The World Series of Poker
Our Gambling Expert's Trip to the Big Leagues Ends With a Lesson in Hardball
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.
An hour before game time, I'm lying in my hotel bed, with the shades drawn, silently reassuring myself that the only way I can fail is if I don't enjoy myself.
It works. I feel swell. I'm ready. Only problem is, so immersed am I in deep-breathing exercises, positive visualization and various other affirming rituals I am too embarrassed to describe that I arrive late, missing the tournament's first two hands and the poker equivalent of "Gentlemen, start your engines!": tournament coordinator Jack McClelland's famous direction of "Shuffle up and deal!"
When I float in, carried along on a buoyant current of newfound equanimity, the scene is electric, pulsing with a potent mixture of anticipation and dread. Four days from now, someone, one of the 350 players congregated at Binion's Horseshoe, will be crowned the World Champion of Poker. Someone will have survived.
And everyone else will have perished. This scene of an accident waiting to happen draws a large crowd of onlookers, a menagerie of media types, curious bystanders taking a break from the slot machines, and legions of crestfallen poker players who didn't make it into the field. I know how they feel, because for many years I stood exactly where they stood, wishing I were inside the ropes, not outside looking in.
Dashing to Table 50, I take my seat--the 8-seat, two to the dealer's right--check that my $10,000 stake is intact, and look around to get my bearings. Matt Damon, doing publicity for his upcoming poker movie and, thus, surrounded by a swarm of television cameras, is two tables away. The legendary Doyle Brunson is at Damon's table, waiting to suck in the young actor's loose, movie star money. Huck Seed, a former World Champion I've previously written about, is at a table over my left shoulder, as is Berry Johnston, another all-time great former titleholder.
At my table, the only table in the universe that matters to me for now, are the eight other fellows with whom I hope to be spending the next eight hours. I've played with all but two of these guys, and none of them are soft. There aren't any World Champions here, but several have come breathlessly close. In the 2-seat is John Spadevecchia, who finished third three years ago; next to him is Hans "Tuna" Lund, who has finished second in the Main Event and first in numerous other poker tournaments; and beside the big fish is my friend Blair Rodman, a fierce competitor who finished high in the money last year and who, coincidentally, played golf with me two days earlier. But there will be no "gimmes" today.
My game plan--to fold everything for the first hour unless I'm dealt aces, kings, queens or ace-king--becomes obsolete within five minutes. Like a hound on the scent of a squirrel, I can't countermand my instincts. My poker conditioning has become so acute that when I see a good opportunity to "pick up" (steal) a tiny pot, I pounce, like the old hound. That I have nothing worth playing in my hand doesn't make any difference. My position--last of the players to act--is perfect, and based on the betting and body language of my opponents, I can sense, I'm certain, nobody is going to call my modest raise. The fear I thought might cripple me, the kind of fear that paralyzes and robs judgment, never materializes. I had envisioned myself hyperventilating the first time I tried to play a pot in the World Championship, like a fledgling actor gripped with stage fright; but when I say "raise" and toss my chips into the pot, it feels just like any other of the hundreds of poker tournaments I've played in, only with much more at stake.
Everybody folds, the dealer pushes me the pot, and, simple as that, I'm no longer a World Series of Poker virgin. I've won my first pot on the eighth hand of the tournament. My heart did not suffer any unusual palpitations. My palms did not start secreting a cold, viscous liquid. I did not soil myself. Everything is fine. Now I can forget my apprehension and play.
Over the next 90 minutes, I build up to $11,400 without ever having a showdown. A little pot here, a minor bluff there--no major confrontations, no high drama. Just solid, positional poker. The kind that can get you in the money, yet seldom wins first place. For now, that will do nicely. I'm just relieved not to have made a premature exit. I want to live a little before I die.
At the end of the first level, several big-name professionals are out, including the brilliant Phil Hellmuth Jr., another of my profile subjects, a man of whom I have written admiringly in the past. How strange--how wonderful, I must admit--to be in the running while he is not. I feel like a young boy who has just discovered, after many years of practice and instruction, that he can finally drive his golf ball past his dad's. I feel as if I belong here.
The "blind" bets--a form of anteing--double in size during the second level, as they will continue to do for the rest of the tournament. Steadily escalating stakes force you to play, you can't merely sit and wait to be dealt miracle cards. But you can't be reckless, either. Success in any poker tournament, especially the World Series of Poker, is contingent on many factors--skill, timing, luck--but the key element may be picking your spots and, unless you know you have by far the best of the battle, avoiding big confrontations.
During the tournament's second level, almost three and a half hours after the first hand has been dealt, I still haven't shown down a single hand. That is to say I haven't turned over my cards once. Yet I've managed to build my bankroll to a healthy $15,000, mainly by betting aggressively when I'm committed to a hand and foldingit when I'm not. No raising wars, no final card heroics--just solid, well-modulated poker. The largest pot I win, about $1,800, comes to me when my opponent, Spadevecchia, who had called a series of raises before and after the flop, decides he can't call my $2,000 bet on the end.
Almost concurrent with my emerging belief that I'm playing wonderfully well, I make two big blunders and blow off a big chunk of chips. Two bad bluffs and I'm down to $7,800.
Immediately returning to form, I grind my way back to $12,400, never showing down a hand. After four hours of play, nearly 100 contestants have already departed. But the 250 or so of us who remain should now have proportionally more chips among us. In a poker tournament, you need to be like a whale swimming through an ocean of plankton, slurping up as many chips as you can get your jaws around. Paul "Eskimo" Clark, a top tournament player who, as you might imagine, looks like an Eskimo, is the king of the sea at this point. Every time I turn around to check the tables behind me, his stack of chips has grown another inch or two. The $45,000 or so he's accumulated makes my wee twelve-and-change feel like a country cottage compared to his burgeoning skyscraper.
During the next two hours of play, the third level, I play poker about as well as I ever have. Without putting too many chips at risk, yet betting aggressively enough to shake the confidence of my opponents, I steadily build to $18,600 in chips without losing a hand. My competitors, I can feel, are starting to fear and respect me--the ideal result, according to my U.S. Marine Corps upbringing. After six hours, I know I can play with anyone at my table, including the almost-World Champions.
And even better, I can see that they know it, too.
At the fourth level, we're playing with $100 and $200 blind bets, as well as a compulsory $25 ante, and players are starting to drop out quickly. The field is down to 225 or so, and our table has already had a few victims. Each time somebody gets eliminated, tables are consolidated and another player is brought in to fill the seat. (Sometimes two players in a row get eliminated from the same seat; it then becomes known as "the electric chair.") When the player to my immediate left loses the last of his chips, a stranger comes to town, taking the empty seat. That's when the trouble begins.
I know the man--his name is Larry--as I've played in many tournaments with him before. But I can't remember his style of play, if he's a loose cannon or as tight as a miser. I can't recall if he can be induced into making bad calls, or if he's impossible to bluff. To me, at least, he's a cipher.
Ideally, I'd like to watch Larry play for a few rounds. But two hands after he sits down, before I can get a line on his play, I'm dealt the best cards I've seen since the World Series of Poker Main Event began. I peek at my pair of red kings, and I know I've got to play.
I'm first to act--"one off the blinds," in poker parlance--and I raise the pot $600, requiring anyone who wants to play his hand to put in $800. Larry, the next to act, pauses momentarily and, to my surprise, calls. Everyone else folds.
Unless he has aces--and I don't think he does, or else he probably would have reraised me--I've got the best hand before the flop. I figure him for something like ace-king, possibly of the same suit. As long as the dealer doesn't put an ace on the board, I figure I'm good.
The flop comes 10-6-4, with two hearts. It's a flop I like. Not wanting to give my opponent a "free" card, a chance to improve his hand at no cost, I bet $1,600.
Larry thinks for a moment, looks at his pile of $24,000 in chips, and says, "I raise." He matches my $1,600 bet and puts another $3,000 in the pot.
Before I do any analysis, my first instinct is to fold. There's an old saying in poker: "If you can't sometimes fold the best hand, you'll never be a winner." I think I probably have the best hand--but I'm not sure. Given my position (first to act), Larry can exploit my uncertainty. I have about $18,000 in front of me. I can fold, accept my $2,400 loss and live to fight another battle, when I am sure of where I stand.
But. And yet. However. . .This is the best hand I've seen in more than seven hours of poker. I may have Larry drawing dead to two or three cards, making me a big favorite to take down a monster pot. On the other hand. . .