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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

(continued from page 2)

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.

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