Hunting Fish: A Cross-Country Search for America's Worst Poker Players

Hunting Fish: A Cross-Country Search for America's Worst Poker Players

by Jay Greenspan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429904872
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,086,727
File size: 582 KB

About the Author

Jay Greenspan is a Brooklyn-based writer and semiprofessional poker player. His work has appeared in All-In magazine, Bluff magazine, PokerPages.com, PokerSavvy.com, and FullTiltPoker.com.

Read an Excerpt

Hunting Fish

A Cross-Country Search for America's Worst Poker Players


By Jay Greenspan

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Jay Greenspan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0487-2



CHAPTER 1

FOXWOODS


Call," I said, and placed the red $5 chip in front of my cards. I generally don't like limping under the gun — usually it's raise or fold — but what are you going to do with pocket 9s? Some of the books, the bad ones, would say I should just fold this hand. Those novice manuals preach the power of the highest-quality starting hands — pocket Aces, Kings, and Queens — especially when out of position, but I'd long since decided that about three-quarters of the available no-limit hold 'em literature was crap, encouraging a style of play as predictable as it was tedious. No, I was playing these cards, no question about that. In fact, to my way of thinking, pocket 9s was just about the perfect hand for the situation.

I was at Foxwoods, the mammoth Indian casino in eastern Connecticut that was my first stop on the trip, playing $5-$5 no-limit hold'em. They don't cap the buy-in at Foxwoods, so I was playing with 1,200 on the table in a mix of chips and cash, but I wasn't even close to the deepest stack. Across the table, a stocky bald man had a wad of 100s — must have been eight or nine thousand — folded in half and held together by a couple of rubber bands. To my right, a sixty-year-old with the hair and face of a former drill sergeant kept about $5,000 in front of him, and two seats to my left, a fiftyish Bostonian with a head of thick, wavy gray hair and a paunch that pressed into his polo shirt, had about four grand.

The drill sergeant, Baldy, and I, the good players at the table, had watched the Bostonian throw heaps of money into pots with nothing more than second pair or a gutshot draw, but he was on a rush, hitting everything — nailing trips on the turn, filling in the straight on the river. It couldn't continue, though. We knew that. If he kept putting his money in on draws, he'd go broke. It was a certainty.

I hadn't exchanged a word with the other good players at the table, but we recognized each other's skill and stayed out of each other's pots. Of course, if the cards required it, we'd do battle. We weren't playing as a team or colluding in any way, but there was an easy mark at the table. There was no need to take on a good player when a fish of this size was around.

"Raise," announced the Bostonian. "Twenty-five." He threw out a green chip.

Perfect. When I called with pocket 9s I was actually hoping to get raised. I wanted someone else to start with a strong hand, something I could topple if the flop hit me. Baldy and the drill sergeant folded. It was my turn to try and land this tuna.

The small blind called, as did I.

The dealer put down a flop of J[??]-9[??]-4[??]. (See Fig. 1.)

I hit it — my set of 9s, the one on the board matching the two in my hand. I now had the second nuts — the second-best possible hand given the board. Only pocket Jacks would have been a favorite over me at that point, and if someone had that — well, I was just going to go broke.

I prayed that my fish held Ace-Jack or pocket Kings, something he wasn't close to having the discipline or skill to fold.

The small blind checked.

I bet. "Fifty," I announced.

"Raise," the fish replied. "One-fifty."

To my shock the small blind then called and reluctantly tossed out six green chips.

Suddenly my hand seemed vulnerable. With two spades on the flop and that kind of betting, I could be pretty sure that one of my opponents had two spades in the hole. If another spade appeared on the turn or river, my set would lose to a flush. If either one of them was going to hit their draw, they were going to pay for it.

"Six hundred." I said. I didn't reach for my chips here. Instead, I picked up my pile of bills and counted out the proper amount.

They'd barely hit the felt when the Bostonian fish called. A quick call after that kind of raise: I knew exactly what he had, a flush draw. A fish doesn't fold a flush draw.

The small blind folded. The turn was the highly innocuous 2 [??].

"All-in," I said, and pushed the remaining $400 into the pot.

"Call."

The river was the 5 [??].

The fish then showed his hole cards — A [??]-10[??]. He rivered the Ace-high flush and took the $2,500 pot.

This was an unfortunate end, but the fact that I lost over $1,100 on this hand and another $1,500 on a similar one a couple of hours later was nearly irrelevant. I played well. I did the right things and I got unlucky. It happens all the time in poker. I needed to shake it off, put some more money on the table, and play the next hand with the same acuity I played this one. That's what my detached peers on the Internet discussion boards would write. That's what all the books say.

There was just one problem: After dropping $2,500 only four hours into my three-month trip, I was a panicky, frazzled mess.

For the preceding weeks, it didn't seem to matter what hole cards I had or how hard I hit a flop. I was destined to lose. Flush under flush, set under set, runner-runner draws — I'd seen them all in the last month. As much as I realized stretches like this were inevitable and that my luck would eventually turn, I was scared. I could be in the midst of an epic swing that would run through my entire bankroll. Most players, including top pros, tell of cold streaks that lasted six months, and almost every pro has gone broke at least a couple of times.

I was thirty-six as I walked through Foxwoods' corridors that winter day, and recently engaged. In the easily remembered past, I had a fulfilling, reasonably lucrative career as a technology writer. Yet somehow I'd manipulated my life so that financial disaster had become a distinct possibility.

Foxwoods is not a soothing setting when one is feeling frightened and overwhelmed. The place is monstrous, the largest casino in the world. Its proximity to New York, Boston, and the rest of New England makes it the most convenient destination for millions of gamblers. The uninspired architecture and lazy interior design reflect both the breadth of Foxwoods' player pool and the lack of competition. The hallways are underlit and endless. The walk from one end of the space to another takes nearly half an hour, more if you get lost. The walls are an ashy color and stretch forty feet high. In early December, when I was there, cold Connecticut air circulated through the halls with surprising force.

The food is disgusting. And expensive.

Fortified with a Nathan's hot dog and wishing for a thicker jacket, I walked laps around one of the slot rooms, trying to calm myself. I was still OK. I had to keep telling myself that. My bankroll had taken a beating, for sure, but I wasn't that close to broke. I had a bankroll that could handle losses like this.

On the way to my hotel room, I stumbled upon an upscale jeweler. I looked in the window, and the glitter of the gold and diamonds brought another pressing problem to the fore: I had to buy a ring.

Marisa agreed to be my wife shortly before this trip started, but my proposal was not accompanied by a ring. I wanted her involved in the shopping process, as I have little confidence in my taste in jewelry. My reasoning was sensible enough, I think. She has to wear this thing for the rest of her life, so she might as well like it. The brief time we had to shop before I started the trip went poorly. A sales clerk in Fortunoff's, a ritzy jewelry store on Fifth Avenue, became frustrated with our you-must-be-fucking-kidding-me looks upon seeing price tags, and told us we "don't have a clue." We agreed.

When we announced our happy news over Thanksgiving weekend, our families asked innumerable questions about the conspicuously missing ring. Though Marisa appeared truly indifferent to the nature of her diamond and seemed as horrified as I at the potential cost, there was pressure. Marisa's Aunt Lois, I quickly learned, is something of a gem expert. She had recently helped her son buy a ring for his charming fiancée, and as she discussed the various cuts and qualities Marisa should be concerned with, it became clear that if I scrimped on even one of the four c's, it would be noticed. If I wanted to start off well in this family, I needed to buy a good rock.

A couple of weeks earlier, before my cold stretch started, I could have peeled twenty to forty hundred-dollar bills off my roll and handed them to a Hasid on Forty-seventh Street, who would ensure that I was getting the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase, but that wasn't an option anymore. I needed that money for my bankroll.

I tried to be philosophical about the delay in the ring purchase. Poker, for me, was something of a business. An idiotic business, it seemed right then, but a business nonetheless. And at that moment, I was undercapitalized — had a negative cash flow. I couldn't be expected to cut into my operating capital at such a time. That would be foolish. Everyone could understand that.

I kept repeating some version of this argument to myself because, if I allowed my thoughts to wander, I might conclude that I'd given up a profitable career to become a professional gambler and — surprise, surprise! — it was going so poorly that I couldn't buy my love an engagement ring.


Greg Raymer was the reigning world champion of poker when I visited him during my Foxwoods trip. In May of 2004, he bested a field of 2,576 entrants to win the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold 'em event of the World Series of Poker, taking a staggering $5 million. ESPN chronicled his sharp, aggressive play and great luck as he plowed through player after player. A heavy man in his late thirties with a receding hairline, Greg was even-keeled and amiable throughout the event. He seemed to have kind words and a handshake for everyone.

Greg, his wife, and daughter live in a gray colonial-inspired house that sits alongside a wooded road only five miles from Foxwoods. The house is awkwardly large for the lot and sits a bit too close to the road. The term "McMansion" seems apt, and I imagine some of his neighbors in the decades-old homes down the street protested the zoning when his house and a couple of others were built a few years back.

The interior was tasteful, decorated with antiques that Greg and his wife had gathered from estate sales. As Greg and I talked about the furniture and his life, my ring dilemma somehow came up, and he mentioned that I might be able to find a nice engagement ring fairly cheap at an estate sale.

The price of things recurred in our conversation, and it was clear that, despite his windfall, Greg was well aware of the costs of living well and the ease with which money could be squandered.

He'd been playing poker for twelve years before his big win. At the start of his poker career, he was living in Southern California and playing occasionally at the low-limit tables at the casinos around San Diego. He was intrigued with the game, but his wife was concerned with his hobby. She felt poker was like craps or slots — a guaranteed loser. Greg added, "She felt poker was gambling. Gambling led to addiction; addiction led to bankruptcy and ruination of the family." To assure her, he made a deal. He took $1,000 and devoted that to poker. If he lost it, he told his wife, he'd quit the game.

It was a healthy and reasonable compromise, and one that worked out extraordinarily well. As a patent attorney working in the pharmaceutical industry, Greg made a healthy income, and he was able to supplement it with poker winnings. Over the years, as the stakes he played increased, poker funded vacations and other discretionary purchases. When his family moved to Connecticut, the proceeds from a tournament win helped them get a more favorable rate on their mortgage as they increased their down payment.

Usually gambler's tales highlight extravagance or depravity. In gambling lore, big wins are inevitably followed by absurdly wasteful expenditures, and losses are of staggering and disastrous sums. In a way, this makes perfect sense. To be great, a player must have a huge tolerance for risk; he must be at least a little reckless. That way, when all is going well — when the player properly weighs potential outcomes and statistical likelihoods play out as expected — he ensures himself the highest possible return. Of course, when things are going poorly — when the player makes flawed analyses, or when statistical anomalies occur — his riches will quickly disappear. A three-time winner of the World Series main event who reportedly had won approximately $30 million gambling, the great Stu Ungar died penniless. Nick "the Greek" Dandalos, one of the legendary figures of modern poker, a man who'd won millions and played Doyle Brunson and Johnny Moss for the highest stakes, spent his final years playing $5 games in Gardenia. I've seen Huck Seed, another world champion, playing $5-$10 7-stud in an attempt to gather enough for a tournament buy-in. Of course, not all players squander their winnings, but Raymer may be the first determined gambler in history whose winnings were used to avoid what he called "near usurious interest rates."

Which is to say that even in the wake of his seven-figure take, Raymer has a sober and practical view of the future. He was taking advantage of his celebrity by receiving appearance fees at a variety of events. But he realized that in just a matter of months, there would almost certainly be another champion, and his celebrity would quickly pass.

He had no plans on becoming a full-time pro. An experienced lawyer in a sought-after specialty, he didn't see how he could make the same living playing poker that he could in law.

Plus, he noted that when he returned to law full-time, he could be a special asset to some firm. While recruiting a big client, the senior partners might be able to entice an executive to a round of golf by filling out the foursome with a World Series of Poker champion.


At the start of the trip, I'd been playing semiprofessionally for almost two years. Unencumbered by a car, house, or loans, medium-stakes poker provided a decent living and an enviable lifestyle. I played poker and wrote about playing poker. With only the occasional deadline to concern myself with, I could go weeks without encountering anything that might be deemed an obligation. I managed to keep up with the rent and pay for the occasional vacation.

This wasn't sustainable. Marisa and I will start a family before long. For this portion of my life — the remaining forty or fifty years — I wanted a more Raymer-like existence, complete with the luxuries and securities a legitimate career affords, but I wasn't about to give up on poker. I love this game, and I could make enough money, I thought, if I could beat higher-stakes games, where my earnings could support an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

The $10-$20 no-limit at Commerce Casino in Los Angeles was such a game. I'd stand to win or lose $5,000 or more in a session there, with a potential annual income well beyond $100,000, but the players at that level would be tougher. To find out if I could beat the guys who regularly played for high stakes, I'd need a deep bankroll — at least $35,000. After the recent losses, I only had about $15,000.

The book deal gave me a three-month window and an expenses-paid cross-country journey during which I had nothing to do but travel and attempt to pad my roll. In that time, if things went well, I could make the $20,000 that would allow me to take a shot at the Commerce game. It was an ambitious goal at the stakes I was playing, and given how things had been going, a win of that magnitude seemed absurd.

Going into my second session at Foxwoods, I couldn't worry about my career path within the game or what I'd do if I failed to meet my goal.

It was possible. I could make $20,000 in three months. I had to believe that.

On my second day at Foxwoods, there were no fish at the table, nobody splashing money in pot after pot, but there were a couple of weak players and a kid — he couldn't have been more than twenty-two — whom I thought I could take advantage of. The kid wore a Yankees cap and a loose-fitting dress shirt. He had a huge sum of money in front of him — close to $4,000 dollars. I could tell by his continual smirk that he'd won most of it. He was playing cocky, involving himself in a ton of hands and trying to take down about every pot with a moderate-sized bet.

It was working. Several times someone would bet, the kid would make a small raise, and the opponent would fold. Or the kid would make a small bet at a pot, and watch as everyone else surrendered. It was bizarre. I couldn't figure out why they were showing him such deference.

About twenty minutes into the session I was in early position (in the seats immediately to the left of the blinds) and I raised to $25 with Ace-King. The kid, who had the button, called. The flop was J[??]-7[??]-4[??]. (See Fig. 2.)


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Hunting Fish by Jay Greenspan. Copyright © 2006 Jay Greenspan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments,
Prologue,
1. Foxwoods,
2. Philadelphia,
3. Atlantic City,
4. Virginia,
5. South Carolina,
6. Georgia,
7. Biloxi,
8. New Orleans,
9. Tunica,
10. Tunica, Part II,
11. Dallas,
12. Austin And Houston,
13. Las Vegas,
14. Las Vegas, Part II,
15. San Francisco,
16. San Diego,
17. Los Angeles,
18. Los Angeles, Part Ii,
Epilogue,

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