03/15/2006 1:00AM

London calling with a lesson

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I spent two nights recently playing in the Gutshot, London's poker collective that is regarded by the aficionados as the best place to play in the city. I pictured a large, swanky room when I first heard about the place, but the Gutshot is really just an Internet cafe where they happen to play poker in the small, crowded basement.

I don't say any of this to knock the place. Actually, I really like the informality.

My experiences there were a tale of two tables. Around the first one, conducted in a little side room, sat a collegial mix of eight Londoners and me. There was a lot of entirely friendly banter - the kind of game that makes you wonder, at least momentarily, why anyone would want to play poker with headphones on. Everyone showed patience, which was required because in the smaller-stakes games at the Gutshot, the players each take turns dealing, so some in the game shuffle and deal more efficiently than others. Also, most of the cash games at the club are pot limit, meaning it's a bit more complicated to determine the largest amount you're allowed to bet.

As for my play, the best hand I saw all night was jacks, and promptly the ace and king that came on the flop - complete with two pre-flop callers - meant I was going to leave that one alone. I lost for the evening but left happy. I even remarked to my friend Rob that the atmosphere was much better than in many of New York's poker rooms, where you frequently encounter blowhards who are more interested in showing you how smart they are than in winning at poker.

I think it was that comment that put the whammy on us for the next night, when we played at the other table. This one was a different animal. Wedged in the middle of the main room and stuffed to the gills with 10 players, this table was marked by impatience. In particular, there was one obvious regular who was incredibly pushy about the speed of the play and would roll his eyes as the beginning players went about their shuffling and dealing. My attitude about this - and as an obnoxious American, of course I had to say this out loud - is that if you're so worried about the speed of play, then maybe the 25-pound max buy-in isn't the one for you.

But that guy was a world-class gentleman compared with his friend who showed up soon after. At first, I thought he was a just a classic table-talker - chatting up everyone while trying to get some information and have a good time. Fair enough. But soon it started to get ugly. He continued the assault on the beginners' shuffling. He tried to turn over cards that had been mucked by another player. He was a stickler about arcane rules. And he criticized every play he saw - at least the ones he was paying attention to between talking to his friends at the other table and making side bets on the tournament he had just been knocked out of early.

"Poker is a complicated game," was one pearl of wisdom he dispensed as he challenged my decision to make a button raise (with 10-10) that won me a pot. Apparently, he thought that I was bluffing and that button raises are pass?. Whatever, dude.

A few hands later, we had a run-in. I raised the pot in early position with Q-Q, and he just called. I put him on absolutely nothing as he continued his critique of my play, claiming that he had put me on tilt because I made a raise from early position. The flop came K-J-7 and I bet the pot, and he raised me all-in. At that point, I'd say about 90 percent of the time I would have gotten away from the hand, but I made a classic mistake. From my earlier read, king-rag was exactly the kind of hand he might have held. But I have to admit, he had annoyed me enough that despite fairly marginal pot odds - although they were improved considerably by the not-insignificant chance that he might have had 2-7 - I made the call. We ran out the cards, and I lost to his raggedy king. I didn't know enough about the way this clown played to make that decision, and I let my emotions get the best of me there. So I just got up, took a deep breath, rebought, played solid poker, and made most of it back. Sadly, I didn't tangle with the blowhard again.

The moral of the story? When it comes to poker decision-making, no matter how good you might think you are, don't let your heart get in the way of your head. And when you go to the Gutshot, make sure to bring your iPod just in case.