In the last week of March, the legal work, which had become a total nuisance and maybe even a psychological barrier, was finally completed. To celebrate, I decided I’d play some live poker. I checked the tournament schedule in Cardplayer magazine and found that the Foxwoods Poker Classic was underway. I had missed the first few events, but the $600 NLHE event was starting on Thursday, March 29. A perfect mid-level event for a fledgling pro. Foxwoods was booked solid, so I found a room in a dump a few miles away and drove up on Wednesday.
The tournament started very slowly for me. Because the starting stacks were not huge, I was not inclined to play any speculative hands early. It didn’t matter, as I was getting completely cold-decked. It was an amazing stretch of unplayable hands. I mucked hand after hand in the first two levels but was pleased to see that the general level of play at my table was very poor. I noticed that many players were limping in with garbage. The only pot I won in the first two levels was a button-steal behind four limpers. Possibly out of sheer boredom, I raised with 8-3 offsuit and scooped up the dead money. When they broke my table 2.5 levels were gone and I had played exactly two hands.
At my new table, I still could not find any cards to play, and my stack began to dwindle as the antes kicked in. Then, with the blinds at 100-200 with a 25 ante and my stack around 2500, I found AQ suited in the big blind. There was a middle position limper, and the small blind raised to 900. It smelled like he was on a steal to me, so I shoved all in. Ooops. The small blind called and turned over AK, but a queen flopped, saving me. Doubled through to around 6000, my stack again dwindled to around 4000 when I found AK on the button. An aggressive player raised in middle position and I shoved. It was all standard business until the action got to the big blind and he instantly called. Ooooops. The original raiser folded and I discovered that my AK was up against pocket aces. A king flopped, giving me 2 outs, but so what? I stood to depart, watching the turn and river, mere formalities. The turn was a blank, and the river– the river was another king. What?! Nice! I did a short, spontaneous “gear shift” celebration (see Gibson, Kirk, rounding second) and sat back down. Maybe it was meant to be?
Now I turned up the heat. Stack size disparity was in full effect, and I began to maneuver my way through the field. For about six hours, all the way through the dinner break, I zigzagged along. Before I knew it I had broken though the bubble and into the money. Even so, the blind structure was creeping along. I recognized that the proper strategy was to turn up the aggression yet another notch. And so I did, including the following confrontation:
I was in the small blind with the 4-3 of hearts, and it was folded around to me. My stack, which was about average at this point, was only about seven big blinds. The big blind had me covered. In accordance with my new PokerXFactor knowledge and my plan for all-out aggression, I announced all in and started to put all my chips in the middle with 4 high. My opponent called before they got there. Oooooops. He flipped over AK. The flop helped neither of us, but the turn was a 4, and the river was a 3. Disgusted, my opponent, a yuppie-looking guy in John Lennon spectacles, looked up from the table, then at me and said “what the hell is that?!” He was obviously referring to my kamikaze shove with 4-3, not the hand itself. I replied “it’s two pair!” and winked at him. The other 7 players erupted with laughter, and the big blind, his tournament ruined, glared at me. On with the show.
The table was now on notice that I was a maniac, and they mostly stayed out of my way. At the same time, the quality of my starting hands improved. The tournament, which had started with 856 players, had been pared down to about 40 when my new image paid big dividends. On the hand in question one player, an older man who was very loose-passive, limped in middle position. It smelled a lot like QJ or some other moderate holding, and any astute player would know this. I was on the button with AA and raised enough to make the old man lay his hand down. The action was passed to the big blind, a very young, smart player, and he moved all in for about 4 times the amount of my raise. The old man folded and I called. The kid had K-9 and figured I was putting a move on the old guy. Oooops–for him. A classic next-level rationale NLHE confrontation, he knew that I knew that the old man’s chips were for sale (i.e. my range of hands was very wide), so he put the move on me, but I happened to have aces. I was suddenly one of the chip leaders very late in this tournament.
I resumed stealing blinds. Then the tournament director announced that we’d be playing until 1:00 am and finishing up tomorrow. When 1:00 arrived, I had just lost a major coinflip (I had QQ, he had AK) and there were 11 players left. I was 10th in chip count. We bagged our chips and were told to return at 3:00 the next day.
Exhausted, I grabbed a bite to eat, made a few phone calls, and drove back to my motel. I got in bed, but sleep was impossible. I was guaranteed something like $4,000 at this point, but the prize structure was steep. Second place was $67,000. First place was $127,000. I thought it over for a few hours and determined that trying to creep up the prize ladder would be pointless. I was shoving all my chips in at the first opportunity. Yup, shove and pray. That was the move.
It took exactly one hand to lose the first player. I had made the final table. The tournament director paused the proceedings and gathered everyone for a group photo. Next we drew for seats, found them, and sat there as the director announced our names, hometowns and chip counts in turn. I had the fewest chips. When it was my turn, the tournament director said to the assembled crowd, “David Zeitlin, from New York, New York, $91,000 in chips he’s comin’ to get ya!” This was a sarcastic reference to my puny stack, and the gallery chuckled.
The best player at the final table was Rob Sciammarella. He suffered two horrible beats at the hands of the guy I ended up chopping with heads up. I wasn’t sad to see him go.
When we were 5-handed, I proposed a deal, taking $27,000 off of first place and distributing it proportionally amongst the other 4 places. Everyone agreed. Foxwoods has a policy of neither helping broker any deals nor redistributing the money in accordance with any deal.
The wildest player at the final table was the eventual third place finisher, Firas Haddad. When we were three-handed with three roughly equal stacks, he inexplicably called off all his chips with bottom pair. I found myself heads up with Cohen, trailing 2-1 in chip count. We were playing for about $27,000. I was guaranteed around $73,000.
I got off to a bad start heads up and was down roughly 4-1 at one point. However, I began to come back. Because it was the players’ responsibility to redistribute the prize money in accordance with the 5-way deal we had agreed to earlier, the 5th through 3rd place finishers were lurking around waiting to get paid. Two of them were familiar with Cohen, and one tried to arrange payment at a later date. The obvious assumption was that he would eventually win. Emboldened by my ongoing comeback, I looked at Cohen, and then the assembled audience and said “awful presumptuous.” Some of the crowd smiled and Cohen laughed nervously.
The comeback continued. On one hand I made a big bluff on the river, drawing almost even with my opponent. At that point, he asked if I wanted to make a deal. I chose not to and we played another couple of hands. I won them both. We were virtually even. Once again he asked to deal. I gave it a little more thought and then agreed on the condition that I receive the 1st place trophy, commemorative jacket, and credit (i.e. listing in Cardplayer, etc.) as the winner. He quickly agreed to these terms. My final take after tipping out: 85.5k. Do you hear that, IRS? 85.5 grand, not 127 grand. Thanks.
My reasons for accepting the deal: First, I was totally exhausted. I had played about 17 hours of poker in the last couple of days and hardly slept at all. The horrible picture of me taken 30 seconds after the deal was reached is a testament to this. Second, I had come a long way, both from being short stacked at the start of the final table, and within the heads up portion of things. Just getting to the point where we had even stacks had been an uphill climb. Third, I was anxious to notch my first major win as a pro.
Winning the tournament was important in terms of gaining self-confidence. Self-confidence leads to aggression, which is a key attribute that all winning players have. It also provided an obvious bankroll boost, which has allowed me to play bigger tournaments and worry about my bottom line a little less. And the Foxwoods win serves as proof to my detractors and the naysayers (and they’re out there) that playing poker is a legitimate way to make a living. And so
Dear Detractors, the people who think I’m crazy for walking away from a steady living so I can play a child’s game: I might be pretty good at this game. Maybe better than you are at your job. Have fun dragging your ass out of bed at 6:30 tomorrow.
And Dear Naysayers, those of you who place me in the same category as those sad old bums that hang around OTB every day: I had my “lucky day.” Maybe if I have another “lucky day” we can promote you to Detractor!
Oh, and another good thing about winning at Foxwoods: My degree of delusion is now great enough to bring you this blog. I’m an important guy! (But seriously, thanks to Jon Marston for badgering me about doing this and having the talent to produce this thing)
When the tournament was over, the director first gave me my trophy, then walked me over to a counter in the back of the room, and counted out $127,000 in cash. Mr. Cohen and I redistributed the money in accordance with our agreement, I paid the 3rd 4th and 5th place finishers their share, I tipped the dealers $2500, and the remainder, something like $86,000 in $100 bills, was placed in a shopping bag. Accompanied by a short, fat security guard, I walked it through the casino. It was heavy.
When I reached the cashier in the poker room, I asked to convert the contents of the shopping bag to a check for $86,000.00. I unloaded the $100 bills and two women had the unpleasant task of counting them. As they flicked their way through the bills, one by one by one by one, they had to stop many times to rejuvenate their wrist muscles, accomplished by shaking them horizontally, their limp hands wiggling in front of them.
Through all of this, I felt remarkably little. No sense of accomplishment. No euphoria. No hysteria. I was still locked into my poker table mentality and demeanor. I was unable to get out of card player mode and into celebration mode.
A flurry of phone calls followed. Relaying the news, I began to understand that something very good had just happened, but I still wasn’t there yet. I went back to the motel. Still exhausted, I nevertheless decided I’d drive home that night. I wanted to sleep in my bed. I matter-of-factly packed my stuff and got into the car. Before I got on the highway, I stopped for gas. As I filled up, I patted my back pocket to make sure. Yup, the check was still there.
I pulled onto on the highway and headed south. It was a nice night. I rolled down the window. The song on the radio was “Shake That” by Eminem and Nate Dogg. And somewhere near Westbrook, Connecticut, it happened.
I started a-whoopin’ and a-hootin and a-hollarin’ like an old-time road gambler who had just cleaned out some dusty little southern town.