30/07/2007

The Defining Moment

Carl Sampson 'The Dean'

I think that nearly all poker players have moments in their playing careers that stand out from the rest. Like gut wrenching suckouts and exhilarating huge pots that we tend to recall in vivid detail even years later. But all poker players also have defining moments in their history when there was one certain hand where your play suddenly quantum leaped forward because you did something that you had never previously done before.

For me personally, one such time happened in a private cash game a few years ago. I had been playing a lot of limit hold’em online at the middle limits so jumping from this into a live cash game where I was starting with a couple of grand on the table was quite a jump for me at that time. I had played big cash games before but there was about fifty grand on the table in an assortment of cash and chips and my pathetic looking couple of grand seemed puny by comparison.

We were playing what I believed to be one of the few no limit cash games in England at that time as most were pot limit and dealers choice and certainly inside most of the casinos where I played. You had to be connected to get into the game at all as outsiders had no chance whatsoever unless they were a mug with lots of money or in my case, a mug with not so much money who knew the right people.

But the other players sensed that I was playing out of my comfort zone and they were spot on because I was. I only had the one buy in and was getting pushed around quite easily by the other players. Well to cut to the crux of the story, I had 10-10 and the board was something like 9-7-4-2-A and I was heads up against a player who had been bullying me. He knew that I was playing on scared money and figured that I would not call with anything weak or mediocre.

He asked me how much I had left and it was around twelve hundred and he promptly put me all in on the river after I had checked it. I just sat there staring at the overcard ace and cursing it for coming. I sat there for about a minute fully expecting to do what I had always done in situations like these and throw the hand in while not wanting to do it too quickly to give anything away. But as I sat there watching my opponent, he started to exhibit certain behaviour patterns.

I said to him that I had a hand that was strong enough to call to which he said something like “call then”. But when a person does any sort of physical exercise or is under pressure then the heart rate quickens. As a result of this it needs more oxygen to compensate for it. Most players are aware of this and try holding their breath at critical moments which can backfire if you cannot hold out.

In fact this is a reason why certain players cover their mouths during hands in my opinion, they are preparing for the possible pressure situations that may crop up and is a very good tactic to implement if you struggle coping with this. As I looked at him, after a while he made a movement with his mouth which is kind of hard to put into words. But there are reasons for all human behaviour and I was trying to think of a reason why this guy had just made this very slight almost invisible movement with his mouth.

Then it hit me, it seemed to me that the guy was taking in a big gulp of air and trying his best to disguise the fact. Then he placed his left hand over his mouth which is a well known tell. People do this because they are feeling uncomfortable about something and is a classic job interview trait. But poker players also do it to disguise sharp intakes of breath because of speeded up heart rates as well caused by pressure situations. Although this tell is so widely known now that it can easily be faked but natural bodily functions cannot.

The more I watched the guy, the more everything pointed to me having the best hand. But how in god’s name could I stick over a grand into a pot with a pair of tens even though I suspected my hand was best. But then a thought hit me, if I didn’t do this and wimped out yet again then I may as well get up and leave this game right now and go home and play my nice safe limit hold’em. If the guy had no hand then I would have hated to be in his shoes because too much online poker softens a player up in this aspect of the game and is a major factor as to why many online players fail in live poker situations and I don’t know how I would have coped with it.

But now I was convincing myself that I could actually call this and I suddenly started to get nervous myself. But I thought back to several big pots that he had played and he had shown down in two of them and had not acted like this on both occasions. Then I remembered that he had a powerhouse both times. When you have a cinch then the only thing that you are concerned about is getting paid off because the destination of the pot is not in doubt.

Well to round this article off, I gritted my teeth and pushed my money in and both of us just sat there for a few seconds before I announced “pocket tens” and he mucked his hand. The entire experience actually took a fair bit out of me and I was the one that had won the pot. But suddenly I felt ten feet tall and for the first time in my life I actually felt like a “player”. A defining moment in my poker life where for the very first time, I had a read on a player and actually acted on it and called with what to me was a very substantial amount of money at the time with a mediocre hand…..memories to take with you to the grave.

About the Author