Saturday, October 02, 2004

Relight My Fire

Sunday 29th February 2004 - Salford Casino, Manchester, UK

Pot Limit Hold Em - £10 Rebuy Tournament

My navigation skills are rubbish. Take travelling to Salford Casino as a good example. It sits at a crossroad junction near to a McDonalds and Harry Ramsden’s Famous Fish & Chip Shop, somewhere in Manchester (exact location unknown). Every time I go, I end up aimlessly driving around in circles, driving up one way streets when I should be driving down them, dodging cars, buses, trams and anything else stupid enough to get in my way, in a futile search for a casino with bright glowing neon lights. It looked so easy to find when I looked at the map. Eventually, I would stumble upon it, completely by accident of course. Not always from the same direction, mind you. Sometimes it will jump out at me on my left, sometimes on my right. Sometimes I peer over my dashboard and see it directly in front of me, it’s neon lights flickering slightly in a mocking gesture. “What’s it doing over there?” I would ask myself in a bemused tone, before grinding the gear stick into mesh and timidly approach. Once, I even managed to completely circumnavigate Manchester in it’s entirety and sneak up on it from the rear. The worst nights are when I would abandon all hope, turn the car around, and pray I arrive back home before sunrise. Laboratory mice and rats can negotiate mazes better than I can navigate. They could probably play better poker too. Luckily on Sunday night I struck gold, and managed to find the casino on my first pass, much to the relief of my aging bright yellow Fiat Cinquecento. (A car whose dimensions are perfect for mice to drive.)

Earlier in the day, in order to boost my confidence a little, I played a $5 No Limit Hold Em tournament on Paradise. There was also another reason for playing. You see, I made a promise to myself not to shave until I placed in the money in a tournament. I didn’t have to win the thing, or even reach the final table, just win some money. It was an idea of mine as an added incentive to play the best that I could, as I absolutely hate having a stubbly chin. Unfortunately, I was going through a bad patch in recent competitions, and I was starting to look like Saddam Hussein having a bad hair day. Thankfully, I finished in 13th place out of 331 entrants. I won $14.31, which isn’t enough to retire on, but it is enough to purchase a new set of razor blades and finally remove this infuriating outgrowth which had sprung from my face over the last ten days or so. In my enthusiasm, I nearly slit my throat.

So there I was, freshly shaven, getting ready to get back in the saddle and play my first live poker since May 2003. Ever since a dealer asked me, “Are you ever going to play a hand?” I guess the answer to his question was, “Not any more”.

I was just a little nervous to say the least. Live poker can be very intimidating and intense. Knowing this, I had the sense of mind to bring along a spare pair of boxer shorts and jeans, just in case of any “accidents”. I must have been having a really good day, because not only did I have a shave and find my way to the casino without crashing the car, but I was very relieved, if you excuse the expression, not to be forced to use my emergency supply of clothing.

This may be very difficult to imagine, but I am normally a very reserved character in the presence of a roomful of strangers. On previous visits, I have barely spoken to anyone, and just sat there waiting for the tournament to start, enjoying a bar meal and watching whatever was on television at the time. I decided before I even entered the building not to do that this time. I wanted to write about my experiences for GAI, and the only way I was going to paint an accurate picture, was if I started interacting with the people around me. I decided the best place to start would be at the bar. My intention was not to get blind drunk (I would never advocate drinking and driving) but just to sink a pint or two to settle my nerves. Every time I go to Salford, there’s always something new. This time it was a big red button. I ordered my pint and asked the girl what on earth is that for? She pointed to a sign above her which was split into different segments… Full…Half… On the House. Being of reasonable intelligence, I worked out the rest! She turned the device on, and the button glowed red like something you would see out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” I dutifully hit the button, and it landed on half. So instead of paying £2, I only paid £1. I was already beginning to warm to this place! I joked with one of the staff later that seeing as this was a casino, there should be another segment saying “Tip Bar Staff”. Then it would really be proper gambling, and I suspect the odds would be stacked as much against you as in all the other house games. It was very tacky, but I loved it!

The rules on drinking have changed as well. Once, you were prohibited from consuming alcoholic drinks on the game floor. Now you can drink as much as you like, wherever you like in the casino. I asked Kevin, the tournament director, if that caused any problems with drunken louts. “Only once,” he replied, “which funnily enough was last night on the roulette table, when a bottle of chardonnay was poured all over the dealer.” Well so long as they keep out of the card room.

I registered for the £10+1 Re-buy Pot Limit Hold Em tournament and sat down with Kevin and chatted for a while. How things have changed! I groaned inwardly as he explained how all the card dealers had since left in a mass exodus. They hadn’t been made redundant, just moved on to better prospects. Some were working on cruise ships, others in casinos elsewhere in Manchester. The casino isn’t keen to replace them with new staff, as they get very little juice from running poker tournaments, and certainly not enough to justify having dealers tied up for three hours. In this particular game, for example, with a maximum of 96 players, they only make £96. These days, all the tables are self-dealt. This usually entails an experienced player assuming the role as dealer. Bizarrely, they also have to be playing in the tournament. I guess this is for legal reasons. It is customary and well mannered, but not obligatory, to tip each of the dealers £10-£20 if you win the tournament. I think this is only fair. To simply play poker is difficult enough. To both play and deal at the same time is incredibly difficult. Plus, without these volunteers, there wouldn’t be a tournament. Ironically, I found out that the game actually ran smoother without a house dealer than with one. The house dealers were usually quite young and inexperienced, trying to learn all the disciplines of casino life. The volunteers are poker players. They know how the game should be run. It certainly made my experience there a great deal more pleasant than it has been in the past. I mentioned this at the table, which received a few nods of agreement. As long as I never have to deal. My shuffling and dealing skills are worse than my navigational ones.

So my overall impression of Grosvenor Casino at Salford…..I like it. It’s clean, smoke free and well spaced out. The staff are very helpful and try their best to please everyone. There’s a restaurant, which I can’t really comment on, as I’ve never used it. There’s a few slots kept in one section, but they don’t dominate the casino. House games include roulette and blackjack, and other games which I try to avoid. The card room runs cash games as well as tournaments, both of which are self-dealt. The quality of the poker players varies immensely, but I found them to be a pleasant and jovial bunch on the most part. It has been said that Julian Gardner frequents the casino, but I’ve never seen him. I don’t feel that the poker room is quite up to the standard it was a few years ago when it won “Best Cardroom” award. The loss of the dealers is a mixed blessing in a way. It certainly brings a smoother game, but the price of using volunteers is a diminished payout. It’s not the only thing to go missing. Dealer buttons are a favourite item to go AWOL. But still, the tournaments are enjoying full participation each and every week, with an ever growing reserve list.

I made my way back to the bar for my second pint before the tournament started. A middle-aged gentleman at the bar engaged me in conversation, just to pass the time really. We started chatting about the upcoming tournament. He makes regular visits to the casino with his family, as you can have a pleasant time socialising without a mass of drunken louts spoiling the evening. Preferring the play the house games, he enquired about the basics of the game, which I tried to explain as best as I could without a deck of cards in front of me. Although he had no intention of playing, he listened enthusiastically as I made a point that poker is more about pitting your wits against another opponent, than trying to beat the odds, as in the games provided by the house. He introduced me to his son, who is a design consultant, so we immediately had something in common, as I am a design engineer by trade. A girl was stood close beside him, whom I assumed was either his daughter or his son’s girlfriend. His wife was busy on the Blackjack and Caribbean Stud tables. I hit the big red button as my pint was poured. A big cheer went up as I managed to get it for half price again!

Tournaments generally tend to start late in the UK in comparison to those played in the United States, as I have been informed. This one was no exception, starting at 9:15pm. There was also a large tournament being played elsewhere in Manchester that night for £1000 with one optional re-buy. Even so, the poker room was packed and all 96 places taken, as is typically the case. These game tend to run very loose during the 2 hour re-buy period, and tighten up afterwards. Most people stay the distance during the re-buys, although some make an early departure. The blinds only double in size twice during this period, once each hour. After an optional top-up though, the blinds escalate quite quickly, and many people bust out of the tournament in a short period of time. Although I have never gone the full distance yet, I have heard that the final table can take over an hour to reach a conclusion, as people have massed huge piles of chips, and tend to play rather cagey.

After wishing each other good luck, I said goodbye to my acquaintances at the bar, and strode across to the card room. Seats are selected at random, by picking a card from the tournament director, although there are some exceptions. In this tournament, for example, a lady who was playing had some type of bulky equipment attached to her. I was too polite to make too many enquiries as to what is was. But the tournament director made certain that she wasn’t inconvenienced by having to switch tables, and also made sure that she was seated near the end of her table, in case of any difficulties. I thought it was a very understanding gesture on behalf of the casino, and demonstrates the level of hospitality encountered there.

I edged around to Table 5 - Seat 10, which was to be my new home for the next couple of hours. I was the first to be seated on my table and I settled down and examined my chips. 1000 points split into 1x500, 3x100, and 4x50 denominations. The initial blinds would be set at 50/100. Interestingly, they had only recently increased the amount of chips that your £10 bought. When I originally started playing, you started with 500 chips. This made the game too much of a crapshoot for most peoples tastes I guess, and it was changed to the format that I have described. Our volunteer dealer sat down next on the swivel chair, two seats to my left, in the middle of the kidney-shaped table. We chatted for a little while, and he joked that he would deal me aces. The tables quickly filled up then, with a flurry of activity all around. With twelve players to each table and 96 players, there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre. I gave a quick glance to over our table. Most of the players I had seen before. It was quite a young age group, with a few middle-age and senior individuals. There were four Chinese, two of whom I was sandwiched between. One other noticeable character was in Seat 7 on my right. A middle-aged English chap who was reading a book about tournament bridge. He carried the aura of someone who had experience and intelligence, a very dangerous combination.

For the first half hour I did absolutely nothing but fold and be attentive to the rest of the table. Although this was mainly due to the lack of playable hands, it does have some advantages. Firstly, it meant that I didn’t need re-buy after re-buy. I could also focus my attention to the feel of the table, and what type of players I was up against. I observed a great deal of loose play with hands I would simply muck, waiting for a better opportunity. It also helped my image, as a new player. I wasn’t nervous at this point, and tried to develop a thoughtful, confident posture. I feel that posture, along with a calm breathing pattern, is just as important as what cards you are holding. You are constantly being watched on all sides. As the game progressed, the dealer was trying to get a read on me using small talk. “Mmmmm, you moved your chips in with your left hand this time, have you?” Body language has a highly detailed and subtle vocabulary.

The first hand I played was very unusual for me, and I wouldn’t class it as “by the book” poker. I held QJ under the gun. I was getting tired of not seeing a flop, so I casually limped in, hoping no one would raise behind me. Three callers, including the blinds. Flop comes all low. I checked….. They all checked. Turn is another low card. I checked again…. They all checked. Last card comes, another low card! There is not a single face card showing on the board. I looked straight into the eyes of the Chinese player across the table, who was next to act after me. “Raise the pot” I stated calmly. All three fold almost instantaneously! I paused for a little while, and looked at my hand as though I wanted to turn my cards over, although that was never my real intention. The dealer started ushering me for the cards back, “ You like them enough to be dealt them again?”
Yep, I sighed, “That’s that pocket aces you were promising me.”
Can you imagine how I felt inside? My first hand played in a live tournament in 9 months. A pure bluff! A successful pure bluff on a table full of loose players!! I realised that it was more than likely that at least one of the must have paired up. Maybe they were scared that I was trying to trap with pocket aces or kings. My reputation as a tight player worked to my advantage.

My next hand was pocket 8’s, again in early position. This time I played aggressive and raised the pot pre-flop. One caller, the Chinese player directly to my left. A loose player who had a tendency to go all in unpaired and hope to catch. He also flashed cards at me while he was playing, showing cards which again I would just throw away. Was I about to be duped? Flop comes 10 x x. I checked. He had just a few more chips than me and raised all-in. I pondered for a minute. I saw him do this move previously with nothing. I decided to take a chance and call. He turned over pocket 10’s to make trips. “Good hand, chips please!!!” I lament. I didn’t make any kind of moves for quite a while after that, or even speak. I was reassessing my strategy on how to play this tournament in my mind. After I got my composure back, we chatted about that hand. He laughed, saying my initial raise pre-flop scared the hell out of him, and he nearly folded. Yeah, right!

Another pocket pair in early position! This time it was pocket 3’s. Any raise and I was folding. One guy, another of the Chinese players, made a deep reach into his stack. My eye was transfixed on his hand as he did so. His movement was very slow and deliberate, and he was also controlling his breathing. Just before he picked up his stack, I saw it! A little tremble. It didn’t last long, but it was there! He was broadcasting out to the rest of the table that he had a big hand. I dutifully folded my small pair, although others were not as observant and called. I smiled inwardly when he turned over AK. I was beginning to develop a new skill…… reading tells. Ironically, I would have won the hand, as a 3 fell on the river. But unlike the previous two hands that I described, this time I made the correct move.

The longer I played, the more I realised that I have the potential to win this type of tournament, perhaps not on that evening, but certainly in the future. I felt calm and collected, unlike previous times where the hustle and bustle of poker playing overwhelmed me. When I was engaged in a hand, I felt like I was the one directing which way the action flowed. I realised that there was nothing to be nervous about. In fact, it dawned on me just how nervous some of the other players were. The left leg of the Chinese guy to my right was shaking so badly, I thought a dog was trying to hump it! In one hand, I even managed to convince another player to fold when I wasn’t even in the hand. I had just mucked my cards on the river, to his initial bet, and was in the process of stacking the chips from my previous win. He thought I was still in the hand and making a move!

I didn’t make many mistakes such as playing out of turn, although my inexperience did betray me once significantly. Early position raise with pocket J’s. Called by the dealer. One other guy moved all his stack in, but it is only as a call. I mistakenly thought that he had re-raised, and I was going to force to dealer all-in with another raise. The dealer turned around, alarmingly, and demanded, “Where have those chips come from?” I realised straight away my mistake and explained the situation. He was focused on the other player with his call when I picked up my chips. The dealer thought I was sheltering them behind my arm, not keeping my stack on plain view. I raised the pot on the turn card anyway, which the dealer called. I took down both pots, but was severely reprimanded by the dealer for my indiscretion. I was ashamed with myself for making such a stupid mistake and I’ve promised myself never to repeat it. In future, I will wait for the dealer to indicate that the action is back to me, before making my move. It didn’t make things easier for me when in the very next hand, in the big blind, I flopped a straight with 5 6 and got two people all-in with two cards to come. That meant our cards were turned over. “I’ve got a straight” I remarked which received a couple of glares from the dealer. I won the hand, but was glad that this table broke up soon after. It was becoming obvious I was beginning to irritate him. Is it considered bad etiquette to state you hand before all cards have been dealt? In my excitement, I momentarily forgot my manners. Another lesson to be learned.

Before the table broke, I decided to purchase a top up of another 1000 chips for £10. I had about 4000 in front of me, but seeing as I had only done one re-buy, I felt the top up was worth it, to keep up with the competition.

My next table was a complete contrast to the previous one. Instead of being jovial, these characters meant serious business. Their stacks sizes meant that they were also a serious threat. I looked across the table to a wall of black 1000 point chips which were in the temporary ownership of a man with a face like a pit bull licking pee off a stinging nettle. He had just lost another hand, what a shame, and he was not very pleased about it. As a concession to having to face this very grumpy chap, the dealer was a stunningly beautiful oriental lady, about the same age as myself, and hopefully, single. She had a very enchanting smile and disposition about her. I casually tried to cover up the mark on my neck, where I nearly slit my throat whilst shaving my beard off, but I don’t think it fooled her. When I realised that staring at the size of her stack might be perceived as being rude, I slowly scanned the table. Suddenly, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t believe my eyes, for there across the table from me was Al Spath (known on GAI as Teach)! Or at least it was a very close double of him. The same silver head of hair and neatly trimmed moustache. As far as mannerisms go, I could only guess. But he composed himself very well and I could tell he was regulating his breathing. He preferred not to make eye contact with anyone (whereas I always look directly at people), and took his time before making a decision. But the accent was English rather than American, so that shattered the illusion.

I only managed to play one hand on this table, which was a final stand with pocket 9’s. I was getting short on chips, gradually being blinded away. I realised I needed to make a move and double through if I had any chance of progressing in the tournament. I knew I was doomed when one person re-raised behind me, which committed me to the pot, and was called by one other player. The raiser turned over AK which I expected. The other guy called with A3 spades, which everyone found surprising. I made a straight on the river, flop falling K Q J 10 but sadly it was the ignorant end. I was busted!!!

Aside from one or two mistakes which can be rectified with more practice, I really enjoyed myself. I can’t wait to play again sometime in the near future, funds permitting.

I wished everyone good luck with the rest of the tournament and made my way to the car and (hopefully) back home. I managed to find my way to the motorway without incident, although I did completely miss my turn off, ending up on the wrong motorway, in the wrong direction, miles away from where I was supposed to be, heading towards Risley………


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A well written and interesting report.
Mike Haven.

7:28 pm  
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