Thursday night, after having dinner with my father and brother, who have come out to support me for a few days, at their hotel, the Stratosphere Towers, I took a cab back to the Monte Carlo. It is only 8PM, but I need to get an early start in the morning and am still jet-lagged, so I plan on doing a little work and turning in early. My cab driver is a young Asian man who is pretty quiet until we are nearing the hotel, at which point the following dialogue ensues:
Driver: So what are you up to tonight? Big night on the town?
Me: (thinking he is just making conversation) Actually, I’m pretty much done for the night. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow.
Driver: Maybe get a massage?
Me: Haha, yeah.
Driver: Massage and a happy ending?
Me: Haha, yeah.
Driver: I know a place, $100. Girls pretty, too.
Me: That doesn’t sound right. It costs $5 to get a soda in this town.
Driver: No, no, I know the place. $100. Girls pretty too. No one knows it is there.
He insists on giving me a “business card” with an Asian woman on the front, naked except for some strategically placed silver stars, and writes his name and phone number on the back, telling me to call him if I’m interested.
I turn in around 10:30 and set the alarm for 6:30. I’m told play is starting at 11AM, but I still need to confirm my registration at the casino (show an ID, get a seat assignment, etc.) and apparently there were long lines the previous day. Also, Poker Stars is hosting a brunch for their players that morning, so I figured I could hang out there if I had time to kill.
At 7:20 I am headed to the Starbucks in the Monte Carlo to get a cup of coffee. The casino is blaring “Over My Head” by The Fray, which includes the following refrain: “Everybody knows I’m in over my head, over my head.” Awesome.
At 7:40 AM I am in the lobby of the Monte Carlo waiting for an 8AM shuttle that Stars is running to the Rio, where the event is being held. At 8:07 I am at the Rio, at 8:10 I have confirmed my registration, and at 8:15 I am eating a miniature blueberry muffin.
I shake hands quickly with Humberto Brenes, a boisterous, garishly-dressed Costa Rican pro who I’ve seen on TV, and then leave him alone to enjoy his breakfast.
As a general rule, I don’t care for twenty-something internet poker players. They tend to be shallow, whiney, immature, etc. Of course the room is full of them, so I sit down across from a 69-year old man who is sitting by himself. He’s been playing poker for years, but I get the sense that he isn’t very good, and he admits to being a losing player (something very few poker players will do). We talk for a while, and he tells me what the poker scene used to be like and how much it has changed in the last few years. What really set it off was when ESPN started airing the WSOP on television, complete with cameras that could show audiences what two cards a player was holding. That year (2004), the event was won by a guy named (yes, this really is his name) Chris Moneymaker, who spent $40 on a Poker Stars qualifying tournament and ended up winning over a million dollars.
My new friend is from Houston, so his stories are peppered with a distinctly southern flavor (“this ole’ boah raises me, so Ah raise ‘im rot back”). He goes on to tell me how Moneymaker sent his dealer at the final table a check for $25,000.
He steers the conversation towards politics and things get hairy. He appreciates that Fox News has slightly less of a liberal bias than the other major networks, but still thinks they are too hard on the Bush administration and did not cover enough of the Clinton scandals. In fact, he rattles off detailed lists of people he claims have been murdered for or by the Clintons.
I find out he used to be a teacher, so I am thinking perhaps we can get back on common ground. Wrong. Turns out the school he taught at used to be one of the best in the Houston Unified school district, “but now it’s all blacks and Spics.” And we’re done. I get up to go to the bathroom and don’t come back.
I wander around for a little while and it still is not that crowded. At about 10:45 AM the doors to the conference room where the tournament is being held are still locked, and I find out we are not starting until noon. I read for about 45 minutes, and it still doesn’t seem to be the crowded. I decide to hit the restroom before we get started, and follow signs to what turns out to be a glorified Port-a-Pot outside. I know we’ll need the extra restrooms during the 20 minute break, when 2500 people will need to use them, but for now I ought to be able to get to the ones in the casino.
Wrong again. As I start to walk toward the main hallway, I encounter an avalanche of people. Apparently they’ve just opened the doors to the conference room, and thousands of players, spectators, dealers, cocktail waitresses, and journalists and swarming in. I’ve got no choice but to skip the restroom now and let the tide of bodies carry me to my fate.
I find my seat and the only other people at my table are the dealer (Mike) and a middle-aged women named Leeza from South Carolina. We get to talking, and find out that Mike has dealt at the last three WSOP final tables (they rotate dealers every 30 minutes, so probably almost anyone who dealt at all three tournaments could say this). He goes on to tell us how on the first day of the 2004 Main Event he told Chris Moneymaker that he would win the tournament, and that Chris subsequently sent him a check for $25,000. How’s that for a coincidence?
The table fills up, and we start playing. I’m actually not too nervous. Especially compared to the internet tournaments to which I am accustomed, I’ve got all the time in the world, so I decide to sit back, study the table a little bit, and wait for a good situation to play my first hand at the World Series of Poker.
To the dealer’s immediate left is a player who has not yet shown up. We’ll be taking blinds and antes out of his stack, but he’s got 10,000 chips and the blinds are 25 and 50 right now, so if he shows up in the next hour or two, it shouldn’t really affect him at all. In fact, some arrogant pros are known to party the night before the Main Event and then sleep through the first two hours, confident that they can make up for lost time.
The next seat to the left is Leeza from Charleston, SC. She is a tight, solid player, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. That’s a style that can work against bad opponents, but when you are against good players and have a lot of money in front of you, predictable is a very bad thing to be.
As we are taking our seats, there is a lot of commotion to her left, and someone saying he needs two seats. I immediately think of US Airways’ controversial policy requiring overweight passengers to purchase two seats, but it turns out the gentleman who will be sitting to Leeza’s left is William, a twenty-something missing one arm and almost completely unable to use the other, who plays with his feet and needs the second seat to balance himself. One at a time, he pins his cards to the table with his big toe, slides them up a little wooden ramp, and looks them. He’s adept enough with his toes to take individual chips out of a stack and then push them into the pot. He has an assistant who stacks his chips for him when he wins a pot. Apparently he made it into the money last year, and obviously he is popular with the press, so there are a couple of cameras taping him as he gets set up. Maybe I will be on TV after all!
I don’t remember much about the player to his left.
The next player over is an older gentleman who doesn’t say much and plays a pretty tight, passive game, which is basically the stereotype of older poker players.
The next player to the left is a young kid from Norway playing at his first live tournament. I get the sense that is pretty good, and I am grateful that he is seated to my immediate right and will almost always act before I do, allowing me to make decisions with a lot of information about his hand.
I am in the next seat, and then to my left is a quiet guy wearing dark sunglasses. Nothing distinctive about him, really.
To his left is a middle-aged man with a full beard wearing a Full Tilt Poker jersey. He turns out to be a decent player who, like me, earns a decent side income playing online poker.
In the next seat is a mortgage banker from California who describes his ethnicity as “ancient Babylonian” and “Assyrian.” He’s a regular guest at the Rio and often loses 10-15K at blackjack when he’s in town. He turns out to be a better player than I would have guessed based on that (and he is not at all “gambly” and in fact rather tight), but still nothing special.
To his left is a young guy wearing a Paradise Poker shirt. He’s got an air of confidence about him, and before we even start playing I make a note to myself to keep an eye out for him, because something tells me he is probably pretty good.
There were 10 seats at the table, so I must be leaving someone out, but I can’t remember who.
Before I have even exchanged names with most of these people, they get to see me topless. The Rio has issued a rule that players may not wear any clothing displaying a “.com” logo, and thanks to my contractual obligations, I have the words “Poker Stars.com” emblazoned on my shirt and hat. So I take off the shirt, turn it inside out, and sit back down. Sucks for Poker Stars, they put 1500 players for 9 nights in the Monte Carlo so that we would wear their stuff, and now we have to take it off. Eventually they get the idea to put electrical tape over the “.com”, but I am not interested in stripping for my table again, so my shirt stays inside out the entire day.
James Garner, who played a poker player on TV’s Maverick, is playing in the main event for the first time in his life, so they allow him to kick off the tournament officially with the customary, “Shuffle up and deal.” The floor personnel are a little vague, but it sounds like we will play six two-hour sessions today, with twenty minute breaks after each and a ninety minute dinner break, and then if we have not whittled our 2400 players down to 900, we will play another two-hour session. It is noon now, so IF everything runs perfectly on time, it sounds like we will be leaving at 2:30 AM.
Level 1: Blinds 25-50. William has busy feet and is getting involved in a lot of pots almost immediately. I wanted to feel the table out a little before getting involved, but I get dealt some solid hands and have to play them. This results in my butting heads with William a few times. He backs down pretty quickly each time, but I can feel him getting frustrated, which is all the more reason for me to get involved with him, since it means he will not be playing his best.
As it turns out, I end up winning a big pot against him with absolutely nothing. I’ll spare you the details, but basically he bluffed off about 25% of his chips and I was so sure he was bluffing that I called him down with a VERY weak hand. I could only beat a bluff, and there was even a chance that he could be bluffing with a better hand than mine. When I turned my cards over and took the pot with my very weak hand, he got pretty agitated.
It actually worked out very well for me in terms of my image at the table, because based on the comments people made when I showed what I had called William with, I could determine how well they understood the game. Some people were just floored that I had put so much money in the pot with such a weak hand and couldn’t see past that. A few players seemed to understand why I played it the way I did. But everyone seemed to decide right then that they weren’t going to try to bluff me, and that would make life very easy for me over the next few hours.
A few minutes later, they announce that the first player has just been eliminated, and the room erupts in applause. Talk about adding insult to injury. I hope they at least let the guy leave the room before publicly humiliating him, though I doubt it.
With about 10 minutes left at this level, the tournament director announces they will be doing “staggered breaks”, meaning that 1200 of us will go on break at the designated time, and the other half will keep playing and then go on break when we get back. I’m still expecting long lines at the restroom and I really have to go, so I leave about two minutes before the break starts in order to beat the rush. I’m off to a great start, having already worked my inital 10,000 chips up to 16,000 and convinced everyone at the table not to mess with me.
As I am walking out of the port-a-pot, poker pro and author Dan Harrington walks in, and on my way back to my seat I spot Phil Gordon, Andy Black, and Barry Greenstein.
Level 2, blinds 50-100: I was thankful the cameras weren’t around when I won my big pot against William, because I’d rather not be the guy taking all the chips from the disabled kid who’s playing to win money for the Foundation he started to help others with disabilities. But I am not getting off that easy. The reporters come over to check in with William, and when they ask how he is doing, he says, “Don’t ask.” Then he swivels in his seat, points his naked toe at me, and says, “This is the guy who did it to me.” He’s kidding, kind of, but we both know that he is really getting me back for calling his bluff.
About a half hour into this level, he is down to just 1500 chips, and goes all in. Everyone folds to me and I look down at a pair of Jacks. I call him, and immediately the cameras come rushing over to witness his fate. My hand holds up, and I eliminate him from the tournament. He continues to rib me for the cameras, asking how it feels to crush a crippled kid’s dreams, and all I can do is laugh. He’s mostly just frustrated with himself because he knows he hasn’t played his best, and he is ultimately a good sport about it. He signs a picture for me (he has better handwriting with his toes than I do with my fingers), gives me a hug (which involves him awkwardly flopping his body into me- I don’t do a lot to return the hug because I’m afraid to break him), and wishes me luck.
This time I don’t leave early for break, even though I am starving, and it is a good thing I didn’t. On the last hand, I finally get dealt a pair of Aces, the best possible starting hand. I raise, most of the table folds and leaves to take their break, but one of the nondescript players at the table re-raises me. I re-re-raise, he goes all in, and I call. He’s got a pair of Kings, the second best starting hand, so very rough luck for him. My hand holds up and I eliminate another player, putting myself at about 30,000 chips after four hours of play, which is about what the average stack will be when we break for the day eight hours from now. Sweet.
I buy a fruit salad and a Casear salad (I’m trying to avoid all the heavy, greasy food they are selling in order to keep myself sharp) and get back to my table just in time.
Level 3, blinds 100-200. Usually when I’ve got a lot more chips than the rest of the table, I start getting very aggressive, but right now the blinds are still so small relative to our stacks that I decide I’d rather preserve a less aggressive image so that I can get away with more bluffs later in the day. I open up my game a little bit but mostly just play strong when I have a strong hand.
We’ve got three new players at the table: a Russian girl wearing a Poker Stars shirt, a French guy who I don’t recognize but who is apparently a pretty successful player on the European circuit, and a Frecnh Canadian sporting a WSOP bracelet, which means that he has taken first place in one of the dozens of smaller events that precede the main event each year. I later learn it was a $3000 No Limit Hold ‘Em tournament, which means he probably took home a $500,000+ prize. His name is Andre and he is sitting immediately to my left, which is not good for me, as I will almost always act before he does.
We have our hour and a half dinner break after this level, so there is no need to leave early and beat the crowd. Once again, it’s a good thing I stuck around, because on the last hand before the break, someone raises from early position (meaning he probably has a strong hand, since there are so many people still to act behind him) and I call with a pair of 10’s. Now Leeza from Charleston re-raises, and even though I have one of the best possible hands, I am 99% sure that she has me beat, because she is just that predictable of a player. But this is why I say it is bad to be so predictable: she has just won a big pot from the Russian girl and has so much money in front of her that I call even though I know I am behind, because if I happen to catch a third ten on the flop (which I will about one time in eight and a half), I think I can win her entire stack of nearly 20,000 chips. So I call and the flop is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful 10 9 2, giving me the best possible hand. She has no way of knowing that, though, and I am very confident that she believes she has me beat. She bets, I go all in, and she calls me with a pair of queens. I am a 95% favorite to win this pot, and indeed my hand does hold up, so I eliminate a third player and now have almost 55,000 chips, which is like three or four times the average stack right now.
I’m sorry to see Leeza go, because she was very nice and was the first person I met at the table, but she takes her bad luck with a lot of class and grace, wishing me luck and telling me I have played very well so far.
I end up buying some pizza during the break because I need something more substantive than fruit and lettuce and they have very few vegetarian options. The pizza is surprisingly good and reasonably priced. I make a couple of phone calls to update people on my progress and then head over the Gaming Life Expo, which is a trade show where online poker sites and vendors of poker-related memorabilia have set up booths. I am on the phone with my girlfriend, and the following conversation ensues:
Me: It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve met people from all over the world: France, Canada- HELLO, those girls are in their underwear.
Her: Excuse me?
Me: Uh, from uh, Canada, and, uh… [about thirty seconds of silence]
Her: Kinda lost your train of thought there, huh?
As I should have remembered from my one experience at a car show, trade shows marketing products to a primarily male audience rely heavily on scantily clad women as a cheap but effective advertising ploy, and boy howdy was this expo full of them.
But I’m trying to stay focused on poker right now, so I make my way back out of the expo and wait for the game to start up.
Level 4, blinds 100-200: Once again, my tablemates return from break to find one of their number gone and me sitting on an even larger pile of chips. Leeza is replaced with an older man named Frank Johnston. He looks familiar and the Canadian to my left seems to know him. I get the impression he is a well-respected pro, and maybe he is good at cash games, but after playing with him for six hours, I really think he is a terrible tournament player. He was just playing much, much, much too tight and losing too much of his stack to the ever-rising blinds. We’ve had a very relaxed and friendly table, everyone joking around and having a good time, but Frank wants no part of it. He sits in his corner with a sour look on his face and fold fold fold fold folds. He finally raises, and Andre the French Canadian re-raises him. I think to myself ‘wow, I think I would only re-raise that guy with like two hands’ and sure enough Frank folds and Andre shows him a pair of Aces.
I get a little more aggressive this level, as the blinds are a little higher and my stack is even larger relative to everyone else’s. Andre starts giving me trouble, calling or re-raising me fairly frequently. Now ordinarily in this situation I look for an opportunity to come over the top of someone who I think is trying to take advantage of me. I like to raise a lot of hands, and that strategy won’t work if someone to my left is playing back at me every time I get involved in a pot.
But Andre is better than my average opponent, and sitting on top of his chips is a note he has written to himself: “Prend ton temps”, French for “take your time.” On several occasions I seriously consider making a move on him (I have four times as many chips as he does, so I have the ability to put him to a really tough decision without putting myself in serious jeopardy), sometimes thinking for over a minute, but I always convince myself to fold, and every time he shows me a strong hand. It’s a very good sign that he is showing hands to me: it means he respects me and wants to avoid a big confrontation with me by letting me know that he isn’t just trying to put a move on me.
The middle-aged bearded internet semi-pro and the older guy who’s been at the table since the start get eliminated and are replaced by a young Brazilian kid wearing a Party Poker shirt and a pretty tight Greek player.
Nothing much happens at this level to me, and I finish with about the same number of chips I started with.
Level 5, blinds 100-200 with a 25 ante- Now, in addition to the forced blind bets that each person pays once every ten hands, everyone has to put 25 chips in the pot before every hand. That means that before any cards are dealt, there are 500 chips in the pot. Now is really the time to start getting aggressive with my big stack to steal these inflated pots.
I get away with a couple of steals before the table starts getting fed up with me. The Brazilian and the Norwegian (Marius is his name) are the two playing back at me the most, but they both pay for it in the end. The Norwegian starts with better than 30,000 chips, a very healthy stack for this level, but loses about 6,000 trying to bluff me when I have two pair (one of the benefits of being aggressive is that you get a lot of action when you do have a good hand).
I back down to the Brazilian a couple of times, but then he loses a big pot to Andre and I can tell he is getting frustrated. I’ve been raising a lot with marginal hands, but finally pick up a pair of queens, the third best starting hand, and make my usual raise to 600. Andre calls me for the bazillionth time, and then the Brazilian goes all in for about 6000. I call, Andre folds, and the kid shows and 8 an a 3, one of the worst possible hands. I knock him out, and when he leaves, the whole table starts commenting on how incredibly bad that play was by him.
This really surprised me, because although he didn’t choose the best time for it, his play was not as bad as it might seem. If you look at it from his perspective, he saw me raise (which I’ve done plenty of times with less than stellar holdings) and Andre call (which he’s also been doing a lot.) There are now 2000 chips in the pot, and by going all in, he is risking 6000 for the chance to increase his stack by 33%. Morevoer, it will be very difficult for me to call without a very strong hand, even if I suspect he is up to something, because I still have to worry about Andre behind me. And since Andre only called me rather than re-raising, that suggets he has a good but not great hand that he might not want to call with. So in this case, it might be possible for the Brazilian to get away with going all in with absolutely anything, since there is a very good chance that both Andre and I will fold. Unfortunately for him, I had one of the best hands I’ve had all night, and I win another big pot.
I quiet down for the last half hour of this level and go on break with 80,000 chips. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that of the 1100 people remaining, I am in the top 5 in terms of the size of my stack.
Level 6, blinds 200-400 with a 50 ante- We resume play at 1 AM, and I have now been away for 19 hours straight, and at the Rio for 16 hours. I am really starting to feel the fatigue, but I know that everyone wants to make the second day and probably feels as tired as I do, so this is a good opportunity for me to steal some pots and take advantage of tight players.
The Brazilian is replaced by a middle-aged guy in a BetHoldEm Poker shirt. His very first hand at the table I end up putting him all in, holding a weak hand but pretty confident he will not want to risk busting out. Sure enough, he folds and I win a substantial pot. Welcome to the table, buddy.
A few hands later I double him up though, making a pretty loose call when he re-raises me all in. I’m still not sure whether my call was good and I was just unlucky his hand was as strong as it was or whether I should have just folded, but it only cost me 6000 of my 80,000 chips and it is important for me to show people that just because I am raising a lot doesn’t mean I will fold any time I am re-raised.
I lose some more chips on a bluff, and again it is hard for me to say whether this was a good play and I was unlucky to run into a strong hand or whether it was bad play.
Soon, however, I make a definitely bad mistake that I can attribute to being inexperienced at live play and dog tired. Basically, I was involved in a sizeable pot and didnt end up with a very big hand. I thought the Greek had bet 1000, and there was like 12,000 in the pot, so I said “call” even though my hand wasn’t that good. Turns out he had bet 5000, which I never would have called. Ugh. I was angry at myself for this, but I resolved not to let it get to me. I decided I was too mentally drained to keep playing so many marginal hands, so I decided that even though the table conditions were right for aggressive play, I just didn’t have the mental stamina to handle a lot of tough decisions. So I backed down, mostly just raised my good hands, and finished out the last two grueling hours.
I wasn’t the only one getting exhausted, though. The French pro had been ribbing the Greek for a while, telling him Greeks were the laziest people he knew, which is ironice because the French player had been getting the world’s longest massage (there are legimitate, fully clothed massage therapists working the floor, none of that “happy ending” stuff) and was joking about how relaxing it was, and afterwards he literally fell asleep at the table!
It was an exhausting but also exhilerating and fascinating experience. Although I was frustrated with myself for making such a big mistake at the end of the day, I feel like on the whole I played very very well, was lucky enough to find myself in some very profitable spots, and finished the day in great shape with 57,000 chips (30,000 is the average). Of the 2400 players who began play on Friday, fewer than 800 remain. Of the ten players who started at my table, only myself, the Norwegian, the Babylonian mortgage broker, and the Paradise Poker kid survived. Over the next three days, about 7500 more people will play, and 2000-3000 will surivive.
I play again on Tuesday, when half of the remaining players will play until 800 of us are left. The other half will play on Wednesday, also whittling their numbers down to 800, and if I survive Tuesday, all 1600 of us will play again on Thursday.
I’ll be working during the day today and going to see Carlos Santana tonight at the MGM Grand. Thanks to everyone for all of your support, and I’ll continue to keep you updated.