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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 1)

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.

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