Jazbo in Ottawa

August 1995

I just got back from a profitable trip to an amazing Hold'em aquarium in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) --- they just legalized poker in March and it's poker paradise (for a while). The rules are a bit weird (although that could change after the "trial" period).

  1. The games must benefit a charity (yeah, right :-).
  2. The only game allowed is Hold'em (wow!).
  3. Only two tables (of up to 11) can be spread at once (makes for a long wait -- often the list is full at opening time).
  4. The game cannot be spread at the same location more than three days in a row (with some special exceptions such as the Exhibition).
  5. All bets remain in front of the bettor until the end of the hand, unless a player is all-in, in which case the pot he has an interest in is collected and stacked in front of that player.
  6. Any raise must be announced verbally (chips don't speak!).
  7. All hands involved in a showdown must be shown.

Rules 3 + 4 imply that it can be hard to find and get into a game. I am indebted to Sandy MacTavish and Dave Wiegand for helping get action on my trip. Rule 5 is a bit odd, but it can make it easier to see who is in the pot (it's often easy to miss seeing someone's cards). After a lot of bets, it's sometimes hard to see that a proper bet or raise has been made, which may explain rule 6. Rule 6, however, can cost you money until you get used to it (I made the error at least 3 times, costing myself one pot (maybe) and at least a couple of bets). I like 7th rule since I am involved in relatively few showdowns, and it lets me get a line on the other players without being an asshole.

OK, now to the action. I was lucky that the Candian Exhibition was going on while I was in Ottawa. This seems most like a county fair, but included a casino, run by one of the three local companies that put on the games for various charities (interestingly, I *never* saw any indication of which charity was supposed to be the beneficiary). There was a lot of casual traffic by the card tables (set up in the exhibition hall). During my first 7 hour session, at least three people that didn't know how to play hold'em decided to try their luck! The other players, some of whom were regulars (I saw one guy in two of my 3 other sessions), weren't much better than the raw beginners. I bought in for $160 CDN for the $5+10 CDN game (the second table ($2+5) didn't get going until very late). I basically won easily, increasing my stack at a steady rate (with the usual number of bad beats) and cashed out up $666 CDN.

They also had Blackjack tables, but the rules were so horrible I don't know how they got people to play:

  1. H17, DOA, DAS
  2. Dealer takes pushes!
  3. BJ pays 2 to 1 (at least one for the player).
  4. Four decks, cutting off at least 1 1/2 decks.
  5. Bets limited to $1 CDN to $10 CDN.
  6. No insurance.
  7. European style (face up, no hole card -- dealer takes all split/double bets on Blackjack).
I doubt a computer could beat this game -- basic strategy would give the house what, an 8% edge? Maybe the players who tried hold'em were better off than playing blackjack.

They also had "rapid action" blackjack. This was basically a mini-tournament in which each player puts up $X and the one with the most chips at the end gets back (N-1)*$X. So, at a full table of 7, the house cuts 14+%. The real problem is that the tournament is over after one shoe! Since they cut off so much, this means you only play 7 or so hands at a full table! (Can you say "high variance"?) At least they played a more normal game (ties push, BJ pays 1 1/2). Since they didn't randomize the button placement, you could get a real advantage if you took the seat that acted last on the first hand -- this would get you a chance to make a move on the first hand and also probably have the best position on the last, often critical hand. I played twice. I thought I took the optimal seat on my second try, but I didn't understand how they moved the button and ended up under the gun at the beginning and end. Anyway, I got lucky enough to get a 2-1 advantage by the last hand and won when the dealer beat everyone with a 20, busting everyone but me :-).

My second session was at another special event -- the Ottawa Greek Festival. I took a couple of friends with me from my conference, thinking there would be a lot for them to do while I played poker. Unfortunately, it was kind of small and the game didn't start until 3PM (we got there about 1). One friend bailed out, taking a bus back to the hotel, but the other hung around to try Greek dancing, so I got to play for a couple of hours before I had to get back for the conference opening. I was lucky that Sandy and Dave were coming there to meet me because they got me on the list while I was wandering around (both tables, $2+5 and $5+10 had long lists to start). We all played at the $5+10, with Sandy on my left and Dave three seats to my right. I enjoyed talking with Sandy a lot -- I'm sorry I didn't get to chat more with Dave. I'm also sorry I had to leave the game after two hours -- it was higher variance that the first one (because of one maniac), and a bit tougher (with the additional rec.gamblers), but still a very high expectation game (+$322 CDN after two hours :-).

My third session wasn't successful --- I ventured out into the suburbs with Sandy's directions looking for a game run by a different company. I was lucky and didn't have to wait but 15 minutes for a seat in $5+10. That was the last luck I had for quite a while. Despite getting, TT, AQs, AA, KQs, JTs and playing some speculative hands like small pairs, JToff and Axs, I didn't win a single hand for two hours (about 60 hands). The table wasn't tough (although the players were better than the other two sessions) --- I just wasn't catching cards to match my good starting hands. For example, I lost with AA to 92s that made two pair on the turn (I wasted a bet calling him on the river --- that's one effect of running bad --- I tend to get stubborn with a good hand). Interestingly, during this period I never got close to going on tilt -- I felt I was observing myself just getting a bad run of cards. I think I am finally maturing as a poker player. The tide finally turned when I made a set of 4's on the flop and got well paid for them. My total buy was $460CDN by that point, so I was satisfied to quit only down $135 after two more hours. Unfortunately, I decided to look for the other game in the area that Sandy told me about. They had a short handed $10+20 game going, and I made the mistake of buying-in. I should have gotten up when they told be they were shutting down in 20 minutes, but I had hopes of getting up for the day. I got whipped by AA when I got a flop of Axx for my AT. A couple of more hands, and I was down to the last $30 of my $300 buy-in. I was the BB for the last hand and should have quit, but I took a shot with my short stack. My K5 caught a K on the flop, but I lost to KT. New rule for Jazbo: never get into a game that will be forced to shut down in less than an hour.

For my last chance to play, I met Sandy, Peter Rodney, Paul and their friend whose-name-I-forget-because-he-didn't-play-poker :-). We had a local draft (thanks Sandy!) before heading over to the Exhibition, clearly the best place to play while it's still going on. They only had a $2+5 table going (with a list), so we got onto the $5+10 list and grabbed a bite to eat. When we got back, they had enough to start a table. Eventually, the four rec.gamblers had seats 5-8 covered. There were a couple of loose-aggressive players and a couple of other players with a clue in this game (no rank beginners on a Wednesday night). The cards were running better for me than the previous session, and I never went very deep into my $200 buy-in. I hit early and got up to $400 and then oscillated between $400 and $600 for the next 3 hours. On one memorable hand I flopped a set of 6's, which I slow played with three others coming along. The turn put TT on the board, and I just called the bet, hoping the other two would call, but it became heads-up. When a six hit on the river, I bet out, he raised, I stared at the board (probably too long) and reraised. He called with his T's over boat to see my quads.

Near the end of the session I got a great tell on the kid in seat 11 (across from me). When the flop came 7 6 3 rainbow, his eyebrows made a quick, distinct frowning motion. I checked my top pair, top kicker (well, I *do* mix up my play :-), he bet and got a couple of callers, and I dumped. Sure enough, he had 54s (but he had to split the pot with another weak player :-). It was about closing time (everything in Ottawa seems to close by 1AM), so I didn't get to use my tell to good advantage, but it encouraged me to keep on the look-out for this major money maker in the future -- tell gathering is a part of my game that definitely needs work.

Well, let's see. Four days of play, +$925 net in Monopoly money = +$680 in *real* money (no offense to my Canadian friends :-). Not a bad trip --- I wonder if I can get any cheap flights to Ottawa? :-) Actually, I will be going back on business at the end of September -- I sure hope I get to see Sandy, Dave and company and take another shot at Ottawa Hold'em.