Climbing The Limit Ladder

“Little things foreshadow what’s coming, but you may not recognize them. But then something immediate happens and you’re in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it– you’re set free. You don’t need to ask questions and you already know the score. It seems like when that happens, it happens fast, like magic, but it’s really not like that. It isn’t like some dull boom goes off and the moment has arrived– your eyes don’t spring open and suddenly you’re very quick and sure about something. It’s more deliberate. It’s more like you’ve been working in the light of day and then you see one day that it’s getting dark early, that it doesn’t matter where you are– it won’t do any good. It’s a reflective thing. Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door– something jerks it open and you’re shoved in and your head has to go into a different place.”
–Bob Dylan
Sorry for the delay on part two of the story, work was extremely busy this week and I was too tired to do much writing. I also watched the election coverage… I hate politics, but I was happy to see that the pollsters and media people were proven wrong on just about all fronts. I wasn’t happy with the result, but I didn’t care too much for either candidate. Looks like the Democrats need to reboot their party…
On the poker front, I’ve been grinding out small wins and getting comfortable in the party $15-30 games. The most difficult thing about the high limit games: deciding when to bet the turn against a single opponent with a ragged board and all you have is overcards. Usually PokerTracker is a big help here, as it will give you some idea about the opponent’s tendencies.
I was thinking about my climb up the ladder in limits, and remembered some advice I received before I started playing poker. A fellow card counter said in an email, “My only advice is some I wish I had when I was starting out. Move up in limits as fast as you can.”
Dangerous advice, of course, but if you have a conservative interpretation of “as fast as you can”, then I think this is excellent advice. As long as you’re playing within your bankroll and have a mind for the game, it doesn’t take too long to get comfortable in the game at the next higher limit. One of my favorite passages in Jesse May’s “Shut up and Deal” addresses the difference between the bigger games and the smaller games:
“The entire table can’t help but hear him say, “I’d just like to know one thing – what is the biggest difference between playing 100-200 and 10-20?” I look at him and say, “The limit – this is a different limit,” and he gives me an uncomprehending look and then smiles because he thinks I’m joking and says again, “No, really, I mean what’s the major difference in play in these games?” And I say, “The chips are different – these chips are worth more money.” And I say it completely deadpan and now he thinks I’m taking the piss out of him and he wipes the smile off his face. I see Johnny trying hard not to laugh. “You see if we were playing 10-20 we would be using red chips, but we’re not.” Everybody thinks I’m trying to make a fool out this guy, but I’m just saying the only completely honest thing that I can. But it’s not what this guy wants to hear. I want to shake him. I want to shout, “Look at me! Listen to me! There is no difference in play!!” But I don’t say that, I just repeat in a small voice, “This is a higher limit. The game is exactly the same as 10-20 but we use different chips.”
In the live game, the $6-12 game seems to be the dividing line at my local cardroom. $2-4 up to $6-12 play pretty much the same, and the game changes any higher than that. On Party/Empire, $5-10 seems to be the dividing line. So moving up to the “major leagues” from the smaller limits is a much bigger jump and requires more experience, but movement within the “minor leagues” can be more rapid.
Of course, moving up can be more expensive, and everybody plays poker for a different reason. For me, competition and mastery of the game is my goal, so moving up in limits quickly fits me well. This strategy makes for some expensive lessons, but I feel like I learned the game faster by pushing myself up in limits as soon as I could.
Enough pontificating. On to the story…
Gordon judged the goodness of a game based on a relatively simple formula. There were two types of players that made for a good game– donators and players he didn’t recognize. The donators didn’t come around much– usually they were smiling, well-dressed retirees looking for a night out with the boys, and didn’t mind trading a few stacks of chips in return for a few hours of fraternity. They’d usually show up a few times a month until they finally saw the blood in the eyes of the regulars or got tired of losing. Gordon gave the donators what they wanted: politely nodding to them on the rare occasions that they beat him with a superior hand, and turning up the corners of his mouth with a kind remark (“You got me Fred.”) when they beat the odds by catching their miracle card.
The players he didn’t recognize were a lot harder to deal with. Whenever he sat down at a table with an unfamiliar face, he spent the first 15 minutes trying to figure out what it was that drove this person to the casino. Like a detective, Gordon tried to piece together the available information to deduce what made this player tick. The clothes the player was wearing, his posture, and facial expressions usually gave him enough clues to figure out what kind of cards he played. Unlike the donators, new players were often full of suprises, and would quickly change their style based on how much money they had won or lost.
Gordon put an elbow on the table, leaning forward to size up the faces of the table. The cards slid silently across the felt into eager hands, and the old familiar rhythm of moving cards, clacking chips, and table banter eased the doubt in his throat. Two donators, one new face, and a single regular. The chip stacks told the story of the game, the blurry scoreboard that kept track of who had been lucky or good in the past couple hours.
“Good, at least now that one of my friends is here, I can have a drink without feeling guilty,” grumbled the retired businessman to his right, reaching for his wallet to buy more chips.
“Good to see you Jim… not your night?” said Gordon with real happiness and feigned interest.
“It never seems to be my night, but at least I’m outta the house,” smiled the donator.
The silver-haired man to his left rasped, “I’d rather be unlucky here than to listen to the old lady complain for the millionth time!”
“Good evening Dick. Glad to have you back,” chuckled Gordon. Dick’s mind had gone long ago, and the players never seemed to mind that the dealer had to remind him to bet or fold on every hand.
Gordon peeled off five bills from his roll, and carefully placed them on the table. When he first began playing for a living, his first buy in always made his stomach hurt. He thought about how many hours he’d worked for those bills, and what he could buy with them. But after the hundreds of times he’d left the casino with more bills than he started with, a few hundreds were just pieces of paper, his always refundable ticket into the game. He marvelled at the level of abstraction involved in poker. Money was an abstraction of labor, and you used that abstraction to purchase chips, an abstraction of money. Thinking of it this way, each of those chips you won represented the hard work of somebody out there. Of course, nobody ever thought of it this way.
The sound of chips slamming on the table surprised him, until Gordon realized that the chip runner was only delivering his chips. He felt the doubt in his stomach growing stronger, and realized it was because he let himself be surprised at the table. He chided himself for not concentrating on getting a read on the unfamiliar faces and began to focus on the game. The lineup looked pretty soft, but he’d been losing for so long that he didn’t have the luxury of letting his mind drift away from the table.
“I’m takin it uptown!” said a new face across the table as he forcefully threw chips towards the pot. The kid was pretty young, and Gordon instinctively looked at the stack of chips in front of him. At first he hadn’t noticed anything unusual, but on second glance he realized that along with the usual stacks of $5 yellow chips, two of his stacks of chips were white in color. The white chip was the biggest chip in the casino, and represented $100. Gordon’s eyes snapped back to the face of the kid, only to find a pair of eyes burning a hole through the back of his head.
“You want these chips old man? Come get em.”

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