D.C. Lee: 'That's no limit holdem, baby'

BY D.C. LEE: 2L COOL J

Published April 6, 2004

Last year in the World Series of Poker,
Scotty Nguyen bet $100,000 into a pre-flop raiser with nothing but
an unsuited 3-8. That’s only marginally better than 2-7
offsuit, the worst possible starting hand. As he raked in the
chips, having forced tournament professional Humberto Brenes to
fold an A-10, Scotty found the nearest ESPN camera, looked directly
into the lens and said, “That’s no limit holdem,
baby.”

D.C. Lee

Ten years ago, not many people would have predicted that ESPN
would be televising a card game. But things have changed. In 1998,
Matt Damon let the world know in the movie “Rounders”
that poker is not like other forms of gambling. It’s a
“skill game.” In 2002, Robert Varkonyi shocked the
professional cardplaying world when he won the World Series as an
amateur. Q-10, the hand that beat top professionals Phil Hellmuth
and Julian Gardner, has affectionately been called “the
Varkonyi” ever since. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker solidified
the notion that “anyone can win” when he won the
championship event and took home a cash prize of $2.5 million. He
won his seat and $10,000 buy-in by winning a $40 satellite
tournament on ultimatebet.com, an online gaming program.

These are some of reasons I started playing more seriously four
years ago, and many of you can probably relate. Names like Varkonyi
and Moneymaker have done wonders for the popularity of the game,
but being the next amateur champion is the not the only reason
people around the world are falling in love with No Limit Texas
Holdem.

The first thing you notice about No Limit Texas Holdem is that
it’s structured differently than most other games in two
important respects. First, each player at the table is dealt only
two cards, face-down. The remaining five cards are placed face-up
in the middle of the table as community cards (three on “the
flop,” one on “the turn,” and one on “the
river”). The goal is to make your best five-card poker hand
with your two down cards and the five community cards. Combine the
almost incalculable number of hands your opponents could be holding
with the second important structural difference of this game
— that you can bet any amount at any given point — and
you have a game that takes a paragraph to explain and a lifetime to
master. This is why a veteran player like Scotty Nguyen, who is
just as likely to show down “the nuts” (the best
possible hand) as he is to bluff with nothing, can bet $100,000
into Humberto Brenes with an unsuited 3-8. That’s no limit
holdem, baby.

The second thing you notice about No Limit Texas Holdem is that
because of its structure and because the players can agree to play
for whatever stakes they chose, it can be both fun and disturbing.
Over spring break, I played in a game at Caesar’s in
Bridgeport, Ind., during which I stood up and asked the dealer to
deal me out because I had to use the restroom. He inadvertently
dealt me in anyway, so I looked at my hole cards and found a suited
A-Q. I played the hand and won a $232 pot with a flush, ace high.
The gentleman to my right said “That was almost the most
expensive piss you ever took.” That’s the fun part.
Later that night, a gentleman across the table lost his last $120
(he was already down $380 at that point) when his pocket queens got
beat by a suited 8-9. The flop came 10-J-Q, and the turn and the
river were no help to the man with Q-Q. Still steaming from the
loss, he jacked up the table, tore his cards in half and swore off
everyone at the table. Security led him out, and the rest of us
continued playing with a new setup. That’s the disturbing
part.

On a larger scale, scenes like these have been replayed time and
time again on ESPN at the World Series of Poker. Just tune in on a
random weekday or weekend afternoon, and there’s a good
change it will be on. But, just in case ESPN decides not to run
anymore World Series reruns, and you’re looking for something
to do, I’m going to take the initiative to organize the first
annual World Series of Michigan tournament: $100 + 1 (for the
trophy) buy-in gets you 1,000 in tournament chips; no re-buys and
payouts according to number of entrants. With 100 entrants, we can
have a prize pool totaling $10,000. Interested? E-mail me.
We’ll figure it out. I’ll see you at the tables.

Lee can be reached at "mailto:leedc@umich.edu">leedc@umich.edu.