There are good things about being a professional poker player, and there are bad things about being a professional poker player. Many of the good things are obvious. I make my own schedule. Poker is fun. Stuff like that.
The bad things can be more subtle. One of them is that the World Series of Poker’s main event, once you “go pro,” feels less like a big party and more like an actual poker tournament. By that, I mean to say that a professional has real positive expectations going in. A recreational player is just happy to be there and soak in the spectacle. And so, I’m sorry to say, the blog entries on my 2006 main event are unlikely to have the same flair and sense of wide-eyed wonder as my 2005 expose. All I can do is recount the experience from my current point of view. Sorry!
I left for the 2006 main event on July 26, two days before I was scheduled to play. And like last year, my flight was filled with giddy poker players. As I made my way to my seat, I spotted a few titles in the ever-expanding universe of instructional poker publications. Another passenger/player, a young blond kid, actually turned to his friend and made note of this. I joined in the conversation by saying “half this flight is playing,” accompanying the comment with a knowing wink. The rest of my flight was uneventful. The six-hour trip to Vegas has become routine for me; it’s my commute to work. No last-minute cramming with my nose buried in Harrington this year. Instead, I flipped my little TV to ESPN News and took a nap.
When I descended from the plane into the oven otherwise known as Vegas in July, my mindset began to transform. I entered my practiced, semi-meditative preparatory state. I’m not sure how to best describe it other than to say that I become focused. It feels the same as preparing for oral argument in Family Court, except the overriding emotion is anticipation instead of contempt.
I got my bags and headed to the Palms, where Pokerstars would be picking up the tab. They also provided me with a variety of sports jerseys that I will never wear. My room wasn’t ready, but my timing was just right: The Pokershare press conference, in which they were scheduled to introduce Mikey, the chimpanzee whom they intended to enter into the tournament, was just starting. I have discussed this event in some detail in a previous blog entry, so I won’t get into it again here. In short, I must report that Mikey’s poker prowess is underwhelming. He was, however, very adept at eating poker chips and whacking things. He also pooped his diaper.
By the time the press conference ended, my room was ready, and I settled in. Matt was already in Vegas, so we later met up and enjoyed a relatively tame night out. And with that, on Friday morning I went into full cocoon mode up in my hotel room. The next time I would do anything remotely interesting, the main event would be underway.
On Saturday, Day 1B of the main event (Day 1 was split into four heats), it was finally time to play poker. In the hours before the tournament, I struggled to reconcile two competing pieces of information. First, I knew going in that I had at least a moderate skill level advantage on the average runner in the tournament. The main event is a very peculiar and exciting tournament for one simple reason: everyone and their mother plays. The grizzled pros are there. The internet whiz kids are there. The home game heroes from across the globe are there. The wealthy curiosity seekers are there. The end result is that skill levels run the gamut, all the way from the best players on earth down to oblivious rank amateurs. So I knew going in that my skill was significantly above the mean. My chances of cashing in a typical tournament are about 20%. I figured my chances in the WSOP main event were more in the 30% range.
The other piece of information bouncing around in my brain was that my skill advantage might not matter at all. There were situations that would lead to early elimination, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had no way of controlling the luck element, even with the main event’s long, gradual structure, which is designed to emphasize skill and minimize bastard luck. I reported to my seat (table 180, seat 9) knowing that I lacked full control over my fate, but also realizing that a quick exit would be bitterly disappointing. After all, last year I had finished 290th, a result which hastened my decision to play poker for a living. Janeen had flown in the night before, so between her and Matt, I had two railbirds of my very own. Like last year, my parents were scheduled to arrive between Days 1 and 2, creating a little bit of extra incentive to make it through Saturday.
The early stages of an expensive deep-stacked tournament are a lot like the first round of a heavyweight title fight. You spend some time sizing up your opponents, learning their tendencies and rhythms. You’re trying to pick your spots land some blows. And if (and only if) the perfect opportunity presents itself, you can try and knock someone out. Otherwise, it’s stick and move, stick and move. Accumulate chips slowly.
That’s not to say that you won’t get knocked the fuck out. As I said before, one cannot control the luck element. On any particular hand, you might get cold-decked (e.g. KK vs. AA; set over set) or sucked out on (e.g. any number of violations of the laws of probability). You go in knowing that some opponents will be throwing haymakers. Even though landing counterpunches against these particular opponents is easy, they remain dangerous because you never know when you might be standing in exactly the wrong location in the space/time continuum and get clipped by one of their roundhouse rights.
Thankfully, once Doyle Brunson stepped to the mic to utter the famous words “shuffle up and deal,” I no longer could afford to contemplate my fate. All 206 tables in the Rio’s Amazon Room were at capacity, with hundreds of “alternates” waiting in the wings. A total zoo. For the players in my heat, the most colossal poker tournament ever was finally underway.
And my table was a good one. Within the first half hour of play, I was able to determine that there was exactly one highly skilled player at my table, an Asian kid in seat 4. Unlike last year (Bobby Baldwin), no one’s face looked familiar. There were players of all kinds, but no one intimidating. We had wild and reckless (seat 2), super-tight and scared (seat 8 ), and more entertaining than the rest, the utterly clueless (seat 3). Seat three was an Asian guy with a thick accent who qualified on Pokerstars, per his hat and shirt. The funny part about this guy was that he obviously had never played live poker before. I know this because he would post blinds at random intervals and consistently raise/bet/fold out of turn. Repeatedly, we had to politely explain to him that there were no “auto fold,” “auto raise” or “auto call” buttons in live play, you have to act in turn. Clockwise.
Before I could make the analysis found in the above paragraph, I proceeded to lose a bunch of chips. On the second hand of the entire tournament, I called Seat 4’s under the gun raise to 125 with the A2 of spades. I was looking to flop a flush draw, but I couldn’t fold when the flop came A 3 5 rainbow, giving me top pair and a gutterball wheel draw. He led for 250 and I called. The turn was a 7, and I checked behind him, looking to keep the pot small. The river was an ace, and he fired 600. There was no way I was going to lay down trip aces against someone I’d never seen before in my life, so I called. He showed AJ, and I mucked. So right from the start, I was in the hole, riffling fewer chips than anyone else at my table. The rest of level one went by without incident.
Level two was a different story. With 3 callers in front of me, I called a minimum raise with the ace and six of spades from the big blind, and ended up winning a 1000-ish pot with two pair. And then, still in the early stages of level two, I happened upon a hand that would end up springboarding me through the day.
The blinds were 50 and 100, and I was in the big blind. I looked down and found pocket aces. I was dismayed to see the action folded all the way to the button, but things picked up rapidly from there. The button raised to 150. Then the small blind, a very tight player, deliberately raised to 600. I was virtually certain that this was not a move but was indicative of a big hand, either AK or a pair above 10 10. So, rather than get tricky with the aces, I tried to get the small blind to commit all his chips preflop. I dug down into my stack, past the green chips (25), past the black chips (100), and past the pinks (500). I separated three yellow 1000’s from the pile, said “reraise,” and flicked them into the pot. This was by far the largest bet my table had seen thus far, and everyone sat wide eyed and alert, waiting to see what would happen next. The button quickly folded, but the small blind, an amiable, goateed fellow from somewhere in the south, began to hem and haw.
I was studying him closely and knew that the long pause was not an act. He was very seriously considering the proper response to my massive reraise. Finally, after a long while, he said “call,” and gently placed 2400 chips in front of him, completing the bet. I knew he had one of exactly two hands: QQ or KK. Trapping with AA was both very unlikely (since I held that hand too) and beyond the scope of his game. JJ, AK and worse did not fit his image–extremely tight–at all. It was QQ or KK, and we were about to play a pot that would likely bust one of us. I prayed for no paint as the dealer burned and turned.
My prayers went unanswered. The flop came Q, rag, rag, meaning that my goateed friend might have flopped a set. His physical actions were consistent with someone who had three queens. He paused, frowned, then checked. I instantly checked behind. The turn was another rag. Again another pause, then a check. And again I checked behind. The river was a six, which paired one of the flop cards. Again came a pause and a check. Now I was virtually certain that I was facing KK, as queens full would have value bet the river. So now it was my turn to value bet. It was a close call between shoving all in and betting something more moderate. I had a sense that the goatee had correctly put me on aces, and was very scared of going broke so early in the tournament. So I decided to bet a little more than half the pot, 3500. When I did, my opponent frowned, erasing any lingering doubt about whether my hand was good. He then painstakingly called. I flipped open the aces, and he mucked two black kings face up. I was suddenly sitting on 17500 chips. And this was bad news for the other players at my table, who now faced a deficit in both firepower and skill. I played a few more hands during Level 2, and ended the level with around 16000 chips.
Somewhere in the middle of Level 3, they regrettably broke my table. My new seat assignment was not a good one. I was seated amongst several 20,000+ stacks. Even worse, I looked four seats to my left and found Patrik Antonius. Antonius’ is not yet a household name, but in my opinion, he is one of the top two no limit hold ’em tournament players in the world right now (Phil Ivey). I would categorize his style as loose, aggressive and pesky. Loose because he plays a lot of pots, with a huge range of holdings. Aggressive because he bets and raises any time you show weakness. And pesky because hands against Antonius don’t usually end on the flop. He loves to call or raise on the flop, then take pots away from his opponent on the turn or river. He’s totally fearless and will put his tournament on the line at any time. Every pot against him could end up becoming a huge one. I’m not too proud to admit that I wanted no part of him whatsoever. And I’ll also happily tell you that when my new table broke only 20 minutes after my arrival, I silently rejoiced.
At my new table, I was a medium/large stack, and I found immediate success. I worked my stack up to around 20,000 using standard aggressive play. When we broke for dinner, the tournament was exiting the conservative “poke and prod” phase and entering a new stage wherein stack size disparity required some more aggressive situational play. My goal was now to finish the day with 30,000 chips, which would be an above-average stack heading into Day 2.
Before the dinner break, Janeen and Matt staked out a table for us in the Rio’s sports bar. It was about 7:15, and I had played three of the six scheduled levels, and I knew that surviving the day would take me through 3:00 am. I was excited, but also preoccupied with staying mentally sharp. After dinner, Matt departed to partake in some traditional Vegas fun, but Janeen, my number one fan, hung in there, displaying an unusual tolerance for tournament poker, which is really not a spectator sport without the hole card cameras.
Level 4 featured 100-200 blinds and a 25 ante, which ramped up both the amount in the pot preflop and the short stacks’ level of desperation. Action ensued. First I flat called a middle position raise of 700 with AQ offsuit on the button. The flop came J J 8 with two spades, and I had none of it. The middle position player bet 1800, leaving him with about 5000 behind. I sensed that he didn’t like his hand, so I put him all in and he quickly mucked, pushing my chip count up to around 24k. Nice bluff.
Next I limped in early position with AJ. I got called in one place, and the flop came A J 6 with two clubs. I led at the pot for 600, and my opponent, sitting on about 10k in chips, raised to 1200. I flat called, knowing I’d be putting him to the test on the turn. The turn was an offsuit rag, and I checked. My opponent now bet 1500, and I moved in. He showed an ace and mucked. I had around 28k, and was using the threat of elimination as a weapon against my foes. I could feel the table beginning to succumb, which is a very good thing.
On the next hand I played, I decided to get tricky by limping under the gun with two red aces. Unfortunately, this play did not go as planned, as I got called in five separate places. The flop came Q J rag with two diamonds. I checked, and it was checked all the way around to the button, who bet 500, leaving him with 2500 behind. I checkraised to 3000, putting him to the test. I was relieved when it was folded back around to him. He reluctantly called, tabling Q10. He didn’t catch and I was now sitting on over 30k. Now the largest stack at the table, and having reached my chip goal with 2 full levels left to play, I proceeded to open fire, stealraising frequently.
At the break separating Levels 4 and 5, my confidence was cresting. There was no one at my current table with the guts to stop me in my tracks, and I realized I was a big favorite to not only make it through Day 1, but to do so with plenty of chips at my disposal. I did, however, make a conscious decision at that time to slow down a bit, knowing that the other players would start to liberally employ reraises if I continued to play recklessly.
Accordingly, I reined it in a bit during level 5, choosing to pick on one player in particular: a loose-passive older man sitting four seats to my left. I noticed that he liked to get involved, but was unwilling to call large bets without the nuts. And so I zeroed in. First I forced him out of a pot with AdQd when I flopped a big draw. Next, I made the same move against him with pocket aces, hoping for a call that never came. And finally, I made a somewhat daring resteal against him with 76 suited. This final move led him to scowl at me and mutter “I know I have you beat” as he folded. Yes sir. Yes, you do.
I was up to about 35k by the end of the level. The most intriguing development of the level was probably the arrival, around midnight, of a new player. He was 21 years old, wore braces (!), and was extremely talkative. He played a fairly standard game, but gave off the illusion of extreme aggression due to his demeanor at the table. In short, he was obnoxious. He refused to post his blinds or even fold his hand without accompanying the action with a comment of some sort, usually a stupid and/or derogatory one. His act grew old real fast. Yawn. But this genius almost immediately won a huge pot by getting all his chips in with QQ against KK (queen flopped), which gave him a very large stack and made him the most dangerous player at the table.
Janeen was over on the rail with his older brother, so I got this kid’s story at the break. He’s a college student that lives in Beverly Hills with his parents, who posted his entry fee as a present of some sort. His persona, sadly, was very consistent with this background info. I wanted very badly to bust his ass.
At the start of Level 6 (200-400 blinds), I picked up AA for the fourth time. Three players had already called 1200, so I made it 6200 and got no action. I now had around 40k. I next lost a couple of hands, including a maddening encounter with the annoying kid, but I regained my footing and began, once again, to steal liberally. It was approaching 2:00 am and I could sense that many players simply wanted to survive until Day 2, which created an artifical bubble of sorts. This made it easy to run over the table, and that’s what I did. But there were a couple of exceptions. Although the end of the day was approaching, there were maybe two players at my table who were tired of my aggression. And that led to the following hand, which I am rather proud of.
I had Ac6c on the button, and I called a raise from a player in early position. It was a Scandinavian player who had been recently relocated to his seat, but who had witnessed a series of steals from yours truly. The flop was an unusual one: three tens. The Scandinavian kid checked, and so did I. The turn was a three. Once again we both checked, and I began to suspect that my ace high was good. The river was a jack, making the board 10-10-10-3-J, and the Scandinavian player checked one last time. I was somehow certain that my ace high was either good, or at worst, a tie.
In the past I would have simply opened up my hand, but this time I decided to value bet, putting 2000 in. The Scandinavian kid responded by going into a chip-shuffling act and then checkraising to 5000. What? This play made no sense. A small pocket pair would have tried to protect itself by betting on an earlier street. A jack would have bet or check-called, fearful of reopening the betting to possible quad tens. Quad tens would have value bet the river. The checkraise just made no sense unless it was a total bluff. I called his 3000-chip raise instantly, in much less time than it took me to type out that explanation. When I did, the Scandinavian kid looked resigned and I could tell my hand was the winner. Nevertheless, I had a point I wished to make to the table. I was not done with the hand. The kid was the last aggressor and he had to either show his hand or muck it before I was obliged to act. He continued to sit there doing nothing, so I looked at him and then the dealer as I shrugged and turned my palms upward. Finally, the kid sheepishly turned over one king. I revealed my hand and derisively said “ace high” in a loud tone as I scooped up the pot. I wanted to deliver a message to this table: mess with me at your own peril. I was now sitting on a bloated 50k, over double the average stack in the room.
That was the high point of my night. With under 10 minutes to play, I went into hyperaggressive maniac mode in an effort to pile up more chips. It worked on every occasion except one. I raised under the gun with 43 offsuit on the very last hand of the night. Unfortunately, Braces called from the button and refused to be bullied on an ace high flop. We checked it down from there and he showed pocket 8s, thus taking the table chip lead away from me on the final hand of the night.
When my Day 1 marathon was over, I had 42,000 chips. I completed the day without ever going all in. I was never in danger of going bust. I consistently outplayed my opponents and had enjoyed a nice, steady climb up the chip count ladder. The only “lucky” aspect of my day was that I had picked up pocket aces five times, and one of those times an opponent had held pocket kings. Beyond that, it was all deft maneuvering.
When the Day 1 clock expired somewhere around 2:30 am, some anecdotal evidence of my status as professional poker player amongst amateurs: while most of the room broke out in wild applause, I retained my composure. I was already considering my Day 2 strategy.
But then, after we bagged our chips, some rather unprofessional exuberance: I found Janeen and Matt (back after a night out drinking) and proclaimed “I just put on a fucking clinic at that last table!”