Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mix it up

Poker night on Saturday went very well. I went looking for the darts and billiard bar Duke a bit early, since I didn't know that part of town well. I found it easily enough, and although the joint didn't open for another 30-40 minutes, the owner let me in and we talked for a while.

The bar was about what you would expect - a couple billiards tables, a couple electronic dart boards, an old pinball machine, and.. two poker tables! The owner, who goes by "J.O." was very talkative and friendly - he spent many years in the states, including a 3-4 year stint in Vegas as a blackjack dealer. Now he owns a number of bars, and so I imagine he got his staff and customers started on poker and has been fostering it in his place.

"You've been to the Ueno poker room?" he asked. (His english is excellent.)

"Yeah, a couple of times. But when I found there was another place in Tokyo to play, I wanted to come and check it out. Always looking for more places to play poker."

"Well, other than the Ueno room and here, I don't think there's anywhere else," he stated. I was afraid he was going to say that. The grass roots poker revolution, taking seed in the dart-playing bar-going Japanese population, hasn't really germinated yet. Guess I will have to wait a bit longer.

He explained the rules of the Vegas Cup in a bit more detail to me. They had regular games about once a month, two games each night. The winner of each game would win 30 points for the finals; second place earned 10 points. The first game of each evening was limit holdem. The second game was... not holdem. It looks like earlier in the year they played one other game after the holdem game, but several months ago they switched to "Mixed Games". That would be HORSE.

So players competed once per month, and the first and second place winners from those games collected points for the final. Each point would be used as one chip in the final game, so if you won a lot of the monthly buildup games, you'd have a big chip lead going into the final game. "Oh, one thing you should know," J.O. said with a big grin, "if I win the Cup, I'm going myself. I'm the one putting up the money for it, so I'm allowed to win it."

I laughed. "Fair enough!"

Each of the games that night had a 1500yen entry fee (around $15). In additional to earning points for the Vegas Cup, winners also received "coins", which looked like gaming tokens from an arcade. Each coin was worth 500yen towards food or drink at the bar. Hey, cool, winning items of immediate monetary value! This is a step in the right direction. I believe J.O. said that the top 1/3 of the finishers got a payout of coin.

J.O. is a pretty big guy for a Japanese, cheerful, outgoing, and friendly. He and the staff of the bar all had that quality of quickly putting you at ease that you often find in a good bar. When 7pm arrived, we had about 12 players, many of whom were the staff, or maybe semi-staff. It didn't seem to matter that much, we were ready to play some poker.

I recognized two faces that I had seen from the last time I had been to the Ueno poker room, one woman and one man. They recognized me immediately (the white skin and green eyes give me away) and bobbed their heads in greeting. I introduced myself and they gave their handles - everyone at the Ueno room seems to have a handle they use, which usually matches up with their logon id on the JPPA web site and forums. So they told me their handles and I, true to form, had forgotten them in about ten minutes. (I said I have a horrible memory, didn't I?) But everyone else was a new face. I guess either the Ueno room players didn't know about this game, or didn't frequent it as much as I had assumed they would.

We split up into two tables of about 6 players each, although spots were set aside for known latecomers, and started with limit holdem. J.O. handled the dealing on my table, and it became clear pretty soon he's quite a good player. Most of the others seem to have a healthy dose of fear/respect for him as the resident expert, owner, and likely the one who taught them all how to play.

I got a mock-stern look from him at one point when I raised on the button with him in big blind. "I'll let you get away with it this time," he decided aloud, and mucked. In a later hand, I raised after the flop and he re-raised, then looked at me expectantly. My hand wasn't that good, I decided, and tossed it. "Ah, I see we can be friends," he chortled. I know I check-raised him at least once in the evening, earning a raised eyebrow, but I lost the hand at showdown so he didn't hold it against me.

I played fairly tight - only one hand really stands out. Dealt Ad-5d in early position, I limp in, followed by about 4 others. (We had consolidated to a table of about 8 at that point.) The flop came 2-10-3, rainbow with no diamonds. I only have high card and a straight draw, but I bet it to see where I stand. Two fold, two call. Turn comes a 4, and I make my straight. I check, not wanting to make it too obvious, and the next player raises. Last player calls, and I check my stack, which is already dwindling. Stacks for all the players started at ten 5's and ten 1's, and the blinds started at 1/2 and increased every ten minutes, so it moved pretty quickly. So I re-raised. The raiser called, next player folded.

The river came... a 5. Aw, crap. If this guy has an ace then we'll split it. I only have two chips left and I am pretty confident the other guy will raise, so I checked. He raised for those two chips, I called, and we turned them over. I had my ace to five straight and he had... K-T. He'd made top pair and good kicker early, but I guess he did not feel comfortable enough with it to raise my first bet. Hey, not bad.

I doubled up and left him with a small stack that didn't last long. After that hand, four players had small stacks, I was in second, and a lady named Mari had a slightly larger stack than mine. I won another small pot to put me in the chip lead, then played really tight as the small stacks busted out - Mari got most of their chips to put her just about even with me as it came down to the two of us.

"Once we get to heads-up, we switch to no-limit," J.O. noted. Ah, okay, that's cool, I think, and look down to find in my first hand of heads-up play... A-Q offsuit. I was in the big blind, so Mari went first with a reasonable raise. I doubled the raise, and she said it. "All in." The first hand of heads-up.

I must have paused for tiny moment, but come on, I wasn't going to throw that hand away. "Call." She flips over K-K. Ack. There's a King in the flop and I don't hit anything, so she wins it. We stack up out chips and compare them, and I end up having three more than she does, so I keep my measley 3 chips for the next hand, which doesn't even cover the small blind. I get something like a 10-8o, and she flips over Big Slick offsuit, and so I finished up after only two hands of heads-up.

But I still felt good. Second place earned me 6 coins, or 3000yen (about $30) of food and drink! And if you're going to go down, A-Q versus KK isn't a horrible way to go.

We took a quick break and then started up again for the second game... HORSE. Which I had never played, but as it turns out, most of the players there were really unfamiliar with most of the non-holdem games too. One of the staffers, who dealt for the table that J.O. didn't handle, spent the break explaining what the games were and what a hi-lo split was, and most of the players listened intently. J.O. had already explained it to me a bit while we were waiting for the place to open, so I decided I would at least give it a try.

I'd played a little bit of Omaha and 7 card stud on PokerStars, but had not figured out the hi-lo games, and Razz was completely new to me. Luckily it was pretty new to almost everyone there, though J.O. was completely at home. I won a couple good sized pots, catching the high and low with a good hand and barely following that I was in good shape. But steadily my chip stack dropped and I busted out relatively early with less a bang than a whimper.

Mixing up all the different games made the second tournament a completely different experience. It will be obvious to those who can already play these games, but I really felt like my brain was being stretched in three new directions as I tried to remember the rules and adapt to play these new games. By the time holdem came around each time, I was too dazed and confused to remember how to play it. But stretching the brain is a good thing, and I was very impressed. Once you can get to a point where you can play all these games well enough, you'll have learned a lot of flexibility that should be useful to any of the games. I'm nowhere near that point yet, but it looks like an intriguing path.

So I busted out of the second tourney not even "in the coin", as they had announced when the first tourney had dropped to 4 or 5 players. It was about 10:30pm, so I watched a few more hands, then settled up my bill, using up all the coins I had one to pay for my two drinks and the 1500yen first-time membership fee. The bar was half-full of folks playing billiards, throwing darts, playing pinball, and generally relaxing and generating atmosphere. One or two hot japanese women tossed darts, sadly with male companionship, but still... atmosphere! Gotta enjoy it. So I breathed it all in, then wished everyone a good night and caught a train home to the girlfriend.

Had a great time, and looking forward to going again - probably will this Friday! The Saturday tournaments are over until the Vegas Cup final, I believe, but Friday nights they have weekly games just for "coin", and that's good enough for me.

And the Vegas Cup... I'll be there for that too. My second-place finish won me entry, though I'll be one of the short-stacks with only 10 chips to start. Checking the web page, after I left J.O. won the HORSE tourney and is now sitting pretty with 150 points/chips going into the final. Three folks have 60, including Mari, who sent me packing. One with 40, two with 30, and four others with 10. It will be a longshot, but I'll play my 10 chips, try to double up, and see how far I can get. J.O. will probably be the one on that plane, but he should't buy his tickets yet.

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