Taj Tourney Recap.

A short summary of what was probably my finest tournament performance to date, at the Taj last Wednesday:

Before the tournament started, my father phoned and asked me how I felt about my prospects. I told him that I saw “a bunch of the same old clowns” milling around, so I liked my chances. It was true: I’ve been on the east coast tournament scene for nearly a year now, and you start to see the same faces. I’d played with many of them, and I knew that many of them were long-term losers, just chasing the dream. My father was very amused by description. He also recently mastered text messaging. The end result is that the word “CLOWNS” intermittently appeared on my cell phone throughout the tournament.

I started this tournament in a super-tight shell. And for good reason: my starting table was the poker equivalent of the Wild West. I drew a table filled with older men playing loose-passive poker. These were very poor players who had no chance, the type of players that will risk their entire tournament with top pair. In particular, there was a gentleman seated to my immediate right–a garrulous Asian man playing literally 80% of the hands dealt to him. So I sat around waiting for solid cards, drawing comments from the cowboys about my tight-assed play. No matter. Chips were flying; five or six players were eliminated from my table in the first two levels. I patiently chipped up from the starting stack of 3000 to around 6000 during this time without ever facing a serious risk. Then they broke the table.

My second table had fewer crazy players, but an equal number of overmatched ones. Now, instead of reckless players, I found myself facing scared ones. I switched gears a bit and accumulated chips at this table until I was sitting on around 10,000. We had only played four or five levels, but somehow half the field was gone. Then that table was broken too.

Table three was a more difficult assignment. There were all sorts of players here. The most remarkable of these was a thin older woman with blonde hair and a face full of makeup. She was an irascible sort; she had a thick southern accent and sat there harshly critiquing her opponents’ play. She was also obviously a Taj Mahal regular; the dealers and floorpeople knew her, and she kept commenting on the 40-80 stud game going on in the corner. She seemed to be feeling especially surly. On more than one occasion, she ungraciously said “thank you” to an opponent who called her down and lost. I had just arrived, but I was already irritated with this witch, and I could tell that the table had collectively had enough of her. She had a lot of chips, but I was about to do everyone a favor and bust her.

I was dealt QQ in late position. With the blinds at 150-300, I raised to 900, and Mrs. Grouch called from the button. The flop was sweet: A-Q-7. I led out for 1100, hoping that she had hit an ace. Mrs. Grouch fixed me with a glare and called. The turn was a rag, and I checked, hoping to get a checkraise in. But Mrs. G didn’t cooperate, electing to check behind. The river was another rag, and I made a value bet of 1500. Mrs. G scowled at me and called. Something about this woman had really rubbed me the wrong way, and so I did something out of character: I picked my hole cards off the felt, dramatically raised them to about eye level, then snapped the queens down on the table with a flourish in Mrs. G’s direction. I detected her ire, along with a few smirks from some other players as the dealer shipped me the pot. Mrs. G showed me an ace, and I sarcastically said “why didn’t you raise?” Her testy reply: “This ain’t my first rodeo, kid.”

At that point the blinds were raised to 200-400. I picked up a succession of good hands, and I consequently was raising a lot of pots preflop. The blinds were 200-400, and my standard raise was to 1100, so the table took to calling me “Mr. Eleven.” I was encountering no resistance, so I began to raise more liberally with marginal hands as well. Before long, Mr. Eleven was the chipleader at the table. It didn’t hurt that I was also making big hands when I raised with trash. Around this time, another large stack replaced the busted player immediately to my left. I victimized the grouchy lady a few more times, on each occasion raising all in on the flop, forcing her to lay down hands after she took stabs at the pot. Soon I had all her chips.

On my next button, realizing that I had raised four of the last five pots, I intended to fold, especially since the only player at the table who could bust me was sitting right behind me. But then I looked at my cards: AK. It was folded to me, and I made it 1100 to go. As soon as my chips hit the felt, the small blind said “all in.” I lurched back into my seat.

It was a massive overbet; he had at least 12,000 in his stack, roughly the equivalent of mine. Under normal conditions, I would automatically assume this player had either a pair or AK and lay big slick down here. But the conditions were not normal. I had been running this table over–the player to my left was watching me raise nearly every hand. I thought about what his range might be: I ruled out AA and KK immediately, as he would have sought action with those, probably opting for a smaller re-raise. A medium pair seemed likely, and so did a matching AK. But in light of my hyperactivity, I figured that he might be shoving with hands as weak at A-10 and A-J. I didn’t know anything about the way the small blind generally played, but I thought it was a distinct possibility that he was shoving with a weak hand in order to put me in my place and grab unofficial control of the table. And so, after a long delay, I concluded that I was looking at either a coin flip or a situation in which I was favored. I had come to win this tournament, not merely cash. And so I shrugged and said “I call,” flipping open the AK. And then I stood up in anticipation. The small blind stood up and turned over pocket sixes. The Degree all-in moment© had come. If I won the race, I’d be one of the chipleaders in the tournament. If I lost, I was gone. And…

The first card in the flop was a king. No sixes came thereafter. I had doubled through. I spun away from the table and stalked off to the side, with my right hand clenched into a fist, like a boxer who had just knocked an opponent down and was sent to his corner to await the 10-count. It would be the only time in the entire tournament that I’d be all in on a coin flip.

The defeated small blind was left with only a few chips. But my interaction with this gentleman was not over. Not by a longshot. Not even close, as a matter of fact. I was subjected to a lengthy tirade. I won’t recount the exact words, but the jist of the abuse was that I was a donkey for calling off all my chips with AK. I have no problem with someone expressing their opinion on my play, even if that opinion happens to be negative, but this man’s diatribe was endless. He just wouldn’t stop. On and one he went, furiously telling me that I had no business making that call. After at least five full minutes, I could no longer suppress the desire to respond.

“You’ve watched me raise almost every hand. Your range is much wider than just pocket pairs. I came to win this tournament, not cash. Plus, that is a huge overbet with pocket sixes,” I said. He was obviously unmoved.

“You’re a complete idiot. You think ace-king is the nuts, huh?”

“No, I don’t. But I’m calling there every time. We can argue about this all day, but it’s not going to solve anything. I’m not an idiot. I can link you to some websites if you’d like to see my results.”

“You’re an idiot,” he said with finality.

And that was the end of conversation. He had the last word. And I had his chips. He busted a few hands later.

From that point forward, I played fairly tight but aggressively. The dinner break came an hour or so later. When I returned from the dinner break, around three hours removed from the completion of the AK vs. 66 hand, my accuser was on the rail with a crowd gathered around him. He was regaling them with the story of the donkey who crippled him.

After dinner, I was on cruise control as the bubble approached. As always, the play slowed down considerably as the field thinned to 35, then 30 players. The bubble would burst when player #28 busted, and everyone proceeded with extreme caution. It was a grind, and I found no opportunities to get involved, but the field finally was reduced to 28 players. We were on the bubble. I was around 8th in chips at the time. And then all hell broke loose.

The tables were playing hand-for-hand, and I had just folded some meaningless hand. Then I heard the tournament director screaming “stop the tournament clock! Don’t deal another hand!” I didn’t think much of it, but there was a big commotion behind me. I turned around in my seat, and I noticed that everyone at the tournament table behind me was standing up. Was a big hand underway? No. Wait, there was one person still seated at the table. It was a heavy Asian guy with a big stack in front of him. He was mumbling incoherently and shaking, with a blank look on his face. Something bad was happening. Everyone was staring at him. He was on the verge of losing consciousness. What the hell? Next I heard someone yell “call an ambulance!” and with that, the heavy Asian guy teetered, then tumbled off to his right, out of his chair and onto his face. Not good.

Panic ensued. No one knew what to do, but everyone was screaming for an ambulance. Then some poker room personnel were checking the guy’s neck for a pulse and pulling his shirt off. He laid there motionless as they worked his shirt off. After about five minutes of total confusion, the paramedics showed up, got the guy on his back, and shoved something down his throat. It had a plastic bag at the end of it, and it kept expanding and contracting, so I inferred that the man was breathing, and therefore not dead. After about 10 minutes, a gurney was produced and they wheeled the guy off. The players were told to take a fifteen minute break, during which I placed a few phone calls, relaying the bizarre sequence of events to a few people.

When I returned, the players were less shaken than you might suspect. It was back to business. Such is the mentality of the gambler, I suppose. The heavy Asian guy was on the way the hospital, but the tournament directors decided to keep his stack in play: his large stack would be blinded and anteed off while the rest of us fought our way through the bubble.

Our fallen comrade wasn’t entirely forgotten. One player proposed that $900 be taken off the $33,000 first place prize and be awarded to the #28 finisher, thus artificially bursting the bubble and ensuring that the hospitalized player would make some money. Two coldhearted players (surprisingly, neither seated at the table with the unmanned stack) refused. With that option out of the mix, 25 of the 27 players agreed to throw $20 into a separate prize pool which would be awarded to the #28 finisher, assuming that #28 was one of the contributors. In the end, this measure, which was partially designed to protect the poor hospitalized guy, didn’t really matter. Someone else busted soon thereafter, and the hospitalized player’s stack finished 25th. I later learned that the man was a diabetic whose blood sugar got too low. He had a seizure, but he was expected to recover. Back to the tourney…

After the bubble burst, players started dropping like flies. I managed to keep my stack in good shape without really seeing any flops. My steals worked, and so did my resteals. I was on autopilot, and then we were suddenly down to 10 players—the final table. The tournament director collected all of our Taj cards and seated us at a table in the corner. It was surrounded on two sides by plexiglass, so that spectators could gather and watch. Our names were then announced in order of chip count, from tenth to first. I was in fifth place with around 110,000 chips. The leader wasn’t too far away with 150,000 chips.

On the very first hand of the final table, the shortest stack at the table moved all in from under the gun for roughly the size of the big blind. I was in middle position with QJ, and chose to raise to isolate the shorty. I knew the player’s range was very wide, and while my hand might be an underdog, if I got the blinds to fold and leave their dead money in the pot, I’d be getting long odds. The other players and the blinds did in fact get out of the way, and the short stack flipped over AQ. I turned over QJ and muttered “this is not going to be very popular with the table.” Traditionally, situations where a very short stack moves all in are handled by a having the two blinds “gang up” on that player, checking down the hand to increase the odds that one of them wins, thus ensuring that everyone moves up one spot in the payout structure. My raise was a selfish one from that perspective, but was certainly mathematically acceptable. In the end, the AQ held up, and many of the players at the final table undoubtedly decided that I was a moron. This bit of advertising ended up working out quite nicely…

Perhaps ten hands later, with the final table reduced to eight players, a short stack moved all in from under the gun for 15,000. It was folded to me in the small blind, and I looked down and saw two red queens. I announced a reraise. I had about 100,000 in my stack, and I made it 42,000. I chose this amount because I wanted the big blind, who also had about 100,000 chips, to think he had fold equity if he reraised all in. He did exactly that. I called instantly. The under the gun player had A-7, and the big blind had pocket 10’s. The queens held up and I was sitting on something like 230,000 chips, the clear boss stack at the final table. My isolation raise with QJ on the first hand may have influenced the big blind—he might have assumed that he had the best hand in light of that loose play. Or perhaps he would have moved all in with tens even had he thought I was a tighter player. But this is a good example of how advertising loose play can help you get paid later.

I cruised from that point until we were four-handed. I still had more chips than anyone else, and I shot down a couple of offers to deal, despite the very steep prize structure (33k for 1st, 15k for 2nd, 8k for 3rd). Something odd happened at this point in time: two of my three opponents suddenly adopted a new strategy. They began open-shoving frequently. I felt this tactic was wrong in light of their stack sizes, which were well over ten times the amount in the preflop pot. I decided that I’d have to lay low and wait to trap them. It didn’t matter; they were both so willing to gamble that one gave the other all his chips. And so we were three-handed.

At three handed, we played for awhile until each player had roughly the same amount of chips, and then a minor “save” was agreed to: we agreed to take $3,000 off of first place and award an additional $2,000 to second and $1,000 to first. And then it was back to work.

One of my opponents, a scruffy kid who looked like he was about 25, was playing fairly “normally,” i.e., willing to see flops. I managed to take several pots from him with small continuation bets. The other player, a talkative, aggressive middle aged guy who had been drinking, was not in as patient a mood. With about 300,000 in his stack and the blinds at 4,000-8,000, he was continually pushing all in preflop. I did not like this play one bit, and waited to trap him. And so did the other player, I suspect. I simply sat back and waited. Meanwhile, the kid and the chatty guy were going at it, literally and figuratively. Mr. Chatty was seated to the left of the kid, and every time the kid limped in or raised, Mr. Chatty would shove. Frequently, he’d accompany the shove with some sort of subtle verbal taunt. Finally, they went to the mat.

The kid raised from the small blind and Mr. Chatty flat called. The flop came 9-8-4 with two diamonds. The kid checked and Mr. Chatty fired a bet. The kid called. The turn was the deuce of diamonds, putting three diamonds on board. This time the kid led out, and Mr. Chatty shoved all in. The kid thought for a very long time—at least five minutes, during which he and Mr. Chatty had an ongoing dialogue—and then finally called. The kid had Ad-8c, and Mr. Chatty had Kd-9s. The river didn’t bring any of the kid’s outs, and he was gone. I was heads up with 300,000 chips. Mr. Chatty had 600,000. And he wanted to deal. I asked the tournament director to stop the clock so I could make some phone calls and consider making an offer. He graciously agreed, and I walked out of the tournament area. I phone my father, who was excited that I was about to win at least $16,000, but could offer no help on the topic of dealing.

I gave the situation a lot of thought, and despite my chip count deficit, there were a number of reasons not to deal. In no particular order, they were:

1) my results for the year were good enough to take the risk of playing it out;
2) I regretted the deal I made in Foxwoods in March;
3) I felt like I had a pretty big edge on my opponent;
4) Playing it out is more fun.

And so I returned to the table and said the following: “I’ll make you an offer, but you’re not going to like it. $24,000 for you and $22,000 for me.” My opponent’s response was exactly what I subconsciously hoped it would be: “let’s play.”

My strategy was simple. I knew my opponent was playing recklessly, throwing haymakers. So I planned to lay in wait, make a hand, and get him to commit his chips, then hope he didn’t suck out. It didn’t take too long. After maybe five minutes, this hand occurred:

I limped on the button with 10h-9h and he called. The flop came 10s-8d-4d. My opponent led out with a pot sized bet of around 30,000, and after briefly contemplating, I figured the odds that he was bluffing or holding 2nd or 3rd pair at best were pretty high, so I moved all in for 280,000. He called instantly and turned over the 10d-6d. We were both equally likely to win the hand, and both on our feet, hovering over the table, practically salivating with anticipation. If my hand held up, I’d have a 2-1 chip lead, if any diamond or a six fell, I was out in second place. The turn was a black seven, keeping me in the lead but giving him four additional outs. The river took an eternity to come, and when it did, it was… the jack of clubs. “The nine plays,” I said, and then the dealer busied himself with the wonderful task of doubling my stack.

The tournament ended quickly after that. My opponent was visibly disturbed and began to move all in on roughly every third hand. After he did it a handful of times, I looked down at two black tens, praying that he’d decide it time for another shove. He did. I called immediately. He showed K-2 and no help came, making me the winner. I walked over near the plexiglass and did some impromptu celebrating, not realizing that the eyes of all the railbirds were fixed on me, mere feet away.

The next thing I knew, someone was asking me for my “victory picture” in front of all the chips. Then they sat me down. What’s my social security number? Do you want cash or a check? What do you want the Movado to say?

Movado?! Cool. I’ll never wear it, but that’s cool. I chose to simply have the date, tournament and my name engraved. Then I went and got my check, walked to my room next door at Resorts, made a few phone calls, and tried to go to bed.

It was past 2:00 am, and I had been playing poker for over 14 hours, my body was exhausted, but sleep wasn’t going to happen. Winning one of these things leaves me wired, with god knows what (dopamine?) coursing through my system. I laid there in the dark recounting my subtle domination. It wasn’t until late the following day that it hit me. I won the damn thing!

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 1

Foxwoods was my first “business trip” since the WSOP. Both because it had been so long since my last trip and because I’d hardly been profitable for months, I headed to the ‘Woods with high expectations and a lot of self-generated pressure. In the end, the trip was not a financial success, but it might have far reaching psychological, and consequently, fiscal, benefits. At least that’s what I’m hoping. Allow me to elaborate

One thing I noticed as soon as I checked into the Two Trees Inn (Foxwoods proper was booked solid by the time I phoned in my reservation) on Sunday: calling these poker excursions “business trips” is no longer a stretch. While the trips remain quite enjoyable, they no longer conjure up any fresh feelings. While the poker itself is still engrossing, unpacking and settling in for a week in a strange hotel room has become a chore. The novelty is now gone.

My first task was the $2000 no limit event on Monday. The tourney started at 10:00 am, so I woke up at the unusually early hour of 8:00 and headed over to Foxwoods to get some breakfast. At the buffet, I quietly ate while I watched Cliff Josephy, a.k.a. Johnny Bax converse with and then stake a scraggly looking kid sporting wild poofy hair capped with beret. I know they were conversing because their lips were moving. I know Bax was staking Scraggly because towards the end of the conversation, Bax proceeded to reach into his pocket, pull out a big roll of $100’s, peel off about forty, and then hand them to Scraggly. I’ve never been fully staked in a tournament, but it seems to me that it’s a raw deal for the stakee.

The early part of the tournament was standard. My table had the expected mix of pros and donkeys (one of whom busted on the very first hand), and I poked around until I grew my stack from 7,000 to around 12,000. On one of the last hands of level 3 (blinds 100-200), I limped in from early position with 3-3 and a tall, conservatively dressed guy checked his big blind. The flop came K-3-2 and we both checked. The turn was an 8, and the tall guy led at the pot for 400. I flat called. The river was a blank, and the tall guy checked. I made a small value bet of 500, tall guy called, I tabled my set of threes, and tall guy mucked. There was nothing unusual about the hand until tall guy flagged me down at the break.

“I had king-deuce when you flopped the set of threes,” he said as he approached me. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, so I continued with the conversation.

“Oh yeah? Two pair? Well I guess I should have made a bigger value bet on the river. You did a great job losing the minimum there,” I obliged.

“Well, when you flat called on the turn, I thought I might be in trouble,” he said. Then he looked into my eyes and smirked. “Plus I figured you probably know the way I play.”

This comment dumbfounded me. A short, awkward silence ensued, and then the tall guy walked off. It then occurred to me that the entire purpose of the conversation was for the tall guy to brandish his fame. I certainly had no idea who he was. My first guess was Phil Gordon, but I believe he is one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the World Poker Tour, so it is unlikely that Gordon was playing the $2000 event. Regardless, I easily outlasted the tall guy, and later pulled a nasty squeeze play on him when I was getting short stacked. I still have no idea who he was. More importantly, he still has no idea who I am, and that’s how I like it.

The next few levels are now a blur, but I do remember one hand. I had around 10,000 chips and the blinds were 200-400. I picked up pocket 10’s in middle position and raised to 1200. A crusty old guy in matching “Men the Master” hat and jacket called the raise from the button. His attire signified that he was backed financially by Men Nguyen (a character I’ve discussed in detail in prior blog entries), so obviously he knew what he was doing. But this guy’s game was old-school, which he gave away by continually talking trash about the new players, “young kids who think that 6-4 suited is the nuts.” This gentleman was full of stories from the old days, and all of them bemoaned the changes tournament poker has undergone, how everything is now a crapshoot. I therefore pegged him as super-tight player who didn’t want to get into a big confrontation early in the tournament.

In any event, the flop came K-7-6 rainbow, and I checked. The old guy bet 2,000. I was about to muck my hand when it occurred to me that I could probably reraise all in and get him to fold. If he had AK he might have reraised preflop, so I didn’t put him on that hand. If he had JJ, QQ, KK, or AA, he also probably reraises. What did he have? Probably K-Q, 88, or 99, all of which he’d fold if I moved in. So I reraised all in. Unfortunately, the old guy did not react by folding immediately, instead pausing for a very long time and launching into a running commentary about what I must hold. He concluded that I had either AK or AA, and after rechecking his hole cards about five times, he finally mucked them. I’m pretty certain he folded K-Q. Only a few seconds after the hand ended, his countenance changed drastically, as if he had just soiled his pants. He then declared that he was “really pissed at himself,” and he went for a long walk.

At this point, I was settled in and playing poker in a way that I cannot duplicate online. That is, I was concentrating intensely on the table dynamics, and I was fully aware of the tendencies and objectives of my opponents. In the moment. A byproduct of this level of concentration is that it somehow becomes physically taxing. When the dinner break arrived, there were about 100 players left, and I had a short/medium stack. And it occurred to me that I was both exhausted and famished.

After dinner, I went back to work and my table was promptly broken. With the blinds at 300-600 with a 75 ante, and my stack at around 15,000, I was relocated to a seat at a new table where there were mostly short stacks and one very large stack. The very large stack belonged to an older professional player who everyone kept referring to as “John.” John was trim, with a graying beard. He looked like he was about 55 years old. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he was the center of everyone’s attention, but I did not recognize him. Whoever he was, he was raising a lot of pots, playing a loose-aggressive game and having his way with the table.

Not too long after the table switch, I picked up my first big hand of the tournament: two red aces. The player under the gun raised to 2000, and I chose to flat call in middle position, hoping to trap the raiser and double through him. To my dismay, two other players called the 2000 raise, making it a four-way pot. There was now around 10,000 chips in the pot, and with my stack of 15,000, I knew that I would be getting all my chips in unless the flop was very coordinated. The flop came K-x-x with two spades, and the under the gun player led out for 8,000. I instantly shoved, and the other two players got out of the way. My opponent called quickly, showing me A-K with the ace of spades. The turn was a spade, but the river was not, and I had doubled through to around 40,000. This gave me an above average stack, and I increased that stack to 66,000 by the end of the level by playing aggressively. I was now probably around 10th place on the leaderboard with only 76 players remaining, with the money bubble lurking at the 30th player.

Unfortunately, the next level was a disaster. I lost four consecutive races to short stacks who pushed all in preflop. They ranged from the mundane (88 over A9) to the disappointing (AK over QQ) to the absurd (97 over KQ). Suddenly I was throttled all the way back down to 17,000 chips, well below an average stack. Only an hour after shooting up toward the top of the tournament, I was stuck in push/fold mode.

With 60 players left, I was moved to a new table. The only face I recognized there belonged to Cliff Josephy, a.k.a. Johnny Bax, the guy I saw staking someone in the morning. The same Johnny Bax that has been receiving $20 per month from me in exchange for his tutoring. He was holding court at this table, chatting quite a bit. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was sitting on around 70,000 chips, the most at the table. I knew from watching his videos and from playing with him online that he’d be open-raising a lot of hands under these conditions. I had no intention of telling him that I knew who he was or telling him that I subscribed to his instructional website. Instead, I sat down and unracked my chips and politely said hello to everyone. The blinds were now 600-1200 with a 100 ante, so with almost 3,000 in the pot to begin with, I had very little flexibility.

Almost immediately, a hand arose that illustrated Bax’s mathematical and theoretical mastery of no limit hold ’em tournaments. This hand also illustrated some basic yet elusive concepts that lie at the core of the game.

What I saw:

Bax raised to 3,600 from middle position. Only the big blind, who had around 29,000 chips, called. The flop came K-10-5 with two diamonds. The big blind led out for 4,000. Bax raised to 11,000. The big blind called. The turn card was the Q of diamonds. The big blind now went all in for 17,000. Bax thought for literally four or five minutes. If you’re curious about what Bax is doing when he clicks “time” on Pokerstars and his clock is dripping away, the answer is: he says “wow” a bunch and assumes a “thinker” pose with his hand cupping his chin. Bax then said “I’m going to call you” and separated out the 17,000 chips, pushing them forward. The big blind tabled Ks-Qc, and Bax tabled Ad-4h. The river came 8 of diamonds and Bax eliminated the big blind.

What really happened:

1) Bax raised from middle position with ace-rag. Nothing unusual here coming from an aggressive player with a big stack.

2) The big blind called with K-Q. Again, this is standard, but you could make an argument for reraising, especially if you’re familiar with Johnny Bax’s style.

3) Now the flop comes K-10-5. The big blind leads out for 4,000, Bax raises to 11,000, and the big blind calls. Here is where things went awry for the big blind. I would have checkraised this flop (Bax is likely to bet), taking the play away from Bax and swiftly ending things. Instead, the big blind bets, and Bax puts him on some mediocre holding and attempts to take the pot away with a raise. At this point, I think the correct play for the big blind would be to shove all-in, but he elected to take a conservative approach and flat call. Another mistake.

4) Now things get really interesting. The turn is the queen of diamonds, putting three diamonds on board and giving the big blind two pair. Realizing that Bax could hold a number of draws, but that he’s likely to be ahead, the big blind now decides to shove all in. Bax is surprised by the move and the wheels in his head start to turn. The average player would fold his hand right here. All Bax held was a flush draw and a gutshot straight draw with an overcard, with one card left to be dealt. In the face of the big blind’s sizeable bet, most players would throw away their hand without much thought. The average player says “I’m way behind, and I’m facing a big bet; I fold.” But Bax did what you’re supposed to do: calculate your chances of winning, then determine if the pot is laying you the appropriate odds to call.

The pot contained the preflop money (10,500) plus the amount that went in on the flop (22,000) plus the 17,000 the big blind had pushed in on the turn, for a total of approximately 50,000. Bax had to call 17,000 to win 50,000, so he was getting almost exactly three to one. So did Bax have a 25% chance to win the pot? This is a hard question. We know that the nine remaining diamonds give Bax a winner, and that the three non-diamond jacks give him a likely win. Also the three remaining aces give him a possible win. Assuming all 15 of the outs give Bax a win, his odds were 15/46, or 32%, or good enough odds to call.

But how many of these outs are true outs, giving Bax a winning hand? This certainly is the question he pondered for five minutes. It depends on what hand the big blind held. Retracing the action, Bax must have ruled out a small made flush, which would have destroyed all but seven of his outs. Bax must have also ruled out a straight, which would have destroyed all but nine outs. When Bax eventually said “I’m going to call you,” and the big blind flipped his K-Q over, Bax said “that is exactly the hand I thought you had.” So Bax must have been comfortable calling even though he believed an ace on the river would not have helped him. His actual outs only numbered 12, which gave him a 26% chance of winning. Mathematically, still a good call.

Another reason Bax might have made this very tough, close call lies in the other mathematical component of this analysis: gauging the tournament’s monetary value to you depending on whether you win or lose the hand. In other words, does the upside of your stack if you win (in this instance about 100,000) outweigh the downside of your stack if you lose (here, about 40,000). Most likely Bax thought that having a 100,000 chip stack gave him a great chance of going deep in the tournament, while having a 40,000 stack didn’t really cripple him. Thus, the answer became, even more clearly, “call.”

5) The river was the 8 of diamonds and they shipped Bax the chips. But the result is actually of secondary importance. Half the table was dumbfounded by Bax’s call, by the way.

The reason I’ve gone through this hand in such excruciating detail is to demonstrate that no limit hold ’em tournaments are really just a series of proposition bets. Many situations require you to calculate the price your hand is worth and compare that price with the price of the pot. One of the great fallacies to which many poor players subscribe is that it is only correct to get your money in the pot when you are ahead. It is in fact correct to put one’s money in the pot as an underdog, even sometimes as a decided underdog, if the price is right. Positive expected value does not necessarily equal being a favorite. This is why horseplayers bet on longshot horses. The bettor knows the horse they’ve chosen is not favored to win, but he thinks the price being offered makes the wager attractive. Many situations in poker are similar.

Back to me: I proceeded to go on a tear at the table. I shoved all in for 15,000 with the J4 of hearts and got lucky, beating AJ when I flopped a 4. I then picked up more chips by calling two short stack’s pushes. Once with 99 against AQ, and once with AJ against A5. I was up to around 50,000 chips when they broke the Bax table with 40 players left. I decided to reveal to Bax that I knew who he was, wishing everyone “good luck” and thanking Bax “for learnin’ me poker” as I racked up my chips and moved. I was sent to one of the four remaining tables, two seats to “John’s” right.

“John” had obviously lost several hands since I last saw him; his stack was only marginally larger than mine. We both had around an average stack. I could not find any spots to get involved at my new table, and I drifted down to around 35,000. The bubble was approaching, and players were being eliminated quite slowly as the action slowed down. The blinds increased to 1,000-2,000 as the 36th place finisher was eliminated.

I continued to bleed chips. I looked around the room and saw several stacks shorter than mine. I was aware that I could fold my way into the money, but 30th place paid about $3,800, while first place was over $200,000. There was no way I was going to limp into the money. Still, I couldn’t find a good place to get involved. Then, with 28,000 chips left, I picked up AK offsuit on the button. A somewhat aggressive player raised in early position, and I had a decision to make. Fold, call or shove? A fold would be typical bubble-pussy behavior. No. A call would foolishly commit one-fifth of my chips. So it really wasn’t much of a decision. I pushed all in. The early position raiser thought for a bit and folded pocket 10’s face up.

Only a few hands later, I picked up the AK of hearts, this time under the gun. I chose to raise to 6500, or about the size of the pot. When the action got to “John,” two seats to my left, he began to contemplate, then he announced a raise. He made it 14,500 to go. This represented roughly half of his stack, and also roughly half of mine. What to do?

“John” had no reason to believe my raise was out of line. I was under the gun and had not been playing many hands. From that perspective, his raise almost certainly was a big pair. But “John” was clearly a seasoned pro. Could he be making a bubble play? That is, might he possibly believe that I desperately want to cash in the tournament and thus be reraising with a sub-standard hand, knowing that I might meekly lay down? In my mind, this seemed possible. The raise amounted to half my stack, so even with AK, I’d have to put the rest of my chips in on a ragged flop.

What was “John’s” range of holdings? Assuming his raise was not a bubble play, his range was small, only AA, KK, QQ, JJ, and maybe AK and 1010? A fold seemed like the correct move. But then I realized that “John” might not be afraid of bubbling and could be putting a move on me in an effort to pick up some cheap chips. Impulsively, despite not having any reraise fold equity, I moved all in, hoping that QQ was the worst case scenario. “John” called immediately, and I asked him if he has aces. “No,” he replied as he turned over two kings. I was surprised when John was dismayed to see my AK. “I can’t stand these situations. I never win these races,” he said as he walked about 20 feet over to the rail, where he had several supporters. He turned his back to the table and yelled “let me know if I win!”

“John” won. There were no aces to be found. He just barely had me covered. I was out in 34th place. I dejectedly collected my things and shuffled out the door. I was overcome with a nasty feeling. I hated that I was out of the tournament, but I hated it even more that I’d misplayed my final hand. The whole point to ace-king late in a tournament is having fold equity when you shove with it. The correct play for me was to fold, without regard to the bubble considerations. The size of my opponent’s raise took away my fold equity. Re-shoving accomplished nothing.

It was 9:30 PM. I had played roughly 11 hours of poker with nothing to show for it. I was tired and just plain bummed out. I hated that I went out like a sucker.

I later learned that “John” was Miami John Cernuto, a great player who can play all the games, not just hold ’em. I had seen many pictures of him, but he had recently lost a lot of weight and grown a beard.

I was in a very bad mood as I retired to my hotel room, where I tossed and turned awhile before passing out. Unfortunately, things were about to get worse on this trip.

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

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.

Hand Analyses: Pocket Jacks.

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

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


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

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

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

Analyzing the other player’s possible hands:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live from the beach: Verona, New York

All poker players know the worn out axiom: “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.” I’m telling you it’s true.
Maybe my extended tour (I have spent 15 of the last 17 nights in a hotel bed) is playing games with my head, but right now I’m exasperated.

Actually it’s not poker per se that is driving me nuts right now, it’s tournament poker. After my score in the Foxwoods tournament (I intend to go through my year in chronological segments on here once I return to NYC, I’m jumping forward right now), I decided to focus more on tournaments and less on cash games.

The problem is this: cash games are to strip mining as tournaments are to wandering up and down the beach with one of those metal detectors. Strip miners unearth something every day. Meanwhile, those wackos on the beach find a lot of aluminum cans, and maybe, just maybe,once a year they’ll find a gold earring.

Right now I’m at Turning Stone casino in upstate New York (more on this wondrous facility later), and I have played a combined 25 hours of poker. I have cashed in both of the events I’ve entered,a pretty difficult feat, each taking up a full day. Even by my lofty standards, I have played awesome poker (if I do say so myself). What do I have to show for it? About $800 profit. Barely covers the overhead.

It’s a tough game. I’m constantly at war with myself (never mind my freakin’ opponents) psychologically. Right now I’m rethinking my approach and might allocate more time to cash games. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that this internal struggle goes with the territory. I think what I mean to say is near misses suck. Details to follow in the appropriate chapter.

Stay tuned and I’ll bring everyone up to speed on January through May. Riveting, isn’t it?