I headed back over to Mandalay, lounged by the pool for as long as I could tolerate the 110 degree heat, showered, and decided to keep my skills sharp in a cash game. Once again, there were pigeons present, and they were also enrolled in the main event. After two hours, I cashed out for $64 profit. By this time, it was getting late, and I decided my final activity of the day, after dinner, would be a couple of hours of craps. I piddled around at a $10 table, lost a few bucks and headed upstairs to bed. To reaffirm the single-minded purpose of my trip, I silently noted that it was 10:30 pm on a Thursday in Vegas, and I was about to turn in for the night. A change of pace, to say the least.
When I got up to my room, for the first time in my adult life, I physically set up my outfit for the next day, placing it neatly on an armchair. Camouflage shorts, grey White Castle t-shirt, pumas, my new black Pokerstars cap which I was contractually required to wear, my gold “DZ” pinky ring (a present from my girlfriend for my 30th birthday), $5 sunglasses, tea tree toothpicks, and my current favorite piece of clothing, a black zip-up sweatshirt with “Sug D” hand-stitched across the front, in green. Gamblers are, of course, renowned for having superstitions, and this sweatshirt, along with the aforementioned pinky ring, is the current star of my wardrobe. I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the sweatshirt’s dual, practical purpose: because the sweatshirt zips up past my neckline, it masks the one poker tell that I’m quite sure I have. When a big confrontation develops and I put all my chips on the line with a bluff, my pulse becomes visible on the side of my neck. It’s completely involuntary, so the sweatshirt’s not just a good luck charm, it’s a security blanket.
Friday, July 8, 8:20 AM: I woke up over an hour before my scheduled wake up call, and laid in bed meditating, or doing my version of meditating, laying there with my eyes closed while various random 2 card starting hands popped into my head. Weird. Eventually, I showered. On the way I spontaneously made a “you the man” gesture at my image in the mirror. I got into my pre-arranged outfit and went downstairs to the caf?ɬ�, had a little something to eat, made sure my toothpicks (a strange but safe addiction) were in my pocket, and off I went.
I arrived at the Rio a half hour before showtime. I didn’t want to take my seat too quickly, as that would look very novice. I tried to keep busy, walking around, and thankfully I ran into a couple of guys from the Ace Point Club, where I play most of my live poker in NYC. I was relieved to find out that they were as nervous as me. Mercifully, 10:50 arrived (10 mins till start) and I went to take my seat at table 95. I was the 8th out of 10 players to find my seat. My opponents were as follows:
Seat 1: Young euro-punk looking guy, hands adorned with at least 8 rings, shirt with mesh sleeves and lots of safety pins. Completely out of place in this room.
Seat 2: an obese, bald, stoic man in a polo shirt.
Seat 3: a nervous looking guy with a goatee and a Full Tilt hat.
Seat 4: a 40-something Asian dude in a polo shirt and a Shadow Creek hat.
Seat 5: don’t remember much about this guy.
Seat 6: me.
Seat 7: vacant.
Seat 8: an old haggard looking guy who I was sure I’d seen before, either on TV playing poker or a long time ago at the Bellagio in a 15-30 limit game.
Seat 9: young black guy.
Seat 10: vacant.
Moments after I sat down, an asian man in a flashy shirt ran over to our table and excitedly told Shadow Creek that “Borry Bowin” had drawn seat 7, immediately to my left. Shadow Creek frowned. Flashy Shirt giggled. I could not keep myself from nervously blurting out “who?” The second time, I was able to decipher the answer. Bobby Baldwin. Oh fuck.
Bobby Baldwin is the original poker whiz kid. Back in the early 1970’s, way before Rounders, way before Chris Moneymaker, holecard cams, and televised poker, back in the day when poker in Las Vegas consisted of a grand total of 3 poker rooms with 10 tables each, and way before following in his footsteps became the chic thing to do, Bobby Baldwin was the man. Baldwin, then a snotnosed kid in his early 20’s, left his home in Texas, came to Las Vegas, bought into a high-stakes poker game manned by old-time road gamblers twice his age and ripped the game a new asshole. He was never to go back home, quickly establishing himself as one of the three or four most feared poker players in the world, and probably its leading theorist. He established himself as such an authority on the game, and broke so many old-time players, that was invited to (and did) author the limit hold ’em section in Doyle Brunson’s revolutionary “Super/System” in 1977 (he would later author the Omaha high-low section in 2004’s “Super/System II”). The very next year, 1978, Baldwin won the World Series of Poker’s Main Event. He was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame (yes, this exists) in 2003.
In 1982, Baldwin, already sitting on millions of dollars, made a career switch, from poker player to casino management. He quickly moved through the ranks and is today the CEO of Mirage/MGM Enterprises, probably the most powerful casino executive in the world. Baldwin still plays poker about once a week, in a $4,000-$8,000 game (he also casually mentioned that he had lost $90,000 the day before on the golf course). In other words, the $10,000 entry fee for this tournament is about one fifth the size of the typical pot in Bobby’s regular game. Baldwin arrived about one minute before the cards were dealt, cute 20-something year old daughter in tow, wearing black dress slacks and a black leather jacked with the Bellagio logo. He was greeted by the haggard old guy, and Shadow Creek, who both acted as if they knew him, but it was clear that Bobby could not place them. I silently slid over as he took his seat next to me. Sitting next to Bobby did have its privileges, as tens of pictures were taken of him, earning me another 4 seconds of fame as “the guy next to Bobby Baldwin” in those shots. Also, every poker luminary in attendance came over to kiss Bobby’s ass. I was surprised to see TJ Cloutier, the owner of 10 WSOP bracelets, acting downright sycophantic, repeatedly offering to split his egg salad sandwich with the ex-champ.
With another cry of “shuffle up and deal,” the cards were in the air. Our stacks were $10,000, with the blinds at a mere 25-50. Tournament poker under these preliminary conditions is nothing like what you see on TV. My strategy was simple. Play very tight in early position, and looser, even playing a trash hand now and then, based on pot odds, in late position. Stealraises are pretty pointless at this stage, unlike the late-tournament hands that are usually shown on TV, at this point it’s a postflop game. I vowed not to put all my chips at risk with anything less than the nuts. No big confrontations, unless you have the goods.
I noticed that most of the table was wearing sunglasses. I have always treated players wearing sunglasses with disdain in the smaller stakes tournaments I’m accustomed to, but I thought wearing them might calm my nerves a bit, so I slid mine on. Surprisingly, they gave me a tiny bit of confidence, so I went with it.
On the second hand, with 4 limpers in front of him, Euro guy made a minimum raise from the small blind. This move, which makes absolutely no sense, gave away some valuable information about him: he was a fish. I began to get a feel for some of the players at the table. Shadow Creek was aggressive, looking to get involved more often than anyone else. Full Tilt was scared shitless. I wondered to myself if I looked that scared. Old and haggard was tight. Baldy had a very calm confident demeanor and appeared to be a very good player. And Baldwin hadn’t played a hand. After about 20 minutes of play, I had bled away a few hundred chips, and the vacant seat 10 was filled by a middle aged man with a southern accent. I was able to get a very quick read on him, when, under the gun, he posted $50. “You’re not the big blind,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “I’m blind-calling.” Oh. So you’re a total donkey. Sweet.
The first time I voluntarily put my money in the pot, I had K4 and was just taking a look in late position. Baldwin, on the button, raised, and I got the hell out of his way. Bobby’s daughter came over and gave him a kiss on the lips. Umm, make that Bobby’s girlfriend? Shortly thereafter, the most attractive woman in the room, a Polynesian bombshell, came over to Bobby and gave him a hug. This prompted Shadow Creek to say “I’ve never seen Mr. Baldwin with a bad-looking lady.” Baldwin winked and said “I don’t think a man with money should ever be in the company of an ugly woman.” I suppose not. Not in Vegas, anyway.
The next hand I was involved in: I had 77 on the button and made a small raise. Only Old & Haggard in the big blind called and the flop came A A 4 rainbow. The big blind checked, and I also checked, fearful of being trapped. The turn was a deuce, and the big blind checked again. This time I put some chips into the pot and took down the hand. The ice was broken and I had a tad over 10k in chips. Now I could tell my grandkids that I won a pot in the WSOP. Stacking chips is fun.
Very soon thereafter, the donkey made his exit. Most of the table knew he would be giving his chips away. It was just a question of when and to whom. Euro called under the gun. The player in the 3 seat raised to $400. It was folded around to the donk who made it $1200. Euro flat called again. Seat 3 reraised to $4200. The donk said “screwit, I’m all in!” and to my surprise Euro quickly called. Euro could only have KK or AA. The donk could have a wide variety of hands. Seat 3, to everyone’s surprise, went into the tank for a long time and finally called. Baldwin muttered to me, “seat 1 has aces, seat 3 has queens, and god knows what seat 10 has.” Close. Seat 1 did in fact have AA. Seat 3 had KK, and The Donk showed 77. Amusingly, Mr. Donkey was perfectly happy with his 2 outs, jumping to his feet and screaming “awwright! C’mon seven! Lucky seven!” No seven was forthcoming, the aces held, the donkey and KK exited stage left, and Euro, the second-worst player at the table was suddenly sitting on over 30k in chips. He was very pleased with himself. Everyone else was salivating.
The next hand which involved me had me calling in late position, with 3 limpers in front of me, with 10-8 off. This is a weak hand, but worth a look in late position and favorable pot odds. The flop came J 10 2 of different suits. It was checked to Full Tilt, who bet half the pot. I called and everyone else folded. On the turn, a 4 came, and Full Tilt hesitated, then bet half the pot once again, approximately 300. Because of his mere call preflop and his hesitance after the flop, I believed Full Tilt was weak, likely holding QJ or KJ. I knew he had to have at least a jack, as he led out into 5 other players, but my gut told me it was a weak jack. I asked myself if this was the type of player who would lay down top pair, and I decided the answer was yes. I raised his 300 bet to 900. Full Tilt thought for a very long time and finally called. Crap. On the river, another deuce fell, giving me 10’s and 2’s to his likely J’s and 2’s. This time Full Tilt checked. I was faced with my first tough decision of the tournament. Do I concede this hand by checking (I could not imagine a hand he’d hold that could be worse than mine), or do I put a good portion of my stack at risk by bluffing? I decided on the latter course of action, reaching for two yellow $1000 chips and firing, representing J10, a very possible holding based on how I’d played the hand. Full Tilt went into the tank, playing with his chips as I silently alternated between cursing myself for being so careless and praying that he’d fold. If he called, I’d be down to about 6500 chips before the first break. What the hell happened to “don’t put your chips at risk unless you have the nuts?” I was filled with dread. As Full Tilt continued to play with his chips, I felt my heart race and my neck twitch underneath my trusty sweatshirt. Finally, after probably about 45 seconds, Full Tilt removed the card protector from his cards and slid them forward, face down. I did all I could to suppress a massive sigh of relief as the dealer shipped me the pot. Ahem. Err woot. WHEW! 11.8k in chips.
On my next interesting hand, I picked up AA in the big blind, which is the best place to have rockets, in my opinion. Euro made a large raise, to $400, and Shadow Creek considered a reraise before deciding to just call. When the action got to me, I very deliberately announced a raise to $2200 and threw $4000 into the pot, mistaking the $500 for $50 chips. Ooops! As a chorus of objections began to be voiced, Bobby Baldwin said “the man’s verbal raise was $2200, and that’s the bet.” This immediately shut the dealer up, who was in the middle of trying to make some sort of ruling. Thanks, Bobby. I must have looked too confident, as both my opponents mucked without much thought. 12.5k in chips.
On my next hand, I was less fortunate. I had KJ of spades in middle position with one limper in front of me, and I called as well. Three of us saw a K J 10 flop with 2 hearts, and the big blind led out with 150, which was called by the early position limper. I quickly made it 650 to go, hoping to take down the pot right away, but to my surprise, both players called. My hand was likely best at the moment but very vulnerable. The turn was the ace of clubs, turning my two pair into garbage. All three of us checked. The river was the ace of hearts, turning my 2 pair into complete dogshit. Old & haggard in the big blind led out and took down the pot as I folded. 11.5k in chips.