Day 1 Complete, Sug Thriving

I’m way too tired to write anything coherent, but the 15+ hours of Day 1 of the WSOP Main Event are over, and I’m sitting on 42,500 chips. And that’s a lot of chips.

I’m also not ashamed to say that I pretty much dominated today. More later. Zzzzzzzzz…..

This Just Ain’t Right.

I try to keep my blog entries entertaining, and there’s nothing less entertaining than a bad beat story. But this just happened to me, and I can’t help but share.

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=17227&fn=1275_20060724_230208&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ width=”480″ height=”360″ /]

For those of you keeping score at home, I’m the guy with the kings. That was fun.

Soaring, Then Crashing–WSOP Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1-$311,403
2-$164,291
3-$85,904
4-$75,166
5-$64,428
6-$53,690
7-$42,952
8-$32,214
9-$21,476
10 to12-$11,812
13 to15-$9,664
18 to16-$7,517

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get your “refresh button” fingers ready (and cross them)

The 2006 WSOP $2,000 Pot Limit Hold ‘Em Event played from 590 players down to 22 today. Yours truly sits in 9th place.

Play will resume at 5:00PM EST today. Tune in to Cardplayer.com and follow my progress!

I obviously have a lot to say about this tournament, but right now I absolutely have to get some sleep. Check out the live updates log from yesterday, because Men the Master was my bitch.

Uncle Sug Hits Vegas

I became an uncle on Saturday morning. My sister had a 9 lb. baby boy. He’s a cute little mushball, and his name is Ezra Arthur Mellor. It’s the first grandchild for my parents and everyone is very excited. And of course, Uncle Sug will teach Ezra how to play cards as soon as the little fella can read.

As for me, I’m out in Vegas right now. I played the WSOP’s daily $500 second chance tournament yesterday and didn’t make a dent. I decided to crash, and I’m heading into the $2000 Pot Limit Hold ‘Em event on ten hours’ sleep.

And now for an anecdote from the $500 tourney:

I found my seat and the tournament began. After a few hands were played, the player directly across from me arrived and sat down. I immediately recognized him as Eric Haber, a.k.a. “Sheets,” my PokerXFactor mentor. Any doubt about his identity was removed when, on the very first hand after he sat down, I heard his familiar voice yelling “misdeal! I have 3 cards.” He did indeed have three cards, and the dealer declared a misdeal. Everyone returned their cards to the dealer. I checked mine to see what might have been. Pocket aces. The only aces I would see all day. Thanks, Sheets.

Getting kicked around/WSOP qualification

I had a new blog entry planned for yesterday. In it, I was going to admit that I was in the middle of the roughest stretch of my career. I was going to admit that my self confidence had virtually evaporated. I was going to admit that I had endured a three week marathon of bad beats and lost coin flips. I was going to admit that I had reached a mental state I describe as “presumptive loss.” Whenever my chips went in, I expected the worst.

I was going to compare myself to a dog that had been kicked repeatedly. I felt that skittish about things. I think I may have actually whimpered a few times.

One redeeming aspect of all this losing was that I could finally write a blog entry with an unhappy ending. I figured that writing about how bad things were would be therapeutic. At the very least, it would have been honest. But technical difficulties got in the way.

The only thing that kept the “kicked dog” blog entry from being published was my inability to understand HTML coding. You see, in the midst of my losing streak, in an otherwise uneventful sit-n-go, I flopped a royal flush. I won almost nothing on that hand, and didn’t cash in the tournament. But flopped royal flushes don’t come around very often. So in a desperate effort to reverse my luck, I was going to close my catharctic “kicked dog” blog entry with a PokerXFactor flash animation of my royal flush. That would have shook off the bad luck. The problem is, I still don’t know what the hell i’m doing with this website, and my webmaster/mentor Jon wasn’t around to help. So “kicked dog” never made it to press.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that everything above this point was phrased in the past tense. That’s because something very good happened last night. I finally conquored the primary source of my frustration. I won a World Series of Poker satellite.

For over a month now, I have been banging my head against the WSOP wall. For a professional poker player of my stature (i.e. one that can’t afford not to think twice about plunking down $10k), qualifying for the WSOP main event through an online satellite is a formality. Well, it’s not quite a formality, but it’s something you are expected to accomplish.

The fields in the WSOP satellites are weak. These are tournaments full of dreamers who don’t bring that much skill to the table. Someone who plays for a living is expected, given enough chances, to eventually prevail. But for quite a long time, that was not happening for me, and it was creating a heavy financial and emotional drain. I was nearing the point of no return–a place where so much money has been sunk into my futile efforts to qualify that the only sensible thing to do was to give up.

But last night, just as I approached the precipice of that cliff, I entered yet another Pokerstars WSOP double shootout. This was the same tournament through which I qualified last year, but I had been struggling mightily with them this year. Four hours later, I found myself heads up with a very tricky opponent with the seat on the line. Mercifully, a couple of won coin flips (what dog!?) later, I was officially WSOP-bound.

Last year, I was positively ecstatic when I won my seat. I literally danced around, alone, for about half an hour. This year, no ecstasy. Mostly I felt relief. Relief that the “no seat” albatross had been lifted. Relief that this project wasn’t going to drain any more of my bankroll. And especially relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with the disappointment of coming in second. Finishing second in a big satellite tournament that only pays one seat is a fate I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

When my win became official with a “congrats! you’ve won the tournament” appearing on the screen, I felt only a trace of last year’s giddiness. Instead, I was suddenly cognizant of how tired I was, both physically and emotionally. I hugged Janeen, who was by my side watching, and collapsed. That was that. I guess that’s the difference between being an amateur and a pro.

And now, for good measure, here’s the instant repaly on my royal flush. I held the same hand in both my career royals. Queen-Jack of spades!

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=13113&fn=1275_20060622_005801&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]
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Rewind: May 2006, Part 1: Vegas

As a birthday present to myself, I arranged for an extended leave of absence from NYC. I put together a two week trip of mixed business and pleasure: two fun weekends bookending a five day poker marathon in Vegas.

Besides the obvious: packing (utilizing my enormous Pokerstars bag for the first time), booking flights and hotels, refreshing my supply of tea tree toothpicks, etc., my trip also required that I bring along enough cash to cover my poker play. I calculated the worst-case scenario for the trip, the amount I’d lose if I completely bombed. Then I went to the bank and withdrew that amount: $16,000.00. This might have aroused some serious suspicion had the bank’s employees not been familiar with me and my new occupation. Instead, I was escorted to a private room, where I was given time to thumb through the 160 Benjamins, then everyone wished me luck as I departed. I would spend most of the following twelve days walking around with a four-inch thick wad of $100 bills in my pocket. This would make many people nervous, but all I felt was bad. Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good.

The first stop on my trip was Sonoma, California. There, accompanied by the lovely Miss Janeen, I spent a couple of serene days pretending to be a wine snob and generally luxuriating. I also had my first (and probably last) lavender bath. Then, properly decompressed, I boarded a short flight to Vegas for phase two of the trip.

I’ve read almost all the recent literature waxing poetic about Las Vegas, so I don’t recall which author likened the city, geographically, to a strange opulent toy sitting in the middle of an old, empty bathtub. But with the right seat assignment, a passenger on any arriving flight can see how adept this description is. Vegas sits in the middle of a ring of mountains, in a vast desert expanse. After entering the “bathtub,” a birds-eye view first reveals nothing but a brutal uninhabited wasteland. Then, as one slowly moves overhead towards the center of the tub, before you can see the Strip in all its shining, ludicrous glory, a series of neat little yellow-brown grids become visible. Tract housing developments.

On my January trip to Las Vegas, still considering the possibility of moving permanently to the area, I rented a car and drove aimlessly around these places. To the north is Summerlin, and to the south is Henderson. These “neighborhoods” (I use that term loosely) differ so fundamentally from Manhattan that the effect was stunning. While New York offers plain visual evidence of centuries of disjointed, uneven, organic growth, the residential areas surrounding Las Vegas look as if they were copied from an engineer’s computer screen and instantaneously pasted onto the desert plain.

Driving up and down the blocks of identical, freshly minted single-floor residences, I didn’t see any pedestrians. Las Vegas, at least for the locals, is a community of people who move around from one air-conditioned locale to another in the confines of their air-conditioned cars. While its very inhabitability is a marvel of modern engineering, there appears to be nothing remarkable about living in Las Vegas. In January, the prospect of moving into one of the cookie-cutter houses dismayed me. On my second trip in May, I was thankful that it was no longer a consideration.

The attraction of Vegas, at least for me, is that it turns things that are impossible elsewhere into everyday events. One such thing is a big, juicy poker meet. And that was the reason for this trip: the Mirage Poker Showdown.

As I checked into the Mirage on Sunday, May 7, I was ready for action. And that’s exactly what I found. The Mirage had transformed its sports book area into an orgy of no limit hold ’em tournament action. One area was sectioned off strictly for one-table satellites, which ran around the clock. Another area, formerly the sports book caf?ɬ©, was transformed into a large multi-table tournament room. In one corner of the room the final table of the previous day’s event was taking place as the early stages of the current day’s tournament was contested throughout the rest of the room. At noon on each and every day leading up to Sunday’s $10,000 main event, a $500+ tournament was scheduled along with a daily 6:00 pm $200 NLHE “second chance” tournament. And if that wasn’t enough, the poker room proper offered high stakes cash games. Viewing this poker nirvana, I was energized. I would step outside into the dry desert air only two times in the next 96 hours.

My first foray was a $100 single table satellite, essentially a live version of a $100 online sit-n-go. Familiar territory. I managed to win the thing, pocketing $1000 in tournament chips. The WPT event the next day, Monday, was a $500 limit event. Feeling my limit game was a bit too rusty, I opted for a short walk over to Bellagio, where I entered that casino’s daily $500 no limit tournament. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a dent there, so I returned to the Mirage for the $200 second-chance event. I fared better in that 97-person event, chopping it three ways for a nice score. Feeling that I was now sufficiently tuned up, I went to bed early in preparation for the next day’s tournament, which would be the largest single buy-in event of my career.

At noon on Tuesday, May 9, 156 people convened to play a $2500 no limit hold ’em tournament (thanks to my single-table win, it only cost me $1500 out-of-pocket). As you might expect, expensive midday, midweek events attract mostly professional poker players. And as I found my seat and looked around the room, I saw many recognizable faces. Barry Greenstein, Mike Mizrachi, TJ Cloutier, Mimi Tran, JC Tran, Scott Fischman, Michael Gracz, Bill Edler, Joe Sebok, Eli Elezra, David Singer, Tony Ma, Billy Baxter, David Pham, David Levi and many others were all milling around. Gulp.

And my table was not a soft one. To my immediate left was “Pistol” Pete Lawson, a young pro with a lot of impressive cashes. Two to my right was another young gun, Theo Tran, who was making a big splash in 2006. Across from me, decked out in cute little trendy outfit, was Jean Gluck, a young attractive Los Angeles-based female pro. And, late to arrive, taking his seat three spots to my right was Gavin Smith, the winner of the $10,000 main event here last year, along with one of the preliminary events. And that was a major problem.

There is absolutely nothing subtle about Gavin Smith. Physically speaking, he’s a big, burly, ruddy-faced Canadian. Actually, “burly” is probably a little bit too kind. I think the term “bloated” best describes his appearance. It’s patently obvious, at first sight, that Smith doesn’t often say “no thanks” when offered a hot dog and a beer. He sports wild, unkempt, shoulder-length hair, and the top of his balding head is always obscured by a fitted baseball cap turned backwards. He favors old, worn out, haphazard clothing. Despite his age, which I’d estimate to be over 40, he looks like your typical overgrown, overindulgent frat boy.

And somehow his personality is even more imposing than his appearance. Smith is a loud, vulgar, garrulous and indiscriminate torrent of continuous verbosity. A bull in a china shop. But, improbably, his act is charming. Everyone at the table, owing either to the immunity caused by repeated exposure to him or their knowledge that his act was benign, not only tolerated him, but laughed along with him. His first remark after finding his seat: “Ooh, I’m at the same table as Jean Gluck’s tits err, I mean Jean Gluck!” (Ms. Gluck’s rather large breasts were indeed difficult to ignore, crammed into a tight shirt). The comment was not seen as out-of-line, as Gluck, obviously familiar with Smith, responded with a coy smile.

And yet, notwithstanding his physical and verbal dominance, the most extraordinary thing about Gavin Smith is his skill at poker. The statistics suggest that he’s one of the top 3 tournament players in the world right now. And after experiencing him up close for the first time, I can offer nothing to dispute this assessment. This guy is just plain sick.

We started the tournament with 5000 chip stacks and 25-50 blinds. Deep. From the start, Smith used the depth of the stacks as leverage, playing virtually every hand, regardless of position. He had no discernable standard for calling raises or even reraises. At first, this style of play yielded no results. By the end of the first level of blinds, Smith had seen pretty much every flop but was sitting on only about 2500 chips. Then, at the start of the second level, with the blinds at 50-100, the following hand took place:

Someone limped in early position, and about 3 players limped behind. Smith completed from the small blind, and the big blind checked. The flop came J 6 2 with 2 clubs. Smith checked, and someone in middle position bet 300 into the 600 pot. It was folded around to Smith, who responded by hurling his entire stack forward. He was all in. Chips sprayed everywhere, and it was now folded to the original bettor, who, with about 4000 chips, was in the unenviable position of pondering the meaning of Smith’s overbet. I asked myself what I would do in his position, and considering that Smith had been in the small blind and had shown no inclination to fold any starting hand, I decided that Smith probably had 2 pair, and that I’d need a set to call this bet. The original bettor stared at Smith, who was now hunched down low, staring down at the felt in front of him. The bettor then dejectedly re-checked his hole cards and folded. As soon as the cards hit the muck, Smith grinned broadly, cackled a bit, and tossed the 7 and 3 of clubs face up on the table. “Shit, I should have called,” said the bettor. “I woulda caught [made the flush],” replied Smith. And with that, he was off to the races.

Meanwhile, I had built a nice stack, mostly because of the following hand: My stack drifted downward until I was dealt 22 in the big blind. With the blinds at 50-100, a player in middle position raised to 300 and got called by Smith (of course), the button, the small blind, and me. The flop came 10 9 2 with two hearts, and the small blind led out for 800. Hoping that it would look like I was drawing, I moved all-in for about 4000. Everyone folded back to the small blind, who considered for awhile before calling with two red jacks. Bingo. My set of ducks was good, and I was doubled up and in solid shape.

Meanwhile, Smith had kicked it into high gear. No longer short stacked, he was not content to merely play pots anymore. Now he began to either open-raise, reraise, or on select occasions, merely call another player’s raise before the flop. On one hand, he raised in late position and got called by the player right behind him, on the button. The flop came 6 4 4 with two clubs, and he checked. The button made a pot-sized bet and Smith again tossed his entire stack in, a massive overbet of about 9000 chips. The button called instantaneously, flipping over a pair of nines. The nines were no good here, as Smith had raised with 8 4 offsuit. And now the entire table was in deep trouble.

Smith’s freight train routine continued. At one point, he stole the blinds on every hand for an entire orbit. Then he woke up with JJ, made one of his huge overbets, and broke a player who held A7 on a 7-high flop. Later, he broke David Singer, who had been moved into the seat next to mine. At this point everyone else at the table had modest, single, multicolored stacks, and Smith had a fortress of towering stacks in front of him, well over three times the amount anyone else had. And he had built this chip lead in about a single hour. All the while, Smith was yapping away, daring everyone to play a pot with him, ruthlessly prodding away both with his incessant betting and verbal jabs.

The blinds had increased to 200-400, and I had surrendered my big blind to Smith three consecutive turns. And that is when a defining moment in my career transpired. Today, if someone were to ask me to specify the moment when I realized that I was a real live professional poker player, I would not say it was the hand where I won five grand with a straight flush on the river, or the hand that clinched my win Foxwoods, or any of my other modest triumphs. The defining moment of my career occurred when I decided that I was going to make a stand against Gavin Smith.

After Smith stole 400 chips from me for the third straight time, I told myself that I was going to resteal the next time he raised my big blind regardless of what hand I held. Smith had around 40k at this point, and I had about 9k. It was enough to dent his stack if he lost an all-in to me. I had been playing tight and he’d have to respect my reraise, I reasoned. Smith was running us all over, and gosh darnit, I was going to be the first to turn the tables on the bully. The button moved around the table, and I remained resolute in my decision, but felt a bit tense about it. Finally the button was two to my right, and Smith was in the cutoff. This would be the hand. I looked at my cards. The 10 of diamonds and the 6 of diamonds, a.k.a. trash. Bubkis. Suddenly I had serious reservations. I began to hope that the pot would get raised by someone in front of Smith, that someone whose raise commanded more respect would take a stab before Smith did, relieving me of my obligation to put Gavin Smith in his place. But before I knew it, everyone had folded and the action was on him.

As I had now watched him do many times, Smith casually said “raise” and flipped 1200 chips forward. And as the button and small blind folded, I honestly had no idea what I was going to do. Competing forces were at work in my brain. On the one hand, I had the sense that moving all-in was the strategically correct play. But then I imagined how foolish I would look if the ploy failed. What if Smith had a real hand? What if he could sense that I had nothing, the same way that he could seemingly sense when his crazy overbets would get called? I was halfway through a field of pros in a $2500 tournament, which is a lot of money to risk with 10-6 suited

During the fraction of a second between my turn to act and the moment of truth, things got really strange. I experienced a complete disconnect between my brain and my body. My brain was still contemplating a course of action. Then I heard my voice say “raise.” Then I saw my hands calmly press my three stacks of chips together from behind, and then my brain watched my hands push those stacks forward as my voice said “all-in,” in a firm, unwavering tone. As soon as I witnessed the chips mysteriously moving forward, Smith piped “just kidding!” and very quickly mucked his hand. Then I began to feel again. And I felt unmistakably awesome. And then I felt perfectly in tune with my two hands as they gathered Smith’s 1200 chips along with the blinds and antes, and added them to my stack.

On the very next orbit, exactly nine hands later, it was once again folded around to Smith in the cutoff. He had resumed his pilfering, unperturbed by my outburst the last time around. This time, I had about 10k in my stack and held KQ offsuit. And once again Smith raised to 1200. After a very short pause, once again I made the same exact move, pushing all in.

Smith’s reaction this time was very different. The smile faded from his face and he fixed me with a stare. Looking directly at me as I averted eye contact, he launched into a speech. “You know, I’m tiring of you putting that move on me.” I thought he might be kidding around, but when I stole a glance at his face, it was clear that he wasn’t. “Do you want a call? I’ve got a pretty good hand here, so tell me, do you want action?” he continued, talking to me as if he were reprimanding a child. I smirked slightly and continued to look away. Then something came over me. I was feeling rambunctious. I decided to offer up a response, which is exactly what Smith was looking for. “Depends on what you got,” I said, answering his query but continuing to look off into the distance, seemingly disinterested. That was a mistake. A long, uncomfortable silence ensued, as Smith looked at me, then at his chips, then back at me. Then back at his chips, and once again, he fixed his eyes on me for quite a long time. Now I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I felt a tiny little involuntary quiver in my neck, and I silently thanked Neighborhoodies, Inc. for producing the custom designed, neck-concealing “Sug D’s” sweatshirt I was wearing, per usual. Finally, Smith said “I don’t feel like racing against something like king-queen just yet.” Then he flashed me the ace of spades and folded. Wow.

The game proceeded, and Smith was undeterred, raising four of the following five hands. When it was my big blind again, I took a look at my cards and saw pocket 9’s. Uh oh. Then the action was folded around to Smith. No way. I felt a surge of excitement, knowing that the same dance was probably about to take place again. And this time I had a real hand. But to my surprise, when it was his turn to act, Smith peered at his cards, then shot me a glace, raised his eyebrows, grinned, and folded. The button and small blind folded, giving me a walk, and I tossed the two nines face up in Smith’s direction, telling him that “the same move was coming again.” “Well, I got good radar,” he replied. I declined to tell him just how good it was.

They broke our table and I looked down at my average stack of around 13k, then up at the video board. There were only 60 players left in this thing. I was swimming with the sharks! Feeling very confident, I unracked my chips at my new Gavin-free table. But then I took crushing beat.

The blinds were now 400-800 with an ante, and a player with about 11k in his stack raised in early position. I was in late position with QQ and moved all in for 15k. My opponent called and showed JJ. The flop was a very good one: Q 10 4. Yes! Ship it! But wait. The turn was an ace, and now I heard my opponent say “how ’bout a king, just because” as he stood up. Wait a minute. A king? What would that do? The river was in fact a king, and the table went ballistic. The miracle runner-runner straight this guy had just pulled on me simply failed to register. I stared at the board for a second, trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Then I finally figured it out. For fuck’s sake.

Now crippled, I made a bit of a recovery by doubling through Billy Baxter (renown as one of the greatest sports handicappers in history and the man who staked Stu Ungar in the 1997 WSOP main event) when his AQ ran into my AK. Then, I somehow doubled up again when my 1010 withstood another player’s AK. I was back to around 12k and there were 36 players left when they broke my table once again and moved me to one of the final four.

The makeup of this table was interesting. Three seats to my right sat Michael Gracz, a young classy poker superstar. Three to my left was a man with bleached blond hair, multiple earrings, a variety of gaudy jewelry and very bad teeth. He was wearing a baby blue hockey jersey. It was confusing, ugly amalgam that only authentic white trash could pull off. But he commanded attention because he had a huge stack. And, seated to my immediate right was a short stacked Jerry Buss, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. This big league poker stuff was getting interesting.

It got even more interesting when I sat down to look at my very first hand at the new table and discovered pocket aces. Another player, a visibly drunk man seated between Gracz and Buss limped under the gun. Buss folded and I made a very small “please call me” raise to 2500. Everyone folded back around to the drunk guy who quickly called. The flop was all rags and the drunk guy bet 5000 into a 6000 pot. I raised all in for only about 3500 more. The drunk guy went into the tank for a very long time, finished a Budweiser, and folded, even though he was getting something like 5-1 to call. Nice.

And then, about a half hour later, with 30 players left, it was over. Just like that.

The bleached blond hick had been playing a lot of pots, splashing around, bluffing and being a general menace. Still, I had the feeling that he was a weak player. On my final hand, I was dealt the ace of hearts and the queen of clubs. I made a modest raise to 2400 from early position. The hick called in middle position and everyone else folded. The flop came 9 4 4 with two hearts. I didn’t feel like tangling with this guy, so I just checked, and he quickly checked behind me. The turn was what I believed was a very nice card: the queen of hearts. Now I had two pair, top kicker and the nut flush draw. Completely convinced that I had the best hand, and thinking that my flush draw was a freeroll, I checked, hoping to induce a bluff. The hick responded by overbetting the pot, shoving 6000 in. I read this bet as either a bluff, a weaker Q, or a pocket pair like 66 or 77. I did not put him on a flush, figuring he would have aggressively bet a flush draw on the flop. Happy to lock up the tidy 11k pot, I pushed all in for around 20k. The hick looked at me and said “you got pocket queens?” Umm, why would I check that flop with QQ? Then the hick called and tabled the 6-5 of hearts–a made flush. What the fuck?! The river was not a heart, queen or a four, and I was done. Out in 30th place.

It was easily the most disappointing knockout blow of my career. Unable to put my solid performance against elite players into rational perspective, I felt only the sting of the final hand. Could I have played it differently? Would a better player have gotten away from that hand? I had no idea. I retreated to my hotel room and I spent the next few hours curled up under the covers.

The guilty pleasure of a meal at In-N-Out Burger later that night eased the pain a bit, and the next morning I began to realize how well I’d played. My sparring with Gavin Smith alone was evidence of how far my game had come. A year ago, I would never have conceived of those resteals. And although I now knew those plays were correct, and although I had made countless similar plays online, actually executing those plays, putting a $2500 tournament on the line with no hand against one of the best players in the world, was a major step for me. Returning to action the next day, I felt more like an honest-to-god professional poker player than I ever had before.

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful in terms of impact on my bankroll. I final tabled the second chance tournament again the next day, losing on a bad beat with 5 players left. I made no headway at all in the $1500 NLHE event. My bottom line after the five day poker orgy was slightly negative.

I was looking forward to getting away from poker for a few days, and that’s exactly what I did when 3 of my friends arrived on Thursday night. I moved my stuff into a room at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay and spent three days doing the things I used to do in Vegas before I changed careers, things that had nothing to do with poker: lounging by the pool, shooting craps, and cavorting at nightclubs.

On Monday, faced with a couple of empty hours between checkout and my scheduled flight, I returned to the poker table. It was a 2-4 NL game at Mandalay Bay with a $200 buy-in, shortstacked no limit poker. Having just played many hours at much higher stakes, I found the action rather boring and decided to stir things up a bit, just for shits and giggles. I indiscriminately moved all in a bunch of times, showing stellar hands such as 85 offsuit as I scooped $30 pots. On a flop of K J 8 with 2 spades, with a bet in front of me, I moved all in, forced everyone to fold, and showed the A4 of hearts. Eventually the players learned to trap me, and I lost a couple of buy-ins. That’s when something special happened.

I was on the button with the QJ of spades. The under the gun player raised and got called in two places. I called as well. The flop came king of spades, 10 of spades, 7 of diamonds, giving me an open-ended royal flush draw. I was happy when the under the gun raiser bet the pot and someone in middle position called. I shoved all in for roughly three times the bet, saying “let’s play a three-way all in here, fellas.” That’s exactly what transpired; I had the other guys covered and they both called my shove. The turn was a blank, but the river was magnificent: the ace of spades, completing my first royal flush. I proudly slapped my Q-J of spades down on the table and stood up, gesturing wildly in mock surprise. Then I pretended to take a snapshot with a make-believe camera. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

I played two more hands, cashed out and headed for home. Leaving Vegas, the formerly 4-inch thick wad of Benjamins in my pocket was now 3.5 inches thick. But I felt my game had increased by more than an half inch.

Hand Analyses: Pocket Jacks.

Pocket jacks are the most reviled hand in hold ’em. They look so pretty, what with the two matching painted cards. But you know the deal: they’re so vulnerable to overcards that they become very difficult to play after most flops, and they’re not quite good enough to play with any confidence against a big reraise. Nobody likes to get too involved with JJ.

Theories on how to handle them vary. Some say to commit preflop, that hands as good as JJ don’t come around very often, and so you might as well gamble with them. Others will tell you to treat johnnies like they were pocket fives. Try to see a cheap flop and catch a set. The truth lies somewhere in between. JJ is a hand that requires a lot of subjective, situation-specific decision making, both before and after the flop.The following are two illustrative hands where I held JJ. As you’ll see, the johnnies didn’t disappoint. Both hands were nasty, treacherous affairs.

JJ HAND #1

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=11791&fn=1275_20060612_193421&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]

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The situation: The Pokerstars $10 rebuy. This is a tournament with a big field and a surprisingly large prize pool. When this hand took place, about half the field was eliminated. The blinds are 300-600 with a 50 ante. My stack of 53,000+ was way up near the top of the leaderboard, in the top 10 total stacks. I’m in the small blind. The only other player at this table with a comparable stack is sitting in the cutoff, with a top 20 overall stack of 48,600.

Preflop action: As advertised, I have been dealt JJ. The action is folded around to the other big stack, and he makes a standard 3x the big blind open-raise to 1800. I was faced with my first decision of the hand. I was obviously playing my JJ. So should I have flat called or raised, and if I chose to raise, how much should I have raised? First of all, I was way ahead of this player’s range. At this point in the hand, I knew nothing about “$portyJ,” but a player in the cutoff with that stack could have been raising with a very wide range of hands. The second consideration was the fact that I’d be out of position after the flop. Third, the stacks were very deep, so trapping with the jacks (dubious idea at best under any circumstances) was out of the question. So I was raising.

How much to raise: All-in would have been ludicrous, risking 46,000 to win 3,000. Basically, I wanted to represent AA and end the hand right there. The number I settled on was 7,000. I thought this would look scary to the cutoff, basically sending the message “the rest of your stack is at risk if you call. ” It also was an amount that would allow me to get away from the hand somewhat cheaply if I was reraised all-in. I made my raise and “$portyJ” called. Hmm.

Analyzing the other player’s possible hands:

AA, KK: Many players would reraise with these holdings, but he certainly could have been trapping with them. I think QQ almost always would reraise all in. Pairs smaller than JJ: Many conservative players would throw away hands smaller than 99 here, but aggressive players have no problem calling off 15% of their stack, knowing they will probably double through if they hit a set. The odds he also holds JJ are so slim that I’m ignoring that possible holding.

AK, AQ: Many, if not most, players would reraise all in with AK here, but calling with it in position is possible. An AQ that wants to see a flop is also possible.

Something else: A conservative player would probably throw away everything else here. But a LAG (loose-aggressive) specialist, a new school player, would have no trouble calling my reraise and trying to outplay me after the flop. At this point I had no idea what kind of player “$portyJ” was, so this is roughly the analysis I did.

Postflop action: The flop came a dangerous, but not terrible, Qd 6s 5d. What now? Well, the flop only had one overcard in it, and since the ace was the overcard that really would present a problem, I felt my hand was best. In an effort to end the hand, I made a solid continuation bet of 10,000. And this is where things got hairy: “$portyJ” raised all in. Now my tournament was on the line. This situation called for quite a bit of analysis. What was going on here? Well, I figured these were the possibilities:

  1. “$portyJ” had flopped a set of sixes or fives;
  2. “$portyJ” had AQ;
  3. “$portyJ” flopped some kind of diamond draw; or
  4. “$portyJ” was putting a move on me.

This was one of those situation where you needed to know something about the player. And so, as my 60-second time bank started to tick down, I opened internet explorer and looked “$portyJ”‘s results up on ThePokerDB.com. I learned that “$portyJ” was a pretty accomplished player, with a lot of final tables in many rebuy tournaments, including the $109 rebuy on Pokerstars, widely considered the toughest tournament currently offered online. The vast majority of the players who do well in these tough tournaments are loose-aggressive new school players who get involved in a lot of hands and apply pressure in big spots. In other words, I felt that “$portyJ” was a player that was capable of calling my preflop reraise with a strange hand, and a player capable of putting a big postflop move on me. So options 3 and 4 were in play.

Next, I considered my standing in the tournament. I noted that I could fold my hand and still have over 36,000 chips, leaving me squarely in the top half of the field. So I would have lost this battle, but I’d be in good shape to win the war. Fine. I actually put the cursor over the fold button before I said “what just one second here,” and reconsidered the meaning of the comfort with which I could get away from my JJ. If I could comfortably fold, wouldn’t an accomplished player know this, and prey on it? Yes! Plus, which hands with a queen in them was I really afraid of? Only AQ. Did he have a set? Meh, not likely. In an instant, I was suddenly convinced that “$portyJ” was full of shit, or at best, on a draw.

And so I called with 12 seconds left on my time clock.He had A8 offsuit. I actually said out loud “what a call!” My exuberance was squelched 1.5 seconds later when an ace appeared on the river. Jesus.

JJ HAND #2

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.pokerxfactor.com/swf/trainingApp3.swf?xmlHandID=12035&fn=1275_20060614_053453&hn=0&mh=0&sc=1″ height=”375″ width=”500″ /]

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The situation: A $109 multitable tournament on Party Poker. I have played solid for the first half of the tournament, and later got lucky when I picked up AA on a hand where two others held KK and QQ. I shot up near the top of the leaderboard, but now, with about 80 people remaining, a long run of cold cards has left me with an average stack. The tournament pays 40 players. As is the case in most online freezeouts, the stack-blinds ration is relatively low, i.e. the stacks are not especially deep.

The preflop action: The blinds are 300-600, I have almost 18,000 in my stack and I am 5th to act with JJ. The player to my immediate right raises to 1500, or 2.5x the big blind. The raiser has almost the same sized stack as me.

Analyzing the other player’s possible hands: With stacks as short as ours, both the raiser and I cannot afford to commit ourselves speculative hands. Plus we have to expect the very short stacks across the table to push all in with a lot of reasonably good hands, so it does not make much sense to get involved with anything but solid holdings. Plus, the raiser is in early position. His range is probably something like all pairs from AA through 88, plus AK, AQ, AJ, and KQ. Even a hyperaggressive player will not get involved with junk under the table conditions I have outlined. He has to have a serious hand here (notice how position and stack size severely alter this player’s range, contrasted with my opponent in example #1).

So what’s my play?: Here is an approximation of what went through my head:

Well, my JJ is ahead of his range (only QQ, KK and AA are crushing me), even though it’s a fairly tight range. Still, we are close the money and our stacks are fairly short, which means I am likely to get a call from many of the hands he could be holding, including AK and AQ. Do I want to race for all my chips so close to the money? Plus, there are still 5 players left to act behind me, and one of them could wake up with AA. So maybe I should just call here and see what flops. But wait, my stack is pretty short, and how many more JJ or better hands are gonna come along? But then again, JJ is so vulnerable, maybe I should just fold. nah. But JJ is so vulnerable ugh. This is a great example of how tough a hand JJ is to play. In the end, I decided I was ahead of the raiser’s range and should raise.

How much to raise: Well, there was 2400 in the pot and I had about 18,000 behind, so an all-in move would have been perfectly reasonable. But, since I was holding JJ and did not want a call, I decided to represent AA. And what would AA do in this situation? AA would make a smallish raise designed to further commit the original raiser to this pot. I gave this player credit for being able to recognize that a smaller than all-in raise signified more strength than an all-in raise, raised to 7500, and prayed for a laydown. Instead, what I got was a push from the small-stacked button and a flat call from the raiser. What does all this mean?

Well, the push from the short stack was of little concern. He could have a wide variety of hands and didn’t have enough invested to hurt me. But the call from the original raiser should have set off an alarm in my head. Why in the world would he flat call for almost half his chips? The answer is simple. Because he has pocket aces. All the other hands in his range don’t want to play after the flop. This is especially true of AK and AQ, which want to see all five cards for the same price, and also true of QQ and KK, which don’t want to have to make decisions when overcards flop. He would shove with those hands. There is an outside chance that he would try and stop-and-go (flat call then shove any flop) with a hand like 1010 or 99, but more likely he’d just fold them preflop. His flat call equals AA and no other hand.

I want to take time out and let you know that the information contained in that last paragraph did not make its way through my brain in that exact format. All that went through my brain when this hand took place (around 2:00 am last night) after his flat call was “hmmm, how peculiar. He must have a big hand.” And that’s a problem. The flop came K 9 6 rainbow. And what happened next was atrocious.

Postflop action: The original raiser checked. I did sense that something was amiss, so I checked too. Fine so far. The turn was the 7d. Now the original raise made a feeler-looking bet of about 2850, leaving him with a measly 5600 in his stack. What now? Well, if I had bothered to apply some simple logic, I would have long since deduced that he held AA and was trying to suck me into this pot. Further, almost every other hand in his range was beating me with that board. KK was now trip kings. AK was top pair. 99 was a set. What was I beating? 1010? AQ? The only logical conclusion was that he had made a suck bet designed to lure me in.

So what did I do? I made a strange, implusive decision to shove all-in, walking right into his trap. Pathetic. What was I thinking? Honestly, I don’t know. Brain farts like these are bad things.

See, I told you I would post hands where I lost. Now I’ve posted one unlucky one along with one where I played like a complete fucking fool.

So what lessons are there to be learned from these hands? Well, I hope that I’ve outlined some of the basic considerations (e.g. stack size, position, etc. ) that go into preflop and postflop decisions, not only with pocket jacks, but in general.

But also, the outcomes of these two hands make another important point. And that is how important it is to concentrate and stay “in the moment” when you’re in a tournament. While I was playing the first hand, I did a detailed analysis of all the evidence in front of me, and reasoned through it. I enabled myself to make a great call (regardless of end result). While I was playing the second hand, I was mentally lost in space. I was perfectly capable of making the detailed analysis I presented in this blog entry in my head as I played the hand. But I didn’t, and I ended up doing something impulsive and incorrect. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was distracted. Maybe I was drunk. It doesn’t matter.

My point is that a good player will always focus and be able to reason through a hand at his fullest capacity when necessary. A lot of people think that putting an opponent on a specific hand is a gift, a magically acquired ability, but it really isn’t. Those with this supposedly innate quality have the acquired ability to think with extreme clarity when they are under pressure. This is something that can be learned. As you can see, I’m still a work in progress.

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.

Hand Analysis: min reraise by excellent player

This is a test to see if I can post a hand from the PokerXFactor hand replayer. And if it works, I’ll review a key hand from the Party Poker tournament I finished 2nd in Friday Night (woot!).

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If you are a registered user of pokerxfactor, then click here to view a large version of the hand.

It works (Jon rules)! I intend to use this tool to discuss hands that illustrate important NLHE tourney concepts, or were otherwise instructive in some manner. I promise I won’t limit the selected hands to ones I won.

This particular hand took place in the middle stages of the tournament. I had a mid-sized stack, and I made a standard raise from under the gun with 10-10. It was folded all the way around to the big blind, a big stack, which is where things got interesting.

The big stack made a very small reraise, almost a minimum reraise. Now the wheels started turning. What to do? First of all, a minimum reraise in online play almost always means one thing: the reraiser has KK or AA. This is a very common play. The player has a monster hand, wants to get more money in the pot, but doesn’t want to scare his opponent off. He wants to get all in on the flop, so he makes a small raise that will commit his opponent further. I happen to hate this play, and I never employ it unless i’m playing a complete donkey, because all solid players know exactly what it means. The correct response against a normal or unfamiliar player is to call and try to flop a set. If you don’t flop a set, you give no action.

But notice the terms I chose to put in italics in that paragraph. I said that MOST opponents who make this move have AA or KK. But what did I know about the player “ibite123”? A lot, actually. I know that he’s a very tricky, very good player. So good, in fact, that he’s currently ranked #35 amongst online tournament players by Pocketfives.com. So what was this excellent player trying to accomplish with the small reraise? It was one of two things. He either: 1) thought I was a donkey and was trying to trap me with AA or KK; or 2) had some kind of hand–probably AK or AQ–that wanted to see the turn and maybe the river for free, and was trying to accomplish that, i.e., freeze the action, with the min reraise. I was unsure of which, so I decided to call.

So as the video shows, the flop came Jd 4c 2d. “Ibite123” checked, and I was still unsure whether he was trapping me, so I checked as well. I would have happily shown this hand down, as his play had succeeded in confusing me. The next card off was the 3c, which put two 2-flushes on board, and now ibite put me all in. And so we arrived at one of those super-crucial tournament moments. What now?

I had to put this guy on a hand. The only ones I could imagine were AA, KK, AK or AQ. I felt that with QQ and JJ, this player would have put in a bigger reraise preflop rather than invite action with the min reraise. I figured the odds were about 60% AK and 40% AA or KK. As I stated above, if i was not familiar with the player, I would have automatically assumed AA or KK. In light of this information, I was compelled to call, which I did after thinking for about 30 seconds (isn’t it amazing how much information the human mind can process in a short period of time?). And as you can see, in this instance it was the correct decision. He didn’t fill his flush, hit either of his overs, or make his gutshot straight (wow, he had a LOT of outs) and I won the hand.

In short, my opponent knew I would respect the min reraise and managed to freeze me on the flop by employing it preflop. Because I knew that he’s a very good player, I was able to figure out that he wasn’t making the min reraise to trap me with a monster. I used that knowledge to alter his range of holdings and thereby made a difficult call. I guess the lesson here is “know your opponent.”