Do you remember the first time?

Do you remember the first time?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Asks Nick Wealthall.

Even if it was a long time ago I bet you can recall it vividly. The nervousness, fretting about how you’d look, the fumbling and not being sure where anything goes; being terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing; worrying about how much the whole thing would cost.

I could tell you more about the first time I had sex, but the heavy pen of the sub-editor has descended and apparently I now have to pretend that introduction was all about the first time I played poker. Let’s just say the whole thing was an unpleasant realisation that the things I naturally like are considerably more expensive than the things “normal” people like. And that was the exact word she used. “Normal”. With a “not” in front of it.

Anyway, back to the poker. I was terrified the first time I played for money outside of a home game. I was in Las Vegas on holiday with a friend. I’d played a couple of times in home games and had a vague notion that I’d play on this trip. It turns out there are quite a few distractions in Las Vegas before you get to the poker. Four days into a week-long stay, I hadn’t even thought about the game – in fact, anything I had thought about had been subsequently obliterated by the introduction of several brain-cell-destroying substances.

And then the fickle hand of fate intervened. My travel buddy got sick. I mean he didn’t actually get sick. What he actually did was drink a cocktail so big they served it in a goldfish bowl. And then drank more things. And then got sick all over his room. And stayed sick for a long time.

So it’s daytime in Vegas. I’m on my own while he sleeps it off and I’ve already seen Siegfried and Roy’s Magic Garden. Whadayagonado?
I was staying at The Luxor and that’s where I found the poker room. It was small and tucked away at the back of the casino, with two or three games going. I walked over to the rail and stood there for what felt like an entire afternoon (let’s say 40 minutes). The game was $1-$5 stud. Stud is a different form of poker played by old people. If you’re late joining us you’ll almost certainly need to Google it. That’s fine, I’ll wait.

OK, good, so it’s $1-$5 stud which means: a) you can bet between $1 and $5 on each street, and 2) 50 bucks will last you a day. Nothing bad is going to happen here. The average age of the participants in the game is 52. Seriously, nothing bad can happen here. And yet I’m petrified.

I need to get a ruddy grip. I take a walk around the casino and decide it’s now or never. I stride up to the floor man and say, in a slightly too confident voice in order to overcompensate for nerves: “I’d like to play poker.”

I mean, he’s the floorman in the poker room so he’d probably got that far on his own.

Fast forward an hour and I was a poker veteran. Relaxed, in command, solid reads on all my opponents – soul reads, in fact – this game was easy. I should point out I hadn’t played a hand. Apart from the bring-in. Which is a legal requirement.

If they had, during those first few minutes, dealt me rolled up kings, I would have quietly folded them and moved on. I remember the overwhelming feeling that everyone at the table knew what they were doing. They looked like they’d been sitting at poker tables so long they’d been skin-grafted into one and they were all looking at me like I didn’t belong. I mean, there’s a lot of truth in that initial impression that most of them had racked up thousands of hours at the table; of course, what I didn’t realise was that that didn’t mean they were any good.

A little over an hour in I won my first meaningful pot. I was dealt a hidden pair of queens and announced in a voice closer to a shout than preppy over confidence, ‘I raise!’ I banged in the maximum bet – the big $5.00. Just one guy called and I’ll never forget him. He was mid 50s with slightly wavy grey hair and a dark polo neck jumper. I mean who wears a polo neck jumper in Vegas? He looked like the kind of fella that wore a velvet smoking jacket of an evening and kicked back with a long thin cigar. Fourth street was a blank for both of us – again, I bet the maximum and again he called.

I should point out I only knew one thing about poker strategy which I’d read in the one poker book I’d ever picked up. Tight and aggressive. Good players play tight and aggressive that was the answer. So here I was – the tight bit had been achieved, so now I should just bet the maximum and good things will happen, right? Right?

On fifth street he had a collection of low-ish cards and I picked up an ace. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t thinking; actually I could barely breathe. I had no clue if I was ahead or behind – I just desperately wanted it to be over.

Once again I announced “I raise”, even though I was betting, and banged in another five-ball. He looked at me, probably replaying in his head the last hour of me throwing cards away. “Not this time,” he said, and folded.
I wish I had the words to convey the magic of that moment but, as Jodie Foster taught us, “they should have sent a poet”. Nothing I’ve experienced in poker before or since has given me that same electric, nerve-tingling buzz of the dealer pushing me more than 20 American dollars in chips. My first pot. I stacked them slowly.

Maybe if he’d made a straight and crushed my queens I wouldn’t be writing this for you now. Maybe if I’d lost my 50 bucks instead of winning 50 that afternoon I wouldn’t have played again. They say everyone who ends up absorbed in poker runs good at the beginning, so who knows? You never forget your first time; the sadness is nothing else is ever as exciting.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists, live poker