The Malta Poker Festival through the eyes of a noob
I pronounce it ‘newbie’ — my kids pronounce it ‘noob’ — but however you pronounce it, I am most certainly and wholeheartedly it. My only experience playing real poker was a “friendly” home game over a decade ago in Detroit, where my “friend” waltzed in and cleaned me out in 15 minutes. Looking back, I was played like a fiddle. I do love poker though. Every hand I watch is thrilling. Like baseball, poker may often seem mundane, boring even, but the game can transition from the ‘grind’ into an explosion of heart-pounding, life-changing action at the drop of a hat. Which is why I love watching poker. And why I don’t enjoy playing poker? I’m too much of an amateur. I’m not a pro. I can’t disassociate the losses and intellectually place them against the winnings for a profit/loss analysis. Every dollar lost tugs at my heartstrings. And as every poker player will tell you, you can’t win at poker that way.
— Yishai (@digitalirony) May 10, 2015
Earlier this month, I journeyed to Malta for the Malta Blockchain Summit and, having to stay over the weekend, found out that my friend and neighbor (Cardplayer Lifestyle founder) Robbie Strazynski (and evidently a million other Israelis) was there as well, for the Malta Poker Festival. Being a big fan of poker (from the sidelines), and never having been to a dedicated event festival to watch a tournament, I thought it would be an amazing experience to pay a visit. It was. Let me tell you about it.
I had never been to Malta before this trip. Malta has such a unique blend of antique, classic European construction and narrow winding streets, yet at the same time features a cacophony of massive construction projects, new buildings, and a sense of freshness and activity.
Look at this view from the balcony of my hotel room. I saw 10 active construction cranes. TEN! John Galt would be proud.
After landing at the Malta airport, right at the luggage carousel was an area to register for the Malta Blockchain Summit. Having landed at 11pm, the convenience was heart-warming and much appreciated versus having to make a separate special trip to the venue to pick up a badge early the following morning. The Summit workers at the airport said they were going to be there until 2am, and would open up shop once more at 7am the following morning. That caliber of effort showed that Malta was eager and happy to seamlessly absorb the 8,500+ conference participants. Major kudos!
The Blockchain Summit was an amazing experience. From hearing the Maltese Prime Minister himself address us, to (the virus-scan magnate and blockchain rock star) John McAfee’s colorful stories, coupled with meeting the most advanced Blockchain technologies and businesses in the world. I came away convinced that Malta is very committed to becoming the blockchain capital of the world. Just like their gaming industry revolution over a decade ago, which really put them on the map globally, the government is betting big with major blockchain legislation and major tax incentives. Malta has already started attracting the major players in the industry.
It’s Casino Time!
Before the entrée, I needed an appetizer. I was recommended by the hotel clerk to check out the Dragonara Casino. The venue was a 10-minute walk away from the hotel (all things are a 10-minute walk away in Malta’s St. Julian’s neighborhood; literally everything). I walked past some amazing-looking resorts (next time, Malta, next time…), and saw in the distance an epic, old-style building.
It felt as if I was instantly transported 200 years into the past. I could almost hear the horses’ hooves pulling the coaches, and see ladies in wide-hoop dresses arm-in-arm with their partners sporting top hats and suits. I walked up the sweeping curved staircase for the full effect, along with the ghosts from centuries past. After entering the small, elegantly decorated ante-chamber bracketed by welcome counters (and just a single security guard), I did what any noob to the scene would do: I continued walking towards the main doors into the casino. Immediately I was accosted by the two ladies behind the welcome counters: “Sir! Sir! Have you registered?!”
“Register?” I replied. “I need to register?”
“Yes, sir, everyone needs to register before entering the casino.”
Casino 1, noob 0.
Registered, ID’ed, and given an access card, I then proceeded. The Dragonara was quiet, elegant, and small. The square bar at the center was ringed by a single table of each main type of card game and two roulette tables. I spent some time observing a very interesting game I’d never seen before, a table game version of Texas Hold ‘em, but versus the house, like Blackjack (Ed. note: Casino Hold’em). Pairs or better pay out, but only if you beat the dealer’s hand. It reminded me of my brother’s go-to game in Vegas, Let It Ride. It was very exciting for me to watch.
I couldn’t get over how calm the players were. They would wager €100 per hand and calmly react to both wins and losses. At the time, I remember thinking that precisely that “indifference” is what makes a poker player professional, and what makes me, by contrast, such a poor player. The ability to take the wins and losses in stride. To treat the losses intellectually, and not emotionally, and, just as importantly, to treat the winnings in a cold, calculated manner.
That Other Time I Watched Poker in Person
That indifference reminds me of a story. I was in Vegas for a convention, and happened to be there at the same time as my (and Robbie’s) friend Amnon, who was there on a poker trip (Ed. note: More on Amnon in our feature, The Virtual Rail).
I remember watching him as he entered a poker tournament in the main poker room at Caesars Palace. I watched as he talked and played, talked and played, and kept on getting re-seated as the number of players dwindled. Next thing you know, he’s at the final table, keeps on unassumedly and amicably wishing other players “good game” as they leave, busted. Amnon chopped the first place prize (rather than duke it out all night with another pro), and walked away $7,500 richer.
What struck me most was his matter-of-fact manner when he won. He treated it just like I would treat just another day at the office. I personally was flipping out with excitement! I couldn’t believe he had just taken down the tournament and had won such a huge sum of money! He told me calmly that he was down $7,000 from the previous night, so the tournament chop put him up just $500 overall. As mentioned earlier, the mark of the pro is treating winning and losing in the same detached manner. Trusting your own skill and the forces of statistics and probability, rather than the emotions of a win or loss.
On to the Main Course
I left the Dragonara somewhat underwhelmed, but having enjoyed a taste of how casino evenings must have been like in the early 1800s. Then, it was off to the Malta Poker Festival at the Portomaso Casino. Armed with newfound knowledge, I knew to register first with the very serious reception ladies, and only then started wandering around. The casino is located downstairs in a dark, but modern, labyrinth of connected areas, with a surprisingly low ceiling. Portomaso had a lot more activity, foot traffic, and gaming tables than the Dragonara. The neatest thing I have seen in a while was a roped off area with five card tables being dealt by dealers facing cameras! It was a studio for live dealer online card games! I was so impressed with the technology and the business model, I just stood there and watched (creepily, I’m sure) for a while.
I wandered back upstairs into a side room of the poker tournament (I mean, ‘festival’). I feel rather awed walking into a poker hall (this one was small, as I would see later). I always feel out of place, like I’m invading on hallowed ground. Robbie had advised me that it’s no problem to spectate, as long as I don’t bother the players. Even so, I still felt out of place and watched for just a few minutes, but I did manage to catch an exciting all-in, and a subsequent pissed-off bust out!
By the way, another noob observation is players who bust out almost always immediately pull out their cell phones as they are standing up. I’m unsure why, but maybe it could be related to professionalism of losing? All in a day’s work? I’d be interested in hearing your takes.
Finally, it was time to meet up with Robbie and his wife, Miriam. Robbie showed us both around the casino and tried to explain the appeal of the games and action to Miriam, who ironically does not empathize with the gambling mentality. After patiently accepting the “VIP tour” from Robbie for 10 minutes, she left us to go explore some Malta nightlife, but not before capturing the moment for posterity.
Robbie then guided me into the main hall of the Malta Poker Festival. While fully expecting the distinctive sound, the chips rattling was thoroughly pervasive, yet not too loud. It was really a beautiful sound. To see hundreds of people playing poker, keeping their hands busy with chip tricks and stacking magic, was very neat. I think this chip shuffling (which Robbie told me most players do unconsciously and mindlessly) is a symptom of a poker player always wanting to be doing something. They have a need to be active, working the grind, always moving forward, and this feeling expresses itself as poker chip stacking. It is really a beautiful sound.
Speaking of the grind, as a noob, yet a big fan, I believe The Grind is a valuable lesson from poker we can all take to our daily lives. Besides taking winning and losing dispassionately, the professional poker player shows up for, and works consistently through, the grind. What I see on YouTube and the highlight reels is the result of days and days of 10-12 hour playing sessions. The Grind is dealing with seemingly tedious gameplay in order to be in a position to pounce on a rare opportunity, should that golden hand come. The poker grind inspires me to show up every day in my often boring day job.
Robbie explained to me the time screens projected on the walls, showing the number of participants, the rising blinds, and the payouts to the top winners. He also introduced me to some of his colleagues who run the behind the scenes of these tournaments, and also write like crazy about all the events. One dedicated lady (Ed. Note: Shirley Ang; hi Shirley!) there said she has been on almost 40 trips this past year!
As we talked and walked up the aisles on the main floor, we watched a loud bust out as a player went all in with pocket aces, but got beat by another player’s lesser hand that hit the flop. The dude was pissed! I was flipping out, but Robbie (a seasoned hand) coolly said, “yeah, it happens.”
We then sauntered over to the High Rollers tournament, which was underway in a different room. This tournament had just started, and everyone was very quiet and serious and in the poker zone. Headphones and deadpan faces adorned all the tables. I did not last long in that tense environment and we quickly bolted to the women’s tournament, which was where the party was at! There was raucous laughter, lively chatter, and wine glasses being emptied, as the final three tables (out of 10) played amicably. The women’s event was a blast to be around, and the effervescent lively atmosphere felt like the way I imagine poker tournaments should be played (naïve noob alert?).
Very impressive that 103 participants registered to play in the Ladies Event here at @the_malta. Great turnout and vibe! Some pics of the currently remaining 5 tables in play. pic.twitter.com/01gMhpnL6j
— Robbie Strazynski (@cardplayerlife) November 3, 2018
After some more discussion, and a glance into the dealers’ break room, we made our way down to the casino’s permanent Poker Room for Robbie to catch a cash game. He apologized, but said he couldn’t continue to properly socialize with me as he wanted to focus on the game at hand. I totally understood, and watched him for a few minutes, leaving him to enjoy his birthday game with interesting people from all over the world, talking and playing around a deck of cards.
— Robbie Strazynski (@cardplayerlife) November 3, 2018
I wandered around the casino for a bit and tried to force myself to put some money down on a game, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger! I watched others play, enjoyed the excitement and atmosphere, but couldn’t get past my amateur risk-averse emotional attachment to losing money. I did, however, plunk some money down at the bar for a tall Guinness, and sat there enjoying my sure bet, soaking up the excitement in the air.
As a noob, I will always be there on the sidelines, just watching, yet enjoying, poker.