Last day in Cannes. A big group of Finnish poker professionals are sitting at an hotel bar. The weather is pleasant, the night is warm enough to be comfy with just a shirt on. I’m young and broke (again) but pleased that I’m sitting with the absolute top of Finnish poker players. Now, for the first time in my life, I started to feel more like part of the group rather than a fanboy. No matter that I had just busted my bankroll in a semi chaotic way. I still had my spot among the group where some of the players played regularly at the 500-1000 Full Tilt games. Feeling proud just fitting in the group, I took a sip of my wine and wondered if Joni felt the same way. He noticed my glance and nodded – I bet he did.
“What’s the highest point you’ve ever played Chinese poker?” Mr.JN asked, clearly addressing the question to two nosebleed players among us.
“We did 10k a point at Vegas one time” Mr.Z replied.
“Should we top it?” -JN.
An excited chatter started among the group. Every poker professional I know has always been a junkie of sorts. Not necessarily a gambling addict, although there are plenty of those too (especially if they’ve just turned pro) but at least an action junkie. Very few of us will turn down action if the bet seems fair. Especially if there has been wine earlier, and as we were a group of Finns spending the last night of our trip in Southern France – wine was self-evident.
“What are you proposing?” Mr.Z asked.
“Let’s make two teams. This side of the table against the other one” JN said and divided the table with a hand gesture.
My side had seven other players and Mr.Z who was known not just for playing the highest stakes in the world but also from his taste for occasional drink, rap music and flashy cars. The man had been my biggest idol ever since I found poker. They say “never meet your idols” – well, I just had, and was feeling particularly young and insecure. I tried my best not to show it.
On the other side were Mr.JK and seven others. Mr. JK was known as highly analytical player who had been around forever despite his young age. He had just broken through to the nosebleeds at Full Tilt winning over a million in one particularly good session. It seemed though that right now he didn’t feel like betting – but if we were going to push the stakes really high – he was essential. After a while of persuading and a huge peer pressure, he gave in:
“Well, fuck it. Alright, but we’ll flip who has to do the hand from the teams. You can’t just pick your best Chinese player to do the hand – and only ONE hand”
I looked at our group. I was by far the least experienced Chinese player in our end, and a newcomer to most of the guys. I had put my 1000 hours in already of course – they just didn’t know it. Still, I was a bit uncertain about these rules.
“Fine by us” Mr.JN declared. Somehow now leading the group of a bit drunk poker players on our side of the table.
And so, the bet was declared but we still had to find out the exact sum. The whole table woke up from a rather nice, but sleepy, mood. You could feel everyone regaining energy by the forthcoming action.
“Bets? Who wants to bet?” Mr.Z shouted at our end of the table.
I had to bet. I didn’t really have the money nor the absolute certainty of my skills as a Chinese player but what I had was a need to belong to the group. So, when Mr.Z came up to me and asked especially from me if I was willing to participate, I replied instantly:
“Of course, but I can’t do anything big”
“Sure, what do you want to bet?” He asked.
“500?” I pleaded.
“Sure, done!” He said and moved to the guy sitting next to me.
After quite a lot of yelling we had our sum: 8000€ per point – it was still technically a bit bigger than the 10k$ at the time and the biggest we were able to get from “the other side of the table”.
“And whoever does the hand has to do it completely on their own – if someone tries to give them advice the hand is immediately dead” Mr.JK said.
Small murmuring from the group signaled that we agreed. We got some cards and flipped the “hand makers”. I got dealt an ace and had to do our hand – something I really didn’t want to do. The pressure was immense.
In Chinese poker you get dealt 13 cards that you need to arrange in three rows: the bottom row contains five cards and it must be the strongest of the three, the second row contains five cards and it needs to beat the first row but lose to the third and the first row only contains three cards and needs to lose to the other two. The opponent team does the “hand maker-flip”, and flips well: Mr.JK will be doing their hand. I don’t know much about Mr.JK at this time but what I do know is that he has a software that tells you the perfect solution for any Chinese poker hand. Do I have that software? No, I absolutely do not. And right now, I’m terrified. People who I really look up to have bet big and I have only a very tiny portion of the action, which is high, so very high.
A bit shaken, I get dealt my cards and immediately realize that they’re a thing of beauty: AJ9 high, a full house and a larger full house. A full house in the middle is a bonus for three points – something rare and incredibly valuable, and in this game – it’s 24 000 euros worth of valuable. After five seconds or so I’ve organized my cards and I’m ready. I can feel both Mr.Z and Mr. JN (both of them have bet ridiculously big) right behind my back – watching how I’m making the hand when a thought pops into my mind:
“Oh shit – I can’t be done with my hand so fast. JK might get some tells” so I shove my front game in the middle of the deck.
“HIIymph” Mr. Z shrills. The sound started strong but got muffled as he bit his lips together. I try to get a look at him, but he is avoiding eye-contact and pacing away from me on our side of the table. JN does the same. They both looked terrified.
Oh, they think that I’m totally fucking up the hand – and they can’t say anything either, I realize. They don’t really know me that well and have placed their trust on a kid who just seemingly killed a hand potentially worth tens of thousands.
What a horrible moment this must be for them, I think and I can’t help myself from grinning.
Mr.Z paced back to me. He’s now so close that I could not just hear, but also feel his breath on the back of my neck. It sounds like a panicking animal and feels like a fan on a really hot day.
“No no – don’t worry” I try to say with my actions as I quickly rearrange the cards to form the right hand: AJ9 high, full house and a full house.
I take another look at him. Now he looks me in the eyes. He can’t say anything, nor does he have to. Even a blind man could’ve seen the relief from his face. I signal to the group that I’m ready with my hand.
“Sooooo, how long is it going to take?” MrZ asks upbeat from JK.
“Yeah yeah, I think I can’t do much with this.” JK replied – clearly a bit frustrated with his hand.
“So you’re done?”
“What you got?”
The whole group is now standing and leaning over the table. I’m in the middle with Mr.JK, he gives me a look and I signal him to start.
“High” JK said showing AJ6.
“Ooh, close but not enough” I say showing the AJ9 high.
“Two pairs”, he continues.
“Full house” I say immediately – now understanding that it’s more than likely that we might scoop the whole hand.
“Really? We had straight on the third so you will scoop us”
I table our hand: three points for the full house in the middle and six points for winning all the hands, nine points in total equaling to 72 000 euros.
As our side of the table cheered I had an euphoria only a truly high-stakes action can give. Sure, I had won only 4,5k in the hand but still: 72k from a single hand that I played. That was something that I could buy another drink for.
I never got the chance. Once I sobered from my adrenaline rush our side of the table was already so full of drinks that you could barely lay your hands down on it. We did share them with the other side – one should always be gracious in victory.
And on that warm night in Southern France, the wine tasted especially sweet.