Thoughts from the Felt: Drunken Poker a Bad Idea

Published On: 1 October 2008 / Modified: 4 September 2018
Created By: Sean Lind
John Phan

Unless it's for an amount of money totally meaningless to you, or you can really handle your booze, playing drunken poker is never a good idea.

The only firsthand experience I have with playing poker drunk comes from home games, or Vegas $2/$4 Limit drink-train gong shows. When your goal is to say "I cap it" more than your friends, you're probably not playing optimal poker.

A drunken player sitting at your table will instantly change the table dynamic. No matter what has been going on at the table, when the drunkard sits, everything becomes about them.

Species of Drunk Poker Players

There are a few different species of drunken players you may encounter at the tables:

The Gambler - These drunks have had the first and last swallow, and know how to hold them, but the concept of folding drowned in a sea of cheap whiskey hours ago. Typically seen playing hands blind, pushing blind, calling with any draw and chunking light.

The Not Not Drunk - Everyone will encounter the stinking drunk who either believes, or wants you to believe, that they're as sober as you. This player will typically try to play his regular game.

The "not not" drunk is the hardest to play against, since he's unreadable and will mix quality moves with head-scratching drunken logic. Typically gets bored and tries to flush his stack to go home.

The Drunk Angler - The drunk angle is an old-time favorite. The legendary Paul Newman (rest in peace) played it to perfection in The Sting. This player is sober enough to play a truly strong game, while appearing to be a drunk for the action. When played well, this angle can clean up.

The Tournament Room
Bad beat jackpot brings out the handout hopefuls.

My Sunday Night

With the bad beat jackpot topping $140k in a local poker room, the typically slower nights of the week now have waiting lists full of handout hopefuls. My friend and I take seats at a table at the same time as a third player we've never seen before.

We start talking and prop betting right away, having a good time amongst ourselves. My buddy's girlfriend is sitting behind him waiting for her seat at a $2/$4 Limit table to open up.

We mention this to the not-yet-drunk, who gets somewhat agitated at the idea that "You will never learn to play poker at that table; it's simply not possible." The girlfriend replies that she can't afford the possible quick loss of playing No-Limit as a total beginner.

Not-Yet-Drunk won't hear of it. "I will stake you to play this game."

This being the perfect opportunity to learn the game, she gladly accepts. I pull a few strings to get her the next seat (the wait is in the neighborhood of two hours for that game at this point). During this whole time (about 30 minutes), Not-Yet-Drunk has finished one drink and has just received his second.

When he gets it, he informs the waitress that every time she brings him a new drink before his current one has gone dry, he'll give her a $10 tip. Over the next six hours, he has a new drink every 20 minutes (each one involving him yelling "COCKTAILS!" as loud as he can).

This puts Not-Yet-Drunk at a total of 26 drinks over about seven hours. Not-Yet-Drunk will now be known as The Drunk.

More Cocktails!

During the session of nonstop conversation, we learn pretty much everything about him. Most importantly, he is wealthy, makes more money at his job than he knows what to do with and truly doesn't care about the stakes we're playing for. He's there to socialize, drink and have fun.

Drunk Poker Dynamics

Now first you have to understand the table dynamics here. There is a player who appears very drunk, who also has 50% of the girlfriend at the table.

There are two main techniques for playing against drunks. Player A waits for the perfect hand to flop the nuts and trap. Player B plays back at the drunk, counting on getting paid from the drunk's wide range.

For a strong player, this really opens up the table to make some serious money. A strong player uses these opportunities not only to beat up on the drunk, but also to play back at all B players, knowing that they're now playing light and wide.

The action on the table is great; the drinks are flowing and the crowd growing.

The one thing no one on the table seems to pick up on, other than myself and my buddy, is that this drunk is actually not that drunk at all. He's had over 20 drinks, and is definitely drunk, but he's not playing as a drunk.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, when the waitress is delivering a drink somewhere in the neighborhood of #18, she asks, "Have you tried to stand up yet?" The Drunk quickly replies, "F*** no, do I look like an idiot?

Scotty Nguyen
Even after drinking more than many do in a week, some can still play very strong poker.

At the same time as he's telling the same jokes over again, he's making sophisticated high-EV plays with the only gambling he indulges in being coin-flip advertising plays.

Even after drinking more than many do in a week, he's still sober enough to play very strong poker while appearing to be drunk. For this reason it isn't surprising that he's built himself a sizable stack.

Delusions of Grandeur

One of the best examples of clarity in his play (as well as of borderline unethical behavior) comes in a three-way pot. The Drunk is in a pot with my buddy's girlfriend and another girl. The board is ace-high, and the way the action plays out it's obvious what both girls hold.

My buddy's girlfriend has an ace to beat The Drunk, but is clearly outkicked by the other girl.

The Drunk has nothing - jack-high. He knows that the girlfriend isn't folding her hand (she's still very new to poker and suffers from "Aces are the best pair you can have" syndrome), and there's a good chance she's going to lose half or more of her stack to the other girl.

Since The Drunk has staked her, it is in his best interest to have her win the hand.

After the girlfriend leads out on the river, with the other girl making the call, The Drunk employs a classic squeeze play, pumping the pot for a healthy raise. As expected, the other girl folds, leaving just The Drunk and the girlfriend.

At this point he doesn't care what happens. He wins the pot, or he loses the pot to get back the money after settling up - it's win-win for him.

As I predict, the girlfriend can't lay down her ace and wins the pot. Both my buddy and I give The Drunk props for the play, thanking him for keeping her in the game (all of this done in poker terms).

Yet another bad beat victim
The astounding part: how little attention the average poker player pays to their opponents.

What astounded me, and made me want to write about it, was the perception everyone else at the table had of what had happened. To them, he had made a dumb drunken bluff and gotten called down. The girlfriend went on to needle him about it more than once, pointing out how badly she kicked his ass in the hand.

The whole scenario served to remind me how little attention the average poker player pays to their opponents. To the others at the table he was nothing more than a drunk getting lucky.

To us, he was a cash cow, creating the action needed for us to beat up on the other players with ease, while being the only player at the table we didn't want to get heavily involved with in many pots.

I've seen the drunken angle played many times before, even done it myself, but I've never seen someone actually get stinking drunk to pull it off. This guy's liver must hate him. After last call came and went, and the only real stacks on the table belonged to the three of us, it seemed like a good time to leave.

Choosing to stop at Denny's on the way home was the worst decision any of us made all night.


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Jeff 2010-03-27 03:29:38

I only play when I drink. I found out early in college that I am better drunk. This is why I invented the poker alias "Drunk Luck" years ago. I, like the drunk you mentioned, can handle my alcohol. I can be billigerently drunk and still play extremely smart (by most standards). My name, and some misspellings in chat, seem to convince people I am too hammered to think clearly. But i digress. I am Irish!

Sean Lind 2008-10-01 23:28:00

If they paid any attention to the other players they would have known. He yelled it a few times as it was happening, and through her the money across the table. Plus during the hand he said something along the lines of "I have to get my money back somehow"

But it's been my experience that most players don't pay attention to anything, so they could have been in the dark about this one.

EB 2008-10-01 18:57:00

Did the other players at the table know he had staked her? If not, he obviously looked like a dronk (drunk donk) (I just came up with that term. Cute, huh?) So it might have only been apparent to you. If they did know, point well taken.



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