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.
Aunt Sophie plays English poker
“Tally-ho, tsatskeleh,” said a familiar voice.
“Aunt Sophie!” I exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you for ages.”
“One month, precisely,” she clarified, “to be exact.”
We were in the coffee shop of our favorite cardroom, the Anaheim Club. I caught the waitress’s eye. “And how,” I queried, “was your visit with your cousin Sadie in London?”
“It was,” she pronounced, happily nodding her head, “a mechaieh.”
“That good, huh?” I asked. At this moment, the waitress arrived. I pointed at my empty coffee cup, and said, “And bring a cup for my aunt, and some of that strawberry shortcake I know you have on special with the fresh strawberries and whipped cream.”
“The dessert I’ll take,” she pronounced, “as I know a welcome-home treat from my nephew, but not the coffee. A pot of Earl Grey tea please I’ll have, with milk.”
“Picked up some of the English ways, I see,” I remarked.
Something to tell
“Yes,” she acknowledged, “and for once, maybe, instead of always you telling me all about everything, maybe I got something to tell you. Tell me, have you ever in England played poker?”
“No,” I responded, “can’t say as I ever have.”
“Well,” she beamed triumphantly, “I have. On this trip a couple times I played, and a winner every time.”
“Congratulations,” I returned. “Where did you play?”
“At the Victoria Casino,” she answered. “That’s in the Edgeware Road, at Harrowby Street, near Paddington Station.”
“In the Edgeware Road?” I echoed. “Right in the middle of the street?”
“No, Dollink,” she explained patiently, as if to a cretin, “not in the middle. ‘In the Edgeware Road’ is an English expression. It means on Edgeware Road. You know how some Americans say things funny, too, like ‘waiting on line’ instead of ‘waiting in line.’”
“Yes,” I offered, “and in England they call that ‘queueing.’”
“Right ho,” she agreed, “and in England they also say ‘in the Edgeware Road,’ which is where it is the Victoria Casino, and that’s also very near the West End and Marble Arch and Speaker’s Corner and so on.”
The waitress approached with a tray. From a pot of coffee she decanted fresh steaming liquid into my cup. She placed a white teapot with blue cornflowers in front of Aunt Sophie, along with a small silver urn with hinged lid containing milk, and strawberry shortcake almost hidden beneath a mountain of whipped cream.
“And you played…?” I began.
“Seven stud,” she filled in. “But that’s not all they play. It was just the only game I could really afford.”
“Oh,” I interjected, “what’s the buy-in?”
“Well,” she went on, “the first time I played it was $92.50, and the second time $87.50.”
“Strange amounts,” I observed. “How’s that?”
“Because,” she triumphantly proclaimed, “the exchange rate changed from the first time to the second. In one week considerably the dollar strengthened. When I arrived in London, for each pound I had to pay at Heathrow airport $1.85, plus a commission on the transaction of another three pounds. A week later a pound was worth only $1.75, and I found a much better bank that charged less than a third of a percent commission. If ever you go there, I recommend the New Westminster Bank for changing the money.”
“Yes,” I offered, “and change a minimum anytime at the airport. That’s where you always get one of the worst rates. About the only worse rates are hotels and casinos, where they have a captive clientele. About the only time anyone every tries to change travelers’ checks in a hotel is right when he’s checking out, and is usually in a hurry, and can’t run around trying to find the best rate at a bank. If he’s paying for a week at a large hotel, that could easily amount to $500, and the unfavorable exchange could cost him over $50. Of course, when he needs to make a transaction at a casino, usually no banks are open, and he’s stuck with whatever the casino wants to charge, also generally much worse than any bank.”
“About the casinos,” opined Aunt Sophie, “this I knew, and so ahead of time I changed plenty of money. But, anyway, even though it cost me less to buy in the same time, the buy-in was the same each time, 50 pounds. That’s the small game, and I’ll describe it in a second, but first let me tell you about the other games. The seven-stud is the small game, 50-pound buy-in, pot limit. The Victoria usually has three or four tables going, sometimes five. One or two seven-stud games, and the others Omaha. Omaha seems real popular there. They have two Omaha games, one big and the other huge. The smaller game is 250-pound buy-in, half-pot limit. The other is 500-pound buy-in, pot limit. This one I’m told is monstrous. It’s not unusual for a pot to be over 25,000 pounds. And I’m told the Barracuda Club, also in London, has even bigger games.”
“Good-sized game,” I whistled. “Who plays in it, Arab potentates?”
“That’s what I asked,” she replied, “but I didn’t see none, and the players in my game told me just ordinary folks it was in the game, doctors, lawyers, and so on.”
“Hmm,” I mused, “and I bet a few hustlers, too.”
“But I didn’t pay too much attention,” she continued, “to those other games. I was concentrating on my best play for the game I was in.”
“Which reminds me,” I interrupted, “how did you get into the club? I thought you had to wait two days or something like that before you could play in an English casino.”
“Right,” she agreed. “They call that the ‘48-hour rule.’ A nonresident must sign up to become a member of a club, and then come back 48 hours or more later to actually play.”
“And did you do that?” I questioned.
“No,” she informed me, “I did not. After all, two times only I played.”
“So how,” I wondered, “did you get in?”
“You can always,” she stated, “get around the rule if someone brings you into the club. Either you can arrive with a member, and the member signs you in for the evening, or when you arrive, you can ask the people at the desk to call the game room or the cardroom for a specific person, and that person comes down and signs you in. In both cases, they call this signing in ‘introducing a guest.’ Here’s a strange rule: you are not permitted to have them call the gaming area just to see if so-and-so is there. The person has to be expecting you.”
“How,” I demanded, “would they know you were just fishing if you asked for someone by name and that person wasn’t there?”
“Good question,” Aunt Sophie assented. “I’m just telling you what my cousin Sadie told me. She implied, though, that if you asked for a person that he or she wasn’t there, they wouldn’t let you ask for another. You were supposed to have arranged ahead of time for the person to be waiting for you. Anyway, I didn’t find out, because Sadie brought me.”
Aunt Sophie tries a spot of seven stud
“And now for you Dollink,” said Aunt Sophie, “a little something special I’d like to treat because on the menu I just saw it.” She motioned the waitress over. “Ah bissel trifle for mine nephew, if you don’t mind.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the serving wench, who was not used to orders in Yiddish.
“Excuse, please,” Aunt Sophie appended, “the English trifle you got on special, please an order for my nephew, here. And bring him a pot please of that English tea, so he can enjoy it proper. And now, where was I?”
“You had just begun to tell me,” I prompted, “about your cousin Sadie introducing you at the Victoria Casino in London. Tell me, many years ago I peeked in at the Victoria Sporting Club. Is that the same…”
“No,” she interrupted, “not at all. The Victoria Casino is a completely different place. It has poker; the Victoria Sporting Club does not. Now let me describe the casino. You come in on the ground floor, to a reception desk, and members sign in. The casino games are on the next floor, the first floor. Now, I know that sounds not right, but it is. In England the first floor is what we call the second floor. What we call the first floor they call the ground floor. I didn’t go in the casino, but I suppose it’s the same as other casinos I’ve seen in London, with roulette, blackjack, chemin-de-fer, and no slot machines. Slot machines you can find in almost any pub, but like our slot machines they’re not. The biggest prize anywhere I saw was thirty pounds. No million-dollar jackpots. The cardroom it’s on the second floor, you know, the third floor to us. About eight tables they got. On the two Saturday nights I went, I saw five tables full. Two were the two Omaha games I described. The smaller game is 250-pound buy-in, half-pot limit. The other is 500-pound buy-in, pot limit. Also off and on they had two fairly small seven-stud games.”
“What do you mean ‘off and on’?” I questioned.
“I mean,” she explained, “players came and went, and the house tried to keep it balanced. They would put eight players at one table, but if more than that wanted to play, they would make it into two games, with maybe five or six at each table. And then when it got down to eight players, again one table they’d make it. So sometimes my game was full and sometimes not. And when both tables were nearly full, the eighth player at my table — by this I mean the one who had sat down last — kept having to switch back and forth as they kept juggling players.”
The waitress arrived with teapot, cup, a silver jug of milk, and a stemmed dessert dish containing that decidedly English mixture of sponge cake, raspberry jam, sherry, custard, and whipped cream known as trifle.
“What hours does this place keep?” I wondered.
“At ten o’clock a.m. it opens,” she replied, “and the poker games about noon usually start they told me. The first time I played, Sadie and I had had a late dinner at a lovely authentic French restaurant nearby, and didn’t get in there till 10 p.m. There was no seven stud going, although they told me they had a few names up for it. The Omaha games were much too big for me. For Sadie there was a game right away, but I had to wait till after 11 before they finally started the seven stud.”
The tea having steeped long enough, I decanted some into the cup. I picked up the lemon wedge that lay in the saucer, but Sophie grabbed my hand. “No lemon. That’s French, not the English way. Just milk and sugar.”
“What did Sadie play?” I asked.
“She played this crazy game called kalooki,” returned Aunt Sophie. “It seems a lot like pan, and that’s about all I want to know about. Sadie told me it’s a kind of rummy played with two decks of cards, and 13 cards to each player, and there are usually four or five players. What I saw was cards spread face-up all over the table, and most of the players were women. What made it so much like pan was the players seemed to spend more time complaining than playing. But one vice like pan for me is enough, and I didn’t want to learn no more about it.
“So anyway,” she went on, “finally after 11 they started a game with five players. It was 50-pound buy-in, pot limit, and that’s what most of the players started with. The dealer puts two pounds in the pot, and no one else puts anything in. The players deal for themselves. I mean, there’s no house dealer. The shuffling and deal are a bit unusual. First, to the left of the dealer the player who is there shuffles. Then, to the right of the dealer the player who is there cuts the cards. They got a bottom card, like in blackjack, or some of the dealer games here. The cutter puts the cards onto that bottom card. Then the dealer picks up to deal the cards. After dealing the first three cards, the dealer sets the deck down. Why you’ll see in a minute. The high card must now bet 50 pence, which is half a pound. Except they never say ‘50 pence’; they call it 50P. Now here comes it a strange rule. The other players can only call this bet or fold; they can’t raise. It’s like an ante on the third card, except you got a chance to fold if you don’t like your cards.”
“Curious,” I remarked.
“Then something funny they do,” she continued; “something like never in Vegas I seen. Before all the folded cards are turned over, one of the players, usually someone not in the pot, announces what the folded cards are, and only then does he turn them over.”
“I see you read Caro’s column,” I observed, “about the absurdity of using ‘she’ when you mean a person of unspecified sex, or, even sillier, of constantly saying ‘he or she.’”
“Ha, smotty,” she snapped; “‘he’ I said because ‘he’ it was. Even when I was the only one out of the hand, I didn’t announce those cards. I let those they’re more familiar with the game do it. So, after the folded cards are turned over and pushed into the muck, the dealer gives out the fourth card to the remaining players. And remember I said about setting the deck down. Also, the dealer spreads the cards ever so slightly. Not like fanning the deck, but leaning just slightly forward. This is to make it easy to slide the cards off the top of the deck as it sits on the table the deck. And you gotta deal like that; you gotta slide off the top of the deck all cards after the third. I accidentally because I didn’t know the rule dealt the fourth card while still I held the deck, and they quietly and politely told me the rule. Except when I left the table to visit the ladies’ room and came back and they didn’t see me because I approached the table from behind a pillar I heard several of them grumbling about women in the game they slow the game down and don’t know how to shuffle and deal. Sadie told me later they usually get women in the games only on weekends, mostly just Sunday afternoons, and then only one or two.”
“And boy,” she proceeded, “they got some strange rules.”
Aunt Sophie deals with genders in an English cardroom
“They got one strange rule we could maybe use in our games here.”
“And what might that be?” I asked.
“You don’t say nothing,” she replied, “about a hand in progress while you’re in it. Not your own cards or anybody else’s. If you do, there’s a severe penalty.”
“Is that like the ‘substantial interest penalty,’” I wondered, “‘for early withdrawal’ on some of those investment funds?”
“Oh, no,” she responded, “much worse. If you talk about a hand while you’re in the middle of it, you can’t bet or raise no more.”
“What?” I demanded. “You have to throw your hand away?”
“No,” she explained, “not that. You just can’t initiate no more bets. That is, you can call if someone else bets, but you can’t start the betting yourself or make a raise.”
“Hmm,” I mused, “and what is the effect of this curious rule?”
“The effect,” she offered, “is that during a hand nobody says nothing about poker. But after, Dollink, that’s a question of another color. After the hand is over, they talk it to death until the next one. And if it’s a big pot, or one with maybe a tricky decision, then they analyze it for several hands. One time on the last card, a player had two queens showing. There was enough in the pot he could bet nearly 100 pounds. He thought awhile and bet 60. One player who looked like he was going for a flush and missed it dropped. Now this other player with two nines up who seemed to me not such a good player thought about it for a long time. The guy who had bet also had an ace and ten showing, so maybe he could have had aces up or possibly a straight, but the way he bet with confidence into a possible flush and who knows what the other guy had he didn’t have no straight or two pair, he had to have queens full or better, and the reason he took a while before betting was not trying to decide if he had the best hand, he knew that, I could see he was a solid player and didn’t make a strong bet without the nuts, he was just trying to decide how much he could bet and still get called, and finally decided the whole 100 was too much, but still 60 he bet which was the biggest bet till that point in the game.
“And the guy with two nines called,” she went on, “and queens full of tens the guy showed down just like I knew he would, and the other guy quickly dumped his hand. And then the other players started talking about the hand. They asked him what he’d had, and he said three nines, and you know that stuff about ‘I hadda call’ that we hear all the time here, and some of the others were telling him that it was a bad call because how could the guy have just two pair or even a straight when the guy who folded might have had a flush, and he was saying that the guy might’ve thought the guy didn’t have a flush and was hoping if he had three nines he’d get him to throw them away. And the guy didn’t have too many chips left after that call, and he lost them a few hands later, and got up and left, and then the remaining players kept talking about what a bad play it was for him to call, with only the guy who’d made the 60-pound bet disagreeing sort of without his heart in it, you could tell he knew they all knew he wouldn’t have bet that much without a five-card hand. And they just went right on, between deals, about how he often made those expensive long calls and nobody ever tried to bluff him for a large amount because of that.”
“Wow,” I observed, “that’s an awful lot of guys and hes to keep track of in one description, but I did manage to follow. So how big was the average pot in your game?”
Not afraid to bet
“Well,” she answered, “a couple big pots I saw, but usually the average was about 30 pounds. After that first round of 50P bets, there’s usually in the pot about four pounds, including the two pounds ante from the dealer. On the first real round of betting, you know with the second upcard, most pots the bet is about three pounds. At that point, theoretically a raise could be 10 pounds, but that didn’t happen too often. Usually if a raise it was, it was five or six. The first time I had a playable hand, I had a queen up and a queen and seven under. An ace opened for 50P on the first round, and four players called, including me, so five in the pot. On the next round, the ace got a six, I got a seven, the other two I don’t remember what they got, and the player on my right, who has a king, gets a seven also. Now the ace bets three pounds. The two players fold, and the king calls. This makes 10 pounds 50 now in the pot. I ask how much can I raise, and they count the pot, and tell me I can raise 13 pounds 50, that includes my call of the three-pound bet, and so I do to protect my two pair, and they both fold, so now they see they got someone who’s not afraid to bet in the game.
She paused. “But that’s not what you asked,” she continued. “I mean, it was, but not what I meant to tell you. The biggest pot I was going to describe what I saw. I saw a flush beat three kings. And the three kings was betting every round right up to the end a lot. And on the last card, he bet 100 pounds, and the guy made his flush on the river, and he didn’t even hesitate, he raised 250 pounds. And the trips was, you know, pot stuck. I guess that happens in England, too.”
“I believe that condition is international,” I laughed.
“And the three kings called,” she concluded; “not all of it, because he ran out of chips, but over 200. That pot had about 700 in it. Biggest pot I saw. Close to $1300, at the exchange rate I was getting when I first played. But there weren’t any other pots even close. I could tell the guy who made the flush knew what he was doing. He was the only one I would call close to a professional player, and I don’t know if he was that. He was the best player there, and he got a lot of value out of his hands. He often stole the pot with a bet or raise on the first round, I mean the second, the one where some choice on the bet you had. I guess he kept calling those bets to draw to a flush because he knew he could get a big call at the end if he made it.”
“But he could have lost a lot, too,” I observed, “if the guy had filled up.”
“Well, sure,” Aunt Sophie asserted, “but you gotta gamble sometimes or you’ll never win anything.”
“Ha!” I chuckled. “You sound just like any degenerate gambler trying to justify bad play. Now I’m not saying the guy made a bad play, just that it’s usually losing poker players who keep putting chips in to the bitter end chasing a flush when they know they can’t win unless they make it and even then it might not end up being good. I’d’ve had to’ve been there to say for sure whether his implied pot odds on the end justified the call, but it certainly sounds like a large investment on a come hand, and making such plays guarantees maximization of fluctuations.”
Aunt Sophie shows restraint in an English cardroom
“Two times,” said Aunt Sophie, “in the Victoria Casino seven stud it was I played and both times I won.”
We still sat in the coffee shop of the Anaheim Club, where my aunt was regaling me with tales of her vacation in the British Isles. Winning at poker seemed to have been in her mind the high point of the trip.
“Congratulations,” I offered. “I thought you didn’t know how to play seven stud.”
“I don’t,” she beamed, “but it don’t matter. From you card sense I’ve been learning, and that’s all it takes to win in any game.”
“Well,” I suggested, “I don’t think just card sense would win for you in that 500-pound pot-limit Omaha game you were telling me about. Maybe eventually it would, but you might lose an awful lot of money learning the game.”
“Sure,” she cheerfully agreed, “but I know basically how seven card stud is played. Besides, I brought along Mike Caro’s Professional Seven Stud Report, and I studied it on the plane.”
“So, how much did you win?” I queried.
“Fifty pounds I won the first time there,” she responded, “and 110 the second. And all of the first win was from one pot.”
“Yes,” I remarked, “often in a no-limit or pot limit game the difference between winning and losing is represented by one crucial pot. That’s why every decision is so important in such a game, perhaps much more so than in a limit game. A mistake in a limit game usually costs one bet, just a fraction of a pot. Sometimes it costs several bets, sometimes even a whole pot. In a no-limit or pot limit game, though, one mistake can cost your whole stack. That can be all your winnings, or, if you’re in a lot, your whole bankroll. Tell me about it.”
“Well,” she began, “an ace up I started with, and had to put the first 50P bet in, but I didn’t mind at all when I looked in the hole and another ace I saw. Three other players called the 50P. One of them had a queen. I forget what the others had.”
“And I would guess,” I hazarded, “that those other two did not figure in this particular story.”
“Such an expert,” she chided with mock severity, “always such a smotty you know before I even finish how my poker stories come out.”
“Not at all,” I put in, “I just know how these stories go, and I know that if those other two callers were important, you would remember their hands. But as to the story’s denouement, I can’t guess.
Aunt Sophie gains fifty pounds
“Well, my dear,” I offered, “you can’t tell me a good win story without sustenance.” I caught the waitress’s eye, who came over with fresh hot water for our teapots. This being a story about English poker, Aunt Sophie insisted on our having English tea.
“So, Dollink,” she began, “you remember an ace up I started with, and had to put the first 50P bet in, but I didn’t mind at all when I looked in the hole and another ace I saw. Three other players called the 50P. One of them had a queen. I forget what the others had, but it don’t matter because soon they folded.”
“Right,” I assented, “I remember. And you were also telling me you really don’t know how to play seven stud.”
“Exactly how, no, I don’t,” she responded. “The books, you know, I’ve read them all, but I haven’t really played. But sometimes it comes down to the same things you need in any poker game. What does a bet mean? Does the other player have a hand or not? What am I trying to do with my own hand — make money by getting more money in the pot, or make money because of trying to eliminate competition? Now, where was I?”
“You had an ace up on the first round,” I supplied, “and someone else had a queen. You made the first 50P forced bet.”
“Mm hm,” she agreed, “dot’s right. And second round I got a nine, which didn’t help, and the queen got a king. Now there’s three pounds in the pot, and that’s what I bet. Only the queen calls. So now there’s nine pounds in the pot. Comes to me a king and to him a ten. Now I bet nine pounds, and he calls. So now I got ace-king-nine showing, and ace-seven in the hole. He’s got king-queen-ten showing. Next round comes to me an eight and him an ace. He’s high, and he checks. I think to myself, if he has a straight or two pairs, why doesn’t he bet? I also think I’m not going to get him to fold by betting, and I may not have the best shot anymore. All I got is still aces, so I check.”
“Maybe he had an ace in hole, too,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” she concurred, “and if he did, he had me high-carded, He must put me on aces. And if he thinks I have aces, he should bet. His kickers are king-queen against my king. No, I don’t think he has aces. So now comes the down card. A ten for me. I got ace-king-nine-eight showing, and ace-ten-seven in the hole. Just the same pair of aces with what I started. He has ace-king-queen-ten up. He bets 27 pounds, exactly the size of the pot. So now I’m thinking he can’t have just two pair, or he’d never bet the size of the pot. Too easy for me to have that beat. Maybe he made three of a kind on the last card, but since I got his king and his ten, that’s not so likely. So then I think, what’s the hand he’s representing? Ace-king-queen-ten, obviously a straight he wants me to think he made. But he needs to have hit a jack to do that. I remember now that one of the original players folded a jack, and, he had to hit it inside. He wouldn’t call my obvious aces going for an inside straight. If he didn’t just now make an inside straight, he must have had it when he caught the ten, and so why did he check then? Was he slowplaying the hand to trap me next time? Again, I don’t think so, because if he bets on fourth street, the size of the pot gets bigger and he can bet more on the last card.”
“So much explanation,” I interrupted. “Sounds like one of my exhaustive interpretations.”
Does or doesn’t
“So much explanation,” she continued, “I need so you understand my reasoning. Because, you know, I called the bet. I figured he’s trying to make me think he has a straight. So either my one pair is as good as gold, or he’s got me way beat. I don’t think he’d bet two pair that strong. As soon as I call, he says, ‘If you can call, I guess you can take it. You must have aces.’ I show the hand, and take the pot. He must have thought some kind of dumb woman I was to call the bet, I don’t realize he can so easily have me beat, but it comes down to one of those poker principles I was talking about. It’s got nothing to do with seven stud. Either he has the hand or he doesn’t, and I don’t think he does.”
“Eminently sensible,” I murmured.
“Next to me was sitting,” she concluded, “the best player at the table. He’s the one who made 300 pounds with his flush against three of a kind. I say he was the best, because he also kept winning all of the little pots when likely no one had anything, and neither did he. He bet aggressively, and usually everyone folded on the second round. Anyway, he congratulated me for that call.”
“And do you think,” I queried, “he was sincere in his praise? Or did he think it was a terrible call, and he was just trying to encourage continuance of that kind of behavior, so that when he bet you with the nuts you’d make a call on him you otherwise might not?”
“Such a cynic,” she sighed, “and a disparager. What am I gonna do with you?”