Interview: Paul and the Jack

Paul and the Jack

My father, Paul, used to play poker for fun as a student, in friendly tables using very small stakes. The games that were popular back then were 32 card poker variations, which made spectacular combinations appear more often than full deck poker games. Christmas was approaching and the plans for Christmas night was to spend it at a friend’s house, who was the richest student in the university. They were told that poker games would be running through the night and most of his friends were very excited to play in those games. My father not so much, as he was at the time what we now call “scared money”. He couldn’t afford to play at high stakes, so if he didn’t want to miss the fun, he had to use some funds which were much needed for his everyday life.


Euros weren’t in existence back then, so I will have to give you some context of the money wagered, translating the actual amounts in today’s money terms. Basic salary for an inexperienced employee with high level education, would be the equivalent of $1,000. Paul was using about $800 euros per month for his everyday needs and at that night, he took with him $4,000, which was all the money he had available. If he lost it all, he wouldn’t have any more money and would find himself in a very tough spot. His old-fashioned and strict father, who strongly disapproved gambling, should never find out about this. So losing was not an option and that is a big “no-no” in gambling. That is what makes you “scared money” at the poker table and good players can sniff that from miles away and take full advantage of it.


The game had started, it was a 6-seat table and if you entered, good etiquette would dictate that you must spend at least a couple of hours at the table. It was about 10pm and the game would have a break at 12 midnight, which seemed like an acceptable period of time for a player to stand up and leave. My father sat down with $2,000 and was planning to play till midnight and leave after the break. The problem was that he found himself in consecutive unlucky spots and about an hour into the game he had lost it all.


He was very reluctant to bring out the remaining $2,000 he had with him, but he would be very embarrassed if he had to walk away so early. So he felt socially obliged to put his last $2,000 on the tale, as he did.


He started playing extremely tight, folding a lot and trying to avoid big pots. But the poker gods probably wanted to test him that night, so not long after his last money were on the table, he had to take the most important decision he will ever take at a poker table.


The game was 5 card poker, but with a twist: the first 4 cards are being dealt to the players face up (everyone can see them) and only the 5th card is dealt face down to each player. When the 4th card was dealt to the remaining players, Paul saw one of his opponents making a very big bet having A-A-8-8 infront of him for 2-pair. Everybody else folded as they had nothing as strong. Paul had 9-10-Q-K, meaning he needed a Jack on the last card to make a straight, but if he wanted to call the bet and get the 5th card, he had to do it with all his money. The bet was big enough to cover my father’s stack, so he had to either go all in or fold.


In spots like that you need to take into account all the available information. My father looked around at the cards that were dealt face up. He counted 26 cards, which meant that just 6 were still in the undealt deck. He then saw that the remaining Aces and 8s were already dealt to other players, so his opponent had zero chance to make a full house, which would beat a straight, the combination that my father was after. He looked around and saw just one Jack on the table and it was the last card dealt to the player right before him. This meant that there were still 3 Jacks in the last 6 undealt cards! That is a 50% chance of hitting his straight and beat his opponents 2-pair!


He then remembered that in the exact previous hand, another player had made 4-of-a-kind with Jacks and the shuffling of the deck was being done by hand and not very vigorously. So there was a big chance that the Jacks were stuck together, making it even more likely that the next card to be dealt to him, would be a Jack, as was the last card dealt just before.


The maths are now with him. He has a 50% or even higher chance of hitting his straight and take down the big pot, which makes a call the correct mathematical decision at this point.


He reluctantly calls and as the last card is being dealt, his opponent doesn’t even look at his own card, as there is no chance for him to improve his 2-pair. The hand is already all-in between these two players, everybody else has folded, so there aren’t any more bets to be made. Just the showdown remains.


The big pot has attracted attention around the room and everybody’s eyes are fixed on Paul, who slowly drags his 5th card towards him face down. As he says when he describes this moment, it felt like ages, his heart was pumping fast and hard, he was feeling everybody’s stare on him and was terrified that if he missed, he would have to face some serious problems.


His fingers pinched the card’s corner, stretched it, made it bent enough to see the magic symbol…. Jack of Spades!


He steadily turned the card face up for everyone to see. No, he didn’t slam it on the table like today’s young poker players often do. Back then it was still a gentleman’s game. The room was filled with gasps demonstrating the awe that everybody felt. His opponent smiled and told Paul, “you have some guts calling all in on the 4th street just for a Jack, well done lucky dude”.


Nobody noticed that it wasn’t pure luck. It was a 50% chance or even more, as the poor shuffling techniques followed at that home game could mean that the 4 jacks could still be adjacent to each other in the deck from the previous hand.


But still, what my father did that night is not advisable for anyone. Never play with money you can’t afford to lose. It will not only make you play as “scared money” and lead you to bad decisions, it will also destroy you psychologically if you lose it.


The take away from this story, is that you must try to use all the information available in order to make the best decision, no matter if the subject in hand is gambling, or some important decisions for your life.