Thursday, February 14, 2008

It's only logical

One of the anticipated highlights of our Paris trip was a visit to the Aviation Club de France, a relatively new card room on the Champs Elysees which is part of the World Poker Tour on TV and boasts of having "the best cash games in Europe." Okeydoke, I don't know how to say deal me in in French, but deal me in.

So on the Friday that we were in town, after spending most of the morning and afternoon at the Louvre (that's it in the picture above), we walked the rest of the way up the Right Bank (listen to me) and after asking directions a couple of times found the place.

It was just a single door front, no big glitzy casino neon, and a single doorman/bouncer/guard. He allowed us in and we walked up a flight of carpeted stairs to find a guy in a suit sitting at a desk at the front of a hallway, with the den of iniquity apparently hidden (quietly) somewhere behind him. The Bellagio this wasn't.

When we inquired about playing poker the desk dude asked if we had passports. Mine was in my day pack, no sweat, but Michelle had left hers back at the hotel. I'm sorry, he said, without a passport you can't play here.

Michelle asked if she could just watch while I played for a little while.

No, the man said, with a sarcastic (I thought) Frenchy smile. "If you need zee passport to enter zee casino then of course I cannot allow you into zee casino to watch without zee passport. It is only logical."

"Yeah," I said to Michelle, using the double-reverse head-fake mock tone that I knew she would recognize but that he wouldn't, "It's only logical."

Dumbass Frenchman smiled in my direction as if to say: Women, what're ya gonna do.

So, although we were tired from our long walk and Michelle was catching a cold and wanted to sit down, we seemed out of options. We thanked Frenchy for his time and walked back outside. On the sidewalk Michelle suggested that I go back in and play for a few hours. She could take the Metro back to the hotel, she said, and I could meet her back there later. Good girlfriend.

When I walked back upstairs the guy gave me a knowing smile. "Ah, you're back," he said. "Maybe madame will return later."

Yeah, I thought, and maybe she'll kick your sorry logical ass for you. But I dutifully handed over my passport, filled out a little form and waited to be escorted down the secret hallway to the poker action.

Frenchy came around the desk, looked me over and stopped dead in his tracks. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't notice. We're going to have to find you some shoes. It is a house rule."

I had already checked to make sure this wasn't some kind of 007, tuxedos-only joint, and nobody had said anything about my casual (but neat and clean) travel attire. Now, though, my trusty REI hiking boots were a problem.

"Do not worry," Frenchy continued, "we can take care of you."

He walked me into a tiny coat closet, invited me to hang up my rain jacket and backpack, and suggested that I pick out some dress shoes from the back of the closet. What difference my footwear could possibly make -- in a few minutes it would be invisible under the poker table -- I couldn't imagine, but whatever. When in Paris.

Maybe now you're picturing a neat row of nice, shiny oxfords and loafers to choose from. Nopey, not quite. Instead, on the floor, under the hanging overcoats and rain gear was a medium-size pile of beat-up street shoes -- a helter-skelter leather pyramid -- that looked like it might have come from the Goodwill, or Dachau.

None of the shoes were in pairs, and none had laces. "We don't want you to 'forget' and walk back to your hotel in our shoes," the coat-check man explained.

I tried on a dozen shoes and finally found one that was only a half-size too small, then spent several more minutes looking for its mate. Finally I emerged from the closet, two scuffed, dusty, pinching, laceless "dress shoes" on my feet, wondering how this look conceivably could be more presentable than my nice $250 hikers. I did not see the logic. But OK, another hurdle cleared.

Now I was escorted back to the poker area, which consisted of about 10 or 12 tables spread among two small parlor rooms and a connecting hallway, but with games in progress at only four of them. I asked the host what limits were being spread -- what was the size of the games being offered -- and he informed me that they didn't play any structured-limit games like the ones Michelle and I usually play. The only options were no-limit games -- the stuff of old Western movies and big-money tournaments like the World Series of Poker -- with minimum buy-ins of either 50 or 100 euros, about $80 to $160.

There was a long waiting list, he said, but he'd be happy to put me on the board. He wrote down "MM (UK)" -- close enough; whatever the actual nationality, I was the English-speaking foreigner with the loaners on my feet.

Now I saw that there were literally 30 people ahead of me on the board and for the first time noticed all the men (only two women in the whole club) standing around waiting to get into a game. Why they didn't start two or three new games, like they'd do here at the Muck or in any other card room I've visited, I couldn't guess. It was going to be a long wait, and if I hadn't been tired from our day of walking and museum-touring, I might have bailed right then.

Eventually, about an hour later, I got a seat in the bigger of the two games, the 100-e minimum buy-in with blinds of e5 and e10.

Now, no-limit hold 'em, despite being the king of poker, really isn't my game. I've logged thousands more hours in small- to medium-stakes limit games, and I feel like the rhythms, betting patterns and mathematical calculations of those structured games have become second nature to me. I sometimes lose and I sometimes make a mistake, but I think I always know the best play, or can figure it out if I take a minute. My experience in no-limit is much narrower. I've played it in tournaments but only once or twice in a live game like this, and with much less confidence than I'd normally have.

Still, I'd been watching as I was waiting and I could see that this game was soft. Nobody was raising, especially before the flop, and too many players were playing too many hands. They may have been splendidly shod, but they were making beaucoup mathematical and strategic errors that even I could see from the rail.

I decided to buy in for the minimum 100 euros and see what developed. This, I knew, was not a good game plan. Since the game had been going a while several players had much more money than that in front of them; in a no-limit game you don't want to be short-stacked against an opponent, who can use that advantage to push you out of pots. Smart no-limit players buy in for as much as they need to match the big stacks at the table. But Europe's expensive with the weak dollar right now and I didn't come here to win or lose a fortune. I just wanted to experience some Paris-style poker and have some fun. If I caught some cards and won a little money, great. If I lost my e100, so be it; my bankroll would live to fight another day.

On the second hand I was dealt, what do you know: pocket aces!

It was only now that I realized, hey, everyone's speaking French, which I don't understand, and no one, including the dealer, seems to understand any English.

"Raise," I said -- what the hell, it's an American game -- and I made it e30 to go. What? A raise? This seemed to break the friendly vibe. I heard a lot of under-their-breath French muttering and half expected to be marched back to the coat closet. But two players called, and one -- a young sunglasses-wearing guy of a poker type I'd recognize in any language -- stared at me, hard.

They have no idea what I'm up to, I thought. I'm a crazy foreigner, and I could have any two cards.

The flop brought an ace to give me three of a kind, beautiful, and no apparent flush or straight draws. I bet out, about a third of the pot, inviting callers. Only the starer called. The turn paired the board, giving me a full house. Now I was truly golden, unless the other guy held exactly 7-7 for quads. I checked and he checked behind me. On the river, a blank, I bet most but not all of my remaining chips, he called, and I scooped a nice pot to about double my chip stack.

The Frenchies muttered some more. "Nothing to it," I said in loud, annoying English. I thought maybe I'd put them all on Froggy tilt and walk out with all their euros.

For the next hour I didn't see any decent cards and didn't play a hand, but I kept up my chatter, just to make it seem like I was part of the game and to see if I could provoke any reactions. If nothing else, I thought, I'll remind these guys that Texas hold 'em is an American (not French or even UK) game, and maybe lay some universal poker expressions on them.

When one guy made his straight draw on the end but didn't bet, unsuccessfully trying for a check-raise against a wise or gun-shy opponent, I gave him my standard needle: "Whassamatter man, you don't like money? Bet your own damn hands!"

Another guy in another pot checked, hoping for a free card, but ran into a big bet. "Check your hat!" I said. "Cash money!"

This was entertaining to no one but me, but I didn't care. I was money ahead, playing poker in Paris and except for my feet about as comfy as I could be.

Finally I got another hand to play, ace-king, and raised to my standard 30 euros. This time several players called, and although I caught a king on the flop sunglasses kid caught two running cards to make a straight, and I was back down to less than my original buy-in.

A few hands later I had pocket 8s, raised all in and was called by one player with pocket 5s. He caught a 5 on the river and I was out of chips.

In some circumstances I might have bought in again -- I still liked my chances in this game -- but I'd lost what I had budgeted and had some fun along the way. Good time to head back across the river and find Michelle, I figured. It was only logical.


Michelle said...

Flippin frenchies. :)

mich said...

What a fantastic travel story. You're such a good writer, Mark.

freda said...

it is a great story, but I don't speak "poker" so now I really need an interpreter, love it.

kateco said...

what a pleasure. bodes well for the book about xxxxxx.

"Whassamatter man, you don't like money?..." har!

Rita said...

Mich's comment says it all!

Remember me when the book is published.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark & Michelle: So I spent a lazy post-Oscars-live-blogging night chilling out and catching up on the "M&M" show, and laughing my ass off frequently. It's all great stuff, and just what I needed.

I realize that this is way late to be commenting on this particular post, but I wanted to leave something related to the great European vacation (awesome photos, by the way).

I still haven't taken my butt across the Atlantic, even though I thought the proximity of being an East Coaster would help (then the dollar became the peso...bad timing). So, oddly enough, it took moving to D.C. to get to the Grand Canyon for the first time, even though I grew up on the West Coast and LIVED IN TEMPE FOR TWO YEARS! Something is wrong with me. But...

At least I'm not French!

So thanks for all the stories. I'll be a regular visitor here, for sure (I went into mourning after the Team Mark blog-fest came to a close).

Now, to protect my movie-geek reputation, the two of you might get a kick out of this 2000 Roger Ebert piece on dining (or trying to) in France.