J-3 offsuit and the Monster Ballads Poker Game
Down the home game rabbit hole
Some low-stakes home games become larger than life. No rhyme or reason. Just a realization. Holy smokes we’ve built something really special here. The sweet spot of competition and laughter and friendship that fuels daydreams and memories. And a grin that appears when you exit your life and show up on Thursday night.
I’ve been a regular in dozens of home games over the years—serious, casual, cerebral, goofy, low-stakes, high-stakes, soft, tough, family, friends, coworkers, strangers, even future pros. I’ve built three games that made the magical leap. But I’ve never loved one as much as the Monster Ballads game.
Just one of those games. Came together a year before the boom, firmly grounded in the old aesthetic. Dealer’s choice. Spread limit, max $2 bet. Plastic chips. A rickety octagon Kestell table. Stud Hi-Lo Declare. Follow the Queen. Chicago. It persisted through the boom, an early nostalgic oasis from it, old-school despite not being old.
I was playing a lot of 10/20 Stud at Foxwoods at the time, and another more serious home game, plus duplicate Bridge a couple nights a week. Down the rabbit hole and loving it. Poker stars in my eyes. But nothing compared to Thursday night.
It wasn’t about the lunch money I might win or lose. Heck, it wasn’t about the cards. Never is. I mostly remember the atmospherics: the dingy apartments of our 20’s, the Schaffer beer and flavor-blasted Snyder’s pretzels, the bizarre obsession with $2 bills, the slow-rolls allowed in certain spots according to complex norms, the Monster Ballads CD on endless loop. And, of course, the guys.
T-Pep. 8-pack. Piazza-doodle. Charles. Khurram. Doc. Tam. True characters, up and down the lineup. You already know them. The loveable loser. The tellbox. The post-mortem coach. The guy who knows 11 ways to say check. The one who makes the same six jokes every week. Moods and personalities that correlated with playing styles. A few of them halfway down the rabbit hole. But mostly just kitchen table players.
A dozen guys stuck somewhere after college but before the real world. Relationships. Breakups. Grad School. Jobs. Careers. It all spilled out in the cracks between the laughter and the beats. Despite what you hear, a poker game is actually a great place to have serious conversations. Maybe because they seem less serious.
The game was six months old when we stapled a $6 no-limit hold’em tournament to the front of it. None of us had ever played Hold’em except for Piazza-doodle, but we’d seen Rounders and saw Varkoni beat Gardner on ESPN, so why not?
In 2002, the rush of betting it all was brand new. And the tourney format made it less scary to do so. It was an immediate hit. 7pm tournament on the Kestell. Old-school dealer’s choice cash at the kitchen table as soon as three people busted.
Fueled by the boom and the competitive fun of tournaments, we quickly added an annual club championship, and then a mid-season holiday tournament. Twenty-dollar affairs that took all evening, memorialized with engraved gold winners’ plaques we’d screw onto the edge of the Kestell, permanent reminders of who had won the club each year.
These championships were tense events. We’d look forward to them for weeks. The money was meaningless, but everyone wanted a plaque. One good run of cards could wash away a year of bad results, and leave a lasting physical badge. And, at least for one night, the normal clowning around disappeared.
Like every good home game, we had an array of ridiculous inside jokes. Jargon and habits and rules and behaviors that would dizzy the newcomers who passed through. Like saying Yabba Dabba Do to mean raise. Or making a big production about dragging pots all the way into your chip tray just to make that noise. Or Doc slowly turning his visor around as he grabbed the cards for his deal, a knowing roar exploding from the table.
One night, Charles jammed the river in the tournament. The board read KKA96. No flush possible. T-pep folded, flashing an Ace.
What’d you have there, Charles?
J-3 offsuit, Hoss.
Two weeks later, everyone was claiming they had J-3 offsuit whenever they took down a pot. Two weeks after that, people started playing J-3 offsuit whenever it was dealt to them. Naturally, you had to play it aggressively. How else were you going to win uncontested and get to proudly table it?
Even T-Pep, the tightest player in the game, started doing it. His 3-betting range was literally Aces, Kings, and J-3 offsuit. Not that we knew what a 3-bet or a range was.
Tournament flops would come A-J-3 and instantly you’d hear bottom two for me again. Someone else would say bullshit, you didn’t reraise before the flop. In the cash game, people started calling stuff like “Roll your own, Jacks and threes wild.” The occasional new players who passed through the club were always amused, but rarely surprised. Most low-stakes home games have a J-3 offsuit.
Call me a true believer. I was a serious player, but I knew Jack-three offsuit was the glue that held these games together. I dutifully played it full throttle. Always. Raise. 3-bet. 4-bet jam. I mean, you couldn’t lose. Either you took it down and got to table it, or you got called and got to table it. Hero or hero. On the perfect night, you’d flop huge with it and get to show it down. My dream was to make Jacks Full of Threes in Chicago, rivering the Jack of Spades to scoop the pot.
Years passed. Poker exploded. The Stud games at Foxwoods dried up, replaced at first by an endless sea of $3/$6 Limit Hold’em tables, then $1/$2 NLHE tables. No-Limit cash games sprung up around town, and I joined one. I started playing online. I satellited my way into the WSOP Main Event one year.
Through it all, the Monster Ballads poker game thrived. Thursday night a fixture on my calendar. A missed week devastating. New players came and went, as did jokes and jargon. The Kestell filled up with championship plaques. I even won a few. Yabba Dabba Do.
The 2006 club championship was in the community room at Doc’s townhouse complex. We had a steak barbecue beforehand, everyone nervously chatting. Ten players, all of whom had been with the club since the beginning.
Things were changing. A bunch of us had gotten married—club trips to AC for poker bachelor parties, of course—and a few were imminently leaving town for new jobs in new cities. It wasn’t over yet, but the writing was on the wall. The game was not going to go on forever.
I could say I played well that night, but I really just luckboxed my way to the final two. Aces vs. Kings in an early level to double up, and then a flush on the turn in a pot I didn’t belong in and next thing you know I’m bullying people on the bubble.
And suddenly it’s just me and Charles and $200 on the table and a plaque with one of our names on it and a year’s bragging rights up for grabs. Everyone else crowded around the table watching.
Twenty minutes later, I’ve got 30 big blinds in front of me, covering Charles but not by much. I’m in the BB and I take a peek.
J-3. Offsuit. Woah.
Charles min raises his button and suddenly I’m in the tank. A bizarre tank.
It’s one thing to floor the J-3 accelerator in a random Thursday tourney. This is decidedly not some random Thursday. It would be the coup of the decade to triple barrel J-3 and get away with it for most of the championship chips. But I’m almost throwing up thinking about losing the title on a play like this.
After a minute, I decide I can play it aggressively but still bail out if things get sticky. It’s a dumb compromise and I know it.
I 3-bet to 6bb , hoping to just take it down and flex when I reveal my hand, but Charles calls. Oh boy, here we go.
The flop comes A-8-4 rainbow. The SPR is right around 2. I cbet half pot, now just praying to end the hand. Charles thinks and calls.
The turn is another Ace. Now Charles perks up and smiles. You gonna bluff at it again, Hoss?
I’m strongly considering it. This is the moment of truth. If I just jam here, J3 is going face up on the table, one way or another. Hero or hero. Charles obviously has something, but if it’s not an Ace, he’s not gonna call. Strictly on the poker, I’m in the dumbest possible spot imaginable. But in the context of the last five years, this is the culmination of the entire Monster Ballads poker game.
But I chicken out.
I gently tap the table to check. Charles immediately moves all-in.
I Hollywood for 10 or 15 seconds, mostly thinking about whether to show the J-3 when I fold. I decide not to, knowing they’ll skewer me for playing it like a wimp. The jack and the three float anonymously into the muck. To everyone else, it’s just another hand.
Did you have it? I ask. But I already know the answer.
Charles grins. Jack-Three off, buddy.
Four or five hands later, I jam my short stack and lose a flip. Charles is the club champion.
That was the last Monster Ballads club championship. You never know when a poker game is going to fall apart. People move. People get busy. The game goes less and less often. And then it’s just gone.
I’ve played in a pile of different low-stakes games since then. Two became something special. One ran for a decade. Ten club championships. A million jokes. Even had a rickety old Kestell table, plaques screwed into it. And of course it had its own signature hand, 10-4. It fell apart in 2020, a victim of COVID.
The other was a Pokerstars home game club I put together the first week of the pandemic. I figured a dozen people might play for six weeks. Almost three years later, we’ve got 80 players in the club, and have played over 130 weekly tournaments. Our third club championship is this Thursday night. The signature hand is 94o. I have no idea why. But everybody plays it.
In November of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, I got a group email from Charles. Let’s put together an online reunion of the Monster Ballads game. Within minutes, half a dozen people had enthusiastically responded, and a game was set.
Almost fifteen years had passed, but we immediately assumed our old roles in the game and fell into our old rhythms. It was beautiful and surreal. Like reviving someone who died long ago. Life had intervened, and there was a lot to catch up on. Marriages. Kids. Careers.
Bizarrely, the little jokes people remembered from the game only partially overlapped. Everyone knew a different 40% of the canon. The game had evidently affected people in all different ways. I even got some blank stares when I called out top and bottom! on a J-8-3 flop. I was surprised, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.
It was never really about the cards.