Wiesenberg (s054 poker): Sophie finds out the worst

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.

Michael Wiesenberg index.

Black and white photo of Michael Wiesenberg

Michael Wiesenberg

Aunt Sophie finds out the worst

“Dollink,” said my Aunt Sophie, as we floated down from a cloudless sky, “you’ve told me about some of the bad plays of draw poker. I had thought that drawing to an inside straight was the worst, and you showed me that drawing to a small pair was usually a much worse play.”

I carefully sidestepped a loose board as I tightrope-walked across the uppermost rail of the picket fence. “Well,” I responded, “worse in the sense that it has a greater effect on your bankroll because of the opportunity to make the mistake coming up far more often.” Six feet below, at the base of the fence, a shoeless young boy in a floppy straw hat and faded yellow linen shirt tucked into patched overalls rolled up to midcalf and held in place by one suspender strap was dispiritedly brushing whitewash on the pickets.

“Of course, Tsatskeleh,” Aunt Sophie readily assented, letting the long pole slide through her fingers back into the stream till it touched bottom, and then pushing to propel the punt along the gentle surface of the tree-shaded river. “But a long time ago you said something I remember about there being a much worse thing to do in a poker game than anything involving the actual play of the cards. What might that be?”

No lessons

Before answering, I glanced up to a tree leaning out from the bank. Partially concealed by a flock of bread-and-butterflies I made out in the gloom a large fading catless grin. “Well,” I began, “I suppose you’ve come far enough in your poker education to be able to fully appreciate this. It presupposes, of course, that you have a considerable store of poker knowledge, and are able to make correct use of it. Crudely put, the worst poker play is smartening up the dummies. Don’t give lessons at the table.”

“When would I do that?” she inquired, while hanging on tightly to the ceiling strap as the crowded BMT car lurched too quickly into a sharp curve.

“I don’t think you would,” I replied, taking a sip from the crystal wine goblet before hurling it into the fireplace. “But you wanted to know what was the worst thing one could do in a poker game, and I’m suggesting it’s something that unfortunately a number of players who might otherwise be considered professionals are guilty of. They lose a pot, and instead of gracefully surrendering the chips, proceed to lecture the winner of the pot. Usually that happens when the opponent has defied the odds and drawn out on the hustler. Actually, I don’t know if ‘hustler’ is a good term here. I’m trying to think of some pejorative epithet and that and ‘rounder’ come to mind.”

“Please, Dollink,” Aunt Sophie protested, “enough with the big woids.” She leaned out from the multicolored horse and grabbed a brass ring. “Just tell me about this bad play.”


“It’s not so much a play,” I continued, “as an attitude. I got slightly sidetracked because players like this always make me angry. There are individuals who make their livings in the cardrooms but I don’t see how they do it because they have such atrocious manners. I guess it doesn’t take manners to win, but they’re so stupid they don’t see that what they’re doing greatly eats into their winnings, and spoils it for other professionals. What I mean, of course, is losing a pot and then explaining to the winner of the pot how badly he or she played the hand. These folks don’t understand that they can’t win every hand. In the long run, of course, those who play well win and those who don’t don’t win. In the short run, however, all kinds of things can and do happen. Just because you have the edge on a given hand doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win it. But you certainly don’t want to discourage players from making those odds-defying plays. If everyone played perfectly, no one would win.”

“Yah,” she remarked, “but most of them don’t play perfectly, and most of them don’t pay any attention to any kind of advice.”

“I know that,” I agreed, stepping out onto the wing of the biplane, “but some of what these lunkheads say has its effect. I mean something like this. It’s fifth street in a seven-stud game. The penny-ante hustler has three to a seven-high straight showing, and bets. The only player to stay has no pair showing, and one spade, the seven. Unknown to the hustler, he has two more spades in the hole. He happens to like spades, perhaps because they’ve been ‘lucky’ for him today, so he calls the bet. Next card he catches the six of spades. Still no pairs anywhere, but the lucky player has the high card showing, and he bets. Naturally the hustler raises. The rube reraises. What could he be going for? No straight possibility. His other two cards are a diamond and a club, so he couldn’t be going for a flush in one of those suits. The hustler has already seen six spades folded, and he has two among his own cards. That leaves three spades unaccounted for. If the dummy has two in the hole, there’s only one left in the deck that could give him a flush. Of course, the fellow could have a pair in the hole to match one of his up cards, but all he did was call right until he got that six of spades. He couldn’t have made three-of-a-kind on that card, because the hustler has a six in his own hand, and he saw another six folded earlier. And it couldn’t be three sevens, because the hustler has one of those, too, and another seven was also folded. And how could it be one of the other two cards, when the dummy just called, and apparently reluctantly? The hustler raises again. The sucker raises, and that takes care of the raising on this round. Now comes the river card. The dummy is still high on the board, and, with a triumphant grin, bets. The hustler doesn’t yet heed the warning signal, and raises. The lucky fool reraises, and now the hustler gets worried, and just calls. The hayseed turns over his three hole cards. Naturally they’re the three case spades.”

“Ah, ha,” offered Aunt Sophie, “I could see it coming. I know how your stories turn out.”

“Of course,” I returned, stamping the snow off my boots before entering the lodge, “but I’m just trying to make a point, and I know you’ve seen this happen any number of times. Now the hustler gets angry. ‘You idiot!’ he screams. ‘How can you draw to a spade flush when there’s only one card left in the whole deck that can make your hand?’

“‘I didn’t know that,’ answers the other. ‘Spades have been lucky for me all day, and I was just hoping to make another flush.’

“‘But,’ sputters the sore loser, ‘on fifth street you just had three spades. Couldn’t you tell by the way I was betting that I already had a made straight?’

“‘No,’ answers the fellow, with complete honesty. ‘I didn’t even know what your cards were. I was just playing my own hand.’

“‘Well what an idiot! How do you expect to win when you don’t pay any attention to the other players’ cards and when you aren’t aware of how many of the cards you need are left?’

“‘Whaddya mean?’ indignantly retorts the abused player. ‘If I get lucky, I get lucky. If I don’t, I lose. What difference does it make? It’s just a gambling game.’”

“Well, sure,” opined Sophie, firing rapidly as three more clay pigeons arced before us, “I’ve seen that sort of thing many times. But they don’t listen.”

Playing worse hands

“No?” I demanded, shrugging out of the oxygen tank and kicking off the flippers. “They don’t learn perhaps, but they also don’t like being laughed at. The next time the chance to defy the odds comes up such a player might not do it, for fear of having all that adverse attention drawn to him. Why discourage players from making bad plays? It’s mistakes by the other players that make money for the winners as much as superior play on their part. And some of the players do listen. They might say to themselves, ‘Maybe I should keep track of the cards that have been played.’ Or, in a draw game, ‘That guy told me what a dumb play it was to draw to inside straights. He never does it, and he’s winning. Maybe I shouldn’t, either.’ Or maybe the person getting the lecture doesn’t pay attention, but some of the other players might. And even if no one acts on the information being conveyed, they will try to avoid the uncomfortable confrontations. ‘I don’t want to beat this guy,’ an otherwise liberal lady player might say to herself. ‘If I do he’s likely to scream at me like he did at that poor guy that made the flush. I’ll just fold when he bets.’ You want players in against you trying to defy the odds, playing worse hands than yours, not paying attention to what they ought to pay attention to. If they don’t, who you gonna beat? The other pros? Sheesh.”

We stepped off the moving sidewalk as our gate approached. “I can see,” put in Aunt Sophie, “that you feel strongly about this. No wonder I sometimes hear one player say, right after another has given such a lecture, ‘Don’t smarten up the dummies,’ or, ‘School’s out,’ or something like that.”

“Yes,” I assented, fingers scrabbling desperately for a hold in the sheer wall, “but you know what? Even saying one of those things falls in the class of ‘smartening up the dummies.’ Just you be smart enough not to ever do it. If you lose a pot, be gracious about it. No lectures.”

We sat down suddenly as the balloon, lettered “Nebraska State Fair,” lurched out of its moorings. We floated slowly upward into a cloudless sky

Next: 055 Aunt Sophie and the habitual losers


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