I close my eyes.
The aroma of cheap hair gel and cigar smoke fills my nostrils.
I feel my face being scrutinised.
I hear the familiar click clack of poker chips, the drag of a cigarette and then the exhale.
Did he just breathe his cigarette smoke on me on purpose?
I pull the brim of my hat to cover my eyes further, try to remain still and control my breathing.
My opponent is clearly frustrated and I know he is probably going to fold.
I want him to fold. I try not to do anything, even to move.
I don’t want to give him any ideas about making a hero call.
Eventually, after a painfully long time, he folds.
I had heard the poker games in Vienna were good, so had travelled to the Austrian capital to investigate. A nine hour train ride with Swedish backpackers later and I was in the suburbs of the Austrian capital.
The Montesino Card Club is located in a very odd leisure complex, the centre piece of which is four large gas cylinders which have been decommissioned and converted for modern use. A couple are apartments and the other two are a shopping/retail complex. The idea is GREAT and the structures look absolutely awesome, but the execution is not the best and the shops inside are an uninspiring mix of drab chainstores and generic restaurants. There is a cool looking tattoo shop though.
The card club is on the other side of the street where is also a table tennis centre where you can hire a table and play, though I see nobody in there the whole three days I am in town. Advertising the poker club are posters promoting the chance to play with several random and most likely awful ‘live pros’ from German speaking countries. Oh and one of Sandra Naujoks.
Playing poker can really bring out the worst in people, myself included, and the players in Vienna were mostly a collection of highly unpleasant individuals. They also weren’t very good at poker.
One evening I got deeply involved in a €2/5 nl Texas Hold’em game into the early hours of the morning. The game had broken down to be played five handed. There was me, three middle aged Austrian guys and a quite tight guy who wasn’t really a factor as I mostly folded every time he entered a pot unless I had a big hand.
Playing shorthanded means you are paying the blinds more often so you have to play more hands. As people’s hand ranges open up, you get into more interesting situations where the skillful player should prevail. My online experience is mostly in 6-max games, so of course I love playing shorthanded at the casino.
I was maintaining my ideal casino persona, aggressive and mute - and had worked my stack up a little when the following hand occurred:
I have €600 in front of me and my nemesis has me covered. An Austrian businessman fish open limps and my bête noire makes it 35 from the small blind, I look down at T9 diamonds and call to take a flop in position. My nemesis is very loose and can have a wide range of hands. I prefer to see a flop rather than bloat the pot and open up the action again for him to put in a further raise. My hand flops very well. By that I mean I will likely hit the flop hard or not at all. I know if I do hit one pair that I am prepared to release the hand and move on. The limper folds.
A note about my nemesis: He clearly fancied himself in the role of table captain. Other players seemed to respect and even be in awe of him a little and he used this to his advantage. He looked remarkably like the character of Reg Hollis from long running ITV police drama The Bill, only with a lot more hair gel and gold jewellery. I could already tell he didn’t like me. We had chatted a little in English and it was apparent that the the Hugh Grant factor* wasn’t going to work on this occasion. He was highly suspicious of my story of being a tourist and stumbling into the card club.
As something of a rules nit, I'd already called the floor on two occasions to get a ruling. This had caused some annoyance amongst my opponents as they were in the main, a bunch of angleshooting scumbags.
Angleshooting is something that I detest at the poker table. I'm a big believer in ettiquette, fairness and playing within the spirit of the game. Secretly I wish I was a 19th century cricketer.
An angleshooter is someone who uses tries to use the grey areas of the rules of the game to their advantage, creating deliberately ambiguous situations that they can exploit. If they have more experience than their opponent, if they know the floorstaff, if they can intimidate their opponent, it is often possible to get away with many things.
This takes advantage of the fact there is not one universal set of rules in poker throughout the world. If they get caught there is always the smile and, 'oh sorry, I made a mistake'. The thing is, most of the time it is really small stuff, and I wonder why people even bother. It's almost as if trying to get away with small-scale cheating is part of the game itself. In my eyes, people who play poker like this are lowlife scum
-- Back to the hand --
The flop is 478 with two diamonds, giving me both a flush draw and an open ended straight draw. A huge flop for my hand.
There is 75 in the pot and ‘Austrian Reg’ leads out for 100. It is an oversized bet, far too big in fact, but I didn’t think it was any indication of the strength of his hand as he had bet on the large side several times since I had sat at the table. The problem with his betsize was that it left me with only one way to play my hand. Folding was clearly not an option and calling was not desirable as he was giving me a bad price and could well bet again on the turn and I would have to fold if I didn’t hit one of my outs. The only choice was to go all in, therefore I would get to see the turn and river for sure. It was a big all in and if ‘Austrian Reg’ has one pair (let's say his hand was Ace Seven), then he might choose to fold and I would get to pick up the pot without needing to hit my draw.
So jam it in his face and go all in for €565 and this is where the evening took an interesting turn. From this moment on Reg refused to talk to me in English and began cursing me under his breath in German. It was clear I had put him in a tough spot and I began to think perhaps he did have a big hand.
At this point I was very relaxed because I really didn't mind either way if he called or folded. I would prefer the fold, because then I pick up the pot uncontested, but I knew that if he did call I would have a tonne of outs and would probably even be a favourite to win the hand.
Eventually Reg called and flipped over two black queens and even though I had ten high, I was a slight favourite as I could hit any diamond, any jack or any six. In a cash game you don't have to turn over your hand when you are all in and on this occasion I chose to keep my hand concealed. Firstly I could muck my hand if I missed my draw to avoid giving away information and secondly if I got there, I would be able to flip up my hand and triumphantly show the winner. (Like I say, being in a casino brings out the worst in you.)
The turn was a nine, giving me even more outs and I got there on the river, flipped over my hand and scooped a sizable pot.
As someone who has played hundreds of thousands of hands online, the way this hand played out is extremely standard. However, Austrian Reg was furious.
I am familiar with the term steaming, but had not even seen someone steam as much as Reg did over the next few hours. He was angry, played with reckless aggression and verbally abused the dealers and other players. He still had the most chips at the table and I saw this as my chance to make my wages for the week and much more besides.
Greed is an ugly feeling to have, but it is one that can't be avoided if one plays poker. It is something I struggle with. Chips are used instead of actual money, but it impossible to divorce the two and if someone has a lot of chips in front of them and is playing badly, well it is a chance for you to take their money (something you should of course want to do). I now wanted to take the rest of the chips that 'Austrian Reg' had on the table and perhaps he had even more cash in his wallet. He was a man, a human being, albeit a seemingly not very nice one with too much hair gel and a penchant for gaudy gold jewellery - but at this moment I tried to think of simply the money in front of him that I could win.
I would like to believe that basically, at heart, I am a nice person - but over the next few hours I was locked into this game and there was no way I was going to leave, I tried to turn off my emotions and simply to take his money. He and the other players at the table were also trying to take my money weren't they? Right?
At this point the layout of the table was such that I was seated at one end in the 'two seat' and the four other players were seated at the other end in seats 6-9. One player decided they would like to have direct position on me and switched to the seat directly to my left. Fair enough. Another player decided they would also like to sit next to me and moved to the seat directly to my right. This made less sense, but it did have the effect of crowding me a little bit. Perhaps they were trying to intimidate me?
'Austrian Reg' took the opportunity to sit directly opposite to me, the perfect position for glaring. For the next few hours he delivered a masterclass in tilt. He entered every single pot I played, threw his cards at the dealer every time he folded and muttered under his breath about my bad play. His mannerisms became more ragged, his actions with chips more pronounced and violent. I concentrated on playing in a measured and sensible way. I managed to hit a few hands and take down some pots by making him fold on the turn or river, thus further adding to his frustration. His stack fluctuated as mine grew, and eventually the delicious sight as he reached into his wallet to reload.
The slowroll cometh
It was almost inevitable that he would get me back and so it proved to be the case. His style of playing was highly aggressive, even though he was steaming. This meant that he was going to at some point put me to some tricky decisions. I don't remember the exact details, but I do know that I overplayed my hand somewhat, he suckered me in and I went all in and he called. After the river, as I had made the last aggressive action in the hand, I turned over my cards. He was clearly waiting for this moment.
A pained expression, a furrowed brow and a shake of the head as he stares at the board. Another check of his cards and another furrow of the brow. Then the show to the guy next to him, the classic move, as if to say 'can you believe how bad I run?' But wait! The guy next to him points out that yes indeed, he does have the winning hand! How could he be so stupid, his hand is better than mine. HE HAS WON THE HAND! About thirty seconds after I show my hand, he now shows his better hand and breaks into an enormous lizard grin.
I had been slowrolled in the most epic fashion.
As Reg stacked up the chips from the pot, he took the opportunity to again speak English to me. Ah yes, the classic rubdown to finish it off. "Now we are even" he told me emphatically, "this is what you deserve." It was now my turn to glare.
It seemed with every chip he stacked, his body loosened, his tightness uncoiled and a sense of calm and control returned to his body. It was time for him to light up a cigar.
As for me? Well I was still a winner for the evening but the game was looking less enticing. It was getting late, I was getting tired and Reg was almost unstuck. Added to this, a new player took a seat in the game, he was young and seemed fresh and savvy and knew how to handle his chips.
It was time to bank my profit for the evening and bid goodnight to the Austrian scumbags.
I find myself increasingly wondering if I want to spend any more of my life sitting around a smoky table with a collection of unpleasant individuals. As online poker continues to seemingly unravel and collapse, it appears that if I'm going to continue playing, then it will be necessary for me to play more in casinos rather than have the shield of my computer screen. I'm not sure that is something I want to do, but that is a post for another day.
*The Hugh Grant Factor has served me well dealing with official people and cocktail waitresses in the USA. In a smoky Austrian cardroom it was less effective