Positively Mercer Street

Writing about playing poker with a writer famous for winning at poker? I'm in!

Although Jim isn't faring much better, he's taking it in stride. When I suggest that it's a lose-lose proposition for him to play this mini-tournament, since he's expected to win, he says with equanimity, "It's not like I'm Michael Jordan and you're going one-on-one against me in basketball. Anyone can win at a table." Easy for you to say, Mr. Fifth Place. I still have something to prove.

Meanwhile, the chip leaders at the table turn out to be our host Amy and my girlfriend Beth. In his 1959 book Poker for Fun and Profit, Irwin Steig could cavalierly write, "In serious poker, women are a nuisance. . . . Poker calls for head-on aggressiveness, which our culture tends to discourage in women." Welcome to 2004, Irwin. In this game, they've got the big stacks, and they're pushing people around. When Beth reraises 30 and gets Ira to fold, Jim says admiringly, "The chicks are crushing us."

A few hands later, Jim pushes his remaining chips into the middle of the table, and says the magic words: "All in." Doug also goes all-in, and my friend Andrew calls. I ask Jim how he feels about his hand, now that two people have called his bet. "Where's your messiah now?" he intones existentially. There's no more betting, so everyone turns over their cards. Jim has a pair of jacks (a monster hand), Andrew has the ace of hearts, queen of clubs (pretty strong), and Doug has the 8 and 6 of hearts (not so much).

James McManus: "Where’s your messiah now?"
photo: Shiho Fukada
James McManus: "Where’s your messiah now?"

The flop is 9 of diamonds, 9 of spades, 8 of spades. Jim's in the lead with jacks and 9s. The turn is an ace, now making Andrew a 90.5 percent favorite to win the hand. So of course what should come on the river but . . . a jack! Everyone is screaming at Jim's miracle full house, while he calmly gathers the pot.

Soon it's my turn. I peek at my cards and see two 10s staring back. It's a good starting hand, but it's vulnerable, and I need to drive people out of the pot. "I'm all in." I put on my best "don't mess with me" face, which scares everyone away except Beth, who probably thinks I'm bluffing, or worse, doesn't care. Jim comments, "This is where the lovers' quarrel begins."

I turn over my 10s, only to find Beth holding two jacks. The quarrel is basically over—I'm something on the order of a 4-to-1 underdog. If I believed in a messiah, I'd be offering up plenty of myrrh and frankincense right about now, heavy on the myrrh.

The flop is no help. The turn is, of all things, a jack, which gives Beth three of a kind and me a slim chance at a gutshot straight. But it seems there's only one come-from-behind victoryper article allowed, as the river draws a blank, and I'm out. The crowd applauds politely, as is the tradition in poker tourneys, while I leave the table. As the next hand is dealt, I try to reassemble what's left of my dignity and ask Jim if he thought I did the right thing by going all-in. "Sure," he says. "With jacks or 10s, you should either be all-in, or out of the hand."

The beauty of poker is that even when you lose, you can be consoled by the thought that you made the right play. But consolation and $4.11 will get you a grande mocha around these parts. Meanwhile, Jim was running late for his next appearance, and so went all-in on a marginal hand and lost. It didn't seem to bother him too much—at least, as far as I could tell. I guess when you've won hundreds of thousands of dollars playing poker, losing $30 ain't such a big deal. At least Beth won the tournament, so I can walk around saying that my girlfriend beat Jim McManus at poker.

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my book deal.

Or maybe my girlfriend is.

Art Chung is a writer for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and other works of a trivial nature.

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