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The World Series of Poker

Our Gambling Expert's Trip to the Big Leagues Ends With a Lesson in Hardball
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

Dreams do come true. But so do nightmares.

For many years I have written about the World Series of Poker, the biggest poker tournament on earth, where, in the World Championship Main Event, players put up $10,000 each and play until one person has all the chips. And a $1 million cash prize. For years I have played in poker tournaments around the world, events you've probably never heard of, losing many, placing in the money in some, and winning a few. Like the minor league baseball prospect who has just enough success at Double-A ball to think he might get a crack at the big leagues, I've always won enough (and learned enough) to think I might one day be worthy of a shot at the Main Event. Every year I've trekked to Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas and chronicled the exploits of the world's best poker players. With every passing year I've come closer to convincing myself that I am one of them. That I should be huddled with the living legends of the game, the Johnny Chans and Stu Ungars and Doyle Brunsons, betting, raising and folding in quest of the most revered prize in poker.

But I've always had this rule: If you can't win your way in, you're not good enough to compete. Fact is, anyone who wants to play in the Main Event can simply pay $10,000 cash and take a seat, and every year about a third of the field does. But the majority of players, me included, play in satellite tournaments (Cigar Aficionado, April 1998), the poker equivalent of Monday qualifiers on the PGA Tour. Like their golf brethren, poker satellites are long shots--typically 200 or more players vying for a few spots--but, every night during the three weeks leading up to the Main Event, someone converts a $220 entry fee into an invitation to the big dance. Satellites are difficult to win, terribly difficult, but if you do beat the long odds, you've instantly created for yourself what gamblers call an "overlay," where your long-term expectation is greater than the equity you've invested. To play in a $10,000 buy-in poker tournament for a few hundred dollars is about as big of an overlay as you'll ever find in a casino.

On the night I arrive at the Horseshoe, five days before the Main Event, I play in the first of what I expect will be many satellite tournaments. Thanks to sharp play, good judgment and, it must be said, some extraordinarily good luck, my first satellite tournament of the 1998 World Series of Poker has the desired result. Eight hours after I arrive in Las Vegas, I've won a seat in the Main Event.

As the final hand is dealt, eliminating the last player standing between me and my poker dream-come-true, I sit dumbly in my chair, staring blankly at the dealer. All around me there is much hooting and hollering and backslapping. But I am speechless. Then I realize: in five days I'm going to be playing for the World Championship of Poker. Then I do something you should never do at a poker table: I cry.

Like a boxer preparing for the ring, I spend the next few days getting ready. But instead of road work and hours on the heavy bag, I review oft-read poker textbooks and play a few more satellite tourneys down the street at the Union Plaza (winning again!). I focus my every thought on No Limit Texas Hold'em, the game that is used to decide the World Championship. (The game is a variation of seven-card stud in which each player is dealt two "hole," or down, cards and shares five "community" cards, dealt up, with his opponents; you pick from all seven cards to try to make the best five-card hand. "No Limit" means you can bet any or all of your chips at any time.) Finally, I conduct a feverish debate with myself over the importance of having lucky talismans wedged in my pocket when the Main Event begins. Now, I'm a longtime gambling writer; I know holding on to locks of hair from my dog, cat and girlfriend will have no effect whatsoever on the cards I am dealt; I know.

But I figure, what the hell. They can't hurt.

The morning of the World Championship, I rise early and complete what is supposed to be an hour-long jog in 20 minutes. I eat about four bites of what is supposed to be a nourishing fruit-plate breakfast. My digestive system is not working well.

You might say I'm nervous.

What worries me most, I come to understand after an impromptu therapy session with my girlfriend, is failure. Not the failure of losing the $1 million--or, for that matter, the $687,500 second prize, or $25,000 27th prize--but of failing to play well. I'm scared of playing like an idiot, of giving my chips away, like a hopeless old lady in thrall to a televangelist. I'm scared of not belonging in this competition--and scared that my play will confirm my fears.

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