Taj Tourney Recap.

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!

Foxwoods Trip Review, Part 2

Playing poker for a living requires a few skills that are less crucial in most other occupations. The one that is hardest to quantify is also one of the least discussed: psychological self-awareness and self-maintenance. You cannot win at poker in the long run if you are mentally unwell or out of touch with your emotions. During my recent stay at Foxwoods, I failed in this category. In fact, I temporarily lost my sanity. It has now returned, but I think I experienced what psychologists might call “an episode.”

As I mentioned previously, I was barely profitable from August through the beginning of November. Droughts definitely come with the territory in this job, but it’s a lot easier to recognize their inevitability than it is to actually work through one in progress. I dealt with the August-November drought in three phases. First, I accepted it and tried to work through it. Then, when it began to stretch on longer than anything I’d experienced prior, I employed the same detached indifference that is indispensable in the short term (for instance in the typical cash game session). I treated the drought as if it wasn’t even there. Except it was. Then, once a full month of indifference elapsed, I entered phase three: panic.

Yes, my first seven months as a professional had been very successful. Way more successful than I’d ever dreamed. My stats told the convincing story of a winning professional poker player. In fact, if I had lost ten grand per month for the remainder of the year, I still would have come out way ahead of the goals I set for myself back in January. Nevertheless, there is a ruthless daily pressure to perform in a world where paychecks aren’t guaranteed. Meet with failure (actually, meet with sporadic success interspersed mostly with failure) enough times and an aura of disappointment emerges. By late October, it got to the point where I expected to lose. Now mix in the fact that I’m hyperactive self-critic. The end result was that whatever small measure lingering doubt I had that I could pull off my new career festered then blossomed into a full-blown panic. I was beating the shit out of myself on a daily basis. And under those conditions, I departed for Foxwoods.

As you might imagine, the bubble exit in the $2000 Monday tournament didn’t help matters. While the ensuing 12 hours of sleep did balance things a bit, I went right back to losing on Tuesday, making a couple of quick departures from two single table tournaments. I then took the night off from poker, instead visiting my college buddy Elmo and his wife at their home in the central Connecticut wilderness. The visit was refreshing, but as I made my way back to Foxwoods on the unlit rural roads in dreary nighttime conditions, the thick fog through which I had to navigate offered up an obvious metaphor. I needed a breakthrough in the worst way. The next day would be one of the most important days of my year.

I woke up on Wednesday and decided to get back to basics. I decided to play a long session of 2-5 no limit. Two-five is well below the limits my bankroll permits me to play, but I recognized that I needed some measure of success, no matter how small, to bolster my flagging confidence. So I set my sights low, intending to play some A-B-C poker with the simple goal of putting a dent in my deficit for the trip.

Two-five no limit in a casino (as opposed to online or in a NYC club) is not a difficult game. All two-five tables in casinos have horrible players at them. Many of these players are not playing 1-2 no limit (typically the smallest no limit game in the room) either because they are too wealthy for the 1-2 game to hold their interest or because they think they are better at poker than they are. In a casino environment, many 2-5 players belong in the 1-2 game or at the blackjack table, where their chances of success are much stronger.

Foxwoods caps the 2-5 buy in at $500, which creates an interesting dynamic at the table. Some players have big stacks, ranging from 1000 to over 2000, and several other players are hovering at the 500 max buy in or lower. 500 bucks is not a very deep stack in this type of game, where the standard preflop raise is $30 or $40, and the number of moves at your disposal is quite limited when either you or your opponent has a short stack.

So there are a two distinct phases of play. First, as a short stack, you simply look to double up. The only way to accomplish this is to make a hand. Under the conditions I’ve described, running a bluff only works under one condition: you’re a deep stack and so is your opponent. If you are a short stack, your opponent typically looks you up when you move in. If you are a deep stack, running a bluff against a short stack is pointless, as the short stack will simply call off his chips and rebuy if he has any kind of a hand. So phase one is to make a hand and become a big stack.

Phase two is where you finally begin to play poker. As a deep stack, more moves are added to the arsenal, as you can constantly threaten to bust the shorter stacks and get tricky with the other big stacks.

After donating about $400 to the game, after a few hours of play I managed to complete phase one, increasing my stack to $1200. From there, according to plan, I started to play more aggressively, until I was sitting on around $2000 chips. However, despite my success, there were a couple of problems. First, I was somewhat unfocused. While I did make some pretty intuitive plays, for the most part I was mentally on autopilot. The session dragged on for several hours, and I failed to maintain my concentration. Second, I was having trouble reading the board. The poker tables at Foxwoods are very large. This is good and bad. The good news is they’re not cramped, but the bad news is that the players in the 3 and 8 seats are situated unusually far from the center of the table. I was in the 8 seat and found myself continually leaning forward or standing up in order to read the board. These two problems foreshadowed the following hand.

My opponent in this hand was a super loose aggressive player, a borderline maniac who was playing about 75% of the hands. He got stacked a few times right after he sat down, but later doubled up and began to accumulate chips from that point forward. We both had around $1700 in front of us when we had a confrontation.

The kid limped in early position. This was nothing new, he had been limping in on almost every hand. I was on the button and I had Ac-7d. Everyone folded to me and I raised to $40. I did this because I knew my hand was stronger than the maniac’s, and because I wanted to get heads up with him. The blinds folded and of course the maniac called.

The flop came Ah-Jh-4s, and the maniac led out for $75. I felt that I was ahead at this point, but I didn’t want to raise because I knew the maniac would reraise if he was holding a draw. I much preferred to call and see what happened on the turn, which is exactly what I did. The turn was the eight of spades, and now the maniac bet $200. I was now a little less sure of where I stood, but still thought my hand was probably good, so I called again. There was over $600 in the pot, a pretty big hand for 2-5 NL. The river was the four of hearts, but it only registered in my mind as a small heart. It completed the possible flush and paired the board. The maniac shrugged and checked. I realized that my hand was probably good and that only a better hand would call a bet, so I checked behind, ending the hand.

At this point the maniac said “two pair” and tabled the J-8 of diamonds. I peeled my A-7 off the felt, looked at the hand one last time, shook my head and mucked the cards. The dealer shipped the maniac the pot as he said “what did you have? I wasn’t beating anything.” I said that I had an ace. “If you had an ace, you had the winning hand. You had nothing,” he replied. I retraced the hand in my head. How was an ace any good? Did the board pair on the river? Yes, it did. I had mucked the winning hand. If I had simply turned my cards face up after the river, I’d have over $600 more in front of me. But I didn’t. I mucked the winning hand.

As the next hand was dealt, I felt a heat surging up from inside me. It started in my stomach then it spread to my face and extremities. Then it was in my eyes. Suddenly, I could no longer see straight. Everything was on fire. My brain was seared through; my vision was blurry. I took a very deep breath and ran my right hand through my hair, then down the length of my face. I was not disappointed or sad or frustrated or upset or confused. I was none of those. The emotion I felt was crystal clear: anger. I was fucking livid. And the target of my rage was… me.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a merciless self-critic. And in the aftermath of the hand I just described, the psychic self-immolation began. There are only a handful of times in recent memory when I’ve been that pissed off. The endless drought, the bubble, tossing away six hundred dollars it all came to a head in a massive internal conflagration. I was on the verge of losing my mind.

I sat there for maybe two minutes, scared of what might happen next. When the fire raging inside me faded a bit, I unsteadily rose from my chair and staggered to the bathroom, where I leaned over a sink and splashed water on my face. Then, with my head still spinning, I went and sat back down in the 2-5 game. I played every hand, bleeding away chips until I was sitting on $1200. Then I picked up the A-J of diamonds under the gun and limped in. Several other players followed suit. The flop came 8-7-6 with 2 diamonds. I led out for $50, a player in middle position raised to $200, and a player in late position shoved for about $600. Still dizzy and harboring a subconscious death wish, I moved all in for my remaining $1150, sloppily shoving the chips into the center in haphazard half-toppled stacks. The middle position player, who had me covered by a few hundred chips, called instantly. Both my opponents held 10-9 and had flopped the nuts. Of course, neither the turn nor river was a diamond. My self-destruction was complete.

I wandered away from the table, up the stairs out of the poker room, through the casino, and towards the exit. My eyes led my body through the crowd but registered nothing. New emotions were setting in. I felt pathetic. And I began to think that I was a professional poker player in name only. I had moved down to a game in which I was a big favorite, and once I got my hand on some chips, I made a hideous rookie mistake, then tilted off the rest of my chips.

I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so I just wandered around for about an hour, in a state of despair. I placed a phone call to Janeen but was unable to muster the energy to explain my afflicted mental state. I just held the phone and sat there in silence. I was inconsolable. But shortly thereafter, something clicked into place. I’m not sure how or why, but as I walked down Fowoods’ restaurant row, I finally began to gain some perspective.

I thought about things and it occurred to me that my desolation was shortsighted. I was wallowing in despair for no good reason. What was my problem? I had been playing professional poker for ten months and had earned more money than I’d ever made in ten months as a lawyer. A year ago I was waking up early in the morning, putting on a suit and dragging my ass through day after miserable day of a job I had no passion for. Now I had no need for an alarm clock. I made my own schedule and traveled around the country playing poker. And I was really enjoying it (Foxwoods shitfit notwithstanding). Most of all, for the first time ever, I was living my life on my own terms. I was my own man. You know what? Fuck being depressed.

I’m writing this blog entry from the comfortable shadow of a big win, so perhaps it’s easier for me to say this in retrospect. But as quickly as the anger and desolation set in, it was replaced by determination. I hit an emotional crossroads of sorts, and I snapped out of my pathetic Foxwoods funk right there in front of Fuddrucker’s.

I hadn’t studied my ass off for five years, piled up thousands of dollars in winnings, kept meticulous statistical track of my progress and then made the daring jump to professional poker, then played 40 hours per week for ten months just so that I could get my panties in a bunch over a couple of mistakes and give up. The entire notion was suddenly ridiculous and my recent defeats seemed small.

I went back to the poker room and bought into a $200 one-table tournament. I killed it. Then I bought into another 2-5 no limit game for $500. It was around 10:30 p.m. By 4:30 a.m., I had cashed out for around $2500.

I went back to my hotel room. After all was said and done, I was about even for the week. I drifted off into a very sound, refreshing sleep.

The next day was unseasonably warm and sunny. I checked out of the hotel and climbed into my car. I drove around without a destination for a long time. I had the window down and the radio on. I found Mystic Seaport, got out of the car and sat on a bench in the sunlight. I admired the trees with their multicolored leaves. It was one of those crisp fall days, just cool enough to make wearing a jacket feel right. I got back in my car and went to Dunkin’ Donuts, where I ordered an iced coffee. It was delicious. Then I went back to the casino, won a few hundred bucks more, and left for home.

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.

Welcome to the Bubble.

I just experienced my first horrible bubble. I finished 34th out of 328 players in the $2000 NLHE tourney at Foxwoods today. The top 30 got paid. I played about 11 hours of poker and have nothing to show for it. It hurts.

I stayed true to my game, which means press all edges and don’t be afraid to gamble. But i’ll be damned if what just happened to me doesn’t feel awful–like a punch to the stomach. This profession can be a very disheartening.

I’m gonna sleep it off and play some serious cash games tomorrow. Until then just call me Mr. Bubble.

Rewind: April 2006

You just won $85,500 in your third month as a professional poker player. What are you gonna do now? Go to Disney World? Nope. The correct answer is… you find out how much gamble you got in ya. My answer: not much.

There are many stories of pros who made their first big score and then “never looked back.” So after giving myself a few days off, I had to decide what came next. Some 50/100 NL cash games? $1,000 sit ‘n go’s? Some $5,000 heads up matches? Buy directly into the $10,000 WPT Foxwoods main event?

I chose none of the above. Instead, I drove back up to Foxwoods and tried, unsuccessfully, to cheaply satellite into the main event from the $230 level. Then I drove back home and returned to online play at the same stakes I’d been playing before. What kind of gambler was I? What a wuss!

As it turns out, priority number one was maintaining my self confidence. I could have tried to turn the 85 grand into a million, but I was more concerned with proving that I was a solid winning player, that Foxwoods wasn’t a fluke. The downside of blowing through my profit far outweighed the upside of possibly joining the upper echelon of poker pros. I told myself that slightly bigger tournaments, buy-ins of one and two thousand dollars, would now be fine, but in the afterglow of the shining achievement of my young career, I didn’t take even one big shot.

I settled right back into the daily grind of $109 tournaments online. I sat on my 85k, protecting it like those March of the Penguins guys protected their eggs. A part of me was surprised and disappointed. I have told people that Stu Ungar is one of my heroes, but Stuey never would have taken the shopping bag full of cash to the cage. The truth is I don’t have much in common with him beyond playing cards.

I wondered what I would have done if I was younger, if I had never worked a paycheck-to-paycheck job. If I hadn’t gone through three years of bullshit just so I could fill out timesheets every two weeks to validate my existence. If I hadn’t spent my days, for months at a time, looking through boxes of meaningless papers. If I hadn’t forced myself to smile in the hallway. If every morning hadn’t been the same, put on one of my four suits, catch the subway, read the Post, walk to court, sit and wait. Good morning, Your Honor.

Yeah, if I was 21, I’d probably have flown to Vegas and taken my big shot. Sat down with Doyle and the rest of ’em. But I was about to turn 33, and I understood how many days of drudgery $85,000 was. More than that, I understood that I didn’t want to even think about going back to that world. No way. *penguin noise*

I suppose I probably did the right thing, because I opened April on a hellacious losing streak. Nothing was going right at all online, so I decided to visit one of New York’s poker clubs for a little live action.

When I walked in, the proprietor (name withheld of obvious reasons), who I’d known for many years but only made occasional small talk with, approached and congratulated me, giving me a hug. It was a nice acknowledgment of my recent win. I played a three-table $100 tournament, and caught cards the whole way, winning easily. The proprietor gave me a funny look, which I interpreted to be one of newfound respect, and paid me my first place share. I shrugged, thanked him, tipped the dealers and walked out, passing on the 1-2 NL cash game. It would be the last time I’d play in his card club. The cops shut him down the next week.

I resumed playing online, and resumed losing. But as the month drew to a close, I pulled another rabbit out of my ass. On April 30, a Sunday, I entered the $500 Pokerstars event at 4:30. I played well. I won a few races. Before I knew it, I was in the money. Then it was 9:30 and there were 3 tables left. Another major score in the works?

I was doing my thing, picking my spots, when I noticed something funny. All the spectators, all the railbirds, were rooting for me. The online version of the rail, the chatbox, was filled with words of encouragement for me. Huh? Why? I’m not a chatty player and no one knows me. I scrolled up, and then I discovered the reason. None other than JohnnyBax, the undisputed king of Pokerstars and my PokerXFactor mentor, was watching and rooting for me. Everyone else followed his lead. Such is the power of the almighty Bax.

His reason for doing this was personal: being able to cite the winner of online poker’s biggest monthly tournament as a subscriber to your brand new instructional website would be a nice selling point. The short testimonial that I’d undoubtedly write would bring in new customers. But the chat also indicated that Mr. Bax at least knew who I was, and that felt good. And, I must admit, so did all the other assorted chatter from the less accomplished people.

Down to 18 players, two tables. The big stack, to my immediate right, made a standard open-raise from the button. He could have a wide range of hands. I had the KcJd in the small blind, and roughly 4x the amount of the button’s raise in my stack. Easy shove. I pushed. He called and showed two red queens. The flop came all babies, with one club. “kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk,” said the chatbox. The turn was the 4 of clubs. “kkkkkkkkkkkk, club club club club club club,” said the chatbox…

The river was a harmless ace of hearts. I was out 18th, but had made enough to salvage my month. And that was fine for now.