Tuesday, August 22, 2023

A Trip Report Featuring Tony Bigcharles and Select Poker Clubs in Houston -- August 17-20, 2023

It had been quite some time since I had been to Houston -- almost 40 years, in fact. Tony Bigcharles aka @sevencard2003 had been wanting me to visit him for some time, and when I looked at flight and rental car possibilities, it seemed like there were some pretty good deals. Since Tony had recently been staying at long-term residence hotels with suites and living rooms with couches, and since he said I could crash on his couch, I decided to head to Houston for three nights. 

Thursday, August 17, 2023
With my trusty small backpack that qualifies as a Frontier Airlines personal item, I packed up early Thursday morning and had my wife drop me off at the airport. When I fly Frontier, I fly as cheaply as I can -- no checked bags, no carry on bags, no seat selection. I usually wait until about 12 hours before the flight to check in. I got a window seat in the 10th row, so I was pretty satisfied, although I always prefer an aisle seat. When I went to sit down, I saw that the middle was occupied by a small, skinny girl. Score! Things got even better when I started to doze off before takeoff. A flight attendant asked "Sir - would you like an aisle seat?" Double score! I got moved up to a 7th row aisle seat with no one in the middle seat. A great start to the trip.

After snoozing almost the entire way from Phoenix to Houston, I hopped off the plane and headed to the shuttle bus to the rental car center. I had seen reviews of several of the agencies. I do not rent from Fox Rent a Car and the like, and other less expensive agencies had terrible reviews and noted long wait times. I decided to spring for just a bit more and rent from Alamo, which has always been great for me in the past. I waited only a few minutes in line and was quickly on my way to pick up my full size car. I was directed to a beautiful black Toyota Camry. I checked all around it -- not a scratch! When I started it up, I saw that the trip odometer had 4 miles on it. I had wondered -- could I really be driving a brand new car?

Although I was driving on the Houston toll roads and freeways during the dinner hour, traffic was not totally terrible. I soon got to Tony's hotel and we headed out to eat dinner at a Black Bear Diner. I had eaten breakfast at ones in metro Phoenix and Las Vegas, so it was time to try it for dinner. The turkey club and salad I had were very good. Tony munched down on meat loaf and dem mashed potatoes!

It was now time to learn about the private poker clubs of Texas, which get around state gambling laws. Playing at one usually means paying a one-time membership fee, a daily fee, and paying for time instead of paying rake. There are sometimes specials depending on time of day or sometimes senior discounts. The first stop: the Empire Poker Club.

Tony claimed that this was in a bad area of town. He was probably right as I got a bad feeling outside the building. Inside, a worker warmly greeted Tony and gave him a hard time in jest. It looked we were in friendly territory. There was one game going and it had two seats. Later, a second game started.

Being unfamiliar with everything, I bought in short. The results for me at this stop were not good. There were some uber aggressive players who were betting up big with crap hands. Unfortunately, I wasn't getting good enough hands to get and stay in the hands I played. On a double board bomb pot, I flopped trip Aces on one board (I forgot what I had on the second board) and decided to shove my small buy in. Unfortunately, Tony had a great hand for the other board and turned a gut shot straight to win the board I thought I'd win. Later on, I was all in with a flopped two pair and was called by an aggro dude, who rivered a higher two pair than me. Meh. I wished I'd gone to the other table when it started. At that point I'd had enough and told Tony it was time to leave.

Tony said that maybe I would like this other room better -- one where "old man poker" was played. Even though, he had won a ton his last time there. It sounded good to me. It was quite a drive, but that's what the lightning36 private Uber service was designed for! We got to the Rivers Poker Club and, unfortunately, there was only one game going and one seat open. Tony graciously offered to sit out, but I told him that he could take the seat. I had to wait a really long time before anyone left, but I talked some with the owner and felt right at home. There was no door charge for me since it was my first time there. I eventually got seated and played for some time, eventually securing a modest profit. That made me feel like I was not a total poker donk, at least. We headed back to the hotel later that night, knowing that Tony would be checking out the next morning. We would be moving to a different hotel in a different area in metro Houston. Fortunately, the sofa in Tony's suite was a hide-a-bed, ensuring that I would get a decent night's sleep.

Friday, August 18, 2023
We went to bed late and Tony did not wake up early, as I did. The free breakfast spread at the hotel was pretty good. We knew we had to get out by noon, and so we did. We loaded up Tony's stuff and headed south. When we got to the new hotel, a police car was in the parking lot, and it appeared that the policemen was making sure a woman was leaving the area. The room was not yet ready, so we grabbed lunch at a local KFC (got to have dem mashed potatoes!) and then headed to the Capri Poker Room. 
Tony played in the PLO game and I played in a $1/3 game that had one PLO hand per orbit and double bomb pots at dealer changes.  I was mostly up and down and couldn't get much traction. I ended up dumping a few bucks before we stopped to head back to the hotel to check in. After that, we headed to the nearest H-E-B grocery store. I think I had been in one once long ago. Tony had been telling what what a great store it was, and it looked pretty good to me, especially all the prepared meals that were available. We headed back to the hotel to load up the fridge and storage areas and then to Capri for a freeroll Capri. There were extra chips for dealer toke, rebuys and add ons, so the "freeroll" would not be so free for most people. I elected to not pay a cent and figured I'd just jam early and take my chances.  I started out getting a couple of small pairs that didn't get help on the flop. I called a raise with 8-8 and saw a 9-high flop. I decided to jam my remaining chips. I did -- right into A-A! After donking out of the freeroll, my bad luck continued as I returned to a cash table. In a regular Hold em hand, I made the nut straight at the turn and also had four to a flush. An opponent made a big raise and I jammed the rest of my money in. He called. I anticipated winning a big hand. Unfortunately, the river paired the board and my opponent calmly said "Quads." Seriously? After being felted on that play, I had had just about enough for the day. I hung around for a bit, then eventually headed back to the hotel with Tony. Later, I wanted to look for a decent BBQ place and Tony just wanted to eat in our room  and then sleep, so I headed out. I looked at the Yelp ratings for local places and found two. However, one had no one in it and was in a desolate area, so I passed. Another seemed to have only carry out, so I decided on a Mexican Restaurant with tons of people in it: Los Ramirez Mexican Restaurant. I ordered the Grande Meal. It was indeed GRANDE.
This picture does not include the taco with fillings that took up a whole plate and does not really do the meal justice. It was the most food I had EVER received from a combo in a Mexican Restaurant. There was no way to eat all of it! At least my belly was happy. I headed back to the hotel and eventually crashed. Tony and I both woke up around 3:30am and saw that there were three tables going at Capri. I jokingly said "Get dressed. Let's go!" When Tony started to quickly get ready I had to say "Hey - I was just kidding. No way I'm going there at 4am." We both went back to sleep.

Saturday, August 19, 2023
Thursday, we were ready to hit it another time. After lunch, we headed back to Capri. Having a little more experience there now, I felt more comfortable -- and was hoping the poker gods would spare me. They did, as I flopped a full house on one of two bomb pot PLO boards, got people to contribute, then jammed. I split a $1,200 pot and was back in business. I played very solid poker and posted a nice win for myself. The table dynamics changed when some new players came to the table, so I cashed out to take a break before a freeroll. Then a strange thing happened: no freeroll! The brush said that no one came to play, but I think they just decided not to have it. When it comes down to it, I guess these private rooms can really do almost whatever they want. People who owned/managed/worked at the room shuffled in and out of cash table seats to keep the tables filled. This certainly was a major negative in my book. I started another session and dropped a little bit, then decided I'd had enough poker for the day. I headed out for dinner and decided on Stomp's Burger Joint. The selection of different hamburgers was very good. I had one, some mac and cheese and a chocolate milkshake to go. I knew Tony had been stuck pretty bad, so I checked on his status. He bought back in for over $2K, hoping to get back in the positive range. I told him I'd stop by since the room was right across the street from my dinner spot. I told him I'd wait about 20 minutes, then he had to decide what to do. He had cut his defecit some and decided to head back to the hotel with me. We just relaxed and eventually drifted off to sleep.

Sunday, August 20, 2023
I woke up and got in the shower while Tony was sleeping. I finally woke him up and gave him some options. He decided to stay in bed while I went out for breakfast. I had found a decently rated T-Mobile  store close by that opened at noon, and we planned to get there right before it opened at noon to be first in line as Tony was looking to switch his phone service. I was hoping to be on the road by 12:30pm. I had been warned about construction and other delays. We were first in line, and Tony was able to switch carriers and get a new phone that would work out to be free. He got his service switched to his old phone and will return another time to switch active phones. I took him back to Capri and hopped on the toll road a half hour later than I planned. Fortunately, the Sunday traffic was light and getting back to the rental car center was easy. When I checked my car back in, I found out that indeed I was driving a brand new car that had only had four miles on it! I drove 220+ miles in the three days that I was there. It makes me want to get a new Camry!

My flight back home was uneventful. Frontier gave me the same window seat I had originally been given on the flight to Houston. However, this flight was almost full and I got no aisle seat. Fortunately, the middle seat was occupied by a young, skinny girl. The luck o' the Irish! My wife picked me up at the airport and we had a pleasant drive home, sharing stories of the past few days.

Trip summary
I played six poker sessions and won money at two of them. Therefore, this ended up being a losing trip. I took some bad beats but in fairness, also sucked out a few times. Maybe if I had come out a winner overall I'd have a better opinion of the Houston area poker rooms. In my mind, they are a cross between home games and regular regulated casino poker. I can see how non-locals might be concerned playing at these places. The players skill level seemed to be pretty good, and although I rarely spoke with any, they seemed to be decent guys (I only played with one woman and for a short time). I did not like paying membership fees, a daily fee and a time fee. I feel much more comfortable with a rake being taken. I also didn't like that an advertised freeroll was canceled for apparently no reason. Perhaps if we'd gone to Spades, a larger poker room, the experience might have felt different. But ... it was something new and fun, I got out of town for a few days, and I got to see Tony, who was a good host this trip. I'll get in one poker session tonight at my home game, Talking Stick, before heading to Napa, CA tomorrow to visit family and a former co-worker.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Famous Sites in Popular Music -- Part Four: The Abbey Road Crossing and Abbey Road Studios

One of the advantages of having a blog for so long is being able to publish a series of posts over time. The first three installments:

Famous Sites in Popular Music -- Part One Dan Fogelberg: Same Old Lang Syne

Famous Sites in Popular Music -- Part Two: The Day the Music Died

Famous Sites in Popular Music -- Part Three: Carefree Highway by Gordon Lightfoot

And today ... Part Four!
Being a child of the 1960s and 1970s, I was and still am a huge fan of the British Invasion music that began with the Beatles. When my wife and I were in London in March 2002, the main site I wanted to see was the famous crosswalk the Beatles were in on the cover of the Abbey Road album. It was the thrill of a lifetime to actually walk across the fabled place. However, it is not as easy as it seems. The road is actually quite busy, so you have to carefully chose your spot. We finally did get a reprieve from the traffic, and ...

Now, of course, walking there was not enough as who would ever know if or when we would be back (we have never returned to London!). So ... when I saw a door open at the Abbey Road Studios, I grabbed Mrs. lightning and we went inside the restricted building. It was amazing to see the studio rooms where such great music had been made and recorded. Unfortunately, we were soon discovered by an employee who politely informed us that visitors were not allowed inside. Of course, we played dumb and acted like we didn't  know that. We left the building and hung around the very small parking lot and watched musicians walk up. Unfortunately, we recognized no one famous. I am certainly glad that we walked in when we had the chance. And you know what? I WAS THERE!
Thanks for reading!