Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mind Games

Poker isn’t a card game. It’s a head game. It’s a duel, where the cards take the place of the flintlock pistols. The cards don’t matter when the head is right, and when the head isn’t right the best hand in the world won’t stop the singing of the Undertaker Song.

Living proof of that this week in Las Vegas – where else? – at the World Series of Poker, the WSOP. To the outsider, it looked like Hoyt Boyle lost his reason, prior to his losing his all. He made a crazy call on the river against a hand that he never looked good to beat, and then John Sherman took out his bowie knife, cut out Boyle’s heart and posted it home to Gary, IN.

How did it happen? Boyle didn’t lose his head in the last hand – he had it taken from him an hour before that, when there were four others sitting at the table. It just took those sixty minutes for the penny to drop.

Boyle had been doing so well. He’s not a pro – he’s just a guy that played a little in college, played with the boys after work every Thursday payday, and then really got stuck in when online poker took off at the start of the 21st Century. Now he was in Vegas, courtesy of one of the online companies, playing in the Big Time and loving it.

John Sherman is no stranger to the big time, and has been playing as a pro since he started shaving daily. His reputation isn’t that of the old school gent and he doesn’t care. A dollar bill has yet to display feelings, and that’s fine with Sherman. He was the man everybody else was watching at the table. Especially when he gutted the hapless Hoyt Boyle.

The game is Texas Hold ‘Em, but what makes it particularly terrifying is that the betting has no limit. You can bet anything from ten bucks to ten thousand, and it’s a dizzying thing to push ten grand into the middle of a card table and know that it might never be coming back.

It was very dizzying for Hoyt Boyle. He’d been doing so well, only going on gold and pulling more than one clicker when he should have got a spanking. So when he saw the two eights in the pocket, he bet five hundred with some level of confidence.

A level of confidence that quickly evaporated when Sherman saw the five hundred, and kicked it up to five thousand.

Four thousand, five hundred simoleons to stay in the game. And with three rounds of betting left. What would the final bill be if it didn’t work out? How much could he afford to lose?

Not that much. Hoyt Boyle folded. John Sherman smiled at him, and casually flicked up his hole cards. The seven of hearts, the two of clubs. Nothing. He was sniggering as he pulled in the pot. Hello Rube – welcome to the big time.

So one hour later, after another player’s hand being almost good enough restored Hoyt’s nerve a little, he was ready when he drew ace-jack. By this time there was only Hoyt and Sherman left, Sherman with a considerable advantage in chips, but Hoyt still alive. Hoyt bet five hundred. Sherman called, but didn’t raise. The flop came two, ace, jack, all diamonds.

Hoyt had a high two pair, and two shots at filling a house. Sherman hadn’t bet – there was no way, surely, Sherman could beat aces and jacks? That sniggering SOB was never sitting on a diamond flush. Hoyt bet a grand.

Sherman saw, and raised fifteen thousand and fifty. It was the fifty that probably did it. Hoyt had fifteen thousand left in front of him, stacked neatly and easy for Sherman to count. The extra fifty was a goad, and a goad that worked. It was like he was saying “Come prove that I haven’t filled that diamond flush, boy.” Hoyt went all in, and turned up his ace and jack.

Sherman didn’t turn any diamonds. Unfortunately, he did turn a pair of twos. Trip twos, never lose. Fourth Street was the eight of clubs, the river the suicide king and that was the end of Hoyt Boyle, of Gary, IN. Sherman moved on to the next table, Hoyt moved on to the bar.

“For me, it stung, but for him it was nothing personal, you know?” Hoyt told me. “That’s why poker is played in Vegas, I guess. You need cold blood to survive in the desert, like the lizards and geckos. You need cold blood to play this game too. Nothing else will save you.”

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