man playing poker

One of the many things that fascinates me about poker is the clear distinction between tournament players and cash players. Anyone who’s played enough live poker, both cash and tournaments, knows how different the experiences can be.

In general, tournament players are more social and laid back. They’ll usually talk strategy at the table, engage in table talk, and discuss previous hands more often than cash players will. The game seems to bring more enjoyment to them, as the vibe and overall mood of most tournament tables are usually more positive and uplifting than that of your average cash game.

Personally, I really enjoy dealing mixed game tournaments — something I wouldn’t do until moving to Vegas many years later.

In my opinion, you’re really missing out if the only games you’re familiar with are NLHE and PLO. The mixed game community is almost like a subculture that exists within poker, and the typical mixed game player has usually been playing poker a lot longer than the typical no-limit player. This isn’t always the case, but I find it to be generally true. Don’t get me wrong, though — there is no correlation between a player’s skill level and which games they play.

Being that NLHE is such an interesting and complex game, it usually takes many years until a no-limit player will venture off into other variants of poker.

Jumping back into the present, I was about to play a $75 tournament at Spades for the first time. Andy and I had just walked into the room, which was buzzing with conversation and positive energy. There was a short-handed $1/$2 NL cash game going, but it was about to break, and most of the attention in the room was focused on the tournament.

I noticed that Andy was looking around a little too much, probably trying to spot Matt, considering he owed Andy $2k and was most certainly going to be caught off-guard.

I was expecting to see Gary, but he wasn’t anywhere in sight. In fact, I never once saw him at the club. I would later discover that he was a silent partner in Spades — I don’t know what other responsibilities he had beyond player recruitment. However, it wouldn’t be the last time that I saw him.

Players who had arrived early were already in their designated seats for the tournament, waiting for play to begin. Each table had a dealer seated in the box, protecting the out-of-play stacks that were inside the well, and a suited deck of KEM cards spread face-up across the felt.

Registration was being conducted at the podium, with Vinny checking players in and handing out seating cards. I could see that he was busy doing his job, so I decided to introduce myself to one of the dealers and pick his brain.

This was how I met Chris. He looked to be around Andy’s age, in his early 30’s, although a bit younger. I would eventually get to know him very well during my time at Spades. He was Punjabi — an ethnic group from India — and had dark skin, dark eyes, and hair that was styled into a faux-hawk. He was born and raised in New York, and spoke with a typical Long Island accent.

“What’s up bro, I’m Chris. Welcome to the game.”

“Thanks, so, can you tell me about the tournament? What’s the structure like?”

“Sure, it’s a $75 buy-in with unlimited reentries until the end of the dinner break, which is after level 6. I think we’re ordering Italian tonight. The starting stack is 15k.”

Andy chimes into the conversation — “What do the blinds start at, and how long are the levels?”

“Blinds start at 25/50 and the levels are 20 minutes.”

“Does cash run throughout the tournament?” — I could tell Andy was more interested in playing cash.

“No, we need the tables available for the tournament. Cash starts as soon as the first table breaks.”

“And how much of the tournament buy-in goes towards the prize pool?” — Andy was never shy about talking business.

“$50 goes into the prize pool, $25 goes to the house. The top 10% of the field makes the money, but deals are usually made.”

Andy and I head over to the podium to register. I introduce him to Vinny, they exchange names, and Vinny puts Andy on the text list. We hand over our buy-ins and receive our seatings cards — we drew different tables and wouldn’t be sitting together. Vinny directs us towards our seats.

“Table 1 is over in the room on the left, and Table 5 is in the room on the right. Good luck guys, your stacks are at the table.”

Andy asks me to join him in the smoking room, which is unoccupied, giving us some privacy. He lights up a cigarette.

“Hey buddy, switch seating cards with me, quick.”

“Okay, but why…?” — as we trade cards.

“Matt’s in the box at your table.”

“Hmm… What are you gonna do?”

“Make him a sweat a little bit. The best chance I have of getting paid is to make him come to the conclusion that paying me off will cost him far less than dodging me.”

“I don’t understand, what do you mean?”

“I need to remind him how valuable his reputation is, and that I have the power to destroy it. He’ll pay me when he realizes that dodging me is no longer an option.”

“What if he doesn’t have the money?”

“He probably doesn’t, in fact, that’s what I’m expecting him to say. I’ll work out a payment plan with him, if that’s the case.”

“Don’t make a scene, alright? I wanna get a dealing job here.”

“Don’t worry buddy, this isn’t my first rodeo.”

I leave the smoking room and head over to my newly acquired seat. Most of the table had already arrived. My table draw consisted primarily of players who appeared to be over 40 years old, with the exception of one guy who looked like he was in college. There was only one woman at my table, around my mother’s age, and an elderly gentleman who was very soft-spoken.

I introduce myself to the table and the dealer greets me.

“Hi, can I have your seating card, please?”

“Sure, thanks.” — I toss him the white, plastic seating card and he pushes me a stack of chips in exchange. I count the stack to ensure that it’s correct, and of course, it is. The chips were clay, Monte Carlo tournament chips. They didn’t feel cheap, and I liked how they handled.

I join in on the conversation that’s happening at the table and exchange pleasantries, getting to know my opponents. My table fills up, and it’s just about 3 PM on the dot. A couple of guys are talking about sports, others about the news.

Suddenly, I hear a tap on the plexiglass window and look over to see Vinny signaling the dealers, holding his hand up with 5 fingers stretched wide. The dealer puts the button in Seat 5, then scoops the deck up from the felt and begins to give it a scramble.

“Okay guys, the button is in Seat 5. The starting blinds are 25/50. Good luck, everyone.”

The dealer gives the deck a shuffle and the clock starts. You could see the current time left in the level by looking through the plexiglass window into the main room. They were using software called “The Tournament Director”, and the clock was being displayed on a laptop.

At the time, I had more experience in tournament poker than I did in playing cash games. I regularly played in online tournaments and did quite well. The WSOP coverage was wildly popular, and I had already been hosting tournaments at my house since I was in middle school. I felt a sense of confidence.

The first hand at my table gets dealt, which I fold. Before we even have our first flop, there’s an all-in and a call — pocket 8’s against AK. The eights hold up, and the losing player gets up from the table and walks over to the podium to reenter.

Most of the players were trying to get it in preflop and chip-up as much as they could during the reentry period. I employed a different strategy — instead, I played tight ABC poker, waiting for the right spot to either jam or call off because of the table dynamic. I knew that, eventually, I’d get it in good.

I get dealt pocket Aces in the cutoff. UTG puts in a raise, and a player in middle position 3-bets. Back in 2007, it was very popular to 3-bet more often, but most players wouldn’t 4-bet unless they had Aces, Kings, or AK. There was a popular saying back then — “The 4th bet is always Aces”. It wasn’t necessarily an absolute truth, but you get the point.

Playing ABC poker, I shove with my Aces and get snap-called by the 3-bettor holding pocket Tens. My Aces hold and the double up gets through. I pick up a few value hands throughout the next couple of levels and play them straightforward, winning several pots without having to go to showdown. The only hand I had tabled at this point was the Aces, and I wasn’t opening many hands — I had a tight image.

I win a couple more pots with marginal holdings, taking advantage of my tight image. A couple more levels go by, and the dinner break is approaching. I look down at AJ in early position, put in a raise, and get called by the chip leader at the table — the young guy who looked like he was in college. The flop comes A95 rainbow, I lead out for about 1/3 the pot, and he insta-jams on me.

I had seen this spot so many times while playing online — it was always two pair, as sets would slow play in this spot. It was a move made by players who thought that their tight opponent was incapable of folding a strong Ace on such a dry board. I know that I’m beat, and announce, “I fold”, but make sure to not muck my hand, yet. I wanted to be sure.

“Nice hand. Are pocket Jacks any good?”

“You have Jacks?”

“Yeah, you bluffed me, right?” — I expose one card, the only Jack that I have.

“I did.” — He half-smiles and exposes one card, showing a 9.

“Well played.” — and I throw my hand into the muck.

Now, I was sure.

The tournament goes on break, and I walk back into the main room where a bunch of players are waiting in line for food.

Italian had been brought in — baked ziti, chicken parm, spaghetti & meatballs, salad, and garlic knots were the available options. I get in line and serve myself chicken parm and some salad.

While eating my dinner, I look around the room and can see Andy through one of the plexiglass windows — he’s talking to one of the dealers, who is I presume to be, Matt. It’s just the two of them, and the conversation doesn’t last long. Andy walks out into the main room and joins me for some food.

“I saw that. Is that Matt?”


“Is he gonna pay you?”

“Oh yeah. I told him that I’d be here playing cash until the game breaks, and he said that he’ll give me $500 at the end of the night and $500 every week until I’m paid off.”

“Is he really gonna pay you, though?”

“I’m certain he will, I think he realizes the situation that he’s in now. But, I’ll see what happens at the end of the night.”

We talk for a bit longer, right up until the break is about to end, discussing which players we think are strong, and comparing our stacks to the rest of the field.

With a minute left on the break, we both head back to our tables. I take my seat and ask the dealer how many places are being paid.

“How many people are getting paid tonight?”

“I don’t know, yet. Vinny is still calculating the prize pool. It should only be a few more minutes until he announces the payout structure.”

At six full tables, the real poker was about to begin — no more reentries.

In that moment, there was nothing I wanted more than to cash my first real, live tournament. I felt like I had something to prove — I was the youngest person in the field, and I wanted to earn some respect from the other players. However, there was still a long way to go, none of the tables had even broken, yet.

Was I capable of escaping the inevitable cooler situations that show up during the course of a tournament? Could I manage to run good and win my flips? Would I be able to keep it together if I took a tough beat, or stay patient if my stack got short?


Chapter 1 – Fox’s Club Chapter 9 – Spades — 1.8
Chapter 2 – Spades — 1.1 Chapter 10 – Spades — 1.9
Chapter 3 – Spades — 1.2 Chapter 11 – Spades — 1.10
Chapter 4 – Spades — 1.3 Chapter 12 – Spades — 1.11
Chapter 5 – Spades — 1.4 Chapter 13 – Bell Boulevard — 1.1
Chapter 6 – Spades — 1.5 Chapter 14 – Bell Boulevard — 1.2
Chapter 7 – Spades — 1.6 Chapter 15 – Bell Boulevard — 1.3
Chapter 8 – Spades — 1.7 Chapter 16 – Bell Boulevard — 1.4