Soaring, Then Crashing–WSOP Part 2

Having employed a series of aggressive, dangerous kamikaze maneuvers to reach the money of the $2000 Pot Limit Hold ‘Em Event in prime position to take down the entire tournament, I set about picking my way through the remainder of the field. It was now around midnight PST. We had played almost twelve hours, and we were scheduled to play three more levels.

The last important hand I’d play at Men’s table had a lot of foreshadowing elements in it. The blinds were now 300-600. The craziest player at the table (probably the craziest player I’d encounter in the entire tournament), the same kid who failed to scare Men with his 8-4 offsuit, raised in late position to 1800. This player had a lot of chips. Not quite as many as me, but he had a healthy stack. I was in the big blind with two black 7’s and called.

The flop came 5c-4h-2s, all undercards. I was first to act, and I needed to define my hand, so I led out for 3000. The loose-aggressive kid called. What could he hold? Frankly, I had no idea. He may have had an overpair, a set, a straight draw, just overcards His call could have signified strength, or it could have been a bluff-call which he’d follow with a big turn bet. The turn card was another deuce, the two of hearts, which was a very good card for my sevens. I fired another 5000, hoping I’d lose the kid. Once again, he quickly called. The river is where things got real hairy. The dealer produced the three of spades, putting 4 to a straight on the board. Any ace now held the low end of a straight, and any 6 held the high end. So what was my play?

I thought about it for a moment and decided on a blocking bet. A check would open the door for Mr. Loose-Aggressive to fire a pot sized bet, which would have put me in a bind. A large bet would be a waste of resources: it would only be called by hands that beat my sevens. A smallish bet fulfilled the dual purpose of representing a big hand and preventing a large bet by my opponent. Also, if my small bet was raised, I could be fairly sure that my hand was beat. With all this in mind, I bet another 5000 on the river.

The bet startled my opponent, who said “you got an ace? Did you just river me?” He received no response. After a bit of a pause, the kid counted out 5000 chips and ruefully called. I turned over my sevens, saying “I don’t think these are any good.” Loose-Aggressive nodded in my direction and said “they are,” then mucked his hand. Whew. As the dealer began to gather the mucked cards, Men started making a fuss. I was busy raking the pot, so I wasn’t sure what was going on. It turned out that Men wanted the dealer to reveal the losing hand. This is perfectly legal but is considered a breach of etiquette. A breach which Men, unsurprisingly, had no compunction making. The kid had 7-4 offsuit. Whatever. Ship it!

And with that, they broke my table. We were down to 45 players and I was in second place. My new table had a couple of familiar faces: David Levi, an amiable Israeli pro who plays pretty tight, and Harley Hall. Hall is a veteran of these tournaments and is the closest thing, physically, to The Matador, the bad guy in ESPN’s horrific bomb of a poker series, that exists on the tour. Like the Michael Madsen character, he’s well put together. Expensive clothes, quality jewelry, good hair, thoughtful soul patch. It’s hard to explain why, but Hall, despite being at least 40 years old, has the aura of an accomplished “player,” and I’m not referring to the kind who plays cards. And, reaffirming this notion, within five minutes, he had a young attractive female dealer literally blushing with a series of subtle but flirty comments. At this new table, only Levi had a chip stack that could compete with mine.

Right away, I won a nice pot with the A7 of spades on the button, having flopped top pair. But following that, a long period of inactivity occurred, as I sat on my 60k-ish stack, watching the field shrink. The blinds were raised to 400-800 and then 600-1200 before I got involved. When I finally did, I had drifted down to somewhere around 8th out of the 31 players remaining. And I was about to win my second coin flip of the tournament.

David Levi raised to 4000 from early position. Having played with him at the Mirage, and for an additional 1.5 hours now, I knew he had a big hand. There was no way he was raising in early position with trash. I was in the big blind and looked down to find the ace-king of hearts. If any other player at the table had made this raise, I would have reraised preflop and tried to win the hand without a struggle. But Levi, like me, had over 50k in chips, and, I was convinced, a hand he was willing to go to the mat with. I opted to flat call the raise. The flop came down: 9h, 7h, 2c, giving me two overs and the nut flush draw: a hand that was currently nothing, but one that could turn into quite something.

I had a sense that I’d be playing for all my chips, and there was nothing I could do about it. This was simply too big a flop to get away from. Only milk toast would beg out of this situation, and as Professor Griff so eloquently put it 18 years ago: Yo, I ain’t milk toast (it takes a nation of donkeys to hold me back!). I checked, fully intending to checkraise the pot. Levi did exactly what I expected. He bet the pot, or roughly 8500 chips. I said “raise pot,” and began to move several stacks forward. Before I could even get my hands on my chips, Levi, in one motion, put ALL of his chips in the center and stood up. Then he tabled two black kings. I’m sure he expected to see something like 99 on my end, but I had something better. I shrugged, looked at Levi and earnestly said “good luck” as I flipped open my AhKh and stood up. So did most of the other players.
This was a monster pot. My fate was in the dealer’s hands.

The turn brought immediate victory. A magnificent jack of hearts. I had made my flush, and Levi was drawing dead. I pumped my fist. Matt, who no longer had a bird’s eye view of the action, and who had endured my long early-morning lull, noticed the commotion and looked over at me from the rail with a quizzical expression. I gave him a thumbs-up as the meaningless river card fell. Now the dealer was counting my chips and informing Levi that I had him covered. And then the dealer was bulldozing an enormous pile of chips toward me. It was a big enough pile that I was able to collect them by “splashing” them towards me, using a hand motion similar to the one employed when a person bends over a sink or waist-deep water and wets their face. I took great pleasure in doing this.

With 29 players remaining, I had a monstrous stack. It was somewhere around 2:00 AM PST, but I was wide awake. I got the attention of one of the Cardplayer rep who was keeping tabs on the chip counts. “Excuse me sir,” I said. “Who has the most chips in the tournament right now?” “You,” he replied. This exchange cracked Harley Hall up. He fixed me with a serious look and said “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The implication was that I knew exactly who had the chip lead and that the question was superfluous. Pretty funny, I’ve got to admit. And then, for the first time, it occurred to me that I might win the entire tournament. And rightfully so.

But I could get nothing going for the rest of the night. I tried playing the role of big stacked bully, but I lost a race with 66 vs. K10, and all of my other preflop stab-raises got reraised. I folded all those hands. When the tournament director finally ended the day’s action, 22 players remained and I was 10th on the leaderboard. It was 3:30 AM.

Matt had witnessed all the action; his first time watching tournament poker. I was extremely appreciative of the fact that he was genuinely excited for me. And I was also appreciative that back home, Janeen had endured a sleepless night waiting for updates from Vegas. As for me, I was still sorta wired–my brain was still in an agitated dopamine-flooded state–but physically I was exhausted. We cabbed back to the hotel. Matt left for the airport to catch his early morning flight (poker-watching all-nighters rule!). I sent a couple of emails, updated this website and passed out.

I slept for about six fitful hours and woke up nervous. Very nervous. Eating breakfast at the Paris, I must have looked like a complete freak. Sitting in a throng of fresh-faced, happy tourists, I was ashen and huddled up in my sweatshirt. My stomach was flipping. I was only able to eat a few bites as I formulated my plan for the day. The blinds were going to be 2000-4000 and my stack had roughly 60,000 in it. I determined that my biggest weapon would be the re-steal. I figured there was very little value in a traditional preflop stealraise, which meant I’d be risking 12,000 to add 6,000 to my stack. But a reraise would add upwards of 20,000 to my stack while also being less like to induce a call.

It took an unusually long time to get a cab, and I arrived at the Rio with only a few minutes to spare. I hustled to my seat, unbagged my chips, arranged them, and for the first time in the tournament, put on my sunglasses: big, goofy oversized blue ones. I chose to wear the sunglasses not because I was concerned about giving off tells, but in the name of vanity. Due to my sleepless state, my face was sallow and my eyes had deep, nasty bags beneath them. I knew that the photographers would be out in force, and goofy is better than ugly.

There were some more familiar faces at the table by now. To my left sat Kirill Gerasimov, the Russian wunderkind. I wanted nothing to do with him. A few seats farther to my left sat another young European pro whose name I did not remember. And directly across from me sat the accomplished author/poker player Jim McManus. McManus is responsible for “Positively Fifth Street,” a book which was quite influential in solidifying my desire to play poker professionally. It contains many brilliant, unforgettable passages that describe the rigors of a big-money poker tournament from an amateur player’s perspective. I considered starting a dialogue with Mr. McManus, but his demeanor was rather uninviting; he was definitely in business mode. And the more I thought about opening my mouth, the less I wanted to. Like Jim, I was here to win a poker tournament, not to chit-chat.

On the first deal, I was in the small blind, and it was folded to me. I held some trash hand and meekly surrendered to Gerasimov. But on the second deal, I had the button and held a pair of tens. It was folded to the cutoff and he raised to 14k. Time to move. I reraised the pot, putting me nearly all in. It was folded back to the cutoff and he followed suit. I now had over 80k.

One orbit later, on my small blind, I was once again dealt pocket tens. The cutoff, a dark-skinned French guy, raised and I once again reheated it. Despite getting over 3-1 to call, the French guy frowned and folded. Fair enough. I now had over 100k and had not shown down a hand. The tournament was suddenly down to 18 players, two tables, and we re-drew for seats. I was in 4th place.

I’ve heard a lot of interviews with athletes who have won large competitive events, like, for instance, a pitcher who completed game 7 of the World Series. Interviewers typically ask the athlete things like “what went through your mind during the 9th inning?” Despite the magnitude of the situation, the athletes usually answer that they were just focused on executing, on doing their job, and that they tune everything else out, just like it was another meaningless midseason game. I now could relate. With two tables left in this WSOP Event, I had a real shot at winning it all. But the sense of the occasion was completely absent. My nerves from that morning had dissipated. I was just playing my regular brand of poker. And that’s saying something when the prize structure of the event looks like this:

10 to12-$11,812
13 to15-$9,664
18 to16-$7,517

At my new table I was dismayed to see that the only bigger stack drew the seat to my left. This meant he would act after immediately after me at all times, which is very unfavorable. I muttered something to him about this predicament, but he did not respond. He was a red-haired player who I recognized. The day before, he had been moved to my first table, the one I shared with Rabbi. He was fairly short stacked at the time and had played a solid, tight-aggressive game. Then he won a big confrontation with a tiny cute blond girl, doubling up in the process. From that point forward he apparently had accumulated a lot of chips, culminating with his arrival to my left now at one of the final two tables. I vowed to tread very lightly with him.

I played passively for the first few orbits at my new table as the remaining players dropped like flies. Down to 15 players, the blinds were now 3000-6000, which put a lot of guys in desperation mode. My most interesting decision was open-folding A10 offsuit when we were seven handed. It turned out to be a wise choice, as the pot was raised and then reraised behind me. Gerasimov was eliminated on the hand.

Then came a hand I won’t soon forget. It now holds the honor of being the single hand that plagues me the most, having surpassed my confrontation with Alphonse in 2002.

Tangential story: Sometime in 2002, I made my first foray into New York’s poker clubs. I convinced a member of the old Playstation (a poker club which has long since been shut down) to refer me, and I was making frequent trips to that dirty little room on 14th street to get my poker fix. This was back in the day when hold ’em tournaments were predominantly no-limit and cash games were predominantly limit. The no-limit cash craze had yet to take hold.

It was early in my development as a poker player, but I was having a lot of success in the Playstation’s 4-8 game and had stepped up to club’s mid-level game, which was a 10-20 game with a half kill. This “half kill” meant that after a particularly big pot was played, the next hand would be played at 15-30. At the time, 10-20 represented a minor strain on my bankroll. 15-30 pots were downright intimidating, outlandishly large for me. On this particular day, I had been playing for about a half hour when Alphonse walked into the club, found that the biggest game was full, and took a seat in the 10-20 game, a few seats to my right.

Alphonse was a bit of a celebrity in NYC’s poker subculture. An Italian immigrant in his late 50’s or early 60’s, he always wore nice clothing, typically suits or nice slacks with expensive sweaters. I don’t know what his day job was, but I always imagined that he was a tailor. Alphonse was about 5’8, somewhat portly, had a prominent nose, and a head full of curly grey hair. His demeanor is what made him special. Alphonse was loud, garrulous, crass and borderline crazy. He talked his way through his hands in a thick Italian accent, and he used all the textbook Italian-American colloquialisms, things like like “stunod,” and “what’s-a you problem?” When he was winning, his chatter was humorous, and he’d have half the joint in stitches. When he was losing, his chatter was very combative, and it would feel like he was a few comments away from a fistfight.

Alphonse’s style of play went well beyond the category “loose-aggressive” and fit more in the realm of “maniacal.” He played almost every hand and raised most of them. He bet pretty much every flop, whether he hand a hand or not. At the time, I played by the book (namely, David Sklansky’s “Hold ‘Em For Advanced Players”) and had no idea what to do with Alphonse. Mostly I stayed out of his way. I had seen him log a number of large wins with this style, and I considered him a mad genius of sorts. The truth, I would later find out, is that Alphonse was a huge fish, or in the parlance of winning players, a “supplier.” He was your basic degenerate, taking all the money he had earned or saved and lining the good players’ pockets with it nightly. But I was brand new to the scene and had no idea about this. To me, Alphonse was simply frightening.

As soon as he sat down, Alphonse started doing his thing: raising preflop, making a continuation bet, then laughing and turning over monsters like 86 offsuit when his opponent(s) folded. He had just won a particularly large pot, so the stakes were 15-30. He was sitting on the button and it was my big blind. I had the K2 of spades. It was folded to Alphonse, and he (of course) raised. I had a few hundred in front of me and decided I wasn’t taking any shit from him that night. It was folded to me and impulsively I reraised, making it 45 to go. Alphonse just called. The flop came 7-5-2, giving me bottom pair, and I led out, betting 15. Alphonse looked at me and said “you got a piece of dat?” and called. I looked straight ahead, ignoring him. The turn card was an 8. I fired $30 into the pot. Alphonse said “okie-dokie” and called again. The river came another 5. I wasn’t about to give up now. I bet another $30. Alphonse looked at me, smiled and said “let’s-a try sixty,” and splashed the pot with twelve red nickel chips. A raise.

Ugh. My stomach dropped as I cursed myself for spending so much money on a lowly pair of deuces. Feeling like an idiot, I said “take it” and folded. Alphonse responded by letting loose a big belly laugh and tossing his hand face up in my direction. Ace-nine offsuit. I had folded the winner. I was furious with myself. I played a few more hands and cashed out, licking my wounds all the way home.

I was overcome with grief and could not get the confrontation with Alphonse off my mind for weeks. What could I have done differently? Should I have check-called the river? Should I have folded K2 preflop, opting instead to wait for a big hand to trap the douchebag? Should I have simply called? Was I playing at stakes over my head? I had no idea, but for the life of me I could not shake this two minute trip to hell; it was indelibly etched in my memory. In the ensuing weeks and months, on several occasions I woke up in the middle of the night contemplating what had gone wrong.

Okay, tangential story over. The point of that story is that I now have a new “worst hand ever.” And it went down like this:

There were now 13 players left in the tournament. I had roughly 100k in chips and the red-haired dude to my left had about 110k. No one else at the table had more than 80k. The blinds were 3000-6000. I was in the small blind, and Redhair was in the big blind. It was folded to me, and I had J9 offsuit.

I had three choices: 1) Just fold. I strongly considered this option, but J9 felt like too good a hand for that. 2) Raise. I also considered this option, but I really wanted to avoid playing a big hand with Redhair, and if he reraised I would have to fold. If he called, I’d be out of position with a pretty weak hand. I decided to 3) call, and try to play a small pot. In my mind, I was telling myself “do not get caught up in a big pot, you are headed for the final table.” But at the same time, I also reminded myself that Redhair had to feel the same way. We were the two big stacks and should be scared of one another.

The flop came 7-6-3 rainbow. There was 12,000 in the pot. I had two choices. 1) take a stab; or 2) check. I chose to take a stab, hoping to win a quiet little pot. I bet 7000. Redhair considered for a moment and called. Hmmm. I guessed that he must have had a piece of the flop.

The turn was a jack, giving me top pair. However, my kicker was weak, and because Redhair got a free look in the big blind, he could have flopped two rag pair or a straight, both of which crushed my top pair. I decided to check in an effort to keep the pot small. I simply wanted to get to a showdown and move on with the tournament. Redhair didn’t cooperate. He bet 15,000 into the 26,000 pot. I was faced with another choice: 1) just call, or 2) checkraise and try to blow him out of the pot. Folding was not an option. The checkraise would signify that I willing to play for the rest of my chips, for my entire tournament. I found that idea loathsome. I chose to call. This was now a very big, very important pot, containing 56,000. The winner of this pot would have a commanding chip lead, and would become the favorite to win the $311,000 and the bracelet. The loser would be left curbside, badly wounded. My remaining stack was only about 60,000.

The river was an eight, making a final board of J-8-7-6-3. There were no flushes possible. The pot had 56,000 in it and my stack contained 60,000. It was my turn to act and I had a huge decision to make. I knew that I still did not want to risk my entire tournament on this hand, so I ruled out betting the pot. I also knew that I would feel very uncomfortable calling a pot sized bet, so I decided against checking. Instead, I chose to employ the same tactic I had used the night before when I held pocket sevens on a dangerous board: a blocking bet. If I made a smallish bet, I figured that Redhair might assume I was very strong and trying to milk him for a bit more money. He therefore would not raise unless he held a big hand, and I could safely fold if he did. But how much should this bet be? I looked at my stack, and at first I decided that 18,000 was the right amount. This would leave me with around 40k if I lost. I quickly reconsidered and decided that I didn’t need to bet that much to get the job done. I changed the bet to 12,000 and pushed forward twelve yellow chips.

Redhair gathered himself, played around with his chips and announced a raise. “Make it 35,000.” Then he pushed the raise in, leaving himself with only about 25,000 behind. My first reaction was “Fuck. I’m beat.” But then the wheels began to turn. As I studied the board and the action leading to the river raise, I became certain of one thing: Redhair either had a monster or absolutely nothing. This was not a raise he could make with anything less than two pair. Unless he had nothing. Had he sniffed out my little blocking bet and tried to steal this pot? It began to seem more logical. I separated out the amount I’d need to call to see where it would leave me if my jacks were no good. I’d have about 24,000. Enough to maintain a little fold equity, but I’d be the shortest stack in the tournament. 60,000 left to work with was much more palatable. But I could not shake the feeling that he was bluffing. I honestly had no idea what to do. I had considered the situation thoroughly and had no idea at all. None.

Meanwhile, a lot of time had passed. Somewhere in the neighborhood of three minutes. Players from the other table, the tournament directors, and members of the online press were gathered around my end of the table, watching me. I was leaning towards gritting my teeth and calling then Redhair called the clock on me. For the uninitiated, this means that he was invoking his right to force a decision from me within the next minute. The tournament director leaned in and said “Okay, sir, you have sixty seconds to act.” Argh!

Now what did this tactic mean? Obviously, in a vacuum, calling the clock is something a player might do to induce a fold. But Redhair knew that I knew that. Maybe he was trying to induce a call? Hmmm. The tournament director leaned in again. “Forty seconds, sir.” I had to do something, and I really was clueless, in need of divine intervention or something. Finally, agonizingly, I decided to protect my 60,000 chips. I removed the chips protecting my hole cards and flipped the cards in. The pot now officially his, Redhair turned his hand face up. 5-2 offsuit. I had been out-kamikazee’d for one hand. But that’s all it takes.

The player to my right, a weak-tight player from somewhere in the South, grabbed the 5-2 and put them next to the board to confirm his suspicions. Redhair had made a ballsy river raise with 5 high. He had flopped a gutshot straight draw, but had absolute bubkis. “Wow!” exclaimed the southerner. “That’s cold to show the bluff!” I was sweating and struck with a profound brand of misery, but I remained composed. “No sir, just part of the game,” I said. To be sure, I was very unhappy at that moment, but it wasn’t until after the tournament ended that the real agony over this hand would set in. And it still hasn’t gone away.

Things fell apart from there. After another player was eliminated, I called a short stack’s all in of 15k from the big blind with 76 suited, a move I was mathematically obliged to make. The shorty had AJ offsuit. The flop contained a seven, with no ace or jack. The turn was no help, but the river was a fucking jack, and I was down to 41k, suddenly making me the shortest stack in the tournament. We were now 6-handed and I wasn’t about to get blinded off. It was time to shove. Two hands later I picked up K8 suited in the cutoff, and I committed my chips. The big blind woke up with two black aces, and that was that. I was done. I collected about $12,000 for my efforts. It’s a nice sum, but it doesn’t look so good when you consider my standing a mere 10 minutes before my elimination. The kid who made the gutsy bluff won the whole thing, by the way. His name is Eric Kesselman, and I hereby tip my virtual cap to him.

As I stated in the blog entry in the tournament’s aftermath, it was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, I am now pretty certain that I got game. Someone, I believe Amir Vahedi, has said about no limit tournaments that “in order to survive, you must be willing to die.” It’s true. To have a realistic chance at winning these things, you must have that inner kamikaze. And I think I have found mine. That’s a good thing. But, you must play flawless poker to close one of these tournaments out, and I failed to do that. That’s a bad thing.

The rest of my time in Vegas was fairly uneventful. I made the mistake of going out late the night before the $2000 No Limit event, and only cleared half the field before busting. I don’t believe that my late-night shenanigans substantially affected my play, but maybe it did. Who knows. After that, I enjoyed another night out (going out alone in Vegas is not as weird as you’d think) before heading back to New York. I have since won another seat in the Main Event online and feel like my game remains sharp. I fly back to Vegas on the 27th.