The landscape of tournament poker is constantly shifting. There is an inexorable evolution afoot. It is imperceptible in the short term (days, weeks, months) but in the long term (years) it comes into focus. The way people play the game has changed substantially—more than once—since I began playing seriously. This is a fact. As the game has increased in popularity, the average player has become significantly more dangerous. This is also a fact. An economic downturn has left fewer recreational players to pick on. Another fact. My edge in general is significantly smaller now than it was as recently as two years ago. Call these combined facts the Law of Diminishing Sug Returns.
Once per year, this law is magically suspended for a few days. For the World Series of Poker Main Event, the huge field of combatants is crammed full of not only tough opponents, but also scores of unskilled players of every ilk, including the clueless, the hopeless and the helpless. That this presents the best opportunity of the year for me goes without saying. It’s like saying that the Super Bowl is big game. Everybody knows about the cushy, mushy softball that is the Main Event.
My starting table was exactly what I expected, i.e., a mix of decent players and terrible ones, i.e., great.
Seat 1: Me
Seat 2: An old Alaskan man, probably in his 70’s, with a white mustache. It was his first time in Las Vegas. He won his seat through a series of FPP (frequent player points) tournaments on Pokerstars. That’s right, he got in for free! He had to win what amounts to a three-day lottery just to earn the right to sit directly to my left. This in and of itself was miraculous, as he was loose-passive and generally awful at poker.
Seat 3: Super tight, super straightforward middle aged guy. He seemed to know some people, including the luminary on his left, but his play was far too basic for him to call himself a fulltime pro. Probably a wealthy recreational player who plays some big buy ins for sport.
Seat 4: Hoyt Corkins. Most poker fans know him. Wiley, tough aggressive old guy who was reshoving light ages before everyone else figured it out. Big ass cobwoy hat. Super nice guy.
Seat 5: Having trouble remembering who sat here.
Seat 6: Carl Olson. Aggressive, perceptive player who was considered an online MTT superstara few years ago. Not sure what happened; I believe he either stopped playing online or quit poker as a full-time source of income since then. Either way, he’s a dangerous player. This was my third or maybe fourth time sitting with him in a WSOP event in the past four years.
Seat 7: Totally hopeless loose-passive older guy. Incapable of anything beyond Level One thinking. Just happy to be there.
Seat 8: Very aggressive younger player who I believe was a West Coast cash game regular.
Seat 9: Terribad Italian guy. Spoke no English, but if he did, he’d have spent a lot of time saying “call.” Open limped or overcalled preflop on about 90% of the pots he played, of which there were many.
I opened the tournament nicely, playing a standard TAG style. I picked and prodded my way from 30k to 31,500 at the first break, showing down no hands. By this time, the reads I have fleshed out above were fully in place with respect to my tablemates.
After the first break I began to gain some traction, and I moved over 40k, again not showing down hands, and won my largest pot of the tournament as follows:
Blinds 100-200. My button. Action was folded to the Italian guy who open limped. I made it 925 to go with the Jd8d. Old Alaskan dude flatted from the small blind, and the Italian dude came along. Both Italian guy and Alaskan guy had run good so far and covered me by over 10k apiece. Flop fell 10-8-7 with two spades, leaving me with middle pair and a gutshot. Old Alaskan guy lead for 1500, Italian dude folded, I called. Turn was the ace of spades. Old Alaskan guy bet 1500 again. I considered briefly and raised to 4250. Alaskan guy called. River was an offsuit 9, giving me a straight. Old Alaskan checked, I bet 10,500 trying to look bluffy and Alaskan guy mucked his hand quickly. In retrospect, I should have value bet smaller on the river, since the concept of a large value bet “looking bluffy” is not something that would possibly enter this gentleman’s brain. This hand took me to around 42,000. It would be my high water mark for the tournament. It would also mark the first of exactly two times in the tournament that I held two pair or better.
After the second break absolutely nothing went right. My slide began with a mistake:
Blinds were now 150-300. I had about 39k. Donk in the 7 seat limped, Italo-donk in the 9 seat limped as well. I had AKo on the button and made it 1050. Super tightass in the big blind flatted (alarm bells), the original limper folded (obv) and the Italo-donk called (obv). Flop came A-Q-4 rainbow. Both checked to me and I fired 2225. Supertight flatted (alarm bells again), Italo flatted (means nothing). Turn was a five, completing the rainbow. Both checked to me and I contemplated a bet but decided to check through on this meaningless card. River was another brick—an 8—and now supertight sprang to life with a 7,000 bet. Italo called without much hesitation and now I was facing a decision.
There were countervailing factors at play here. Obviously, I was good here less than half the time. I knew there was a significant chance that the big blind had flopped a set. I doubted he held AQ as I felt that a flop checkraise would have been pretty certain with that hand. Still, his river bet was strongly indicative of a big hand; this type of player would likely check/call or check/fold the river (or even fold preflop) with hands I was beating like AJ and A-10.
Then again, the pot was large and laying me quite a bit of money, and I didn’t need to be good nearly half the time for a call to be correct in a vacuum (you do the math, I’d prefer not to). One thing was for sure: I was well ahead of the half-wit Italo dude’s range, his snap call just meant that he had a piece, likely just top pair. I could take the high road and wait for a better spot (and then vomit on the table if my hand was best) by folding, or I could make a “math call” and pray that the nut one pair was somehow good here.
I sat there holding a pink 5k chip and two yellow 2k chips in my right hand and waved them around like an idiot for about a minute. Then I made some faces, acting like someone had just punted Ruthie across the Amazon room. I knew my hand was no good, but man do I hate folding. I waved the chips over the pot again, gave one last grimace and dropped them in. Oops.
I watched in resigned horror as Supertight triumphantly flipped over QQ for a flopped middle set. Then he exclaimed:
“YES! EXACTLY THE KIND OF HAND I NEEDED! YES YES YES!”
Well done, sir.
Then I watched Italo donk turn his rivered two pair (A8 off) face up. Then I witnessed the look of astonishment that swept across his face when he discovered that they were no good.
And then I silently slid the third best hand into the muck.
Moving on…. Around this time Corkins busted the aggressive kid in the 8 seat with 99 > AA on a K-9-x two diamond board, which began a remarkable run for Corkins which took him up to around 80,000 at a very early stage of the tournament. The kid’s seat remained unoccupied for perhaps twenty minutes before it was filled with David “Devilfish” Ulliot.
Many casual poker fans are familiar with the Devilfish because he made a name for himself during the first couple of seasons of the televised World Poker Tour, reaping some handsome returns on the nascent stages of the poker boom. The Devilfish of 2004 was a Dapper Dan, dressed in expensive suits with gaudy jewelry (four-finger rings, lolz) to match. He was immaculately groomed with sunglasses and slicked back hair. His persona matched his attire—he gabbed nonstop at the tables and took control of many tournaments using naked, fearless aggression. His aura was James Bond-esque—if James Bond were a pimp during his downtime.
The Devilfish of 2010 is a different character entirely. Now looking rather haggard in played-out Ed Hardy gear and sporting a strange anachronistic caesar hairdo, he looks less like James Bond than a tired old wannabe who has seen his fair share of meth benders. His attitude has come full circle as well; rather than wielding a caustic wit, he now gabbers in mostly hateful and spiteful undertones in his difficult-to-decipher English accent. It’s likely not a coincidence that his unchanged style of play is no longer intimidating nor effective. Naked, unadulterated aggression alone doesn’t get it done anymore. Everyone calls now. Ask Gus Hansen.
In fairness, Devilfish’s best game is probably Pot Limit Omaha, where I believe he is still amongst the best, so I’m sure that poker is still working out quite nicely for him. But he’s just another runner in NLH tournaments nowadays. His appearance didn’t diminish my confidence at all. My dwindling chip count took care of that.
I hit my low point on a hand that allowed Devilfish to announce his presence. I was down to 18,000 after losing a maddening series of hands, and Devilfish had me easily covered with around 50,000. Blinds were 150-300 with no ante, and DF openlimped UTG +2. I overcalled two spots behind him with Jh10h. The action folded around to Corkins in one of the blinds, and he promptly put in a huge reraise to 3,000. Devilfish called this bet without much thought and I chose to call off one-sixth of my chips with my suited J-10. I’ve been told that this is a clear fold, but I call here all day. I don’t like to fold. Maybe I stink.
The flop came Q-7-4 rainbow. Hoyt checked, Devilfish bet 6,700. I folded, Hoyt foled AKo face up, and Devilfish grinned and showed us the 7-4 of hearts. Okaay then gov’ner.
I built my stack back to 18,000 just in time for my bustout hand:
Blinds were 150-300 with a 25 ante. Devilfish opened UTG +1 to 800. I called in the four hole with AQo. Everyone else folded. The flopped rolled out Q-8-3 rainbow and Devilfish bet 1,000. I preferred not to take him off whatever he was spazzing out with (yet) and flatted. The turn came an ace, which may or may not have put two clubs on board (sorry, don’t remember), giving me top two pair. Devilfish continued betting—1,800.
At this point I was fairly certain I had the best hand and was vaguely aware that some of Devilfish’s possible holdings had just improved to gutshots. I also felt that some hands that I could get more money from, like AK and A8, were in the mix. I also thought there was a nonzero chance that if I raised, DF would do something spastic like put me all in with some sort of blufftastic garbage hand. I therefore determined that I would try to get my stack in by the river and receive the double up I had been waiting for, thereby launching me on my quest to become the next Jerry Yang. If Devilfish had a set, good for him.
I raised to 5,450, leaving me with about 10,700 behind, which I intended to stuff in on any river. DF did not like my turn raise one bit. He looked disgusted as he asked the dealer for an exact count on the raise (“fifty-four bloody fifty?“) and me for a count on my remaining chips (two big ones then?). He paused for a few seconds, then stuck in the chips to call. I liked this call.
The nine of hearts fell on the river. Devilfish didn’t take long to gather his chips into a sloppy pile and silently dump them into the center, a bet that covered me by like 30,000.
Fair enough. Pause. Shrug. Call.
He had J-10 off, otherwise known as the nuts. That was all she wrote for me. Quite an uneventful Main Event. I wished everyone at my table luck and walked over to Devilfish, shook his hand, and wished him good luck too. He muttered something back that I didn’t bother trying to understand.
I didn’t feel too terrible about my bustout. It’s hard to get too down about things when you were never a factor and played your final hand well. My exit from the $1,500 two weeks prior was much more painful because I could taste victory. This one was easy, all I tasted was the muffin I had for breakfast.
I’ve heard some theories on how I could have played my final hand differently, but I ain’t buyin’. Yeah, flatting made some sense—let a monkey be a monkey and all that—but really, if his hand were face up, I tend to think my play is close to optimal. I initially thought DF had played the hand pretty poorly, calling a turn bet with only eight outs seems terrible when you’re the victim. However, in retrospect, if he knows he’s stacking me if his double gutter gets there, the pot is laying him the right price and he played it just fine. Just a bad break for me.
I had to wait a bit to find an affordable flight home, and the one I chose was a beast: a fourteen hour torturous redeye, including a layover and George Bush Airport (!) in Houston. Not fun. I’m just returning to normalcy now.
My WSOP was mildly profitable from a financial perspective, thanks to one decent cash and the satellite win, but it really wasn’t enough. Overall it was quite disappointing. I’m officially having my worst year as a professional poker player whilst grinding my hardest, playing the largest number of live events I’ve ever tried. I’m not too down about it, though. At least not right now. I have lots to look forward to, and while I’ve been recently visited by a few moments of existential confusion, I’m attributing it to the life changes in store rather than poker.
My summer was actually rather enjoyable despite the futility I experienced at the tables. For the first time in my poker career, I find that I feel connected to a group of other poker players in a way that I hadn’t before. I’m generally reticent and reluctant to trust people fully, and this has been especially true in poker. I don’t form new friendships easily. But this summer I do feel like I’ve bonded with a lot of fellow poker pros, which has been nice for me.
I’m particularly lucky that Jeffrey Vanchiro (one of the best poker players you’ve probably never heard of) decided to come out of tourney retirement for the ’10 Series. We have similar temperaments and senses of humor, and as my roomate I was able to rely on him for support and sanity. I also formed new friendships with many other guys, including but definitely not limited to Ted Ely and Ryan Eriquezzo, both of whom served as bowling partners all summer. More importantly they’re both still working hard with good stacks in the Main Event as the bubble approaches. Good luck guys!
I’m not sure what comes next for me, but after a break I will likely play a fairly busy schedule of live tournaments before Janeen and I batten down the hatches this winter as we prepare for parenthood.