This post may wind up a bit all over the place.  At the time this began, I was three beers deep at Flying Saucer, and now that I’m wrapping it up I’m so far past most of the events that some of them are a bit fuzzy.  The only excuse I’ll offer.

Since my personal moment of clarity a couple of months ago, my life has been on a pretty even keel.  Nothing notable either positive of negative to report.  As I noted then, there was a sense of relief that was akin to someone close passing after a long illness.  There’s the unease/guilt of letting go and feeling relief for doing so, combined with a genuine elation at feeling like I could finally move forward.

I’d commented on some of the frustrations I’ve had with my card play last month, and that had gotten heavier in my head of late, making me realize that maybe I hadn’t learned to ease up on myself as much as I thought I had.  After that post, I’d played in a lower stakes tournament I’m a part of up north with a chance to qualify for their season championship if I finished in 2nd place or first.

With the understanding of what I needed to accomplish to achieve a higher goal, I turned my focus inward and tried to play as disciplined poker as I ever have.  I made some risky calls that felt in the moment like reasonable decisions and they paid off.  I made difficult lay downs when I knew I was beat.  I pushed as far as I possible could and worked my way into the money.

And then I finished third.  61 points out of qualifying, which I would have had easily if I’d just moved up one more spot on the ladder.

There was, to put it mildly, some extreme frustration on my part.  “God DAMN it!” may have left my lips more than a couple of times.  Eventually, I jammed my winnings in my pocket and skulked my way out, feeling like I’d blown an opportunity again.  I drove home, steaming a little, feeling that burning across the back of my neck that said I felt embarrassed for not succeeding and went to bed feeling that way.

And then after a good night’s sleep, I looked at what I’d done about a week later and realized I was an idiot.

In the aftermath of that 3rd place finish I vented my frustrations on twitter.  One of my poker buddies, who I think I’ve referred to here as the “Cyclone” (every hand is a roller coaster if he’s involved), offered up some words of encouragement which I was summarily dismissive of:

Chase: good run, aim for Shawn’s FT. I’m not even close, be 1st time in 5 yrs not to make it.

Me: I’m further out than you are. Right now my goal is just to not win the Unlucky prize :-/.

The “Unlucky” prize is 10% of the championship pool that is awarded to the player in the south game who has the most season points without cashing for the year.  At the time I made that comment to Chase, I was certain I was in the running to win that dubious award, or within a point or two of achieving it.  Not exactly a distinction I wanted, but hey at least it’s winning something, right?

God damn, is that a pathetic way to view it reading those words now.

It was that exchange that prompted me to go back and look at the points I’d earned in the north game for the season to see just how much of an opportunity I’d blown for the year.  And it was in looking at the numbers that I had an epiphany and realized just how much I was letting my own personal insecurities beat myself down.

In the last four months of the north game season I’d played a grand total of four times, for buy-ins/add-ons totaling $100.

I’d finished in the money there three of the four times.  I’m +$158 at that game.

Looking back on the results I’ve had in the south game, combined with the north, I’ve made the final table four out of eight times before last night.  I know that I bubbled one of those south final tables (last person eliminated before the money), which meant that if I’d caught just one or two cards here or there, I’d have have been looking at around a .625 cashing percentage.

It’s amazing the things you overlook when you’re beating yourself about the head and shoulders, no?

Last Saturday night I went into the tournament thinking about what I’d said to Chase on Twitter.  “Right now my goal is just not to win the Unlucky prize.”  So to do that, I’d have to finish 5th place out of 29th.  Given what I’d done in my previous eight tournaments, that was more achievable a goal than I would have thought if you’d asked me about those goals a month prior.

So I told myself, “Make every decision the right one.  If they don’t pan out, they don’t pan out.  But if you can make every decision one where you looked at the options you had, and the choice is a reasonable one, you won’t have any regrets.”

I swear on my grandparents’ graves, the very first hand I was dealt in the tournament, I got AxAx in the big blind.  I raised it pre-flop and got no action, but I took that as a very positive sign.  When a level later, I got KhKd and raised it three times the big blind, got a caller and then a ridiculous overshove all-in for 12 times my bet I had to stop and think about it for a minute.

What could he have?

The player in question isn’t a particularly good one.  He has a very bad tendency to over bet strong but not unbeatable hands like AxKx or medium high pairs like JxJx.  I thought there was a better than average chance he had one of those hands.  But there was always the possibility he had aces, which would leave me way behind.

“Make every decision one where you looked at the options you had, and (if) the choice is a reasonable one, you want have any regrets.”

I called.  He flipped over QxQx and bricked out.  Like that, I’m nearly double my starting stack.  I’m in position where if I wanted to be, I could be a serious bully with my chips.

And by god, did I take advantage of it.  I started turning up the heat on everyone on my table.  And it paid off, big time.  It helped that I was catching cards in a big way, but what was also helping me was the fact that in my head I’m thinking about the article my Sensei sent me that I quoted in my Queen of Versailles review.  I stopped playing every hand that I had that was big like it meant everything, and like that…the chips just started flowing my way.

We break down from three tables to two and I’ve got to readjust, get a read on my new table.  Two of the people from my first table made the move with me to the second.  The other seven that are there, I’ve got to completely readjust and get the feel for.  Bide my time, I’ve got the chip stack to be patient.

When I’m running on Saturday with friends, I’ve made the observation that it’s easier for me to pace myself with other people because I know roughly how fast they’re going.  I don’t wind up burning myself out too quickly trying to just be a “runner” without a plan, because I know what my ideal times are per mile and that they’re going within those ranges.  It’s easier to stay within my optimal zone when I have reference points I can draw from.

So I keep reminding myself: marathon, not a sprint. If I want to achieve my goal of not being in the lead for the “Unlucky” prize, I need to be standing high at the end, not the beginning.  Bide my time, make strong plays and be prepared to let go when I know I’m beaten.

Like clockwork, it all came to me.

At one point after we’d been down to two tables almost an hour, a player to my immediate right who I had some misfortunes playing against in the past looked at me.  I’d just raised over his limp (call) for what felt like the umpteenth time that night.  “You know, Enrique…I don’t think I knew how much I hated having you to my left until just now.”

In poker, when someone says something like that, when they’re indirectly calling you an asshole for beating up on them all night?  That’s a good thing.  That’s an unbelievably good thing.  Because you’re under their skin, and you know they’re going to make suboptimal decisions at some point.  And if you have the right hand to make them pay for that…well, it’s like printing your own money.  I didn’t say word one to him when he told me that, but inside my head I’m doing this:

Not unsurprisingly, I knocked him out a few hands later.  I am an absolute poker machine at this point.

We grind down to the final table, last ten players standing.  Redraw for seats at the last table.  I have to make three trips to move all chips over, that’s how hot I’m running.  And again, it’s time to step back a little, reassess and try to be choosy in my moments.  It pays off about four or five hands into the final ten, when Chris raises preflop to about three times the big blind.  I think there’s one caller between him and I and I look down (again) at KsKc.  I raised a bit too big but I wanted to narrow the field and not have anyone get cute behind me.  Two and a half or three times Chris’ bet.

Everyone else gets out of the way, Chris says something to the effect of “This hand plays itself, I think.  There’s only two hands that can beat me.” And shoves all-in, which I snap call.  My kings outlast his QxQx, and once again I’m riding high.

If you know me, you know I’m throwing up a little in my mouth as I write this.  But how ’bout them cowboys, eh?

Grind grind grind for another hour or so.  I chip up a little more after that all-in elimination, and I’m feeling like the cock of the goddamn walk.  I’ve got almost three times the average chip stack, I’ve got a good read on my table and I start thinking about winning this thing.  Sensei’s even sent me a text from the cash table, “Get this shit.”

Hubris, thy name is AcTs.

Pre-flop raise, and a “feel” player calls.  She’s good but she plays more from gut than strategy and I think she’s got a rabbit’s foot jammed somewhere uncomfortable for how often she makes it pay off.  Think one other player calls and we get a flop of KxQx6x that I decide to press with.  I bet about half the pot, not looking at how much she’s got behind.  She shoves for about 25% more and I realize I’ve hung myself out to dry.

I have to call because I feel pot committed, but in my head I’m kicking myself for not being smarter about my aggression.  I’m secretly hoping my ace is still good in allowing me some extra outs, and it is when she shows KxJx for top pair.  But the turn and river brick out, and I lose about a third of my stack.  I lose another 20% a couple of hands later when someone else rivers three of a kind on me to beat my overpaid, and suddenly I’m slightly below average chip stack with six other players and the blinds going up to 5K-10K.  Which means I’ve got slightly more than 12 big bets. Not a good place to be.

In the past, I’ve had a tendency to press too hard in these moments.  I’ve gotten the last of my chips in in marginal situations because I suddenly felt desperate to try and get back ahead.  And I’ve paid a price for it as a result.  I immediately tried to get any thoughts of doing anything like that out of my head.  I looked at who had how much left, and focused on who was behind me.  The goal was to cash.  So I focused on who was in weaker position to prevent me from making that cash happen.

Naturally because these were the people I needed to lose their chips first, I think if memory serves both of the chip stacks lower than mine doubled up before I knew what was happening.  Suddenly, I’m ready to start sweating bullets and just go “full retard” as the master thespian Kurt Lazarus put it.  Held myself in check, nitted it up a bit and then doubled up the get a little bit healthy.  We’re on the bubble now, six players playing for five pay spots.

They say that even the best players need to get a little bit lucky in order to win tournaments, and my luck came at just the right time.  After chipping up a bit to get healthy, I was in the small blind and limped with it folded around to me with KsQs.  The big blind shoved and it felt like the right time to go for it.  I called, and was in decent shape against Ax3x.  I flopped two spades, made the flush on the turn and suddenly the primary goal of cashing was reality.

So now that I’ve gotten what I really wanted out of the game (making the money), what to do next?  Chip stack was in better shape taking out the bubble-boy.  So now I’m trying to angle to work my way up the pay ladder a little.  Felt like I nitted it up too much on a couple of hands, over shoving with aces on one and making a too tight fold preflop on another that a middle ace would have flopped two pair.  But overall I felt good with my play, better when someone else busted and I moved up at least one more pay spot.

Now we’re at four, and I make a battle of the sexes joke as it’s two women and one other man left besides myself.  We pass chips around, and before long the other guy busts and I’m up another slot.  Third place was gravy as far as the payout was concerned given how close I felt I came to bubbling.  So now I’ve got it in my head that I have a shot at winning the damn thing.

Thinking back to my cashes in the north game, the new goal is to get heads up for the win.  My best showing at the north game this year was 3rd, so the final two feels like the right goal to shoot for.  It’s so far after the tourney now, I don’t remember much about how I did wind up getting there.  I do remember getting in a couple of tight spots where I folded and felt good about the decision but not liking it much.  But the patience paid off, and next thing I know it’s me and Kitty locking horns for the win.

Kitty’s a good player, one I’ve always had fun playing with and respected.  I knew no matter how the game turned out, I’d be happy with the results for the night.  I just figured I’d pick my spots, see what happened, and if you’ll pardon the cliche let the chips fall where they may.

Few hands in, I got crazy lucky when we got it all on while she had top pair on the flop, and I went runner-runner to catch the straight.  That suckout was enough to get me even up with Kitty in chips.  We traded the lead back and forth for a bit, and then the hand came that ended it.  I have AhJh on the button, I shove, she calls with Kx9x.  I’m ahead and feeling pretty good.

That good feeling fades a little when the flop comes 8x9x8x.  She’s got 2 pair now and I need one of my 6 outs to move ahead (any Ax or Jx gives me a bigger two pair).  When the burn and turn happens, I move even further behind when Kitty’s Kx pairs up too and she’s looking unbeatable.  Her kings and nines means the only thing that can save me is one of the three aces left in the deck to give me a bigger two pair.  I’ve gone from losing 76% of the time to losing roughly 93% of the time.

I burn and turn the river, and the game’s host (Shawn) says it before the thought registers in my brain.  “Ouch, counterfeited.”

The ace of spades.  My aces and eights over her kings and nines.  I look at Kitty and say honestly, “That’s just dirty, Kitty.  I’m sorry for that.”

She’s a good sport about it.  She just studies the cards for a bit, explaining “I just need to see it all laid out to be sure.”  Eventually, there’s a rueful smile and she holds out her hand to shake.  “Good game, Enrique,” she tells me.  I shake her hand and then let out a long exhale, not realizing just how much I’d been tightening up mentally/physically as the hand ran out.  I had thought I’d be ok with losing the tourney if that’s the way it shook out, but when I started the hand ahead I felt like I had it in my hands and was starting to deflate a little when the king hit the turn.

“Congratulations, Enrique,” Shawn said as he pulled the wad of bills out of his pocket.  He separated the two stacks out, counting out the one and handing the other to Kitty.  He laid the bills down in front of me and told me how much it should be.  I slumped back in my chair and then clapped once loudly.  “That’s how you end a motherfucking streak!” I declared.  The reality had sunk in and damn if it didn’t feel really frakking good.

Earlier that day I’d watched the Olympic men’s soccer gold medal match, cheering for Mexico against Brazil.  Mexico won that match 2-1, and I made the comment that it was a good day for Mexico all around.  “Viva México” never sounds more absurd than when it’s declared by one of the whitest Mexicans on the planet.

I drove home that night, and I think if I could have danced in the car while driving I would have.  I sang along with the tunes on my iPod more than I have in a long time.  What the hell, it was past 1am and I was in a good mood right?

I’ve told people that a lot of my anxieties from my dating life comes from me nitting it up in my personal life (and if you missed it earlier, I’ve linked to a definition of “nit” above so you understand what I mean).  I get too wound up, over think and then paralysis by over analysis takes over.  I’ve made a new personal rule that I’m only allowed to nit it up at the card table.  If I’ve gotten nitty there, I’ve spent my nit allowance for the week.  I think I’m going to wind up being happier in both the card playing and personal aspects of my life if I adhere to that rule.

Meantime, I’m looking more forward to my Vegas trip in November than I already was.  I’m looking to the next tournament this weekend and setting the goals up once again (back-to-back cashes is the initial goal).  And I’m still basking in the glow from winning.  I recognize I’m better than I’ve been giving myself credit for, in cards and in other areas.

My reads are getting better all around.

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