When we left off, I had completed Day 1 of the 2008 WSOP Main Event. This sounds like a bigger accomplishment than it is. Only a little more than half the field was eliminated during the four Day 1’s this year, so we were nowhere near the money bubble, which makes the massive ovation that punctuates the end of Day 1 amusing to guys like me, who have been around the block a few times. Still, alive is better than dead, and although my 37,000 chips were only about average, I felt confident that I’d find some good opportunities on Day 2. But Day 2b was still 48 hours away. I had two days to kill in Las Vegas.
I’m a believer in treating time off as what it is. I’m well past the point where poker feels more like an addiction than a job; the last thing I want after an important 14 hour workday is more work. Also, my game has progressed past the place where “staying sharp” by continuing to play during a short break of no import. The formula for ensuring solid play is simple: I need to be well rested with a clear head.
So after sleeping in, I started my first day off with what I envisioned as a simple, pleasant activity: a leisurely walk to lunch at In-N-Out Burger. This activity was designed to kill several proverbial birds with a single stone.
First, I’d get to eat at In-N-Out Burger. Everyone who knows me well knows that I am peculiarly passionate about cheeseburgers. There’s something about a good cheeseburger that placates me like nothing else can. Yes, a good cheeseburger is the ultimate DZ antidote. That first squishy, greasy bite is my nirvana. I don’t give a shit about how bad it is for me. I don’t wanna hear it. Putting a tasty cheeseburger in front of me is like putting a glass pipe filled with crack rocks in front of Pookie. The genesis of this fixation is likely the nutritionally questionable dinnertime tactics employed by my mother during my childhood: I ate at Burger King or Wendy’s at least once a week, and I never heard a word of the traditional discouragement about junk food. So I’ve been stuffing my face full of fast food cheeseburgers for as long as I can remember. Doing it takes me to my happy place. When my arteries can no longer unclog themselves and I keel over and die a premature cheeseburger-induced death, now everyone will know who to blame.
My new favorite place to do my face-stuffing is In-N-Out Burger. In-N-Out Burger is the most excellent fast food cheeseburger place in America, bar none. The fact that we don’t have In-N-Out on the East Coast makes me even crazier about eating as much of it as I can. All the food is made fresh there every day. The meat is chopped up and salted right there in the back. The potatoes are mauled and turned into fries right next to the meat chopping and salting, and nothing is ever frozen. With all due respect to that Lucky Charms leprechaun, this product (especially when you order your burger “animal style”) is magically delicious.
Although I love cheeseburgers and avoid discussing their supposedly deleterious effect on my health, I am still generally aware of my physical state of being. And during the WSOP, I exercised very little. I therefore decided that I’d give myself a little workout by walking–not cabbing–from the Gold Coast to In-N-Out. If nothing else, I figured maybe a nice brisk walk would offset the rumored effects of the meal I was about to ingest. Big mistake.
The most direct route to In-N-Out from the Gold Coast is a small industrial road that runs parallel to the Strip. The two buildings are maybe a little over a mile apart, perfect for a short jaunt. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying only a book (I like to read while I eat), I strolled out the door of the Gold Coast and began. I know I’ve discussed the Las Vegas summertime weather on this blog way too many times already–I’m like an old man sitting on a porch that way–but brace yourself for more. Sorry.
It wasn’t long after I made a right turn onto the industrial round that I realized I had made a grave mistake. I had only covered about a quarter of a mile when I began to sweat profusely. I had chosen the hottest day on the 2008 Vegas calendar for my excursion, which already felt less like a short walk than a desert trek. The industrial road, inaptly named “Dean Martin Way,” had nothing but a wholesale furniture outlet and unoccupied office space on it, so there was no reasonable place to take a break, catch a cab, or even to walk in the shade. No sir. I had to press onward. By the time I was halfway to cheeseburger heaven, I was completely drenched in sweat and had a dusty feeling in my throat. Dry heat my ass.
I paused to squint skyward, and during that moment it occurred to me that all those innate happy feelings we usually associate with sunshine do not exist in Las Vegas, where the sun is stupid, inexorably sitting there destroying everything under it. I theorized that in temperate climes, perhaps the sun needed to win its daily battle against clouds or perhaps against the rotation of the earth in order to elicit happy feelings from people. Yes, without any opposition the game was just too easy for the sun, and it became unworthy of giving us have happy sunshiny feelings! Screw you, sun! I was briefly entranced by these thoughts, but then I realized that they weren’t real; I was hallucinating, it was an emotional oasis of sorts. Back to my 115 degree trek…
When I finally arrived at In-N-Out Burger, my legs were wobbly and my clothes were soaking wet. There was sweat in my ass crack. I looked like an old man after a long game of paddleball. I scowled at everyone sitting around enjoying their food in the air conditioning. They had no idea how much more deserving of a cheeseburger I was than them. I went and waited on line for a bit, then placed my order the only voice I could muster: a raspy whisper. I was handed a receipt with my number on it, along with a paper cup. I made it to the beverage station and filled the cup with lemonade and chugged all 16 ounces. Then I filled it again, and chugged another one. Then another. I chugged three and a half lemonades. Now I was ready to eat. When I was finished, I took a cab back to the Gold Coast, but not before buying an In-N-Out cap to commemorate the experience.
Since I don’t like drama, my next activity is something I’m not going to talk about. Suffice to say it was unpleasant and spanned the hours from around 6pm to midnight.
It was around that time that I received a phone call from one of a limited group of people who I consider “poker friends,” my buddy Felix. He informed me that a bunch of guys were at the Spearmint Rhino, and I decided to join them.
For those unaware, Spearmint Rhino is Las Vegas’ biggest and most famous strip club. Everyone loves this place. It’s always packed and it nevertheless maintains a very high ratio of barely dressed women to patrons. I get incredulous looks almost every time I say this, but I really don’t like Spearmint Rhino. In fact, I don’t like strip clubs generally. I (used to) get way more satisfaction from enticing a normal woman to dance with me for free than I will ever get from paying a woman twenty dollars to gyrate on me with a blank look on her face. I just don’t like feeling like a mark. It’s a psychological power thing, I guess. But poker players in particular seem to love strip clubs. I’ve heard more than one person speculate that Las Vegas’ poker and strip club economies enjoy a symbiotic relationship. And looking around the Rhino after I arrived (between naked sets of incongruous fake breasts), I found anecdotal evidence to support this theory: I recognized several young semi-famous poker pros lounging around the place.
I have my own theory on why poker players love strip clubs. High-level poker is a substitute for competitive sports for many high-school aged guys. These guys are smart but socially outcast or inept. In common parlance, they’re nerds. They’re nerds who are desirous of the social standing enjoyed by the cool kids, but they’re incapable of doing any of the things the cool kids do to gain social standing, such as playing team sports or acting normal. So they do the next best thing: they use their intellect to master something that’s considered somewhat cool, poker. Unfortunately, poker isn’t quite as cool as football, and having the ability to play poker well doesn’t alter your social inadequacies. The end product is a big collection of young nerds with money. A big collection of nerds tripping over themselves to pay for the fake affection of a stripper.
So why would I go to the Rhino then? Well, first of all, I don’t hate the place—I just don’t have any real affinity for it. I’m fine hanging out as long as I’m not blowing my money on lap dances. More importantly, I went there because I’ve recently formed friendships with a small group of East Coast pros whose company I enjoy. I’ve mentioned my reluctance to make “poker friends” before, but this is a group of really solid down-to-earth NY/NJ pros who travel the circuit together. I see them all the time in AC and Foxwoods and was excited to spend some time with them out in Vegas. I’m happy to say that my blog was somewhat instrumental in creating these friendships, as one of the guys, Felix Mok, has been reading and commenting on here for awhile. The other two guys are Gordon Eng and Vinny Pahuja, both great guys. Big up to Felix “mincash” Mok, the Gordo-monster, and Vinny “rungood” P! Good times at the Rhino.
My second day off was spent doing virtually nothing other than a low-key dinner with Jonny Y, who also deserves a special shout-out for unknowingly keeping me sane in the desert. Once dinner ended, I got back into poker mode. When I returned to my room, I looked up my table draw online and was happy to discover that I was easily the most accomplished player of the bunch, and that there would be no huge stacks to contend with. With what I hoped would be a long day of poker ahead of me, I went to bed early.
On the morning of Day 2, I went through my usual paces—some quiet contemplation, comfortable clothes, some phone calls, a very light breakfast with iced coffee—and walked to the Rio. Once again, I drew a table in the Tropical Room. I located my seat, unbagged my chips, stacked them, and was ready to go. We were a long way from the money. I had an average stack of 37,000, a strictly biz attitude, and much work to do.
LEVEL 6 (200-400 blinds + 50 ante)
I picked up nothing playable at all for three full orbits. Then I finally found a nice spot.
The player three seats to my right is openlimping everything. Oddly, the first really clueless player I encounter in this tournament has somehow made it to Day 2. He openlimps for the fifteenth time since we sat down and I have A-3 offsuit in the cutoff. I isolate him, making it 2600 to go. Everyone else folds and the openlimper, who has me covered, calls. The flop comes A-J-5 rainbow and he checks. He seems like the kind of guy who will blindly spew off chips on later streets, so I check behind. The turn brings another five and now he bets 3000. I call. The river is an eight and the guy bets another 5500. I quickly call. He shakes his head and turns over Q-10, total air. Ship. 45,000.
I pick up AQ in middle position and raise to 1100. It’s folded to the button, who I cover, and he calls. The flop comes 10-8-4 with two spades (I have no spades) and I lead for 1500. The button calls. I hit a queen on the turn and bet 2400. The button calls. The turn pairs the eight, I bet another 3300, and the button calls. I show my two pair and the button mucks. 52,000.
The player in second position openraises to 1200. It folds two spots to an older asian man who has been playing very snug, sitting on about 30,000, and he quickly reraises to 5000. Hmmmm… this guy has been a folding machine since I sat down. I know his range is QQ through AA, with AK and JJ being remote possibilities that are also in the mix. There is absolutely no way this old codger is making a move of any kind here. I know he has the goods. It folds to me, and lo and behold, I have two black kings. Normally this would make me ecstatic, but I know that I’m trailing about one-third of the old guy’s range. Still, I have to put more money in, so I make it 17,000 to go. The original raiser folds and the old guy instantly shoves his stack in with the kind of haughty authority that can only be aces. Well, I can’t fold for 12,000 more. I sigh “I call” and toss the chips in. He flips over aces, the board bricks, and I get fucked. 22,000.
Two hands later the table breaks and I dejectedly trudge into the main room to my new seat. I’m the second shortest stack at this table, which has some serious stacks at it. I’m resolved to remain focused and try my best to get back into this thing.
On the third hand at my new table, I pick up pocket queens under the gun and decide to limp, hoping a big stack will squeeze me in position so I can reraise all in. No such luck, I get four total customers. The flop comes all undercards and I win a small pot. 26,000.
The shortstack at the table openraises from late position. It’s folded to me in the big blind and I have pocket jacks. I announce all in and he snap calls me with pocket sixes. I flop a set of jacks, putting a quick end to his day and eliminating my first player from the tournament. Good game sir. 34,000.
At the first break, I’ve lost 3,000 chips total, but my stack has fluctuated as high as 53,000 and as low as 21,000. I make phone calls to Janeen and my father, during which I mostly complain about running kings into aces.
LEVEL 7 (300-600 + 75 ante, 34,000 chips)
For the first time, I tangle with a very aggressive young player of undetermined (German? Swiss? Norwegian?) European origin. It’s a kid with a lot of chips who has been playing plenty of pots. Even though his face is half covered by his cap and sunglasses, I know he’s just a kid because he’s got a bad case of acne. He has me covered by quite a bit and wants to be in charge of this table. He raises to 1600 from early position and I call him from the button with pocket eights. No one else calls. The flop comes 7-3-2 with two clubs, normally a very nice flop for eights, but then Acne does something very curious: he checks. This check absolutely stinks. This isn’t the kind of player who is going to raise from early position and then decline to make a continuation bet on this kind of flop. I decide that checking behind is better than protecting my overpair because of how stinky his check is. The turn is a jack, and now Acne leads for 3000. I’m happy to call this bet with the intention of possibly bluffraising the river if a third club arrives, otherwise I’m pretty much done. I flip in the three yellows. But then the river is the wackiest card in the deck: the eight of clubs, completing a possible flush and giving me a set of eights. Acne bets 5000, one pink chip. I consider this situation and realize that I’ve got to be ahead. I’m trailing only two hands, a flush and a set of jacks. With a flush draw, Acne would lead on the flop with the intention of three-betting a raise, and with JJ, Acne would protect his hand by leading the flop. So I fiddle with my chips a bit and then raise to 12,500. My raise elicits a physical convulsion from Acne, he literally lifts his ass out of his chair by straightening his arms and pressing them downward on the table in front of him. Then he removes his glasses and begins a very long period of deliberation. I just sit there, looking around. After an inordinate period of time, probably about three minutes, he fixes his eyes on mine and says “nice catch,” trying to elicit a reaction. My response is my best “I’m gonna crap my pants” look. In the end, he exhales deeply and sticks the 7,500 in. I turn over my set, he stares at my cards distastefully and mucks 77 face up. Hmmm. 56,000.
I’ve happily discovered that this isn’t a terribly tough table, and I open up my game, TAGing my way to around 65,000 chips. Then I look down and see that I’ve got pocket aces on the button. The action is folded to a conservative player in the hijack and he raises to 1700. Even though he has a nice-sized stack of around 50,000, I decide to get trappy and flat call. Unfortunately, both the small blind and big blind call and we see a flop four ways. The flop is a terrible one for my aces: K-J-8 with two diamonds. The blinds check to the raiser in the hijack and he bets 5000. I hate that there are two players behind me, but I feel like I need to put more money into this pot. I raise to 16,000 with the intention of possibly folding to a shove from one of the blinds. I am relieved when both blinds fold, then the player in the hijack considers my bet and folds K-Q face up. Nice laydown. Hmmmm. Here comes Sug. 67,000.
At this point I’m beginning to sense that the table respects my play and my confidence is rising. I’m on a small run reminiscent of the middle stages of my 2005 and 2006 Main Events, and I’m starting to like my odds. As I survey the room between hands, I notice a large camera pointing in my direction. Peering through it is none other than my good friend Matt, who has made cameos on the blog before. I knew Matt was going to be in town for Day 2b but I was nonetheless surprised to suddenly see him standing there snapping pictures of me. Matt has a pretty cushy job over at MTV. I’m still not positive about exactly what he does, but whatever it is, he’s allowed to take business trips to Vegas whenever it suits him. In this instance, he timed a Vegas business trip to coincide with Day 2. I owe another shout-out, this one to my Director of Marketing Matty C. for his earnest support.
I’ve got the dial turned up now. My stack has grown to the point that I’ve got the third largest stack at my table. I pick up J-9 offsuit in third position and raise to 1700. It’s folded around to Acne in the big blind, who still has me covered, and he nonchalantly calls. The flop connects: J-4-3 rainbow. Acne checks and I bet 2700, which he quickly calls. The turn gives me top two pair, it’s the nine of diamonds. Acne checks again. This time I bet 6500 and again he calls without much thought. He must have a good jack, which is a beautiful thing. The river pairs the three for a final board of J-9-4-3-3. Acne checks to me and I fire a third value barrel—a big one—14,500. Acne hates this bet passionately and goes into another convulsion.
What followed—and this is not an exaggeration—was the longest poker timeout I have ever experienced. Acne thought, and thought, and thought, and thought, and thought, and thought… until fully ten minutes (again, not an exaggeration) had elapsed. My tablemates somehow waited patiently as Acne twisted in his seat, straightened himself, then twisted again, then repeated the process many times. Initially, I filled the silence by trying to elicit a call by looking nervous. For his part, Matt took a few pictures of the action (if you can call it that) but then grew befuddled and bored by the delay, scratching himself and looking around. Around the eight minute mark of the interminable delay, even I gave up. I stopped acting, put my head down between my arms and looked at my lap as I took deep exaggerated breaths (okay, I was still acting a little), waiting for Acne’s decision. Mercifully, after around thirteen minutes had ticked off the tournament timer, someone at my table finally called the clock. A floorperson came over, counting Acne down to his final ten seconds, and still no decision seemed imminent. Finally, with about three seconds left to act, Acne slid his cards forward face down, indicating a fold. An extra 14.5k would have been nice, but still, 82,000. Officially a big stack.
At this point in the tournament I made a deliberate decision to throttle down until the next break. I had gone on a serious tear, taking my stack from a negligible 22,000 all the way up to a robust 82,000 in only about two hours of play. I now had the biggest stack at my table and was certainly a contender. Cashing in the tournament had become more likely than not, and I allowed myself to envision a deep run. Since I was very involved and since I had shown down only a few hands, I decided that my table probably viewed me as a loose cannon. Also, I was pretty enamored with the idea of calling Janeen and my father to announce that I had a big stack. So with only 15 minutes left in Level 7, in light of all these factors, I resolved to only play premium hands until after the break.
But then I wake up with pocket kings in the big blind. I re-check to make sure. Yup, two black kings. Even though my plan is to lay low, pocket kings are not a lay-low kind of hand. I want action. The table folds through early position, then through late position, and then even the button folds. Oh well. Only the small blind is left to act.
The player in the small blind is wearing dark shades and Pokerstars gear, indicating that he won his Main Event seat online. He has an interesting routine, designed to combat tells, obviously learned from watching some kind of video or reading a book. When it is his turn to act preflop, he does one of two things: if he intends to fold, he counts to about three then mucks his cards. If he intends to play the hand, he clasps his hands, props his elbows on the table, rests his chin on his hands, counts to about six, then raises or calls. In this instance, with pocket kings in the big blind, I am praying for the small blind to clasp his hands and go through routine #2.
And he does. When it’s his turn to act, Mr. Routine, who has just over 50,000 chips, rests his chin on his hands, counts silently to six, then quietly says “raise,” making it 2200 to go. Yes. My plan is to reraise and hope–based on my image and the possibility that he holds a big hand–to induce a four-bet from him. I announce “reraise” and toss in 7500 chips. Mr. Routine’s hands return to clasped position and his chin is on top of them. He’s either going to call or shove. My stomach begins to churn. This is a big hand.
After exactly six seconds comes his decision. “All in,” he says with a short backhanded wave of his right hand. Holy shit. Can these kings please hold? “I call,” I say in a soft voice. Now Mr. Routine finally turns human.
“Yes. I call,” comes my soft reply. I turn my kings over. Mr. R. has a genuine frown as he tables big slick, AK offsuit.
The pot is worth 106,000 chips. If I win, I’ll have well over 130,000, putting me in position to terrorize the tournament. If I lose, I’m way back down to around 30,000, in bad shape. My odds of winning are 69%. I get out of my seat, stand up, tuck my chin against my chest and silently stare at the center of the table, awaiting my fate.
During the short pause before the board cards are dealt in this sort of confrontation in a huge poker tournament, nobody feels comfortable. The guy with AK is miserable. He’s put all his chips in behind. He feels like he’s atop the gallows, awaiting execution. He’s at the end of the line. He’s driven off the cliff and now, unless something unlikely happens, a few seconds will elapse before his bloody end is official.
The guy with KK doesn’t feel any better. He’s got his money in with the best of it, but he still might get crushed. That he’s supposed to win but will nevertheless lose one in three times is a fact that terrifies him. The fear of seeing an ace is all-consuming during those few seconds. He’s traveling through a long tunnel, and the light at the end of it is fast approaching. When he emerges, two out of three times he will do so safely. The third time, he’ll have an anvil unceremoniously dropped on his head. And I play this stupid game for a living.
Mr. Routine and I exchange perfunctory “good lucks,” but neither of us means it. I want this hand bad. I want to reverse the last shitty month of my life, during which I never won one of these big hands. I want to erase the self doubt that has crept in during that month. I want to prove to everyone–but mostly myself–that I’m really good at this. Most of all I want no fucking ace.
The flop is ten, six, three. I exhale a tiny bit. The turn… is the ace of spades.
And that’s exactly what I impulsively scream at the top of my lungs as I wheel away from the table. “BITCH!!!” Everyone’s looking at me but I couldn’t care less.
I have no idea what the river is, but it’s not a king. I sit back down and shove my chips at the dealer, saying “here, you count it.” Mr. Routine says “sorry.” He doesn’t
mean it. They hand most of my chips to him, then I fold for the rest of the level. Just like I had planned to do! 28,000.
That brought me to the secon break. I phoned my father and Janeen and had a lot trouble both adequately describing my ascension and subsequent crash as well as my distress over it. The frustration of being unable to win a big confrontation for over a month was bubbling to the surface, and the break could not have come at a better time.
LEVEL 8 (400-800 blinds, 75 ante)
I did very little during this level. I no longer had the kind of stack you can speculate with, so I patiently waited for a good spot. I never found one. I won a few small pots but mostly bled chips. 25,000.
That brought me to the dinner break. Again I chose to get the hell out of the Rio for dinner, avoiding the commotion so that I can eat at the quiet Chinese restaurant at the Gold Coast. When the break ended, I told myself to do what I could given my stack size. The reality of the situation is that your fate is no longer completely in your hands when you get this short, but I was ready to play shortstack poker.
LEVEL 9 (500-1000 blinds, 100 ante)
I openlimp the A7 of diamonds in middle position. We end up in a five way pot. The flop gives me top pair but otherwise sucks: A-K-10 with two clubs. Everyone checks. The turn is an offsuit 8. Everyone checks. The river is the the 8 of clubs. The big blind bets 5000 and I call. He shows the 5-3 of clubs for a rivered flush. 21,000.
I bleed chips, unable to find a spot to get involved. After about an hour of this, I play my final hand.
I’m down to 17,000 and pick up the A-9 of hearts under the gun. I decide to get tricky, thinking a limp would look really strong. It’s folded around to Acne on the button and he makes a very curious small raise to 2500. What the…? This raise was too small to be a big hand, it was practically inviting the blinds to come along, which they do not. I have to have the best hand here, but for some inexplicable reason, I choose to simply call the bet rather than reraise all in. This makes two mistakes so far in this hand (1. doing anything other than openfolding; 2. just calling the buttonraise). The flop comes Q-9-8 with two clubs. I check to Acne and he bets 4200. I’m in a bit of a weird spot and am not really sure what kind of hand makes sense for him. I think for a couple of seconds and decide that might not have much, maybe a draw. I gather up all my chips and fire them in. That makes three mistakes. Again, Acme is startled, but this time it’s a good startled. He calls and shows me the J-10 of clubs. He has flopped the nuts with a redraw to boot. Oh. My Main Event was over, and so was my grand effort to dominate the Vegas summer. I gathered up my stuff, said “good game, guys,” and took off. That’s all she wrote.
And also almost all I’ve wrote.
That night there was a house music event at the club at the Hard Rock. I went there by myself and got absolutely bombed. I intentionally lost contact with the rest of the world for about 18 hours, a tactic Janeen certainly didn’t appreciate. Then I got blasted again the following night, this time in the company of Matt and Jonny Y. I think they call it “blowing off steam?” Whatever it was, I have to admit that it helped.
That was all the Vegas I could handle. I moved my flight up and flew home the next day, happy to be putting the 2008 World Series behind me.