Life lessons from a close brush to death


Had back-to-back trips to Vegas on November 9-12 and again on November 18-21. Why back-to-back? Am I a degenerate gambler? Well, yes, but also my buddy who stayed on in Vegas for a conference, had a heart attack on the 12th . I was on my way home at the time and only learned through text message. A couple of days and one bypass later I went right back to help he and his wife out with the recovery at the Spring Hills hospital (4 stars for these folks). Of course, I’d like to think that if he had the heart attack in, say, Ogden Utah, I would have done the same. But as it was, in Vegas, I can at least write a report on it. See below for a couple of highlights and lessons, both poker and life. The contrasting reports here are a full tournament at the Aria, a small tournament at the Mandalay Bay, a cash game at the Venetian and a mid-sized tournament at the Treasure Island.

Starting with the last first. I was able to play in a couple of the last tournaments at the old TI Poker room location and then played once at the new one next to the Sports Book. The game had been $50 entry, $13 house take and has now gone to $55 and a $15 house take. Larger take, worse location in my opinion. The old location was quiet – you could hear the guy across the table, 180 degrees out from your position. The old location faced the line to the Cirque Whatevre Theatre where you could scope out the people in line as well as people just strolling by coming to/from the parking garage. The new location is noisy – my table backed up to the Sex In The City slot machine where, I would have only enjoyed the game if I were Mr. Big and had Carrie calling my name. But I’m no Mr. Big on the poker tour. The new location faces the Cantor’s Deli, near as I can tell. If you’re hungry during the game, you’ll look on longingly toward people chowing down. Sorry, but I can’t see the move as an improvement. There were more players entered though, and maybe that makes a difference to the bottom line for TI.

The consummate hand in this tournament comes with around 6 people left. I have a King-10 vs. Ace-Jack for the Stooge. The flop comes out 8-7-3. The stooge bets around 30 % of the pot and I call. The turn comes out a 10. I have High pair and 2nd highest kicker. The stooge checks and I bet ¾ pot, putting me all in. Then he stares me down for 75 seconds (I count these things) and I really want him to call. My read is that he has a low pair or Ace-King, but certainly not 3-of-a-kind. I want him to call. And it crosses my mind to ask for “Time” from the dealer. The dealer obliges, calling over something like “Tournament Director, time has been called”. Well, this shakes up the Stooge who then immediately CALLS. In effect, it worked – he saw my calling for time as a sign of weakness. Hey, I may use this in the future. Well, he had no pair, I’ve got the 10s. He’s got only 6 outs and of course, the Jack comes out on the river. No matter – I think it’s fairly safe in the future to call Time and coerce the various time draining staring stooges into calling.

The Aria 1:00 PM tournament was a $125 entry, with 110 people entered. I had never played in a tournament with this many people and seeing a first place prize of $3,000+ posted was an eye opener. For a while, I had gone from 10,000 chips down to 3,500 and then up to 40,000, or somewhere in the top 10 of the players at that point. I was really driving the bus at the table, albeit inclusive of one hand where I went all-in on Jacks against a guy who was all-in with Queens. A Jack hits the trip on the river and I apologize to Queens holding Denver Bronco fan who still has maybe 5,000 chips left.

So we go to break, and Bronco fan leans over to me, barely above a whisper and says, “You know, I’ve seen your kind around here, feeling like you bluff out someone and you’ve got them, calling with middle pair, raising everytime you’re in a pot, and I mean to tell you – you won’t be lasting long. We’ll see you on the rail, just like all the other tourists around here.” Of course, I hop to the defensive because that’s how I am. I say, “Look, I’m sorry you had a bad beat. But why do you hate me? Do you even know me? Or do you just hate anyone you lose to? We’re just here trying to have fun, play a little poker on our day off and you’re turning this into your vendetta.” And he comes back, “Mark my words, you’ll be gone before the blinds go up again. Think about it.” I just close with “Good luck to you too, sir.” I mean I know he’s just trying to get under my skin, which maybe helps him inch closer to the $3,000+ prize, but to what greater good? Nothing against the good dealers at the Aria, but this didn’t feel like poker, more like a cold war. From the lady who’s got her new Galaxy Tablet out at the table, to the long stare downs, to the “you got him” high fives of one side of the table against a perfectly reasonable (but lucky) chip leader, it felt, well, dysfunctional because of the 30 % of the people who were just in it for all the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, the bet that busted me follows here. Then I’m still driving the bus with 40,000 chips and on the Big Blind, at 1,200 with 100 antes, the pot size is now about 2,800. An early position player, newly transferred to our table, who texted a bit too often for my taste, fires out 3,000. The next guy calls. All else fold to my King-8 suited. At this point, I need to bet 1,800 into an 8,800 pot. I thought it was worthwhile, but you know how this is going to end. The flop comes out 3-5-8 rainbow. Sir text-a-lot goes in for 2,500. The next guy calls. I have top pair, top kicker and come over the top at 10,000. Sir text-a-lot goes all-in to 14,000. Next guy folds. It’s heads up, with 17,000 out of my stockpile. Text-a-lot has 3-5 suited and the two pair is going to take down High Pair – High Kicker. In retrospect, I can see that top pair is only in the 7th or 8th percentile of all 2-card hands at this point. My mistake is believing in high pair, high kicker which is quickly devalued when the pair is below picture cards. But still, raising to 2.5 x the big blind with 3-5 suited makes no sense. I count on being able to read garbage cards in a raised pot and know only to fear trips. I couldn’t even account for someone playing junk-junk, even when suited, especially in a high stakes, later round tournament. Bad beats are nothing new in poker, are in fact the oldest story of all, but when it’s you on the bashed end I’m learning to just take it as a compliment. If you’ve had somebody beat and lose anyway, as at the TI for me, it’s ultimately a win in my mind. But I wouldn’t have felt so strong in this rationale until the solid hands held up at the Mandalay Bay.

There was an 8-person tournament at the Mandalay Bay on Tuesday night. Comparing this to the Aria was like comparing a bar room argument to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The competition was respectful if anything – remarks like “nice hand”, “right bet at the right time”, “I believe you, sir”. Showdowns at the Mandalay Bay:
Ace-9 vs. Queen-Jack; Aces holds up
Pair of 6s vs. Ace-10; Sixes holds up
Jack-10 suited vs. Pair of Queens into an 8-10-Jack flop; 2 pair holds up
Ace-Queen vs. 10-9 suited; Ace-Queen holds up
Pair of Jacks vs. Pair of 8s; Jacks hold up

Five good hands. Five right decisions that went all-in. And all 5 went my way. Now I recognize that not all positive value plays will work in my favor. In fact, getting 5 of them in a row to tip in my favor is probably a 30 % probability in itself (4 or 3 out of 5 tipping in my favor is probably the real expected results). But I felt, I don’t know, validated by winning in this way finally. So, I win the tournament, $50 becomes $224 and I’m now even with the $55 and $125 debacles at the TI and Aria, respectively.

It’s natural to like the vibe at whatever casino you win at, but I wanted to take this opportunity to shamelessly promote the Mandalay Bay poker room. They have daily $50 tournaments with a $10 take. By contrast, the next lowest entry with a 20 % take is the Aria $125 tournament with a $25 take. So why isn’t the Mandalay Bay packed, where the Aria clearly is? It is true that the Mandalay Bay chip count/blind sizing will end the tournament in 2 hours where the Aria is a 6-hour event. So on a per hour basis, they’re probably around the same charge. But really, I felt more likely to win against the Mandalay Bay competition and the Aria tournament felt like a marathon with a few too many Kenyans off in the distance At the Aria style tournament, just when you’re getting to know your opponents, they start dropping off and new contestants show up from other tables that you can’t read at all until after maybe a half hour. But you may not have a half hour because the stakes are so high by that point. But most of all, the duration of the tournament is overbearing. My brain turns into stuffing and cranberry sauce after 6 hours of doing the same calculating, churning activity. By the end of the Aria tournament, I couldn’t have told you my shoe size, my daughters’ names or what church I go to, but knew within a second what ¾ of the pot size was at any moment, as the calculating, scheming mind in my brain just kind of takes over. Hating all the opponents by the end, even the polite ones. Counting percentages of my original stake, number of players left, probability of each player finishing in the money… and then wondering where the 5 hours went when I’m walking away.

So why not play at Mandalay Bay? There may be deeper and more important mysteries in the universe, but none more confounding. The way I figure it, a good tournament should last about as long as our favorite sporting events. Unless you’re a Brit or an Indian who chooses cricket as his game of choice, I would put my money down on a small size tournament.

An aside: Lucky me, but I actually got a Tournament winner chip to show for the Mandalay Bay effort. Yeah, it says “Mandalay Bay Texas Hold ‘Em Champion”. It feels pretty good on my desk. For years, I’ve entered 10K after 10K or half-marathons and was able to at least show friends and co-workers how I finished. By contrast, playing poker is like some dark secret. With our names in their system anyways when entering a tournament, would it hurt any to publish the winners of these various tournaments on the hotel website, kind of off to the side? It would kind of give us tourists something to write home about.

Last tale, and it sound like a tall tale. I’m playing a 1-2 No Limit game at the Venetian. Doogie Houser kid shows up, tosses his CREDIT CARD onto the table and says, “chalk me up $200 in chips, please, ma’am”. Dealer raises her eyebrows a bit, sees that he’s earnest and fires back, “well, Doogie, the ATM machine is right over your shoulder. Why don’t you pay her a visit and bring back the 2 Benjamins yourself.” Funny moment. Then, the kid gets in trouble. I get dealt Ace-King hearts in early position. The flop comes up with Jack-7-6 hearts; I’m wired. I check, Doogie goes half pot with about 25, a third player calls. I re-raise to 100. The kid looks at his cards for about a second and comes over the top to the 200, freshly pressed from the ATM. The third player stares for a long time and folds. I immediately call, flip over the winner and watch the chagrin. This is what’s wrong with the cash game for me. At any moment, no matter your skill or your Doogieness, and you can be out your stake. A tournament is loss limited – you basically kiss your entry fee goodbye. While I enjoy the cash game, I’m certain the day is coming when I’m in a showdown with a maniac who goes all in against my pocket Kings. And unless I’ve got telepathy I’m going to call for my usual starting chip count of $400. No hope. Maniacs get Aces in the hole just as often as Farmer Brown or Doyle Brunson. In a tournament, you can at least kind of shrug and say, “that’s Vegas” and tuck in your chair. But at a cash game, you have to say, “well, that’s just stupid”.

Overall results:
Cash game: +540
Tournaments: -6
Sports (the leak/rupture in my gambling): 3 games up, 7 games down at 200 a game for: -$940.
But hey, I was able to witness the first Falcons loss of the year, an unexplainable Dolphins blowout loss to the Titans (who?) and the Bears in Bear-like sub freezing weather losing to the warm weather Texans on Sunday night. I’m still trying to figure out how much to bet on sports – I want the results to be on par with poker, where each session is typically up or down 200, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have played through 7 losing sessions in poker. So I don’t know – maybe next time, I put $10 on each game and consider any winnings as tip money for the poker table. Betting sports is like my own private horror film going on in the next room. Any entry in the sports book from the poker room was a haunting. This despite having each of the major sports’ last 10 years results in a database and a system based on past trends working for me at 55% over the long term. I can’t seem to win on the random week in Vegas.

Life lesson – Take the salad. My buddy and I were hiking the Cathedral Rock trail of the Mt. Charleston region, 3 miles round trip hike just 2 days before his heart attack. No huffing on the hike, no high blood pressure, no high cholesterol, no heredity risk in the immediate family. But like me, he’s been to the school of thought that “I exercise like a madman, so that I can eat like this…”. The cardiologist gave him the riot act before the bypass surgery though. “Forty-eight years old and you’ve done this to your body because you were just too lazy to eat right!” A lesson for all of us. If the menu has a salad, maybe 2/3 of the time, bypass the glory of the sizzle, the fried and the extra crispy and opt instead for the leafy (dressing on the side). You only need a deck of cards sized portion of meat per day anyhow and you’ll live to see many more heads-up situations.

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  1. Glad your buddy is ok. Kind of strange that you mentioned Ogden, UT. That's where I live. Since you play poker I assume out paths have crossed if you also live in Ogden.

  2. I have never been to Ogden Utah. It was a random city in Utah, where I imagine little poker is played. Yes, the buddy is now back in the game, using the 1,000 square feet of smoke-free casino space in Harrah's as he closes out his trip Monday.

  3. Sounds like text-a-lot gave you the Arnold Snyder PTF treatment with his 3-5 suited, playing the garbage hand that hits big. I've seen this a lot at Aria MTT and MGM nightly, moreso than Venetian.

  4. Good stuff! As a fellow runner/poker player, I very much appreciate the Kenyan analogy. :neckbeard:

    A couple of thoughts on the Aria hand - I do think the preflop call was a little light, even with the pot odds. I just don't like playing ace/face- medium kicker type hands in raised pots because it can become easy to get attached to those top pair hands. I'd actually be more likely to call with a good speculative hand hand like 7-8 suited.

    On that same point, the raise with 3-5 suited makes perfect sense: at this point in the tournament with higher blinds and antes in effect, it pays to be more aggressive. Often times, you'll just take down the pot preflop, which can still be quite a healthy addition to your stack. It's also beneficial for precisely the type of situation you found yourself in; it's so hard to put him on a made hand with a flop like that, so he's more likely to get paid off. There are plenty of other raggety flops that could also smack his range while cleverly disguising his hand. If he's faced with aggression preflop or misses on the flop, then the hand is easy to get away from and all he's lost is the 2.5x raise. Especially if the table is tight, I'll definitely open up my range and start playing hands like these. At this level, a lot more pots are won without a showdown anyway, so all that really matters is the story you tell. :wink:

    Anyway, glad that your buddy is doing better. Incidentally I also live near Ogden and can vouch for the fact that little poker is played there.

  5. I try to avoid states that have no casinos, Utah and Texas come to mind.

    Nicely written TR, good job.

    Everyone has a leak and betting on sports is above me but craps is not.

    I think the cardiologist was a little harsh. Genetics have a lot to do with it. I eat nothing but bacon wrapped lard and have a cholesterol of 140 and veins as clear as a nun's underwear.

  6. I'm clearly not a good enough player to intelligently comment on any of your hand situations, but I just wanted to say that your report was a very entertaining read. I'm glad to hear your friend is doing better.

  7. Ace-9 vs. Queen-Jack; Aces holds up ...about 58%
    Pair of 6s vs. Ace-10; Sixes holds up .....about 51%
    Jack-10 suited vs. Pair of Queens into an 8-10-Jack flop; 2 pair holds up ....about 60% unless you have a flush draw
    Ace-Queen vs. 10-9 suited; Ace-Queen holds up ....about 60%
    Pair of Jacks vs. Pair of 8s; Jacks hold up ...about 80%

    .58 x .51 x .6 x .6 x .8 = .085% were more than a 10 to 1 underdog to have all 5 of those hands hold up...that's why people who want a good experience for their money play at the deeper stacked tournaments.

  8. @pknight212

    I couldn't agree more.

    Glad your buddy seems to be doing alright. Thanks for the entertaining read and the sobering health comments.

  9. I guess I will have to try and take the salad more often.

  10. Very nice TR and a good lesson taught about how important diet is to one's overall well-being.

  11. so.. did you make it to the next blind level?... or was the bronco fan right"

    for the record i really enjoyed your story, the way you describe the characters you encounter and their actions really visuallized the scenarios for the reader, and the fact that you remembered all the details about hands and casinos you were in really lends the reader on how your perspective was at the time and how others percieved you.

    That doogie howser line was funny" especially when the money was still warm from the ATM lol" anyways nice trip report! look forward to anymore you may have. cheers and sorry to hear about your buddy, hope he's doing well.

    ps, this is kinda off subject but i just started a 5:2 diet , you can google this to learn more, it has alot of benefits aside from losing weight.

  12. hi..i'm new there a way i can follow you ?..i am also american and traveling..enjoyed your post about london

  13. Hey @violetcat66 ,

    This Poker Atlas account with about a dozen+ reviews are about the extent of it for a rec player like me. I have thought of blogging about my daytime job, but trust me that this would be even worse. You or anyone bothering to read my reviews can drop me a line at and I'd be happy to swap stories and strategies.

  14. VioletCat or anyone else wanting to drop me a line to swap stories and strategies is welcome to do so at For what it's worth, I am not the biffo99 who is actually from UK and writes on the Guardian (, where we have inadvertantly chosen the same name.

  15. @violetcat66 You or anyone else can drop me a line at