Lee Jones: Cash games have their hero's journey, too

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: October 28, 2023 10:12 PDT

Tournaments are poker's golden goose

I love poker, but I am exclusively a cash player. I couldn't tell you the last time I played a poker tournament – if it turned out to be a decade ago, I wouldn't be shocked.

That said, I understand that tournaments make the poker world go 'round. I get that poker tournaments were largely responsible for paying my freight when I worked for PokerStars. And by far the most fun I ever had in any job – it wasn't close – was the two years I spent working for John Duthie on the European Poker Tour. But I was a hired hand, not one of the heroes that Sarah Herring was interviewing.

So I fully understand the allure of tournaments, both to the players and the operators. For the players, there's a chance to take some fixed amount of money – call it $X – and add a zero or two to it. In the absolute edge cases (e.g. the WSOP Main Event) you can add three zeroes to your buy-in. It's a lottery with a skill component, and everybody loves that.

The operators like tournaments because the players love them, and attend them in droves. But also because there's a story arc. There's a beginning, middle, and climactic end, with a made-for-TV finale. Giant piles of money, an ecstatic winner, photographed sitting in the middle of that money, surrounded by family and friends. There are the interviews with the also-rans, the human interest stories, and the dark horse novice who almost made it (or, in 2003, the dark horse novice who won the whole damn thing).

This arc, and the stories surrounding it, creates buzz and interest. Media people come to cover it, which generates more buzz, more players, more media interest... you get the idea.

Meanwhile, in a poker room far far away...

Far from the lights, the buzz, and the media microphones, over in the corner of the room, or maybe in a different building altogether, the cash games continue. Tiffany Michelle is definitely not in this room (I mean, unless she gets a break from her Real Official Duties).

Players come, players go. Money is won, money is lost. But there's no turned set of jacks propelling a single player to poker immortality. No hero's journey.

Or is there?

I got to thinking about that as I listened to a particular Only Friends podcast, hosted by high-stakes legend Matt Berkey and friends. Matt recounted, in glorious detail, a 22-hour session in which he got way ahead, then buried, and then – through an improbable series of events – got unburied, and ultimately piles ahead.

Tell me that's not a heroic journey.

Anybody who has played an absurdly long cash session can empathize. And we could all further empathize with Matt when he said, "Very very rarely does [a nearly around-the-clock session] end well."

Few of us swing at the absolute amplitude of Berkey's ups and downs, but within the context of whatever game we're playing, the emotions are the same. We use the same vocabulary – "up heaps," "buried," "down infinite," "breaking the game." Whether the actual number has one or five zeroes, the size of the game dictates the meaning of each term.

Staying the course, or not

If you're playing in a tournament, the length of the path is decided for you. You get on at the beginning (or, in these days of "max late reg," somewhere in the middle) and go until you have all the chips, or zero chips. There is no in-between (satellite players, shush).

We cash players must decide, before every deal, if we're taking the next hand. If our table breaks, do we move to the combined table or go home? Once we get buried, we can go home and lick our wounds. Or we can jettison good sense and real world responsibilities, and claw our way out of the hole. Unless we dig it deeper.

Have you ever run roughshod over a game, then realized that you had a frightening percentage of your bankroll on the table, and run for the cage? I have.

Have you ever crossed Mike Caro's infamous Threshold of Misery, where you are numb to the difference between losing $Y and "five times $Y"? I have.

Have you ever dug yourself out of a seemingly bottomless hole, and somehow booked a tiny win, and then thought you were the world's best poker player? I have.

These arcs, and dozens of others, combine as fractals to form the narrative of every cash session we play. On occasion, the story – at least to the protagonist – is every bit as compelling as those told by the commentators on the WPT and NAPT.

In a poker career spanning 35-plus years, I've had dozens of such memorable sessions. But there was this one night/morning...

Above the Terrace Chippy

This must have been 2006-ish. I was living on the Isle of Man, and was a regular in a home game that included both PokerStars employees (mostly Americans) and locals. Nearly a score of years later, I could probably walk you to the room where the game was held, simply by following the smells of the Terrace Chippy in Woodbourne Road.

It was dealer's choice, and we played a mix of games – most of them PLO variants. When you've been looking at four or five cards all evening, no-limit hold'em seems like the most boring poker game on earth. I was usually a winner in that game, but on this particular evening, I was losing to every single person at the table.

The hour got late, then the hour got early. One by one, players left, usually ahead for the night, usually thanks to me. I was "stuck infinite." Then, in the darkest hour before dawn, I managed to win one big pot and bust one player of only three of us remaining. I was still buried, but perhaps I had crossed back north of Caro's Threshold of Misery. This is tactically vital, as it means that you start to actually care about your results – when you can see light at the end of the tunnel, you will crawl over broken glass to reach it.

That third player left, and there were three of us left in the room: myself, the game host, and his cousin, the dealer.

"Do you two wanna keep playing?"

I struggled. I was far less stuck than I'd been earlier, but I was still down a painful amount.

"I'm okay either way – whatever you guys want."

"Deal the cards," said the host.

Homes in the Isle of Man don't have coffee pots – they have tea kettles. There might be a jar of instant coffee in the cupboard, but let's be serious. I would have to do this on sheer willpower.

We continued for perhaps an hour more, and I slowly, methodically, made my recovery. The last hand... I know that it wasn't yet full light in the room. We were playing 5-card PLO, and I'm guessing a raise went in preflop, because it wasn't in the host's DNA to see a flop for one big blind. What I do remember clearly is seeing a flop of Q-4-4, and, through my bleary eyes, checking twice to be sure that two of my five cards were queens.

Somehow we got a couple of bets in on the flop, and I knew that the host had a Real Hand. Once he had a real hand, folding ceased to be part of his plan. The turn was an ace, and we got all the money in with a couple of "pot" bets. As I pushed my chips forward, I was pretty sure this was the last hand of the game, either way. Certainly if he had 44 or AA, I was going home, and would spend the next month trying to recoup the night's losses. If I won – well, it would be up to him.

"On their backs, gentlemen," said the dealer. It was customary in this game to reveal your hand when you were all-in.

My host had A4xxx, fours full of aces. He needed the case four, or an ace, to win the pot.

"One time," he said. He was never a man to reject a good gamble.

I don't remember the river card, which means it wasn't an ace or a four. Not only was I unstuck, but I had a respectable, if modest, win for a session.

"Right. Clearly your luck has changed – I'm done with you." The host, always gracious, win or lose, shook my hand, and the dealer started cashing us out.

Roseate dawn floated over the Irish Sea as I made my way down Derby Road toward Broadway and the Prom. I recalled that a couple of restaurants toward the Sea Terminal served breakfast early, for the passengers waiting to board the ferry to Liverpool. I turned my car south down the Prom.

Neil Howard

Joe Giron will never take a picture of me surrounded by piles of hundred-dollar bills. PokerOrg won't be writing an article about my mid-six-figure win. But Matt Berkey, I loved your story of smashing the Bobby's Room game, getting smashed, but then struggling back even, and smashing it again, all in one 22-hour marathon. I felt the highs and the lows. I've been there, and even if the cameras aren't on us, we can be heroes. Just for one day.