Foxwoods Trip Review, Part 1

Foxwoods was my first “business trip” since the WSOP. Both because it had been so long since my last trip and because I’d hardly been profitable for months, I headed to the ‘Woods with high expectations and a lot of self-generated pressure. In the end, the trip was not a financial success, but it might have far reaching psychological, and consequently, fiscal, benefits. At least that’s what I’m hoping. Allow me to elaborate

One thing I noticed as soon as I checked into the Two Trees Inn (Foxwoods proper was booked solid by the time I phoned in my reservation) on Sunday: calling these poker excursions “business trips” is no longer a stretch. While the trips remain quite enjoyable, they no longer conjure up any fresh feelings. While the poker itself is still engrossing, unpacking and settling in for a week in a strange hotel room has become a chore. The novelty is now gone.

My first task was the $2000 no limit event on Monday. The tourney started at 10:00 am, so I woke up at the unusually early hour of 8:00 and headed over to Foxwoods to get some breakfast. At the buffet, I quietly ate while I watched Cliff Josephy, a.k.a. Johnny Bax converse with and then stake a scraggly looking kid sporting wild poofy hair capped with beret. I know they were conversing because their lips were moving. I know Bax was staking Scraggly because towards the end of the conversation, Bax proceeded to reach into his pocket, pull out a big roll of $100’s, peel off about forty, and then hand them to Scraggly. I’ve never been fully staked in a tournament, but it seems to me that it’s a raw deal for the stakee.

The early part of the tournament was standard. My table had the expected mix of pros and donkeys (one of whom busted on the very first hand), and I poked around until I grew my stack from 7,000 to around 12,000. On one of the last hands of level 3 (blinds 100-200), I limped in from early position with 3-3 and a tall, conservatively dressed guy checked his big blind. The flop came K-3-2 and we both checked. The turn was an 8, and the tall guy led at the pot for 400. I flat called. The river was a blank, and the tall guy checked. I made a small value bet of 500, tall guy called, I tabled my set of threes, and tall guy mucked. There was nothing unusual about the hand until tall guy flagged me down at the break.

“I had king-deuce when you flopped the set of threes,” he said as he approached me. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, so I continued with the conversation.

“Oh yeah? Two pair? Well I guess I should have made a bigger value bet on the river. You did a great job losing the minimum there,” I obliged.

“Well, when you flat called on the turn, I thought I might be in trouble,” he said. Then he looked into my eyes and smirked. “Plus I figured you probably know the way I play.”

This comment dumbfounded me. A short, awkward silence ensued, and then the tall guy walked off. It then occurred to me that the entire purpose of the conversation was for the tall guy to brandish his fame. I certainly had no idea who he was. My first guess was Phil Gordon, but I believe he is one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the World Poker Tour, so it is unlikely that Gordon was playing the $2000 event. Regardless, I easily outlasted the tall guy, and later pulled a nasty squeeze play on him when I was getting short stacked. I still have no idea who he was. More importantly, he still has no idea who I am, and that’s how I like it.

The next few levels are now a blur, but I do remember one hand. I had around 10,000 chips and the blinds were 200-400. I picked up pocket 10’s in middle position and raised to 1200. A crusty old guy in matching “Men the Master” hat and jacket called the raise from the button. His attire signified that he was backed financially by Men Nguyen (a character I’ve discussed in detail in prior blog entries), so obviously he knew what he was doing. But this guy’s game was old-school, which he gave away by continually talking trash about the new players, “young kids who think that 6-4 suited is the nuts.” This gentleman was full of stories from the old days, and all of them bemoaned the changes tournament poker has undergone, how everything is now a crapshoot. I therefore pegged him as super-tight player who didn’t want to get into a big confrontation early in the tournament.

In any event, the flop came K-7-6 rainbow, and I checked. The old guy bet 2,000. I was about to muck my hand when it occurred to me that I could probably reraise all in and get him to fold. If he had AK he might have reraised preflop, so I didn’t put him on that hand. If he had JJ, QQ, KK, or AA, he also probably reraises. What did he have? Probably K-Q, 88, or 99, all of which he’d fold if I moved in. So I reraised all in. Unfortunately, the old guy did not react by folding immediately, instead pausing for a very long time and launching into a running commentary about what I must hold. He concluded that I had either AK or AA, and after rechecking his hole cards about five times, he finally mucked them. I’m pretty certain he folded K-Q. Only a few seconds after the hand ended, his countenance changed drastically, as if he had just soiled his pants. He then declared that he was “really pissed at himself,” and he went for a long walk.

At this point, I was settled in and playing poker in a way that I cannot duplicate online. That is, I was concentrating intensely on the table dynamics, and I was fully aware of the tendencies and objectives of my opponents. In the moment. A byproduct of this level of concentration is that it somehow becomes physically taxing. When the dinner break arrived, there were about 100 players left, and I had a short/medium stack. And it occurred to me that I was both exhausted and famished.

After dinner, I went back to work and my table was promptly broken. With the blinds at 300-600 with a 75 ante, and my stack at around 15,000, I was relocated to a seat at a new table where there were mostly short stacks and one very large stack. The very large stack belonged to an older professional player who everyone kept referring to as “John.” John was trim, with a graying beard. He looked like he was about 55 years old. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he was the center of everyone’s attention, but I did not recognize him. Whoever he was, he was raising a lot of pots, playing a loose-aggressive game and having his way with the table.

Not too long after the table switch, I picked up my first big hand of the tournament: two red aces. The player under the gun raised to 2000, and I chose to flat call in middle position, hoping to trap the raiser and double through him. To my dismay, two other players called the 2000 raise, making it a four-way pot. There was now around 10,000 chips in the pot, and with my stack of 15,000, I knew that I would be getting all my chips in unless the flop was very coordinated. The flop came K-x-x with two spades, and the under the gun player led out for 8,000. I instantly shoved, and the other two players got out of the way. My opponent called quickly, showing me A-K with the ace of spades. The turn was a spade, but the river was not, and I had doubled through to around 40,000. This gave me an above average stack, and I increased that stack to 66,000 by the end of the level by playing aggressively. I was now probably around 10th place on the leaderboard with only 76 players remaining, with the money bubble lurking at the 30th player.

Unfortunately, the next level was a disaster. I lost four consecutive races to short stacks who pushed all in preflop. They ranged from the mundane (88 over A9) to the disappointing (AK over QQ) to the absurd (97 over KQ). Suddenly I was throttled all the way back down to 17,000 chips, well below an average stack. Only an hour after shooting up toward the top of the tournament, I was stuck in push/fold mode.

With 60 players left, I was moved to a new table. The only face I recognized there belonged to Cliff Josephy, a.k.a. Johnny Bax, the guy I saw staking someone in the morning. The same Johnny Bax that has been receiving $20 per month from me in exchange for his tutoring. He was holding court at this table, chatting quite a bit. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was sitting on around 70,000 chips, the most at the table. I knew from watching his videos and from playing with him online that he’d be open-raising a lot of hands under these conditions. I had no intention of telling him that I knew who he was or telling him that I subscribed to his instructional website. Instead, I sat down and unracked my chips and politely said hello to everyone. The blinds were now 600-1200 with a 100 ante, so with almost 3,000 in the pot to begin with, I had very little flexibility.

Almost immediately, a hand arose that illustrated Bax’s mathematical and theoretical mastery of no limit hold ’em tournaments. This hand also illustrated some basic yet elusive concepts that lie at the core of the game.

What I saw:

Bax raised to 3,600 from middle position. Only the big blind, who had around 29,000 chips, called. The flop came K-10-5 with two diamonds. The big blind led out for 4,000. Bax raised to 11,000. The big blind called. The turn card was the Q of diamonds. The big blind now went all in for 17,000. Bax thought for literally four or five minutes. If you’re curious about what Bax is doing when he clicks “time” on Pokerstars and his clock is dripping away, the answer is: he says “wow” a bunch and assumes a “thinker” pose with his hand cupping his chin. Bax then said “I’m going to call you” and separated out the 17,000 chips, pushing them forward. The big blind tabled Ks-Qc, and Bax tabled Ad-4h. The river came 8 of diamonds and Bax eliminated the big blind.

What really happened:

1) Bax raised from middle position with ace-rag. Nothing unusual here coming from an aggressive player with a big stack.

2) The big blind called with K-Q. Again, this is standard, but you could make an argument for reraising, especially if you’re familiar with Johnny Bax’s style.

3) Now the flop comes K-10-5. The big blind leads out for 4,000, Bax raises to 11,000, and the big blind calls. Here is where things went awry for the big blind. I would have checkraised this flop (Bax is likely to bet), taking the play away from Bax and swiftly ending things. Instead, the big blind bets, and Bax puts him on some mediocre holding and attempts to take the pot away with a raise. At this point, I think the correct play for the big blind would be to shove all-in, but he elected to take a conservative approach and flat call. Another mistake.

4) Now things get really interesting. The turn is the queen of diamonds, putting three diamonds on board and giving the big blind two pair. Realizing that Bax could hold a number of draws, but that he’s likely to be ahead, the big blind now decides to shove all in. Bax is surprised by the move and the wheels in his head start to turn. The average player would fold his hand right here. All Bax held was a flush draw and a gutshot straight draw with an overcard, with one card left to be dealt. In the face of the big blind’s sizeable bet, most players would throw away their hand without much thought. The average player says “I’m way behind, and I’m facing a big bet; I fold.” But Bax did what you’re supposed to do: calculate your chances of winning, then determine if the pot is laying you the appropriate odds to call.

The pot contained the preflop money (10,500) plus the amount that went in on the flop (22,000) plus the 17,000 the big blind had pushed in on the turn, for a total of approximately 50,000. Bax had to call 17,000 to win 50,000, so he was getting almost exactly three to one. So did Bax have a 25% chance to win the pot? This is a hard question. We know that the nine remaining diamonds give Bax a winner, and that the three non-diamond jacks give him a likely win. Also the three remaining aces give him a possible win. Assuming all 15 of the outs give Bax a win, his odds were 15/46, or 32%, or good enough odds to call.

But how many of these outs are true outs, giving Bax a winning hand? This certainly is the question he pondered for five minutes. It depends on what hand the big blind held. Retracing the action, Bax must have ruled out a small made flush, which would have destroyed all but seven of his outs. Bax must have also ruled out a straight, which would have destroyed all but nine outs. When Bax eventually said “I’m going to call you,” and the big blind flipped his K-Q over, Bax said “that is exactly the hand I thought you had.” So Bax must have been comfortable calling even though he believed an ace on the river would not have helped him. His actual outs only numbered 12, which gave him a 26% chance of winning. Mathematically, still a good call.

Another reason Bax might have made this very tough, close call lies in the other mathematical component of this analysis: gauging the tournament’s monetary value to you depending on whether you win or lose the hand. In other words, does the upside of your stack if you win (in this instance about 100,000) outweigh the downside of your stack if you lose (here, about 40,000). Most likely Bax thought that having a 100,000 chip stack gave him a great chance of going deep in the tournament, while having a 40,000 stack didn’t really cripple him. Thus, the answer became, even more clearly, “call.”

5) The river was the 8 of diamonds and they shipped Bax the chips. But the result is actually of secondary importance. Half the table was dumbfounded by Bax’s call, by the way.

The reason I’ve gone through this hand in such excruciating detail is to demonstrate that no limit hold ’em tournaments are really just a series of proposition bets. Many situations require you to calculate the price your hand is worth and compare that price with the price of the pot. One of the great fallacies to which many poor players subscribe is that it is only correct to get your money in the pot when you are ahead. It is in fact correct to put one’s money in the pot as an underdog, even sometimes as a decided underdog, if the price is right. Positive expected value does not necessarily equal being a favorite. This is why horseplayers bet on longshot horses. The bettor knows the horse they’ve chosen is not favored to win, but he thinks the price being offered makes the wager attractive. Many situations in poker are similar.

Back to me: I proceeded to go on a tear at the table. I shoved all in for 15,000 with the J4 of hearts and got lucky, beating AJ when I flopped a 4. I then picked up more chips by calling two short stack’s pushes. Once with 99 against AQ, and once with AJ against A5. I was up to around 50,000 chips when they broke the Bax table with 40 players left. I decided to reveal to Bax that I knew who he was, wishing everyone “good luck” and thanking Bax “for learnin’ me poker” as I racked up my chips and moved. I was sent to one of the four remaining tables, two seats to “John’s” right.

“John” had obviously lost several hands since I last saw him; his stack was only marginally larger than mine. We both had around an average stack. I could not find any spots to get involved at my new table, and I drifted down to around 35,000. The bubble was approaching, and players were being eliminated quite slowly as the action slowed down. The blinds increased to 1,000-2,000 as the 36th place finisher was eliminated.

I continued to bleed chips. I looked around the room and saw several stacks shorter than mine. I was aware that I could fold my way into the money, but 30th place paid about $3,800, while first place was over $200,000. There was no way I was going to limp into the money. Still, I couldn’t find a good place to get involved. Then, with 28,000 chips left, I picked up AK offsuit on the button. A somewhat aggressive player raised in early position, and I had a decision to make. Fold, call or shove? A fold would be typical bubble-pussy behavior. No. A call would foolishly commit one-fifth of my chips. So it really wasn’t much of a decision. I pushed all in. The early position raiser thought for a bit and folded pocket 10’s face up.

Only a few hands later, I picked up the AK of hearts, this time under the gun. I chose to raise to 6500, or about the size of the pot. When the action got to “John,” two seats to my left, he began to contemplate, then he announced a raise. He made it 14,500 to go. This represented roughly half of his stack, and also roughly half of mine. What to do?

“John” had no reason to believe my raise was out of line. I was under the gun and had not been playing many hands. From that perspective, his raise almost certainly was a big pair. But “John” was clearly a seasoned pro. Could he be making a bubble play? That is, might he possibly believe that I desperately want to cash in the tournament and thus be reraising with a sub-standard hand, knowing that I might meekly lay down? In my mind, this seemed possible. The raise amounted to half my stack, so even with AK, I’d have to put the rest of my chips in on a ragged flop.

What was “John’s” range of holdings? Assuming his raise was not a bubble play, his range was small, only AA, KK, QQ, JJ, and maybe AK and 1010? A fold seemed like the correct move. But then I realized that “John” might not be afraid of bubbling and could be putting a move on me in an effort to pick up some cheap chips. Impulsively, despite not having any reraise fold equity, I moved all in, hoping that QQ was the worst case scenario. “John” called immediately, and I asked him if he has aces. “No,” he replied as he turned over two kings. I was surprised when John was dismayed to see my AK. “I can’t stand these situations. I never win these races,” he said as he walked about 20 feet over to the rail, where he had several supporters. He turned his back to the table and yelled “let me know if I win!”

“John” won. There were no aces to be found. He just barely had me covered. I was out in 34th place. I dejectedly collected my things and shuffled out the door. I was overcome with a nasty feeling. I hated that I was out of the tournament, but I hated it even more that I’d misplayed my final hand. The whole point to ace-king late in a tournament is having fold equity when you shove with it. The correct play for me was to fold, without regard to the bubble considerations. The size of my opponent’s raise took away my fold equity. Re-shoving accomplished nothing.

It was 9:30 PM. I had played roughly 11 hours of poker with nothing to show for it. I was tired and just plain bummed out. I hated that I went out like a sucker.

I later learned that “John” was Miami John Cernuto, a great player who can play all the games, not just hold ’em. I had seen many pictures of him, but he had recently lost a lot of weight and grown a beard.

I was in a very bad mood as I retired to my hotel room, where I tossed and turned awhile before passing out. Unfortunately, things were about to get worse on this trip.