It was a warm, Thursday night when I figured it out. I was an arrogant kid that prided myself on being better than others at the game. A subtle check-raise. Trapping friends after flopping the nuts. Chasing draws for just the right price until I hit.
I used to play cards (Stud, Omaha, Razz, Hi-Lo, Hold ‘Em) with a friend in a dingy pool hall in a backwoods town in Johnston County. The table was typically filled with the owner, his friends, townies, and a couple of high school punks like myself. This wasn’t some high stakes situation like the end of Rounders or anything. I was just a kid trying to pay for his school lunches, his dates, and gas.
Each week, we had about $150 in the pot in a winner take-all game. Each week, I funneled all my competitive frustration into that game because I couldn’t live with myself if I lost. What would that say about me? That these rejects, addicts, and hicks were better than me? I couldn’t live with that definitive truth.
So I studied the game to pick out betting tendencies in different levels of play. A modest bet after the flop had a variety of meanings from a variety of players and I was determined to know them all. I studied tells, deciphered odds, dived into my own psyche to prevent myself from betraying myself to other players searching for these same truths.
I looked at every aspect of the game to give myself the best preparation possible so that when that card hit the plywood, I was capable of making the correct decision, with excellent efficiency.
Then the cards came out. The dealer bounced my hole cards off my chip stack, shorter than I would have liked but better than I had deserved at that point in the game.
I peered at them, imitating so many of the poker pros I’d seen on TV, and found an Ace and a Queen, both clubs. A strong hand to open with, I raised the bet from $2 to $6. Everyone folded except for the guy to my right, who tossed his chips in with a casual “Sure.”
The dealer slapped the first three cards down in his uniquely dumb way: Jack of Clubs, Ten of Hearts, Three of Clubs.
I had a flush draw and about a 30% chance of hitting it plus about 20% of chance of pairing either my Ace or Queen on the turn or river plus about 15% chance of hitting a King to give me a straight. While I had nothing yet, odds were in my favor of landing something big.
My opponent was first to act and he modestly bet $5. The math was correct for me to call so I did and added my $5 to the now $25 pot.
The fourth card was slapped down: Ten of Spades.
My odds of landing a hand beyond Ace high were just cut in half. Only an Ace, King, Queen, or Club would give me a hand worth betting with and its no guarantee its good enough.
What does John Bob have here? Another bet of the same size would tell me he has a good hand and wants to keep me in the hand. However, every time he’s had a draw, he doubles his next bet. If he was outright bluffing, he’d probably bet around $15 to appear strong. That’s his arsenal and that’s all he has.
He bets. $7. What the fuck, man?
Who does this asshole think he is, changing his betting pattern?
Well now, the bet means I’d be risking $7 to win #32, basically 4.5:1 betting odds to my (at reasonable best) 4:1 odds of hitting my flush.
The math indicates the right choice is for me to call and in the event I miss, I might be able to push him off the hand by a big raise.
So I toss my money in and the dealer slaps down the last card: King of Clubs.
GLORY, GLORY, HALLELUJAH.
I hit my flush, the best flush possible to be exact, and anticipate my opponent’s bet. He earnestly reaches for some chips and counts out a bet of $15. I’m absolutely raising, the question is only how much. I have $56 left in my chip stack, if I’m going to raise it basically has to be all of it. A minimum raise to $30 would force him to call (unless he’s bluffing) but limits the return on a big hand. I need to capitalize on this moment because he’s been betting like he has another Ten.
I posture for a moment or two to show how tough this decision is for me and poor me just doesn’t know what to do with this terribly average hand.
“I’m all in.” The three words every poker player wants to hear when their holding the nuts and my opponent was gleeful. He called me and flipped over the pair of Kings in his hand with the gappiest-toothed grin I’ve ever seen. The King on the river gave him a full house (three Kings, two Tens) as well as giving me the flush. The card that made me was the card that slayed me.
I left, with nothing but my thoughts of what I could have down to avoid tucking my tail between my legs in fifth place. I replayed the hand over and over on the way home and couldn’t find a place where I would have changed my action. I made the correct play, given the information at the time, at each step in the hand.
And that just happens sometimes.
See, we can’t always know what’s going to happen to us each and every day but we can prepare ourselves for each reasonable outcome and put ourselves in the best position to succeed.
In life, and sports, what we do is a collection of decisions, small and big, that lead to an ultimate definition. The greatest people in the world make bad decisions but their good decisions far outweigh the bad or at least the bad are typically with the smallest risk.
In college basketball, there is enough randomness thrown into a season that more often than not, the best team DOESN’T win the championship. No one would say Duke was the best team in the 1990-1991 season, UNLV was. But Duke won the game that mattered.
Over a large sample size, the better team will win more often than not. That reveals a large flaw and a redeeming greatness in the sport we have today in that it builds our suspense. It gives us cinderellas, it allows for boys to become legends. We should love sports for what that gives us but we also shouldn’t forget that winning one game doesn’t mean that team is better.
I shouldn’t have to hammer home this point as we all know teams lose games to inferior opponents when they shouldn’t. This season, UCLA lost to Cal Poly but I don’t think anyone is going around saying that Cal Poly is absolutely a better team.
This is key to remember for this season’s Duke squad. For so far this season, Duke has shown it is one of the best teams in the country when healthy and should be a favorite to climb the ladders, scissors in hand, the first Monday in April.
And if the season were played 100 times, Duke would probably do just that more than any other team. Alas, it is not.
We often see Duke fans tear down the village when Duke suffers one of its inevitable losses. Why? I’ve never known. This loss almost always indicates to fans that lineups need to be changed, players need to be benched, other players need to start, the coaches need to throw out the playbook, coaches need to overhaul the defense (or offense), switch to zone, change player’s positions; all of this must be done in order for Duke to ever dream of a championship.
These same people would tell me I played the hand wrong and that I should have folded here or there. And just as I know I was a better player than that toothless hick, we know that Duke is a better overall team than NC State.
Fact of the matter, Duke has one of the more potent offenses in the country (when Ryan Kelly is healthy) and one of the more impregnable defenses. At this point in the season, we know Duke is a below-average rebounding team and that isn’t going to change very much if we (stupidly) play Amile with Kelly, when he comes back.
Duke has built a team that understands “the process” better than perhaps any team in the country (shout out to VCU for the way Smart employs a defensive system to play off his teams strengths by generating more possessions to add more weight to the tempo of a game). Duke has an efficient offense that is based around a “4 out, 1 in” formation that creates matchup problems, terrific spacing, and isolation chances for its high usage seniors.
See, as better players play inferior players, they can lose. Over time, their strengths will shine through the anomalies and be evident in efficiency numbers and shooting percentages and rebounding rates etc. The greater the sample size, the clearer the picture of where Duke stands.
So, with ACC play grinding away, it’s important for Duke fans to understand that merely losing games now will largely have no effect on whether Duke is a championship team. It is how they play, how the offense is able to generate points without the spacing Kelly brings, that will be the indicator.
Through two games without him, Duke is scoring about 1.04 points per possession. That number is down from the 1.18 area when Kelly was healthy. Over an average game played at Duke’s tempo, that equates to about 8 or 9 points per game. A considerable dip that should have Duke fans worried.
Until Kelly comes back. When he does, trust in the process and be proud Duke is one of only two teams with a top ten offense and top ten defense at full strength.