Finding My Inner Kamikaze–WSOP Part 1

Well, I’m back from Vegas for the time being. I’ve been having a hard time working up the motivation to write this entry, so forgive me if it sucks. Maybe once I get going it’ll start to flow. So, without further ado, here’s a recap of my stay in Vegas:

I had a bit of a wild weekend in New York and started the trip a day late, in a state of total sleep deprivation. Personally, fatigue is the worst thing for my game. I’m a complete idiot when I’m tired. I play worse tired than I play blind drunk. So it came as no surprise when I didn’t do anything in the $500 second-chance tournament on Monday, the day of my arrival. And to the disappointment of my friend Matt, who happened to be in Vegas on business, my fatigue also meant no partying on Monday night. I was sound asleep by 10:30 PST, and didn’t get out of bed until after 9AM on Tuesday. But I was well rested for my second-ever WSOP event, the WSOP Event #18, the $2000 Pot Limit Hold ‘Em tournament on Tuesday.

Just an hour before the tournament started, I felt a burst of nervous energy. Something about the atmosphere at the Rio’s bustling, colossal WSOP area is kind of overwhelming. Looking around and seeing literally hundreds of recognizable players, I felt a nagging doubt that I belonged there, and it wasn’t going away. It occurred to me that it was a familiar feeling. I used to experience the same sensation before the start of a big, standardized exam, like the LSATs. And for good reason: poker tournaments bear something in common with those tests; they’re really a long series of rapid-fire multiple choice questions. Except you’re gambling, not filling in little circles with a #2 pencil. And if you’re me, that means fun. The start of the tournament couldn’t come soon enough. And when it did, just as I did when I took the LSATs, I calmed down.

The tournament drew 590 entrants, and first place was $311,000 plus a WSOP bracelet. The smallest prize at the final table would be $26,000. Not child’s play. I started out playing very tight, protecting my 2000 chips by entering very few pots. I took a few stabs here and there, and on one occasion flopped a set, which enabled me to pick up a decent pot. Still, in the middle of the third blind level (50-100), about 2.5 hours into the event, my stack had drifted down to the 1500 area.

The most interesting thing about my tournament so far was the player sitting to my immediate left: it was a gentleman in his 50’s with a mostly bald dome, with his remaining locks pulled into a tiny ponytail. He sported a mustache and tinted glasses and I pegged him as an ex-hippie type. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but his countenance was that of an east-coaster, not a Las Vegas resident. He looked less like a poker player than someone you might find sitting at the counter at a diner on Northern Boulevard. I would soon find out that his name was David “The Rabbi” Danheiser (he provided me with his business card stating same), and he was a very chatty fellow.

I normally avoid conversing at the poker table, but that was not an option with Rabbi, who, it turns out, was not an actual rabbi, but was a very nice guy. He was a real old-schooler, a regular on the poker circuit since the days way before poker was chic. Rabbi’s best game is triple draw lowball, and he has worked as a prop both live and online. He knew Stu Ungar in his “Stuey the Kid” days, Lederer in his fat bearded days, Mike Sexton in his pre-corporate days, and pretty much everyone else. He dished the dirt on a lot of well-known pros and we talked about a lot of other things, including New York (I was right, Rabbi is originally from Queens), the strip clubs in Tunica, Mississippi, and of course, his historic bad beats. I later did some homework on Rabbi. He was not full of shit, his resume includes tournament cashes that date back to at least the mid-80’s, but he has very few large scores to his credit. And from what I could gather during my few hours of play with him, this was because he was a very solid player, but one that lacked the inner kamikaze that all poker champions have, and he seemed somewhat aware of it. Perhaps this is why he described himself as a “poker coach” rather than a professional poker player. Either way, I was happy to meet him. If you ever end up reading this, you’re the man, Rabbi.

Back to the tournament. With my attention to detail somehow undiminished by Mr. Rabbi’s constant chatter, I noticed that the player to my immediate right was raising a lot of pots in late position. On my button, this player raised the max, to 350. I held pocket fives and I figured it was ahead of his range. Thinking I’d pick up a few hundred chips, I reraised the max, leaving me with only a few hundred behind. The blinds both folded and to my surprise, the loose guy in the cutoff said “lets just put it all in.” I was committed, so I called and was very relieved to see him table AQ. The board didn’t improve his hand, and I doubled up to a healthy stack size of approximately 3200. Nice.

My next big hand occurred one level later, when I was in the small blind with the QJ of diamonds. A player in early position called 200 and two other players trailed in. I completed from the small blind, and Rabbi checked his big blind. The flop was a pleasing QQ3 rainbow. I checked, and so did everyone else. The turn was a J, making my hand a virtual lock. I checked again, and again, so did everyone else. The turn was an inconspicuous looking 6. Now I led out for 600, hoping that perhaps someone else was slowplaying a queen. It was folded to a player in middle position, who began to contemplate and play with his chips. Hmmm. I tried to look as impassive as possible while I prayed that he’d raise. After a little while, he did exactly that, making it 1800. This left him with perhaps 2000 behind. Having someone raise your river bet when you’re holding the nuts is a good thing. It was folded to me, and I pretended to ponder the situation for about 20 seconds before reraising all-in. My opponent wasted no time in calling and I put him out of his misery by flipping my hand face up immediately. He showed pocket sixes, he’d rivered a full house–then dejectedly left the table as the dealer shipped me his entire stack. I was off to the races.

My stack size made a variety of new plays possible, and I employed one the next time I was in the big blind. It was folded to the cutoff, who raised to 600, and the small blind called. I looked down and found Q8 offsuit, but my actual holding was virtually irrelevant. I sensed weakness in the cutoff and the small blind, so I repopped it, making it 2500 to go. Both players instantly folded. I had employed my first successful squeeze play in a big live tournament. This is a move I would not have conceived of as recently as six months ago, but I have developed my game a great deal since then. Between all the books I’ve read, the instruction I’ve received online, and the thousands of hands I’ve played in that time, I have learned to recognize spots where I can accumulate chips, which is what the early stages of these tournaments are all about. And this Q8 reraise was one such hand. I was very satisfied with this play. It felt like a “coming of age” sort of hand. But it might pale in comparison to what came next.

The blinds had just been raised to 150-300 and I was sitting on about 6000 chips. I had 99 in middle position and I raised to 800. It was folded to the player on the button, a kid who looked like he was about 24 years old, and he thought for a few seconds before separating 8 black chips from his stack of about 4200 and forcefully slamming them into the pot in a single vertical pile. This made an audible thud. The blinds both folded. Next came the flop: JJ6 with two hearts. I led out for 1400, and the button wasted no time in moving all in. Yikes. I was faced with a big decision. A pall came over the table as I began to ponder what the correct course of action was. Even Rabbi fell silent.

Fortunately, I was able to consider this situation with extreme clarity. First, I asked myself if this player had a jack. No. AJ, KJ, QJ and J10 were all very unlikely preflop calling hands with the button’s stack size. AJ might move in preflop or fold, but it probably would not call. The other jack hands were too speculative to call 1/5 of one’s stack with. Did he have a pair higher than my nines? Probably not. Most of these hands would reraise preflop. But perhaps he had slowplayed KK or AA? I discounted this possibility because of what I perceived as a physical tell. When the kid on the button slammed his chips in preflop, I read this as weakness. Why would he do this with a big pair? Players trapping with monster hands do not call attention to themselves preflop. The chip-slam felt more like the culmination of his decision to proceed with a borderline calling hand. So what did this kid have? In my opinion, either a big heart draw (e.g. AhQh) or a middle pair (1010, 99, 88, 77). I knew I’d be in deep trouble if I called and lost, and I wanted to be sure about making this difficult call. I looked at the kid, but he was not offering up any information. I counted out my chips. I’d have about 2000 left if I called and lost. I had to call.

After about 60 seconds total, I slid my chips forward and said “I call.” Before any hole cards were exposed, I saw a look of dismay come across the kid’s face, and I knew I was ahead. I got on my feet and triumphantly revealed my hand first, picking my pocket nines up off the felt, inverting them and slapping them down on the table. The kid also stood up, shook his head, and showed 88. At least three other players muttered some combination of “good call” or “what a call” as the dealer produced the turn and river, neither of which were an 8. As I raked the pot, Rabbi said “Great call. I think I’m gonna be sweating you at the final table tomorrow.” From your mouth to Adonai’s ears, buddy.

Only a couple of hands later, they broke my table. As I was racking my chips, the kid I had busted on the 99 vs. 88 hand approached me. “How did you make that call?” he asked, a look of combined resignation and respect etched on his face. I went through the analysis above, making sure to mention the chip-slam preflop call as a factor. Something about picking up that information and then relaying it so quickly afterward filled me with a sense of pride, and I felt like a seasoned tournament pro rather than the rookie that I am. It was indeed a nice call, and it was a perfectly logical one. I bid Rabbi and company farewell and found my new seat.

I hurried over to my new table and as I unracked my chips, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone pointing at me. At first I ignored him, but he continued to gesture at me and yell “hey buddy!” Huh? I looked over at him. It was the WSOP Main Event’s reigning champion, Joseph Hachem, seated two tables over. I locked eyes with him, completely puzzled as to why he would want David Zeitlin’s attention. “You dropped a chip over there,” he said in his Aussie accent. Sure enough, there it was lying on the floor. A single green chip. I placed it in my pile, thanked Mr. Hachem, and got back to business.

At my new table, which was adjacent to a set of bleachers filled with spectators, the only face I recognized was that of Simon “Aces” Trumper, a highly-regarded English pro who I’d seen on TV a couple of times. Based on the action through the first couple of orbits, I determined that he was playing pretty tight, but was inclined to protect his big blind. The first hand I played at this new table saw me raise with 88, but I laid down the hand when I got reraised. By this time Matt had arrived to support me, camera in hand. I saw that he had found a prime spot in the bleachers.

Just before the dinner break I picked up pocket jacks in the cutoff and made my standard raise to 800. The only caller was Trumper, who was in the big blind. The flop was a good one: J 9 4 with two hearts. Trumper checked, and I figured that I could win a huge pot by making a continuation bet that he might checkraise. I bet 1300, but Simon did not feel like cooperating. He quickly folded. This was a shame, because he gave all his chips to someone else a few minutes later, on the last hand before the dinner break. When we broke for dinner, over half the field had been eliminated, and my stack of approximately 10k was in the top 10% of those remaining. Matt and I watched some of the MLB all-star game and ate burgers while waiting for the action to resume.

When it did, I was in for a treat: Simon Trumper’s seat was filled by the reigning Player of the Year, Men “the Master” Nguyen, who had about 6000 chips. As he arrived, he was greeted by cheers from the bleachers, and he responded by serenading his fans with one of his trademark sayings: “All you can eat, baby!”

I immediately learned that all the rumors about Men were true. Yes, he talks constantly. Yes, he drinks Corona after Corona (after Corona after Corona) while he plays. Yes, he refers to himself in the third person. And yes, he treats all dealers like shit.

The blinds had now been raised to 200-400, and while I was in good shape, all raised pots were starting with at least 2000 in them, and I was only a few big hands away from going broke. It was a treacherous situation, and things did not start off well for me. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, I raised three times and got reraised all three times. I laid down every time. On the final one, I raised on the button with Q-4 to 1200, and the big blind went all in for a total of only 3500. I was getting 2-1 to call, which is normally automatic, but I considered my stack size. The blinds were going up in a moment, to 300-600. If I folded, I’d still have 8000. If I called and lost, I’d be down to 5600. I took the wussy way out and folded to ensure that I’d still have reraise fold equity. I noticed a couple of puzzled looks from players around the table, who undoubtedly were telling themselves that I was the type of nit who didn’t understand pot odds. But they’re wrong. And the next hand I would play would probably be my best moment as a poker pro.

The blinds were still 200-400 and I picked up the Ak10c in the cutoff. It was folded to me, and I decided the hand was worth a raise, so I made it 1100 to go. I got called by an older, tight player in the small blind and also by Men the Master in the big blind. I no longer liked my A10 at all. The flop came down: king of diamonds, king of spades, 8 of diamonds. Men checked, I checked, and the button checked. The dealer dealt the turn: 4 of diamonds, making 3 suited cards. I held the ace of diamonds but otherwise had no part of the board at all. Men led out, making a bet of 2500, which he placed in front of him in 5 stacks of five black chips.

I had only a split second to consider my course of action. Something told me to raise, and raise big. At the time, I could not put my finger on why I needed to raise here, it was a purely instinctive move. It just felt like the kind of move that someone who was going to make the final table would execute. There was absolutely no way my ace high was the best hand at the moment, but there I was announcing “raise pot.” I waited for the dealer to tell me what the maximum raise was, and then I pushed the chips forward: 8200, which put me all in.

This was a WSOP event, not a $100 sit-n-go or a $50 rebuy at the Ace Point Club. What was I doing? This was by far the ballsiest (semi) bluff I had ever made. There were my chips, my $2000, my guts, sitting in little multicolored piles on the felt in front of my expressionless face. What did I just do? I clenched my toothpick, crossed my arms, and laid them on the table’s edge. Men fixed upon me a look of disgust.

But it was not Men’s turn to act. The older guy on the button had the action. And he clearly had a hand, a big hand. I know this for certain because he took a very, very long time to act. He inhaled deeply. Then he looked at his chips. Then at me. Then at the piles of chips in front of me. Then at nothing. Then he re-checked his hole cards. Then he exhaled. Then, once again, he looked things over very slowly. His chips, me, my chips, into space. Fold, jackass! Then the deep inhale and long exhale once again. This went on for about three minutes (not an exaggeration) as I sat stone still, save for a few involuntary gulps, writhing in agony on the inside. This man either held trip kings or a made flush, there was no doubt about it. Finally, after the three tortuous minutes had expired, the old guy removed the chips protecting his hole cards and slid them forward just a little bit. I remained impassive but my heart was pounding out a bassa nova under my sweatshirt. The dealer collected the old dude’s cards and added them to the muck. Ahhh.

Next it was Men’s turn. He took a much shorter time to act, as he had apparently made his mind up during the old guy’s interminable delay. Men flashed me a ten and then a king as he mucked them. Yessssssssssssssssssssss.

I couldn’t conceal a smile as I scooped the pot. What the hell had I just done? In retrospect, I had made a very smart bluff. While the call with 99 was thoroughly reasoned through and made based on a long, logical analysis and this play was made on pure instinct, both were equally sound. The logic on this hand goes as follows: The board was Kd, Ks, 8d, 4d. Because I held the ace of diamonds, it was impossible for either of my opponents to hold the nut flush (in retrospect, I remember reading about this type of bluff on a 3-suited board in both the Omaha section of Super System 2 and on Daniel Negranu’s blog). I had raised preflop, and most of the full house hands (e.g. K8, K4) were hands that were unlikely to call a preflop raise. At the same time, the strongest king, AK, would likely have reraised preflop, so I could rule that hand out. The strongest possible hands were weak kings and non-nut flushes. The dangerous possibilities were really only 88 and 44. And as I stated above, this was a major, large buy-in tournament, a fact which was actually working in my favor, players do not like to bust out of major tournaments, which makes it much harder to call without a super-strong hand.

At the time, I was just happy I had won the hand, but now, I am quite proud of this bluff. It shows that my instincts might be as just as sharp as my ability to reason. In contrast to the 99 call, I had only a few seconds to decide on this play, and I chose correctly. After I raked the chips, I turned to the player to my right and deadpanned: “I just bluffed Men the Master.” This turned out to be a mistake, as he was Vietnamese and probably staked by Men. Oh well. I waited about two hands, then went over to Matt, who was right behind Men in the bleachers. He high fived me as I told him and everyone else around him: “I just bluffed Men the Master with total air!”

The blinds had increased to 300-600 when I next got involved. Men, sitting on about 10K, raised in early position to 1800 and I chose to flat call in the big blind with a pair of kings. The flop came QJ3. I checked, and so did Mr. Master. The turn was a blank–a five, and once again I checked, and so did Men. The river was another jack. This time I bet 3500 and Men quickly called. I showed my kings, Men showed pocket tens, and I won the pot. Men ridiculed my play, asking me if I “thought he would lay down tens,” indicating that I could have stacked him by getting all his chips in preflop. As it was, I had nicely increased my stack. So sowwy, Mista Masta.

But make no mistake about it: Men Nguyen is an awesome player. He would devour me if we sat together for a long time. I saw two examples of his expertise. Both hands took place on the tournament bubble, only a few spots from the money. On the first hand, Men made a standard raise in late position, and the big blind, a young hyperaggressive player, reraised enough to put him all in. Men the Master called in an instant, flipping open QJ before the young player could move his chips in. As the big blind timidly revealed his 84 offsuit, a failed bubble power play, Men cackled and said “you think Men da Master going to lay down to you? You think I care about two thousand dollars? I’m here to win baybee.” He had sniffed out the attempted power play before it even happened. His QJ held up.

The next instance took place only a few hands later, when I was again in the cutoff on Men’s big blind. I once again held A10 offsuit, and I made a standard raise, which represented almost half of Men’s stack, and Men called. The flop came all rags, nine high, and Men went all in for about 2/3 of the pot. I wasn’t going to fold to what looked like a desperation stop-and-go play, so I called. Men showed the 9-5 of diamonds, turned two pair, and once again doubled up. I have no idea how or why he called off a third of his stack with a trash hand, but it worked out very nicely for him. He obviously could somehow sense that all I held were high cards and not a big pair, and therefore knew that his 9-5 wasn’t a big underdog.

Despite taking this small hit, I was the second chip leader at the table. The only player with more chips than me was the player three seats to my right. He was an overweight blond guy with a goatee, and I had him pegged as a weak-tight amateur who was just happy to be there. He was raising a lot preflop and taking down a lot of uncontested pots, but I was quite positive that he had very little experience playing high stakes tournaments. I knew this because of his skittish demeanor; he looked like a cat in a very loud room. If there was a piece of furniture he could crawl under, he’d have done it. Also, his hands were shaking uncontrollably. His case of the shakes became even more exaggerated on one particular occasion when he picked up a big hand and reraised Men the Master.

Anyway, on my big blind, with the blinds now at 400-800, and with the tournament a mere 2 spots from the bubble, Mr. Skittish raised to 2400 on my big blind. It was folded to me. I had J3 offsuit.

I was about to fold when out of nowhere, in the auditorium that is my brain, one or two brain cells in the back row politely stood up to ask a question. I gave them the floor. “Are you here to cash, or are you here to win this event?” they asked. “Are you guys nuts? I have jack-three!” I replied. “So what!” came their comeback. They were getting increasingly agitated “You need to show this douchebag who’s boss! We think you oughta reraise!” I dismissed their query. What in the world would I do if this guy called or re-reraised? But before I knew it, some other brain cells had joined them in support. Uh oh. There suddenly was a torrent of support for the two renegade cells. Then, half my brain was chanting “raise pot, raise pot, raise pot!” All of this took place within 3 seconds, of course.

Next, I heard my voice saying “I reraise the pot.” The two rebel brain cells had won. Then, I looked on helplessly as my right hand counted out 6000 chips and shoved them forward. The next thing I could feel was my stomach turning, because Mr. Skittish quickly called. Thanks to those two bastard brain cells, I had just committed half my stack against the only player at the table that could bust me. Out of position. With J3 offsuit. I wanted to kill myself, starting with Tweedle Dee and Dum, as I waited for the flop.

It came J-10-4 rainbow. I had no idea what the hell this guy might flat call my bubble resteal attempt with, but now there was no turning back. I wasn’t going anywhere with top pair (3 kicker!), so I moved all in (the pot was larger than my stack at this point) and prayed. My genitals ceased to exist as the fat goateed dude rocked back in his chair and frowned. Then he leaned forward and squinted at the board. Then he rocked back again. What the fuck? Be scared. Go away. Finally, he shook his head and folded.

I raked the huge pot and my testicles descended to their regular position. After stacking all my new chips and folding my next hand, I was overcome with giddiness. I got up and ran over to Matt on the rail and gave him a couple of “jackhammers,” our traditional celebratory dance, which is executed by pumping both fists and one foot downward simultaneously. It is normally reserved for game winning home runs and fits of drunken debauchery. But after that crazy kamikaze resteal gone awry/shove-and-pray routine, the jackhammer was completely apropos. Five minutes later, the tournament bubble burst. With 54 players remaining, I was third on the leaderboard. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

To be continued.

2 thoughts on “Finding My Inner Kamikaze–WSOP Part 1

  1. Bro….you’re the man. Just read your blog. How the hell do you remember all of that??? Thats nuts. Good luck out there bro. Ill be following ya, and maybe if i ever get my shit together, ill see you out there one day. P.S. i just got back to Long Island 2 days ago from Vegas and im already planning the next trip….place is EVIL!!!!! lol

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