In a recent tournament, I was having a good run. Near the end of the day, I was the chip leader. A few last-minute mistakes calling the short stacks set me back to about 10th place out of 500, but I was still feeling pretty good. I felt like God was showing me favor and I was really having a great time.
When we took our seats for day 2, I was pleased to see that I was the chip leader at the table. Nobody else was even close.
Just before the first hand was dealt, a new player sat down at the table. He had purchased the very last buy-in. His stack was six times smaller than mine, so if it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have even paid attention. The only problem was this player was one of my best friends. He was also one of the most aggressive players in the field. And bummer, he just sat down to my left.
His stack was so short that I really didn't need to worry about him. But I did. I worried that he would interrupt my steals. I worried that he would make plays on my pot. I didn't want to get into battles with a player whose style I knew was very similar to mine. And truthfully, I didn't want to take my friend's money. He wasn't just a poker friend; he was a good friend that I liked hanging out with.
I called him over for a conversation that went something like this: "Let's soft play each other. No need to take each other's chips." He replied, "You know me, Jim; I always play different with my friends." I thought for a minute. His response was almost evasive – really not the kind of answer I was looking for. I wanted something more affirmative, so I pushed on, thinking that perhaps I just needed to be more specific. "If we do get into pots together, let's just keep it small. No big bets. No need to get crazy." Again, my friend didn’t give me a straight answer. Huh. Being persistent and all, I continued. "You know if I go all in it means I've got the nuts, right? No need to bluff each other." He nodded vaguely.
As it turned out, his frustrating evasiveness was well-founded. He had already learned this "Poker Lesson from God" that I was about to learn the hard way.
Four hours later, I had not had a hand. I had bluffed a few good-sized pots and slightly built my stack, but I knew it wasn't going to be enough to keep me at the front of the pack. Players at other tables would be moving ahead. But then it happened.
I got into a hand with my buddy. He put out a starting bet and everyone folded around to my big blind. I had pocket kings. It was my first large pair in four hours. I decided to give him a signal so he would know I had a monster. I made an oversized bet.
And… what the hell? He called.
What was he thinking? I was stunned. At first I thought he must have had a really great hand. The flop was KQ2. I was going to win this hand. No brainer. But what could I do to let him know? My last attempt to warn him had apparently gone unnoticed. Unless… Maybe he had perceived the warning but still thought he could beat me? Fearing that he might go crazy betting with AQ , KQ, or AK, I decided the best thing to do was check. I would keep the pot low and try to protect him. It worked. He checked.
The next card made the hand more interesting. It was a 10. That set up a flush draw and a straight draw on the board. I had to get him out of the pot. I put out another oversized bet to let him know. He folded, but it got me thinking. What did he have to call my first bet? He probably had 67 suited or a low pair or something that he was planning on busting me with. He was just playing his normal game. But it angered me. Didn't we make a deal? He wasn't playing soft. He was trying to bust me.
Four hands later we got in a hand together. I put out a small raise with AQ. He was on the button and was the only caller. The board produced nothing for me or him. I checked and he checked. The next two cards were nothing cards. I knew he didn’t have anything, and he knew I didn’t either. I checked, figuring we would both throw over our unmatched cards and I would take down the small pot. But he put out a sizable raise. I knew he was bluffing, and it infuriated me. I could have called, or even come over the top of any normal player, but this was my good friend.
What the heck? His stack was short, so I let it go.
Now God had me right where he wanted me. It was lesson time. The next four hands would eliminate me from the tournament. God doesn't like cheating, and he was going to show me in a way that I would never forget.
Check out these articles about God's lesson plan for Poker.
A big pot had built up pre-flop. There were four of us betting it up. I had KQ. The flop came 8QQ. My friend was the first to bet. He checked, then another checked, and then "YES," the next player put out an oversized bet. Perfect. This was now a large pot. I was going to take this thing down! I put out 40% of my chips.
My friend, who now had a larger stack than me, announced a raise. What? Was he crazy? One of us was going home if I played this hand. The other two players folded. I tanked. The collusion was totally messing with my mind, and the consequences of my actions were upon me. I was probably ahead. At first I was thinking, "Don't break the agreement. He must have the nuts with Q8." But the card player in me was saying, "Nail this guy to the wall. All he has is a Q." And then the other side of me was arguing, "His friendship is more important than this hand."
I laid down my hand. As if to show me he had the nuts he showed a Q. I never asked him if he had an 8. I knew he didn't. I had just given up the best hand. Sure, he could have paired up. He might have had AQ, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that by trying to cheat, I had put myself in a situation that was now coming back to haunt me. But I still wasn’t getting it.
If I had been smart and learned the lesson, I would have called him to the side and called the thing off. Instead, I did nothing. I sulked. Sometimes I'm a slow learner. With that being the case, God was going to use the next three hands to drive the point home.
One of the short stacks in first position announced all in. It was an obvious attempt to take a 50/50 shot at a pot. I was on the small blind with KT. I call. He flipped over K9. I was still patting myself on the back when he rivered a straight.
On the next hand before break, the first position made an over-zealous play for the blinds. I should have known better. I had AQ suited in the big blind. I called without thinking. The problem was that he had a lot of chips. I thought he was short-stacked until he spread out his blue chips.
When he turned over his hand I was pleasantly surprised to see K3 off-suit. The flop produced a Q. I was way ahead. A three hit the turn. And of course, a King on the river.
After they matched all my chips I had about one blind left and a 15-minute break. I think you know how that feels.
I wasn't even going to return from the break, but after venting to a friend, I changed my mind. There were 5 minutes remaining by then, so I I went to a corner of the casino, turned my back on everyone, and said a prayer. Whenever I ask God to give me a hand, I usually get knocked out. I don't think he likes my desperation prayers. At least not for cards. But I thought, maybe this one time.
I returned to the table. I knew there was some kind of lesson plan here, but at the moment I still wasn’t sure what it was. In my mind, making a deal with a friend to soft play in a tournament was acceptable. Most players would do it in a heartbeat, so I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. The fact was, I had done this hundreds of times with friends I had staked. I had even told the other players at the table that I had staked my friend and wouldn’t knock him out.
The next hand I picked up was A9. That's a pretty good hand to go all in with just one blind left. But it ran into pocket QQ’s and I was heading home.
I normally don't stomp off when I lose, unless the percentages are way out of whack or I was playing like a donkey. But there are times when I just know that God is trying to make a point, and for some reason that always ticks me off. I know he doesn't care if I win a few thousand here or there. He cares about my character. But still…
When I got home, I vented to my incredibly intelligent wife, who put is so tenderly and said, "You were cheating." She was right. What might be acceptable among poker players was not acceptable to God. He wants me to have an impeccable character and witness. Cheating doesn’t fit in with that.
If I don't want to take my friend's chips or be as competitive with him, that's my right. God doesn't mind that. But when I verbalize and make an agreement, it''s cheating.