Yearly Review, Part 1.

Awhile back I mentioned that I’d be evaluating my yearly performance in this space. I got a little sidetracked since then, but now I think I’m ready to begin my review. Instead of something comprehensive, I’ll post my self-review in a haphazard piecemeal fashion. That’s how blogs are supposed to be, right?

At the beginning of the year, having very little idea of what to expect, I sketched out a number of goals. Each of them was pretty vague in January, but over the course of the past 11 months I’ve been able to attack them somewhat systematically. And now, with the aid of my compiled statistics and hindsight, I can do a decent job of determining where I’ve succeeded and where I’ve failed, and speculate on the reasons why.

Goal #1: Make a living playing poker.

I’m starting with the most fundamental goal of them all. Can David Zeitlin turn in a legitimate tax return for the year 2006 with “gambler” listed in the space next to “profession?” The answer is an unambiguous yes. I’ve made much more money that I expected to make in my rookie year. In fact, I started the year with legitimate concerns about whether I could be a profitable poker player while living in New York City. Today those concerns seem distant.

But my 2006 results don’t provide an entirely satisfactory answer. I’ve done well in the short term, but what about the future? Regardless of their current balance sheets, all businesses need to analyze their prospects going forward, and this sole proprietorship is no exception. Delving into my statistics, the second relevant question is thus whether I can expect similar (or better) success in the years to come. Or, to phrase the same question in a negative way: Am I a fluke? If we ignore some external factors (e.g. the continued availability of online poker, the level of competition, etc.), my statistics offer up some possible answers.

One simple statistic suggests that I’m in good shape: I’m averaging only 31.5 hours of poker per week. While this total only accounts for the hours I’ve spent actually playing—the hours I’ve spent reading about poker, traveling to play poker, discussing poker, writing about poker, logging time, etc. are not included—it is still a light work week. The numbers seem to indicate that I could ramp my work week up to 40 or 50 hours and make more money. Right?

Not necessarily. A closer look at my output shows that I’ve made my money in three big chunks. One could throw out the vast majority of the roughly 1500 sessions I’ve played, retain only three of them and still account for over 80% of my income for the year. The three big scores, of course, came in tournaments. And it is the nature of tournaments that long periods may elapse between huge scores, which is exactly what happened to me in 2006. Have I been unusually lucky, i.e. is three big scores more than I can realistically expect in future years?

I’m not sure. I do not have a very impressive number of final tables to my credit, so my tournament statistics are indeed imbalanced. In my tournament play, I have washed out, cashed for a relatively insignificant sum, or won the entire tournament. Rarely have I made the final table and then gotten bounced. What does this mean? The optimist in me tells me I’m a closer, that I know how to finish the tourneys off. The pessimist in me says that a better player would have made more final tables, and thus made more sizable cashes.

One thing is definitely true: I ended up playing more tournaments and fewer cash games than I expected I would. After the big Foxwoods score in March, I became sort of tournament-obsessed and devoted a much larger percentage of my play to tournaments from that time forward. This obviously contributed to the skewing of my statistics. Cash games are a much steadier source of income than tourneys. In poker nerd parlance, tournaments are a “higher variance” pursuit than cash games. Perhaps in the future I will remedy long droughts by focusing my efforts on cash games.

Emotionally speaking, I am proud of my undeniable short term success as a professional poker player. While I was confident I could pull it off, I never thought my bottom line would look as good as it does. And, after eleven months, I feel neither bored nor complacent, so my effort going forward should remain steady. There are numerous flaws in my game, but those are topics for the next few blog entries.

One thing I’m not totally used to just yet is the social stigma attached to gambling for a living. It’s the holiday season, and I’m seeing various member of my extended family for the first time in months, so I’ve been a little more exposed than usual. Witness the following exchange I had with an elderly aunt at Thanksgiving:

Aunt Shirley: “So, how’s the lawyering?”

Me: “Actually, I’m no longer practicing law. I play poker for a living now.”

Aunt Shirley: “What?!”

Me: “Yup, no more law. I just play poker now.”

Aunt Shirley (looks at me, then my mother with wide eyes, then back to me): “Oh, that is such a shame.”

Me: “If you saw my bank account you might think differently.”

Aunt Shirley: [horrified silence].

For some reason, I found this exchange rather satisfying.

Foxwoods Trip Review, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2006 Main Event, Day 1

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!”

Read Day 2