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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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Take a gamble across the state line

When you enter the Riverboat on the Potomac, a sign reads “Welcome to Maryland.”


In 1632, a land grant by King Charles I gave Lord Baltimore the area that would become Maryland. More importantly, the grant included about 40 miles of the entire Potomac River, so the border of Maryland and Virginia is not in the center of the river but at the mean low water mark on the Virginia shore.

Colonial Beach is in Virginia, but as soon as you take about three steps into the water you are in Maryland, even though the Maryland mainland is six miles across the Potomac.

Slot machines, which had been played behind closed doors in sections of Maryland, were made legal in 1949. Virginia investors went to work creating a “Little Las Vegas” on the Potomac at Colonial Beach. They even offered round trip flights from Washington, D.C., for $10.

The slots are gone, for now, replaced at the Riverboat on The Potomac by “off-track betting” on horse races, the Maryland lottery, Keno and popular “Texas Hold ‘em” tournaments two nights a week.

“Pocket” jacks and a big bet didn’t scare off the winning hand of two pair, which also were hidden.

Try your hand at Texas Hold ‘em

The Riverboat on The Potomac offers several forms of “gaming” entertainment. Some of the games involve study and thought, such as horse racing. Texas Hold’em requires skill at reading players, cunning and patience.

All games, just like life, involve some luck.

The Riverboat hosts two Texas Hold’em tournaments on Mondays and Wednesdays starting at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

There is no cost to get in the tournament and each player gets 4,000 chips absolutely free. Players have the option of spending up to $22 to purchase food and soft drink coupons to get another 10,000 in chips, for a maximum of 14,000 chips to play the game.

Hold’em is a popular game and is featured on TV. Each player gets two cards face down. Then a total of five cards are turned over on the table and everyone uses these five “community” cards to make a hand. It looks like a simple game, but the betting strategy makes it complicated.

Keeping a poker face is hard when you get a good hand. Good players read their opponents’ every move. Players who can read “tells” (subtle indicators in their opponents’ faces or mannerisms), can tell if they are bluffing or have a good hand.

It’s an intense game.

“Some people think they are better than they are,” said Jim Darby of Colonial Beach, who plays Hold ‘em regularly at The Riverboat. “Beginners have won the top prize, not knowing the game.”
Darby recommends buying the maximum chips. “That’s the smart thing to do. There is nothing worse than losing early and waiting three hours for the second game.”

Put 80 Hold’em players in one room and the energy level is astronomical, intensified by players who have been thinking about the tournament for days, probably since the last time they played.

At the Riverboat on The Potomac, there is a wide cross section of players. Most are young to middle age. Some wear sunglasses or a hat to shield their eyes so they won’t give away their hand.

Some are plugged into an iPod.

There’s music playing and loads of chatter, especially when a bluffer with nothing gets a player to fold a pair of aces. That hurts.

Greg Nuckols, a confirmed horse player who shies away from cards, put it this way, “At least with the horses the guy that has taken your money is not sitting across the table laughing at you.”

At another table a player sees no good cards on the table, so he drives his pair of hidden “pocket” jacks, which is a strong starting hand. But he gets burned by two small pair.

Free poker

People like to talk when they gamble. “This is free poker and it’s hard to bluff and protect your hand,” said James D. Best of Montross.

A lot of inexperienced players will “suck out” and call each bet to the very end, even when they don’t have a good hand. “I call them donkeys,” said another player.

“You can’t get mad at somebody that doesn’t know the game,” said Best. “This tounament is an excellent learning tool.”

Players like to socialize and play with people they know. “In the end, the cards have to be on your side,” said Best.

Courtney Walcott, who made the 40-mile trip from Fredericksburg added, “It’s 40 percent luck, 40 percent skill, and 20 percent bluff.”

Early into the tournament, Ken Hilburn is out and sitting at the bar. He is a bluffer who got caught. “Inexperienced players don’t know when to fold,” he admitted. “I couldn’t tell the bluffs from the ‘got its.’”

He said certain tables “bully” with aggressive play, unleashing that pent-up energy. “When you don’t get to play a lot, you tend to bet heavy.”

Hilburn said it’s an advantage to buy the food coupons to get extra chips. However, many players said they just use the free chips and hope to win early.

Hooked on Hold ‘em

by Alex Haseltine

I love Texas Hold’em.

This is not an attempt to convince anyone that Texas Hold’em is a superior game to other, more traditionally-embraced forms of poker such as stud or draw. I learned to play cards in high school, watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN while playing low-limit cash Hold’em games in the basement of my friend’s parents’ home.

I sat with my friends and watched, amazed, reverent, and more than a little bit jealous as Chris Moneymaker (yes, that’s actually his name) went from a part-time internet player to a world champion. Before long I had fallen head over heels for this game that our parents had no idea how to play.

In college I discovered the joys of online poker, and it wasn’t long before the “play money” tables lost their appeal and I transferred a couple hundred bucks into my Pokerstars account. My bankroll fluctuated with varying degrees of success over the next couple of years. It was rarely difficult to find a cash game, and my friends and I held weekly tournaments, often with a nominal $5 or $10 buy-in.

When I departed the collegiate haven of debauchery and joined the “real world,” poker was one of the first things to go. Moving to a new town, not knowing anyone, and lacking the discretionary income to finance any serious online gambling, it fell from my mind as I assimilated into a more reserved, ostensibly responsible routine.

When my peers approached me about a road trip to The Riverboat in Colonial Beach to play in a Hold’em tournament, I thought I might be hearing things. It was a free tournament, with an option to buy extra chips, so pressure would be low. Top three spots shared a $350 purse.

There would also be Keno and pony betting, but those things didn’t interest me in the slightest. My old mistress was breathlessly awaiting my return, and I would not disappoint her.

I played my game like I had never left. Much like the proverbial riding of a bike, I fell into old habits quickly, check-raising big hands and quietly folding questionable ones. I observed other players at my tables and let the weak and impulsive ones chop away at each other’s stacks.

Facing an “all in” bet, the player at left considers calling.


Two and a half hours into the tournament I had grown my chip stack from 8,000 to 174,000 and earned a seat at the final table. A large man with a grey ponytail had caught my eye. He kept betting big, kept getting called, and kept turning over the best hand. He was exhibiting that elusive and highly desirable combination of luck, strength and aggressiveness. I knew he was my biggest threat and decided it was either going to be him or me.

On the next hand, I turned up my hole cards and peeked at ace/king. I fought the flutter in my belly and bet 20,000. Everyone folded except ponytail. He looked at me quizzically, holding my gaze for a few moments before making the call.

Flop came 4-5-8. By this point a crowd of onlookers and eliminated players had gathered around the table. There was total silence as I looked at the flop the dealer had turned. I knew it was my moment. I had represented a monster hand when I bet big before the flop, and I decided to commit.

To quote the movie Rounders, “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats (losses) of his career.”

I didn’t hesitate. I gestured carelessly at my stack and said, “I’m all in.” The silence and pressure was palpable. I tried to look weak and nervous so he would think I was faking a bluff. I had been playing tight all night, and I was praying he had noticed.

Ponytail sighed and rubbed his eyes. He looked at me, looked at his cards, looked back at me. Then he shrugged and let his steely poker-face slide into a half-grin.


He first turned over an ace, then an eight. He had paired the board on the flop—a pair of eights.

I have heard it said somewhere before that gamblers are only happy when they lose, because then they can blame their loss on fate or the gods or bad luck. At that moment they are no longer subject to the stress of performance, to the unending sensation that you might be making the wrong move.

I had been beat, fair and square. I made a move, and ponytail saw through it.

As I walked away from the table I couldn’t help but smile. I held up my head and nodded humbly to ponytail.

I hadn’t earned a payout, but I had outmaneuvered and outlasted some 70 other players that night. It felt natural. It felt familiar. It felt good. I knew I would be back.

posted 08.26.2008

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