When I returned to my hotel room following Day 3, my exhilaration quickly waned and turned to exhaustion. I updated this blog then slept soundly, leaving the strategizing till the following morning.
Saturday, Day 4, would be a different animal. The bubble considerations of Day 3 were now a memory (and a pleasant one at that). Everyone in the room was now in the same category: getting paid. And, if they knew what they were doing, they’d be cognizant of the tournament’s steep prize structure. This meant they’d be playing aggressively. The time for clinging to one’s stack was now history. The tournament was now about pressing every edge, no matter how slight. Which means action.
When I reported to play, I carried with me a very optimistic attitude. There were 481 players left in the field, and I was guaranteed a payday of over $26,000. I still felt like I could outplay most of the remaining players. The mood of my cheering section matched mine. Everyone knew I would be making a lot of money no matter what happened, and we also knew that I was a big hand or two away from being able to dream about the final table. My parents were scheduled to fly home the next day, and the idea of delaying the trip had been tossed around (knock wood).
My chip position wasn’t a strong one, but my status was a familiar one: with the blinds at 2000 and 4000 with a 500 ante and my stack sitting at 95,000, I was pretty short. One of the most important concepts in a no-limit tournament is what poker nerds call “fold equity.” This term is basically a fancy way of saying “having enough chips to make a scary bet.” And, as had been the case of much of Days 2 and 3, the scariest bet at my disposal would be the reraise all in. The plan was thus fairly simple: Open-raise with only the strongest hands, but reraise all in liberally from the button and the blinds, especially against loose opponents.
I arrived at my assigned seat: Seat 4, Table 162. I immediately discovered two things. First, this tournament was now a very manageable size. The Rio’s Amazon Room could accommodate over 2,000 poker players. On Day 4 of the main event, almost half the room was set up to accommodate a separate $1,500 tournament (Kevin was participating), and another portion of the room was set up for cash games. The main event, which only a few days earlier filled the massive room four times over, was now confined to a relatively small area surrounding the ESPN TV table. I was part of a select group now.
My second discovery was that I was the shortest stack at my nine-handed table. The resident boss stack was an, um interesting looking player. One of the last women remaining in the field. An, um lady by the name of Sabyl Cohen. I’m going to decline further comment. Google is your friend.
My table seemed like it would be a lively one. I say “seemed” because it was broken after we played maybe five hands. The tournament director came and reassigned all of us only 10 minutes after we sat down. My new home was a table right near the rail, where my little fan club quickly reassembled itself. I was in the 10 seat. The table’s composition, as best I can remember:
Seat 1: Quiet, medium stacked guy in a funky hat, obviously foreign born.
Seat 4: Older man with medium stack who looked like he knew what he was doing.
Seat 5: Big stack with blond hair.
Seat 6: Bald Swedish or Norwegian player with a mid-sized stack.
Seat 7: Older man wearing a WSOP bracelet.
Seat 8: Quiet, intimidated older southerner.
Seat 9: One of the biggest stacks in the room, Jon Lane.
I was able to figure out that the most important people at this table were the possible Swede in Seat 6 and Jon Lane in seat 9. The Swede was a very loose, tricky player. He open-raised several hands in my first few minutes at the table, showing down suspect holdings like J-9 and A-8 on a couple of occasions. He also was not the type of player that typically went away after the flop, preferring to fight his way out of corners on the turn and river. He would be target #1 for my inevitable preflop reraise all in. Other than the Bald Swede, the blond-haired kid in the 5 Seat appeared to be the loosest player.
Lane is a player who I respect greatly. I have played with him on Pokerstars, where he used to routinely kick my ass. He was making his second consecutive deep run in the main event, and had something that looked like around 800,000 chips in front of him. I was very fortunate to have position on him.
Things started slowly for me. I didn’t make a peep for an orbit or two. Then, with my stack somewhere in the 85,000 area, I picked up the ace-eight of clubs on my big blind. It was folded to the Swede in seat 6, and he did exactly what I expected he’d do: he raised to $12,000. There was no way I was laying down A-8 to this guy, whose range of holdings was very wide. I knew the right play was to shove all in, but did I have the balls to do it? Yup, I sure did. After a short pause, I announced all in, then redundantly pushed my three yellow stacks and two pink stacks forward.
I prepared myself for the usual ponderous contemplative delay, but the Swede took no time at all to call and turn over pocket queens. Gulp. I showed everyone my A-8. As required, the dealer barked “all in with a call!” in case any cameras were nearby, which they were not. For the first time in the tournament, after three full days of play, I was all in as an underdog. A 2-1 underdog, to be exact. I got to my feet, mostly to spare myself the embarrassment of having to gather myself and trudge off under everyone’s watchful eyes. The bald Swede remained seated.
The flop came three rags. I looked to the rail and saw Janeen and my mother observing intently. I wasn’t sure whether they were aware of my imminent elimination or not. I sensed a look of desperation on their faces, so I’m pretty sure they knew what was happening. My father was nowhere to be found (more on him later). I needed an ace, and only an ace. Ace! Now! The turn was not an ace. It was a ten. No help. I was down to my final card. My last gasp. For the first time all tournament, after the turn card, I was beset with disappointment. Not a pronounced sense of despair; more of a slight pang of regret and a wistful desire to continue playing. I guess it was pretty simple: I just didn’t want to be done. Being done sucks.
At the same time, peeking out from my subconscious, I felt another emotion. One that’s familiar to any gambler suffering through a losing session: Hope. More specifically, a frantic faith that things will somehow suddenly change course. That for once, at least for the time being, that I’ll be lucky. All gamblers know this feeling. Especially addicted gamblers, whose lives it consumes. I knew that the odds of the river card being one of the deck’s three remaining aces was only about 15%. But why couldn’t it happen? It could happen, dammit. So where was my ace? The dealer burned and turned, and I didn’t dare breathe. Ace?
I knew what the river card was before it even hit the felt. It was the most recognizable card in the deck. Black point on the far corner. Then all that beautiful white space, like an empty canvass. Then , interrupting the white space, that black picture in the middle: the singular instance in any 52-card deck where the manufacturer takes a little poetic license. Yup, there it was. Now it was sitting there next to those four other less magnificent cards. The funky omnipotent spire of gambling holiness.
Ace of spades. Ace of spades!
Of course, I turned and did my little inborn clap. It was loud. So was my voice as I spontaneously shouted something, probably “YES!” (props to Marv Albert). I may have pumped a fist or two. I was practically shitting myself with glee as I sat back down and raked a pot of approximately 170,000 chips, 85,000 of which were slowly, loathingly counted out by the bald Swede. With that timely stroke of luck, I now had a stack that could go somewhere. I was in the middle of the pack, which incidentally had been pared down to around 415 players, guaranteeing me $30,000. My body was pumping adrenaline. I was both free to dream and obliged to continue playing my best poker. I decided I’d look for spots to stealraise from the right players and become more of a general menace. The first break arrived and the outlook was good.
When we were back in action Janeen and Mom were now joined by Kevin (on break from his tournament), and they looked as excited as I was. My father was still conspicuously absent. My father’s behavior when I’m playing is curious. He is very excited for me when I do well and very interested in knowing about my progress in my new profession, which I discuss with him on a daily basis. But he cannot bear to actually watch the action in progress. He will watch one or two hands, then disappear, returning a half hour later to witness another hand or two. That’s all he can take. He definitely has a case of adult attention deficit disorder, but his behavior during the tournaments is off the charts. My mother says he’s nervous, but I think a more apt description is powerless. My father is very accustomed to exerting some influence over the outcome of events in his life. Watching me play poker for such dizzying stakes sets him completely off kilter.
Two orbits after my rivered ace, I was under the gun and looked down to find the ace-king of hearts. With the blinds now at 2,500 and 5,000 with a 500 ante, I raised to 15,000. The older man in the 4 Seat, sitting on roughly 200,000 chips, contemplated my raise, then pushed forward two stacks of yellow, uttering an antiquated “play for forty thousand.” I had been observing this player, and he’d been playing pretty tight. He also had no reason to believe my under the gun raise was out of line. His smallish reraise signaled a hand that was not afraid of action, i.e., a big hand. I put him on AA KK or QQ. Had he raised perhaps 10,000 more, I probably would have laid down my A-K, but I was being offered very tempting odds. It was folded back around to me and I called, looking to hit a big flop. Reraising all in was not a consideration, as I felt quite strongly that I had no fold equity.
The flop came an almost perfect A-9-7. I checked, looking for a checkraise opportunity. My opponent obliged, immediately maing a pot-sized bet of 40,000. Of the three hands I put the older guy on, only pocket aces were beating me, and he probably would have slowplayed them on that flop. This was a very good situation. Seeing no point in getting fancy, I pushed all in for 130,000 more. This bet sent Seat 4 into a long, unhappy period of reflection, confirming that my hand was in fact currently winning. Eventually, citing the pot odds as the reason, my opponent called. He showed exactly the hand I’d hoped he had, pocket kings, leaving him with one out. The case king did not arrive on either the turn or river, and I was shoved a crucial, course-altering 180,000 chip pot. Janeen yelped. Kevin yelled out “yeah Dave!” Mom looked scared. Dad was MIA. And I had a big ass pile of chips. Holy crap. Yesssss! (shout out to Marvelous Marv again!)
Getting all 360,000 of my chips stacked took some time, but performing that task allowed me to familiarize myself with my new stack, along with my new goal: pushing people around. At this table, only Lane had more chips than me, and I had position on him. We were now officially cooking with gas. The field had been further diminished, and I was entitled to over $34,000. But winning that amount would now be considered a major disappointment. For the day, I’d gotten lucky once, then hit one flop, and suddenly I was in serious business, sitting in a position of power midway through the WSOP main event.
Two hands after the big ace-king double up, I was on the button with the A-10 of spades when I made a really nice play. It was folded to Lane in the cutoff, and he flat called for 5,000. I also called. The small blind folded, and the big blind over in the 1 Seat, a quiet guy in a funky beret-type hat, started fiddling with his chips. He had about 175,000 in total, and he was counting them, looking very serious. Then he pushed forward 40,000. Lane folded and it was left up to me with my suited ace-ten. Something did not smell right about the big blind’s raise; it felt like he was trying to steal some chips with garbage. I made this semi-instinctive realization, peered around the dealer at Funky Hat’s stack, then made a forward-waving motion with my hands and said “all in.” I pushed several stacks forward until the number of chips in front of me covered the 1 Seat’s stack. I noticed that a few of my tablemates became wide-eyed after this unorthodox move (limp-calling on the button then shoving is not typical). For his part, Funky Hat reeled back in his seat and slowly ran his hands down the length of his face, then bowed his head. He was obviously unhappy with this situation, and I knew my hand was a coin flip at worst. Funky Hat sat there looking bewildered a little longer, then sighed and mucked his cards. Chips equal power. I accumulated another 55,000 chips and added them to my stack. They totaled almost 400,000! Lane smirked a little and said “nice play.” I could tell that he meant it. Thank you, sir.
The next hour or so was fairly uneventful, and my stack fluctuated a bit. The field was approaching 300 players and I was sitting on around 350,000 when I next got involved. It was quite the fateful hand.
I was in early position on the bald Swede’s big blind, and I was dealt the ace of hearts and the king of clubs. I made a standard raise to 15,000. Everyone folded to Bald Swede, and he called. He had been accumulating chips since I put the bad beat on him, and now had somewhere in the neighborhood of 220,000. I wanted no part of him and I decided that I was done with the hand unless I flopped a pair or better.
The flop came jack of hears, 10 of spades, 5 of hearts. I had two overs and a gutshot straight draw. Bald Swede checked, and I was more than happy to accept a free card. I checked back. The turn brought what appeared to be an extraordinarily good card: the queen of hearts. Bingo. The board now read Qh-Jh-10s-5h. With my AhKc, I was sitting on broadway, the nut straight-, along with a draw to the nut flush. Bald Swede sprung to life, leading at the pot for 30,000.
It seemed like a perfect situation. Yes, it was possible that I was up against a flush, but wouldn’t an aggressive player like my Swedish friend lead at the pot after flopping a flush draw? Also, I held the ace of the flush suit, and the queen and jack of hearts were on the board. He’d have to have something like K-x of hearts? Unlikely. Besides, I had a very strong made hand. I decided to put some pressure on the guy, hoping he had something like two pair. I dug into my stack and raised to 120,000, over half the Bald Swede’s stack. He considered my bet for a second or two and announced all in, and I immediately called. This was a monster pot. If I won it, I’d shoot up the leaderboard, way up near the top. A loss would leave me where I started the day.
So what did the Bald Swede have? The 4-3 of hearts. He had turned a baby flush, which was currently beating my nut straight. Fuck. I did have seven outs to a stronger flush, and I stood up again, hoping for another dose of good luck. But this time a blank fell on the river, and suddenly two-thirds of my stack was gone. Suddenly ungrateful and forgetful of her auspicious appearance only an hour earlier, I now cursed Lady Luck for producing such a cruel sequence of cards. I also cursed Sweden for generating crazy poker players who defend their big blind with four high. Sigh
I was back to around 140,000, which at the current blind levels meant I was once again in reshove mode. Ouch. And upon that realization, it was break time. I tried to make sense of all the crazy shit that had just happened and explain it to my parents, but the best I could do was say that it was an “action” level. Which it was. Back to work.
After the break, I played no hands for the first few orbits. No opportunities arose and I simply sat there, waiting to either pick up a big hand or scoop up some chips with a “for sale” sign on them. Finally, after around 45 minutes of total inactivity, I chose to raise under the gun with the Q-J of diamonds. I did this for two reasons: 1) the raise was likely to get respect, as my current image was very tight; and 2) the big blind was the tightest player at the table. The big blind was a quiet, genial fifty-something year old man. He had a cheering section standing right next to mine, consisting of some co-workers and his adoring daughter (“c’mon, Daddy, you can do it!”). He was also a rarity at this stage of the tournament: someone who was obviously in over his head. It was clear that this guy was playing super tight, happily blinding his way up the payout ladder. He had around the same number of chips as me, and he called my raise. Hmmm.
The flop came 7-7-4, and Mr. Tight did something rather odd. He bet 11,000 into the 35,000-ish pot. What was this strange, puny bet? Was Mr. Tight softplaying A-7 or 4-4, trying to lure me in? Was Mr. Tight trying to steal the pot with absolutely nothing? Or was Mr. Tight sitting there with a smallish, unrelated pocket pair (e.g. 6-6 or 8-8), betting but trying to keep the pot small? I considered this for a moment and concluded that the final option was correct. This was not a tricky player, it was a scared player. He was making a smallish bet because he did not have much confidence in his hand. Knowing that my tournament was on the line, I nevertheless went with my read, raising Mr. Tight’s 11,000 bet to 30,000. Mr. Tight looked genuinely unhappy, but he stiffly called. Hmmm.
The turn was a king. I still had absolutely nothing. Mr. Tight checked again and now it was up to me. Did I have enough balls to go with my read and fire a second barrel? You bet your ass I did. Holding no hand and no draw, I immediately moved all in. Mr. Tight looked at me, and then lifted his cards from the felt and rechecked them. He looked back at me and I smiled, figuring that Mr. Tight player was too amateur to be familiar with the “strong means weak, weak means strong” mantra. He eventually did what I expected and hoped he would do, preserving his dwindling stack by flipping his cards in face down. Ahhhh. Thank you for cooperating, Mr. Tight.
I was back up to around 200,000. Not a big stack by any means, but something to work with. But following that bluff, I once again was unable to find a good spot. My stack was back down around 180,000 at the second break. I was guaranteed almost $39,000.
The mood during the break was mixed. I had just completed a very eventful level, improbably climbing up the leaderboard and then tumbling back down. The end result was that I had more or less treaded water for the day while nearly 200 players were eliminated around me. I told my little band of supporters for maybe the twentieth time that I was not playing to climb any further up the pay scale because all the big money was at the top, and that a big power play was imminent. Not quite understanding, but still agreeing with the sentiment, my parents and Janeen nodded in assent. And so back to work I went.
It wasn’t a good time to catch a horrible run of cards, but that’s exactly what happened. I simply couldn’t find a hand that was worth doing anything with. The blinds were now 3000 and 6000 with a 1000 ante, which meant it was costing me almost 10,000 chips to simply fold each orbit. And that’s exactly what I did until I was sitting on about 140,000 chips.
Dan Harrigton on Hold ‘Em defines a squeeze play as an “advanced and elegant bluff.” Oddly, my departure from the 2006 main event felt neither advanced nor elegant. But I did get busted while attempting that daring play.
I was on the button holding 8-7 offsuit. The player in the 4 Seat, who I now believe was Michael Binger, a guy who eventually advanced to the final table, raised to 20,000. This player had won several large pots and now had the largest stack at our table. He had recently taken on an aggressive posture, entering many pots. I felt that his range of hands was fairly wide. Jon Lane called from the cutoff. He had roughly the same amount of chips as the original raiser, and I strongly believed his hand was a speculative holding such as A-x suited, a small pair, or suited connectors. The time was right for my move.
As mentioned above, the squeeze play is a move popularized by Dan Harrigton’s book. It works as follows: A player raises with a hand that is not terribly strong, and a second player calls. The third player (in this instance, me) comes over the top of both players with a large bet. The first player is forced to fold both because the third player has shown extreme strength and because he fears the second player is trapping. He is thus “squeezed” out of the hand. The second player, if he is not in fact trapping, must also fold because he does not have a premium hand that can stand up to the third player’s massive bet. The third player thus picks up a lot of chips despite holding bubkis.
My chip total of 140,000 was enough to both destroy my opponents’ pot odds in the current hand and put a dent in their stacks. So after watching Lane call the other player’s raise, I calmly did something that is likely outside the realm of comprehension for many poker players and poker observers. Something that, until recently, I was too gutless to do. I announced “raise all in,” and nonchalantly pushed all six of my stacks forward. The blinds got out of the way. But after that, the plan went awry. The original raiser immediately reraised all in for over 500,000, isolating me. Crap. He could only have either a big pair or A-K. Preferably A-K.
One factor that led me to make the squeeze play with 8-7 is that middle connecting cards play fairly well against A-K, which is a hand that frequently open-raises. 8-7 is less than a 2-1 dog against A-K. I flipped my 8-7 over (drawing a surprised “wow” from Lane), and my opponent showed big slick: ace-king. For some reason, he looked dismayed. I’m not sure if it was because he erroneously believed I had a pocket pair, or if it was because he was nervous, but the guy looked like he’d just shit his pants. The dealer yelled out “all in with a call!” and this time a cameraman frantically rushed over. I stood up and thrust both hands into the front pockets of my sweatshirt.
The flop was all random insignificant cards: two jacks and a five. I pressed my hands further down into my pockets and shifted my weight to my left. C’mon, eight, c’mon seven nope. The turn was a ten. Once again, that gambler’s hope welled up inside me. I’m lucky! Show me a seven or an eight! One time!
The river was neither a seven nor an eight. It was another ten, officially closing the door on my tournament. I wanted to walk away, but was instructed by the dealer to wait for a floorperson. The cameraman trotted to a spot about five feet in front of me and trained his lens on my face. I provided no footage of remote interest. Instead, I stood there, numb, staring into space. I couldn’t feel a thing. I was vaguely disappointed, but mostly spent. I had nothing to give the cameraman. I was done.
It might sound funny, but I had just poured everything I had into playing cards for the previous week. It was all I had thought about for quite a long time, I had devoted a short period of my life to it, and now it was gone. I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there. I guess I felt empty. No one laughs at architects or lawyers or writers when they describe the completion of an all-encompassing project, so I don’t see why a poker player’s reaction to the culmination of his year’s biggest project should be amusing.
I looked over at Janeen and my parents and mustered a acquiescent smile. Then the floorperson was there.
I was led to a roped off section of the room, where I waited for my name to be called. When it was, I was instructed to sit across a table from a man in a suit, and all my personal information was verified. The man filled out a few forms. I then took some of the completed forms and my ID over to the cashier’s cage, where I opted to get paid by check rather than cash or casino chips. I had finished 259th, good for exactly $38,759. After paying my backers and swapping out 2% with another player, my profit was approximately $35,000. Not too shabby.
The rest of my trip was pretty boring. I dragged everyone to my traditional bust-out meal at In ‘n Out Burger. It was good. The next day, most of my fan club left for New York, and eventually so did I. Thanks so much for your support, guys.
With my latest score padding my bottom line, I had officially surpassed the yearly monetary goals I had set back in January, and I had several months left to (hopefully) tack on more. It took some time, but when the numbness subsided, it was replaced with pride and serenity. Occupational satisfaction had been nothing but a strange catchphrase until this year. No longer.
Not many people want to play poker for a living, and even fewer could make it if they tried. So far, it looks like I want to, and I can.