Rewind: May 2006, Part 2–Turning Stone

A mere one day after returning home from Vegas, I set off for my next poker meet: The Turning Stone Classic at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York. It was a familiar venue, and not only because I’d played poker there in March.

My first visit to Turning Stone took place in the fall of 1993, at the start of my junior year at Cornell. Word had filtered through campus: a new Indian casino had opened its doors less than two hours away. This was very exciting news. Still more exciting was the news that the casino’s doors were open to anyone over the age of 18. The reason why New York State’s gambling laws (i.e. 21 to gamble) were inapplicable at the new casino was a mystery, but it really didn’t matter to me. All I knew was I was gonna go gamble, and I wasn’t gonna have to use my very amateur fake drivers’ license to do it. One weeknight, selected at random, my buddy Sherm and I hopped into my car and headed off on the very first gambling junket of our lives.

Upstate New York is filled with nice places. These include bucolic expanses like the Catskills and the Finger Lakes Region, charming towns like Saratoga Springs, Lake George and Cooperstown, and crusty old industrial cities like Syracuse, Schenectady and Rochester. But Verona, where Turning Stone is located, is none of the above. Turning Stone Casino is instead situated just to the side of the New York State Thruway’s most boring stretch. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. This, of course, was of little significance to me and Sherm. We merrily made our way north from Ithaca to Syracuse, then turned east on the dark vacant highway towards our destination, our pockets containing an unusually large number of $20 bills.

Back in 1993, on the side of the road, an actual turning stone, a large rock, illuminated by footlights, mechanized in some manner so that it rotated, presided over the entrance to the Turning Stone Casino’s parking lot. Recognizing this wondrous landmark as our destination, I pulled my car in and found a space in the surprisingly small lot. Sherm and I hopped out of the car and hurried towards the strangely nondescript building that housed the new casino. Inside, the building was also nondescript, more reminiscent of an Elks Lodge than the busy, ornate Atlantic City casinos I was used to.

We found the casino floor and saw that it offered a grand total of about 30 table games. It also had a large bar set up at one end, but Sherm and I discovered that no alcohol was being served (apparently part of the casino’s deal with New York State, allowing 18+ gambling). Noticeably absent were the noisy rows of slot and video machines prevalent at every other casino I’d ever seen. Also conspicuously missing was the throng of excited customers. There were maybe 120 people in the joint. This was of absolutely no import. Sherm and I were wild-eyed, excited and nervous as we fidgeted with real clay casino chips for the very first time.

The rest of the trip went exactly as expected. First we “scouted” for a good blackjack table. I don’t recall what the “scouting” was expected to accomplish beyond making us more excited about finally plunking down our money. Then we sat down at a $2 table and proceeded to lose about $40 each. We declared ourselves finished there and moved to a $5 craps table. That didn’t go any better, and after about 2 hours, Sherm and I exited the casino each having lost about $80, which is a lot of money when your average cost per meal is less than $5.00.

Still, the experience was strangely invigorating, and as we pulled back onto the highway, I was replaying the blackjack hands and craps rolls in my mind, trying to envision what I could have done differently to alter the result. But then again, I also felt very guilty about my maiden casino voyage. After maybe 5 minutes of driving, I turned to Sherm and said “you know, we just lost $80 of our parents’ hard-earned money.” “I know,” Sherm replied. “Sick.” “Yeah, I feel like shit, it’s disgusting,” I continued. We drove along in quiet contemplation for about a minute before I broke the silence. “So when are we going back?” The answer was ‘in about a month,’ and I believe the results were similar.

Now it’s 2006, and some things have changed at Turning Stone. The illuminated rock at the entrance is gone. A hotel, spa and golf course have been added. The casino now features a poker room (hence this blog entry, I’m getting to the point, don’t worry). And the proprietors have secured a license to install video machines. As a matter of fact, the casino in its current form is predominantly video machines, with very few table games.

On that topic, there is a widely accepted psychological theory that there are two different types of problem gamblers. The first is the “action” gambler. This type of gambler craves the tactile sensations associated with gambling: holding the cards, shaking the dice, writing down the roulette results. This gambler thinks he or she can achieve the impossible, that he or she can “beat the game.” These people are predominantly male, and they favor table games.

The other type of gambler is the “escape” gambler. This person wants to forget the rest of their life and lose themselves for awhile. These people are predominantly female, and they favor slot machines and video games. And Turning Stone has today found its niche with escape gamblers. The place is always rammed full of people staring blankly at the monitors in front of them, lost in the flicker of light, light years away from the cold, boring, painful lives they live away from the glare. As you might guess, I find the 2006 Turning Stone a rather depressing place.

Many things about Turning Stone remain the same as they were in 1993. The place is still in the middle of nowhere. It’s still a rinky-dink operation. Rooms cost $75 per night, and the rate is the same on weeknights and weekends. $5 blackjack and craps are always offered, even on weekend nights. The nicest restaurant on the premises would probably rank fourth on my block at home. In both its 1993 and 2006 incarnations, nothing about the Turning Stone facility feels like a casino except the casino area itself.

But for the purposes of this blog entry, the most important similarity between 1993 Turning Stone and 2006 Turning Stone is the legal gambling age. The place is still dry, you can’t get any alcohol anywhere, and you still can gamble as long as you can prove that you’re 18 years of age. And that had a profound effect on the 2006 Turning Stone Poker Classic.

As I’ve mentioned before, the world of online poker is a very young one. There are thousands of successful high stakes players in their young twenties and late teens. There are even a few 15 and 16 year olds with more skill (and money) than a solid player like me could ever fathom. And the hordes of young online players are able to communicate with one another through online message boards like 2+2 and PocketFives. And, naturally, they are all eager to square off in the real world, to play “brick and mortar” poker with one another. And the Turning Stone Casino, in late May of 2006, offered them that opportunity.

By late March, the online message boards were lit up with plans for meet-and-greets, challenges, and juvenile threats of “ownership” at the ‘Stone. By early May, it had become clear that this would be an unusually well-attended event. And on May 15 hundreds of poker-obsessed kids from all over the country, many of whom were under 21 years of age, flew and/or drove long distances so they could all meet in Verona. They descended upon Turning Stone for what could be accurately billed as the “underage WSOP.” The Turning Stone hotel apparently ran out of rooms. No matter to these kids: all this required was a post to one of the message boards seeking a space on another player’s floor.

Having booked this tournament two months prior, I arrived on May 16th and checked into my room. Then I made my way downstairs. Gazing around Turning Stone’s poker room at the overflowing mass of adolescent humanity, I was an old man in a sea of baby-faced poker savants. The action was fast and furious, and the stakes did not match the ages of the participants. Throughout the room, like Sherm and I thirteen years earlier, enthusiastic kids were experiencing their very first real live gambling. But instead of risking 80 of their parents’ dollars, many of these kids were sitting behind towers of $100 and $500 chips. It was money they had earned playing poker online.

Watching a pimply-faced 18 year old kid calmly call a $1200 flop bet with only a gutshot straight draw is pretty extraordinary, but something else about the scene at Turning Stone made a more lasting impression, and I think it says something about the current state of poker, and something about the nature of the game in general.

As I looked around the room, I noticed that a disproportionate number of the young men in the room (I’m discounting the handful of women for now) suffered from an obvious affliction of some sort. Some were missing limbs, some had a condition which had stunted their growth, some were morbidly obese. There were an unusual number of wheelchairs in the room. But even many of the able bodied kids had another readily identifiable issue: they were nerds. All manner of geeks were present. In short, this was not an attractive collection of people.

Contemplating the assembled mass, it occurred to me that poker and the internet had joined forces to create a real life Revenge of the Nerds.

Poker is a very competitive endeavor. Doyle Brunson has attributed his poker success to the training he received, in the form of competitive athletics, as an adolescent. And poker does bear a resemblance to certain sports. Like many sports, poker is geared towards players who are able to shape an opponent’s behavior through sheer willpower. Of course, poker differs from those sports in that one must be physically capable of competing to participate in the sport, but not at the poker table.

Physically speaking, there are no prerequisites in poker; the playing field is level. Anyone with some cash can sit down and play. But which individuals are most likely to turn to poker to satisfy their competitive desires? The answer: those who are incapable of or have been discouraged from competing in other arenas.

A short, fat, uncoordinated kid cannot be the star of his high school basketball team; he’d be laughed off the court if he even tried out for the team. But that same short, fat, uncoordinated kid can teach himself to play poker well. And if that short, fat, uncoordinated kid has a good intellect, and if he practices enough, he might even develop into a dominant, fearsome poker player. And with the advent of online poker, this exact scenario is playing itself out all the time. Doyle Brunson had to drive from game to game over the course of many years to hone his chops. A modern-day Doyle only needs to sit his fat ass down, turn on his computer, log onto his favorite poker site, open eight tables and settle in. Instant experience.

Fat Billy may not have scored 25 points last night. Fat Billy might not be dating the homecoming queen. Fat Billy might have no friends. But Fat Billy has more money in his bank account than the homecoming queen’s entire family. And Fat Billy has achieved a sort of national fame in certain internet circles. And Fat Billy makes grown men cry on a nightly basis, without ever leaving his bedroom. Fat Billy was at Turning Stone. Looking for his pound of flesh.

Having sized up my opposition for the next few days, I decided I’d play the $300, $500 and $1000 NLHE events. The kids were as good as advertised; all three tournaments were tough sledding all the way. Somehow I ended up cashing in the $300 and $500 events, but despite over 20 hours of hard work, all I had to show for my troubles on the eve of my departure was a few hundred dollars profit.

So I took a break from the tables and drove 40 minutes into Syracuse and treated myself to a sumptuous dinner at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Q. My last visit to this place had been in 1995. It was just as awesome as I’d remembered. Best food, best ambiance, best music, just all-around bad ass. Satiated and hopeful of achieving another measure of immediate gratification, I drove back to Verona, went to the poker room, and sat in a 2-5 NL game.

Immediately I could see that this was going to be an unusual game. It was populated by a couple of whiz kids and a handful of locals (members of each category were easy to identify). The locals were exchanging amazed looks with one another. A large crowd of spectators had gathered to watch. What was going on here? I unracked my chips and sat down.

On the very first hand, an Asian kid, first to act preflop, moved all in for the maximum buy-in of $500. He hadn’t looked at his cards. The action was folded around to a very young kid in a mesh baseball cap and he immediately said “call.” He hadn’t looked either. There were no more takers. “You wanna look now?” said Mesh Cap to Asian Kid. “Nah, let’s wait till after the dealer runs ’em,” came the reply. And so the dealer dealt the flop, turn and river, at which point Asian and Mesh each slowly turned one of their hole cards up. Mesh had a 3, matching with one of the board’s cards. Asian’s jack did not create a pair. Then the second hole cards were turned over. Both had nines. No help for either player. Mesh raked the $1000 pot with a pair of 3’s. They had played the $1,000 pot blind.

On the next hand, Asian, Mesh and a third whiz kid in a baseball jersey tried a new trick. Someone open-limped for $5, then Mesh, without looking at his hole cards, raised to $10. It was folded to Baseball Jersey, who raised blind to $15. It was folded to the original limper, who called $15. Now Mesh reraised to $20. Remember, this was a no-limit game, not a 5-10 limit game. Next, Asian, giggling uncontrollably, blind min-reraised to $25. And so the open limper was whipsawed, caught in the middle of the whiz kids’ hijinks. Realizing that this would continue until his entire stack was committed, the original limper folded. At that point the three whiz kids went all in. Once again, they didn’t look at their hole cards, viewing them for the first time after the entire board was dealt. Mesh won again, smirking as he raked the $1500 pot. Each time one of the whiz kids went bust, he’d laugh, pull a wad of $100 bills out of his pocket, put five of them on the felt, and rebuy. The crowd was going nuts.

They were just passing the time. There were no seats available in the bigger games. So, having already drunk their smuggled six-pack of Coors Light up in their room, these kids were entertaining themselves by playing way below their normal levels. These players had bankrolls that belied their looks (i.e., very young and very nerdy). They were accustomed to playing online no limit games with blinds at the $25-$50 and $50-$100 levels, where pots of tens of thousands of dollars are commonplace. This $2-$5 NL game with a $500 cap was a complete joke to them, so they were having a little fun. Or perhaps they were flooding the table with enough chips to create the playing conditions they were used to. Either way, it was good news for me. While I could not afford to treat 2-5 NL like a joke, I was not scared of losing a few buy-ins. I figured I’d just wait for a solid hand and gamble it up with them. It didn’t take long.

I was seated right in the middle of the three crazy kids. On my button I was dealt A9 offsuit. Asian open limped blind. Mesh min-raised blind. I called. In the small blind, Baseball Jersey min-reraised blind. This pattern continued until I had about $50 invested. When the action returned to me I announced that I was all-in for $500. Baseball Jersey looked at me, laughed, finally checked his hole cards, and mucked them. But Asian was undeterred. He fixed me with a prepubescent stare and a faux-grave expression. Then he said “nice move, I call” without checking his hole cards, and slid his $500 forward. Mesh, having witnessed Asian’s act, was now laughing hysterically. Gasping for breath between his guffaws, he called as well, also without looking at his cards. $500 of his chips went into the middle. I had just bet $1500 on A9 offsuit against two random hands.

The spectators, energized by the audacity of the old man in seat 7 (that was me), pressed forward. One kid behind me asked me for a “hole card cam,” i.e. to see my cards. Without turning around I obliged, flashing my A9 over my left shoulder to the crowd behind me. The dealer burned and turned: a flop of 9s-9c-6h. Nice. I felt someone behind me grab my shoulder and give it a little congratulatory shake. The turn was the king of hearts and the river was the 2 of hearts. I flipped my hole cards up, hoping that neither of my opponents, who still had not looked at their hole cards, held two hearts. They did not, although Asian also had trip 9s, but with a worse kicker. I raked the $1500 pot amid much fanfare. I heard one of the kids behind me tell another that I had made a “sick bet.” Sick dude… sick.

I picked my spots for another hour or so, increasing my stack to around $2200. Then, satisfied with my first brick and mortar encounter with Fat Billy and his cohorts, I retired for the night. I drove home in the morning, happy that no travel plans were on the immediate horizon.

And so I had returned to Turning Stone, the site of my very first gambling adventure. And at this sacred site I saw the future face of poker. It was disfigured and nerdy.

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.

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.

Rewind: March 2006

Priority number one in early March was a trip upstate to Turning Stone casino for their annual March tournaments. These tournaments were not very expensive (the grand finale was only $1,000), so they fit my bankroll nicely. I have a lot to say about the Turning Stone facility and will devote an entire blog entry to it later. The highlights of this trip were a nice cash game session at a table populated by internet kids and Al Krux of 2004 WSOP Main Event final table fame and my car breaking down on the New York State Thru way on its way to the Dinosaur BBQ in Syracuse.

OK, the car wasn’t really a highlight; it was awful. I waited over an hour for a tow in 15-degree conditions. A day later, I took a cab to scenic Utica and hopped a bus home to Manhattan. Particularly memorable were the two passengers seated behind me: two hideous biker babes Greyhounding their way to rural South Carolina and the Florida panhandle, respectively. Their conversation, which was inappropriately loud, alternated between stupefying and horrifying. Topics included, but were not limited to, American Idol, tattoos and dildos. Both of these self-described badasses refused to disembark at Port Authority for their half hour layover because they feared they’d get mugged in the big city. I fled to the safety of my apartment.

I returned to online play with uninspiring results. I treaded water for three weeks, notching small wins here and there and then blowing through the profit on new buy-ins. I was still working on a couple of projects for my father, which was growing very tiresome. It was around the middle of the month when I learned of the pending grand opening of PokerXFactor. is an instructional tournament poker website run by “JohnnyBax” and “Sheets.” In the insular world of online poker, these two guys (those are their Pokerstars screen names) are behemoths, celebrities. I don’t know the exact details of their story, but the general background is this: Sheets (real name Eric Haber) was working on Wall Street and Bax (real name Cliff Josephy) was his client. Both discovered online poker and began playing, discussing it regularly. Soon they were discussing it more than whatever financial stuff they were supposed to be discussing. Both became obsessed, and through their constant play and strategic discussion, they improved drastically. They improved to the point where they became two of the best players on the net. Bax in particular, now a WSOP bracelet holder, he’s basically the Babe Ruth of online tournament poker. Today, both are revered, almost idolized, by scores of online players who aspire to similar success.

I personally witnessed Bax and Sheets’ ascent to the top, having played against both of them a few times prior to, during and after their climb. My reason for liking them runs slightly deeper: both are family guys in their late 30’s or early 40’s residing in Syosset, Long Island, ten minutes from where I grew up. And I have no way of verifying this, but I believe both are non-observant Jews (like me). They’re also funny, personable people (like me!). Through no fault of their own, Bax and Sheets came a little late to the online poker party and are constantly pitted against younger foes (like me). When Bax and Sheets talk (in actuality, type, or “chat”), I feel a kinship, it reads like something I might say. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. I could learn a lot from them. So when I found out about their website, I immediately signed up, despite the pretty steep cost, more than double what similar sites charge.

PokerXFactor allows you to watch tournaments played by the instructors as they narrate along. It’s a great tool. And it immediately plugged a few leaks in my game. Namely, after watching only one or two videos, I learned:

  1. stop stealing so much early in tournaments, particularly with weak aces;
  2. when and why to re-steal (a move I was generally too timid to implement previously); and
  3. how to handle small blind/big blind confrontations late in tournaments.

pretty soon i’d be putting these concepts to work.

Rewind: January 2006

I have a particular way of describing my mental state when I’m on my game in a poker tournament: I call it being “in the moment,” which means that I’m acutely aware of what the players around me are doing and seeking to accomplish. When I’m “in the moment” I seem to rely less on rational thought processes and more on something that can best be described as “intuition” or “feel.” When I’m in the moment close decisions become easy, and I always seem to get my money in as a favorite.

Well, it seems that blogging really needs to take place “in the moment” as well. I am having a difficult time figuring out a way to write about events that took place several months ago. So I guess I’m just gonna go with quick off the cuff monthly summaries and we’ll see where it goes.

January 2006:

I spent most of January splitting time between lawyering and playing poker. After my signoff date at my father’s office, a few cases lingered which only I could take care of. Dad is completely at home in the courtroom, or screaming at opposing counsel over the phone, but when it comes to drafting briefs, he’s lost. So I was stuck with a few research/writing projects which would not go away. I spent most of the month playing a few hours a day on the internet and I managed to build a small bankroll playing sit ‘n go’s (one table tournaments). My biggest score actually came in a live charity tournament that my good friend Craig Sklar managed to get me invited to. I finished second in a field of 65 drunk nitwits, winning four front row seats to a Yankees game. Thanks Craig.

In the meantime, Paris Las Vegas sent me a promotional mailer offering me three free nights at the end of the month if I’d come play in an invitational poker tournament. It didn’t take long for me to RSVP “yes.”

The trip to Vegas accomplished two things: 1) it gave me a much needed respite from the horrible divorce appeal I was drafting, and 2) it gave me my first opportunity to see what I was all about as a poker pro.

The Paris tournament was a joke. It was simply a promotion for the hotel’s customers who spend a lot of money on slots and non-poker table games. Half the field had never played before, and the tournament was structured in a way that it would be over with as soon as possible. In other words, the luck factor was magnified. I was still able to weave my way pretty deep into the tournament, taking advantage of blackjack players who didn’t realize folding was an option. Then a nice asian lady woke up with pocket aces when I had KQ, and I was out.

So I sat down in a 2-5 NL cash game at Paris. Immediately I began to win. I flopped sets, I turned straights, I rivered flushes. Things were just falling my way. Plus, I was better than everyone else at the table, many of whom had just discovered hold ’em in the tournament. I was up about a grand before long. After chipping away a little while longer and working my stack up even farther, the following hand took place.

The under the gun player (who happened to be Bill Frieder, former basketball coach at University of Michigan) brought it in for a raise. He was sitting on a monster stack. A player in middle position, also with a huge stack, called, and I called as well with the 10-7 of spades. The flop came 8-8-5 with one spade, and Mr. Frieder led out with a pot-sized bet. The middle position player called and I decided to call as well. Yes, I called with nothing, intending to outplay both of them on the turn and/or river. The turn brought the 9 of spades, giving me an open-ended straight flush draw. Frieder checked, and the middle position player made a big bet. I quickly called, but when the action got to Frieder, he checkraised!. The middle position player called and there was now a huge pot developing. If I hit a straight or a flush, would it even be any good? I figured I might be up against a made full house, but the fact that Frieder had raised under the gun convinced me otherwise. The middle position player chose to call, and so did I.

The river brought my gin card: the jack of spades, giving me the nuts–a straight flush. Frieder now made a massive bet, and the middle position player called again. I pretended to mull this situation over before finally announcing I was all-in. After a long time Frider folded and MP went into the tank and eventually called. I said “sorry, bud” as I tabled the 10-7, and the dealer shipped me the biggest pot of my young career. Frieder said he folded a full house, but I think he was full of shit. When I cashed out of the game the dealer said he thought it was the biggest win in the history of the Paris’ very new poker room. I remained very calm as I took rack after rack of red chips to the cage (required two separate trips), converted them to cash, then strode slowly to the hotel elevators and watched the doors close. Then, riding up to my room, in the privacy of the elevator, I executed several fist pumps. Hello bankroll.

The next day I went to the old Mecca of poker: Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Vegas. The story of Binion’s has been covered many, many times (most effectively by A. Alvarez in “The Biggest Game in Town”), so I’m not gonna rehash it now. The bottom line is that in its heyday it was very low on glitz and very high on action: a gambler’s place to gamble, a place where more legendary risk-it-all gambling stories took place than the rest of sin city combined. Today, it is simply a dump. Even the “Poker Wall of Fame,” situated in the corner of the room where Doyle, Puggy, Slim and the boys did battle for the better part of three decades, and always prominently featured on all those ESPN telecasts, is vaguely disappointing in person. The carpet is stained and the whole place smells like a stale Winston.

Sold to Harrah’s after coming very close to bankruptcy, Binion’s now appears to make a meager profit cashing in on its legacy as the longstanding home of both the WSOP and the biggest cash games in poker history. Binion’s today sports a huge, drab poker room and promotes its cheap daily tournaments, one of which I entered on January 26. The buy in was small and the competition was weak, and I worked my way to the final table, having outlasted 70 players. But this was no ordinary final table. At Binion’s, once the last 10 players are established, play moves to a special elevated table with brightly lit borders and space on the sides for a crowd to gather and gawk. And gather and gawk they did. A rather scary collection of trashy downtown tourists appeared and hovered around the goofed-up table, making comments (“the fella with the toothpick just busted Jimmy, he’s a tough-‘un”) all the while.

Before I knew it I was heads up with a modern-day Binion’s regular. Not exactly Johnny Moss, he was sporting sunglasses, a visor and a mustache, all likely purchased/cultivated in the 1980’s. He needed some dental work, and he wasn’t very good. I dispatched him and won a decent sum. But who cares about the cash when you also get THIS:

After dumping off a bunch of money in tournaments at Wynn and Bellagio, I wound up my January by notching another very good cash game session at Mandalay Bay.

I flew home from Vegas positively giddy about my performance, ready to put the lingering legal work behind me and really open fire on the poker world.