Sunday, March 29, 2015

Man Vs. Machine: Drugged Up

When a weekend road trip to see family members puts you only a couple of miles from a casino, it's only natural for us to pay it a visit.  So this morning, while many people slept in or went to church, we went to Hollywood Casino.

One stop was the heads-up Texas Hold 'em computer machine. We've played it before - sometimes for nice gains, other times for big losses.


IN THE POCKET: K-2 of hearts

We put a $20 bill in the machine to get started.  After a couple of bad deals, we're starting with $15. The machine likes to raise pre-flop, perhaps to scare opponents off.  In this case, we dare to call a raise to 4.  We don't use "K-2," but we sometimes play it.


If this is "slot machine" poker, two pair might as well be a jackpot.  We check - and sure enough, the machine bets $2. We raise in this minimum-raise format, and in seconds we're all in for $11. (We tried to insert another $20 to heighten the stakes, but could not.)


The computer shows A-7!  Our two pair beats its one.


The gamble pays off, and we're up $26.

But K-2 came again on the next hand, and we should have realized what was coming. We hurt ourselves by pressing the "bet/raise" button when we meant to call - and we wound up with nothing, while the computer made a 6-high straight.  We should have left well enough alone, as we wound up losing $17.

MINISTRY MOMENT: Before the computer challenge, we sat down for blackjack with a real dealer.  Only three players were at the table at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday - but the player across from us was in a gambling mood.

"Can I play your poker?" he asked us.  It took three times for us to understand what he meant.  The table had a small circle for placing bets in "three-card poker."  If your first two cards and the dealer's "up card" complete a poker hand such as a straight or flush, you get paid 9:1.

That man turned our spot into a jackpot a couple of times, while we chose to keep it vacant.  The man was kind enough to let us keep $5 of his $45 gain.

What an unusual way to practice giving -- doing it without our fully realizing what was happening.  But consider this verse:
All day long he craves for more, but the righteous give without sparing. - Proverbs 21:26
Admittedly taking this verse a bit out of context, the man across the table "craved for more" - seeking gain so much that he entered our "turf" and made money from it!  We gave him the opportunity to do it.  Then he gave us an 11-percent share of his winnings.

Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice. Surely he will never be shaken; a righteous man will be remembered forever. - Psalm 112:5-6

We'll claim this as a promise from God, and try to be just in our conduct at the table - no matter where that table might be.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

One By One

Some chess masters are so good at the game that they stage "simultaneous" events. They'll play 20, 30 or more people at different boards at the same time -- walking from table to table, looking over the situation, making their next move and moving on.

Why don't you see poker stars do that?  A clue to the answer comes from an article posted this week by a former "charity poker tournament director."  Among other things, Aaron Todd recommends NOT directing an event and dealing for a table at the same time:

I was shuffling one deck while dealing with the other, and I dealt a flop with the hand I was shuffling. One of the players pointed it out immediately, saying, "I think we have a problem; one of my cards is there on the flop."

"Multi-tasking" has become commonplace for many people. They walk down a street, checking their phone for messages with one hand, and maybe eat a hot dog with the other.  They deal with many "spinning plates" at the same time during the course of a workday, whether they're calls from clients or monitoring of urgent situations.

But when it comes to poker, many players see value in focusing on one game at a time.  And we think that's a good approach far beyond the table.  Here's why....
That man should not think that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. - James 1:7-8

Who is "that man" in this passage? The preceding verses indicate it's someone who asks God for wisdom, yet who does so with doubt instead of faith (verses 5-6).  We've found that's a high standard - because there are times in poker when you think you've made the wise move, only to see it become a bad beat.

Those moments can create clouds of doubt.- and we admit we're not sure of the best way to remove those clouds.  Perhaps it comes in realizing the odds in a given hand, and accepting the fact that longshots sometimes happen.

But can we get a bit more personal with this?
No one can serve two masters. Ether he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. - Matthew 6:24

Jesus's words demand a decision from each of us.  Are you trying to "straddle" as you play poker -- making it the top priority, promising to get "back to God" sometime in the future?

The problem is that no one knows how much "future" we have left. We're all potentially one wrong step or missing breath away from the end of our lives.  Jesus wants you to serve Him and God the Father, above all other things.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. - Matthew 6:33

If God's given you something to direct, direct it well - and share the other tasks as you can.  But may your ultimate focus be on the things which matter most. Above everything else.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

High Hand Wins

In a recent post we mentioned a reference to "Elijah's chair" at a poker tournament -- an empty seat traditionally left at a Jewish Passover "seder" dinner.

It's easy to joke that during the original Passover season, the Israelites were playing poker.  How can you tell?
And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand. - Exodus 14:8  (KJV)

See what we did there?  They had a "high hand." (Insert drum roll here.)  And the group with that high hand wound up winning big:
That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. - Exodus 14:30

God brought the Israelites out, through a series of miracles.  And today, God wants to help you come out of the "Egypts" of your life.
By faith he [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. - Hebrews 11:27

Israel was under slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years.  And Egypt can represent the sins which enslave our lives.  But to come out with a "high hand," it takes faith that God can help you do it.
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. - Hebrews 11:6

OK, we'll admit it - "high hand" in Exodus means something different than making a royal flush in poker.  "High" can mean "raised," as in worship to God.
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. - I Timothy 2:8

If something in your life has you enslaved - whether alcohol, greed, or even a gambling addiction - lift your hands in prayer to God and ask Him for help and deliverance. Do so humbly, having faith He can come to your aid.  He's done it for many - passing over repented sins, and helping them march out to a victorious new life.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Across the Line

A conference call we joined the other night brought up the importance of being "all in."

"I've played enough poker to know," we commented, "that once you go all in, you can't take back that decision."

Especially not at a formal tournament, such as inside a casino.  The last time we played, we were reminded in the opening instructions that once any bet crosses a line around the table, it's there to stay until the hand is over.

So an all-in bet is a big commitment.  And since our conference call was Bible-centered, we were discussing being "all in" in loyalty to God and Jesus Christ.  Let's look at a few Biblical examples:
Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. "I will give it all to you," he said, "if you will kneel down and worship me." - Matthew 4:8-9  (NLT)

Now hold on here - this is the devil going all-in?!  Yes.  Satan pushed against Jesus, during a moment of temptation - and Satan had the holdings to do that....
Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don't believe.... - II Corinthians 4:4  (NLT)

Satan is called this world's "god" - not the One who created the heavens and earth.  So the devil was able to push.  But Jesus was wise enough to turn it down:
"Get out of here, Satan," Jesus told him. "For the Scriptures say, 'You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.'" - Matthew 4:10 (NLT)

Jesus put the worship of His Father first.  And if we're going to be all in, so should we.
Jesus replied, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." - Matthew 22:37-38 (NLT)

God expects an "all-in moment" for each of us -- loving Him completely, not simply "betting the minimum."
Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded. - James 4:8 (KJV)

There's straddling at the blackjack table, but not in poker - and not with God, either.

God is the best "draw" to be on, because He promises to draw close to you if you'll draw near to Him in a commitment of your heart, soul and mind - in fact, your entire life.  So since your life is "on the clock," what about it?  Will you go all in - for keeps?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Poker Day 442: Gladly 4-A?

Some people have such busy lives that a three-day weekend turns into a "day on, not a day off."  So it is with us.  A Friday off from work allowed us to take care of several errands -- and also make a trip to Kansas Star Casino for a "High Noon" poker tournament, hoping to win extra money.

The buy-in for a seat was $45.  We turned down an extra $5 "dealer appreciation fee" for an extra 1,000 chips.  Looking back, perhaps that was our problem....

BLINDS: 25/25

IN THE POCKET: A-4 offsuit

We started with the Dealer button.  We now have it again, as the table has made a quick "lap around the track" with seven seats occupied and three empty.  A small venture for us pre-flop failed, so we're now at 2,375 chips from a starting 2,500.  No one's raising, so an Ace seems worth playing.  We're in, as is about half the table.


Two pair plus top kicker seems like good mathematics for us - especially with the table checking around to us.  We bet 100.  The Small Blind next to us calls; the others get out of the way.


Our opponent checks.  We have no idea what he has, but we want a clue.  We bet 100 again, and he calls.


Our opponent isn't checking now. Instead, he throws out 500.  We ponder this a moment, and conclude he's trying to test the "newbie" at the table (we haven't played in a tournament there since December 2013).  Will we be cowardly and run off when the heat's on?

With two pair and a top kicker, we say no.  We call - and he shows K-2!  He had three Kings on the flop, and let us bet into a trap.

Looking back, we probably should have folded when the river bet came out.  If he had a pocket pair, odds are it was better than ours.  But we played on the theory that casino poker players are crafty.  We were right, but in the wrong direction.

The cards went that way throughout the tournament for us.  We folded 7-5 right away, watched a straight land on the turn -- but were glad we folded when a 5 on the river gave someone a full hour.  We played A-K, and bet when an Ace came on the river -- only to find a man with 9-8 had made two pair.

Then we were dealt A-10 (yes, like in 2013), and a man bet big with an Ace on the flop.  We had no choice but to go all-in for our last 300.  The river brought a 10, giving us two pair.  But it gave that other man a winning flush.  Our tournament day lasted only 30 minutes -- and out of 36 players, we finished a lowly 33rd.

MINISTRY MOMENT: The dealer dealt cards to empty chairs at the table, to keep things fair.  At one point, he overlooked an empty seat for a moment.

"Maybe that's Elijah's chair," we said. The dealer seemed puzzled, so we explained.  "The Passover tradition - leaving an empty seat for Elijah."

Where did the Jews get that tradition, anyway?  It doesn't come from their "Torah," the first five books of the Bible.  But that section of Scripture does say this....
On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn.... I am the Lord.  The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.... This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord - a lasting ordinance. - Exodus  12:12-14

The great Passover event of ancient Egypt is to be remembered for "generations to come" - but by whom?  Simply by Jews?
..For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. - I Corinthians 5:7b (KJV)

Other translations refer to Jesus here as the "Passover lamb."  Just as Israel was supposed to kill a lamb and put its blood on its doors as a mark to the "death angel" (Exodus 12:1-8, 13), Jesus came to be "the lamb of God" sacrificed for our sins.
So don't celebrate the festival by being evil and sinful, which is like serving bread made with yeast. Be pure and truthful and celebrate by using bread made without yeast. - I Corinthians 5:8 (CEV)

Huh? you may be asking.  The apostle Paul wrote this to Christian believers - yet he talked about keeping a Passover festival?!

Yes, he did.  And we think Christians today should as well.  We'll have more to say about that in a future post.

UPDATED POKER SCOREBOARD: 159 final tables in 442 tournaments (36.0%) - 26 cashes.  This broke a string of four consecutive final tables for us - although admittedly almost all of them were one-table games.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

If You're Slumping II

Our last post examined some of the options you might have, if you seem to be in an eternal losing streak at the poker.  You could leave.  You could learn from your mistakes.  But what else can you do?

3. Seek help from experts. A large number of books written by poker pros are available.  So are short "tips" classes online.  And really serious players might invest money in "boot camp" in-person with pros.

Of course, this option requires something from you - an admission that you need to be taught.  Not all poker players are willing to humble themselves like that.  But people who wrote the Bible did:
Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. - Psalm 119:33

Come to think of it: learning God's "decrees" will help you in the long run more than any poker boot camp.  You'll learn the proper way to conduct yourself, in the poker room and outside it.
My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity. - Proverbs 3:1-2

4. Pray about it.  This admittedly seems like the strangest option of all.  People should pray about whether they should play poker?  Or even pray for God's help in succeeding??
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. - James 1:5
The fact that you're not sure what to do actually indicates you need wisdom to do the right thing.  God can help with that.... but....

But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. - James 1:6

Look to God for answers.  They may come from other people, circumstances or an in-depth look at the Bible.  But look for them in faith, and God can provide them.

May God help you to make wise decisions at all times - including the times when poker games don't seem to be going well.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

If You're Slumping

So you say you're about ready to give up on poker.  You've played some tournaments and sat down at some cash games, only to leave with an empty wallet and a burned feeling.  The bad beats are beating you up and wearing you down.

Well, we can relate to that.  We've had runs over the years where we missed final tables for months at a time, and failed to win money for even longer.  Yet we still play when we're able and time permits.

If you're mired in a big poker losing streak, there are several things you can do:

1. Stop the bleeding and leave.  It's possible poker is not the right pastime or career move for you.  After all, a wise man once wrote....
And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles.... Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?.... But eagerly desire the greater gifts. - I Corinthians 12:28-31

The apostle Paul writes here about a group of believers called a "church."  There are top-ranking positions (at least that's how some read these words) - but not everyone can attain them.  It's good to desire them, but not everyone will in this life.

If you don't have the "gift" (for lack of a better word) of playing winning poker, God may have given you a gift in some other area - perhaps an area where you can accomplish much more:
To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit to another miraculous powers.... - I Corinthians 12:8-10

2. Learn and grow.  We heard a speaker at church this weekend urge us to turn bad experiences into good ones.  Analyze where you went wrong at the table, then figure out how you can change things for the better.
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves...  - II Corinthians 13:5
These words again are written in a spiritual context - whether you're in sync with God and Jesus Christ.  But examining your actions in a hand is the best way to determine whether you handled things properly, and what could be done differently to bring a more successful result.

(NOTE: We'll have more on this topic in an upcoming post.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Watching Closely

It's probably a rare day when the World Series of Poker cancels a big tournament.  After all, there's no shortage of players in this day and age.  But the WSOP did exactly that in Ohio - for a surprising reason.

Courtesy WXIX-TV
An upcoming 12-day event was canceled because Horseshoe Casino didn't have proper security cameras in place.  The tournament would have been played in a big banquet hall, in stead of the regular poker room.

You may never think about them when you're playing, but many poker rooms have cameras watching and recording the action.  In Ohio, a state commission uses them to prevent cheating.

We recall hearing church pastors years ago warning against such things.  They said surveillance cameras inside businesses and along streets would take away U.S. residents' "right to privacy" - along the lines of "Big Brother watching you" in the classic George Orwell novel 1984.

But that argument struck us as strange, especially from ministers, because of what the Bible says about "government surveillance". That phrase isn't in any translation we've seen. but consider this....
The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good. - Proverbs 15:3
His eyes are on the steps of men; he sees their every step. - Job 34:21
Does the thought of God watching you scare you?  If it does.... well, good. If it persuades you to do things in a godly way, even better.

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done - Matthew 16:27

How can God and Jesus Christ hand out rewards if They aren't keeping score of what you do in some way?

We concluded the ministers were missing a bigger issue with security cameras - that from God's point of view, the "right to privacy" ultimately does not exist.  He's monitoring the games we play in our lives (whether at the poker table or away from it), and will make sure the final outcome is fair.
...Let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity. - Psalm 98:9

Long before anyone dreamed of a Santa Claus, God was seeing people as they were sleeping. He knows when they're awake.  He knows if they've been bad or good.  So be good in the poker room.... ultimately for God's sake

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Following Suit

You can learn amazing things about poker from the most unlikely places.  For instance, a recent article on the business website Forbes provided some key numbers to consider when playing a hand.

If you're dealt two suited cards (such as 5-4 of spades), your chances of winning the hand only go up about two percent.  Yet how many losing poker players have we heard make the famous statement, "They were suited"?

Yet if you're dealt a high pair pre-flop, such as "Jacks or better," your chances of taking the pot are one in 72.  The odds are better - but note they're still quite long.  We've also heard plenty of losing poker players complain about Q-Q or K-K being deceptively bad.

So following a suit doesn't help you much, and following up a big pair still offers no guarantee of success.  Yet we think there's one Person you should follow, who offers a guaranteed return:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." - Mark 10:21

Jesus Christ invites us to follow Him, giving up anything that might stand in the way.  Sadly, the person who heard these words directly from the Lord didn't do that (verse 22).  But look at what can happen if you do:
Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.... and in the age to come, eternal life." - Mark 10:28-30

How far are you willing to go to follow Jesus -- especially if it means eternal life at the end of the road?

God may be asking you to give up something you consider important.  Perhaps it's full-time poker-playing.  Perhaps it's a poker buddy who drags you into bad behavior.  Perhaps it's something else.

Whatever is holding you back from a relationship following Jesus Christ, don't be afraid to let that thing go.  Jesus promises blessings in return - in this life and the life to come.