As a birthday present to myself, I arranged for an extended leave of absence from NYC. I put together a two week trip of mixed business and pleasure: two fun weekends bookending a five day poker marathon in Vegas.
Besides the obvious: packing (utilizing my enormous Pokerstars bag for the first time), booking flights and hotels, refreshing my supply of tea tree toothpicks, etc., my trip also required that I bring along enough cash to cover my poker play. I calculated the worst-case scenario for the trip, the amount I’d lose if I completely bombed. Then I went to the bank and withdrew that amount: $16,000.00. This might have aroused some serious suspicion had the bank’s employees not been familiar with me and my new occupation. Instead, I was escorted to a private room, where I was given time to thumb through the 160 Benjamins, then everyone wished me luck as I departed. I would spend most of the following twelve days walking around with a four-inch thick wad of $100 bills in my pocket. This would make many people nervous, but all I felt was bad. Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good.
The first stop on my trip was Sonoma, California. There, accompanied by the lovely Miss Janeen, I spent a couple of serene days pretending to be a wine snob and generally luxuriating. I also had my first (and probably last) lavender bath. Then, properly decompressed, I boarded a short flight to Vegas for phase two of the trip.
I’ve read almost all the recent literature waxing poetic about Las Vegas, so I don’t recall which author likened the city, geographically, to a strange opulent toy sitting in the middle of an old, empty bathtub. But with the right seat assignment, a passenger on any arriving flight can see how adept this description is. Vegas sits in the middle of a ring of mountains, in a vast desert expanse. After entering the “bathtub,” a birds-eye view first reveals nothing but a brutal uninhabited wasteland. Then, as one slowly moves overhead towards the center of the tub, before you can see the Strip in all its shining, ludicrous glory, a series of neat little yellow-brown grids become visible. Tract housing developments.
On my January trip to Las Vegas, still considering the possibility of moving permanently to the area, I rented a car and drove aimlessly around these places. To the north is Summerlin, and to the south is Henderson. These “neighborhoods” (I use that term loosely) differ so fundamentally from Manhattan that the effect was stunning. While New York offers plain visual evidence of centuries of disjointed, uneven, organic growth, the residential areas surrounding Las Vegas look as if they were copied from an engineer’s computer screen and instantaneously pasted onto the desert plain.
Driving up and down the blocks of identical, freshly minted single-floor residences, I didn’t see any pedestrians. Las Vegas, at least for the locals, is a community of people who move around from one air-conditioned locale to another in the confines of their air-conditioned cars. While its very inhabitability is a marvel of modern engineering, there appears to be nothing remarkable about living in Las Vegas. In January, the prospect of moving into one of the cookie-cutter houses dismayed me. On my second trip in May, I was thankful that it was no longer a consideration.
The attraction of Vegas, at least for me, is that it turns things that are impossible elsewhere into everyday events. One such thing is a big, juicy poker meet. And that was the reason for this trip: the Mirage Poker Showdown.
As I checked into the Mirage on Sunday, May 7, I was ready for action. And that’s exactly what I found. The Mirage had transformed its sports book area into an orgy of no limit hold ’em tournament action. One area was sectioned off strictly for one-table satellites, which ran around the clock. Another area, formerly the sports book caf?É¬©, was transformed into a large multi-table tournament room. In one corner of the room the final table of the previous day’s event was taking place as the early stages of the current day’s tournament was contested throughout the rest of the room. At noon on each and every day leading up to Sunday’s $10,000 main event, a $500+ tournament was scheduled along with a daily 6:00 pm $200 NLHE “second chance” tournament. And if that wasn’t enough, the poker room proper offered high stakes cash games. Viewing this poker nirvana, I was energized. I would step outside into the dry desert air only two times in the next 96 hours.
My first foray was a $100 single table satellite, essentially a live version of a $100 online sit-n-go. Familiar territory. I managed to win the thing, pocketing $1000 in tournament chips. The WPT event the next day, Monday, was a $500 limit event. Feeling my limit game was a bit too rusty, I opted for a short walk over to Bellagio, where I entered that casino’s daily $500 no limit tournament. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a dent there, so I returned to the Mirage for the $200 second-chance event. I fared better in that 97-person event, chopping it three ways for a nice score. Feeling that I was now sufficiently tuned up, I went to bed early in preparation for the next day’s tournament, which would be the largest single buy-in event of my career.
At noon on Tuesday, May 9, 156 people convened to play a $2500 no limit hold ’em tournament (thanks to my single-table win, it only cost me $1500 out-of-pocket). As you might expect, expensive midday, midweek events attract mostly professional poker players. And as I found my seat and looked around the room, I saw many recognizable faces. Barry Greenstein, Mike Mizrachi, TJ Cloutier, Mimi Tran, JC Tran, Scott Fischman, Michael Gracz, Bill Edler, Joe Sebok, Eli Elezra, David Singer, Tony Ma, Billy Baxter, David Pham, David Levi and many others were all milling around. Gulp.
And my table was not a soft one. To my immediate left was “Pistol” Pete Lawson, a young pro with a lot of impressive cashes. Two to my right was another young gun, Theo Tran, who was making a big splash in 2006. Across from me, decked out in cute little trendy outfit, was Jean Gluck, a young attractive Los Angeles-based female pro. And, late to arrive, taking his seat three spots to my right was Gavin Smith, the winner of the $10,000 main event here last year, along with one of the preliminary events. And that was a major problem.
There is absolutely nothing subtle about Gavin Smith. Physically speaking, he’s a big, burly, ruddy-faced Canadian. Actually, “burly” is probably a little bit too kind. I think the term “bloated” best describes his appearance. It’s patently obvious, at first sight, that Smith doesn’t often say “no thanks” when offered a hot dog and a beer. He sports wild, unkempt, shoulder-length hair, and the top of his balding head is always obscured by a fitted baseball cap turned backwards. He favors old, worn out, haphazard clothing. Despite his age, which I’d estimate to be over 40, he looks like your typical overgrown, overindulgent frat boy.
And somehow his personality is even more imposing than his appearance. Smith is a loud, vulgar, garrulous and indiscriminate torrent of continuous verbosity. A bull in a china shop. But, improbably, his act is charming. Everyone at the table, owing either to the immunity caused by repeated exposure to him or their knowledge that his act was benign, not only tolerated him, but laughed along with him. His first remark after finding his seat: “Ooh, I’m at the same table as Jean Gluck’s tits err, I mean Jean Gluck!” (Ms. Gluck’s rather large breasts were indeed difficult to ignore, crammed into a tight shirt). The comment was not seen as out-of-line, as Gluck, obviously familiar with Smith, responded with a coy smile.
And yet, notwithstanding his physical and verbal dominance, the most extraordinary thing about Gavin Smith is his skill at poker. The statistics suggest that he’s one of the top 3 tournament players in the world right now. And after experiencing him up close for the first time, I can offer nothing to dispute this assessment. This guy is just plain sick.
We started the tournament with 5000 chip stacks and 25-50 blinds. Deep. From the start, Smith used the depth of the stacks as leverage, playing virtually every hand, regardless of position. He had no discernable standard for calling raises or even reraises. At first, this style of play yielded no results. By the end of the first level of blinds, Smith had seen pretty much every flop but was sitting on only about 2500 chips. Then, at the start of the second level, with the blinds at 50-100, the following hand took place:
Someone limped in early position, and about 3 players limped behind. Smith completed from the small blind, and the big blind checked. The flop came J 6 2 with 2 clubs. Smith checked, and someone in middle position bet 300 into the 600 pot. It was folded around to Smith, who responded by hurling his entire stack forward. He was all in. Chips sprayed everywhere, and it was now folded to the original bettor, who, with about 4000 chips, was in the unenviable position of pondering the meaning of Smith’s overbet. I asked myself what I would do in his position, and considering that Smith had been in the small blind and had shown no inclination to fold any starting hand, I decided that Smith probably had 2 pair, and that I’d need a set to call this bet. The original bettor stared at Smith, who was now hunched down low, staring down at the felt in front of him. The bettor then dejectedly re-checked his hole cards and folded. As soon as the cards hit the muck, Smith grinned broadly, cackled a bit, and tossed the 7 and 3 of clubs face up on the table. “Shit, I should have called,” said the bettor. “I woulda caught [made the flush],” replied Smith. And with that, he was off to the races.
Meanwhile, I had built a nice stack, mostly because of the following hand: My stack drifted downward until I was dealt 22 in the big blind. With the blinds at 50-100, a player in middle position raised to 300 and got called by Smith (of course), the button, the small blind, and me. The flop came 10 9 2 with two hearts, and the small blind led out for 800. Hoping that it would look like I was drawing, I moved all-in for about 4000. Everyone folded back to the small blind, who considered for awhile before calling with two red jacks. Bingo. My set of ducks was good, and I was doubled up and in solid shape.
Meanwhile, Smith had kicked it into high gear. No longer short stacked, he was not content to merely play pots anymore. Now he began to either open-raise, reraise, or on select occasions, merely call another player’s raise before the flop. On one hand, he raised in late position and got called by the player right behind him, on the button. The flop came 6 4 4 with two clubs, and he checked. The button made a pot-sized bet and Smith again tossed his entire stack in, a massive overbet of about 9000 chips. The button called instantaneously, flipping over a pair of nines. The nines were no good here, as Smith had raised with 8 4 offsuit. And now the entire table was in deep trouble.
Smith’s freight train routine continued. At one point, he stole the blinds on every hand for an entire orbit. Then he woke up with JJ, made one of his huge overbets, and broke a player who held A7 on a 7-high flop. Later, he broke David Singer, who had been moved into the seat next to mine. At this point everyone else at the table had modest, single, multicolored stacks, and Smith had a fortress of towering stacks in front of him, well over three times the amount anyone else had. And he had built this chip lead in about a single hour. All the while, Smith was yapping away, daring everyone to play a pot with him, ruthlessly prodding away both with his incessant betting and verbal jabs.
The blinds had increased to 200-400, and I had surrendered my big blind to Smith three consecutive turns. And that is when a defining moment in my career transpired. Today, if someone were to ask me to specify the moment when I realized that I was a real live professional poker player, I would not say it was the hand where I won five grand with a straight flush on the river, or the hand that clinched my win Foxwoods, or any of my other modest triumphs. The defining moment of my career occurred when I decided that I was going to make a stand against Gavin Smith.
After Smith stole 400 chips from me for the third straight time, I told myself that I was going to resteal the next time he raised my big blind regardless of what hand I held. Smith had around 40k at this point, and I had about 9k. It was enough to dent his stack if he lost an all-in to me. I had been playing tight and he’d have to respect my reraise, I reasoned. Smith was running us all over, and gosh darnit, I was going to be the first to turn the tables on the bully. The button moved around the table, and I remained resolute in my decision, but felt a bit tense about it. Finally the button was two to my right, and Smith was in the cutoff. This would be the hand. I looked at my cards. The 10 of diamonds and the 6 of diamonds, a.k.a. trash. Bubkis. Suddenly I had serious reservations. I began to hope that the pot would get raised by someone in front of Smith, that someone whose raise commanded more respect would take a stab before Smith did, relieving me of my obligation to put Gavin Smith in his place. But before I knew it, everyone had folded and the action was on him.
As I had now watched him do many times, Smith casually said “raise” and flipped 1200 chips forward. And as the button and small blind folded, I honestly had no idea what I was going to do. Competing forces were at work in my brain. On the one hand, I had the sense that moving all-in was the strategically correct play. But then I imagined how foolish I would look if the ploy failed. What if Smith had a real hand? What if he could sense that I had nothing, the same way that he could seemingly sense when his crazy overbets would get called? I was halfway through a field of pros in a $2500 tournament, which is a lot of money to risk with 10-6 suited
During the fraction of a second between my turn to act and the moment of truth, things got really strange. I experienced a complete disconnect between my brain and my body. My brain was still contemplating a course of action. Then I heard my voice say “raise.” Then I saw my hands calmly press my three stacks of chips together from behind, and then my brain watched my hands push those stacks forward as my voice said “all-in,” in a firm, unwavering tone. As soon as I witnessed the chips mysteriously moving forward, Smith piped “just kidding!” and very quickly mucked his hand. Then I began to feel again. And I felt unmistakably awesome. And then I felt perfectly in tune with my two hands as they gathered Smith’s 1200 chips along with the blinds and antes, and added them to my stack.
On the very next orbit, exactly nine hands later, it was once again folded around to Smith in the cutoff. He had resumed his pilfering, unperturbed by my outburst the last time around. This time, I had about 10k in my stack and held KQ offsuit. And once again Smith raised to 1200. After a very short pause, once again I made the same exact move, pushing all in.
Smith’s reaction this time was very different. The smile faded from his face and he fixed me with a stare. Looking directly at me as I averted eye contact, he launched into a speech. “You know, I’m tiring of you putting that move on me.” I thought he might be kidding around, but when I stole a glance at his face, it was clear that he wasn’t. “Do you want a call? I’ve got a pretty good hand here, so tell me, do you want action?” he continued, talking to me as if he were reprimanding a child. I smirked slightly and continued to look away. Then something came over me. I was feeling rambunctious. I decided to offer up a response, which is exactly what Smith was looking for. “Depends on what you got,” I said, answering his query but continuing to look off into the distance, seemingly disinterested. That was a mistake. A long, uncomfortable silence ensued, as Smith looked at me, then at his chips, then back at me. Then back at his chips, and once again, he fixed his eyes on me for quite a long time. Now I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I felt a tiny little involuntary quiver in my neck, and I silently thanked Neighborhoodies, Inc. for producing the custom designed, neck-concealing “Sug D’s” sweatshirt I was wearing, per usual. Finally, Smith said “I don’t feel like racing against something like king-queen just yet.” Then he flashed me the ace of spades and folded. Wow.
The game proceeded, and Smith was undeterred, raising four of the following five hands. When it was my big blind again, I took a look at my cards and saw pocket 9’s. Uh oh. Then the action was folded around to Smith. No way. I felt a surge of excitement, knowing that the same dance was probably about to take place again. And this time I had a real hand. But to my surprise, when it was his turn to act, Smith peered at his cards, then shot me a glace, raised his eyebrows, grinned, and folded. The button and small blind folded, giving me a walk, and I tossed the two nines face up in Smith’s direction, telling him that “the same move was coming again.” “Well, I got good radar,” he replied. I declined to tell him just how good it was.
They broke our table and I looked down at my average stack of around 13k, then up at the video board. There were only 60 players left in this thing. I was swimming with the sharks! Feeling very confident, I unracked my chips at my new Gavin-free table. But then I took crushing beat.
The blinds were now 400-800 with an ante, and a player with about 11k in his stack raised in early position. I was in late position with QQ and moved all in for 15k. My opponent called and showed JJ. The flop was a very good one: Q 10 4. Yes! Ship it! But wait. The turn was an ace, and now I heard my opponent say “how ’bout a king, just because” as he stood up. Wait a minute. A king? What would that do? The river was in fact a king, and the table went ballistic. The miracle runner-runner straight this guy had just pulled on me simply failed to register. I stared at the board for a second, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Then I finally figured it out. For fuck’s sake.
Now crippled, I made a bit of a recovery by doubling through Billy Baxter (renown as one of the greatest sports handicappers in history and the man who staked Stu Ungar in the 1997 WSOP main event) when his AQ ran into my AK. Then, I somehow doubled up again when my 1010 withstood another player’s AK. I was back to around 12k and there were 36 players left when they broke my table once again and moved me to one of the final four.
The makeup of this table was interesting. Three seats to my right sat Michael Gracz, a young classy poker superstar. Three to my left was a man with bleached blond hair, multiple earrings, a variety of gaudy jewelry and very bad teeth. He was wearing a baby blue hockey jersey. It was confusing, ugly amalgam that only authentic white trash could pull off. But he commanded attention because he had a huge stack. And, seated to my immediate right was a short stacked Jerry Buss, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. This big league poker stuff was getting interesting.
It got even more interesting when I sat down to look at my very first hand at the new table and discovered pocket aces. Another player, a visibly drunk man seated between Gracz and Buss limped under the gun. Buss folded and I made a very small “please call me” raise to 2500. Everyone folded back around to the drunk guy who quickly called. The flop was all rags and the drunk guy bet 5000 into a 6000 pot. I raised all in for only about 3500 more. The drunk guy went into the tank for a very long time, finished a Budweiser, and folded, even though he was getting something like 5-1 to call. Nice.
And then, about a half hour later, with 30 players left, it was over. Just like that.
The bleached blond hick had been playing a lot of pots, splashing around, bluffing and being a general menace. Still, I had the feeling that he was a weak player. On my final hand, I was dealt the ace of hearts and the queen of clubs. I made a modest raise to 2400 from early position. The hick called in middle position and everyone else folded. The flop came 9 4 4 with two hearts. I didn’t feel like tangling with this guy, so I just checked, and he quickly checked behind me. The turn was what I believed was a very nice card: the queen of hearts. Now I had two pair, top kicker and the nut flush draw. Completely convinced that I had the best hand, and thinking that my flush draw was a freeroll, I checked, hoping to induce a bluff. The hick responded by overbetting the pot, shoving 6000 in. I read this bet as either a bluff, a weaker Q, or a pocket pair like 66 or 77. I did not put him on a flush, figuring he would have aggressively bet a flush draw on the flop. Happy to lock up the tidy 11k pot, I pushed all in for around 20k. The hick looked at me and said “you got pocket queens?” Umm, why would I check that flop with QQ? Then the hick called and tabled the 6-5 of hearts–a made flush. What the fuck?! The river was not a heart, queen or a four, and I was done. Out in 30th place.
It was easily the most disappointing knockout blow of my career. Unable to put my solid performance against elite players into rational perspective, I felt only the sting of the final hand. Could I have played it differently? Would a better player have gotten away from that hand? I had no idea. I retreated to my hotel room and I spent the next few hours curled up under the covers.
The guilty pleasure of a meal at In-N-Out Burger later that night eased the pain a bit, and the next morning I began to realize how well I’d played. My sparring with Gavin Smith alone was evidence of how far my game had come. A year ago, I would never have conceived of those resteals. And although I now knew those plays were correct, and although I had made countless similar plays online, actually executing those plays, putting a $2500 tournament on the line with no hand against one of the best players in the world, was a major step for me. Returning to action the next day, I felt more like an honest-to-god professional poker player than I ever had before.
The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful in terms of impact on my bankroll. I final tabled the second chance tournament again the next day, losing on a bad beat with 5 players left. I made no headway at all in the $1500 NLHE event. My bottom line after the five day poker orgy was slightly negative.
I was looking forward to getting away from poker for a few days, and that’s exactly what I did when 3 of my friends arrived on Thursday night. I moved my stuff into a room at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay and spent three days doing the things I used to do in Vegas before I changed careers, things that had nothing to do with poker: lounging by the pool, shooting craps, and cavorting at nightclubs.
On Monday, faced with a couple of empty hours between checkout and my scheduled flight, I returned to the poker table. It was a 2-4 NL game at Mandalay Bay with a $200 buy-in, shortstacked no limit poker. Having just played many hours at much higher stakes, I found the action rather boring and decided to stir things up a bit, just for shits and giggles. I indiscriminately moved all in a bunch of times, showing stellar hands such as 85 offsuit as I scooped $30 pots. On a flop of K J 8 with 2 spades, with a bet in front of me, I moved all in, forced everyone to fold, and showed the A4 of hearts. Eventually the players learned to trap me, and I lost a couple of buy-ins. That’s when something special happened.
I was on the button with the QJ of spades. The under the gun player raised and got called in two places. I called as well. The flop came king of spades, 10 of spades, 7 of diamonds, giving me an open-ended royal flush draw. I was happy when the under the gun raiser bet the pot and someone in middle position called. I shoved all in for roughly three times the bet, saying “let’s play a three-way all in here, fellas.” That’s exactly what transpired; I had the other guys covered and they both called my shove. The turn was a blank, but the river was magnificent: the ace of spades, completing my first royal flush. I proudly slapped my Q-J of spades down on the table and stood up, gesturing wildly in mock surprise. Then I pretended to take a snapshot with a make-believe camera. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!
I played two more hands, cashed out and headed for home. Leaving Vegas, the formerly 4-inch thick wad of Benjamins in my pocket was now 3.5 inches thick. But I felt my game had increased by more than an half inch.