More Poker in Tel Aviv


(For reasons that will become obvious, I chose to keep this entry separate and not to link to it from my regular blog about my year in Israel.)

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog entry about an incredible experience I had playing in an underground tournament in Tel Aviv. Since then, I've found a friendly regular, weekly cash game that I've really enjoyed. The play is a bit erratic, but I've adjusted and have done very well there.

Last night, I found myself in a much more serious cash game with hired dealers, a house rake, higher stakes and very experienced players. I had two incredibly memorable hands. I faced the most unusual dilemma in the largest pot I've ever been involved in, with an unexpected ending.

Disclaimer: I believe that I remember all of the important details accurately. As I describe the two hands below, some of the stacks, bets and pot sizes as well as the values of unimportant cards on the board will be to the best of my recollection, so they may be approximate.

When I arrived in Israel, I made every effort to find a poker game. I put several feelers out, and one of them resulted in my regular cash game. Typical buy-in for the regular game is 100 shekels (exchange rate is 3.6 shekels/dollar - my rule of thumb is to divide by 4 and add 10%, because I can do that in my head quickly and it's a very close approximation). That's just about $28. By the middle of the evening, most people are re-buying for about 200-300 shekels, and by the end of the evening, the average stack is around 400-500 shekels. They actually double the chips, so 100 shekels buys 200 in chips, and then you divide by two when cashing out. I guess it gives the game a bigger feel. Bottom line is that most people win or lose in the range between plus or minus $125. I consider that small stakes, and I'm averaging almost $130 in profit per outing, as I'm usually one of the big winners.

A few days ago I get a call from someone who hosts a cash game at his house. He got my name from a friend of a friend, someone whom I had asked about poker when I arrived. It took almost 4 months, but this lead came through. He told me the buy-in was 200 shekels and blinds were 5-5. That's not so different from the $1-$1 game I played at Balley's in Atlantic City not too long ago. But the game was bigger than that; the initial buy-in amount soon became a typical post-flop bet.

It was an interesting crowd. They were obviously very good friends with lots of physical roughhousing high five slaps and even "kiss hellos" when guys showed up, which I found a little strange. People were friendly and introduced themselves to me, luckily only with handshakes. They asked me what I was doing here, and when it came out that I was a professor at Tel Aviv University for the year, I received an instant nickname. Everyone called me doctor the rest of the evening. I don't think anyone there except the organizer knows my actual name. Their level of education did not seem high, although they appeared very bright as a group. A lot of vulgarity and gutter humor that would even put Gottlieb's game to shame. Although there was whiskey and vodka, most people drank soda and coffee. Israelis don't drink that much alcohol, but I think I was the only one who did not take regular breaks to go outside and smoke.

The rake was very high. The house took 5% of every pot to a maximum of 35 shekels, just under $10. On top of that they were very generous tipping the dealer, and so I followed suit. Thus, the odds were stacked against me before we began. The play was very aggressive from the start, as expected. With blinds of 5 and 5, a typical pre-flop raise was 35 or 40. With starting stacks of 200, the game was ridiculous. By the second or third round, most people had re-bought, and the stack sizes were getting bigger. I had around 180 and had not been involved in any real action, but I decided to re-buy, as I preferred to play with an average stack, so I bought another 200. Over the course of the first two hours, I played very few hands, got no respect when I raised pre-flop, and did not hit any draws. I re-bought a couple of times to keep my stack in line with the ever growing stack sizes, figuring I need chips when I finally hit a "big pot" hand.

I had trouble deciding how to play. With very deep stacks, the value of big pairs and big cards goes down. However, was this really a deep stack game? Every flop was multi-way, and the stacks were incredibly deep relative to the blinds, but you could count on large raises pre-flop, multi-way flops and very small stack to pot ratios after the flop. Am I better off with suited connectors and small pairs for set value (high implied odds hands) or big pairs and AK, AQ type hands (low stack to pot ratio)? I was pondering this for a while, but it did not matter because I wasn't getting any big cards, and so I had few interesting decisions.

My stack was whittling away by the blinds and my occasional late position calls with connected or suited cards, hoping to flop a monster. But none came. A couple of times, I tried making moves with big pre-flop raises in early position and continuation bets on dry boards, but it never worked. I don't know if the other guys always hit on those flops or if they saw right through me, but my continuation bets were re-raised, and I mucked.

Meanwhile, I tried hard to observe the table. I noticed the guy sitting two seats to my left, let's call him Bob, made some weak-looking moves. Of course, he might have been playing the other players who he knew well. But still. One time, he called someone else's all in bet on the flop with A-J off on a two suited board of 9-J-Q. Another time, Bob raised in the big blind. The flop came K-3-3, and Bob raised and was called. On the turn he goes all in, and is called by the AK. Bob shows 83s and takes down the pot after a meaningless river. Someone asked him how he could have possibly raised pre-flop with 83, and he replied that he didn't want anyone to put him on a 3. Hmmm. Maybe, but how many times is he throwing away money when the flop does not come with two threes? I made a mental note that Bob is a strange player.

So, of course, I end up in my first real pot against Bob. After an evening of frustration where I'm card dead and down to about 650 shekels from the 800 I had purchased, I pick up KQ of spades two seats off the button. Bob is on the button and has me covered.  Everyone limps to me. I did not want my decision to be based on this being the nicest hand I had seen all night. KQs is a trouble hand that is easily dominated. I decided to try to play it as a suited connector, a big pot hand. If my straight or flush come in, I want a big pot, so I raise to 40 shekels knowing that even though I was playing tighter than tight, these guys were going to play. Bob calls and two other early position players call. The flop comes Q-8-5, with the 8 and 5 suited in hearts.

There is now 165 in the pot, and I have 610 in my stack. The first two players check. I was hoping to play this as a big implied odds hand. Obviously I'm not going to get a straight or a flush. But, I have top pair with a good kicker against a seemingly weak player and two others who checked the flop. I think there's only one play here, and so I bet 120. Bob calls, and the other two players fold. There, I've done it. I built a big pot with a small pot hand. The pot now has 405, and I have 490 left. Pot commitment is now an issue, and I'm wondering where I went wrong. In fact, I still don't know if there's a better way to play this in this spot.

I tried to put him on a range. He called pre-flop, and then only called on the flop. I know he'll play any two cards. So, this seems like straight draws or flush draws. Maybe two overcards since nobody at this table respects continuation bets. I think it's unlikely he has KK or AA as I don't know too many people who would not have re-raised me pre-flop. But, then again, this guy fancies himself a tricky player.

The turn card is another 8. That's not good. He very well could have been calling me on the flop with second pair. If so, I'm crushed. If I was ahead on the flop and he does not have an 8, then I'm still ahead. No draws were completed. I decided that if I bet and he pushes, I'd be pot committed, which I did not want with my weakish hand. I did not see how I could push with top pair on this board. So, I checked. He did not hesitate and pushed all in. Ugh!!! My first action of the night after a few hours, and I'm making a decision for all my chips with a crappy top pair decent kicker hand on a ridiculously connected board. So, here was my analysis. None of the draws were made yet. He could be ahead with an 8 or with KK or AA, which I did not think likely. He could be ahead with AQ, but you'd think he would have raised on the flop. He could also have Q8 or less likely 85 or even Q5, although I think he would have raised on that flop with all the draws showing with any of those two pair hands, and more likely would have folded them pre-flop. So, I figured that he's probably drawing, and I made a crying call. I was not happy, though. When I see someone make a call like that with top pair, I always label them a donkey and can't wait to get into a big hand with them. Overvaluing top pair has to be the most common novice mistake.

He turns over KK.


Boy did I misread him. Then again, he smooth called pre-flop and then again on the flop with all those draws. I did not show my cards, and I decided that after the river, I would muck my hand and leave them guessing. Still, it would be very embarrassing, but they might think I had a monster draw that missed. It never occurred to me that I actually had two outs until the river came a beautiful, adorable little queen, giving me a full house. I sheepishly turned over my KQ, and Bob about blew a gasket. The rest of the table got very boisterous as the peanut gallery came alive telling both of us all the mistakes we made and how we really should have played that hand.

I collected the 1,385 ($385) in the pot, but instead of being happy or excited, I felt uncomfortable. Bob was really steaming. I did not feel guilty or scared, just uneasy and almost on tilt. I did not deserve that pot, and I know how I've felt on the losing end of a two outer on the river. Then, I noticed something very interesting. Many of the players had stacks of about 700 or 800, and suddenly they were all asking for chips and buying up to my approximately 1,400 stack size. It was plainly obvious to me that they saw me call an all in with top pair on a connected board, and they wanted to make sure they had me covered for my next big donkey move.

At this point, it was getting late, and I was tired and would have been happy to go home with my 585 shekels profit (not to mention another 200-250 in rake and tips that I would have had in a normal house game). I did not expect to come out ahead, and I was pretty sure if I stayed that my chances of going home with that much would go down. However, whether it was etiquette or something else, I don't know, but I couldn't just get up and leave after winning that huge pot. About 20 minutes later, I said that I was going to play one more round, and they convinced me to stay another 30 minutes when they would close the game down. They way the pleaded with me confirmed my read that I was the big donkey in the room and they all wanted a piece of me. And one of them was about to get just that, my biggest pot ever.

With 1,400+ chip stacks around the table and 5-5 blinds, it was the deepest stacked poker I ever played. I watch a lot of high stakes poker on TV and read a lot of poker books, and I know that in deep stack poker, you're supposed to play those small connected cards, small pairs and basically any two cards that can hit a huge, disguised hand. But it's one thing to know this in practice and another to play that way. It goes entirely against my nature.

At about 2:35 a.m., they declared the last round of the night. My stack is 1,350 and I pick up 22 one off the button. Just the type of hand you're supposed to play with very deep stacks. The small investment you make pre-flop can win you someone's entire stack if you hit your set. You can lose many, many small pots to justify that. The odds against hitting a set are 8 to 1. But, the payoff when you hit can be 40 times your pre-flop bet. Someone raised to 35. Several callers came along, including me, and 5 people to the flop with 175 in the pot. A great situation for me. The flop comes J-2-5, two of them hearts. Bingo!! The original raiser continuation bets 200, overbetting the pot, which was not uncommon in this game. It folds to me. I raise to 600, and the button on my left calls. The original raiser folds.

Now there is 1,575 in the pot. My stack is 750, and the button's is about the same. This time, I'm happy to get into a big pot. I should point out that I had this player pegged as one of the best players at the table. Very aggressive, but knows when to lay down a hand and when to push the action. I tried to avoid him most of the evening, but I felt good about my set.

I could not put him on a real range. If he had a better set than I did, then he was going to get all my chips. That's poker. I did not think he had AJ, as this player would have definitely raised pre-flop. No doubt in my mind. He always raised those kinds of hands, all evening. Thus, I figured a set of jacks was also not likely because of his pre-flop call. The best I could figure was that he had a hearts flush draw, possibly to the nuts.

The turn card, oy, the turn card. The dealer turns over the ace of hearts. The button punches his fist on the table saying "yes!". That was a very strange move, and very hard for me to interpret. Most people I've played with, when they complete their flush draw, they try not to act excited. They want all your money, so they will make bets that they think you will call. On the other hand, everybody knows this. Could he have been thinking one level higher assuming that I would view his exclamation as a bluff, while he's really sitting on the flush? It was driving me crazy, and it was my turn to bet. I decided that I could not attach any significance to his shenanigans. It was either a bluff or a fake bluff. I needed to play my read. I had him on a flush draw as his most likely holding. The flush came in, and I thought KQ of hearts is a very likely holding for him.

So, what now? If I check, he'll probably bet, and I'll have to decide what to do. I've already invested almost half of my stack in the hand, which is supposed to commit me to the pot. If I bet, he might fold if he doesn't really have the flush, or raise me if he does. I decide to make a small blocking bet. So, I bet 200 into a 1,575 pot, leaving me 550 behind. He does not hesitate and pushes all in. If I were to call his bet, that would make a pot of 3,075, which is $854. I've never played a pot that big. I wasn't focused on that at the time, though.

In my mind, I went through all the stages of the hand. He called 35 preflop on the button. Does that make sense with KQ of hearts? Yes. He called my raise to 600 of a continuation bet on the flop. Does that make sense? With these deep stacks, two overcards and a flush draw, it makes sense, although pushing is also a common way to play that. Does his exclamation of "yes!" on the turn with the ace of hearts make sense if he just made the nut flush. Not really. That bothered me. But, I suppose it's possible.

Then, I went over my outs. If he had the flush, I had 10 outs, making me 4.5 to 1 against winning. Any J, 5, A makes me a full house, and there are 3 of each of those. And the case 2 give me quads. (Technically speaking, for all the real poker geeks, the odds are actually a tiny, tiny bit better as his suited cards don't match the three hearts on the board, so it's more like 4.3 to 1.) Ten outs means that I have a 20% of winning the hand on the river even if he has the flush. I had to call 550 to win 2,525, which is 4.6 to 1. An absolute no brainer call, given that he might be bluffing or drawing.

Unfortunately, sitting at the table at that late hour, I did not get through the analysis that clearly. I saw that I had 10 outs, which seemed like a long shot. I felt that he had the flush. I did not want to be felted and go home empty handed after having had 1,350 in my stack. So, I considered folding. But, I had not finished deciding when he turns to me and says, "If you want to chop, I'll chop".

Okay, time to reconsider my thinking. If we chop, I go home with 1,350 having made 550 in profit, and relieved of an agonizing decision (which should have been clear as day if I was thinking straight). On the other hand, is there any way in the world he makes this offer if he has a flush? Well, maybe if he has a low flush and he's worried that I have a higher one or that I'm drawing to a higher one. Given that I have a set and might be ahead, that I'm drawing to 10 outs even if not, and that he's making this gesture, which appears to show weakness, I figured I should call. But then I thought some more. I'm thinking of folding, and he says something, and then I'm thinking of calling. If he's a genius poker player, he could have just provoked me to call on purpose by appearing to be weak.

I was so tired, and felt pretty stressed by this hand. The table had been silent for some time, which was highly unusual. I really liked the idea of going home a winner. After a few more minutes of thinking, I took the wimpy way out and agreed to chop. He quickly mucked his hand. The dealer gave us a river just for fun, and of course, it was an ace, giving me a full house had I played the hand to the end. The button told me that he had a pair of tens. The table was not shy about telling me how stupid I was. Do you think he really would have declared he had a flush if he got it? Do you think he offers you to chop if he has a powerful hand? You were just completely outmaneuvered. Only one person, the guy running the game stood up for me and said he would have done the same thing. That it was too much money to gamble with. I suspected maybe he was trying to get me to feel more welcome so I'd play there again in the future.

I shook the button's hand and told him that he completely psyched me out. Well done. He seemed pretty pleased with himself.

I left the house after that hand. It was almost 3:00 a.m. I felt it was ironic to be driving home with 550 profit when many of the better players lost money, having played my only two real pots so badly. I was in over my head in this game. I'm not even sure how much fun I had. I always feel bad when I make donkey plays. I'd probably rather lose money knowing I played well and got unlucky than win big through lucky suck outs.

I don't think I'll be going back there. The rake and the tips really eat into your profits. The game is too wild, and it's not really "poker". I definitely learned a thing or two about speeches, and hopefully, I'll be able to respond to them better the next time I'm in a big hand and the villain is talking to try to get me off my game. Most likely the most logical explanation is the right one. In that last hand, I left a lot of chips on the table. Hopefully, next time, if faced with that kind of situation I'd make the call.