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The Poker Ace

For Greg Raymer, winning the world series of poker took knowledge, skill and a little luck

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Raymer spent the day knocking out players and vacuuming stakes and wound up among the tournament's top 15 chip leaders. On the second day he continued playing gangbusters poker and began the third day, Tuesday, with $297,000. Ironically, despite starting the day in sixth place, he came close to getting knocked out of the Series by Michael "Mike the Mouth" Matusow, a highly emotional professional who finished sixth in the 2001 World Series.
The two players had been mixing it up a bit, and when Matusow raised Raymer in the big blind, Raymer called with jack-ace of diamonds. After the flop came 10-9-3 with two diamonds, Raymer made an unconventional bet: he went all-in, hoping to catch a straight or a flush, realizing that if he made a medium-sized bet, Matusow (who had more chips) would be likely to put him all-in anyway. Raymer hoped that the large bet would induce Matusow to fold.
Matusow became theatrical, begging, "God, this one time, let the good guy win."
He insisted that Raymer had to be on a bluff. After minutes of internal and external debate, Matusow decided to call. "We showed our cards, he had 9-7 for two 9s and jumped up from his seat, thrilled," remembers Raymer. "I asked him why he was so happy, since I was a 60 percent favorite with so many outs. I caught a diamond on the turn, and he kept trying to convince people that I would have made the same call if I had hearts in my hand instead of diamonds. But that was his mistake. I wouldn't have."
The clash with Matusow typified the day that Raymer characterizes as "a real roller coaster."
Within 20 minutes of starting, his $297,000 in chips was down to $200,000. "I put a guy all-in in a spot where I thought I had the best of it and was wrong," Raymer says in explaining how his chip stack decreased by nearly one-third. "But 40 minutes after that I was up to $350,000. I was not making big hands that day and not getting them paid off. I did a lot of stealing and bluffing. It was up and down all day. I finished at $466,000, but that was blind luck because of when the day ended."
For each day of the World Series, Raymer fell into a comfortable routine: rising early in the morning, eating a lunch of beef teriyaki at the California Hotel (across from Binion's Horseshoe), filling a 48-ounce cup with Diet Coke and topping it off with Cherry Coke during every break. He ate a tuna sandwich and shrimp cocktail for dinner every night and wound down with two cans of caffeine-free Diet Coke.
By Wednesday he was settled in and showed his table superiority by garnering respect from very solid player Josh Arieh. Before the flop, Raymer made a $40,000 bet. Arieh called. After 8 of diamonds—10 of diamonds—queen of clubs came on the flop, a flurry of back-and-forth betting ensued before Raymer went all-in and forced Arieh to fold. It added a quick $500,000 or so to his quickly rising chip stack, which closed out the day at $1,807,000.
On Thursday morning, after going through his pre-tournament ritual, Raymer walked into the Horseshoe and discovered that he was the World Series chip leader. Others noticed as well. Suddenly people were asking this hulking guy with funky glasses and fossil for his autograph. While it was too soon to predict that he'd win the World Series, Raymer realized that another, more modest goal was within reach: "I figured that if I could win enough money from the tournament, I'd be able to quit my job and open a solo practice. With that in mind, even if I didn't finish first, it could have been fine."
He started the day with nearly $2 million and played solid poker throughout, taking advantage of his position and using his chip lead to dominate his tables. He pulled off a neat bluff against young John Murphy, who showed up late with bed-head, insisting his alarm clock failed to go off. "I raised him with 10-8, just to steal the blind," says Raymer. "He raised me back, and I pushed all-in with 10-8."
Raymer laughs and says, "I didn't think he was bluffing so much as I figured he had a decent hand but not a great one. He threw his hand away and I showed him my 10-8."
It felt good for Raymer, who had been bluffed out by Murphy earlier in the tournament when Murphy had 2-3 and a gut-shot straight. "He looked at my 10-8 and I told John, 'That's for the deuce-three.' He smiled and tapped the table."
After the dinner break, Raymer stepped up with two queens to knock out a player who seemed a bit reckless with the all-in moves (in this case he had only a king-queen).
But Raymer's really smart playing didn't come till the tournament was down to 10 players, nine of whom would make the final table. That was when Raymer noticed some of his opponents suddenly becoming risk-averse. "A lot of decisions in poker are very marginal," Raymer says. "When some other factor comes into play—like being on the bubble of making the final table and appearing on television—that often tips the decision to the safe one: folding. I sized up who was playing it safe and took advantage of that. In about two hours I went from $5 million to $8 million by pushing people around and stealing blinds and antes. I cared about being on TV, but not so much that I would let it affect my winning the tournament."
The final day of the World Series of Poker was strangely uneventful. Raymer came in the chip leader and went out the chip leader. Early on, he caught a third 10 to knock out Michael McClain, who squeaked into the final table with $885,000. After catching a straight on the river, Raymer did in a young Swede named Mattias Andersson.
Although his chip stack got shaved down a bit—he was bet out by Arieh and beaten on the river by Al Krux—Raymer never relinquished his lead. He came close after losing a large pot to fourth-place finisher Dan Harrington. Harrington made a $900,000 all-in bet after the flop. Raymer called with the top pair of jacks to Harrington's 9s. But this time it was Harrington's turn to get lucky on the river, and he wound up winning the hand with three 9s.
In the end, however, Raymer needed only 14 hands to knock out the last two players. Arieh bit the dust when two queens came on the flop, giving Raymer a set to Arieh's pair of 9s. Just six hands later, Raymer won the tournament with an unexpectedly superior hand: both he and David Williams had full houses after the flop, but Raymer's pair of pocket 8s beat Williams's pair of 4s. "During the instant after he called my all-in bet, I felt he had to have me beat," says Raymer. "Then he turned his hand over and I tried to figure out how he won."
A split second later, Raymer realized that Williams hadn't won. Raymer had the best of it. He raised his fists, raked in the piles of cash and made poker history.
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist. He won the media tournament at the 2004 World Series of Poker.
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