Poker Faces

Looking for a painless way to lose your shirt? Head down to the Canterbury Card Club, where bad luck comes in spades, some lucky schmo is always raking in all the chips, and even if you win the house takes its cut.

The image is a conscious part of Smith's poker game. Some days he wears a loud tie-dyed T-shirt, others a plaid, floppy hat. "I try to present myself like I'm a loose player, like I'm there to gamble," he explains. "I play really tight. I try to play a really solid game. But I want to present an image that I don't."

Basically the game of poker is about putting together five winning cards. At minimum, a player wants to have a pair--two jacks, for example. The best possible hand is a royal flush: a ten, jack, queen, king, and ace all of the same suit. You could spend a lifetime playing poker and never see a royal flush. So more often players are gunning for a straight (five consecutive cards) or a flush (five cards of the same suit) or, even better, a full house (three of one card and two of another).

Texas Hold 'Em is a deceptively simple version of poker. At Canterbury the game begins when each one of the up to nine players is dealt two cards face down. Then a round of betting takes place. At this point players are hoping for high cards (aces or kings), a pair, two consecutive cards (a nine and ten, for example), or two cards of the same suit (increasing the possibility of landing a flush). Experienced players will consider not only the two cards in their hand, but also their position at the table, and how other players are betting. Initially the minimum bet at a $2-$4 table is 2 bucks. In a $3-$6 game, 3 bucks. And so on, all the way up to the $15-$30 tables. Players can raise the bet up to four times in each round of wagering, so in a $2-$4 game it can cost up to 10 bucks to stay in the game after the first two cards are dealt. Otherwise a player folds.

After the first round of betting, the dealer turns over three shared cards faceup in the middle of the table. This is known as "the flop." The flop is often where a hand of Texas Hold 'Em is won or lost. Players now know the value and suit of five out of the seven cards they will ultimately see during the hand. If a player does not have at least a pair at this point, his odds of winning are minute. "If you're going to venture beyond the flop, you better have made something," Smith explains.

Following the flop another round of betting takes place. Then a fourth communal card is flipped. This is "the turn" and is followed by yet another round of wagering. At this point the minimum bet doubles: In $2-$4 Texas Hold 'Em, it is now four bucks. After the turn there are usually only two or three players remaining in the hand. The others have folded because they don't believe they can win.

Now a fifth and final shared card is flipped over, dubbed "the river." A final round of betting ensues. Then the players reveal their two hidden cards and whoever has the best five-card hand wins the pot (a player's hand can consist of any combination of the five communal cards and the two individual cards). All of this transpires in no more than three minutes, but for the player a hand can seem like an eternity. Years after memorable hands, many players can recall the exact cards that came on the flop, the turn, and the river.

Smith doesn't have to think about these basic rules any more than he does his own breathing. He's busy sizing up the competition at the nine-person table. Three seats to his right is a ponytail-wearing guy who talks too much and conspicuously mentions that he's been playing for 18 hours. Across the table from him sits a stoop-shouldered man, dressed in suspenders and a baseball cap, grimly whiling away his golden years. When the old man bets, you can be sure he's not bluffing. Right next to Smith is a scrawny twentysomething. His baseball cap is pulled down tight over his pointy head and he's steadily drinking bottles of Michelob Golden Draft.

The first two cards Smith sees are an ace-three off suit. Simply put, an "off suit" is any two cards that are not of the same suit. Most people at a $2-$4 table will bet any ace, any time. After all, it's the highest card in a deck. As a rule the betting is much looser at lower-stakes games. Most players, perhaps seven out of nine, will stay in the hand to see what cards come on the flop. Smith tosses in two bucks. But when the ponytailed player raises the pre-flop bet to $4, Smith folds; figuring the guy must be holding a high pair or an ace-king. "What? It was good enough for two but not for four?" Smith's opponent chides. "It was marginal," Smith mutters.

The kid wins the hand with a full house-- three sevens and two aces. Smith would have lost if he'd stayed in. The ponytail asks Smith what he was holding. "King-two," Smith fibs, not wanting the guy to think he is too cautious. Then the ponytail announces he had a pair of fours. "Now I know that guy will raise to $4 with a pair of fours," Smith snorts under his breath. "A pair of fours ain't shit."

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