Red for a Day by Brian Koppelman

A couple of weeks ago, Full Tilt Poker made me red for a day. That’s right – for 24 hours, I got to be a Full Tilt Poker pro. My new status gave me a slight edge on the virtual felt, but it also put a giant target on my back. I saw first-hand how fast any table I sat at filled up, how intent my opponents could be about breaking me, and how differently the other players reacted to the way I bet my hands.

My brief time as a Full Tilt Poker pro began during an email correspondence with my friend Erik Seidel. Erik and I met after he was featured in "Rounders," a film I wrote with David Levien. In the movie, Matt Damon’s character watches and re-watches a clip of Erik getting trapped by Johnny Chan at the final table of the 1988 World Series of Poker*. As a close-up of Erik appears on screen, Damon’s character describes what it feels like when you are gutted. The implication being, "I am a loser, like Seidel is a loser." There is no mention of the fact that Erik took home second place money in the WSOP*, that he’s one of the leading money winners ever at the WSOP*, and that he’s better at poker than 99% of the world. Nope. All you see is Erik, his goofy hat, and his loser’s hangdog expression.

Some guys would have reacted poorly to such a portrayal in a feature film. Not Erik. He’s always been good-humored about it and, I think, glad that in raising poker’s profile, the film helped to raise his profile too. In fact, in the years since "Rounders’" release, Erik and I have been frequent email correspondents, and he has been kind enough to serve as technical advisor on any other poker project I have done.

So, it makes sense that when I play online poker, I play at Erik’s site. Recently, the two of us were talking about Full Tilt Poker and about how much I enjoyed playing there. Soon, the idea came up that we should both enter a Bust-Out Bounty tournament so that he could show me first hand what it feels like to be gutted in public. Let’s save the fact that I outlasted him by hours and finished a hundred places ahead of him for another article. Instead, I’d like to take a moment to tell you how the game plays when your screen name appears in Full Tilt Poker Red.

The first thing I should say is thanks to all the Full Tilt Poker players who took the time to check in with me in the chat box. It’s great to know that "Rounders" has inspired so many of you and brought you to the game. It’s really rewarding that so many of you can quote the film line by line. However, it somehow feels less rewarding when those same lines get thrown back in my face as you are raking in my chips. One player, who hadn’t let on that he knew who I was, trapped me with top-two against bottom two. He took half my stack and, as I was trying to collect myself, he was kind enough to tell me that the only thing he was missing was the rack of Oreos.

What was also new for me is the amount of observers drawn to any game I was playing in. This gave me a true appreciation for how hard it must be for the pros on television to ignore the cameras and just play their cards. I felt like every raise, weak call or foolish bluff I made was magnified. Each time I won or lost a hand, the railbirds would comment, letting me know how lucky/unlucky or good/bad at poker I am. It’s difficult enough to make the right decisions at the table without wondering how onlookers will receive those decisions. More than once, I made a bigger bet than I might have on the river, hoping my opponent would fold and I would be saved from the embarrassment of having to reveal the horrible cards I had played.

On the flip side, those opponents did fold more often than they would have if I weren’t in red. Not in the Bust-Out Bounty tourney (where I figured out that I should almost never bluff), but in the ring games and Sit and Gos where my hands got much more respect than they normally would have. Players assumed that I knew what I was doing and they were wary. I understand it. The day before I was in red, I found myself head to head with Huckleberry Seed at an Omaha table. For the first 15 minutes, I was totally off my game. I couldn’t play back at him for fear that he would jam me, read me, and crush me.

After a while though, I found my footing and remembered that in the short term, if I had the cards, I had just as good a chance as anyone.

In the end, that’s the thing, I guess. Being in red does change the way other players react to you. For a time. And it changes you too. For a time. But, if enough hands go by and enough time passes, the distinction passes too. And everyone goes back to being what they’ve always been. What I’ve always been proud to be. Just another poker player.

* World Series of Poker and WSOP are trademarks of Harrah’s License Company, LLC ("Harrahs"). Harrah’s does not sponsor or endorse, and is not associated or affiliated with The Hendon Mob or its products, services, promotions or tournaments.

Brian Koppelman