Welcome back to the Great American Poker Trip. My name is Jack Laskey and I’m a co-host of the Just Hands Poker Podcast. My co-host (and fellow Cardplayer Lifestyle contributor) Zach Resnick and I started in Washington D.C. and are slowly making our way to California. Along the way I’m taking some time to reflect on the trip highlights and the poker scene across the country. In our last installment, we visited New Orleans. In this installment, I’ll be telling you about the poker we played in Houston, Texas.
A note to readers: I am not currently in Houston and actually haven’t been for a few months. I am writing and publishing these articles after the fact. I’m including this note because of Hurricane Harvey and is catastrophic effect on Houston. Zach and I stayed with a friend whose house took on over three feet of water. I’m almost certain that all of the places where we played poker in Houston have been flooded if not destroyed. If you have not already, please considering donating to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort via this link, which provides you with a list of reputable charity options. Also, consider using poker for good and organize a charity tournament with friends or try to find one of the dozens of charity poker tournaments popping up around the country to benefit the people of Houston.
The Houston Underground Poker Scene
The great game of Texas Hold’em has been living in exile for quite some time, or at least it would appear so from the outside. Ironically, this game which has been legalized and promoted in many parts of the country and world remains in the “outlaw state” in its homeland. The Texans may not mind the decentralized unregulated state of Texas poker, but even the purists can only tolerate so much rake.
Much like New York City, Houston’s poker scene is made up of hundreds if not thousands of private and semi-private games. Ranging from the true home game to the underground casino, these games all promote a slightly greater sense of both kinship and risk compared to their casino brethren. Both of those qualities were present in the game Zach and I spent most of our time in during our Texas stay. We would not have been able to play in this game, let alone find it, were it not for a local connection. Our man in Houston hooked us up and we found ourselves walking into a windowless, nameless store in desolate strip-mall by NASA into the middle of an uncapped $2/5/10 NLH+PLO game.
The mechanics of this game are unusual for those used to casino play. The establishment had a name (they asked me not to include the name in this article) that related to a common poker-related animal that I’ll refer to going forward as a “little mule”. The decor heavily featured little mules, the felt and the chips included. There were also three important little mule styled game pieces, two little mule coins and a little mule figurine. These all played an important game function.
The little mule figurine was their version of “the rock”, an underground game staple used to inflate the size of the pot and rake more. Basically, if you are in possession of the little mule figurine, you must post it if you are under the gun or on the button. At that point, the little mule acts as a $10 straddle (although it cannot be redeemed for cash). Further, the little mule can be sold for a fixed price of $5 to someone under the gun or on the button. While you don’t have to sell, its expected that you do, particularly since you will be able to buy it back when you have a chance to play it. If you find yourself in this atmosphere, I recommend buying the little mule on the button. It’s a cheap (if not +EV) way to participate.
The little mule coins are the PLO triggers. There are two coins in circulation. If a coin holder is on the button, then a PLO hand is dealt. After one of these PLO hand, the coin moves counter-clockwise. This means a little under half of the game is PLO. If you are on the button for PLO, definitely buy the little mule.
So why go through all the trouble? The way these games are being raked, 10% up to $25, inflating the pot is well worth the effort. In their defense, they run a high-risk operation very well and there are perks like free food (some delicious Mexican cuisine while we were there). Still, with around $400/hr coming off the table, it’s a tough game to beat.
Unlikely much of the cuisine, not everything that happens in a NYC underground poker game is kosher. There is regularly a dedicated weed smoking room among other things that may alienate part of the clientele. The Houston game seemed a bit more “above the influence”, but the presence of holstered guns, something that would never be seen in a NYC game, had a stronger effect on my comfort level than I would have suspected. If people in the game are getting high, that is probably a good thing for my bottom line. On the other hand, if I pass on making a +EV bluff or light call-down vs a tilted Texan with a pistol, that doesn’t help my win rate aside from any other implications.
Fortunately, the utter pleasantness of the game relieved any initial discomforts. Throughout the South, I had been impressed with the warm interest people took to a new face in the game. In the home game atmosphere of this underground game, that tendency was magnified. Laughter and mouth-watering tacos really make any situation better. Overall, I found the experience much more enjoyable than the NYC equivalents. While the rake was very high, there wasn’t any kind of hustler vibe from the people running the game.
Game Selection: 7/10
I think game selection may be a misnomer here since there wasn’t really anything to choose from. However, the game offered, a NLH-PLO mix, is really fun. I think mixing in PLO helps loosen up the game a lot. Still, playing majority NLH keeps the game moving and also means that you get to play PLO with some true novices.
Game Quality: 6/10
If you could find this game in a casino with standard rake, my rating for it would be a 10/10. However, the extremely high rake really lowers expectation. Most break-even and slightly winning players in a typical casino $2/5 game will be long-term losers in this room. That being said, the PLO is ridiculously good action and the NLH is nothing to sniff at. The high rake does mean that there are fewer tight regs trying to eek out a few BB/hr, which is really great for the game.
Table Atmosphere: 8/10
This room was a ton of fun. The chips were flying and everyone was having a good time. I played with a couple guys who were straight out of the Doyle Brunson-school of poker persona. It was awesome.
I just love free food when I’m playing poker. It wasn’t worth the price of the rake, but it made me feel special. When the food is good, it’s all the better.
I had a great time playing poker in Houston. It’s saddening to think that this room was almost certainly flooded. I’m sure like the rest of the city this game will recover in time, but I hope that process will be speedy since these underground games are like a small community, and it’s not as easy to find another game.
Again, please consider donating to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort if you have not already.
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