While my wife was out of town this weekend, I took a quick trip up to Hammond, Indiana, to play some poker at the Horseshoe. It’s about a five-hour drive, mostly on I-55, with the middle of the trip dominated by farmland as far as the eye can see — and because everything’s flat, that’s a long way. There are also two wind farms on the route, each of which has dozens upon dozens of white turbines turning in the breeze. I love seeing that renewable technology in use, and wonder why we don’t have more of it in the St. Louis area (I’ve only seen one turbine in the entire metro area, just off I-170 near Page).

The Horseshoe has a 5-10 pot-limit Omaha game on Fridays, and after my 5-hour drive north, I got there just in time to start it shorthanded against 3 opponents. Within an hour, the table filled up and it turned into a great game.

One of the things that made it great is that everyone had plenty of chips. I can’t stand short-stack PLO, where all the money goes in pre-flop or on the flop, and there’s no strategy needed on the turn and river. In lower-limit PLO games ($1 and $2 blinds), some players buy in for the $100 minimum and just want to stick it in the middle and hope to get lucky. But unlike Texas hold’em, where you can make a huge raise pre-flop with pocket aces and know you’re way ahead of anyone who calls (80-20 at worst), in Omaha you’re never going to be a huge favorite pre-flop (maybe 60-40). Even on the flop, you can have top set and still be an underdog to someone with big straight and flush draws. So, if you get it all in pre-flop, you don’t get to re-assess your holding and bet accordingly on later streets, as you should. You’re not playing poker — you’re playing Spin The Wheel.

This was a deep-stack PLO game, with some pretty impressive moves by a couple of the young pros at the other end of the table. I mostly stayed away from playing big hands against those two, choosing my spots more wisely, as there were several others who donated more than they collected. One non-pro, especially, got in trouble early, and then went on full tilt, re-buying, playing every hand, and making worse decisions in an effort to get even but only digging a bigger hole for himself. In about three hours, he had gone through ten grand and left. I got a little bit of it and had a successful afternoon and evening before calling it a night.

I found a good $100/night hotel at the last minute on Priceline and sacked out for many hours. When I woke up, it was too early to head back to the Horseshoe, so I stayed in the room to do some reading and writing. By mid-afternoon, I checked the Bravo app and saw that the only PLO action was going to be a $1-2 game. I didn’t love it, but preferred that to $2-5 no-limit hold’em, so I drove over and got on the list. A half-hour later, I sat down at the PLO table.

The maximum buy-in was $500 and, sure enough, several players only had a hundred or two in front of them. I knew what was coming — a game that looked like it had plenty of action because of all the early raising and shoving, but no big pots unless the two big stacks (who had been playing for a while and taken quite a few chips from those min-buyers) got involved.

The guy who had lost $10,000 the night before was there. I recognized one other player because he was constantly working a string of Worry Beads through his fingers. Interestingly, they were a different color from the beads he’s used in the previous session. I later found out he has others that serve as his good luck charms based on the day of the week — because god forbid he use the Friday beads on Saturday! The truth is they’re completely useless every day.

The other odd thing I observed in this game was that the player to my right straddled every round. In poker, a straddle is an extra bet made before the cards are dealt — in addition to the blinds — that increases the stakes and gives the straddler the last option to act in the pre-flop betting round. It has no impact on later streets. At the Horseshoe, you can only straddle in the under-the-gun position (one to the left of the big blind), and only for double the value of the big blind. In St. Louis, at a $1-2 table, you can straddle for up to $10, but in Hammond, the maximum straddle in that game is $4. What makes this so odd is that, even though the blinds are one and two dollars, the minimum amount you can bet (“the bring-in”) is $5. Yet here’s a guy who’s straddling for less than the bring-in, which means he’s not increasing the stakes at all. And as for that last-action option? He never raised from the straddle once. He either called or folded every time. Made no sense to me, but I encourage any player to put more dead money in the pot whenever possible.

My Saturday session didn’t go as well as my Friday session, but I still came out ahead, even accounting for gas and hotel expenses. On my way back to the hotel that evening, I stopped off at my favorite Mexican restaurant in that area, La Fogata Taqueria, where I’ve never had a less-than-delicious meal. Every time I go, I’m the only gringo in the place. Everyone else, including the wait staff, is speaking Spanish. Fortunately, I know just enough to be able to order my dinner en Español, although the woman behind the counter always grins knowingly at me for making an effort. This time, there was even a guy wandering around strumming a guitar and singing songs in Spanish — and they weren’t the typical tourist-friendly tunes you’d get from a Mariachi band in a Chili’s during happy hour. These were folk songs that the regulars knew but I’d never heard before. The performer knew it, too, because as he strolled, he’d stop at some tables to take requests (and earn tips), but after a mere glance in my direction, kept going to the family behind me.

That was fine with me, because except for ordering another burrito or asking directions to el baño or la biblioteca, my one year of high-school Spanish wasn’t going to do me much good. Besides, I only had my Tuesday worry beads in my pocket.

Want more of my poker stories? Click here.