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Learning Curve

Playing With The Big Boys You don't need gobs of money to play poker in Vegas. But, as the author discovers, it takes skill and knowledge to win.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

(continued from page 1)

With a pair of pocket aces, though, you'd think that drawing in as many players as possible would be a good thing. Not so, says McEvoy. "You want to get just one player to call you. You don't want a whole bunch of people in there with you because there's a good chance then that somebody will get lucky and draw the cards to beat you. If the blinds are $100 and $200, make it $600 or $700 to go."

Whether they're playing tournaments or not, McEvoy says, mediocre players tend to raise without fully formed ideas of what they hope to accomplish. To a poker pro this would be the equivalent of a trial attorney reading weather reports to the jury in lieu of a closing argument. You should have a concrete goal in mind when you raise, he says. "Maybe you're trying to build up the pot because your hand will be strong enough to hold up and win. Or else you are trying to drive out people who would limp in with the hope of drawing a flush or straight. Mindlessly raising will only make the pot more attractive to other players and force you to spend more money." There's one other thing to keep in mind: "If somebody bets too much or too little, it looks like he doesn't know what he's doing. In late position [regarding how close you are to the dealer button], you want to bring it in for four or five times the size of the big blind."

A night later McEvoy sits alongside me for a $40 buy-in tournament at the Orleans Hotel. In the casino's utilitarian poker room, he watches as I play decent poker for a couple hours, only to get beaten when I go all in with queens. McEvoy deems my tournament play respectable, suitably patient, but a bit tight and predictable. Considering that he's a self-described "tournament specialist" with four gold World Series of Poker bracelets to his credit (he won the big game in 1983 and snagged the others by finishing first in smaller WSOP events over the years), I take this as a confidence-buoying compliment.

When I find myself in Binion's Horseshoe a couple afternoons later, flush from a nice run at an open Hold'em game, I decide to pony up the $225 and take my chances for a seat at the World Series. Upstairs, in the Horseshoe coffee shop, I happen to run into McEvoy, who offers me a quick refresher course on basic Hold'em tournament strategy. One thing I want to know: What makes him a winner in a room full of losers?

McEvoy is working his way through a rack of barbecued ribs, and he takes a moment to consider the question. Wiping his fingers, he says, "First, I'm more selective with the hands I raise with; I play very aggressively with big hands but hold back if I don't seem to have the best of it. Second, my patience level is probably higher [than that of other players], so I'm not going in with mediocre hands and trying to chase cards. Third, I'm good at reading people. But the fact of the matter is that play becomes more predictable in tournaments than in ring games, where guys tend to gamble on a lot of different hands."

I think about all this when I sit down at the table. Unfortunately, I'm also thinking about a lot of other things: how great it'll be for this story if I make it into the Series, what sort of image I want to maintain at the table, how to riffle chips and look as if the Horseshoe is my second home. I'm thinking about so many things that the game passes in an ugly blur -- sort of like a car accident where you know what's happening but you can't do anything to stop it, so you close your eyes and prepare for impact. I can't even tell you about the hands I play, but suffice it to say that I play them badly. I'm betting when I shouldn't, seeing raises that are ridiculous, not watching the other players. Operating like that, it's no surprise that my stack is promptly depleted. I lose my final hand with a boneheaded play and walk away from the table feeling as if I've been mugged.

Things go so badly that I find myself wondering if it's even sensible to enter another Super Satellite. Is it just throwing good money after bad? The next morning I have breakfast with a savvy pro named Ken "Skyhawk" Flaton. He eats his cereal and listens to my woes. He's probably just trying to make me feel better when he tells me that this even happens to the best players. But he does offer some good advice: "When you're getting ready to make a big play -- especially if you are not 100 percent certain -- just sit there for a moment and silently count to 10," Flaton says. "It gives you a chance to consider your next move and prevents you from doing anything hasty."

McEvoy pep-talks me with tales that illustrate his penchant for hanging tough under adverse conditions. "My strength is that I don't ever give up," he tells me, just after I've bought in for another Super Satellite. "I fight till the last chip; I like to say that I fight until the last drop of their blood is spilled. I am an expert at surviving in tournaments."

McEvoy explains that the best test of his high-stakes survival skills unfolded during a tournament at the Peppermill Casino in Reno. Down to $75 in chips, he waited for decent starting cards and went all in with king-jack -- not a great hand, but time was not on his side. McEvoy made a straight and won six times his money, but it still left him far from solvent at this table. "I wound up throwing away two-thirds of my stack with blinds" -- a particularly gutsy move, as it can leave you depleted of chips without even attempting to win a pot -- "while I was waiting for a playable hand, and it turned out to be a winner. By the time we hit the final table…I had over $100,000 in chips, accumulated after being down to $75. I went on to win that tournament."

With McEvoy's words still ringing in my ears, I sit down at the Super Satellite fired up but focused, adamant to treat each of my chips like valuable ammo. I bet big with good hands, lure people in, fold when somebody's getting over. One guy stays in alongside me and looks shocked when he sees my straight. "You played that perfectly," he says with resignation, bummed out over the way I let him lead the betting up until the last card, when I hammered him with raises and he felt too committed to do anything but stay in. By the first break, I am either the chip leader or damned close, with $900. McEvoy walks past the table and seems impressed. "I bet you're having fun now," he says with a smile.

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