Poker is out of control, and my four years of experience has rendered me a jaded, grouchy veteran of the scene.
Over the weekend, I decided that I was going to play a $300 preliminary tournament at the WSOP Circuit at Caesar’s Atlantic City on Monday. So on Sunday night, I made a hotel reservation and set my alarm clock. I woke up bright and early, hopped in my car and sped down the Garden State Parkway, arriving at Caesars’s at 11:00 for the 12:00 tournament. Plenty of time to spare, right? Wrong.
Upon arriving in the tournament area, I was greeted by a line that would make Six Flags blush. There was a train of human beings wrapped along all four walls of a large ballroom, inching its way towards an overcrowded cashier area, where the line doubled back on itself numerous times in a chained off maze-like formation, just like it would at an amusement park. There had to be 800 people waiting to register for the tournament. After creeping forward towards the cashier for over an hour, I finally made it within striking distance, at which point I was informed that the tournament was sold out and that I would be alternate #42. This means that I would not be permitted to join the festivities until 42 players busted out. Knowing that check-in time at the hotel was four hours away, and having already dedicated an early morning and several transit hours towards getting to this tournament, I reluctantly agreed to start things off on the bench, but I was pissed.
I was also annoyed at Caesars for failing to anticipate this shitshow. There were a total of 94 tournament tables (read: tournament dealers) available, so the tournament was capped at 940 players. This didn’t stop them from allowing over 150 alternates to sign up, of course. I waited through nearly the entire first level of the tournament before my number was finally called. Normally, I wouldn’t say that missing level one is too big a deal, but in this tournament, it was. My skill level advantage over this field was immense, and the odds that I could have trapped someone for a lot of chips during level one was pretty high.
Already ticked off because I was forced to wait on the sidelines for 40 minutes while I could have been accumulating chips, I became downright incensed when I was sent not to a table in the tournament area, but to a table in Caesar’s poker room to begin play. This required a ten-minute walk downstairs, which not only allowed alternates 43 through 50 to begin play before me, but cost me still more time during which I could have been doing damage and/or getting a read on the players at my table. When I finally got to my table, I was not especially surprised to find that no one there knew how to play.
I have a theory: No limit tournament poker is currently where blackjack was in the 1980’s. Back in the 80’s, casino gambling had just been made legal for the first time on the east coast, and it was beginning to emerge as one of our country’s favorite pastimes. Of course, the cornerstone of all casino table games, and the only one that requires the player to make any independent decisions, is blackjack. People began to play blackjack recreationally, and many had no idea what they were doing. This led to hundreds of books being published on the “proper” (read: “least damaging”) way to play blackjack, and what resulted was the advent of a “basic strategy” for blackjack, which you often see suckers holding in the form of laminated business card-sized charts nowadays. But even though this information became readily available, players continued to make mathematically nonsensical decisions. To this day, one still regularly sees people at the blackjack table hitting 14 against a dealer showing a six, even though it is long established that this violates basic strategy. I have to assume that the frequency of these misplays was even greater back in the 80’s, when much of America was first discovering casino gambling.
Which brings me to no limit hold ’em in 2007. While poker is over 150 years old, and while no limit hold ’em tournaments have existed for over 30 years now, their relatively recent surge in popularity (thanks to television and the internet) has made them the gambling game of choice for many people who otherwise would be sitting at the blackjack table with their little laminated cards. And just as they did for blackjack in the 1980’s, hundreds of books on basic no limit hold ’em strategy have flooded the market. But that doesn’t stop entirely clueless players from entering $300 WSOP Circuit events. After all, $300 isn’t a particularly large sum in the gambling world.
Which brings me back to my assigned table this past Monday. It didn’t take me long to get a line on most of the participants, many of whom were caricature-level examples of different categories of mistake prone players. There was the older Asian guy who played every hand for any price. There was the younger Asian guy who was a “slider”: he’d indiscrimately move all-in if you checked to him on the turn or river. Then there were the super-scared nits direcly to either side of me: one wouldn’t put a dime in the pot after the flop without at least top pair. The other didn’t know that raising preflop was an option. He would either open-limp or call, even with big pocket pairs. Overall, bluffing most of these players was out of the question, but the table was still ripe for the picking. That didn’t stop me from immediately losing half my stack with AK against a player holding A4 offsuit on an A-x-x-4-x board. When the guy turned over his two pair, i responded by not simply mucking my cards, but by winding up and firing them frisbee-style to the far end of the table, nearly putting out the eyes of an unsuspecting competitor. And from that point forward, I was no longer quietly miffed. What had previously been simmering inside me was brought to a boil, and I ceased to bother pretending I wasn’t grouchy. I became that guy, the one who barks instructions at the dealers, rolls his eyes at other players’ ineptitude and openly criticizes their misplays. Mr. Grouchy Know-It-All.
I did not, however, tilt. I played well. I trapped the habitual bluffer, thereby doubling up and disdainfully raking his chips toward me and loudly stacking them whilst frowning and shaking my head. But my already sour attitude still went further south when they moved our entire table, en masse, upstairs. The tournament director had us bag up all our chips, label the bags, and follow some floor personnel up an escalator and across the casino floor, all while the tournament clock ran. This resulted in another fifteen minute delay and more missed hands. Upstairs we were greeted by an altogether too common sight in these larger tournaments: a dealer with virtually no clue what the hell he was doing. The demand for tournament dealers still outstrips the supply, so a combination of total novices and complete idiots are pressed into duty when a big event rolls into town. It’s ugly. Between the move upstairs and the utter incompetence of the dealer, we played about four hands over the course of the next half hour. I continued to stew.
Meanwhile the tournament levels were going by, and I was biding my time waiting for a hand that would stand up against a calling station. I sat at three separate tables that were broken before I finally found a few opportunities. At the dinner break I was somehow sitting on an average stack, and my grumpiness was finally subsiding.
After dinner, with many of the looser players in the field long gone, and with the blinds and antes now at respectable levels, I finally opened up and began to make a move. Despite continuing to hold trash, I chipped up with surprising ease. I was moved to yet another table, where I continued to pick spots and somehow found myself up in the top 10 or 20% of the remaining field, which was now pared down to around 150. The money bubble was lurking at spot #81 and I was relishing my chance to run people over when it come a bit closer. My new table had a very chatty, exciteable, trash-talking kid at it, who I was especially looking forward to tormenting. But the most important character at this table was sitting a couple of seats to my right. It was a guido-type kid with a very unlikely huge stack. I am calling his stack unlikely because this guy was a huge underdog to have even survived as far as he had. He was open-raising roughly 50% of the hands played, and when he showed down his cards, they were usually rags. He appeared to be on a mission to either collect every chip in play or crash and burn. I was more than happy to help him along if his fate turned out to be the latter. All I needed was some kind of hand to attack him with.
Alas, he began to crash before I could do anything. He lost a series of pots to the more astute players surrounding him and rapidly descended from the table’s boss stack to a medium/short stack. This didn’t stop him from continuing his open-raising assault, however. And it also didn’t stop him from growing visibly frustrated. Now his raises took on a more emphatic, desperate quality, as he began muttering under his breath, all the while slamming and splashing chips toward the center. And then we finally tangled.
At this point his stack was roughly half the size of mine. I was in the big blind and he was on the button, and he open raised. I looked down at AQ, and knowing I was waaaay ahead of his range, I put him all in. He was obviously ready to go home, because he instacalled and turned over 7-6 offsuit. The flop came A-9-2, and I prepared to bid my guido friend arriverderci. But the turn and river came a miracle 8-5, giving him a straight. Ouch. I was done in a mere three hands later, when I looked down and found my first big pair of the entire tournament. Aces. I open-raised in the cutoff and got called by the big blind. The flop came Q-x-x and I made a small continuation bet. The big blind inhaled deeply, exhaled, shot me a faux-weak look and said “all in.” I responded a nanosecond later with “call,” and tabled the aces. My opponent turned over K-Q. The turn was a blank, but the river was a queen. My opponent, a nice middle-aged man who was probably playing his first tournament, gave the board another look before it slowly dawned on him. He then stood up, pumped both fists spastically and yelled “YES! TRIP QUEENS, BABY!” at the top of his lungs. Yes. Trip queens.
I shook his hand, gathered my things and exited the shitshow stage left. I had spent 95% of the day looking at trash hands and being angry. When I finally cheered up, I was rewarded with two playable hands, both of which blew up in my face. Is there a lesson in there somewhere? I didn’t think so.