The Scene: A smoke-filled room in a downtown Manhattan poker club called the Mayfair. Sitting at a felt-topped table, I am trying to best nine strangers at seven-card stud. But I'm playing as sloppily as an inebriated teenager, and my skyscrapers of chips are being reduced to shabby hovels. My opponents - including a grandmotherly woman with a killer knack for figuring odds, a high-strung Chinese guy who flips his chips into the pot as if he were making a pregame coin toss, and a pale, bookish dude with a Yeshiva University logo on his T-shirt - are having a good night at my expense. Tossing away another failed hand, I recall an old poker proverb: "If you can't recognize the biggest sucker at the table, then you are it." Disconcertingly, there's not a sucker in sight.
Minutes before midnight, a playable hand slowly forms before me. I start out with pocket sevens (two sevens, face down) and a six showing. Bookish Dude bets $5 with his king on board (that is, with the king showing). I pay for another card: It's a six, which improves my hand twofold. I bet into him, he raises, and I see the raise. Everybody folds except for Dude, myself, and two others. My fifth card is a seven, giving me a full house, so I raise Bookish Dude. He raises back with a pair of kings showing. I raise again. The other two players fold.
I look at Dude's kings and ponder the situation: What can he be betting with? Two pairs? He hasn't a clue that I'm sitting here with a full house. I've nailed him. We keep raising into each other, and I have a grand old time schooling this rube in things they don't teach you at Yeshiva. After the seventh card has been dealt, the betting ends. More than $100 rests in the pot.
We're about to show our cards when Grandma looks at Bookish Dude and asks sweetly, "Kings full, right?"
Say what? Full house with kings? Players around the table nod in agreement. She's right: He shows his cards, soundly beating my hand. As Dude rakes in a pile of my chips, a suit-and-tie next to me remarks, "I saw him fill up, and I knew you were in trouble. I folded with a flush."
Why didn't I see it coming?
Meeting the Master
Two months later, I grab a seat at a Binion's Horseshoe poker table in downtown Las Vegas. Across from me is Tom McEvoy, a legendary pro whose photo hangs in the Horseshoe's gallery of World Series of Poker champions: He won the Series in 1983, taking in $540,000. The author of four books on the game, McEvoy is a former accountant who ditched number crunching for the life of a Vegas card shark. When he's not trumping the high rollers at the $30-and-$60 tables, McEvoy gives one-on-one lessons to intermediate players intent on taking their game to the next level.
Recalling my dismal night at the Mayfair, I complain that I felt as if I'd been mugged. "You were outplayed," corrects McEvoy, a gray-haired guy with a boyish face that masks a predator's patience - and an executioner's timing. "On Third Street [when three cards have been dealt], if a player has a pair, there's always a two-thirds chance that his window card [the card showing] will be one of them. That's simple mathematics. When the guy made his first bet with a king window card, you should have assumed that he had a pair of kings, and you should have folded your sixes."
"How did everyone know he had kings full?" I ask.
"When a guy with a big pair showing raises back at your low pair, you've got to assume that he has a serious hand. Sure, you had a full house. But having the second-best full house is no different from having a pair of deuces: Either way, you lose."
So begins the education of a poker player. I'm a passable player in kitchen-table games with friends. But I've come to Vegas to see whether McEvoy can coach me into beating strangers at casinos and clubs.
McEvoy wants to see me in action. We each take out $40 in chips and sit down alongside each other in a $1-and-$5 game (in which there is no ante and the low card makes an initial $1 bet). The Horseshoe, long popular among in-the-know gamblers, holds the annual World Series of Poker and is one of the last casinos in Vegas without a ceiling on betting. But it's mid-afternoon on a Thursday, and the crew at this table is downright motley. "None of these guys is any good," McEvoy assures me.
As soon as we sit down, a Tony Bennett look-alike spots the World Series-champion bracelet on McEvoy's wrist. "What are you doing in a $1-and-$5 game?" asks the look-alike.
"I have my reasons," McEvoy grumbles, as he looks over a hand with zero potential.
At the head of the oval table sits a muscular fellow, wearing a gimme cap, his face split by a wise-guy grin. Caught in a hand with this guy, McEvoy turns to me and remarks, "He looks like he's been playing for about 36 hours straight." The implication is that Wiseguy is too tired to think clearly — and ripe for filleting. McEvoy goes to work on him. With two medium-sized pairs against Wiseguy's king-high showing, McEvoy makes a string of modest bets — just to keep the guy in. Right before the two players show their cards, McEvoy correctly reads aloud his opponent's hand: two kings.
Later McEvoy explains: "The guy limped in on the opening bet, and then drew a king and raised me. I knew he wouldn't raise me unless he had two kings." If Wiseguy had pulled anything bigger, he would have continued raising during the last rounds of betting — but he didn't. McEvoy continues: "The way he played that hand, he might as well have pasted the hidden king on his forehead."
McEvoy's analysis matches his creed — which is to read: Read your cards, read the other players' cards, and read what the other players are reading into your cards.
In my case, when an ordinary pair of pocket sixes turns into three sixes on Fifth Street, I try to decipher the other players' cards: No one is showing a strong hand. Also, they probably think that I've got a weak hand. McEvoy would want me to protect my triplets, in case someone with weaker cards backs into a straight or a flush. I pitch a $5 chip into the center of the table - and promptly scare everyone off. Four losing players shut down faster than a beach house in a September squall.
What happened? Wasn't I protecting my hand? Um, maybe a bit too much. "That was terrible," McEvoy scolds. "You should have played it slow, betting $2 and bringing some money into the game. Nobody had anything. You don't bet people out unless they're a threat to you."
As I collect a piddling $6 pot, I come to an invaluable realization: Even if you have the best hand on the table, you don't have to bet that way.
A few minutes past midnight, I'm back at the $1-and-$5 game, playing solo to test the day's lessons. Early on, I draw two pairs that grow into a full house. Remembering McEvoy's rebuke after I overbet with triple sixes, I go easy until Sixth Street. A couple of other players misread my modest betting. After they throw in $5 chips on the last card, I reveal my superior hand. They can't believe that I didn't bet more aggressively when I filled up. I can't quite believe it myself.
Later, with three clubs showing and my table credibility high, I bet heavily, driving out everybody except a blond guy wearing a collarless shirt. He sips his drink and throws in his bet. He doesn't raise me. He's making the same mistake that I made at the Mayfair, I think to myself. He's got good cards showing but no hand. And he won't go out. When my fourth card on board is a club, I resolve to make him fold. I bet as if I've got a flush - even though I've been dealt a pair of pocket eights. Blondie crooks his head and folds his pair of kings; had he known better, he would have beaten my hand. "Guy," he says, "you don't bet unless you have something." But the fact is, I had nothing.
I rake in the chips, sensing that I've made a giant leap over the course of the day. A game that always seemed obscure, like a grainy kinetoscope, is suddenly unfolding in vibrant Technicolor. At 3 a.m., ahead by $50 for the day, I decide to test my mettle tomorrow at a $5-and-$10 table.
Money in the Pot
Eight hours later, over plates of scram-bled eggs at the Horseshoe coffee shop, I tell McEvoy that I want to up the stakes. He's pleased, but he offers a sobering caveat when I mention that I've never played for this kind of money: If $5-and-$10 makes me queasy, stick with $1-and-$5. "Some people don't play to win — they play not to lose," he says. "Do that, and you're dead. Everyone at the table will sense your weakness. If you're so attached to money that you can't throw it in the pot, don't gamble."
When I tell him I'm in, McEvoy gets down to business. "The ante structure of $5-and-$10 changes everything," he begins, "so you have to play aggressively on the first three cards." Unlike the lower-stakes game (which has no ante), $5-and-$10 requires a 50-cent ante. While 50 cents doesn't sound like much, pitching in a half-dollar per hand can have a debilitating effect on anyone who insists on waiting for premium cards. "It can easily cost you $25 an hour to sit there and look at cards," McEvoy says. "And when you finally do catch some cards, you won't get any action, because you've been playing so tight."
By 1 p.m., we're in the poker room of the MGM Grand, sitting together at a $5-and-$10 game. McEvoy notices that I'm taking notes after going out on hands, and he gives me a verbal jab. "Watch the players and learn their styles," he admonishes. I partly comply, and his advice quickly pays off: I notice that a bulldog-faced guy with a thinning gray comb — over frequently bets big but then usually folds after another player raises into him for a couple of rounds. With a pair of jacks showing, I bet hard against Bulldog's flush in the making, falsely signaling that I'm holding more than jacks. Bulldog looks at my cards. He thinks. He folds. I rake in the chips, and McEvoy smiles approvingly.
At 5:30 p.m., McEvoy and I take a break from the game and retire to the adjacent Keno lounge for a postmortem. Despite the day's ups and downs, I'm now ahead by a little bit. (After two full days of play, I'll wind up $100 for the better.) More important, much of the game's mystery has evaporated: Even when players unveil better hands than I've anticipated, the cards don't come as a complete shock. "You play a patient, controlled game," McEvoy tells me. Indeed, McEvoy himself typically brings just two hands per hour to the final round of betting. Clearly, he has converted me to his style of play.
"On the downside, though, when you do bet, I can put you on a specific hand," he says. "You need to be deceptive occasionally, to put in bets when you really shouldn't."
Overall, McEvoy seems pleased with the degree to which I've absorbed his teachings. He heads off to dinner, and I return to the $5-and-$10 game, confident that I can keep things under control. For the next 20 minutes, I stay away from bad hands. I bide my time. Then I make a flush. I slow-play Bulldog to keep him in the game. He seems to have closed a straight and is leading the betting, not suspecting that I have a superior hand. At this moment, I realize that there most definitely is a sucker at the table - and this time, it's not me.
Coordinates: $32 for a double room in the older section of the hotel; $45 to $60 for a double room in the new tower. (The author recommends the new tower.) Binion's Horseshoe Hotel and Casino, 800-622-6468
Michael Kaplan (email@example.com),a frequent contributor to Fast Company, also writes for SmartMoney and GQ.