Sunday, June 28, 2015

Changing Times

"SUN 4P" said the sign outside Winners Cardroom, as we pulled in today around 3:53 p.m.  We walked in the door and saw "Crazy Pineapple, 4pm" on a whiteboard to the left.  A few steps later, a seven-day schedule said, "Player's Choice, 4pm."

But there was one big problem.  Today's big Sunday tournament actually began at 2:00 p.m. The final table was down to five players as we walked in.

We knew the schedule had changed - but not until we checked the poker room's Facebook page at 3:20 p.m.  Nothing had changed online, as of late Saturday night.  But we went in hopes of getting into a possible second tournament, following the first one.

"How are you?" the man behind the desk asked.

"I'm confused," we admitted. The man explained they'd decided to try something different, and he hoped enough players would stick around for a second tournament.

The big game ended with a four-way split of the money around 4:15 p.m. A second tournament was promoted on social media for 5:00 p.m., but that's a bit late for us given our current schedule. We went away, and did a little shopping on the way home.

If there's one thing which disappoints us about poker rooms in our city, it's this sort of inconsistency. We've learned to check websites on Saturday nights, if we want to play on Sunday afternoons -- but even in this case, it wasn't good enough.

Thankfully, we serve a God who's not like that most of the time:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. - James 1:17
God made the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:16) - and with extremely rare exceptions, He's kept them on schedule.  Astronomers can tell you when the sun will set tonight, when it will rise tomorrow and when it will rise six months from tomorrow. There's an unchanging orderliness to that - something believers in evolution can't explain.

"I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." - Malachi 3:6

God's timing of things is trustworthy. But sadly, men tend not to be.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. - Psalm 118:8-9

Even the best of humans eventually will let you down. We must have faith that God will not - because otherwise, what hope do we have?
The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. - Psalm  145:13b

May you be faithful with your promises as God is with His. And if you have to make a change, please try to spread about it as early as possible. That will be better for all of us.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Missing the Straight

The very first hand of the tournament had an interesting board: 3-4-5-6-10 (not necessarily in that order).  Two players took it to the showdown.

"I have a pair of 7's," one man said turning over his cards. The other man had a 10. The dealer awarded that other man the pot, and shoved the chips his way.

"That's a straight," several people at the table then pointed out. The professional dealer didn't grasp that. He somehow only saw a 4-5-6 - not a 3.

The tournament clock was stopped to sort things out.  But since the dealer had made his decision and the man with the 7's apparently never realized he had a straight (he never spoke up about it until others did), there was nothing that could be done.

In big-time tournaments, things might have been different - places with cameras overhead, recording every hand. There could have been a video review. But even though this poker room has security cameras, the manager didn't go there.

A long discussion followed about what had been missed. And that led to a thought on our part. "If everyone was perfect, no one would ever lose at poker."

Some players have learned that lesson the hard way. They make logical bets, thinking their flush or full house simply must be the best hand - only to watch their opponent hit jaw-dropping quads.  And let's face it: when was the last time you saw a poker player win every hand in a tournament, the way a baseball pitcher might throw a perfect game?

Perfection is a great goal. In fact, it's a godly goal:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. - Matthew 5:48
 The One who said that was Jesus Christ, the Son of God who never sinned. For the rest of us, we can take comfort in the fact that "be" in that verse can be translated "become." Becoming perfect is a process - and often a struggle.
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. - James 3:2
 We need help in playing a "perfect game" of life. And the good news is that God is willing to provide that help.
It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect - Psalm 18:32
 Do you get easily frustrated over the lack of perfection in your life - in the poker room or anywhere else?  We have a Bible study which could help you think carefully about that. Maybe even - do we dare say it? - more perfectly.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Pinochle Man

For years we've wondered how to properly keep these verses....
"Honor your father and mother" - which is the first commandment with a promise - "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." - Ephesians 6:2-3

We wondered about them, because both our parents are deceased. But the era of blogging and social media is allowing people to show honor to a wide range of people. So on this U.S. Father's Day, we try to join them.

As far as we know, our Dad never played poker. His card game was pinochle. He played it on late Wednesday nights at the Odd Fellows lodge -- perhaps for money, perhaps not; we were never sure about that.

It was left to our older brother to teach us blackjack, on his trips home from college.  (A nine-year age gap gave him an advantage.)  But Dad would take part in an occasional Sunday night family game of Rack-O - a card game with absolutely no betting involved at all.

Dad died in March 2001.  We think he'd be surprised to see us playing poker in casinos these days; he considered us far too straight-laced for that. But he played cards and showed good sportsmanship about it. We follow that example, and thank Dad for that lesson.

So tell us, please - was your Dad a poker player? If so, what secrets did he teach you?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Skin Games

When a couple of poker players noticed our "Lord's Supper" card protector last Sunday, the discussion turned to how Jesus Christ really looked.

"I don't think He had long hair," we said to the men.  They weren't so sure about that.

"I think he was black," one man suggested -- a Caucasian man at that.

"He was Jewish," another man said.

So what really is Jesus's background?  The Bible offers some hints....
From Judah will come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle how, from him every ruler. - Zechariah 10:4

This verse of prophecy makes several analogies which can be tough to understand.  Perhaps the easiest one involves the "cornerstone."
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household.... with Christ Jesus himself as he chief cornerstone. - Ephesians 2:19-20

Jesus is called the "cornerstone" of what should be a "holy temple in the Lord," God's family (verse 21). And Zechariah notes that cornerstone came from Judah - which would make Jesus a Jew.
For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. - Hebrews 7:14

Jewish, yes - but what about Jesus being black?  The news of the last 24 hours in the U.S. reminds us that race and skin color are still touchy, emotional topics for many people.  But for us, the Biblical evidence when it comes to Jesus seems murky.
Dark am I, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tens of Kedar.... Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun... - Song of Solomon 1:5,6

Is this poetic language describing Jesus Christ? Some Bible experts see it that way, since the Middle East tends to be a place with strong sunshine. Yet others say this is talking about a woman instead of a man, based on verse 2 - so if anything, the "darkness" refers to the church Jesus will marry at His return (Revelation 21:9).

Yet the Bible also shows this about Jesus:
His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. - Revelation 1:14

We're not going to claim to know the "final answer" on this. We'd direct you to a study paper we reviewed in the 1990s which gave us a lot of insight.  But in the final analysis, we'd ask a ridiculously simple-sounding question: Does it matter? 

Poker success seems to know no skin color; consider the Europeans who win WSOP bracelets and Phil Ivey's strong record. Nor should our acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. - Acts 4:12

The Bible gives no exceptions to this - not based on skin color, national origin or ethnic heritage. Can you accept Jesus, no matter how He appears?  You'd better.  Your eternal life depends on it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Poker Day 448: Anniversary Gifts

June 14 in the U.S. is Flag Day to some, and Army Day to others. For us, today was an anniversary - eight years since we played in our first live poker tournament. So of course, we marked the occasion by going to a poker room.  But we found Sunday attendance at rooms in our city is in a slump right now.

Barely enough players showed up to start a tournament, and they couldn't agree for awhile on what game to play. Some expected the Sunday freeroll of recent weeks; we had checked the website in advance, and prepared for a $30 "crazy pineapple" tournament.  Eventually everyone settled on a $30 Texas Hold 'em game -- and for us, it was a challenge:

BLINDS: 1,000/2,000

IN THE POCKET: K-J offsuit

Very few cards have thrilled us today.  One hand offered hope for a flush, but we missed.  Now we're in the Big Blind, with about 27,000 chips left from a starting 47,000.  About eight players are left from what wound up being a field of 11.  But no one raises in front of us, so we check hoping this is the time.


This gives us a very attractive open-ended straight draw.  We check, and a man across from us bets 5,000.  We dare to call; if other players were still in the hand (maybe one or two), they get out.  We're heads-up.


That's a miss.  So we check again - and our opponent bets 5,000 again.  We gulp a little, and call.


We miss again, as now two pair are on the board.  We check again -- and are a bit relieved when our opponent does as well.

"I missed the straight," we admit, "but I have a King."

The opponent looks for a moment.... in frustration! Then he shows 9-7. He also was on a straight draw, a much tougher one (needing an 8), but he also missed.  The King is big enough to give us a well-needed boost to 48,000.

"If I had gone all-in, would you have folded?" he asks minutes later.

"I don't know," we admit. At that point in the game, we might have simply called in resignation.

We escaped with another all-in bet minutes later, and survived to the last five players.  But a blind battle where we had (as best we recall) King high turned out to be our undoing, as the Small Blind made a straight on the river.

We recalled our modest goal for our first poker tournament in June 2007: avoid being the first person eliminated at our table.  That was somewhat our goal again today, and we succeeded - staying a long time, finishing fifth out of 11, but missing the money for the top three players.

MINISTRY MOMENT: Someone noticed our "Lord's Supper" card protector during a break, and that led to one of the best Bible discussions we've had in a poker room in a long time.  We won't get into all of it here, but one man commented about how God is sure to judge the U.S. "We've wandered a long way from God," he said.

We can't help but agree.  Eight years ago, same-sex marriages and transgender mainstream magazine covers seemed as unlikely as royal flushes.  We hear much more about them now, of course -- yet the Bible warns:
For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. - Ecclesiastes 12:14

But before we point fingers at "those sinners" outside our group, we need to be careful.  This verse means God also will judge the "hidden things" of seemingly righteous people.  In fact, it means God will judge our every deed -- and the believers actually are first in line:
For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? - I Peter 4:17

God's "family" refers to His children, who have accepted Jesus as their Savior.  They're being judged right now....
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.... - Hebrews 9:27

Whether you consider yourself one of God's children or not, ask yourself: am I living in a way that will pass God's judgment?  The Bible indicates we all will face it, so it's good to prepare for it now.

UPDATED POKER SCOREBOARD: 163 final tables in 448 games (36.4%) - 26 cashes.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Giving Brat

He is to poker what LeBron James is to pro basketball, or perhaps Coach Bill Belichick in U.S. football.  People either admire Phil Hellmuth -- or can't stand him.

The "Poker Brat" made headlines again this week, by winning a World Series of Poker bracelet for the 14th time.  Hellmuth took the title in the "Razz Championship" -- which seems fitting, because critics have razzed Hellmuth over the years for self-centered antics which sometimes border on whining.

Yet Hellmuth made a gesture away from himself, after winning the tournament.  He announced he would give his WSOP bracelet to the family of Dave Goldberg, an executive and poker buddy in California's Silicon Valley who died several weeks ago.

Let's face it -- poker is better known for taking than giving.  The goal of the game is to take everyone else's chips.  Yet in real life, moments of giving are more likely to be praised and remembered:
Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. - II Corinthians 9:7

The challenge with this comes when people expect you to give - and even put pressure on you to do it. It could be a telemarketer claiming to support a charity, or someone who walks up to you on the street seeking one dollar for "something to eat."  (We had a case this week where we bought such a man something to eat, and then his request for money jumped to five dollars.)

We think a key phrase in our verse is to "decide in his heart" to give - to think it over first, not rush into a decision.  Isn't that the best way for a gift to be cheerful?
...Freely you have received, freely give. - Matthew 10:8b

The poker community has helped its reputation in recent years by doing charitable events, such as tournaments to fight cancer.
He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses. - Proverbs 28:27

So deep-down, what sort of poker player are you?  Are you the "brat" image of a Hellmuth - or the new, improved, perhaps even mellower one?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Lower Than a Short Stack

Poker played well can make you happy - and maybe even make you some money. But when things go wrong, the game can be painful. That's probably especially true if you're trying to make money, or even competing as a "poker pro."

You can chalk up your losses to the "breaks of the game" -- or as they at NASCAR tacks, "That's racin'."  But continued difficulties can start to affect your thinking or your outlook on life. You might even begin to feel depressed.

Did you know people in the Bible had moments of depression?  Even leaders that you might think were filled with joy?  The Bible mentions several, and we think you can learn from their stories.

We've been going through a radio minister's message on "Dealing With Depression." It was presented in two parts (our link is to Part Two, which includes sections of Part One).  We strongly suggest you take notes on it, because the Bible verses come quickly at times.  But we think it's worth a listen, if you're dealing with doubt and "down" moments. (Our link will probably only work for a limited time, so download or hear it quickly.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Beware of Imitations

The World Series of Poker is the game's biggest spectacle. But maybe we should have seen this coming - a different big tournament being played in Las Vegas during WSOP season, but having nothing to do with the WSOP.

The "Super High-Roller Bowl" is planned for the first weekend in July. It's timed for the three days before the WSOP Main Event opens.  But it apparently won't be on cable TV until late August - a tournament with a $500,000 buy-in, but "no tournament fees." (No fees? Then why isn't it a freeroll?)

The "Bowl" organizers clearly are taking advantage of the fact that the biggest names in poker will be in Las Vegas for that other big contest. If we worked for the WSOP, we'd probably be a bit annoyed by this.  Isn't this a form of stealing from the WSOP's success?

There's a case in the Bible where someone appeared to do this sort of thing - and even took the name of Jesus as he did it:
"Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." - Mark 9:38

Some church groups sadly think like John. In the classic words of Ricki Lake's old talk show, they think they're "all that" - and no other group possibly can be that. Those others might even be called wrong, or tools of the devil. But is that how Jesus looked at this?
"Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us." - Mark  9:39-40

Is Jesus giving legitimacy to Islam or Buddhism here? No, we don't think so - because the key phrase in these verses is "in my name." Are other people doing things in the name of Jesus?  If they are, Jesus indicates there's no problem with it.  But if they're glorifying somebody or something else, that's another matter.
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." - John 14:6

That sounds awfully exclusivist. But that's a direct quote from Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of humankind.

If you're going to play your own "side game" in terms of faith, do so carefully -- and give honor to the One who's making the true "Main Events" of history.