Top-10 lessons I learned about poker playing cards with my non-gambler father

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I had my first gambling experience when I was about seven or eight years old. My father and my grandfather owned a small hunting camp in the northern Adirondacks, and while I was too young to go up during the hunting season, we often spent summer weekends up at camp, giving my mother a break from her three rambunctious boys and giving us a chance to spend some quality time with our father, grandfather, and uncles.


Thirty years ago, the camp lacked the niceties it has now. There was no satellite TV, no generator to provide electricity and no running water. (It still lacks the running water.) The “refrigerator,” as we called it, was a cabinet out on the unheated porch where the temperatures usually stayed in the 30s in the winter, though sometimes the milk would freeze on especially frigid nights.


Without technology to entertain us, after-dinner activities typically included card games (and still do, by the way, even with the DirecTV satellite and whisper-quiet generator running outside). My father and my grandfather taught me a whole host of card games, but the only game we ever played at camp was 31. The most exciting thing about 31 for me, at age seven, was the opportunity to win a handful of nickels.


This is about as close to gambling as my father ever really gets. He knows the odds and chooses not to play. That said, I’ve learned quite a bit about gambling from my father at the card table. So in honor of Father’s Day, here are 10 lessons about poker I learned playing 31 with my Dad.


10. Play at stakes that make sense for you

When I said we played for nickels, I’m not kidding. Here’s a quick primer on 31, in case you’ve never played the game.


Each player starts with three nickels (or any other denomination the group decides on) and is dealt three cards, with one card dealt face up to start the discard pile. Face cards are worth 10, aces are 11 and all other cards are worth their face value. Suited cards can be added together, and three of a kind is worth 30. (Note: Some people play that three of a kind is worth 30.5.)


The player to the dealer‘s left can choose the card off the discard pile or the top card off the deck, then must discard a card. The next player makes the same choice and so on, until someone uses their turn to knock on the table (aka “tunk”), signifying that each player has one turn remaining. Players then reveal their hands, and the player(s) with the lowest total must pay one nickel into the pot.


If a player gets 31 (a suited ace and two face cards) on their turn, they can immediately turn their hand over, and everyone else must contribute a nickel to the pot. When you run out of nickels you’re out of the game, and when only one player is left, he wins the whole pile.


A hand can take more than five minutes to complete, so if you have seven or eight players, you can imagine how long it takes to resolve just one match. Most nights I’d finish up or down no more than a dollar.


At the time, those were reasonable stakes for us to play. Later, when I was in my late 20s, my father lobbied to increase the stakes to a quarter. Dad didn’t want anyone to go broke, but he did want to make it a little more interesting. If you won two games at quarter stakes, at least then you’d finish the night up $7-$8. And even if you lost four games, you’d only be down $3. For my father, that’s what he’s willing to risk and enough of a reward to make it interesting. But my grandfather would have none of it, so the game remained a nickel game.


Knowing what stakes make sense for you is one of the most important lessons a gambler can learn, and I’m thankful that I’ve never been too tempted to play over my head.



9. You play your own money

I’ll admit that my father staked me in my first few games of 31. But once I won my first game, I was on my own, even at a young age. We all had our own cups that stayed at camp, and we were expected to fill them back up if they were empty.


I can’t say for sure whether or not Dad threw some matches when we got to be heads up when I was young, but I do know that from a young age I was responsible for managing my own “gambling money.”


While I’ve sold pieces of myself to friends in a few tournaments here and there, I’ve always played with my own money and never borrowed from anyone else to get into a poker game. Knowing that my wins and losses are my own helps ensure that I play my best at all times, since I know I’m the one on the hook.



8. Understand position

It’s not unusual for my father to be the first player to act in an early hand of 31 and instantly knock on the table. If he has a score of 17 or more in his hand and isn’t holding an ace, he’s probably going to tunk. When there are a lot of players in the game, it’s a good strategy. Players are only going to have once chance to improve their hand, and there’s a very good chance that at least one of them will finish with a lower total score than his. He isn’t as likely to do that, however, if he’s the dealer and everyone else has already had a turn unless his score is 22 or more.


It was easy for me to understand just how important position is when I first started playing poker many years later, thanks to watching my father play 31.



7. Change gears

Watching my father play 31, I learned how important it is to consider how many players you’re up against. Early on, when there are a lot of players in the game, my father might sit on 29 and try to spike a 31 to make the whole table pay a nickel. But against just one or two opponents, he’d knock and pick off just one player.


Understanding the difference between a full table and a shorthanded one is critical to success in 31 and poker, and I’m glad I was able to figure that out quickly.



6. Play two-way hands, when appropriate

If you’re playing a hi-low version of poker, this is a given, and believe it or not, it makes sense in 31, too. In the early stages of a hand, holding a hand like 10-9 of hearts with the 9 of clubs can put you in great position. If you snag another big heart, you have a high total that will likely keep you from having the low score. If you hit a third nine, you will have 30 points which should also keep you safe. Of course the best two-way hand you can hold is A-A-K (or any other face card), as it gives you a chance to hit 31 and make everyone pay, while holding two of the four aces makes it much harder for anyone else to hit 31.



5. Be wary of small pairs

While he is a fan of the two-way hand, my father usually breaks up his small pairs when he was the opportunity to improve his point total, as they usually lead to trouble. It’s pretty hard to hit three of a kind, and if you’re holding J-4-4 and have 14 points and someone tunks, you’re going to need a lot of help to improve your score to more than 20 on your final turn.


The same holds true in Hold’em. If you play a pair of 4s and the flop comes Q-8-7, what do you do with that pair? If you can get in cheaply preflop (or in 31, if you can catch the third 4 early), then go for it. Otherwise, abandon ship and find better opportunities.



4. Pay attention to the cards

I remember when I was first learning the game, I held a hand like 10-8-8 with two of the same suit when someone other than the person to my right discarded an 8 and it got covered up, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to get that card. On my next turn, I picked up a 5 that matched my 10 and 8, and I was about to discard it when my father stopped me.


“Throw the 8,” he whispered. Obviously he was monitoring my play and teaching me as I went.


“Why? I have two of them.”


“But one of them is already gone. It’s time to give up on the 8s,” he said.


Paying attention to what cards are out is essential not only in 31, but also in stud games. I can thank my Dad for helping me develop a card sense that has really helped my poker game.



3. Pay attention to your opponents

In 31, there can be a very important indicator as to what kind of cards a player is looking for: The cards they pick up off the discard pile. I clearly remember giving an opponent to my left a 31 once by discarding an ace to him one turn after he’d picked up a face card of the same suit that I discarded. When the whole table erupted, my father patiently explained that I should have been paying attention to the fact that he’d picked up the first card. Even though those cards didn’t fit into my hand, ditching a few points to prevent a 31 was the better option, as I wasn’t guaranteed to lose if I held onto the ace.



2. Be a good loser

When I was young, I had a really hard time losing, especially in card games. I’d throw a fit and get very upset. Thankfully, my father helped teach me that the primary reason for the game was to have fun and I got over it. (I’m still working on teaching this lesson to my own 7-year-old.)


This is a lesson I could still use a little improvement in my poker game (especially when I’m hosting a WSOP satellite and suffer a bad beat!), but in general I handle my losing poker sessions pretty well.



1. Be social

In case it isn’t clear, the primary purpose of our hunting camp 31 games was social. No one was getting rich playing for nickels, but there were plenty of jokes and a lot of laughs.


Today, the vast majority of the poker I play is played with friends. And that’s just the way I like it. Even when I play with people I’ve never met at a home game, while I’m trying to play my best, my primary objective is to meet new people and have fun. Some of my best friends are people I’ve been playing poker with for a decade, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


So thanks, Dad, for helping teach me that a deck of cards can be a great community builder while providing some fun competition.


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