I’ll start this with an admission: Before I played Event #12 at the WSOP, my poker year had gone horribly, and I was fucked in the head. Nobody really knew, because I didn’t feel comfortable telling the world how frustrated and scared I was. Only Janeen (poor girl) knew how tormented I was.
Acknowledging your lack of progress by making a joke out of growing your hair long is one thing. Admitting that you’ve lost your confidence, that you are having trouble sleeping, and that you’ve begun to think about alternate ways of making money is quite another. And I’m only comfortable admitting this publicly now, in the wake of a very large win. But that’s where I was before this tournament.
I lost at poker consistently from January through April. Continuous, monotonous losing with a few isolated moments of success. Then sometime in mid to late April, I began to also lose my mind. Part of me felt like I was just experiencing a very ugly, unpleasant downswing. But a growing part of me felt like I was a break even player who fluked his way though 2006. And that idea was really eating at me. Each losing session was becoming more and more painful and creating more and more self doubt, so I decided to do something about it.
At the beginning of May, I decided to drop down in stakes and establish that, at the very least, I could beat lower limit games. I set out to prove that the worst case scenario for me was grinding out a living in small games. So if you looked for me online during that month, you probably found me sitting in $30 sit ‘n go’s or shorthanded 1-2 NL games. At the end of the month, after logging hundreds of hours of play, I was barely above break even. I had not earned enough to make a decent monthly wage. My income for the year was negative, and I became even more anxious and unhappy. At this point the World Series of Poker was right around the corner, and although the thought of putting together a hot streak seemed farfetched, I decided there was no turning back. A professional poker player does not skip the World Series.
So I decided that June would be a true make-or-break month, and possibly a determining factor in my future (hence my “Month of Reckoning” blog entry). Even Janeen, whose stock response to my whining had always been “you’re a poker player, period,” changed her tune to “see how the World Series goes and reevaluate from there” when I talked about my uncertain future. In my mind, my five month losing streak had grown to the point of statistical significance. I adopted a Parcellsian “you are what your record says you are” view of my 2007 results. And the results said that I was a bum. It wasn’t really about going to the barber. It was about proving to myself that I’m not a joke. This might sound like an overdramatization, but it isn’t. Only Janeen can corroborate how crappy I was feeling. Craptasticly crappy.
June started with a stop in Chicago for Janeen’s brother’s 40th birthday. It also served as a pre-World Series rest period for me. The birthday party itself was a fun backyard affair, like a grown up kegger. Nice party. And once that was over, I was off to Vegas for the beginning of my self-imposed trial by fire.
There were no affordable hold ‘em WSOP events planned for my first several days in town, so as mentioned in this blog, I played one Venetian tournament and a ton of single table satellites. I had a solid but unremarkable showing at the Venetian and was a net loser in the single table sats. For the trip, I had turned about $4000 in cash into $2500 in tournament lammers. The single table tournaments were particularly vexing. I continually worked my way down to the final three or four players only to get drawn out on in some kind of all in confrontation. I was playing poker for at least twelve hours a day and was getting nowhere. This went on for three full days. At the end of each night I shuffled out of the Amazon Room, through the Rio, down the block to my discount room at the Gold Coast and crawled into bed, profoundly depressed but hopeful that I’d turn it around the next day. But each day turned out the same.
On Wednesday I played my first bracelet event, $2000 NLHE. It was also a disaster. There are three things worth noting about my experience in this tournament. First, the dealer at my first table was a nice woman I befriended in a 2-5 NL game at Foxwoods last fall (hi Claudia!). Second, my opening table had Chau Giang, Tom McEvoy, and one internet superstar whose name I don’t know at it. Third, I was out before the first break.
I went and played more single table sats. I acquired two $500 lammers but spent over $2000 trying to get them. Blah. I felt like complete shit. The losses were piling up too high and influencing my mental state too severely. So before I went to bed, I decided to skip the $1500 Six Handed NLHE bracelet event the next day in favor of the $500 event at the Venetian, thus saving me $1000.
And thus ends the negative portion of this blog entry, and begins the portion where the fickle hand of fate intervenes.
I woke up late on Thursday in the same dejected mood and began to get ready for the Venetian tournament. I turned on my cell phone and found that I had a text in my inbox. It was from Kevin, who was in Vegas for a bachelor party but intended to play some poker first. We had discussed both playing the Six-Handed Thursday event back in New York a week or two earlier.
Kevin: Playing 2day right? I’m here, wheeeeeeeeee.
My response: Maybe. Might play Venetian. In actuality, I had already decided to skip the WSOP event, but I was leaving the door open to be convinced.
Kevin: 6 handed equals good times. Come get your bracelet.
The concept of me winning a bracelet was hilarious. But still, I thought about it a little and realized that he was right. I was in town to play the World Series, not $500 tournaments at the Venetian. What kind of professional poker player skips a $1500 WSOP event? If this was the month of reckoning, I had to stay somewhat positive, gather up the energy every day, and go full speed the entire time. Plus it would be nice to see a familiar face after spending four days alone. I went over to the Rio and registered.
The tournament area was totally rammed, and in the minutes before the tournament began, I found Kevin outside the auxiliary tournament area (basically a huge tent full of poker tables set up in the parking lot). We made some small talk. I neglected to mention how lousy I was feeling about my game. And then, with just a few minutes to go before the tournament kicked off, I finally got around to asking him if he wanted to do a swap.
Kevin and I have established a tradition of swapping a percentage of one another in all the tournaments in which we’re both participating, both live and online. I like Kevin, and I like the way he plays, so it’s a no-brainer for me. For the year 2007, I was ahead on this arrangement, as Kevin has had more cashes in the Pokerstars Sunday Million than me. On Thursday, I actually hesitated to ask Kevin if he wanted to do the swap because I was so down on myself and secretly afraid of being rejected. Kevin pays attention to my results and knew that I had exactly one solitary small cash in all my live events this year. So I had to muster up the courage to ask him for the swap.
“You wanna do a swap?”
“Sure,” was his reply. “How much? Five? Ten?”
“Let’s do ten percent,” I said, figuring that the more Kevin I owned, the better off I would be.
And with that, we went off and played.
I am now going to try and provide a good recap of my tournament, but I’d like to mention in advance that I spent much of this tournament in a strange mental zone. I was quite focused on the tournament as it took place, but I am lacking my usual ability to recall hands with clarity. Even on the breaks between levels I was often unable to remember how I acquired chips. I’ll do my best here.
My first table was a very easy draw. There were five inexperienced, tentative players and me. I resolved to play the opening levels the same way I play shorthanded cash games: fast. I was going to openraise a lot and reraise the other fast players a lot. We only had 3000 chips in our stacks, so it was risky, but screw it. If playing fast busted me early, so be it. Gimme chips or get me out of here.
Within the first twenty hands, at 25-50 blinds, I picked up the K7 of spades in the cutoff and made it 150 to go. The button called and the flop came down K-Q-x with two spades. With top pair and a flush draw, I led at the pot for 300 and the button called. The turn was the jack of spades, completing my flush draw. I led out again for 450 and the button immediately shoved all in for about 2500. I expected him to turn over an ace high flush, but there was no way I was going away with the second nuts, so I called. He turned over A-10 with the ten of spades, having turned the nut straight, but he was drawing dead. I had eliminated my first player, doubling up in the process. So I began to openraise roughly every other hand and soon busted another player, but I have no recollection how. Then they broke my table.
I was moved to another good table, with only one player I recognized (he had won a satellite I played in the night before and was solid). Soon I picked up more chips: At the 50-100 level, I was on the button. The cutoff, an active player sitting on around 4000 chips, raised to 300. I reraised to 850 with A4 offsuit and he called. The flop came down 9-4-4, and he checked to me. I bet 1200 and he immediately checkraised all in. I called, he turned over 10-10, and I busted him. At the first break I was among the biggest stacks in the room with around 13,000 chips.
After the break, they moved me to a new table, where I once again began to pester everyone with continuous raises and reraises. Then something unexpected happened. The player in the two seat busted and was replaced with…. Kevin. I was busy stacking my chips, and looked up to find him unracking his. He gave me a pained “hi.” I responded with a disgusted “you’ve gotta be kidding me.” We had a mutual silent understanding to play our normal games but not reveal to our four opponents that we knew one another. I continued being pesky but didn’t really tangle with Kevin, except for stealing his big blind on one occasion. After perhaps 20 minutes at the same table with him, I was moved. The player to my right, who had a habit of limping into me, thereby invariably getting popped with a raise, said he was happy to see me go. The player to Kevin’s right, probably because he considered me reckless and stupid, said he preferred having me around. As I departed, I finally broke the silence.
“I’m quite happy to be leaving, thank you very much. I own ten percent of the player in the two seat.” Bye Kevin!
They moved me to tougher table. It had the always dangerous Tony Ma at it. Mr. Ma and I had one big confrontation. At 100-200 blinds with an ante, I raised in late position to 600 with AK suited, and Tony was probably sick of watching me raise, so he reraised to around 2000. I considered the correct course of action, since we were both deeper than 10,000, and put in a third raise to 5500. He scowled and folded.
That table broke pretty fast (a six handed tournament with 1427 players has a remarkable rate of attrition). I was sitting deep with around 15,000 chips. But my new table was pretty tough. In particular, there was a young player two seats to my right who was quite obviously in charge. He had more chips than me. I later learned that his name is Garrett Beckman, a ranked Poketfives.com guy (getting ranked on that site is no small feat), and I would be tangling with him off and on for the next two days. He’s a very good player whom I respect. He is the type of player that wants to play flops with you. He thus openraises to slightly more than 2x the big blind constantly, looking to get involved in large, complicated postflop sequences in position. Super tough. On the very first hand after I arrived at the table, I was moved into the big blind, and he raised to 600 from the button. I had a nebulous sense that he was trying to send a message to the new guy, so I decided to return to sender, so I reraised to 2000 with 7-2 offsuit. He flashed an ace and folded.
At this point, despite the relatively early phase of the tournament, around two-thirds of the players in the tournament had already been eliminated, including Kevin, who had been nursing a short stack for most of the day. Beckman and I were about to have two confrontations, one of which I would win, but the second of which would seriously damage me.
In the first one, I decided to limp in second position for 200 with A7 offsuit. It was folded to Beckman in the big blind, and he checked his option. The flop came A-K-2. He checked, I bet 700, and he checkraised to around 2500. I didn’t put him on a big ace, since he checked his option in the big blind, so I figured he was just stealing since he couldn’t put me on an ace either. I called. The turn was a seven, giving me two pair. He checked to me and I bet around 4000. He thought for a very long time, then declared that I had flopped a set and folded his hand face down, saying he had AK. I told him that I didn’t believe he had AK, but if he did, he made one hell of a laydown.
Soon thereafter, I dumped about one third of my stack to an old lady sitting to my right when my AQ ran into her QQ. But I rebuilt to around 19,000 chips when the following hand developed. I believe this took place at the 200-400 level.
I openraised to 1100 in first position with the J-7 of spades. It was folded to Beckman in the small blind and he called. Everyone else folded. The flop came K-J-x with one spade, and we both checked. The turn was the 8 of spades, giving me second pair and a flush draw. Beckman bet something like 1600, and I raised to 4200, which was a semibluff designed to look like a raise with a made hand. He called very quickly. The river was a low spade, completing my flush. He considered the river card for less than one second and fired a huge bet of 7000 into the pot. I considered this bet for a few seconds, trying to determine whether I should put my last 8000 chips in with the fourth nuts or just smooth call. The speed of his bet smelled like a bluff, as if he had told himself to make a large river bluff if it came a spade. But then I considered who this player was and decided he was very capable of giving off reverse tells, so I took the cautious route and just called. He showed the Q-9 of spades. My stomach turned as I disgustedly mucked my hand face up. I was crippled, just like that. The kid had all my chips and decided to turn the screws a little bit verbally.
“That’s twice. You better get me back soon,” he said with a smirk. He was implying that he had outplayed me on the two hands. Unfortunately, it was now very unlikely that I’d have a chance to get him back. As it turned out, he’d come in very handy much later in the tournament. I couldn’t think of an appropriate response, so I just smiled and said “Yeah.”
For my next trick, I fell victim to a very amateur angle shoot. I raised under the gun to 1100 with pocket eights, and got called by an older man on the button. The flop came down K-4-2, so I made a continuation bet of around 1800. The older man considered for a little while and flat called. The turn was a seven, and the older man checked. Wait, why was he checking, I was first to act. Did he just absent-mindedly tap the table, or did he just check out of turn? I replayed what I had just seen, and he was definitely looking at me nervously and rapping the table, indicating a check. But it was my turn to act. I looked at the dealer, and unsurprisingly, he was staring off into space with no idea of what just happened. So I took matters into my own hands and said to the older gentleman “It’s my turn to act, sir.” He had no response. Was he angle shooting or was he just a putz? I decided he was a putz and fired a second barrel, 3500 chips. Ooops. He immediately went all in for around 8000. I could tell by the way he put his chips in that he had likely flopped a set, or at the worst, had AK. I fired my cards into the muck, disgusted at both his illegal, unethical comportment and my foolishness for falling for his bullshit. I was stewing, and about two hands later I let him have it.
“You know, if I was the type of player to do it, I would make the floor enforce a penalty right now.” He looked at me, pretending to be totally dumbfounded.
“Never mind. You know what you did.” And he did.
Pretty soon after that hand, our entire table was moved en masse from the auxiliary tournament area into the main room. Only 20% of the field remained, but I was down to about 3000 chips with the blinds at 200-400 with an ante. Push/fold territory.
I had a hard time finding a spot to jam my chips in, because I held nothing but trash hands and players were continuously raising in front of me. Finally, down to less than 2500 chips, and surrounded by large stacks, I openshoved 9-7 from under the gun and got called by the old lady in the big blind with Q-8 suited. The first four board cards helped neither of us, and as I gathered my things, a nine fell on the river. Oh.
Now I had about 5500 chips, still short but not super desperate. A few hands later I looked down at 9-9 with a raise in front of me. I reshoved and got called by A-Q. The flop came A-x-x, and as I once again gathered my stuff and stood up, the turn produced a nine. Whoa! I instinctively snapped my fingers and lifted my right knee halfway up, like a retarded stork. Then I sat back down. Suddenly I had over 11,000 chips and a semi-average stack. And then they moved me to another table, which turned out to be quite fortuitous.
On my very first hand at this new table, I was placed in the small blind and looked down at the very first monster hand I had seen all day: two kings. It was folded all the way around to me and I put a raise to 1200. The big blind called and the flop came 6-4-3 rainbow. I led out for 1700 and the big blind called. The turn was another four, and now I checked to indicate that I was giving up on two overcards. The big blind made a large, pot sized bet, indicating that he was protecting top pair or an overpair, and I moved in. He thought for awhile and folded, saying he had an overpair. My stack was getting respectable again. On the next two hands, I picked up AQ and AK, winning with a raise and reraise, respectively. I was liking this new table. All of the sudden I had over 20,000 chips. And then I played a very, very important hand—probably the hand that caused the transformation I’m about to describe below.
On the previous hand, the player in the two seat played a huge pot with the player in the three seat, directly to my right. The player in the two seat doubled up with pocket aces. And on the ensuing hand, he had the button and I was in the big blind. We both had about 20,000 chips. He openraised to 1200, and I held two tens. I felt like he was charged up from his double-up and was just looking to assert himself, so I reraised to 4500. He moved all-in without hesitation. Time for a huge decision. I went into the tank for a long time.
There were a couple of possibilities.
1-He held another monster; something in the range of JJ-AA, AK; or
2-He was putting a power move on me.
I considered several factors. One was that he was a young player, possibly an internet pro, and putting in the third raise with junk in this kind of situation is a very common move in internet tournaments right now. Another factor was that we were pretty close to the bubble, which actually weighed in favor of a call rather than a fold. Since I had him pegged as an intelligent, aggressive player, I felt like he might have believed that the bubble pressure would cause me to fold, thus increasing the range of hands he’d make the move with. And a final consideration was that you must play tournaments to win, period.
But there was a deeper, more intense factor which was telling me to fold: my lack of confidence. I was scared to trust my read, because I would beat myself up if I was wrong. I knew that if the kid turned over JJ, I would go to the rail in a state of total self-annihilation. The thought of being wrong was almost too much to bear, so the easy route, with my tournament on the line, was to fold.
I had been thinking for probably 40 or 50 seconds when it dawned on me. Fold?! Fuck that! Trust your read, you’re a goddamned poker player!
“I’m gonna call,” I finally said as a slid all my chips in and tabled the tens.
The kid’s face fell. Yes! I was ahead. Now what the hell am I fading here?! He had A-9. Okay. The dealer burned and turned. No ace. No ace. NO ACE! The sheer horror of these situations is hard to describe. There is a tremendous buildup, especially when the dealer takes his time between the flop, turn and river. This particular dealer was going very slow. All I know is I wanted this hand very badly. No ace on the flop. No ace on the turn. And… thank you… no ace on the river. I exhaled and gathered and stacked the chips. The kid barely had me covered. When he busted a few hands later, he was very gracious and commended my call. I had over 40,000 chips and it was time for dinner.
Kevin had stuck around, so we ate dinner together before he departed for his bachelor party. After the break, some kind of transformation occurred. The call with the pocket tens changed my outlook. I really went to work, but I can’t recall how exactly what was going on. I just know that I played my ass off. I remember the constitution of the table at this point quite well, as I befriended all the players and we sat together for a very long time.
I was in the four seat. To my right sat a player with a lot of chips who was a very nice guy and a solid player. I was not in the mood to fold my big blind, so the two of us were continually clashing. To my left sat a player who wanted to create a tight image, but whom I later learned was capable of making moves. In the six seat was a player whose name I didn’t know but whom I recognized from playing with before. He turned out to be a total nit near the bubble. In the one seat was a wild player who was there to gamble and was dangerous for that reason. And in the two seat, replacing the A-9 kid, was a player who seemed inexperienced and very tight. At this point the money bubble lurked about 50 players away, and was approaching fast. Soon it was 20 players away. Four of the other five players at the table, it seemed, were content to limp into the money. And having correctly made that read, I simply opened fire. And then, before I knew it, we were only one player off the bubble and my stack was a robust 55,000.
What ensused was literally the longest bubble period I have ever experienced. It stretched on for an hour and a half. It was like a license to steal. I openraised almost every pot. When someone else openraised, I called with any two cards and took the pot from them after the flop, regardless of the board. I was engrossed in a total zone, vacuuming up every chip in sight. The blinds went to 300-600, then 400-800, so the uncontested pots were quite large. My stack increased to 60k, then 70k, then to about a bloated 80k. To the dismay of the other players at my table, the bubble would not burst. All around the room, short stacks were somehow surviving their all-ins. I robotically raised roughly 8 out of 10 pots, encountering no resistance. The prize for 126th place was $2,143, and these guys wanted a return on their investment, which was a very good thing for me. And then, on one hand, all my work was undone.
We were still on the bubble, which was played hand-for-hand. This meant that in the long intervals between hands, players were free to roam around the room and look at the other stacks. It was thus common knowledge that a couple of players were on life support, with only a couple of antes (less than one small blind) in their stacks.
On the hand in question, the loose player in seat one (one of three guys named David at the table), sitting on around 33,000 chips, openraised from under the gun to 2400. I was on the button and looked down at A-J. I decided to put him to the test and moved all in. He called immediately and jumped out of his chair. I thought I was in big trouble, but he showed 10-10. A crowd gathered around our table to see if the bubble would finally burst, which would propel me to the very top of the leaderboard. However, the board came all bricks, and his daring call paid off, completely destroying two full hours of meticulous stackbuilding and reducing me from one of the tournament leaders to only the third largest stack at my own table. The player in the one seat, who was a very excitable (and also very nice) guy, went apeshit, and I silently slid several 10k stacks into the center, which the dealer delivered to him. Soon thereafter, the bubble burst, and all the friendly folks at my table, who had been chatting between hands, congratulated one another. And then “it” happened.
“It” was me entering the zone. I am being perfectly honest when I say that I have no recollection of anything specific from the time period between the bubble bursting and 2:00 am, when play broke for the night. I do know that I played very well and increased my stack way up to around 65,000 once again, which put me in position to do serious damage in the tournament.
I didn’t come out of my poker daze until I got back to my hotel room, whereupon I blogged about how much I still love poker and thought about the task that lied ahead of me. I only got about four hours of sleep after a fourteen hour day. But during the late phases of Day One, perhaps during the time I took to make the call with 10-10, something in my head had clicked. With or without a full night’s rest, I was undoubtedly ready.
Part II to come….