Our Man Comes Within a Hair Of a Seat in Poker's Grandest Event
I will spare you the suspense.
I did not win the main event at the World Series of Poker this year. I am not the reigning world champion of poker. I am not $1 million richer. (All of which should be obvious, since I am writing this story instead of luxuriating on some Caribbean island with my new best friend the showgirl.) But along with thousands of other poker players--hardened professionals and serious amateurs alike--I tried to do all these things. And I learned something in the process. And you can, too. with a little money, a lot of gambling talent and a highly developed capacity for dreaming can do what I do every year: go to Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, enter a modestly priced ($220) supersatellite tournament and, if they become one of the finalists, earn a seat in the big dance, the $10,000 buy-in World Championship. First place in the main event, a four-day odyssey that in 1997 attracted 312 entrants, is $1 million. Second pays $583,000. And for players who finish as low as 27th, the prize is $21,200.
Every type of poker game is tested at the World Series of Poker, including various forms of stud and draw. But the king of games, the one used to decide the World Championship, is called No Limit Texas Hold'em (See box, page tk). "No Limit" means you can bet any or all of your chips at any time, a delightful rule that, in recent years, has created several million-dollar pots--i.e., poker hands on which a million dollars is riding. The "Texas Hold'em" part refers to the form of poker, a variation on seven-card stud in which each player receives his own two "hole," or "down," cards and shares five "community" cards, which are dealt face up, with his opponents. The object is to make the best five-card hand from your two hole cards and the five up cards. Texas Hold 'em is played every day of the year at Los Angeles card casinos like Hollywood Park, the Commerce and the Bicycle Club, and these are the places where I honed my game, preparing myself for the fiercest poker competition on the planet: guys with lots of gold jewelry, inscrutable faces and nicknames like "The Master."
After five years as this magazine's gambling columnist, I figure it's time for me to take my place among the wiseguys. I arrive at the Horseshoe three days before the start of the world championship event, allowing myself three shots (and a couple thousand dollars) at winning a satellite tournament, three shots at earning a ticket to the most important congregation in poker.
It does not immediately strike me as ominous foreshadowing when on my very first hand I lose all my chips, all $200 of them. Having raised before "the flop" (the displaying of the community up cards) with a pair of Jacks, I end up donating my entire stack of money to a foolish, chain-smoking Vietnamese lad who has called me with a pair of 5s. When a 5 comes on the last card--the river, as poker players say--giving him three-of-a-kind, I am left with nothing but a blank strip of green felt where once my chips sat so hopefully.
"Unlucky," I think, reminding myself that if it were not for the occasional bolt of fortune, lesser players would never compete in poker tournaments. Why should they? The better players would always win. Indeed, luck--or "short-term volatility," as odds mavens like to think of it--is inherent to poker. But unlike, say, baccarat or craps, skill is the game's primary ingredient, especially at the World Series of Poker, where several expert players, such as Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, have won multiple world championships. As I hand the dealer $200 more (players may rebuy at a satellite tournament during the first hour of play), I tell myself to retain equanimity, to handle the bad luck with grace. Good fortune will eventually come my way.
I continue to tell myself this, repeating it like a mantra, as I watch three more stacks of $200 disappear down the gullets of three other voracious players. Each time I begin with the "best" or strongest hand--every two-card combination is either a favorite or an underdog, depending on what it's up against--and each time an opponent with a weaker hand spanks me hard.
I hold Ace-King; a gargantuan Floridian, scratching his head and chewing on a toothpick, holds Ace-Queen: the flop comes King-Jack-10, and he makes a straight. I hold a pair of 9s; a relic from the age of disco, sporting smoked sunglasses, a silk shirt and a diamond pinkie ring, calls my raise with an Ace-9: an Ace comes on the flop, and he's happy as a Bee Gee.
And most preposterously, both I and another opponent, an unreadable English fellow who plays poker while listening to Mozart through tiny headphones, hold identical hands, a pair of 10s. I've got the black ones, he's got the red ones. Surely we'll split the pot. Alas, four diamonds come on the flop. He makes a flush.
I try to be philosophical: These things happen. But then self-pity rears its ugly head: "But why me?! Especially when I'm trying to win the World Series of Poker?! It's not fair!"
Down $800 and feeling inordinately sorry for myself, I go to the Horseshoe's famous coffee shop and drown my sorrows in red meat and pumpkin pie.
My second attempt at winning the world title starts promisingly. Stung by the previous evening's debacle, I play very "tight," folding speculative drawing hands and betting aggressively when I'm holding something powerful. For the first hour, while the wild gamblers around me are calling and raising with just about anything, hoping to go "on a rush," I sit patiently, monk-like, and wait, paying my antes and observing the mayhem. Just when I think I can't stand the monotony anymore, I'm dealt a juicy hand, the Ace-King of spades. I bet it strongly and get called in two spots. When the flop brings a rash of baby cards, my Ace-King holds up, and I've tripled my stack.
This happens about four more times. Each hand I start with an odds-on favorite and finish with the money, the way it's supposed to work in a kind and just world.
Three hours into the supersatellite tournament, the field has been narrowed from 120 to 36. The final 11 survivors will earn seats in the world championship. I've built my original $220 buy-in up to $4,700. The promised land is within sight.
Then I look down to find what I've been waiting for all night: a monster. I've been dealt two Kings, the second most powerful starting hand in Texas Hold'em. I hope to get into a raising war with preferably one other opponent, someone who thinks he's holding real power only to discover that the wily journalist from Los Angeles, the one who's been playing so patiently, so precisely, is holding the hammer. My wish comes true. I raise. A pro at the other end of the table, one of the top players in Maryland, considers his hand for a moment and raises me back. I re-raise him, pushing my entire stack of chips toward the center of the table.
"All in," the dealer announces. Without hesitation, the Maryland pro pushes all his chips toward the middle. There's close to $10,000 in the pot. I can think of only five hands the pro could have called with. "I got Aces," he says, flipping up his cards. And that's the one hand I didn't want to see. While my Kings are the second most powerful starting combination, his Aces are the first.
Now only two cards in the deck can help me. I need to get lucky.
The miracle I need to stay in the tournament does not materialize. As the dealer pushes a mountain of chips toward the pro, a pile of hundreds that will surely earn him a seat in the world championship, the pro shrugs at me and says, "Bad luck." I nod silently and make a hurried exit, trying mightily to honor an age-old credo: real men do not cry at the poker table.
Yes, bad luck, indeed, I think, calculating the probability of another player holding Aces when I'm holding Kings. This situation will happen to you about once every 5,000 hands of poker. (A regular tournament player later tells me that it's happened to him four times--and he's been playing for 20 years.) I trudge off to my room, feeling as if there's a sticky film of misfortune clinging to my back.
But on my final satellite attempt, the night before the main event begins, everything goes wonderfully, joyously right. I'm reading my opponents as if their cards were turned face up. I'm getting rid of weak hands precisely the moment before they get me in trouble. I'm milking my strong hands for every dollar they're worth.
I'm playing like someone who belongs in the main event at the World Series of Poker.
Indeed, I single-handedly dispatch six players from the tournament, stacking their chips on my expanding pile, which is growing like an out-of-control tumor. As each busted player exits, another one comes to fill the empty seat. Soon thereafter I bust them, too. "Guy's a terminator," someone sighs.
Just then, a new player is parked at my table. Literally. A young man with a ponytail and alligator boots wheels a hospital gurney to my table. On it is a man of indeterminate age in worse shape than I've ever seen any living person. Whether because of a debilitating, degenerative disease or a profound birth defect, this poker player has essentially been reduced to a head on a stretcher. His torso, or what is left of it, is about the size of a large cat. He does not appear to have legs. The one arm I can make out is as thin as a pool cue and as short as your forearm. His mouth is frozen open in a perpetual gasp.
I know I am supposed to be evolved and educated and politically correct enough that I should not feel revulsion and pity and horror at the sight of this man, this head on a stretcher. I know I am supposed to be able to look beyond his disfigurement and see the humanity within. I know I am supposed to treat him as I would any other poker player. But I can't. I can't even look at him.
Suddenly I want to be anywhere but here at Binion's Horseshoe, playing in the World Series of Poker. I want to dance and run and make love. I want to do all the mundane and wondrous things the man on the gurney will never do. Trapped on a stretcher, imprisoned in a body that will not cooperate, this man cannot dance and run and make love. He can only lie on his bed and watch.
And play poker. His ponytailed assistant holds his cards for him and, when instructed, bets for him. The disfigured man takes in everything, assessing his opponents with a firm, observant gaze that they dare not fix on him.I need to last only an hour or two more and I'll be in the million-dollar main event. But I know that will not happen. I know I will eventually confront the man on the gurney across from me, and I know he will bust me. I know I will not win the world championship. (No, a strange and gifted man, a card-playing genius named Stu Ungar, will capture the title for a third time.) I know I will leave the Binion's Horseshoe poker room shaken and slightly nauseous. Yet I know I will not curse the whims of fate, the unseen forces that gave the winning cards to someone else.
I know I will lose this game of poker. And I will feel like the luckiest man in the world.
Contributing editor Michael Konik writes Cigar Aficionado's gambling column.
KNOWING WHEN TO HOLD'EM
As with any form of gambling, luck plays an important role in poker. But unlike many other games, poker rewards skillful players who understand the probabilities and psychology of the game. In No Limit Texas Hold'em, the game used to decide the world champion, both elements--odds and reading your opponents--separate the dreamers from the experts. Aspiring players can build an entire library of instructional literature on the game, but according to Phil Hellmuth Jr., a former world champion and one of only three players whose all-time earnings exceeds $2 million at the World Series of Poker, the following guidelines will immediately improve your No Limit Texas Hold'em poker results.
Fold weak hands and raise strong ones: Most amateurs play far too many hands, hoping to turn long shots into big scores. Expert players patiently fold their marginal hands until they're dealt a strong holding. At that point they will then bet aggressively, maximizing profitability.
Pick your spots for big confrontations: Professional players know that a single mistake in a game like No Limit can be fatal. So experts are careful not to confront other players with more chips, players who can bust them. In other words, they like to bully the small players and jab-and-move with the big boys.
Create an image: Other players base many of their decisions on their image of you. "Should I call him or fold? Is he the kind of player who would bluff me, or is he solid as a rock?" By deliberately creating a character for yourself--good-time Charlie, analytical math genius, inscrutable wild man--you can influence other players into making plays that benefit your bankroll.
The 1998 World Series of Poker begins on April 21 and runs through May 14. The Million Dollar Main Event starts on May 11. Binion's Horseshoe management estimates the total prize pool this year will exceed $13 million. --MK
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