I should be on my way to the Rio right now, preparing to nurse a sickly stack into a monster as I did on Tuesday. Instead, I am sitting in front of my computer trying to decide how to explain to all of you how it all came crashing down.
Yesterday morning, I felt on top of the world. I had undecupled my chips on Day 2 of the World Series of Poker and put myself in great shape to go deep at the biggest poker tournament of the year. Within a few hours, I’d have $20,000 locked up and a shot at much more. My starting table was going to be tough, with at least two strong players I knew fairly well from an internet poker forum. Nonetheless, I had 80,000 chips more than the next largest stack at my table, and my seat position was good as well, with the strongest players and biggest stacks on my right and the shorter, unknown players on my left.
Like any self-respecting white man in America, I am constantly seeking out ways to appropriate black culture for my own financial gain. Listening to some Jay-Z in the car, I hoped, would get me pumped up and help me perform my best. This morning, I intended to bring a knife to a fist fight and hold triggers to crews… metaphorically… at the card table.
I started the day in the 6 seat, which is right in the middle of the table and afforded me a nice view of all the action. Justin Rollo, a moderator of the 2+2 poker tournament forum and a really fantastic tournament player, was in the 2 seat. Matt Sterling, another 2+2 member and one of the top-ranked online tournament players, was in the 4 seat. A mid-stakes cash game player named Andy had the most chips after me and was seated to my immediate right in the 5 seat.
We were rapidly approaching the money bubble, the point at which the lowest cash prizes are awarded. This year’s payout structure is less top-heavy than it was last year, meaning that there is more money for the lower places. The top 621 finishers were all guaranteed about $20,000, which isn’t a lot relative to the $10,000 entry fee, but since many players won satellites into the tournament and didn’t actually invest $10,000 in it, I knew that quite a few would be very worried about busting out in, for instance, 625th place and winning nothing.
With my big stack, I’d hoped to get a table full of scared players whose blinds I could steal with abandon. There were a few at the table, but unfortunately I had to compete with Justin, Matt, and Andy, who all also recognized and wanted to take advantage of this dynamic. My plan for the day was to come out of the gate with guns blazing. I was going to be the one stealing blinds, and if the other good players at the table wanted a piece of the action, they’d have to get through me.
I knew that Justin in particular was pretty aggressive, and I planned to reraise him at the first opportunity. As it turned out, his first raise was against my big blind, and I had Ace-Queen, so it was how I would have played the hand anyway. He folded, though later told me he was contemplating a re-re-raise with Jack-Ten, and if he had, I would seriously have considered moving all in. That’s just how it goes when two aggressive players with a history lock horns.
Reraising Matt didn’t go over so well. At the 1200/2400/400 level, he opened to 6000 from late position, and I made it 20,000 to go with A9 in the small blind. He called and called a bet of 30,000 on Ks Ts 5d flop. I checked and folded the turn, my stack suddenly 50,000 chips lighter.
Stacks were still pretty deep though, so I took a few flops in position with speculative hands like small pairs and suited connectors, but I never connected with anything and had to keep folding to flop bets.
Andy, on my right, had also been playing a very loose and aggressive style. He was calling a lot of raises from Justin and Matt, and I’d been looking for a chance to punish him. Finally, at the 1500/3000/500 level, Justin opened for 9000, Andy called, and I reraised to 35,000 with Q4 on the button. They both folded. “Nobody can read you dudes like we do.”
On my next big blind, Andy raised to 8000 from the small blind, and I called with Js Ts. He was very aggressive post-flop, so I knew I could win a big pot if I caught well against him. The flop was Kd 6s 5s, and sure enough he fired a big bet of 18,000. I called with my flush draw, counting on either winning another big bet if I hit or maybe taking the pot away on the turn if he showed weakness. Unfortunately, it was a blank, and he fired 64,000 at me. I really felt like he was just pushing me around on a board where it would be tough for me to have a big hand, but at this point I wasn’t even sure I had enough chips left to make him fold if he had anything. There was also the danger that he was semi-bluffing with a better flush draw than mine, in which case I’d be in terrible shape. I threw away my hand angrily, leaving myself with only about 200,000 chips.
Desperate to pick up a pot, I raised to 9000 with 66 first to act. Not surprisingly, Andy called on his big blind, and we saw a flop of QT5. He checked and called a bet of 15,000. The turn was a J, and he checked again. I couldn’t expect my 6’s to be good here, but this is a board where I, as an early position raiser, could easily have a monster hand like QQ, JJ, or TT for three of a kind or even AK for a straight. Since Andy didn’t reraise pre-flop, it was rather unlikely that he had a hand this strong. So I fired 35,000 at him, and he thought for a long time before finally folding. “Your reach ain’t long enough, dunny.”
Blinds jumped again to 2000/4000/500, and I was planning on slowing down with the reraises, which I probably should have done, but I found myself in kind of a weird spot. Matt raised the blind of a pretty weak player to 10,000, and Andy called. I had Ace-Nine on the button, and I felt like I could have the best hand here and regardless it was a decent spot to squeeze. I made it 40,000, Matt called instantly (that was very worrisome), and Andy folded.
I got an AJ7 flop, which gave me top pair, but my nine kicker meant that most likely any action I got on this board would be bad action, so when Matt checked, I was happy to check as well. The turn was a T, he bet 40,000, and I called. I would have been very unsure of what to do if he bet the river, but thankfully he checked. I checked as well, and he looked disappointed. I was hoping that was because I had caught him bluffing on the turn, but it turned out he was hoping to induce a bet from me on the river, because he showed me TT for a turned set. Ouch, down to 140,000. I’m lucky he played this the way he did or I could have lost even more.
At this point we were about 10 players away from the bubble and playing hand for hand, which meant that the dealer had to pause after every hand we played and wait for all 70 other tables to finish playing the hand as well before we could deal the next one. This was to ensure that the right players got paid, but it made the game move at an excruciating pace. I think we played maybe 15 hands in two hours before the bubble finally burst.
I had come into the day thinking that I was virtually a lock to make the money, but now I found myself with a below average stack and a bit of a conundrum. I wanted the $20,000, but I also wanted to take advantage of the many profitable situations that the bubble created for players willing to take risks. Andy had accumulated a ton of chips with his aggressive play and was now raising every single hand, so I wasn’t going to be able to steal cheaply from the scared players. My best bet to pick up chips was going to be to turn Andy’s aggression against him, but that would mean putting my neck on the line and risking elimination myself.
Hand for hand was so boring that Andy would sometimes get up and leave the table for a few minutes, since that was how long we generally waited between hands. He once failed to make it back to the table in time to steal, which meant I finally had the opportunity. I raised to 12,000 with Qc 3s, and a loudmouth kid from Florida named Randall called from the small blind. D’oh.
The flop was Jc 5c 2c, giving me a decent flush draw but not much else. Randall bet out 16,000. I felt like he was just trying to steal cheaply from me and didn’t have a hand that could call all in. But if I was wrong, it was likely to cost me $20,000. “All in.”
“Nice flush draw,” he commented as he threw his hand away. Phew. ”Don’t let me do it to you dunny cuz I overdo it.”
A minute later, Andy returned to the table. I told him he missed a hand and that I got to steal the blinds for once. He seemed genuinely upset about this. The very next hand, it was back to business as usual, with a 12,000 raise from Andy. Except this time, I had a pair of Jacks. The safe way to play them would be to move all in for about 140,000 now. Andy would almost certainly fold, and I could win about 20,000 chips with very little risk of getting knocked out on the bubble.
But Jacks were the best hand I had seen all day, and I really needed to win more than 20,000 chips with them. The smart thing to do was to give Andy some rope and let him hang himself, so I just called the raise. I was going to call a bet on any flop, even if three overcards to my pair came. Thankfully, I got a very safe 854 flop. He bet 24,000, and I moved all in. “I have a pair,” he told me. I stared silently straight ahead. “I think you were trapping me with a big pair. Were you trapping me” I’m behind. I’m sure I’m behind. But I want the table to know they can’t bluff me. I’m going to call if I’ve got a pair,” he told the table at large. “I call.”
“All in and call, table 26!” the dealer shouted for the benefit of the camera crews. Reporters from ESPN and various internet sites, plus random players from other tables, swarmed around us. We turned our hands face up, but had to wait for ESPN to set up the shot before seeing the turn and river. Andy showed K5 for middle pair, making me a solid 79% favorite to win a 300,000 chip pot. This also meant, however, that there was a 21% chance I would be eliminated right here, agonizingly close to a $20,000 payday, and go home empty handed.
The ESPN producer finally gave the signal, and the dealer showed us the turn, a harmless 9c. My odds of winning just improved by 9.5%. I breathed a sigh of relief when the river was neither a K nor a 5, giving me the best hand and a much needed double up. “No, you’re not on my level, get your breaks tweaked.”
“Do you think we’ll be on TV?” Andy asked me a little despondently.
I shook my head. “Only if you had caught a 5.”
Undeterred, Andy was right back at it next hand, raising to 12,000. This time I called with Js Ts. The flop was Qh 9h 6d, giving me an open-ended straight draw. Andy bet his usual 24,000, and I called. The turn was the Ac, he checked, and I bluffed him out with a bet of 55,000.
The hand after that, he called a raise from Matt, called a flop bet, bet 90,000 on the turn when Matt checked, and folded to check-raise all in. Just like that, he went from table chipleader with 500,000 chips to having barely 150,000. “Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage. Fell from top ten to not mentioned at all.”
Finally, the bubble burst, and the room erupted with cheers. I visited the restroom during the ensuing break, and a man at the urinal next to me remarked, “Nothing like a $20,000 piss.”
With their money locked up, the previously scared short stacks were suddenly very willing to double up or go home. We busted out a couple people from our table very quickly and got some new faces, including a somewhat well-known pro named Chip Jett. Chip had an artificial tan, frosted hair slicked back with a heavy gel, and a complete inability to sit still. He was constantly rocking from side to side in his chair, stacking and shuffling chips, and glancing nervously around the table. Despite all this, he actually turned out to be a pretty friendly guy.
To my left was a white guy in his early fifty’s who lived in Seoul, South Korea. He had won some Korean championship with like 600 players, but I have no idea how, because, though a hell of a nice guy, he was the most predictable player ever. He only played really big hands, and he always came in for huge raises that generally resulted in him winning nothing more than the blinds and antes. If he ever flopped top pair or better, or ever had Ace-King pre-flop, he would instantly move all in without regard for the size of the pot relative to his bet.
Naturally, this guy was a prime target for blind theft, but infuriatingly, he kept getting dealt the 1% of hands he would actually play whenever I raised him. On three occasions, he reraised my steal, ultimately showing me KK or AK. The fourth time, he just called me and then moved all in on a Q-high flop, showing me AQ. Damn it, man, how do you always have big cards?!?! He was very apologetic and kept showing me his monster holdings, assuring me he wasn’t trying to pick on me. Well you should have been, sir, because it was certainly my intent to rob you blind.
I gave him such a hard time about catching well against me that I’m pretty sure he let me steal from him once just out of pity. It was the fifth time I’d raised him, and before I did, I warned him, “If you have AK again, I might have to call you just out of spite.” He looked at his cards, smiled, and folded an Ace face up. Piece of advice, sir: if a guy raises you five times in a row, your Ace is probably good.
The entire 2500/5000/500 level was bad for me. Having to back down to the Korean constantly was costly, and Justin re-raised me twice as well, once showing Ace-King. I was pretty sure he was bluffing the other time, but I had 5-4 and didn’t feel like putting him to the test for all my chips, so I just folded. I never had any big hands and lost some money at showdown with JT versus AJ on a J high flop in a blind battle.
By the time we got to the last hour of the day, where stakes were 3000/6000/1000, and I was back down to about 220,000 and in a bad mood. I felt like I had played pretty well for most of the day, taken some big risks when appropriate, and still I had lost more than 100,000 chips. Everyone else was catching cards and hitting flops and I just kept getting dealt garbage or getting bad flops for whatever promising hand I held. Finally, I got Ad Qd in first position. It was the best hand I’d seen in ages, and I decided that since I was in first position and had been pretty tight for a while, I was going to represent an overpair post-flop if I got called. I raised to 16,000, and only the big blind, a young guy in Full Tilt Poker gear who had been pretty quiet, called. The flop was Ts 4s 2h. He checked, I bet 25,000, he raised me 25,000 more, and I moved all in for his last 175,000 chips. He called so quickly and so eagerly that I knew not only was I beat but that I couldn’t win even if I caught an Ace or a Queen.
“All in and call, table 26!” the dealer shouted, but now the bubble was over, and ESPN was no longer rushing to cover every all in confrontation, so thankfully this embarrassment was not preserved for posterity by video camera.. My opponent turned over 44 for three of a kind. He was a 99.6% favorite to win. My only hope was to catch either a 3 or a 5 on the turn, followed by the other card on the river to make a running straight. A 6 on the turn cut my odds down from .4% to 0%, and just like that, I had 27,000 chips, barely enough to pay the big blind of 6,000, which hit me on the next hand.
Action folded to Matt in late position, who raised to 16,000. The small blind called, and I threw in the last of my chips without looking at my cards. There was already 46,000 in the pot, so I was getting better than 2:1 on my money ,and it was very likely that Matt would re-re-raise to knock out the small blind get the pot heads up with me. If I could win at showdown versus him, I would triple up and have a workable stack again. “All in and call!” the dealer went through the motions of muttering, but it was such a small pot that he knew no one would care.
Matt showed Ace-Jack, and I turned over my hand to find King-deuce. Not bad for a blind hand. I had about a 35% chance of winning. My Korean friend patted me on the back. “King is coming. Just watch,” he told me. Sure enough, the flop was K85, and suddenly I was way ahead. The turn was a T, but an Ace on the river crushed my comeback.
“Nice hand,” I told both Matt and the guy on my right. I shook hands with my friends at the table, wished them luck, and stood up. “Get zipped up in plastic when it happens that’s it.”
Except that wasn’t it. I would have preferred go like Tony Soprano, a sudden black-out and then roll credits. Instead, I had to stand beside my empty seat like a rotting corpse while the dealer tossed the next round of cards to those still playing until a floorperson arrived to escort me to the payouts area.
It was after midnight, I was tired, disappointed, frustrated and angry at myself for making a stupid move. So what did I most want to do after busting out of the main event? If you guessed, “Spend an hour filling out paperwork and waiting in queues,” well, you were wrong, but you may be qualified to work at the Rio.
I’ve played enough tournaments to know the importance of patience, especially when it comes to my last few chips. The old adage is that ’a chip and a chair’ are all that is needed to win a tournament, and I had so recently made a big come back after getting short stacked that I really should have known better than to make a crazy, desperate bluff.
Now I had to sit, back against a wall, shoulder to shoulder with all the other losers, to wait for some crocodile-skinned bureaucrat to call my name. “Anthony Brooks?” It took me a minute to figure out that meant me. I was somewhat consoled by the fact that a fairly strong player showed up on bust out row right around the time I did. Although his name will be well-known to most poker enthusiasts, to the career paper shuffler behind the scenes at the Rio, he was just “Robert… Miz-arky?”
I finished 361st and won $34,664, showing a tidy profit even after deducting the $10,000 entry fee, which was itself a prize I’d won in another poker tournament. By any account, I’m very fortunate to make this kind of money playing a card game, and it’s always my goal to do something valuable with the money and free time that poker affords me. In the next month or so, I’ll be organizing and teaching at a free summer debate camp for public high school students and teachers in Boston, and then traveling to Chicago for a week to volunteer at a similar camp.
Thanks again to everyone who’s followed along and offered your encouragement and congratulations. Hopefully we can do this again next year!
More from the 2007 Trip Report: Lunch With Lederer | $2500 6-Max | $2000 PLHE | $5000 6-Max | $500 Single Table Satellite | $1000 Single Table Satellite | ME Day 1A | ME Day 2A: Ace on the River | ME Day 3