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

Day 3 Complete, Sug still clawing.

Hey again.

Day 3:

After almost bubbling, I doubled up just before the field made the money and was up and down from there. I overcame a very bad table and seat assignment to make it through the day with 95,500 chips, which is a shortish stack. Perhaps I can do some damage on day 4. Approximately 480 of the original 8,773 players remain. Busting right now would net me over $26,000.

Play resumes at noon PST Saturday.

alive and scratchin’ after Day 2.

Hey all

I made it through day two with 62,100 chips. This is a fairly short but still workable stack.

At the outset, nothing went right today. I was card dead for a shocking period of time, plus my postflop play was horrible. I was down to around 14k on two occasions after dinner, but I scratched and clawed my way back into contention like a cornered alley cat. Reeeeeeeeowwwwwww!!

The entire field will be in the same room for Day 3 on Friday.

Checking in before Day 2

I’ve been relaxing since my Day 1 ended on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The plan for tonight is to do whatever keeps me in the most relaxed state of mind, which probably will be shooting craps for an hour or two and then hiding in my room.

Earlier today I re-read much of my 2005 WSOP novella (see the “WSOP” link at the top of the homepage), and it occurred to me that my 2005 and 2006 Day 1’s were very different.

One obvious difference is that I never had more than 14k on day one in 2005.

The other, more important (but not unrelated) difference is that i’m a better player now. Last year I was pretty overwhelmed with the whole idea of being here. I’m way more seasoned and way more confident now. As a result, I’m able to identify the “just happy to be here” types and prey on them. There is no poker tournament in the world in which the threat of elimination looms larger. After the dinner break, I continually was using that threat as a weapon. On Saturday, I was the “scary guy” at my table; the guy that no one really wants to confront. In contrast, last year, I was one of the guys cowering in fear from the scary guys. And that’s a big part of why I have 42,000 chips instead of 9,700.

Let’s see what comes next. I start play at noon PST tomorrow.

Day 1 Complete, Sug Thriving

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

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

Soaring, Then Crashing–WSOP Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 to12-$11,812
13 to15-$9,664
18 to16-$7,517

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Sug Hits Vegas

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

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

And now for an anecdote from the $500 tourney:

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

Getting kicked around/WSOP qualification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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