There was a time when I played a lot of poker.

Most of it was online, so I’ve been out in the cold since moving to the state of Washington five years ago. Beautiful landscapes there, great people, genuinely a lot to recommend, but yikes is it a bad place to live if you want to play poker on the internet!

I’ve played some live events over the years, too. Mostly media events when I’ve traveled for work, but I’ve also taken seats in open events at the WSOP and in casinos around the American South. I even won a couple of nightly tournaments in Tunica back in the spring of 2006, but the bulk of my live poker experience over the last 15 years has mostly been in the occasional $5 home game.

The point of telling you all this is definitely not to brag. Those Tunica wins aren’t even listed on Hendon Mob, so you’ll probably disbelieve me and that’s okay. The point is to let you know that I am fully aware of my distinct lack of poker fitness — so aware that when my boss told me I was going to travel and cover Run It Up Reno for the blog, and suggested that I write about playing in a tournament here, I had to insist on an up-front disclaimer.

“Want to play?”

“So long as you don’t expect too much…”

It has been so long since I was active that I was genuinely nervous about playing. Even on someone else’s money — no, especially on someone else’s money. But I’ve known Brad Willis for a long time. When he says that something is fun, I can count on it being fun. He said Run It Up Reno tournaments are fun. So I said let’s do it.

THE RUSTY DONKEY RIDES AGAIN

A few days before I left home for Reno, I came across a post on Joe Stapleton’s Instagram feed that I understood deeply.

“How rude/mean are poker players really?”

“Run It Up is friendly and warm”

Ever since I stopped playing regularly, I’ve become prone to making relatively frequent mistakes when I actually sit down to a table. I know what I should be doing in a lot of spots, but the rust means my gears aren’t all turning the way they’re supposed to. All the experience I have is far enough in my rearview that I empathize with this person deeply.

It’s intimidating enough to sit down at a live poker table, facing down people who want to take your money while you try to take theirs. Introduce rudeness or even outright hostility into the mix and suddenly poker isn’t nearly as much fun. That’s a big reason a lot of people don’t play. They try it, they find the actual game entertaining, but they just can’t stand to be around the kind of people who want to make them feel badly about themselves.

Ah, but Run It Up Reno — well, things are different here. The main reason I said yes to playing in Reno was the reputation these events have for being welcoming and open. While you do get a fair share of players just looking for a tournament, by this point the majority of the people in attendance know each other so well that they’re essentially a big extended family. If you show up to play as well, they welcome you into the fold.

A wide shot of the tournament room at Run It Up Reno

Table 46, Seat 4, home of the Rusty Donkey

I was a bit late when I arrived to play yesterday’s Event #9 — a $235 Progressive KO bounty tournament — so I was joined by several other latecomers at the brand new Table 46. I would end up playing there in Seat 4, mostly with those same starting players, for the next two hours. I didn’t know any of them but I felt pretty comfortable, anyway, since a few familiar faces in Matt Stout and Arlie Shaban were seated with Andy Milonakis at the table directly behind me.

My tournament slip from Run It Up Reno

My mission, which I chose to accept: try not to look like an idiot.

The first thing I learned from listening to the conversation at my table was that three or four of the players next to me definitely knew each other. The young man in the 9-seat asked how the woman to my left had done in the previous day’s Short Deck tournament. “I finished third,” she said, giving me my second piece of information — I was almost assuredly going to be the weakest player at the table.

The third piece of information was the best one, though — most everyone was happy to carry on friendly conversation at the table. After about 20 minutes we were talking about our experiences caring for elderly dogs, how much Austin has changed since the 1990s, and Drew‘s upcoming prop bet where he’s getting 100-to-1 to sink 100 consecutive free throws. (Drew went on to win the Platinum Pass in the Moneymaker Tour event two days later.) We even discussed how close Andy’s and Melissa’s eyeglass prescriptions were to each other and whether they could pass for brother and sister. It was like playing a home game.

The tournament’s structure was generous enough that in those early stages the poker ended up being almost as friendly as the conversation. With 15,000 in starting chips and 100/200 blinds with a 100 big blind ante to begin, nobody was in position to go broke without some sort of huge mistake or cooler.

Despite my nerves, things didn’t start badly for me at all. I defended my first big blind with Q-9 offsuit and flopped a nine, winning a small pot on the end. I won another small one in the blinds against Melissa Bryne, the woman to my left who’d taken third in the Short Deck event. I noticed myself making some mistakes, but they were generally caused by playing too conservatively and not by putting myself in perilous spots.

So far, so good.

OUT OF POSITION IN RENO

By this point I was beginning to form some reads on my opponents. I wasn’t seeing many mistakes from them, but it was easy to tell whose strategy required constant activity and who was willing to be more patient.

The man in the 2-seat drew most of my attention. He was on the button every time I had the big blind and he was either catching a lot of really good cards or he was just a very active player. I knocked him off of one pot before the flop by three-betting with A-K, but otherwise most of the pots I played with him saw me check-fold when I whiffed on the flop.

A stack of Peppermill tournament chips.

Peak stack: about 20K-ish, give or take a few blinds.

Things were going pretty well about an hour in. I was up to around 20,000 chips when the 2-seat raised to 2.5BB in the cutoff. The button folded and I looked down at 10♣10♠ — and then my rust reared its ugly head.

I considered three-betting him again. But we were relatively deep and I didn’t feel like folding if he decided to jam, so I just called to see a K-T-x flop with two diamonds. Hey, look at that — a set!

Thinking back on all my experience, I considered leading because I was almost surely ahead. But I didn’t want to run him out of the pot when I literally hadn’t led out at a single flop against him up to this point. Besides, he’d been reliably continuation-betting flops like it was still 2006. So I checked… and then he checked behind me.

Doh!

The turn was the 7♦, making a flush for any two random diamonds he had in his hand. Was I really going to check that flop and then lead out here, putting myself in a spot where I’d have to work out whether he was bluffing if he chose to move all-in? No, I wasn’t. I checked again. He bet, giving me about 3-to-1 for a call, and the action was back to me. I considered a check-raise, but that was way further out on a limb than I’d been in a long time. I certainly wasn’t folding a set to a potential bluff based on the action so far, though. I called.

The river was about as bad as it could have been — a fourth diamond. My hands were tied now. I checked again. This time he bet small, giving me about 5-to-1 on a call. Everything said he had the flush, but for that price and knowing that I would still have roughly my starting stack left in front of me on just the fifth level of the tournament, this rusty donkey just couldn’t let the set go.

I called and said, “Show me the flush.” He turned over 9♣8♦ and took the pot. That’s when I made my rustiest move yet and unnecessarily turned over my cards instead of tossing them into the muck. The 2-seat looked at my hand and loudly blurted out the exact thing that Joe Stapleton’s Instagram follower and I both feared before coming here:

“BOY, YOU MISPLAYED THE SHIT OUTTA THAT ONE!!!!!”

My stomach sank. I was fully aware — in real time, no less — of just how badly I had played that hand. I didn’t need a commentator to share his thoughts with me live at the table! Yet he proceeded to do exactly that for the next three minutes, catching me so completely off-guard that I didn’t really know what to say.

I tried explaining my thought process for a few moments, but it was pointless. I’d messed up and this guy was determined to keep reminding me about it, so I shut down. I did notice something interesting, though. Nobody really said much to him while he carried on with his monologue.

THE WORM TURNS

The 2-seat settled down with the commentary about our confrontation soon enough. Part of me was actually relieved that I didn’t pick up many hands worth playing over the next 30 minutes, because I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t screw up in front of everyone again and have to endure another lecture.

On the last hand before the break, the 2-seat made a mistake of his own. He called a pre-flop raise from Andy Camou — better known among some crowds as “Andy The Timid” — and ended up heads-up with him after the action on a coordinated flop full of low cards drove the other two players out of the pot. The turn paired the board with another five and all the chips went in. The 2-seat turned over 8-5 offsuit and prepared to collect his first bounty of the day in a monster pot, but Andy had flopped a straight and the river didn’t change anything. The 2-seat was left with about three big blinds and we went on break.

While I was chatting with Run It Up’s social media manager about Wednesday’s Moneymaker Tour event (one Platinum Pass to the winner!), the man who’d been dealing at our table during my confrontation with the 2-seat came up. “Boy, that guy was a real jerk, wasn’t he?” he said. “You expect that in a regular poker room, but not here at Run It Up Reno.”

“In a regular poker room, he might even be one of the nicer guys around!” I said. We had a good laugh over it all.

The PKO winner’s trophy

Then the 2-seat walked up and asked if we knew when the rebuy period ended. We looked up the info for him — after the ninth level, it turned out — and shared it with him before he walked off again. I chatted briefly with a few other players and then made my way back to my seat to try to redeem myself.

On the first hand I was under the gun and I looked down to see A♣A♠. The 2-seat, who had been left short after his loss before the break, was in the small blind, and the player in the big blind — we’ll call him Dog because he was hunting bounties with an impressive ruthlessness — hadn’t made it back to the table yet.

No mistakes here, I thought, and raised to 2.5BB. Andy called in the cutoff, the 2-seat came along for the rest of his chips, and once again I flopped a set on a board with two diamonds. Not just a set, but top set! And — ugh — once again I tried to trap with a check. Andy thought about betting but decided against it. The turn was another diamond and he quickly folded when I bet.

“I think I’m going to need a diamond,” the 2-seat said, rolling over some cards that I didn’t bother to look at. “You’re definitely going to need one,” I said, and showed my pocket aces.

Collecting my $50 bounty.

The river was not a diamond. I collected the pot to climb back to about 19,000 chips, worth 30 big blinds now. And in a far sweeter development, I collected a $50 bounty for knocking out the one player at the table who just didn’t seem to understand the ethos of Run It Up Reno.

I didn’t get to enjoy the moment for long. On the next hand Melissa open-shoved under the gun, folding out the rest of the table all the way around to Dog. He called in the small blind and I looked down at A♠K♥.

Dog had previously chased bounties with 2-2 and 4-4, collecting on the latter. I could either fold A-K here (no!), call here and then check-fold with about 12 BB behind on a bad flop (NO!), or just go ahead and move all-in and take my chances at collecting Melissa’s bounty and building a big stack now. Big risk, big reward, and in the worst-case scenario I could go back to my room and start writing this article. I called and the others showed their cards — Dog with pocket eights, Melissa with A-J. The ten-high board sent me and Melissa both to the rail.

WORTH IT!

I went back to my room afterward to start gathering notes for this article and catch up on some work emails. After grabbing an early dinner I dropped back by the tournament area to chat with a few of the players who’d been at my table and I learned that they’d all been thrown off by the 2-seat, too. Several of them even told me how fitting they thought it was that I was the one to collect his bounty, which definitely left a warm feeling in my belly.

I’ve always placed a lot more value on getting to know people in poker than in taking their money from them. The latter might be the ostensible point of the game, but in my experience even the most tenuous positive relationships last long after any money you once had has long since slipped between your fingers. Some people understand that point intuitively. Others learn it slowly over time. And some people just never get it.

A lot of my time at the Run It Up Reno tournament table was spent looking like this.

Like I said earlier, even though I am quite rusty, I have played a lot of poker over the years. And my Run It Up Reno experience ranks right up there with the best of them because the majority of the players have a well-honed sense of perspective.

Here in Reno, I faced my worst-case scenario. I made mistakes and I was judged endlessly for doing so — but only by the one player at the table who just didn’t grok the big picture. In fact, the other players judged him far more harshly for the way he treated me than they would ever consider judging me for making a mistake while playing a game. In the end I had a fantastic time and I got paid $50 to take out the one guy who tried his hardest to help me have a bad experience.

Who wouldn’t want to play in a game like that?


Photography courtesy of Run It Up / Nick Higman Photography

Jason has covered poker since 2005. He lives in Washington state with his wife and three dogs.

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