A short summary of what was probably my finest tournament performance to date, at the Taj last Wednesday:
Before the tournament started, my father phoned and asked me how I felt about my prospects. I told him that I saw “a bunch of the same old clowns” milling around, so I liked my chances. It was true: I’ve been on the east coast tournament scene for nearly a year now, and you start to see the same faces. I’d played with many of them, and I knew that many of them were long-term losers, just chasing the dream. My father was very amused by description. He also recently mastered text messaging. The end result is that the word “CLOWNS” intermittently appeared on my cell phone throughout the tournament.
I started this tournament in a super-tight shell. And for good reason: my starting table was the poker equivalent of the Wild West. I drew a table filled with older men playing loose-passive poker. These were very poor players who had no chance, the type of players that will risk their entire tournament with top pair. In particular, there was a gentleman seated to my immediate right–a garrulous Asian man playing literally 80% of the hands dealt to him. So I sat around waiting for solid cards, drawing comments from the cowboys about my tight-assed play. No matter. Chips were flying; five or six players were eliminated from my table in the first two levels. I patiently chipped up from the starting stack of 3000 to around 6000 during this time without ever facing a serious risk. Then they broke the table.
My second table had fewer crazy players, but an equal number of overmatched ones. Now, instead of reckless players, I found myself facing scared ones. I switched gears a bit and accumulated chips at this table until I was sitting on around 10,000. We had only played four or five levels, but somehow half the field was gone. Then that table was broken too.
Table three was a more difficult assignment. There were all sorts of players here. The most remarkable of these was a thin older woman with blonde hair and a face full of makeup. She was an irascible sort; she had a thick southern accent and sat there harshly critiquing her opponents’ play. She was also obviously a Taj Mahal regular; the dealers and floorpeople knew her, and she kept commenting on the 40-80 stud game going on in the corner. She seemed to be feeling especially surly. On more than one occasion, she ungraciously said “thank you” to an opponent who called her down and lost. I had just arrived, but I was already irritated with this witch, and I could tell that the table had collectively had enough of her. She had a lot of chips, but I was about to do everyone a favor and bust her.
I was dealt QQ in late position. With the blinds at 150-300, I raised to 900, and Mrs. Grouch called from the button. The flop was sweet: A-Q-7. I led out for 1100, hoping that she had hit an ace. Mrs. Grouch fixed me with a glare and called. The turn was a rag, and I checked, hoping to get a checkraise in. But Mrs. G didn’t cooperate, electing to check behind. The river was another rag, and I made a value bet of 1500. Mrs. G scowled at me and called. Something about this woman had really rubbed me the wrong way, and so I did something out of character: I picked my hole cards off the felt, dramatically raised them to about eye level, then snapped the queens down on the table with a flourish in Mrs. G’s direction. I detected her ire, along with a few smirks from some other players as the dealer shipped me the pot. Mrs. G showed me an ace, and I sarcastically said “why didn’t you raise?” Her testy reply: “This ain’t my first rodeo, kid.”
At that point the blinds were raised to 200-400. I picked up a succession of good hands, and I consequently was raising a lot of pots preflop. The blinds were 200-400, and my standard raise was to 1100, so the table took to calling me “Mr. Eleven.” I was encountering no resistance, so I began to raise more liberally with marginal hands as well. Before long, Mr. Eleven was the chipleader at the table. It didn’t hurt that I was also making big hands when I raised with trash. Around this time, another large stack replaced the busted player immediately to my left. I victimized the grouchy lady a few more times, on each occasion raising all in on the flop, forcing her to lay down hands after she took stabs at the pot. Soon I had all her chips.
On my next button, realizing that I had raised four of the last five pots, I intended to fold, especially since the only player at the table who could bust me was sitting right behind me. But then I looked at my cards: AK. It was folded to me, and I made it 1100 to go. As soon as my chips hit the felt, the small blind said “all in.” I lurched back into my seat.
It was a massive overbet; he had at least 12,000 in his stack, roughly the equivalent of mine. Under normal conditions, I would automatically assume this player had either a pair or AK and lay big slick down here. But the conditions were not normal. I had been running this table over–the player to my left was watching me raise nearly every hand. I thought about what his range might be: I ruled out AA and KK immediately, as he would have sought action with those, probably opting for a smaller re-raise. A medium pair seemed likely, and so did a matching AK. But in light of my hyperactivity, I figured that he might be shoving with hands as weak at A-10 and A-J. I didn’t know anything about the way the small blind generally played, but I thought it was a distinct possibility that he was shoving with a weak hand in order to put me in my place and grab unofficial control of the table. And so, after a long delay, I concluded that I was looking at either a coin flip or a situation in which I was favored. I had come to win this tournament, not merely cash. And so I shrugged and said “I call,” flipping open the AK. And then I stood up in anticipation. The small blind stood up and turned over pocket sixes. The Degree all-in moment© had come. If I won the race, I’d be one of the chipleaders in the tournament. If I lost, I was gone. And…
The first card in the flop was a king. No sixes came thereafter. I had doubled through. I spun away from the table and stalked off to the side, with my right hand clenched into a fist, like a boxer who had just knocked an opponent down and was sent to his corner to await the 10-count. It would be the only time in the entire tournament that I’d be all in on a coin flip.
The defeated small blind was left with only a few chips. But my interaction with this gentleman was not over. Not by a longshot. Not even close, as a matter of fact. I was subjected to a lengthy tirade. I won’t recount the exact words, but the jist of the abuse was that I was a donkey for calling off all my chips with AK. I have no problem with someone expressing their opinion on my play, even if that opinion happens to be negative, but this man’s diatribe was endless. He just wouldn’t stop. On and one he went, furiously telling me that I had no business making that call. After at least five full minutes, I could no longer suppress the desire to respond.
“You’ve watched me raise almost every hand. Your range is much wider than just pocket pairs. I came to win this tournament, not cash. Plus, that is a huge overbet with pocket sixes,” I said. He was obviously unmoved.
“You’re a complete idiot. You think ace-king is the nuts, huh?”
“No, I don’t. But I’m calling there every time. We can argue about this all day, but it’s not going to solve anything. I’m not an idiot. I can link you to some websites if you’d like to see my results.”
“You’re an idiot,” he said with finality.
And that was the end of conversation. He had the last word. And I had his chips. He busted a few hands later.
From that point forward, I played fairly tight but aggressively. The dinner break came an hour or so later. When I returned from the dinner break, around three hours removed from the completion of the AK vs. 66 hand, my accuser was on the rail with a crowd gathered around him. He was regaling them with the story of the donkey who crippled him.
After dinner, I was on cruise control as the bubble approached. As always, the play slowed down considerably as the field thinned to 35, then 30 players. The bubble would burst when player #28 busted, and everyone proceeded with extreme caution. It was a grind, and I found no opportunities to get involved, but the field finally was reduced to 28 players. We were on the bubble. I was around 8th in chips at the time. And then all hell broke loose.
The tables were playing hand-for-hand, and I had just folded some meaningless hand. Then I heard the tournament director screaming “stop the tournament clock! Don’t deal another hand!” I didn’t think much of it, but there was a big commotion behind me. I turned around in my seat, and I noticed that everyone at the tournament table behind me was standing up. Was a big hand underway? No. Wait, there was one person still seated at the table. It was a heavy Asian guy with a big stack in front of him. He was mumbling incoherently and shaking, with a blank look on his face. Something bad was happening. Everyone was staring at him. He was on the verge of losing consciousness. What the hell? Next I heard someone yell “call an ambulance!” and with that, the heavy Asian guy teetered, then tumbled off to his right, out of his chair and onto his face. Not good.
Panic ensued. No one knew what to do, but everyone was screaming for an ambulance. Then some poker room personnel were checking the guy’s neck for a pulse and pulling his shirt off. He laid there motionless as they worked his shirt off. After about five minutes of total confusion, the paramedics showed up, got the guy on his back, and shoved something down his throat. It had a plastic bag at the end of it, and it kept expanding and contracting, so I inferred that the man was breathing, and therefore not dead. After about 10 minutes, a gurney was produced and they wheeled the guy off. The players were told to take a fifteen minute break, during which I placed a few phone calls, relaying the bizarre sequence of events to a few people.
When I returned, the players were less shaken than you might suspect. It was back to business. Such is the mentality of the gambler, I suppose. The heavy Asian guy was on the way the hospital, but the tournament directors decided to keep his stack in play: his large stack would be blinded and anteed off while the rest of us fought our way through the bubble.
Our fallen comrade wasn’t entirely forgotten. One player proposed that $900 be taken off the $33,000 first place prize and be awarded to the #28 finisher, thus artificially bursting the bubble and ensuring that the hospitalized player would make some money. Two coldhearted players (surprisingly, neither seated at the table with the unmanned stack) refused. With that option out of the mix, 25 of the 27 players agreed to throw $20 into a separate prize pool which would be awarded to the #28 finisher, assuming that #28 was one of the contributors. In the end, this measure, which was partially designed to protect the poor hospitalized guy, didn’t really matter. Someone else busted soon thereafter, and the hospitalized player’s stack finished 25th. I later learned that the man was a diabetic whose blood sugar got too low. He had a seizure, but he was expected to recover. Back to the tourney…
After the bubble burst, players started dropping like flies. I managed to keep my stack in good shape without really seeing any flops. My steals worked, and so did my resteals. I was on autopilot, and then we were suddenly down to 10 players—the final table. The tournament director collected all of our Taj cards and seated us at a table in the corner. It was surrounded on two sides by plexiglass, so that spectators could gather and watch. Our names were then announced in order of chip count, from tenth to first. I was in fifth place with around 110,000 chips. The leader wasn’t too far away with 150,000 chips.
On the very first hand of the final table, the shortest stack at the table moved all in from under the gun for roughly the size of the big blind. I was in middle position with QJ, and chose to raise to isolate the shorty. I knew the player’s range was very wide, and while my hand might be an underdog, if I got the blinds to fold and leave their dead money in the pot, I’d be getting long odds. The other players and the blinds did in fact get out of the way, and the short stack flipped over AQ. I turned over QJ and muttered “this is not going to be very popular with the table.” Traditionally, situations where a very short stack moves all in are handled by a having the two blinds “gang up” on that player, checking down the hand to increase the odds that one of them wins, thus ensuring that everyone moves up one spot in the payout structure. My raise was a selfish one from that perspective, but was certainly mathematically acceptable. In the end, the AQ held up, and many of the players at the final table undoubtedly decided that I was a moron. This bit of advertising ended up working out quite nicely…
Perhaps ten hands later, with the final table reduced to eight players, a short stack moved all in from under the gun for 15,000. It was folded to me in the small blind, and I looked down and saw two red queens. I announced a reraise. I had about 100,000 in my stack, and I made it 42,000. I chose this amount because I wanted the big blind, who also had about 100,000 chips, to think he had fold equity if he reraised all in. He did exactly that. I called instantly. The under the gun player had A-7, and the big blind had pocket 10’s. The queens held up and I was sitting on something like 230,000 chips, the clear boss stack at the final table. My isolation raise with QJ on the first hand may have influenced the big blind—he might have assumed that he had the best hand in light of that loose play. Or perhaps he would have moved all in with tens even had he thought I was a tighter player. But this is a good example of how advertising loose play can help you get paid later.
I cruised from that point until we were four-handed. I still had more chips than anyone else, and I shot down a couple of offers to deal, despite the very steep prize structure (33k for 1st, 15k for 2nd, 8k for 3rd). Something odd happened at this point in time: two of my three opponents suddenly adopted a new strategy. They began open-shoving frequently. I felt this tactic was wrong in light of their stack sizes, which were well over ten times the amount in the preflop pot. I decided that I’d have to lay low and wait to trap them. It didn’t matter; they were both so willing to gamble that one gave the other all his chips. And so we were three-handed.
At three handed, we played for awhile until each player had roughly the same amount of chips, and then a minor “save” was agreed to: we agreed to take $3,000 off of first place and award an additional $2,000 to second and $1,000 to first. And then it was back to work.
One of my opponents, a scruffy kid who looked like he was about 25, was playing fairly “normally,” i.e., willing to see flops. I managed to take several pots from him with small continuation bets. The other player, a talkative, aggressive middle aged guy who had been drinking, was not in as patient a mood. With about 300,000 in his stack and the blinds at 4,000-8,000, he was continually pushing all in preflop. I did not like this play one bit, and waited to trap him. And so did the other player, I suspect. I simply sat back and waited. Meanwhile, the kid and the chatty guy were going at it, literally and figuratively. Mr. Chatty was seated to the left of the kid, and every time the kid limped in or raised, Mr. Chatty would shove. Frequently, he’d accompany the shove with some sort of subtle verbal taunt. Finally, they went to the mat.
The kid raised from the small blind and Mr. Chatty flat called. The flop came 9-8-4 with two diamonds. The kid checked and Mr. Chatty fired a bet. The kid called. The turn was the deuce of diamonds, putting three diamonds on board. This time the kid led out, and Mr. Chatty shoved all in. The kid thought for a very long time—at least five minutes, during which he and Mr. Chatty had an ongoing dialogue—and then finally called. The kid had Ad-8c, and Mr. Chatty had Kd-9s. The river didn’t bring any of the kid’s outs, and he was gone. I was heads up with 300,000 chips. Mr. Chatty had 600,000. And he wanted to deal. I asked the tournament director to stop the clock so I could make some phone calls and consider making an offer. He graciously agreed, and I walked out of the tournament area. I phone my father, who was excited that I was about to win at least $16,000, but could offer no help on the topic of dealing.
I gave the situation a lot of thought, and despite my chip count deficit, there were a number of reasons not to deal. In no particular order, they were:
1) my results for the year were good enough to take the risk of playing it out;
2) I regretted the deal I made in Foxwoods in March;
3) I felt like I had a pretty big edge on my opponent;
4) Playing it out is more fun.
And so I returned to the table and said the following: “I’ll make you an offer, but you’re not going to like it. $24,000 for you and $22,000 for me.” My opponent’s response was exactly what I subconsciously hoped it would be: “let’s play.”
My strategy was simple. I knew my opponent was playing recklessly, throwing haymakers. So I planned to lay in wait, make a hand, and get him to commit his chips, then hope he didn’t suck out. It didn’t take too long. After maybe five minutes, this hand occurred:
I limped on the button with 10h-9h and he called. The flop came 10s-8d-4d. My opponent led out with a pot sized bet of around 30,000, and after briefly contemplating, I figured the odds that he was bluffing or holding 2nd or 3rd pair at best were pretty high, so I moved all in for 280,000. He called instantly and turned over the 10d-6d. We were both equally likely to win the hand, and both on our feet, hovering over the table, practically salivating with anticipation. If my hand held up, I’d have a 2-1 chip lead, if any diamond or a six fell, I was out in second place. The turn was a black seven, keeping me in the lead but giving him four additional outs. The river took an eternity to come, and when it did, it was… the jack of clubs. “The nine plays,” I said, and then the dealer busied himself with the wonderful task of doubling my stack.
The tournament ended quickly after that. My opponent was visibly disturbed and began to move all in on roughly every third hand. After he did it a handful of times, I looked down at two black tens, praying that he’d decide it time for another shove. He did. I called immediately. He showed K-2 and no help came, making me the winner. I walked over near the plexiglass and did some impromptu celebrating, not realizing that the eyes of all the railbirds were fixed on me, mere feet away.
The next thing I knew, someone was asking me for my “victory picture” in front of all the chips. Then they sat me down. What’s my social security number? Do you want cash or a check? What do you want the Movado to say?
Movado?! Cool. I’ll never wear it, but that’s cool. I chose to simply have the date, tournament and my name engraved. Then I went and got my check, walked to my room next door at Resorts, made a few phone calls, and tried to go to bed.
It was past 2:00 am, and I had been playing poker for over 14 hours, my body was exhausted, but sleep wasn’t going to happen. Winning one of these things leaves me wired, with god knows what (dopamine?) coursing through my system. I laid there in the dark recounting my subtle domination. It wasn’t until late the following day that it hit me. I won the damn thing!