For a brief period I was sitting next to Marky_Crash.
To be playing a Limit Hold 'Em tourney close to the money, chipstack not at its best and with a fair bit of work to do to dodge the bubble is a fraught experience. Anyone in any doubt about whether or not poker is a game of skill should try this: it's that period before the bubble where everyone tightens up, tables are playing hand-for-hand and the slightest error of judgement means your last couple of hours could be wasted, when you realise that the difference between making it to the money and busting out could be a single hand, a single bet, a single twitch of the other guy's digital countenance. It's all on you. The cards are secondary - poker is no more controlled by luck than surfboards are controlled by waves: you ride the cards, and sometimes the risky ones are the most exhilarating - and concentration is key.
I speak as a middlingly-competent if somewhat inexperienced player - been at it for a couple of months now, ranked around fifty percent on OfficialPokerRankings.com (although I was at seventy-two percent last week! A few bad beats and a couple of stupid errors have lopped off a bit) and at the point where I would seriously consider buying a copy of Sklansky - who is naturally quite taken aback when a player of Marky_Crash's calibre (ninety-nine percent. Holy shit) takes the seat to my right. Mr Crash is good, professional good, World Series good, and three years younger than me, all of which sends me into a sudden consternation escalator that forces me to fold the next two hands just to get my bearings. Marky fucking Crash. Shitty shitty damn.
I have never been starstruck by the famous or successful, I should point out: I worked in a bookshop for many years and had not only various authors of varying standing come in to do signings but numerous famous customers. The bookshop scenes from Kevin And Perry Go Large were filmed at my store, and I sold a book to Kathy Burke that day (Harry Enfield lurked in corners, looking unsure of himself. Perhaps not a strong reader, or simply employing The Method, it's hard to say). I have encountered David Suchet, one of the Gallagher brothers (who I mistook for a shoplifter and followed about for a while before realising), two Eastenders, Nick Leeson and Geri Halliwell, who was very pleasant if a little too blase about my personal space. My usual strategy with stars is to pretend I don't recognise them, which is often actually the case (remind me to tell you of my amusing faux pas with Nick Leeson some time) and is the most British thing to do, I think.
No, sitting next to Marky_Crash was a shocker because he is a far, far superior player and with my stack in a dangerous state already constituted a large additional risk. On the other hand I at least had position on him, and as he folded and folded and folded it became clear that he was a very tight player, tight enough that I might not need to go up against him anyway.
I relaxed, bade my time and took notes. Limit Hold 'Em is strategically very different to No Limit: the latter is glamorous and cool, with wild swings that can triple your money or kill you stone dead in a single hand, where force of will and sheer balls can sometimes carry the day. Limit requires balls too but more important is analytical strength and self-discipline. It's been said that No-Limit is all about maximising your winnings whereas Limit is about cutting your losses: in truth both games require both skills but the proportions do indeed vary.
No-Limit can be played like a hero but Limit has to be played like a business, and it's possible that this is why it's less popular. I am told that one should focus on either one or t'other as a player's temperament naturally lends itself to a particular game, which is why I've been trying Limit lately, with some success - loosening my game pre-flop and tightening post-flop is actually just the tonic my No-Limit game has needed, too, and I won a few dollars tonight in a No-Limit tourney as a warm-up before the Limit event, breaking my unlucky streak of the last week.
I think I played only one hand against Marky_Crash before the players were shuffled around the tables again: he raised me pre-flop as one might expect from a Tight-Aggressive player (I'm tight but not very aggressive: I slow-play well and bluff poorly so this suits me better. I'm what you might call Tight-Grumpy) but I was BB, had a playable hand and nobody else was in so I called it. I flopped nothing, he raised again, I folded like a map and that was that. He won the hand, but I didn't give him more than I had to, and it felt good, actually, like I'd acquitted myself properly. It felt like that little nod that runners give when we pass each other on the trail, a mutual expression of respect. I know you're not a couch potato, that nod says. I know you're not a donk.
I won a couple of hands after that, bolstered my flagging stack nicely and made it past the bubble. I busted out in fourteenth place, all-in on a coinflip: since the money started at thirtieth place I didn't feel too bad (and I made a few bucks, after all) but I would like to have made the final table and shown him down. The beauty of poker, as in running, is in its egalitarianism: you can run with the very best if you turn up on the start line, and even though they will certainly overtake you, you can still learn something from them.