedding gift. We got together a handful of times over the summer in the heat and sweat it out at another friend's very bright, very orange kitchen table.

I never won, initially. In fact, my competitive nature typically got the best of me, and instead of winning, I'd lose... angrily. My weakest (and most embarassing) moment came after the third or fourth game. I was put out with two pairs [I believe the top pair was Kings]. Jesse, my opponent in the hand and my closest friend since grade school, turned over three of a kind. I forget what they were. Seething, breathing, burning rage shot through my veins as I stared at the table, my eyes darting back and forth between my cards and the board. I stood up, grabbed my half-empty can of beer and walked into the kitchen. I dropped the can into the sink in frustration. Unfortunately, it landed squarely on a very nice, very breakable glass cup. I tried to calm down, and tried to clean up the mess quietly, but my wife called me out as I walked back into the living room to dispose of the pieces in the garbage can.

I cannot pinpoint, exactly, what lead me to this point, but I know it had something to do with that hand. Maybe it was the frustration of competing in a game that confused me. Maybe it was the annoyance of knowing that I had the top pair on the board, with another pair as back-up, and yet I still lost. Maybe it was just spite. I know, so long as I am alive, I'll never want to lose to Jesse again.

[Out of 4000 entrants, I have officially finished in 2617th place. I did not rake in any PCs, and I did not win a single hand. In fact, for the 25 minutes that I sat staring at the computer, I only played 3 hands to their completion. The first two brought me all the way down to $500. I pushed in a call of the Big Blind three other times and was raised each time. Finally, on the fourth occasion, I decided to go all-in with Ace/Nine off-suit. The flop came up 5 of spades, six of spades, Queen of clubs, 2 of diamonds, and 3 of spades. I had nothing except an ace. Another player took all my chips with a pair of threes.

I actually entered two satellite tournaments earlier this evening just to have enough PCs to be able to enter into the big tournament. Each of the side tournaments consisted of 9 players with a $320 buy-in. I won them both, raking in a total of $2600. I had enough for my tournament buy-in, and even a little on the side to help recuperate my losses should I bomb big time in the tourney... which I did. So, it's off to another satellite.]

I started watching poker on television. How typical am I? As soon as Chris Moneymaker rakes in $2.5 million in the 2004 World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament, I'm all of a sudden hooked on the sport. I'm playing right into their hands, aren't I? I've got the chips. I've considered getting the table for when my wife and I buy a home. I watch the shows, or rather, I should confess that I watch all of the shows, from WSOP on ESPN to Learning from the Pros and Poker Superstars Invitational on FoxSports to The Heartland Poker Tour on our local Comcast Sports channel. I even found myself surfing the internet the other day, for the very first time, looking up strategies. I didn't find much.

[$320 buy-in to a 27 person tournament. Cards will be dealt within one minute. Top prizes go from $587 for 5th to $2997 for 1st. I feel good about this one. I'm thinking this may be a top three finish.]

I am not this person. I can say that, emphatically, repeatedly, in person, online, wherever. I do not, typically, deal with addictions of this magnitude. I have been playing guitar consistently since I was fifteen years old. I only own one electric guitar (albeit a nice one, though I haven't touched it in a long time), one electric bass guitar (which sits behind the laundry hamper in our bedroom), and one acoustic guitar (which holds a prominent place in our living room by the stereo).

[Same rules apply. Everyone starts even with $1500. We're three hands into it at our table. I just put a guy out with a straight, 3 to 7. He had two pair, 3s and 7s. I'm sitting pretty at $2800.]

I love music. I have not bought a new cd in... I actually cannot recall the last time I bought a cd. I'm into computers, but I don't spend wrecklessly. I adore literature, but I virtually stopped buying books when I stopped flying on a weekly basis.

My point is this: I never dive full-force into a new interest. I don't even quite know how to define it. Is it a hobby? An interest? A passing fad? An addiction?

[Just took down a $4900 pot with a flush, Ace high on the board, Queen high in my hand. I had pocket Queens to begin with. I never went all-in. I rarely do, unless I'm desperate. I let other people bet, and I play along with whatever it is they want to throw out. If I think I've got them by the end of the hand, I'll come over the top (a term which basically means that I'll raise their bet by a substantial amount), and, usually, if they've committed enough money in the previous rounds of betting, they'll get flustered by having someone come over the top unexpectedly and decide to push all-in. I call. Normally, I find that I have made the right call. Sometimes, though, I am surprised to learn that I haven't.

Currently, in this tournament, I am in 2nd place with 17 other competitors still ripe for the picking. And I just flopped two pair, Kings and tens.]

Live poker tournaments are few and far between, at least in my experience. It is difficult to find at least three other people who have the time, the money, and the ability to get together on a given night to sit down at a table and play cards. We have played rarely since our semi-regular tournaments at Jesse's last summer. Scott and his wife bought a house, and have been gracious enough to host a couple of games recently, the last one immediately following the Bears playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers. I won that game, though only five people played, and one of those people took off mid-game with his chips going back to the case.

The game before that, at Jesse's, I made a miraculous comeback. I was down to my last $300 in chips, and was facing a slew of players still left. I believe seven people played that night - a record number at that location. I won despite having to deal with harassment and careless play from my friend, Matt, who doesn't care one bit about poker, or hold'em, and who vowed, immediately following that game's completion, to never play poker again.

[I made the final table. Another player was just put out. I nearly left, too, but was able to have the courage to fold on a pair of pocket 4s with two cards left to the board. They were trying to put me all-in. I'm in fourth place now, and the chip leader has me covered 4:1. He's pushing nearly $16000 to my $4000. It'll take a lot of hard work to get him, but I can do it if I am patient.

A lot of people simply call the Big Blind, hoping to see what they can make out of their hand on the flop. My philosophy is simple: raise when you've got something; fold when you don't. You can't bluff without first building up bluff credibility by winning a few hands. For example, in this tournament, I've won so few big hands, I am not able to bluff. I have to wait patiently for good cards to come to me before I start throwing chips into the pot. It takes a while, but it's worth it if you stay patient.

Another person has left. Two spots to the money. Six to the finish line.]

I cannot recall when I went online with poker. I bought a silly little poker superstars download from some gaming website over Christmas break, I believe, but I quickly grew tired of it. It did not feel real. I only played the computer, and the computer was very methodical and mechanical with its betting cycles.

I turned my attention to pokerstars.net next, and within moments, I started to consider the possibilities. At any moment, at any time of night or day, I can log on, pop into a room for any of the following games - hold'em (no OR pot limit), seven card stud (hi-lo or standard), Omaha (hi-lo or standard, pot limit or no-limit), enter into large tournaments (up to 10,000 entrants), or small tournaments (in 9s, 18s, 27s, or 45s). Where are the phone calls? Where is the receipt for the beer? Where is the actual money leaving my pocket if I lose?

[I played in my third big tournament Wednesday of this past week. It started at 10pm. I had to get up to go to school at 5:45am. I was just curious to see how well I could do. Buy-in was $320. 6,638 people entered. By midnight, I was in the money. By 12:35am, I could barely keep my eyes open anymore. I pushed all-in and lost with nothing but a King-high. I finished 347th of the original 6638 entrants. Do the math. I finished in the top 5%. I walked away with a $1340 prize. I was proud of myself.]

My wife was the first person to use the term "addiction". I don't remember how it came up, but I know I acted offended when she said it. It wasn't that long ago. In fact, that's why I am writing this tonight. I am addicted. I think about my typical weeknight, and this is how it goes: come home, watch CSI with her while eating dinner, talk, watch more CSI, move over to my laptop or the desktop, logon, play poker off-and-on until she gets into the shower, at which point I finish my last tournament and get ready to go to bed.

I probably play in two to four tournaments a night, depending on how well I am doing. Lately, I have been entering the 45 person tourneys because the payout is larger, and because I like the challenge of trying to take out more than just the people at my table. It's a challenge, and I don't always win. But, most times I find myself in the money.

[I put another player all-in with King/2 off-suit in the pocket. I had Kings. He called and had Ace-high. Fourth Street was no help. He floppped an Ace on the River. I am now down to the last four, and I am in last place. I am calling a re-raise before the flop with Ace/six off-suit. Why am I doing this?]

I don't think I'm any good, though I imagine I am coming off as though I do think that way. In fact, I suck. I constantly have to keep holding myself back. Otherwise, I'd just be throwing chips into the pot left and right.

[Another one down. I am now in the top three. I have $3000 compared to my opponents, who are both sitting at the $18000 mark. I will not win this tournament unless a miracle occurs.]

I am addicted. It is true. My wife was right. I should have never taken it personally. I play this game as if, tomorrow, when I walk through my front door after a long day of driving around the city, it won't be here for me. Sad part is that I know it will. I just can't shake off that feeling. Every hand feels like its my last, though I know, with one hundred percent certainty, that it isn't.

[No miracle. I exit in third with pocket 9s to my opponent’s pocket 10/9 suited. He snags a 10 on the flop. My dying prayer was for the final 9 to come, though it never did. I walk away with $1458 in PCs and the knowledge that there will be another tournament tomorrow.]