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Atlantic City Lesson, Part II September 19, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : poker,travel , 9 comments

My boyfriend and I arrived in Atlantic City for our post Labor Day vacation just before the height of Hanna’s aftermath rage on the Northeast. We dropped off our bags at the Borgata, took the jitney to the Boardwalk, and then sprinted through the storm to arrive at the Piers Ceaser, a ritzy new mall with floor to ceiling windows. Pockets of people watched as huge waves crashed right into the glass, scary and surreal. We sat in the AC Continental, an offshoot of a trendy Philly restaurant and ordered wasabi mashed potatoes and drinks. Our waiter gave us a pitcher of martini for the price of just one. The sloshing and the splashing was good for an apocalyptic high.


The storm however washed away just before sunset and the rest of the excitement would wait for the next morning, where I played in the Fall Borgata (NL Texas Hold Em) Ladies Poker Open. I didn’t win too many big pots, but clawed my way up close to the bubble with my usual superiority at blind and ante stealing. About seven hours in, I got a chance to use some advice from Gus Hansen’s entertaining and honest book, Every Hand Revealed, where he divulges stepping up his aggression pre-break: "Last hand before the break. Another excellent opportunity to pick up 8k! Three guys are looking for the bathroom, two guys are looking for their girlfriends, leaving just little ‘ol me to steal the blinds and antes."  In ladies events, where there’s usually many brand new players, I think there’s another reason to push harder before the break. In my first tournaments, I was very excited to get to the dinner break, as it usually meant not only a free dinner, but that I was close to being in the money and could call all my friends and tell them I was still in!  So in the hand before dinner, I had J9s with 9x the BB (plus enough antes to make my effective stack size more like 6x) Pushing there in third seat is a tad too aggressive/desperate for my normal standards, but the dinner break theory and one prefolder tipped me in favor of saying "All in."  A woman who kept complaining about how awful and boring poker tournaments were, called and beat me on the cutoff with 33. Later I saw her by the Cashier. She told me she called because she read that 33 is a good hand heads-up.   I explained that she was probably reading about battle of the blind situations. Then came a money line: "You keep talking to me like I want to get good at poker"!   I gotta tuck that quote away, because when I play in mixed tournaments, there is always at least one guy at my table ready to break out a mini-blackboard and chalk.

In the second Borgata Fall poker Open event I played in, the professor du jour was a quiet suited man to my left, who didn’t speak or look up for two hours….until he won a race against me! I was two off the button and raised with AK, he re-raised on the CO and I re-raised him all in. I don’t remember the exact stack sizes, but it was a trivially obvious play on my part unless he’s the tightest player ever- he obviously wasn’t since he had 99. Someone else at the table asked why I went all in, and I muttered something vague, "I don’t mind gambling." My opponent from the hand said,  "That’s not the right way to think about it. The correct way to think about it is to put me on a range of hands."  He continued to talk about pot-odds, pokerbots, bubble play, etc, etc. It was as if he didn’t feel he had a license to speak with a short stack but after doubling up, the words overflowed. It was funny and he was a nice guy so I forgave him for assuming I was unaware of the concept of "range of hands." But next time I’ll know what to say: "You’re talking to me like I want to get good at poker!"

My dad at the nature(!) trail outside the Borgata

The most dramatic scene of my fall AC trip was in a "Survivor tournament" in which the top 15 get $1500 each, creating one of the ugliest bubble spots I’ve ever encountered. I was not playing but had 20% of my dad, who is a beast in live poker.  When it got to 16, most people wanted to make a deal and split the pot evenly, with everyone getting $1400. One woman refused despite the fact that one of the players offered to pay her $100 out of his pocket, which would have guaranteed her the max prize, $1500, anyway. Normally I’m an all for poker deal refusals- my strongest area in poker is in the endgame, so I am often annoyed by premature pressure to chop. But this was silly, cause there was no value in her continuing to play. Her explanation for refusal, ""No one was ever there for me on the bubble." The quote depressed me cause it could be applied to so  many more important things than poker. Just because no one was there for you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there for your beautiful human beings trying to grind out a cash in the Survivor tournament! In the end, the deal was forced through but not without much screaming, stacks being shoved blind, and hundred dollar bills thrown across the table. If someone’s going to attack me, I hope it’s with a hundred dollar bill too.

Fear and Fire in Belize August 4, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : travel , 6 comments

My excitement for a Belizean jungle adventure was tempered by an eerie feeling.  The night before departing to volunteer at an all girls’ chess camp in Belize, I told my mother and boyfriend: "I don’t know, I just feel I may die on this trip." In the end we all dismissed it as melodrama, but I am not afraid of flying, so I had no idea where the fear came from.

On my way to Belize, I stopped over for an opening party at the Saint Louis Chess and Scholastic Center. The chess club is the most beautiful I’ve seen in America, and I also got a chance to see the Pullitzer Museum and the Saint Louis Museum of Art. The trip was off to a great start, and when I met my 9queens partner in Houston to travel on to Belize, my fear of dying had subsided. Upon arriving at the Caves Branch jungle lodge, we were greeted with tropical drinks, nachos and screaming monkeys: This was getting better and better! Then I started teaching at chess camp in the middle of the jungle for talented girls aged 9 to 12, from all over Belize. Read more on that at 9queens.org, uschess.org and the Belize National Youth Chess Foundation site.

Here I am playing 20 Belizean girls in a simultaneous exhibition
Two nights after settling into Belize, I woke up at 2 AM in my jungle cabin to a raging fire. The fire had been set off by a combination of wind and an oil lamp. I’ll never know what exactly I did wrong—the cabin encouraged the use of the oil lamps, since there was no electricity, but they’ve never had a fire in the past so I’m guessing that most people don’t sleep with them on.  Luckily, the cabin was about 300 square feet, and I was on the right end of the square footage. I screamed "fire" and a hotel guest came running to help me extinguish the fire. Somehow, the fire, which was pretty big, about the size of a small car, only destroyed a small mattress and a DVD. A lot of things could have gone wrong: I could have a third glass of wine (that may have knocked me out) or chosen that evening to experiment with sleeping pills. I usually hate to wake up in the middle of the night to meaningless noises, but now I am grateful for any and all survival instincts, no matter how annoying. 

After the fire, I sensed the danger had passed. The rest of the week I conquered other fears: I jumped off a 20 feet cave waterfall; rocks in front of and behind the deep landing spot scared me into good aim. I went tubing, urged along by a 12-year-old who I’d just taught King and pawn vs. King. My courage almost ran out when faced with rappelling gear and a 100 feet cliff. My fear of falling backwards is so extreme that I used to be unable to play "Trust" with anyone, even boyfriends.  I mustered the courage not only because of two fit and attractive guides encouraging me but mostly because of the group of 9 and 10-year girls below me who had already jumped. If I hadn’t done it, and just walked back down 100 feet through the jungle, I’d have to change my moniker from Chess Bitch to Chess Chicken. Yes, the latter is worse.

The girls practiced rapelling on a tree before going down the 100 feet cliff
Despite traveling to over 20 countries, I was blown away by the new things I saw and did in Belize. I’ve never seen the rainforest landscape or felt the moisture of the jungle make my skin like butter.   That’s why I chose Belize for my friends Mike and Gretchen’s "Honeymoon Lottery" later this month. Every wedding guest chooses a place for Mike and Gretchen’s to honeymoon. The winning destination will be chosen at random, with my brother presiding with a microphone and bingo balls. I’m rooting for Belize because I can’t imagine anything more romantic than kissing your newlywed at the top of a cliff you’re terrified to jump off of or rappel down. First, you’d kiss him out of paranoia and then again at the bottom, you’d kiss him out of relief.

I've smiling because despite my dirty white pants, I am close to the mouth of the cave!
On my magnet collection at home, I have my favorite cheesy quote, by Eleanor Roosevelt: "Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You." Belize should take care of my quota for the rest of the year.  

Belize Gallery July 28, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : chess,travel , 4 comments

Here is a photo gallery from my trip to Belize, where I explored the jungle and taught at a girls chess camp.

The odds in Vegas and Israel June 26, 2008

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Of course I am smiling. At this point, a couple hours into play, I was one of the tournament's chip leaders. I wouldn't be so happy if I knew the woman to my right would take all my chips 28 hours later.

About 30 hours after start time, the Ladies World Series of Poker ($1000 buy-in), was down from 1190 players to 34. Under the gun, I looked down at two black kings. I raised; I was re-raised by a serious Russian girl in middle position; I re-raised all in and she called. I was happy to get all my money in preflop. She turned over one of a few hands I expected (I knew she didn’t have aces cause she asked for a count after my re-raise), a pair of queens. A queen came on the flop; my stomach turned but straightened up again when a king popped on the turn. The river was the yuckiest heart I’ve ever seen, which gave a flush to my enemy in the hand, Svetlana Gromenkova. My melodramatic father said it was the worst moment of my life. Assuming for a second there’s some merit in this declaration, does that mean it was a particularly terrible moment or that I’ve had a great life? My brother and backers said things like, "gruesome but nice run,” “that’s poker but you did great.” Weeks later, my boyfriend admitted that in his heart, he felt I should have played tighter in that spot—an excusable comment from someone who doesn’t know about the ranking of poker hands.

There was one person I wanted to clock: the tournament director came up to me after the hand and started raving about how wonderful it was that I came in 33rd out of 1190 players. Although I was not crying, he turned on the "I’m talking to a small child voice." and repeated himself cooing, "You came ahead of over 1100 women. That’s amazing!" At the time, I was more focused on losing $60,000 of value to a 4:1 shot than on my poker talent or  the luck it took me to get that far.  I wish I had punched him cause then the KK vs. QQ moment would speedily be replaced by a worst moment: being carried out of the Rio in handcuffs.

Svetlana ended up winning the event and the $224,702 prize. She was one of the best players I saw at the tournament so I can’t argue with the result. I tried making small talk with her early in the tournament about the Borgata, Brooklyn and trying to learn Russian, but she couldn’t have been less interested. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that women poker players too often shun math in poker. Svetlana and various other professionals in the tournament (Kathy Leibert and the "first lady of poker" Linda Johnson played at my table for a while) were definitely exceptions.

Shavonne Mitchell. Photo Macauley Peterson

One player that impressed a lot of people was Shavonne Mitchell, who finished in 22nd. I sat down at her table and the women started whispering to me: "She’s such a bitch", "She sucks all the air from the table.", “She wins at the biggest NL Hold Em games at AC,” "Don’t get involved with her." Well, I played with her for about 5-6 hours total and I can say definitively that she was NOT nasty. For instance, when I went all in with 10 4 off from the button with 6x the BB plus antes, I easily defeated AJ in the BB by rivering a wheel. :) Shavonne was one of a few at the table who didn’t complain about how there is "no justice in poker" and she reacted in a similar way when she suffered a bad beat of her own. So, Shavvone clearly had enviable table presence and instincts, but  IMO, there were just way too many instances in which she committed 1/3 of her stack with preflop raises and then folded to all in re-raises. Her style definitely made an impression; I wish white women would step up like she did and behave and dress like divas at size 10, size 12, whatever.  

I love downtown Vegas, and it had a special charm this time: a vintage car show.

As for my play, I’m happy to say I played my worst hand of the weekend in a 100$ buy in warm-up tournament at Binion’s in downtown Las Vegas, a day before the main ladies event began. I had about 20x the BB (there were antes) and min-raised from EP with KQs. I got one caller — a pretty tight woman who had me covered, just to my left. The flop came JT5 rainbow, and I idiotically did not push the flop. I then convinced myself to fold after my opponent’s bet. I was burning for a couple hours…it feels awful to play too tight.  After this, I decided I was rusty and needed to focus on two personal goals for the big ladies event: not to play too tight if I got to the bubble and not to commit too much of my stack preflop without deciding whether or not to call or make an all in bet.  I’m happy to say that I think in 15+ hours of play, I succeeded pretty well in these goals, although there were obviously a few hands I’m still not sure about. At some point early in the tournament, I was probably the chip leader (hard to tell for sure with so many players.) That was exciting because there was another big stack at my table, and I got heads-up with her a couple times, which gave me a glimpse into the never-never land of deep-stacked poker. I even bluffed on the river once against her with absolutely nothing, my proudest moment of the tournament.  River bluffs rarely seem profitable enough to me in my usual short-stacked scinerios, because a reasonable bluff usually represents too large % of my stack and I’d rather save it for a situation where my opponent is even less likely to have something. I think I have the talent for deep-stack poker, although I’d need experience to tell how good I could get at it. I had little time to muse on my success and failure, as three days after Vegas, I was off on my second trip to Israel.

Upon my arrival in Israel, I was placed for about an hour in a holding area with Muslim and Arab familes. Of course this is because my last name is Shahade, a Lebanese name: when you google it, besides the chess accomplishments of my family, you’ll find some entries about fundamentalist Muslims. In the holding pen I was slightly scared yet exhiliarated by the thrill of being in something similar to a jail. I struck up a conversation with a beautiful Palestinian-Californian college student, Leena. It turns out she is blogging about her experiences in Palestine, and managed to pass the interrogation by feigning lack of political thoughts- "Jessica Simpson couldn’t match up to my apparent ignorance." I had an easier time. After an hour waiting for the interrogation, I was done in two minutes after explaining that my mother is Jewish and showing off my “Learn Hebrew in 10 minutes a day” book.  

Less than an hour after the ordeal at the airport, I was eating amazing falafel and hummus in a neighborhood called Abu Ghosh, at a place named, funnily enough, The Lebanese Restaurant. Hummus has remained a staple on my trip, while eggplant, grape leaves and halva ice cream are also fighting over my stomach.

The people have been very nice despite repeated warnings from Israelis back in America that I should expect lots of shoving and gratuitous bumping, mockery of my crude attempts to speak Hebrew, and my thighs that are naturally smaller than in the winter, but between which you still can’t stick two magnetized 1 shekel coins.  True, I have encountered Israeli men with big eyes, who will hit on you when your boyfriend goes to the bathroom and an Israeli-Palestinian boy who screamed “Muslims Only” when I tried to approach the Dome of the Rock, just to photograph it. But I found all these experiences telling or funny, not traumatic.

July will be a stressful but fun month as I’ll take my tiny pink laptop on the road for events in Philly, Chelsea, NY, Camden, St. Louis and Belize. Air-conditioning is not as popular in Israel and that doesn’t bother me. Back home, I sometimes forget to enjoy the heat.

Shalom, Jennifer