I’ve been asked the same two questions many times in the last few days. The answers are: 1) yes, there are many important hands I skip in my tournament recaps; and 2) yes, I do bluff. As a matter of fact, I intentionally chose not to mention a couple of hands from Day 1 where I was completely snowing someone. Part II…
In my previous entry, I admitted that my emotional well being was in question at the start of Event #12. On the morning of Day 2, any emotional weakness was a distant memory. My Day 1 performance was the elixir. I had pulled a 180-degree turnaround. Yes, I had gotten lucky in a couple of spots, but mostly I had outplayed nearly everyone at my tables on the first day, and looking back the morning after, I was quite aware of it. I had emerged from a morass of self-doubt, my confidence was cresting, and I honestly sensed that I was on the precipice of something big (hence this blog entry).
There would be 62 players left when Day 2 started, and I was sitting in 14th place with 96,000 chips. At the top of the leaderboard were the monstrous J.C. Tran and a player I respect and have learned a great deal from, Eric Haber. Was I nervous? Yes, a bit. But was I scared? Hell no. I resolved to play like a dangerous guy, to take on the role of that player that no one really wants to tangle with. And that is the correct way to handle the vital stage of the tournament I was about to jump into.
When there’s 62 players left out of 1,400 in a $1500 bracelet event, you’re in rarified air. Many players freeze up under those conditions, which is a natural reaction with so much money on the line. But the steep prize structure (almost half a million for first, $62,000 for sixth, much less for positions 7 through 62) and the very fact that many players are naturally constricting their play mean that this is actually the time to accelerate. I am so well schooled in this important concept that I went into Day 2 without fear. It was final table or bust. I would not bother to second guess myself if I kamikaze’d my way to the rail. It was important, in order for me to summon the guts to make daring plays, for me to feel dangerous going in, and I did.
Play was scheduled to begin at 2:00 pm, but I was ready to rock by 10:00 am. I killed some time first by eating breakfast, then by websurfing in my hotel room, and then finally by exiting my hotel and talking a long, destination-less walk up Tropicana Avenue. If you’re anywhere but the center of the Strip, taking a stroll in Las Vegas is virtually pointless. The place is simply not built for pedestrians: every building is at least a half mile from the next one, on many roads they don’t even bother providing sidewalks, and within five minutes your throat and clothes are both coated with a thin layer of dust and you’re pouring sweat. But if your only goal is something inane like killing time and getting some blood flowing, then taking a walk in Vegas can do the trick.
When play began, I discovered that there were a surprising number of railbirds sweating the tournament, the most I’d ever witnessed from inside the rail, except for when I’ve played the main event. There was a silent acknowledgment of how much was at stake, and the crowd, like the players, was surprisingly pensive. That was fine by me, since my intention was to immediately start making a lot of waves in an otherwise quiet pond.
Once the cards were in the air, however, it quickly became apparent that I would be doing no such thing. The reason was a fellow New Yorker in the 1 Seat by the name of Alex Balandin. Alex started the day with only 14,000 chips but was taking the play away from the rest of the table by relentlessly shoving all in. He rapidly chipped up to around 40,000, and then when someone looked him up with A-7, his A-4 sucked out. And he didn’t stop there, he continued to mercilessly raise one hand after another. I openraised once on his big blind, and he promptly shoved all his chips in, forcing me to fold. Hmmmm.
Out of nowhere, Alex’s maniacal play had pushed him up among the chipleaders with around 50 players remaining. I languished around the middle of the pack with 80,000 chips. The field thinned to 45, then 40 players as I bided my time, watching Balandin gobble up every chip in sight. I was card dead; all I could do was sit back in a sleepy-looking state and wait for a good spot to finally tangle with him.
And then, for the first time in the tournament, when I looked down at my hole cards I was greeted by pocket aces. I was in the small blind, licking my chops as the action was passed to Balandin, but he folded his hand. It got folded all the way around to me, and I chose to simply complete the 4000 chip big blind. This was par for the course for me, as I had been willing to play small pots out of position in blind-vs.-blind confrontations all tournament. The big blind, a very nice guy (with impeccable jewdar) by the name of David Slan, shoved all in for around 40,000 and I immediately called. He had 10-7 offsuit and my aces held up, giving me some more chips to work with. Into Slan’s vacated seat was moved the aforementioned Garrett Beckman.
Next, I finally got involved with Balandin. And to be perfectly honest, I have no idea what I was doing on this hand. I raised to 11,000 from the cutoff with Ac8h, and Balandin protected his big blind. The flop came K-J-8 with two diamonds, giving me bottom pair with no draw. Balandin checked, and so did I. I did not like my hand, and my first instinct was to just try and show it down. The turn card was the 10 of diamonds, completing about 50 possible draws. I still had bottom pair, i.e., dogshit. Balandin checked again, and since he had shown no aggression so far, I fired a 20,000 chip bet, leaving me with 90,000 behind. Balandin called without any thought. Ugh. The river was a black seven, creating a very messy board that included a three-flush and numerous connected cards, a myriad of possibilities. I still had dogshit. Balandin considered for a moment and checked. I was in the middle of nowhere with this hand and faced with a choice: concede the hand and work with my 90,000 chips or take another wild stab and pray for a fold. For reasons I’m not sure of, I chose the latter, pushing two full 20,000 stacks forward and announcing “forty thousand.” I maintained my sleepyfaced exterior, but several internal organs were doing cartwheels as I prayed for a fold. My opponent considered for a little while, then folded and said “I either completely botched that hand or I got away cheap.” I exhaled and gathered enough composure to tell a bold-faced lie: “you lost the minimum.” I was up to around 140,000 with about 30 players left.
Next came a really pivotal hand. I mentioned in the previous entry that Beckman would “come in handy” later in the tournament. I discussed his habit of making very small preflop raises to entice action, and that is exactly what transpired next. It was my big blind and I held a monster: the 8-2 of diamonds. Under the gun, with the blinds at 2000-4000 with a 500 ante, Beckman raised to just over 10,000. He got called by Balandin on the button, and the small blind folded. My hand was total garbage, but I was getting very enticing odds. Plus, it was sooooted garbage. If Beckman had raised just one thousand chips more, or if Balandin had folded, or if my 8-2 was unsuited, I would have passed on this hand. But under these exact conditions, against two deep stacks getting favorable real and implied odds, I chose to toss another 6000 chips in and look at a flop. And it was a dream flop: jack of diamonds, ten of diamonds, two of clubs, giving me bottom pair and a flush draw.
My turn to act. How to proceed? I figured that my hand was unlikely to be currently winning, but I couldn’t have hoped for a better flop with 8d-2d. I had too many outs. The hand needed to be played aggressively. Since both of my opponents had me easily covered, I decided to lead at the pot, with the intention of three-betting all in if I got raised. I bet 30,000. Beckman folded, but when the action got to Balandin, he foiled the possibility of a three-bet by simply shoving all in. Sheesh. It was time for a big decision.
A few years ago, when I was just beginning to play no-limit hold ‘em at an advanced level, I had a huge leak in my game: I usually folded in this situation. When I held a draw, even a powerful one such as a pair + flush draw, I tended to give up in situations where my fold equity was taken away from me, regardless of the odds the pot was laying me. In other words, my game had no “gamble” to it. But a fold here is usually incorrect. My opponent either had a made hand without a draw, in which case I am about 50% to win the pot, or a weaker draw such as a straight draw or a flush draw without a pair, in which case I am in the lead with a better than 50% chance of winning. Sometimes you just have to call even when you think you’re behind. With the 60k already in the pot, my decision was easy. Call and turn my fate over to the poker gods. And that is what I did. Balandin had QJ with no diamonds. My nerves from my previous confrontation had faded. I felt remarkably calm and remained seated as the dealer revealed the turn card: the nine of diamonds. Hand over. I win. For some reason, I just sat there in a state of complete zen-like tranquility, even as everyone at the table had just finished saying “nice hand,” and a mountain of chips was collecting itself in the center, in preparation for shippage in my direction.
It was at that exact moment that I first noticed that Kevin’s face was among those in the crowd on the rail. We made eye contact, then he shrugged and turned his palms upward with a resigned look on his face. Likely because I was sitting there looking practically comatose in the wake of a big hand, he thought I had lost. No sir. I disavowed him of that notion by giving him a subdued ‘double thumbs up,’ and then confirmation arrived in the form of a fat pile of chips being shoved in my direction. Kevin’s look abruptly changed to one of wide-eyed excitement. He silently mouthed “three hundred?” and I nodded, then Kevin started busily texting someone. I was indeed over the 300,000 chip mark, way up near the top of the leaderboard. Woot!
My strategy at this point became selective aggression. There were two very dangerous players whom I respected at my table, two guys that would not hesitate to reheat me. So I decided not to take any unnecessary risks and try to remain up in the top 5 as the dinner break approached. But sometimes my competitive spirit takes over.
With the blinds at 3000-6000, a hand was dealt in which the dealer accidentally exposed a ten while distributing the hole cards. He announced that the exposed ten would be the burn card, and we proceeded in the customary fashion. I then picked up pocket fives under the gun and raised to 17,000. It was folded to Balandin, who had quickly regrouped to around 300,000 chips, and he reraised me to around 60,000. For some reason–likely his overall level of activity at the table–I felt like he was just fucking with me, so I announced that I was all in. His reaction really startled me: he fired his cards, face up, all the way across the table, in my direction. They slid all the way across the felt and came to rest less than a foot from my cards: pocket tens. Gulp. My heart fell as I realized I was way behind. It was only after about three additional seconds elapsed, and Alex started bitching, that I realized that his card-fling was a frustrated fold—the exposed ten took away one of his outs and he had chosen to throw his hand away. Yikes. Carry on…. Stackity stack stack!
And with that, we broke for dinner. There were only 20 players left, and I was cruising along in third place with 381,000 chips. As we left for dinner it dawned on me that my guaranteed take was now approximately $12,000. Enough for a haircut, no matter what my fate! But I had my sights set much higher.
The dinner break was a little odd: Not only had my ability to sleep deserted me during this tournament, but I found that I had almost no appetite. Kevin and I went to a restaurant on the other side of the Rio, where I picked at a salad. Our conversation was sparse and subdued. Kevin was treating me with the same way that a teammate treats a pitcher who has a no-hitter in progress. There was no need to disrupt things, and I appreciated it. This would all change after the dinner break, as Kevin was joined on the rail by my good friend Jonny Y and his girlfriend Jen.
For a few years now, Jonny Y has been my primary partner in crime. Almost all of my good friends have long ago given up on the idea of going out late at night, which has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and one that I’ve yet to outgrow. Jonny Y is a notable exception. He and I share a particular characteristic: once we are out on the town with a few drinks in us, we’re getting silly and we’re not going home. Jon and I have had more wacky late nights in NYC together than we can possibly count. And this unhealthy fact is probably part of the reason that he’s moving with his girlfriend to Las Vegas, which is what brought them to the rail on Day 2 of the tournament after a long day of apartment hunting in their new home town. If Las Vegas strikes you as an odd location for a person who wants to stop partying so much, you’re not alone. But I think it’ll all work out for Jon and Jen. I’m gonna miss me some Jonny Y. Cheers to you, buddy!
In any event, Jon’s style on the rail differs markedly from Kevin’s. After the dinner break, when I looked over to the rail, I saw two contrasting images: Kevin, anxiously but inconspicuously peering down at all the action, and Jonny Y, wobbling around double-fisting two cups of free Milwaukee’s Best Light and belting out “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhooggrrrrr Deeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” every time I raked a pot.
Unfortunately, my first step after dinner was really more of a stumble. We redrew for seats with three tables remaining, placing me at a table full of players with whom I was unfamiliar. With the blinds now a lofty 4000-8000, my small blind was raised to 30,000 in late position by a player in a University of Miami cap named Steven Olek. I looked down at pocket nines and reraised to 100k, and he immediately went all in for 120,000, which I of course called. He had pocket queens and they held. I tumbled down from the top of the leaderboard to a spot closer to the bottom. Then I blinded away chips until I had only around 130,000. I was in a bad spot (with a chip stack that can’t really openraise light but can put in the second raise) and needed something good to happen soon. Fortunately, a good old fashioned heater was neigh.
Just as I was beginning to feel desperate, I looked down at A-8 offsuit in the small blind, and it was folded around to me. The big blind had me covered, and as mentioned above, I had an awkward-sized stack for the 4000-8000 blinds. If I raised to 30 or 40k, I would not feel comfortable calling a shove. So instead, I limped with the intention of reraising all in if I got raised. All this strategizing proved to be moot, as the big blind chose to see a cheap flop and checked behind. The flop came a pleasing A-4-2, and I had to figure out a way to get all my chips in. I knew that the big blind did not have an ace (he would have raised), and I knew that he could not put me on an ace (I did not raise). So how best to get my chips in? I started the action by checking, and the big blind bet about 12,000. Knowing that he could not put me on an ace, I decided to checkraise in an effort to represent a bluff and induce a three-bet shove. I deliberately announced a raise, and slowly counted out 35,000 chips and pushed them forward. I got exactly what I wanted: the big blind moved all in! It occurred to me that I might be beat, but folding was obviously not a consideration. I called, and showed my A-8. The big blind turned over the 5-2 of hearts, bottom pair with a gutterball wheel draw. He picked up some heart outs on the turn but bricked the river, and I was back over 250,000. Once again, I surprised myself with a completely impassive reaction. Stack, stack, stack. Shhhhhhhhhhhoooogrrr Deeeeeeee!!!
Now, finally, well into the night, I found a good spot to turn up the heat. I began to liberally openraise, and no one seemed to be in the mood to put up any resistance. My stack began to grow in 20,000 chip chunks. Then, before I knew it, I found out that J.C. Tran had imploded and was out of the tournament. All of the sudden we were down to about fifteen players, and I was moved to a different table. As I racked up my chips and walked over to my new seat, it finally occurred to me: I was having my way in this tournament. There were only fifteen players left out of over 1,427 and I was one of the favorites to win the damn thing. I’m happy to report that having this epiphany did not decrease my focus one iota. I went right back to work.
My next biggish hand found me in second position with AQ offsuit. The blinds were now 6,000-12,000. The player under the gun, who had plenty of chips, limped, a very strange play at this stage of the tournament. I chose to flat call and see a flop. Once the big blind checked his option, we were three handed to the flop. The flop smashed me: A-A-10. The big blind checked, the second player checked, and I also checked. The turn completely locked my hand: the case ace. Now the big blind led at the pot for 20,000, and the under the gun player called. Rather than do anything fancy, I chose to get more money in the pot and raised to 60,000. This drove the big blind out of the pot, but the original limper called. The river was a small card of some kind, and the under the gun player checked. I had quads and knew my opponent had a ten. I had three choices and was unsure of which would extract the most value: a small bet of around 80,000, a medium sized bet of 150,000, or shoving all-in. I went with the medium-sized bet, and my opponent made a very nice laydown, flashing a ten as he folded. Still, I was in second place with 13 players left, sitting on over a half million chips. Again came the cry from the rail: Shhhhhoooooogrrrrr Deeeeeeeeee!!!!
With twelve players left I was firmly in charge of my table. I continued to pile up chips, and then won a bunch in a blind vs. blind confrontation: The small blind, the same player who openlimped when I turned quads, completed. I checked my option with 10-9 offsuit. The flop came Q-10-8 and we both checked. The turn was the ace of hearts, putting two hearts on board, and my opponent bet about 20k. I didn’t believe him, so I called. The river was the nine of clubs, giving me two pair, but created a very coordinated board. The small blind fired 46,000, and I still didn’t believe him, so I quickly called. He said “you win,” as he very slowly revealed the 6-3 of hearts and I tabled my two pair. I was pushed a pot that made me a prohibitive favorite to make the final table. On cue, Jonny Y let loose with the loudest one yet: SHHHHHHOOOOOOOGGGRRRR DEEEEEEEEE!!!
The next few eliminations happened quickly, as two or three coolers (e.g., AA vs. KK) took place at the other table, and incredibly, after a few more minutes all that remained in the field was two four-handed tables. My table consisted of myself, a good young pro (and very nice guy) with a big contingent of railbirds named Matt Brady, professional veteran Joe Awada, and another player. I had the most chips on the table and was openraising a lot of hands for just over 2x the big blind. By succeeding in these steal attempts a few times, I moved into the chip lead. And then came a hand which really encapsulated the day.
With the blinds at 8,000-16,000, I raised to 42,000 on the button with the Q-10 of diamonds. Joe Awada, in the small blind, sitting on around 500,000 chips, reraised to 120,000. It was gut-check time, as this was a perfect spot to three-bet all in. Did I have the balls to do it? Numerous factors were converging to make this spot perfect for a reshove. First, we were 2 eliminations from the final table, with the massive monetary jump that went along with it. Eight place paid $46,000, and sixth place was the final table and $61,000. A reshove all in was essentially a $15,000 bet. That’s a lot of pressure, even for a pro. Second, Awada had a lot of chips, but not quite as many as me. A three-bet under these conditions represented a very tight range, likely only QQ-AA and AK. It was just too big a bet (from an unknown player) to be anything less. Third, my very limited knowledge of Awada came from ESPN coverage of a final table at which I saw him make shorthanded reraises with ace-rag. He could have been reraising light after getting sick of my constant activity.
Still, it is pretty crazy to move all in with a trashy hand with a half million dollars on the line. Did I have the balls to do it? I honestly wasn’t sure until I heard myself announce “all in” with a backhanded wave of my right hand.
A hush came over both the table and the rail as Awada considered my massive bet. “I got a real hand here,” he said as he turned and looked right at me. I just sat there looking bored. “That’s a big bet, buddy. You must have a real big hand. But so do I. Could this be another cooler?” I don’t know how I accomplished it, but I remained completely emotionless, looking utterly disinterested, like I was sitting through an interminable Contracts lecture in law school. Awada’s time in the tank lagged on, surpassing a minute and a half. Eventually, he stopped trying to elicit information from me and began muttering to himself. I could tell he was about to fold. Then decisively, conclusively, he did it. He folded pocket jacks face up. I was in such a zone that I’m not sure I even felt relief. I gave a slight shrug as I tossed my cards in face down and stacked my new chips.
Hands like the one I just described seem like they don’t offer sufficient reward for the risk taken. But this is not true, these hands are essential to winning poker tournaments. Every chip counts, and the really great players acquire chips every time there is an opening. They don’t pass any of them up. That’s what I had just done.
At the start of the day, I vowed that I’d be dangerous. At that moment, I didn’t feel merely dangerous. I was lethal. I was the clear chip leader, a mercenary and a stone killer. Fuck with me at your peril.
“What did you have?” Joe asked. The truth felt like a very unappealing option.
“Ace-King. We were racing.”
When Awada ran AK into KK and busted two hands later, there was a short break as the tournament was condensed to a single seven-handed table. I finally let loose, strolling over to the rail and high-fiving Kevin and Jon, who were both ecstatic. As I walked back to my seat, Brady’s railbirds asked me what I had against Awada and I couldn’t resist telling the truth. When I told them, they loved it.
“You’re so sick!” one of them said.
That is very high praise in pokerland.
When we reconvened, the short-stacked Brady shared a valuable piece of information with me.
“You see the big guy with the Yankees hat?” He was referring to a player named Jason Warner, who had a medium/large stack and was sitting across from us.
“Yep, what about him?”
“Be careful with him. He’s a caller. He doesn’t lay down hands. He busted Sheets (Eric Haber) when he couldn’t lay down aces on two-suited jack/ten/nine board.” I nodded and filed that information away. Brady also told me that my reraise against Awada was crazy, as Awada, contrary to what I believed, is a very tight player. Oops!
Before we started to play again, the tournament director handed out some paperwork for us to complete. All of the questions pertained to our backgrounds, so that the final table announcers would have something to tell everyone about us. I had only one item that I really wanted to share: my grandfather, my Pop-Pop, taught me how to play poker at a very young age. I’m not a very spiritual person, but he has always been and remains my guiding light, both in poker and in life itself. Outside of the essential biographical information, that is the only thing I deemed important enough to share about David Zeitlin.
Our seven-handed table had two short stacks. Brady survived his all-in shove, leaving another player as the lone short stack. The other player gamely survived for quite awhile before finally shoving pocket sevens into Jason Warner’s aces, creating our final table and ending play for the night. We were told to be back for the final table at 2:15 pm the next day. At that time we would be wired for sound, and the final table would be filmed with hole card cameras. The final table was not on ESPN’s schedule, but there would be a webcast. I was second in chips.
Kevin and Jon were more intensely aware of what I had just accomplished than I was. It took awhile to sink in, but when it did, I realized that I had just notched my greatest accomplishment in poker to date and had my finest day as a pro. I called a select few to tell them the news, and then Jon gave me a lift back to my hotel.
I was too wired to sleep, so I got in bed and took stock of my feelings. What were they, exactly? There were a lot of them. I was definitely happy. I was pretty excited. There were more, but I wasn’t precisely sure of them all.
Oh yes… I still felt dangerous.