Houston Hold 'Em

There are plenty of opportunities for poker here, legal and otherwise

"Half a dozen times a month, I'm getting calls from people who are fiddling around with the Internet," he says. "It's easy to hide. You don't have to go away from home. It's easy to hook up to a credit card. And it's easy to push the button. Suddenly, you can be 20, 30 or 50 grand in debt."

Toby plays Hold 'Em online practically every day, usually for an hour or two after work. "I wouldn't play online if I could go sit at a table anytime I wanted to," he says, "but you can't." He figures the best way to improve his game is to see as many scenarios as possible, and online rooms give him limitless opportunities for action. He's even maximized the screen size of his monitor, a neat trick that enables him to play in four tournaments at once.

But right now Toby is taking it easy. He's logged in to only three tournaments on PartyPoker.com, which claims to be the world's largest poker room. That statement might seem a little bold, until you realize there are more than 58,000 people online on a Friday evening.

It costs $22 to buy in to each game: 20 bucks for the pot and two for the site. "We're playing at the lower levels," he says, "which means we have a lot of idiots playing." These novices might seem like easy marks for a studied player, but it can be quite the opposite. It's often difficult to predict what an inexperienced player is going to do.

"It doesn't feel like real money," says Toby, echoing the warning of Gamblers Anonymous. "When players don't have to physically pick up all the chips, they're willing to take more risks." Enter the element of luck, something most experienced players wish to play down to the extreme.

Toby starts out playing tight, conservative. "You can't win a tournament in 20 minutes," he says. "You will not knock everyone out, but you can lose that quickly." Other players apparently don't know this rule; virtual people begin disappearing from virtual seats. Toby clicks on the icon for one particular player who's playing especially loose and marks him as such. This information is saved on his hard drive and will be available on the off chance they meet again.

He needs to make it to third place on at least two tables to recoup his investment of $66. First place pays $100, second $60 and third $40. The action is particularly lively at one table, so he focuses his attention there.

He's got a king and a jack of hearts, so he bets big. The other player, as we will soon learn, has a jack and a four, not of the same suit. But the cards fall the wrong way, and Toby's stack dwindles. "You see, that's ridiculous," he says. "He had no business playing with a jack and a four. That's why I get really frustrated with this."

Toby grunts and leans back in his chair. The walls of his one-bedroom apartment are adorned with revered icons: Catholic crosses and A&M gear.

A few smart moves later and he declares, "I'm in the money here." He just made it to the top three on one of the tables, although he's out a few hands later. "Well, I paid for two of my buy-ins."

Toby's got $200 total in his online account. He estimates he's down about $400 over the last five months -- not too bad for someone who plays every day. Not too good either, especially for someone who considers himself a serious student of the game.

Toby knows he won't win every time, but as long as he makes smart moves, he'll win over time. And that's where mathematics comes in. "Let's say I've got queen jack of hearts," he says. "And the flop comes ten nine of hearts and a trash card. Then there are 21 cards out there that can help me. There are nine cards that can make me a flush, and six other cards that can make me a straight. And then there are six cards that can pair with the cards in my hand and give me top pair. If you're in that position, with two top cards and a flush and straight draw, then you're looking real good, even though you don't have a hand yet."

There's more to it than that, but the whole process is a lot less complicated than it sounds, especially once you get the hang of it. Card counters are regularly thrown out of casinos (or worse) for making similar calculations against the house, but players in head-to-head games expect one another to do the math.

Toby's out of the second game soon after the first, which brings us to the final table. Six players remain, then five, then four. This is called the bubble, the point when there's one player left before everyone gets paid.

The computer dealer serves up an ace and a ten of spades to Toby, who puts about half his chips into the pot. "Come on, give me the flush," he says. And then, "Damn it!

"Now I'm in a bad spot," he says. "I had the best hand: ace ten suited, versus jack ten suited. I made the right call.

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