"Do you want a call?"
I almost chuckled because it's one of Strag's standard lines. He likes talking to his opponents during a hand, partially because it helps him get inside their heads, partially because it tends to play head games with them, and partially just because it's more fun that way.
Of course, after 15 years of us playing poker with each other, I knew what Strag - aka Chris Straghalis, a poker buddy and PokerStars colleague - was up to. And he knew I knew what he was up to. But that's not really the point is it?
Strag is one of the senior Poker Room Operations guys and recently finished 19th in the UKIPT Isle of Man Main Event. In other words, the guy knows how to play (and how to dress, see 5pm: Chris Straghalis' amazing shirt) so in the meantime, I was doing, well, what I always do in these situations. I was staring at the center of the table, where the five of spades had suddenly become the most fascinating thing in my life. I didn't actually chuckle because that would spoil the effect. Some of my poker buddies have described me as being "in the zone" when I do this. It's basically my way to avoid giving off any tells.
And of course, Strag knew why I was doing what I doing, and I knew he knew it.
But that's kind of the fun of the whole thing. Strag knew that he probably couldn't move me out of "the zone", I knew that he would keep trying, and at some point (without an overly long hesitation), he'd do whatever he was going to do. That's how it goes when you play poker with old friends; you develop rituals and they become part of your enjoyment of the game.
There is certainly some enjoyment in playing against the same people over and over again because the head games become that much more complex and nuanced: "I never bluff here so this would be good time to bluff. But Strag knows that I never bluff here and he knows that I know that it would be good time to bluff. So he might decide to call anyway..." The beauty of poker's intellectual pas de deux is only enhanced by more intricate steps.
But that stuff is hard (mental) work. The joy of playing with folks you've known for over a decade comes without effort and is a wonder for the soul. Ultimately, you realize, after years of playing poker with the same bunch, that the dollars come and go (usually mostly even out) but the memories stick around, and you'd happily trade your profits for those.
So while Strag was talking to me, I wasn't really listening (I know what he's going to say anyway), but neither was I as disinterested as (I hope) my face and body language suggested. In fact, I was thinking, "This is really fun - whether he calls or folds is secondary."
I had another incident like that just a couple of nights ago at the local casino - made me write this essay. We had a little Sunday evening tournament, and I'd gotten down heads-up with Joan Hadley, another friend and PokerStars colleague with whom I've been playing poker for really longer than I can remember.
I had suggested a deal three-way, but when it came down to the two of us, I said "You know Joan - I dunno when we'll have a chance to play heads-up for a tournament again. You wanna go ahead and play it out?" She eyed the adjacent cash game (with its one empty seat)... "Honestly, I'd love to get into the cash game - and we'll have another chance to play heads-up for a tournament."
We chopped it by chips and she got the last seat in the cash game. Me, I headed home, thinking that it was good to look forward to Joan and me having another shot at playing heads-up for a tournament.
Poker with old friends; that's living large right there.
Lee Jones is the head of Poker Communications at PokerStars and has been part of the professional poker world for over 25 years. You can read his occasional Twitter-bites at @leehjones.