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The poker pro

Mike Sexton

Hi, nice to meet you. I'm your resident poker room professional. My name is not important, nor is yours for that matter. In fact I'll call you Bob because that's what you are to me. Fate has brought us together today for one reason. If you're not sure what that reason is right now, that's OK; sit down beside me so we can chat. I'm sure you'll find me knowledgeable in sports, politics, and world events. Why do I seem so cheery? Well my friend, I'm welcoming you to the fish tank... you're today's lunch.

If you're new to the poker scene there are important things you should realize. People play poker in traditional poker rooms for different reasons. While some play for the challenge, or to enjoy the social atmosphere they can't get playing online, others are merely part-time enthusiasts. Then there's me; the guy who comes in like clockwork because it's my livelihood. Even in limit games as low as $10-20, there are players who rely on taking a profit home each trip to buy groceries, get an oil change, and pay their mortgage. Many players own businesses or have taken early retirement and play poker to supplement their income. But, others are hardcore, using poker as their sole income. Does this make me a dangerous player? Damn straight it does. Should I be avoided, or can you learn something from me? First let's see if you can spot me in this crowded room.

Among the tall, the dishevelled, the rich and the young, you will find me amazingly non-descript. If I'm waiting for a table, I'll have a newspaper or magazine to read patiently until my name is called. I may even be reading a poker magazine, although reading trade journals at work are a tip-off that I'm a student of the game. I will probably be wearing a baseball cap to shield my eyes at the table, and I will have a sweater or jacket to be comfortable in the poker room climate. Some card rooms may even allow me a small cooler bag to stash snacks, candies, and maybe even a sandwich for those longer sessions that require a meal break. I will be perusing the room for the best "customers," checking to see where I am on the table list and looking for any formidable foes I want to avoid. If a table is raucous and seems to be having a good time (read as loose game), with haphazard stacks of chips in front of players, I might be looming close to do some scouting. Like an Army Ranger unit, it isn't good tactical sense to go into battle without as much intel as possible.

What you won't find me doing is pouring over the racing forum, sports scores, or catching some Zs in the corner. All manner of drink is readily available from the waitress, but you won't hear me asking for a vodka soda or large draft because this is not a social visit. Alcohol impedes judgement and is a depressant, both of which are handicaps. I don't want my vision or emotions clouded - tea with lemon and honey, please. I will be awake, alert, and focused on my task at hand.

Should you be one of the unlucky marks that land at my table, it shouldn't be difficult to recognize me; after all, Mom warned you about the quiet ones. I'll be the one not reliving the last big hand or speculating on the next one. Poker is not as simple as playing just your two cards; good players play everyone's cards and the players. I'm studying the strength of called hands, what kind of cards players raise with, and whether they like to bet with mediocre draws. Delving deeper, I notice when they reach for their chips and how they handle them. I study the players acting behind me and notice how they hold their cards when they intend to fold. But deeper still I go, looking for a tick, flinch, gesture, or change in breathing that will offer a tell about the player. Woe to you if you're not conscious of your posture and natural reactions because if we play together long enough, I'll eventually have a bull's-eye painted on your stacks.

It's also important for me to intimidate yet not bully my opposition, much like the treatment from an officer who just pulled you over for speeding. Wearing sunglasses at the table is in vogue and I never sit down without mine (heavily tinted of course, not enough that I miss the look of anxiety on your face, but dark enough that it's uncomfortable for you to look at me while I bore holes through you). Mirrored shades on a stoic face give me that deadpan Pennsylvania State Trooper look and feel, whether I'm raking in a pot or tossing away my cracked aces. I'm not in the habit of smiling much, talking too often, or berating other players. I don't ask for deck changes, scowl at dealers, or even tip much. Patience, discipline, and time are my deadly tools and my income is based on long-term probabilities and odds.

Of course sometimes the wolf likes to dress up in sheep's clothing. On busy weekends when the tourist crowd is in town, the Terminator routine may not be my best battle plan. At these times you will find me talkative, amiable, friendly, and acting as if the action of the game is the furthest thing from my mind.

"Bob, how are you? Oh, sorry you look like a Bob. Have you got the time? Was it raining when you came in? Nice windbreaker. Do you golf?"

My banter may sound harmless; but I'm logging all sorts of information about you as the conversation progresses. Things like your education level, what you do for a living, how much money you make, and how often you play poker give me an arsenal of ammunition to understand how you play, how much money you can afford to lose, and your motivation for playing poker. Don't judge me by my dumb jokes, unbuttoned shirt collar, or my conciliatory remarks about how I got lucky catching that full house last hand. Like a private detective, I've already assessed you based on your Nike sportswear, lack of jewellery, whether you buy in at the table with 20s or 100s, and whether you look like the hunter or the hunted.

So let's say you've pegged me as a pro. Do you make a wide turn and head for greener pastures, or do you take comfort in the fact that I probably won't call 8-2 suited? If you're just looking to play some cards in a comfortable environment, it might be in your best interest to play at a different table. I make money at this game because I'm better than most of the marks that come through the front doors. But if you're looking to mix it up I'm only one man and there are always plenty of weaker cattle to feed on. If you pay attention, you might even learn a trick or two. Mind you, all lessons come at a price. There's no reason for us to lock horns all the time, but if by chance we butt heads, you can always tell your friends about that time you took me down in a big pot. That's OK. Another time, another hand - because like a lounge singer at the downtown Ramada, "I'm here all week."

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