Sports and Poker in an Unfamiliar Place

I write this week's column not from my residence in Irving, Texas, but from elsewhere. Sometimes a man — if the man's name is me — needs to take a one-person vacation somewhere random and kind of far-flung, where he has never been before, and where a poker tournament is taking place. That place is Daytona Beach, where a stop on the Moneymaker Poker Tour is taking place.

"Moneymaker" is as in Chris Moneymaker, who had a huge hand in starting the poker boom by winning the 2003 World Series of Poker main event after getting into the tournament in an $86 online qualifier.

Daytona Beach's biggest sports claim is, of course, the motorsports mecca that is the Daytona International Speedway. Auto racing is the one American sport I absolutely do not care about one whit. But it was a revelation driving past it. From the outside, it looks like a football stadium, but it goes ON and ON and ON. Makes sense when you think about it.

I also passed through the campus of Daytona Beach's sole Division 1 school, Bethune-Cookman University. What's interesting about BCU? Well, after reading their athletics, football, and basketball Wikipedia, to my judgment the answer is sadly nothing, except for one dubious claim: they are one of 35 schools in D1 to never make the big dance. I will be rooting for them, though: go Wildcats!

Mostly, though, I was here to play poker. I intended to play 4-5 tournaments, but for various reasons I only played one, finishing 43rd out of 107. The key hand was one where I had KK, raised three big blinds from the button, and got one caller.

The flop came 10 4 10 rainbow. Check-check.

The turn was a 6. He put out a bet worth 2 big blinds into a pot with 7 big blinds and the antes in it. That's a very small bet. It usually means one of two things: he's trying to buy the pot cheap, or he's got a monster and is afraid to bet big and fold me out of the hand. I quintupled his bet and he called.

River is a 2, and he shoves (goes all-in).

He played this, to my eyes, exactly like you might play a huge hand. "Huge," as in, bigger than mine. As in, he has a 10 and flopped trips, or had a pocket pair that became a full house.

Importantly, as well, he had not played a ton of hands before this one or done anything to reveal himself as an aggro-maniac. He could be bluffing — as I said, he played it like you might play a huge hand, which of course is how you would therefore want to play a bluff too, but really, without a specific read on a player, trying to bluff-catch for a huge pot is extremely risky.

I folded. I wish I could tell you that he showed his hand, but he did not.

That knocked me down to about 20 big blinds and I went completely card dead after that. 20 became 5 in what seemed like the blind of an eye. I shoved pre-flop 7-8 suited in spades, got called by the small blind with A-9, and I didn't improve.

The following day featured a tournament with an interesting concept: the "Older than Moneymaker" tour. The tour's website says the buy-in is reserved for players who are, you guessed it, older than Chris Moneymaker.

But, other websites said it was for players 47 and older. It's a distinction worth exploring because I am 47, but I am not older than Moneymaker — he turns 48 in November, I do in March 2024.

So I asked the tour rep which is it — and it was older than Moneymaker. Alas!

Without a tournament to play in, I played some cash games. I feel like my brain is more attuned to tournament thinking, but dammit, I'm here to play poker.

In the first session I played, almost every hand at my table went to showdown. This is a sure sign of a soft, touristy, weekend-warrior table. They want to gamble and have fun. This means playing the opposite way (conservative, patient) is profitable, even if it's boring as you wait for good hands.

That said, luck still plays a part. I busted out with QK in my hand on a board of QQJ54 when my opponent rolled over QA. Unfortunately, tourists who play every hand and never fold (not that this describes this particular opponent) are allowed to get good cards sometimes, too.

Another thing about this particular opponent: he looked very much like current Nebraska and former Baylor and Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.

"Are you a sports fan?" I asked him.


"You look like Matt Rhule. The Nebraska head coach. Used to coach the Carolina Panthers."

He responded by not responding and just looking down at his hand. When people are being jocular and having fun, as they were at this table, and you make a comment that no one responds to at all, it almost feels like they are saying, "You absolutely suck. You tried to vibe with us, and failed. I wish to be rid of you," doesn't it?

Oh well. Tonight, I arrived at the Daytona Beach Racing and Card Club too late to play in the last tournament of the evening, so it was cash games for me again. The memorable hand this time went like this: in middle position, I had QQ. Stakes are $1/$2. The guy to my right bet $10. I raised to $30. He calls. Board comes 10 5 10 rainbow. He bets $75, more than the size of the pot. That is a suspiciously big bet. You see it sometimes when a player has a big hand that he wants to protect from draws, but there are no draws out there. If he has a ten, he would want to keep me in the hand. Same, really, with 55, AA, or KK, the only other hands that beat me.

It's sort of the opposite of the the tournament hand. The "villain" (as we call "the player you are up against in a particular hand," in poker-speak) played it in a way I considered a conventional way to play a strong hand, but that makes it a good bluff, too. I'll never know.

Here, this villain made a bet that I consider a conventional sign that a player is holding a weak hand, but again, that makes a plausibly tricky way to play a strong hand.

This time, though, I made the nervy play and shoved all-in myself. He groaned and sighed, and then called. I turned up my hand, and he kept his hidden. The groan and sigh made me feel pretty confident, though, and after the dealer put out the turn and the river, he said "you win" and I had a nice double-up on my hands.

After that, the table played exploitably. It wasn't like my first session where everyone was gambling, but there were tons of limpers (people who call, but do not raise, the original big blind), hoping to see a flop for cheap, and then a lot of check-check-check-check-check afterwards. Translation: not a lot of bluffing going on here, not a lot of people trying to buy the pot. Translation of the translation: bluffing can be profitable at a table like this.

You still have to be very careful bluffing. If you do it a lot, people will catch on. So, you know, don't do it every hand you're in. Second, if you're bluffing because you're playing against player(s) who time has shown will fold to a bet unless they have a hand, you're usually better off not firing more bluffs at the turn and river if they call your bets.

I'm describing the basics of the basics of the basics here, and you should read the many books, blogs, etc. by pros if you really want to learn no limit hold 'em. Essentially, the bluffing strategy I abstractly lay out here is a formula which will win you lots of small pots. The place where having some poker skill is the most profitable, though is maximizing your return on your strong hands.

And, for the second time, luck plays a part, and this time it was smiling on me. I walked in with $200 and walked out with $679 two hours later.

As for Daytona Beach itself, it's a lot scruffier than I imagined, and I mean that as a compliment. This place is neither a snobby, posh resort town (if you are making beach culture stereotypes) nor a bastion of redneck yahoos (if you are making NASCAR fan stereotypes). The populace seemed humble, friendly, and diverse. I did in fact vibe with it. The feel reminded me of my hometown of Akron. Goodnight, Daytona.

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