When the Chips Are Down

Deep in the heart of Texas hold 'em Texas hold 'em, the poker permutation favored by the pros and the game played in the annual World Championship of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, is a particularly treacherous variant of seven-card stud. The basics can be learned in minutes, but the intricacies of position playing and bluffing may take years to master.

In the Las Vegas casinos, the house supplies a dealer. A "button" or "buck" (as in Pres. Harry Truman's adage "the buck stops here," Truman having been an avid poker player) circulates clockwise around the table to show who would be dealing if a professional dealer weren't provided. Each player receives two cards face down to start the game. These are the player's "hole" or "pocket" cards. Before looking at their hole cards, the two players to the putative dealer's immediate left ante up compulsory bets known as the "small blind" and the "big blind." The big blind is double the amount of the small blind. (The final rounds of the 1994 World Championships set a new record as the blinds hit $25,000 and $50,000. Remember, that's just the ante.)

The first round of betting follows. Generally, a player with a strong hole (say, a pair of aces or an ace-king combination in the same suit) should bet heavily at this point to drive out as many players with marginal hands as possible; this way, the odds of losing a hand to someone drawing to a lucky hand like a straight or a flush on the last card are reduced. (Serious poker players love to tell you about their "bad beats" -- hands in which some lucky fool pulled an improbable card to filch a pot.) Of course scaring away other players reduces the size of the potential payoff, so a player with a strong hand might "slow-play" it -- bet weakly to sucker other players into fattening the pot.

Three communal cards (called "the flop") are dealt face up in the center of the table, followed by a round of betting. Then come two more face-up communal cards -- "Fourth Street" (or "the turn") and "Fifth Street" (or "the river") -- each followed by betting. Players combine their two hole cards with any three communal cards to make the highest hand possible.

And that's hold 'em in a nutshell, or at least those are the basics. But world-class tournament pro John Spadavecchia has a few words of hard-won wisdom you might want to consider before quitting your day job and heading out to Vegas to plunk down the $10,000 entry fee required to participate in the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas hold 'em world championship.

"[Former world champion] Doyle Brunson wrote a pretty good book about what no-limit hold 'em's all about," Spadavecchia opines. "But you cannot really use it. If you do against me, you're gonna get caught nine out of ten times. Including him. I got my own style, like everybody else, but you can't be predictable. To win a no-limit tournament, you gotta steal 60 percent of the pots. You don't do that, you're never gonna win it. But at that level it's very hard."

Spadavecchia offers an example from his own experiences in last year's World Series: "I knew this one guy was a world-class poker player. That's all he does for a living. The guy was playing real tight because he wanted to finish in the money as far [up] as possible. He was playing scared. So I had a pair of queens and I didn't know what he had A it turns out he had a pair of queens also A but I had him figured for jacks down. They flopped a king-ace, and I made a big bet, and he thought I had one of them [a king or an ace in the hole]. He threw in the queens and he lost a split pot. I knew I could get him out."

Starting off with good hole cards doesn't guarantee a player will rake in the pot. One of the most common mistakes novices make is staying married to a hand even after it becomes clear that the flop may have improved another player's chances. "A pair of aces before the flop is the best hand you could have, but they can get beat by any two cards," the seasoned pro cautions. "You can slow-play them, but the best thing to do is make a big bet right at the beginning and get people out. You don't want too many people witcha. Sometimes I slow-play them and I make a lot of money; sometimes I slow-play them and I lose."

There's a lot more to serious poker than just betting heavily when you have great hands and folding immediately when you don't. "To be a good poker player you gotta have it in you," Spadavecchia concludes. "You gotta be able to make up your mind in a split second. You could either go out or you could double up. You gotta know how to get the most outta your hand, and, when you bluff, not to run into a big hand. You gotta have a lot of patience and endurance. You gotta convince them that that's your hand, whatever you want them to believe that you have, even if it's not. You gotta know when to hold and when to fold, like the song says.


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