My head hurts: Lawman finds that in the real world of cash games, it pays to be sober

Flush Issue 6, April 2006

Playing poker when drunk is stupid. Doing most things when drunk is stupid, but there is something especially dumb about trying to calculate pot odds, maintain a poker face and bluff convincingly when totally intoxicated. I know this, and so was determined that when I sat down to play in my first serious cash game (as in, one for real money), not even the merest of medicinal sips of the devil’s nectar would pass my lips. This resolve was ably assisted by a hangover so bad that a hair of the dog would have sent me to casualty.

The venue was a members’ club in central London, chic and subterranean. High achievers mingled with carefree abandon, and the ambience of uber-cool penetrated even the ante-room to which I was smoothly ushered by a black-clad waiter. There, chatting cheerfully as if playing poker for money was a routine activity à la brushing one’s teeth, were my opponents.

“You look terrible,” said our host, Jim. “What have you been doing?” I explained that duty had led me, the previous evening, to the kind of party where drinking 27 pints of lager is as routine as brushing one’s teeth. I am, I confessed, very tired. “You look really, really dreadful,” said Jim, who, for a man who works in PR, wasn’t being very diplomatic. Still, he had a point, and, shaking his head, made the introductions. There was Tom “The Savage” Savage, The Daily Star’s poker writer; two colleagues of Jim’s, who admitted to relative inexperience; and two likely-looking lads from FHM. Oh, and Andy, the deputy editor of a certain gambling magazine whose name rhymes with ‘hush.’

The Savage is not, despite his moniker, anything less than an urbane individual. He also happens to know what he is doing when it comes to poker. He swiftly counted out £20.00 in chips for the eight of us, and set the house rules. Chief among them was no rebuys after 9.00 p.m, so that we all had an even chance of getting home at a reasonable hour. Given the state I was in, this was a rule that I particularly liked.

On the first hand I went head-to-head with Jim with a two pair, kings and eights. I felt fairly confident, because Jim is a poker player whose style is significantly dependent on a handwritten chart outlining the ranking of hands. Most annoyingly, he peered at this sufficiently to convince him to stay in and raise me with his trip fours. I called. Money to Jim. My head felt worse.

I opted to play conservatively after that, which was also how The Savage and Andy played their cards. The hours ticked by and neither had done all that much, in contrast to the PR team and the FHM boys. Experience kicked in by about 9.30, with the PR boys out and FHM looking glam. I was holding my own, having won a couple of showdowns and maintaining a stack of around £20.00, while The Savage and Andy were quietly building their stacks. The clock ticked on and soon it was 10.00. The blinds went up, I played two poor hands, and suddenly I was down to a tenner. And I was very tired.

Tom, of FHM, fancied his chances on the next flop. I had pocket aces but nothing else. I called and the turn gave me nothing. Tom raised and those who’d checked folded. I called. “Bring on the river,” I said. It changed nothing. Tom bet again. And I thought to myself: if I go all in, and lose, I’ll be on my way home to get some kip. And if I win? Well, how likely was that?

The inevitable ensued. My aces were no match for Tom’s straight. I bade my farewells, and was soon tucked up in bed. The final table left Andy just out of the money in fourth, the FHM crew in third and second, and The Savage in command. I was £20 down for the evening, and learned a valuable lesson:  when you’re playing poker, not only do you not get pissed, you leave your hangovers at home.