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Lessons learned while playing with 'big boys'

April 25, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

I'll likely never take batting practice with Javy Lopez of the Baltimore Orioles or play 18 holes with professional golfer Phil Mickelson.

But therein lies the great thing about the game of poker - people can play against world-class players if at the right table.

For me, that table was in a Herald-Mail Co. conference room, and the players were Jim Boyd, who won Best All-Around at the 1994 Queens Poker Classic in Las Vegas, and Howard Mann, who won the 2002 U.S. Poker Championship tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. Both are residents of Martinsburg, W.Va.

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Boyd, Mann and myself each started out with chips given a value of $10,000, although no real money was involved, with the hope of being the last one with chips in his stack during the friendly game of Texas Hold'em.

So, out comes the first hand, and I'm sitting with a king and a five, suited, as pocket cards. After the flop (first three community cards shown), I have a pair of kings, which is much better than average in a three-handed game with two cards to go. Mann makes a small bet, Boyd folds and I decide to raise Mann's original wager, forcing him to fold.

The novice - me - starts off well, with an $1,800 pot at 2:12 p.m.

With that bit of success, I decide to make a bluff on the second hand. Boyd and Mann believe, as intended, that I have more than I do, so they fold early. It was a smaller pot this time, but I'll take whatever I can get.

Boyd and Mann say it will take time for them to learn the habits of their new opponent, and that it would take hours to figure out all my nuances.

"We're just feeling out the competition," Mann says. "I'm going to make you show your cards soon."

Minutes later, another of my bluffs works.

"I can see it now in the paper: 'These guys don't know nothing,'" Boyd jokes.

By 2:30 p.m., Mann is down to less than half the chips he started with and laughs about the poor cards he has been dealt on nearly every hand. Still, Mann bets big on the next hand because, as he later admits, he notices Boyd and I were concentrating on a side conversation.

"I didn't even look at my cards," Mann says. "It seemed like a good time to raise."

Five minutes later, Mann goes "all in," which prompts Boyd to do the same thing. I decide to fold because Mann is out if he loses, and I'll have a decisive lead on Boyd if he loses.

Boyd wins with a flush, and Mann is left as the friendly dealer for the rest of the game.

"The cards are the great equalizer," Mann said. "I've beaten the best in the world, but I can't beat a Herald-Mail reporter if I don't get cards."

At about 2:42 p.m., it's harder to hide my telling gestures and expressions from Boyd. When I have high pairs, he folds. When I have garbage and bluff, he raises the bet. This forces me to fold.

I'm playing more conservatively because I'm paranoid that he has assessed some of my weaknesses. And all he does is smile and tell stories.

Boyd occasionally shows just one of his two pocket cards and lets out a giggle each time.

By 2:55 p.m., the chip count is $22,000 to $8,000 in Boyd's favor.

I need to make a move soon or I'm going to be too far behind to make a comeback against a far better player.

At 2:58 p.m., I have a pair of kings to start, but Boyd senses that and folds without moving too many chips into the pot. I lose a great chance to make up ground.

This prompts me to think to myself about what I'm doing to give my status away. I have no idea, but it's extremely distracting and frustrating.

"You don't need the best hand," Boyd says. "You just need to know he will crumble under pressure."

Later in the afternoon, Boyd would admit my biggest weakness was the look in my eyes during flops.

At 3:14 p.m., it was time for a final stand as I'm dealt a pair of jacks.

Boyd, who makes the first bet, calls me "all in," making the bet for my remaining stack of chips. I call the bet and think it's the point in the game when I double my stack.

I show my jacks, and Boyd shows a pair of sixes. When it's all in, the cards are turned up for everyone to see.

"You're a 5-1 favorite," Boyd said.

Unfortunately for me, a six is dealt in the flop and I now need a jack to stay alive.

It never comes, and Boyd has a full house - three sixes and two threes.

"That's a bad beat there," Boyd said. "Lucky Jim got you."

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