Poker Innocence

“How’d you end up the other day?”

This was Thursday. Someone was asking me whether or not I had won in Tuesday’s poker game.

I thought for quite a while and came up with a complete blank. No idea. Less than 48 hours later and it was completely vanished from my mind.

Likewise, I was recently similarly flummoxed by someone who asked what cards I held on a particular hand. He described the cards on the board, the previous action, how much I bet…and I could not give him an answer because I didn’t remember any of that.

Sometimes, when I’m entering my results on my computer, I’ll look up and see a big number and it will come as a surprise. “Oh yeah, that day was brutal. I couldn’t win a single pot.” Or “Oh yeah, the deck just smashed my head in that day. I couldn’t lose a pot no matter what I had.”

I realize that some of this has to do with getting old, but I’m hoping that’s not most of it. The thing is, I have clear and precise memories of specific hands I played 15 years ago. And I even remember the exact amounts of a couple of my earliest big wins.

After I couldn’t answer my friend’s question about how my session went two days prior, I figured this was as good a time as any to document my poker origin story and recall some of those fond memories. Gotta do it now before I completely lose my mind.

As I wrote in this earlier post, I grew up playing all kinds of card games. I inherited a great card sense and general game strategy from my dad. It really didn’t matter what game we were playing, I regularly beat my family and friends at all of them. And I was in no way generally smarter than any of these people. I’ve just always enjoyed games and strategies and been pretty successful at them.

My first exposure to poker came with the movie “Rounders.” It came out the year I graduated high school and I still remember watching it then for the first time with my high school girlfriend. I was more enamored with the acting and the movie itself than I was with the game of poker, however. Back then there were no casinos with poker rooms in the state of Oklahoma, and I didn’t know anyone who played. Also, I was broke. That tends to hamper one’s poker career (although I know several people today who don’t let it stop them!)

Matt Damon and John Malkovich in “Rounders”

In college, I remember having a poker night once or maybe twice with my roommate Keith and a few of our friends. But we were so broke that we played with small change. It was literally a penny-ante poker game. You knew it was a big pot if there were quarters in it; most of the pots were just pennies, nickles and dimes. I don’t think any of us won or lost more than $5. We were much more into dominoes and PlayStation football back then, and we didn’t give poker any serious thought.

In 2003, ESPN aired Chris Moneymaker’s fairy tale run from Nashville accountant to World Series of Poker main event champion. I wasn’t watching from the start, but as people began talking about it I joined in. Missy and I were dating at the time and she liked watching it with me.

So yeah, I got into poker thanks to “Rounders” and Chris Moneymaker. Real unique poker story.

By 2003, I had graduated from OU with my journalism degree and was working in Lawton at the newspaper. In other words, I was STILL COMPLETELY BROKE. But, since I had no wife, no kids, and no expensive bad habits, I was able to scrape together enough to play some micro-stakes poker with my friends.

Mike Carroll organized the first actual poker games I ever played in. We’d usually do a $10 tournament and there would be cash games afterwards. You know, the silly dealer’s choice games like between the sheets and 727. I would just lose my $10 in the tournament and then either serve as the dealer or just leave, because I couldn’t even afford to play in cash games where I’d have to risk another $20 on top of my $10.

I was starting to develop quite an affinity for the game. I read several poker books and watched the dumb poker strategy shows that used to come on cable at 1 a.m. Even when I wasn’t any good, I was confident that it was something I would get good at fairly quickly because of my natural card sense. I had started playing competitive bridge when I moved to Lawton in 2002, and I was already pretty good at that despite it being a more difficult game than poker. So I stuck with poker even while going through the normal growing pains. I never thought it would be a career for me but I knew I could make some extra money doing it.

Before long I was posting some wins in our small stakes tournaments. I remember being elated one night when I won the tournament for $50 and then used that money to jump into the cash game where I won another $100. That night alone erased all of my previous $10 losses and put me into the black. I saved my profits and built my first tiny poker bankroll.

It didn’t take long for me to start preferring the cash games to the tournaments, although I never did care for those crazy dealer’s choice games because my fragile bankroll couldn’t withstand losing $80 on one bad card in between the sheets. So I still played way more tournaments than cash games, and began getting some regular wins.

Around this time is when Oklahoma changed its gambling laws and poker rooms started popping up around the state. At first there was no poker room in Lawton, but there was one in Randlett at the Texas border on I-44. It was about a 40-minute drive from Lawton.

I remember being extremely nervous the first time Mike and I went down there to play. I bought in for $100 in a $1-$2 no-limit hold em game and essentially blinded out. I didn’t get any good hands and didn’t have any more money to add on. I lost the $100 and went home sad, completely unaware of the fact that you shouldn’t even play in that game if you only have $100.

Another Red River Casino trip with Mike provided one of my favorite poker memories. We went down for a small stakes tournament. I don’t remember the exact buy-in but it was around $60 to $80. This was in the middle of the poker boom so there was lots of participation in tournaments like this. Long before the money bubble, I was down to just a few chips and had to go all in with a bad hand. I was dominated but got lucky and won the pot. A hand or two later I did the same thing, getting lucky again. Then I started getting hands that were actually good and before I knew it I had way more chips than anyone else. Mike was also doing well and eventually there were just three people left — the two of us and a random guy. I probably had 90% of the chips and they had the rest. They agreed to give me the first place money and split second and third evenly between them. My payout was $1560, which seemed like all the money in the world to me at the time. I don’t remember how much Mike got but I do remember having a celebratory beer at the casino bar and being on Cloud 9.

Soon they opened the casino in Lawton, and I went a couple nights per week after work. I didn’t get off until midnight so I’d only get to play from then until 3 a.m. when the poker room closed. Man, those games were crazy. You’d see some wild stuff every single day.

I shudder to think about how much money I could have won if I had actually been good at poker at this time. I wasn’t bad by any means but I just played extremely conservatively. It wasn’t a bad strategy considering how little money I had but I definitely left a lot on the table by sticking to my strict guidelines for which hands to play and how to play them.

In contrast to that, my poker bankroll management was extremely reckless, although I was completely oblivious to that fact. All I knew is that I was winning pretty regularly, so why wouldn’t I just keep playing higher and higher stakes? The only smart thing I did was keep my poker money completely separate from my real-life money.

After I had won a couple thousand dollars in the $1-$2 game, my friend John McGavic said I should play in Buddy Williams’ private $2-$5 game. I asked him how much money I needed for that and he said $200. Well, I had $200! What I didn’t know until I arrived was that $200 was the minimum buy-in. So I brought exactly $200 to that game, and that was probably about 10% of my entire poker bankroll.

Less than an hour into that session I was all in for my whole $200. That single $400 pot changed my life. I had already realized how short my money was in that game since several of the other players started off with $500 or $1000 and presumably had more in their pocket if they needed it. I had nothing else. Had I lost it I would have left and never come back again, at least for a long time. But I won that pot and won $900 that night, which was easily my biggest cash game win ever.

More important than the money was the fact that I met Buddy that night. He ended up being my poker mentor and teaching me so much. I tried to give him a proper tribute in this blog.

I became a regular in Buddy’s game and soon was so passionate about poker that I was playing all the time. Spike Seals became my poker partner in crime, and we would close down the room in Lawton and then occasionally even drive up to Riverwind where we could play until the sun came up. Breakfast at IHOP in Norman at 9 a.m. and then back home in time for a little sleep until I had to work again at 4 p.m. that afternoon. Wish I had that kind of energy these days.

A short night back then was simply quitting at 3 a.m. when the Lawton room closed. Of course we’d almost always end up at either Whataburger or, on a super successful night, The Junction for some amazing late-night Korean BBQ. We would always discuss strategy and helped make each other better at poker. Or sometimes just make fun of the crazy people.

Considering how often I was playing and how reckless I was with my bankroll, it didn’t take long to get to the point where 30 seconds in a poker game could have a much more serious impact on my net worth than 40 hours at my job. One year, I had to drive to Tulsa to cover a playoff football game. Buddy had been telling me about the $5-10 game at Newcastle Casino that ran every Friday. He thought I should play in it. In fact, I still shouldn’t have even been playing $2-5 with my bankroll at that time. But because I didn’t know that, I decided to stop at Newcastle and play for a few hours on my way to Tulsa. I bought in for $500 (the minimum in that game), lost it, rebought for another $500 and lost that too.

I was completely distraught on my drive to Tulsa. I had just lost probably half or a third of my entire poker bankroll in two hands. Furthermore, my job still paid only about $28k per year, which meant my bi-monthly paycheck after taxes and deductions was about $650. I had lost almost two full paychecks in a couple of hours.

I had started playing those $10 tournaments with Mike in late 2004. By the end of 2005 I had about $4k in my poker bankroll. I wanted to marry Missy but with my low-paying job I couldn’t afford a ring with my paycheck, which was going towards food and rent. So I blew the entire poker bankroll on her ring, which I gave her when I proposed on Christmas in 2005. I didn’t know what would happen with poker, but I knew that Missy was more important. I figured I could run it back up in the $10 tournaments, but if it didn’t work out I was prepared to give up poker. I wasn’t sure how much I’d get to play once I was married anyway.

That same year, my grandpa gave me a $500 check for my Christmas present. He usually gave us $100 but that year he gave us more. He had terminal cancer and would only live about six more months. He would never know how much he truly gave me with that check. I cashed that $500 and used it to start over with a poker bankroll. I remember being nervous those first couple of sessions playing $1-2 at the casino, knowing that if I was unlucky on that $500 and lost it that it would take me a long time to be able to play anything other than the $10 tournaments.

Fortunately I was able to run it up and soon was back playing $2-5 (far sooner than I should have been I’m sure). Missy and I were married in the fall of 2006, and she was very supportive of my frequent after-work trips to the casino. I’m sure there are a couple of women out there who wouldn’t care for their new husbands going to the casino and not getting home until 3 a.m.

We bought a house across the street from Spike, on the West side of town. This was the opposite side of town from the casino, about a 20 minute drive. The move ended up beginning a new and short-lived phase of my poker career, online poker.

Pretty much everyone in the United States was already playing online poker by 2007, so we were late to the game. You couldn’t beat the games at the Lawton casino, but you also couldn’t beat the convenience of online poker. Spike and I put $200 ($100 each) onto Doyle’s Room and created the rising star known as jmcenroe (a nod to Spike’s favorite tennis player. And yes, we often said “You cannot be serious!” after getting an unlucky card on the river.)

A couple of nights per week, instead of going across town to the casino, we’d just play online at Spike’s place. Jmcenroe ran his $200 into about $4k playing mostly cash games, but then he got into a bad run of cards and maybe just a little bit of tilt and lost half of it. We decided to just cash out the $2k for a tidy profit of about $1k each. Naturally, in keeping with online poker site tradition, it took several months for our check to arrive in the mail.

I decided to put $200 of my own onto Poker Stars, and the cycle repeated itself. I ran it up to over $5k in a pretty short amount of time, then lost more than half of it in one night.

In hindsight, that night was pretty funny. At the time it was shocking. I started out playing $0.50/$1 but lost a couple of buyins there. Soon I went to $1-2, then $2-4, then $3-6, then $5-10. Every time I lost I just jumped into a higher stakes game figuring I’d get even there. Obviously I was playing terrible by the end. I didn’t even realize how much I had lost until it was over. At that time I would have been upset over a $500 loss at the casino and I had just lost six times that amount in a couple of hours.

I immediately cashed out my remaining $2k and woke Missy up crying with my confession and guilt. I think she was more upset that I had woken her up than she was with the monetary loss. Anyway, that was the end of my online poker hobby.

I stuck to casino play after that, jumping into the weekly $5-10 game that had just begun at the Apache Casino. It felt like I couldn’t lose in those games, and being unknowingly reckless with my poker bankroll was paying off big time.

From 2007 to 2009, I made more money playing poker than I did at the newspaper (a low bar, I know). Finally I made the jump and did poker full time while doing sports writing on a part time basis.

I was extremely fortunate with both my luck (playing games I wasn’t bankrolled to play) and my timing (coming up in an era where there were crazy games 7 days a week and tons of money to be made without being great at poker).

I never thought I’d do this poker thing for more than 10 years, and I don’t know how long I’ll stay in it. I still enjoy it, but part of me wishes I was still as passionate about it as I was when it was just a hobby.

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