Last Call!

I have received a lot of private correspondence since my last post.  I want to thank everyone for their thoughts on parenthood and for their encouraging words.  I also want to alleviate the concerns of those who seem worried about my well being.  I am perfectly fine.  I had a moment of emotional semi-clarity and sat down to write about it.  I am happy with what came out and have no regrets sharing it.  I like using the blog as a sounding board and a place to vent.

I also want what I write here to be more compelling than typical poker blog material.  If you want to hear about how “JJ was the absolute bottom of my range and how in the world can BiffMan call me with AQo there I mean I really respect his game but imo that’s just a terrible loose call and I should never have busted in that spot but oh well what can ya do, onto the next” I can direct you to a couple of hundred other web addresses.

I’m having last call before Not Anabelle.

Last call for live tournament poker will take place tomorrow at Mohegan Sun, where there’s a $1500 event that completes their Fall Poker Series.  I normally don’t play Saturday tournaments during football season because they conclude on Sundays.  Normally this event would not be on my radar, especially because the Jets are playing a home game this week.  But this is a special circumstance, so there may be a substitute sitting in for me at the Jets game this week.  My mother could make her long-awaited Meadowlands debut this week, occupying my seat next to my father’s.

I have done some due diligence and received assurances that Day 1 of this event will have a minimum of 14 levels and will not conclude until at least 12:30 a.m. on Sunday.  This means that if I’m forced to alter my Sunday ritual I will have the consolation of playing for some serious cash up in Connecticut.  I think my next live tournament poker after Saturday will probably consist of a few cameos at Borgata in January 2011.

There’s another last call on the horizon.  Per a negotiated agreement with Janeen, I will go out clubbing in NYC one final time before the baby is born.  This will take place tomorrow night if I bust out of the Mohegan Event early or on December 4th if I am not yet a father on that date.

I used to enjoy going out clubbing and spent the better part of the last ten years as a semi-regular on the NYC electronic music circuit.  If you think it sounds unnatural for a married man and expectant father to want a night out clubbing on his own, I don’t blame you.  Part of the issue is that “clubbing” connotes something a little different to me than most people.  A dissertation detailing the differences between “the underground” and bottle service joints would be an exercise in futility—this is a subject you either know or you don’t know.  The very short version is:  version A of clubbing means dressing up, bottles of grey goose, hip-hop and playing grab-ass til closing time.   Version B means your most comfortable clothes, drug consumption, house music, and freaking out way past daybreak.   Version A is dominated by sexual energy.  Version B has a pseudo-spiritual feel.

I was once devoutly down with Version B.  However, Janeen came to me with no taste whatsoever for it and never developed one.  She mostly tolerated my propensity to stay out late in weird places during our courtship, and when things got more serious I completely sacrificed my involvement in “the scene” for her.  It’s a compromise I was happy to make, and only on rare occasions do I miss the energy of the crazy nights out I once obsessively enjoyed.  I’m certainly healthier physically for it, and I have discovered that football is more enjoyable when you sleep the night before and view it through eyes that are not fogged over by a life-threatening hangover.

But now is my last real chance to go back.  Although parents of young children who go out dancing past daybreak do actually exist (and incredibly, there are folks in “the scene” who speak of these people with sincere admiration), I will not be such a person.  I am aware that little kids don’t differentiate between weekdays and weekends, and I’m going to pull my weight around here.  So this is it.

That distant sound you might hear around 6:15 am on Sunday will be me screaming “yeahhhhh!” as I flail around a dance floor in a pitch black room in a secret location because the DJ just took things up a notch.

Ship the Mid-Life Crisis!

My shift in focus away from poker for the past month or two has left me with little anecdotal material to share, but this buzz killer of a post has been brewing for some time.

Having a baby on the way has me kind of spooked.  While I’m looking forward to fatherhood, the severe lifestyle change in store is not something I’m eagerly anticipating.  I know I’m going to love my daughter like I’ve never loved another tiny lumpy hairless beanbag-sized person (newborns are fucking weird!), but my life is pretty awesome the way it is.  Janeen and I are not having a baby because we’re dying to experience parenthood, nor is one of us is doing the other a favor here (Janeen’s maternal instinct is MIA, I expect it to finally kick in when she actually holds our wonderchild).  We’re having a baby for one primary reason:  we’re too old to wait any longer.   Not-Anabelle (that’s what we’re calling her for now; Anabelle was the name Janeen pre-selected over a decade ago, then abruptly abandoned upon insemination) is going to bring some challenges into our world.  Will I be able to play poker whenever and wherever I please?  (No.)  If I take on the role of daytime child caregiver, will Janeen resent me? (Probably.)  When I inevitably sleep through one of not-Anabelle’s dramatic moments or mishandle some aspect of childcare, will Janeen get angry with me?  (Yes).  Will I be able to travel?  Will I want to travel?  Will I compensate by learning to enjoy online poker?  Will online poker even be possible?  Will I switch to live NYC cash games out of necessity?  Can I even beat those games?  I don’t know all the answers.  I do know that things are going to change pretty drastically.

Financially, we are doing well enough for now, but with not-Anabelle on board, we will not be able to withstand another year or two of only $80k in gross tournament cashes from me.  The mere idea of needing a score to “stay in the game” is unnerving; I’ve never operated under that kind of pressure.  I am very nitty with my bankroll.  Since the option remains at my disposal, I’d sooner return to desk jockeying than risk my case money, but I wouldn’t like it.  Not one bit.  I would return to the world of suits and ties kicking, screaming, kvetching and bringing daily misery to anyone unfortunate enough to cross my path.  It wouldn’t be pretty.  I hope (mostly for the sake of Janeen, N.A. and Ruthie) it doesn’t happen.

The combination of experiencing my worst year on tour and baby time closing in has caused more than some worrying.  It has also ignited some rambling and candid self-examination that has led to some difficult realizations.  Some might call it a mid-life crisis.  I prefer to call it being honest with myself.  Hopefully that honestly will be apparent in what I’m about to write, and this post will come across more like something real and heartfelt than like the rambling manifesto of a weirdo.  Here’s what I’ve learned.

I am a person with aspirations.  From early childhood, I have harbored a burning desire to be exceptional.  Then, as now, I liked to lead and I liked to win.  I’ve never found satisfaction in following or being part of the crowd.  I yearn for the respect and admiration of my peers.  I wish to be memorable to others.  I wish to be remembered not only by those closest to me but also by passing acquaintances, competitors and by those who have never met me.  I want to leave a mark.  I aspire to a legacy.

That’s a difficult admission to make, particularly because I derive great pleasure in laughing at the expense of the many relentless self-promoters I’ve met through poker.  It’s very amusing to me that some of poker’s biggest self-promoters are the least equipped to do it, and through the magic of the internet, I have come to despise people I genuinely liked in face-to-face interactions before linking up with them online.  Still, I completely understand what these guys are doing.  My goal is the same as theirs.  It’s just that I refuse to look clumsy achieving it.  As much as it pains me to admit this, I want to be famous too. After discovering poker, this is probably why I gravitated towards tournaments:  They offer the perks of televised final tables, endorsement deals, and the undue and wholly unwarranted adulation of fellow gamblers the world over.

It may seem incongruous, but despite my aspirations I have no real ambition.  I simply do not believe in the sanctity of hard work and perseverance.  I actually believe that hard work and dedication can sometimes be foolish, and I have noticed that the timeless axiom that “luck is the residue of design” is really a plain and blatant falsehood.  Even poker players, whose daily lives are especially subject to the vagaries of luck, like to perpetuate this myth.  Everyone says their hard work has paid off when they win and that they’re stuck on the bad side of variance when they lose.  But it doesn’t work that way at all.  Luck is not visited most often upon those who deserve it.  Luck is, by definition, random.  Luck is luck.  Since neither luck nor my version of success is in any way correlated with hard work, I hold those who succeed without expending maximum effort in the highest regard.  I believe, in life as in sports, that winning without breaking a sweat is the ultimate in badassery.  If you have the time (with or without the inclination) to highstep on your way into the end zone, you’ve done something right in my world.

It is obvious that the greatest tragedy of my life took place the year I graduated college, when I allowed myself to fall into a profession rather than actually pursuing one.  I ended up an attorney out of mere convenience.  If that strikes you as bizarre, then maybe it is.  I really did subject myself to the rigors of law school, the cauldron of bar exam study and the charade of law firm interviews mostly because it was convenient for me.  It was not my finest hour.  The law was a profession where my aspirations could only be achieved through tireless work and years of subservience—and even then remained a longshot.  Famous badass lawyers are few and far between.  To become a famous badass lawyer you must pay your dues and be passionate about the law.  I will never pay dues unless the check is made payable to a synagogue (and only then because Janeen will make me).  And conceptually, I cannot understand how “passionate” and “law” belong in the same sentence.  I was a very bad fit as a lawyer, especially at a big law firm.  In that environment, I felt my greatest accomplishments occurred when I would receive plaudits for work I’d completed while self-handicapping, usually by consciously putting in minimal effort or by operating at less than full capacity.  I took perverse pleasure in being worth less than my paycheck (I was a specialist in EV before I’d ever heard the term!).  Needless to say, I never won the employee of the month award.  If I had been guided by my passions and true desires rather than someone else’s concept of practicality, I would have avoided the miserable 10-year sinkhole that was my career as a lawyer.  Alas, it seemed a convenient sinkhole.

By the time I became aware of the grave mistake I’d made and was prepared to fix it, poker had become the singular passion in my life and my obvious next profession.  This would not have been the case had I followed my dreams initially, as I played no poker whatsoever in college and was then unaware of its existence as a viable occupation.  I sometimes like to play the butterfly effect game and wonder what I’d be doing today had I not chosen law school, because it almost certainly wouldn’t be poker.  There is a clear causal relationship between my distaste for lawyering and my discovery and frenzied exploration of the world of poker.

Poker was a good fit for me because it matched not only my abilities but also my wants and desires.  My aspiration to be someone special was possible once again.  Poker was a place where I could shine, and I’ve just admitted that I’m the type of person that needs to get his shine on.   I’m concerned that having a child will rub the shine off of me real quick.  I am excited about the baby but dreading the possibility of having to set my aspirations aside.

Thanks to poker, I have actually realized some dreams.  Poker energized me; an existence formerly dominated by tedium and regret became one of pride and determination.  Through the years, my abilities at poker have garnered me praise and the respect of colleagues, a few trophies and appearances in worldwide rankings.  My name is known in wider circles that would be possible in nearly any other profession.  If the modern barometer of fame is Google hits, I’m exponentially more famous today than I was before poker.  However, perhaps because of how long the gratification of doing something fulfilling was delayed in my life, I still feel that I have more to accomplish.  I believe I’ve yet to leave my footprint in this life.  I believe my story is yet untold.  I want more.  And into that picture walks (crawls? emerges?) a baby.

I’ve seen firsthand how fatherhood can subsume all else in a man’s life.  I know of many men who have happily relegated themselves to the role of provider/caregiver and not much else, but I don’t think I will be joining their ranks.  I’ve seen guys with interesting lives transformed into pack mules whose sole purpose appears to be transporting car seats and the contents of diaper bags from one location to another.  I understand that there is something noble and possibly heroic in putting your child’s life before yours in every respect, and I know I’m going to make a great father, but I can’t set aside my hopes and dreams.  I feel guilty saying this, but I’m not prepared to identify myself as my daughter’s father first and David Zeitlin second.  There’s so much more I want to accomplish for myself.  When I die, I want my obituary to say more than “loving father, devoted husband.” If that’s selfish, so be it.

I might be particularly uppity about this because my job and my sense of self are inextricably connected.  The first thing most people would likely say about me is that I’m a professional gambler, and I quite like that.  Also, my job lacks the natural escape hatches that more typical jobs offer:  bosses, daily commutes, deadlines, duties.  All of these things suck but they also regulate.  I’m therefore not merely concerned that I’ll be un able to perform my job once the baby comes, I’m scared that I won’t want to work when there’s a child to look after and no one making any demands.  They’ll be a new kind of pressure.

Since I’ve made the reluctant admission that I’d like to experience fame, this is probably a good time to mention that I’ve already achieved a sort of incidental fame in this life.  It’s a little-known fact that I’ve appeared in books.  And soon, a movie.  Are you wondering what the fuck I’m talking about or if I’m delusional?  I’m serious.  Here’s a very short version of the story.

Back when I was fresh out of law school and working at a big NYC law firm, I entered into a relationship with a co-worker of mine by the name of Alice (not her real name, I’ve been advised that a real name could land me on Page Six of the NY Post, and I don’t want that).  “Relationship” is probably not as accurate as “affair,” as Alice was engaged to be married, and later was married, during the time we were together.  But together we were.  It was a long, it was drawn-out, it was tumultuous.  It was ultimately very painful, thanks in no small part to the penchant I then had for self-destruction.  In the end, Alice chose neither her husband nor I (she “Kelly Taylor’d it,” in Janeen’s parlance).  She went with a third option, the man to whom she is now happily married, who may or may not have been introduced to her by a woman who was then employed as both parties’ therapist (I’m unfamiliar with the ethics of that profession but suspect this might be a violation of some kind).

More importantly, Alice also made another choice around that time:  to leave her job at the law firm to pursue a career where the big score is based more on luck than even professional poker.  She became an aspiring novelist.   After the standard initial rejections, she managed to land a big book deal and published her first novel.  It was a chick lit book, a book designed to capture the imaginations of women.  It succeeded.  It was extremely well received, a rousing success by any measure.  The book ended up climbing the New York Times bestsellers’ list and jumpstarted a literary career that is now five or six books deep and in full bloom.

This brings me to my point, which is that the book is about me in many ways.  The book’s plot revolves around an adulterous affair and describes—always generally but sometimes in great and meticulous detail—the author’s relationship with me.  The thrills, frustrations and turmoil of engaging in an illicit relationship are explored.  Specific rendezvous that actually took place are covered; an email that I wrote to the author appears verbatim.  Strange details, like the actual real-life Upper East Side doormen employed by my former residence, show up.   Reading a book based on your very own failed (but in the book, successful) relationship is surreal in the truest sense.

It was a measure of fame I didn’t relish.  I was genuinely happy for her, but I also resented that Alice had taken a shared and decidedly negative experience and parlayed it into a new career.  Then mired in a job I disliked, I was also straight-up jealous.  And I definitely didn’t appreciate Alice’s concerted effort to keep the inspiration for the plotline—like everything else about us—a complete secret.  The inevitable question of whether the book is based at all in reality has been posed to Alice hundreds of times, and each time the answer is “absolutely not.”  In the extremely unlikely event that an Alice fan finds this post on my poker blog, let me fill you in on a little secret:  she’s lying.

It got worse.  I had just embarked on my new career in poker when the second book, a sequel to the first, was released.  It was an even bigger hit that catapulted Alice’s career to new heights.  This book was autobiographical in some respects, one of which is the appearance of a character based on me.  Actually, the character is not merely based on me, the character is me, down to details such as my favorite phrases and mannerisms.  I purchased this book, opened it and was astonished to read a full reconstruction of every aspect of my behavior and persona.  I suppose this alone would have been a cool homage.  There was just one problem.  The character [redacted] (i.e., me) is initially depicted as a witty fun guy, but in the end he turns out to be a rather villainous gaping asshole who shrugs and scratches his balls whenever confronted with the female protagonist’s needs.  Alice had authored a scathing indictment of my character.  In a book widely read by suburban housewives, chicks on the subway, and probably at least one of your female friends, the reasons the author found me a less than ideal partner are spelled out in detail.  Unpleasant.

There’s yet more.  As is often the case with the big chick lit books, the movie rights to these two novels were duly purchased some time ago, and the first movie has already finished production.  When the motion picture “[redacted]” hits theaters next year, the world will be watching a movie about the tribulations of two best friends, but also based on my relationship with the author Alice.  And when the sequel shows up, presumably a couple of years from now, the world will be treated to a jackass called [redacted] who is in fact David Zeitlin.  Remember to look for me if your girlfriend or wife drags you to these movies!

So I’m already semi-famous.  An affair I had about ten years ago is depicted in one bestseller, and I am a full-blown character in another.  I’m something like Jerry’s Seinfeld’s weirdo neighbor of yore who became the prototype for Kramer.  Except while Kramer (read:  the character, not the douchebag Michael Richards) is goofy and uproariously lovable, my guy is a jackoff.

You may have guessed by now that this secret incidental fame of mine only increases my desire to create my own legacy in this world.  When not-Anabelle has kids of her own and I gather ‘em round and sit ‘em down on Grandpa’s knee, I sincerely hope I have better stories to tell than the one about the time I almost won some jewelry playing cards and the one about being a character in an old timey book.

Fall Hiatus.

I love fall in the Northeast.  There’s something worth savoring every time I step outside; something the other seasons can’t match.  The crispness of the cool air on my skin, the vibrancy of the foliage surrounding me,  the crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet.  The fact that it’s football season.  I love it.  It seems like there’s just more to see and feel at this time of year.  The time between Labor Day and Thanksgiving is easily my favorite time of the year.  Fall owns.

The blog’s been quiet because poker hasn’t been a part of my life for the better part of a month.  Between the day the Borgata series ended in mid-September and yesterday, I played poker exactly once.  It was at a home game tournament called The Ugly Tuna Challenge  that runs out of Westchester.  While it’s essentially a home game, it is quite professionally run by host Greg C. and his wife.  They serve a delicious array of food and drink and the tournaments draw over 60 players, feature an excellent blind structure and fun rules like bounties and team side bets, and there’s even a computerized tournament clock like the ones in casino venues.  It was my second time playing an Ugly Tuna tourney and with the help of some significant rungood, I won the thing and added to my small but steadily growing collection of poker trophies.

chicken dinner.

chicken dinner.

The day I won that tournament has been the only day I’ve played or even thought about poker in the last four weeks.  After Borgata, I decided that I’d spend some time doing whatever I fancied rather than setting specific goals or forcing  myself to work.  The result has been a surprisingly complete and thorough poker hiatus.  The telltale signs of a man fully devoted (or obsessed, depending on your point of view) to poker have been absent.  For a month, I never opened a Pokerstars or Full Tilt table.  I never visited the 2+2 forums.  The thoughts that typically dominate my consciousness—like particular hands I’ve played and theoretical poker situations—have been gone.  The words on my Facebook news feed—which, due to my numerous poker contacts and friendships has become a massive dumpster-sized receptacle for the boasts and rants of attention-starved poker players—may as well have been written in Sanskrit.  Never in all the time since I “went pro” have I felt farther removed from my chosen profession.  At no point in time during the past month have I missed poker.

Why has this happened?  The answer is borne from some combination of burnout, my uncertain future in poker and especially the arrival of football season.  I’ve chosen to spend my days advancing and applying the daily research I began in the National Football League’s preseason and chilling with Ruthie.  Nothing about it has felt unproductive.  I’m allowed to spend my time doing those things, and it’s been really nice.

I’m writing this from Foxwoods, where I’ve made my return to tournament poker in what will be my final trip before the birth of my daughter.  So far I’ve played two tournaments, and nothing’s happened.  I’ll keep you guys updated if things become interesting.

Darvin & I.

I’m either getting soft or continuing to figure things out…

Poker is hypercompetitive and therefore often brings out the worst in people.  Still, some guys take our “sport’s” pervading negativity to unnecessary lengths.  Some of the most successful pro poker players I know are incessant whiners and unusually bitter people.  A recent experience on the circuit really illuminated the incongruity of being grumpy while playing a game for a living.
A few weeks ago, as I took my seat in Foxwoods’ latest Megastack tournament, I looked at the player across from me and found it was none other than Darvin Moon.  Darvin, of course, is the runaway star of the 2009 World Series of Poker, the backwoods logger who finished second in the 2009 Main Event.  It was my first time meeting Darvin and he came as advertised—humble, unassuming and generally happy to be there.  He also played tournament poker quite well, especially post flop.
Some of the recreational players at my table were very eager to interact with Darvin and completely unabashed in their open adulation.  An older lady sitting two seats to his left was effusive in her praise and repeatedly declared that Darvin was her hero.  She seemed to be doing everything in her power to keep from genuflecting in his direction.  I watched with a mixture of amazement and amusement as the gentleman seated to my right gladly followed her lead, making comments like “what would Darvin do here?” and “well, you’re the pro, Darvin” while winking in Darvin’s direction in the middle of contested pots.
However, the pros at the table were less impressed.  Two younger players in particular were unable to hide their contempt with the celebrity treatment afforded Mr. Moon.  Each compliment Darvin received elicited exaggerated eyerolls from them.  Eventually, one of them could contain his contempt no longer, and muttered “guy gets lucky in one tournament and everyone thinks he’s the best?” as he shook his head disapprovingly.  This type of sentiment is quite common amongst my colleagues.
I must admit that my limits were also tested by the battery of questions sent Darvin’s way.  These included queries such as “who’s the toughest in today’s game, Darvin?” and “what are some live tells you’ve detected?”  With my five years of moderate success grinding on the live tournament circuit, having hundreds more tourneys under my belt, I was far more qualified to answer these questions than Darvin Moon.  It was I, not Darvin, who has spent a great deal of time and effort working towards the goal that Darvin so easily reached on his very first try.  Yet because I have one forgettable television appearance to my credit while Darvin Moon is a poker celebrity, I was treated like a nobody and Darvin was the resident expert.
As I contemplated voicing this sentiment, two things occurred to me.  First, I was reminded how effective ESPN’s character-driven presentation of the World Series of Poker is.  Darvin Moon truly is a folk hero to many, thanks to the clever people who control the presentation of televised poker.  Second, I realized that I should not begrudge this fact.  Television coverage is a big part of the reason why poker is a profitable career, it attracts players to the game.  In a sense, if there were no Darvin Moon there would be no grinders like me.  I actually owe a debt of gratitude to Darvin Moon.  The eyerolls, the caustic message board posts, the dismissive comments, the thinly veiled hatred—all of it is misplaced.  Is the fact that Darvin Moon probably doesn’t know what “cold four bet” means reason to belittle him?  It’s no more than a manifestation of petty jealousy and an unearned sense of entitlement, and it’s incredibly myopic to boot.
I kept my mouth shut.  And I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing poker with Darvin Moon.  Poker is supposed to be fun, I’m leaving the griping to the grumps.

Poker is hypercompetitive and therefore often brings out the worst in people.  Still, some guys take our “sport’s” pervading negativity to unnecessary lengths.  Some of the most successful pro poker players I know are incessant whiners and unusually bitter people.  A recent experience on the circuit really illuminated the incongruity of being grumpy while playing a game for a living.

A few weeks ago, as I took my seat in Foxwoods’ latest Megastack tournament, I looked at the player across from me and found it was none other than Darvin Moon.  Darvin, of course, is the runaway star of the 2009 World Series of Poker, the bumpkin logger who finished second in the 2009 Main Event.  It was my first time meeting Darvin and he came as advertised—humble, unassuming and generally happy to be there.  He also played tournament poker quite well, especially post flop.

whats the point of hating on this guy?
haters gonna hate…

Some of the recreational players at my table were very eager to interact with Darvin and completely unabashed in their open adulation.  An older lady sitting two seats to his left was effusive in her praise and repeatedly declared that Darvin was her hero.  She seemed to be doing everything in her power to keep from genuflecting in his direction.  I watched with a mixture of amazement and amusement as the gentleman seated to my right gladly followed her lead, making comments like “what would Darvin do here?” and “well, you’re the pro, Darvin” while winking in Darvin’s direction in the middle of contested pots.

However, the pros at the table were less impressed.  Two younger players in particular were unable to hide their contempt with the celebrity treatment afforded Mr. Moon.  Each compliment Darvin received elicited exaggerated eyerolls from them.  Eventually, one of them could contain his contempt no longer, and muttered “guy gets lucky in one tournament and everyone thinks he’s the best?” as he shook his head disapprovingly.  This type of sentiment is quite common amongst my colleagues.

I must admit that my limits were also tested by the battery of questions sent Darvin’s way.  These included queries such as “who’s the toughest in today’s game, Darvin?” and “what are some live tells you’ve detected?”  With my five years of moderate success grinding on the live tournament circuit, having hundreds more tourneys under my belt, I was far more qualified to answer these questions than Darvin Moon.  It was I, not Darvin, who has spent a great deal of time and effort working towards the goal that Darvin so easily reached on his very first try.  Yet because I have one forgettable television appearance to my credit while Darvin Moon is a poker celebrity, I was treated like a nobody and Darvin was the resident expert.

As I contemplated voicing this sentiment, two things occurred to me.  First, I was reminded how effective ESPN’s character-driven presentation of the World Series of Poker is.  Darvin Moon truly is a folk hero to many, thanks to the clever people who control the presentation of televised poker.  Second, I realized that I should not begrudge this fact.  Television coverage is a big part of the reason why poker is a profitable career, it attracts players to the game.  In a sense, if there were no Darvin Moon there would be no grinders like me.  I actually owe a debt of gratitude to Darvin Moon.  The eyerolls, the caustic message board posts, the dismissive comments, the thinly veiled hatred—all of it is misplaced.  Is the fact that Darvin Moon probably doesn’t know what “cold four bet” means reason to belittle him?  It’s no more than a manifestation of petty jealousy and an unearned sense of entitlement, and it’s incredibly myopic to boot.

I kept my mouth shut.  And I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing poker with Darvin Moon.  Poker is supposed to be fun, I’m leaving the griping to the grumps.

Chicken Tidbits No More.

As long as I’m writing sentimental blog posts about my favorite eateries, allow me to add the sad news of the closing of my favorite sports bar.

adios Back Page.

adios Back Page.

I watched hundreds (thousands?) of hours of sports at The Back Page, a bar that was located on 3rd Avenue and 83rd Street on the Upper East Side.  It all started with the 1995 NCAA Basketball Tournament, back when the place was called Polo Grounds, continued through two name changes (including the Entourage era, which long predated the show on HBO, thank you very much) and ended with my final visit for this year’s edition of March Madness.  In the interim I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty NFL Sundays and twenty NCAA opening weekend days in the place.

Fifteen years ago, when Direct TV’s NFL Sunday Ticket was a brand new commodity, and American sports fans were still adjusting to the concept of out-of-town games appearing somewhere other than the ticker at the bottom of the screen, very few sports bars had perfected the winning formula that seems so basic today:  offering a vantage point from which ALL of the NFL games could be seen simultaneously.  Back Page, located six blocks from my studio apartment, was one such place.  If you were lucky enough to grab a seat at one of the center tables in the dark back room and willing to swivel around and give your neck muscles a workout, you could see everything in the NFL that day as it happened.  Magic.

It was installed as the unofficial home of my fantasy football league, and my best friends and I gathered there on countless Sundays, a tradition that survived all the way through the 2009 season.  Opening each NFL season by walking  into the back room of B.P. around 12:00 on Week 1 Sunday to find most of my leaguemates salivating in anticipation of September’s first kickoff became one of my favorite days on the calendar.  It’s tough to match the feeling of watching one of your fantasy players rip off a long touchdown run in the company of your entire fantasy league.  Back Page routinely gave me that, and for that I am thankful.  On the weeks when the Jets had away games, I routinely put in seven hour days—yeah, both the 1:00’s and the 4:00’s—at the place.  I can watch football forever and never get bored.  Yeah, I’m a huge nerd.  So what?

I always stayed all day, even after everyone else left.  Every time.  It was only when I stepped outside around 7:15, forcing my retinas to adjust to the sudden shift from Back Page’s dungeon-like darkness to normal light, that it would occur to me that I had committed the sin of doing what non-psychos call “wasting a day.”  I could not have cared less.  I walked home, got onto my couch, picked up the TV remote and turned to the Sunday Night game.

I had some epic times at Back Page.  I pored over NCAA brackets and fantasy lineup cards there.  I’ve won and lost a small fortune there.  I got back-doored; I got front-doored.  I watched the Mets win playoff games.  I watched the Mets lose playoff games.  I watched the Yankees win the World Series.  I watched the Yankees lose the World Seriese.  I was there when Harold “The Show” Arcineoux single-handedly wiped out the Tarheels.  I was there when the little Coppin State coach got scooped up from behind and air-kicked for joy.  I was there for Bryce Drew.  I was there when the Jets held a halftime lead in the 1998 AFC Championship game.  I was there when they got blown out of Mile High in the second half.  I was even there for the moments when three or four of my fantasy football Super Bowl titles were secured.  And yes, it was Back Page that hosted my legendary appearance on a locally televised sports trivia show.

For most sports events of remote significance I have reported to Back Page, even after I moved out of the neighborhood to an apartment forty minutes away.  Starting around 2005 or 2006, the owners and waitstaff all came to know me and would usher me to my preferred seat and reliably bring me “the usual” when I ordered a meal.  I suppose it is the New York bar I’ve been to the most times.  Pretty much every person I know here in New York has been inside The Back Page with me.

The Back Page eventually fell behind many of New York’s other sports bars in some important respects—it was likely the last sports bar in the city to have old school tubes (not flat screens) on some of the walls, the service left much to be desired on some days, and the manager would sometimes leave one 1:00 NFL game out of the televised mix, but it was still a great place to me.  It was great because its formula was simple:  all the games and good food.   You could always see seven or eight NFL games from one seat, and the kitchen served atypically good fare for a sports bar.  My Sunday order was always the same.  Nurse my hangover with a house salad (ranch dressing, no tomatoes) at 12:30, move on to an order of the excellent wings around 2:00, and then around 3:30 I’d treat myself to the menu’s crown jewel:  “chicken tidbits,” which was an open faced grilled chicken sandwich with melted mozzarella served on garlic bread, with BBQ sauce on the side.  Ahh.

The Back Page was also great because it was a gambler’s paradise.  The older dudes at the bar would openly discuss the action they had pending while the kids in the back rooted for their fantasy teams.  I suppose I was affiliated with both groups.  For really big games involving New York teams, and for big events, particularly the NCAA Basketball Tournament, B.P. would get rammed, it had the buzz.  Solid place.

There is something to be said for traditions, old habits and landmark locations that withstand the test of time and a life’s changing circumstances.  Yes, I will find new places to watch the games (even with a baby on the way, I’m still a long way from giving this practice up, sorry Janeen!), but none of them will be The Back Page.  When I found out the place was gone for good, I felt a small piece of me go with it.

One last tidbit for the road!   Mmmm.

Circuit Grub.

I love cheap food done right.  Call me crazy, but given a choice between a five course meal at a Michelin five star restaurant and a perfectly prepared chicken parm hero from the deli around the way, and I’m going chicken parm all day.

It’s not that I have an underdeveloped palette.  I’ve lived in New York City for well over a decade, and it wasn’t long ago that I was regularly availing myself of meals at its finest restaurants courtesy of a corporate expense account.  You think being handed too much change at the drugstore is getting over?  Try eating a shitload of free meals at critically acclaimed NYC restaurants.

I’ve traveled everywhere, too.  When it comes to experiencing the finest restaurants the world has to offer, I’ve been there, done that.  I enjoy complex dishes served by impeccably mannered waitstaff, but in the end, that kind of experience just isn’t a big deal to me.  What I really want is two pieces of bread with some combination of meat and cheese stuffed between them.  A tasty sandwich or a badass cheeseburger cooked by someone who really knows what they’re doing.

I grew up thinking that the four food groups were 1) Brookville Diner; 2) pizza; 3) Wendy’s; and 4) chinese takeout.  To this day, when I’m looking for food that makes me happy, I automatically go back to that comfort zone.  When I suffer an unjust beat that takes me out of a poker tournament, I hightail it over to the nearest sub or burger joint.  That’s my salve.  I’m not saying that I love lowest-common-denominator fast food (although there is a time and place for it) but that my preference is for down-home eats.  I have thus made it my mission in life to find the most authentic, affordable, delicious local meals wherever I go.  My time away on the poker tournament circuit has taken me to both the normal casino towns and some pretty unlikely places.  I always make a point of traveling off campus to find something good to eat.

Again, my age and New York perspective colors my personal preferences on the road.  If I were 23 years old or from Sheboygan, my favorite lifetime meals might be found in casinos.  But the fact is that I’m thoroughly unimpressed with whatever Bobby Flay is doing at Borgata and the steakhouse at the Palms.  That’s not who I am or where I’m from.  To be perfectly honest, I could give two shits about most of the high end places in Vegas and AC (not even going to mention what typically passes for high end elsewhere). I can treat myself to better meals two blocks from my apartment.  What I want when I’m traveling is something cheap, hand crafted and delicious that I can’t have at home.

And so I present to you the local gems I have discovered in the past few years.  My guide to poker circuit grub.

Bear in mind that I am not conversant in foodie-talk, so in the paragraphs below you will not find any esoteric food critic words, no gallant descriptions of different flavors or textures, and not a single reference to “port wine reduction.”  If you are looking for that, take your ass over to chowhound or yelp or wherever.

Atlantic City

AC isn’t a great food town.  Borgata and Caesar’s bring some very predictable high end places, and there are a couple of decent basic red sauce italians around.  Here are my circuit grub picks:

White House Sub Shop, 2301 Arctic Ave.  Yes, there are other AC sub shops that serve similar fare, but this place is the original.  The real deal.  That they’ve refused to expand the operation beyond the single store on the corner of Arctic and Mississippi adds to the charm.  No one ever has a bad thing to say about the White House, and you should believe the hype.  Their advertising budget is exactly $0.00, but word of mouth is powerful when the product is perfect.  The ingredients at the White House are always fresh (and limited—try asking for a condiment other than mayo, ketchup or oil and see what happens).   The secret weapon is the freshly baked bread from the Formica Bakery across the street, delivered to the White House every couple of hours.

Walk in, sit at the counter and ask one of the nice old ladies for an italian sub or a cheesesteak served on a half-loaf (full loaves are also available for the morbidly obese and the incredibly hungry), then watch a guy make it for you.  It’s obvious that not much has changed here in the sixty-plus years they’ve been in operation, and that’s a good thing.  You want something other than a great sub?  The machine in the back sells $1.00 sodas, and behind the counter they have a few bags of chips and TastyCakes.  Best sub shop ever.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries , 720 White Horse Pike, Absecon.  Actually located several miles outside Atlantic City, this blatant, not-quite-as-good In ‘N Out knockoff is a brand name that is currently expanding rapidly and in danger of oversaturating its market.  Still, this is the best fast food burger I’ve found in or around AC.

Las Vegas

Almost every restaurant in Las Vegas is decent to good, but not excellent.  For this reason, the occasional tourist does little exploration out there.  Solid options exist at all the large casino hotels. Anyone with even the faintest familiarity with the Vegas real estate market should innately understand the dilemma faced by a Vegas restaurateur:  either pay exorbitant rent for an on-strip (or near-strip) location and the captive consumers it comes with or pay very modest overhead a few miles away and try to create a product that separates your business from the crowd.  If you’re off the strip and can manage to generate a buzz that resonates with even out-of-towners, chances are you’re serving good food.  Vegas picks:

In N’ Out Burger (various locations):  The current gold standard in American fast food.  Because the company is resolute in its refusal to franchise and limits itself to stores in California, Nevada and Arizona, east coast burgerboys like me make pilgrimages to the nearest outpost whenver we find ourselves in one of those states.  The Double-Double Animal Style remains my favorite fast food burger.

Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop (various locations):  Capriotti’s is a Delaware sub chain that for unkown reasons has expanded somewhat randomly with a few locations in the Midwest, Florida, California, and yes, Las Vegas.  If you’re like me and love turkey sandwiches, this place is a great go-to.  WHen you order a turkey sub here you will not receive a small stack of slimy off-white processed ovals with toppings, condiments and bread.  Instead you will receive actual, real-deal delicious turkey meat pulled off of a just-roasted whole turkey, with toppings, condiments and bread.  Yes, the kind of turkey from Thanksgiving.  Not Boar’s Head.  Righteous.

The Egg & I, 4533 West Sahara Ave.; Egg Works, 9355 West Flamingo Rd.:  I love these places.  If you are in Vegas and find yourself craving an artery-busting, cholesterol-crammed pile of breakfast food, go to Egg & I or Egg Works.  These places have names that are 100% on point—they make every conceivable combination of (incredible, edible) eggs, served with everything under the sun that goes with (incredible, edible) eggs.  They get big bonus points for their banana nut muffins and the cutesy imitation newspaper menu filled with pictures of cartoon eggs begging you to devour them.  They open at 6 a.m. and stop seating at 3 p.m.  They serve lunch too, but I know nothing about that.

Connecticut

My Connecticut explorations have uncovered very little in the way of quality local stuff.  Conspicuously absent from my short list below is a restaurant in or near Foxwoods, and that is no accident.  I’m sad to report that the best cheap meal that Foxwoods offers can be found at California Pizza Kitchen.  Seriously.

Herb’s Country Deli, 1105 Norwich New London Turnpike, Uncasville:  Located maybe three or four miles from Mohegan Sun, this little diner/candy store slings New England style breakfast and lunch from a cute ramshackle building abutted by a gravel parking lot.  Some thought goes into the preparation of the simple menu items offered here—try the western omelet; it comes not with plain old ham but with a yummy mixture of ham, salami and turkey ground together.  The people who work at this place are almost impossibly nice.  You will end up having a conversation about whatever it is you’re up to that day, guaranteed.  This is a challenge for a poker player, but go early.  They close at 2 or 3 p.m.

Frank Pepe’s Pizza, @ Mohegan Sun:  This place earns the honor of being the only restaurant located within the confines of a casino that makes my list.  This is actually an outpost of a famous New Haven pizza joint and it serves thin-crust pizza done exactly right.  The cheese, sauce and toppings are all really good, and the pie is cooked properly—not undercooked and goopy, not overcooked and overly crisp.  New Yorkers might blanch at the way the large square pies here are haphazardly sliced, but there is no dispute about how good it tastes.  This is truly outstanding pizza.  Every time I come here I eat way more pizza than I thought I was capable of stuffing down.

Biloxi

I’ve been to Biloxi once, for a week.  The odds of a return trip are 50/50 at best, it’ll take a pretty nice tournament to lure me back.  Before Biloxi, I thought that culture shock in my own country was impossible, but I was wrong.  Yikes.  A few days before my trip wrapped, I remembered a Travel or Food Network feature on a BBQ joint down there, and the saving grace become my excursion to…

The Shed, 7501 Highway 57, Ocean Springs MS:  First of all let me say that I luuurrrrrve Bar-B-Que.  BBQ, perhaps more than the hot dog or hamburger, is the quintessentially American cuisine.  It represents everything I want in a meal:  it is cheap, it varies widely provincially, and it is often created with great pride and effort.  It is a cuisine that people have strong opinions on.  BBQ is a food that lends itself to much debate, and there is an astounding number of small scale producers across the country.  BBQ quests are a fine way to spend a day.  Again, I don’t count myself amongst its true connoisseurs, but I know when I taste some BBQ that I like (and also when it’s not very good).

Anyway, The Shed.  I’ve probably said it best in a prior blog entry, so I’ll just quote myself:

The place is pretty out of the way, off of Route 10 (the highway that connects Gulfport and Mobile), and it’s located next to a trailer park.  The place is literally ashedof some sort, with a yard full of junk next to it.  The decor inside is an overwhelming tapestry of more junk; it’s everywhere, on the walls, the floor, the ceiling.  You walk in and a hostess approaches you and chats your face off about what you oughta eat.  Then you stand in line and order it, and then you go sit somewhere amidst the junk and wait.  Chilling along with the other customers there is a small collection of happy homeless-looking men who are apparently either employed by The Shed or just allowed to hang out there.  After awhile, a different chick pops out of the kitchen with a Styrofoam box screaming your name, and when you reply you are presented with the box.

Upon receiving the box, you open it, and inside is the best BBQ ever.  Amongst the best ribs i ever had, with meat that falls off the bone.  Your meal includes a couple of sides, and they sold me on the macaroni salad, which i don’t normally like, but this was the best macaroni salad ever.  They also jam a piece of white bread in the styrofoam box, along with a plastic fork.  And to drink they have a gazillion beers and sweet tea.  It comes out to around $12.00.  Unbelievable place.

Upstate/Turning Stone

Upstate New York has a lot of things to offer.  The stretch of interstate that connects Albany to points west that include towns-that-time-forgot Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo is not one of them.  Yet along this highway is where one finds the Turning Stone Casino.  Nothing worth a damn thing is located within one hundred stone’s throws of the place.  Playing poker there is not much better, unless you enjoy the company of a mixture of old men who are bad at poker and a crew of 18-year old kids who are bad at life (in varying degrees), snickering at old men nonstop.  However, located less than a half an hour’s drive from Turning Stone—and probably the most compelling reason to bother going there—lies the world’s greatest restaurant.  My favorite BBQ joint (possibly favorite joint, period), in the most unlikely of locations.

The Dinosaur BBQ, 236 West Willow Street, Syracuse NY:   I don’t even know where to begin with this place. Just preparing to write something about The Dinosaur makes me very happy.

First I should admit that I have a strong bias because of some sentimental memories associated with the Dinosaur.  I went to school in Ithaca New York, about an hour away.  During my senior year, word filtered out that there was a dope BBQ joint in Syracuse.  Road trip!  My friends and I drove up there to check it out, and at 21 years of age the night turned into my first experience in an adult barroom.  Until that time, “going out” was associated strictly with college bars, fraternity parties, and “afterhours,” i.e., sloppy porch keggers.  The Dinosaur was my first time at a bar that didn’t reek of stale beer and vomit, a place where a chug-off seemed (only) mildly inappropriate, a place with attitude, where old people were in our midst.  Back then (umm, 1994) the Dinosaur was just a biker bar with live blues and great BBQ.  My friends and I sat at in a booth, devoured some ribs, drank some pints of cheap beer, and watched in awe as a crusty old blues band ripped through two sets.  Great food, great beer, great music.  Great fuckin’ life.  It was electrifying, amazing.

I’d love to meet the bikers who opened the Dinosaur in 1988.  They are obviously equal parts cool and astute.  Today, the Dinosaur is always (literally, always) packed, and there are similar locations in Rochester and Harlem.  The owners have grown the Dinosaur into a national brand that sells its rubs and sauces in supermarkets.  But somehow the place is the opposite of a sellout.  Everything remains exactly the same—but bigger—inside.  The amazing ribs they serve here are the place’s calling card, but everything on the menu is delicious, and I’ve been through it all. Best wings.  Best sides.  Best chicken.  Best chili.  Best brisket.  Best salads even.  Best beer list, with tons of great stuff on tap.  I think this place was designed for me.  Then again, everyone feels the same way.  I dare you to go to this place and not have a good time.  Yeah, there may be a long wait for a table, so get your ass over to the bar.  You can’t F wit’ the Dinosuar.  I lurrrve you Dinosaur!

Lost a Friend.

Lee Jennings was one of the coolest people I have ever met.  She was a fan of mine; she was a reader of this blog and followed my career closely.  But I was a bigger fan of hers.  We shared interests and viewpoints and had similar tastes in music, humor and people.

She lit up every room she entered with her smile, wit and positivity.  I loved hanging out with her.  I’m heartbroken over my loss, her family’s loss, the world’s loss.

Rest in peace Lee.  At least you won’t ever witness LeBron James dribbling a basketball in a Miami Heat uniform.

The Mo Zone.

As part of my concerted strategy to play as many live tournaments as possible before baby arrives, I woke up early on Saturday and drove up to Mohegan Sun to play the $1100 Main Event of their Summer Open.  Even though this year’s version paled in comparison to last year’s $2500 buy in with a $750,000 guarantee, as defending champion I felt compelled to make an appearance.

The trip also made imminent sense because I run like Usain Bolt at Mohegan Sun.  When I do something crazy in any other casino in the world, I end up getting caught with my pants down and looking like a fool.  When I do something crazy at Mohegan Sun, this happens:

After biding my time for the first few levels, I chipped up from the starting stack of 20,000 to  around 80,000, which put me amongst the leaders in the 211-player field.  I then fell silent, playing very few hands before deciding that I had found a nice opportunity to do something stupid.

Blinds were 800-1600/200.  My table featured one chronic, habitual limper.  And when I say “chronic, habitual limper” I really mean it.  The dude was getting involved with hands like J-2 suited and K-3 off, etc. etc.  This guy limped under the gun, and the action was folded to a big-stacked (~75,000) kid in middle position.  This kid was new to the table and my guess was that he was a competent, aggressive foe.  He proceeded to raise to 6,000.  It was folded to me in the cutoff and I figured the kid was isolating  pretty light, so I three bet to 15,700 with the old Q3o, a bet designed to tell the kid who was boss at this table.  Mr.  Limper folded, but the kid called. Stand back, stupidity in progress.

The flop was 9h-7c-3d, giving me bottom pair.  The kid checked and I followed through with my plan, betting 20,000.  The kid thought for awhile and called.  The turn was the ten of clubs.  The kid checked, and I checked behind.  The river was the king of hearts.  The kid checked again, and I thought for about twenty seconds before deciding that this was a nice card for me to get completely stupid with.  I figured I’d bluff the kid off his pocket pair now, so I cut 31,000 chips out of my stack and placed them in the middle, leaving me with around 10,000 behind.  It was likely the biggest pot of the tournament to that point.

The kid tanked for about 40 seconds, and just as it seemed like he was about to fold, he made up his mind and determinedly declared “call.”  I sighed, silently cursed my recurring stupidity and said “you win” as I tabled my bottom pair face up (yes, face UP, thankfully!).

The kid exultantly said “yessss!” and turned over…. the losing hand.  A-8 of hearts.  He then claimed to have misread his hand.  WTF?

I was now chip leader of the tournament and rode the momentum from this hand all the way through the end of the night, finishing Day 1 second in chips with 37 players left, in good shape yet again at MoSun.  Finding a hotel room, however, was a nightmare.  Southeastern Connecticut was swarming with visitors, and it took me two hours to get settled into an overpriced bed a few miles away from Mohegan.

Day 2 was a slow grind during which I committed the same tactical error over and over again (more on that below), and my stack was under the tournament average by the time there were 15 players remaining.  When the tournament was down to 11 players, talk of chopping up the prize pool began, and I put an end to it by declining.  When we reached the 9-player final table, I was dead last in chips and had 7.5 big blinds remaining in my once formidable stack.  A deal was once again discussed, and we worked out the equity numbers.  After about 40 minutes worth of wrangling, the other eight players were in agreement on a deal.  It was essentially up to me.  I considered a few factors.  Namely, my desperate situation in the tournament, my sub-par results for the year, and the fact that I would be the lone holdout if I declined again.  I reluctantly decided to take my exact equity number, which was roughly sixth place money, and that was that.

I immediately regretted the decision and am still not thrilled with it.  Although my tournament was reduced to push/fold poker, I do it as well if not better than anyone who was at the final table with me.  More importantly, a nine-way chop just isn’t what tournament poker is really about.  Yeah, I got around $11,000, but it felt vaguely violative of the whole spirit of the enterprise.  You’re supposed to make the final table, then go about the cutthroat business of taking everyone out.  You don’t make the final table and quit for the night!  I still feel kind of gross when I think about it.  It will likely be my first and last nine way chop.

And now for a brief discussion of MTT strategy:

Preflop raise sizing has been a confounding issue for me throughout my career.  Everyone knows that live players tend to raise anywhere from 2.5x to 4x the big blind (and in some cases, higher) in their steal attempts.  Online play features smaller raise sizing; amounts vary from minraises up to around 2.5x.  Most everyone agrees that the smaller raises seen online are optimal in that forum, where players (correctly) do not defend their blinds lightly.  Live poker is a different animal.  I routinely run across players who will defend their big blind with literally any two cards against a 2.3x preflop raise.

I have traditionally utilized the smaller raise sizing online and notched my sizing up in live tournaments, automatically adjusting my sizing to what I imagine the big blind’s threshold is for calling with a trashy hand.  Starting late in 2009, however, I began to default to the small online-type raises (e.g. 1875 at 400-800, 2800 at 600-1200, etc.) in live tournaments as well, regardless of opponent.  I have always appreciated the superiority of the average online player to the average live player, so it seemed to make a lot of sense to just play like I was playing online when playing live.  On Sunday at Mohegan Sun, that strategy cost me dearly, as I lost a number of pots to players who defended with dubious holdings such as 4-3 and outflopped me.  It has caused me to reconsider things.

The debate revolves around whether or not it is a good or bad thing for bad players to defend light against us.  Proponents of the practice of transposing online raise sizing into the live arena state that they want bad players to play pots against them out of position with shitty hands, it makes it easy to take their money.  This sounds like common sense, but in my opinion it is incorrect.

The reason is this:  a vital part of your equity in raising preflop comes from the times everyone folds and you steal the blinds.  It is an integral piece of the overall strategy of raising preflop.  When your raise sizing makes winning the antes and blinds uncontested impossible, you are costing yourself equity no matter how great you play postflop and how terrible the player in the big blind is.

To illustrate, consider the scenario where a player has only two big blinds in his stack and is forced to post on the next hand.  This player is smart enough to know that he must call off his tournament with any two cards.  The action is folded to you in middle position.

Should you be raising lighter or tighter in this spot?  The correct answer is that you should be tightening up your opening range.  You cannot steal the blinds (he’s calling every time) and hands like A3 and the like are basically coin flips against a random hand.  Part of the reason we raise with trash is to win uncontested and that objective is ruined when the big blind has no chips left.  While many good players understand this concept, they do not realize that the same idea applies throughout the tournament.

A good raise size preflop is whatever amount gives the players in the blinds pause before they automatically call.  It could be as low as a minraise (and it often is online) and as high as 3x (and it often is in a live event).  I will no longer be making the mistake of grafting optimal online tourney play onto my live game.

Next live-a-ment for me isn’t until August.  I’m really happy to spend some time at home.

Quiet Main Event.

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.

DevilFish before.

DevilFish before.

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.

DevilFish after.

DevilFish after.

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.