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The World Series of Poker

Our Gambling Expert's Trip to the Big Leagues Ends With a Lesson in Hardball

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I run through the possibilities:
* He has aces, and he slow-played them before the flop, hoping I would bet out: Possible but unlikely.
* He has a flush draw, ace-queen of hearts maybe, and he's running what's called a semibluff, raising with the worst hand but knowing it can improve to the best hand if called: Possible. But very courageous.
* He has three-of-a-kind and wants to shut me out of the pot in case I have the flush draw: Could it be? Would he call my raise from early position with a pair of fours, sixes or tens? Possibly. But if he has indeed improved to trips, or three of a kind, with the flop, wouldn't he merely want to call and let me blow off more money on the next round? If I knew my man better, I could make a better decision.
* He has the same hand as me, kings, and he's exploiting his superior position: Highly improbable.
* He has queens or jacks and thinks he has the best hand: Would that it were so! But probably not.
* He has nothing (a small pair, perhaps) and is running a stone cold bluff: Only one way to find out.
I mull my options. Fold or raise; fold or raise. I do not even consider calling, since, if any card but a king falls on fourth street (is dealt as the next community card), I'm stuck in the same uncertain predicament. (One professional gambler friend of mine thinks calling the $3,000 would have been a great play, for reasons that are too esoteric for my meager poker intelligence.) To me, the decision is clear: either fold or raise.
I can't decide. I just don't know.
For two minutes I think. (Two minutes is an eternity at the poker table.) I stare at Larry, trying to get a hint from his body language. He's still and silent, and he doesn't respond when I talk to him. "If you've got aces, you've got me beat," I say, seeing if he'll react. He doesn't.
I don't know. I look around the table. The rest of the group is growing impatient, yet nobody says anything. They sense the gravity of the moment.
I decide to raise.
Now, "decide" is not really the word, since I am not at all convinced that this is the correct move. But I am having something akin to an out-of-body experience: my mouth is saying "raise" and my hands are putting another $8,000 in chips into the pot. Yet my heart is not remotely convinced that my hands and mouth know what they are doing. I'm watching a film of myself, and I am powerless to change the ending.
Larry considers my bet for about three seconds and moves all his chips into the pot. "All in," he says, raising me another $10,000 or so.
I shake my head in disgust and flip my kings into the muck.
"I guess I should have just folded after the first bet," I say ruefully to Blair, at the other end of the table.
"I smelled a set of trips," he says. I nod disconsolately. Larry, busy stacking up what used to be mine, has no comment.
I've lost $10,400 on one hand, my entire profit after nearly seven and a half hours of tournament poker. I'm back down to $10,000. And I'm officially on tilt.
It does not take me long to blow off what remains of my bankroll. I run two horribly unsuccessful bluffs against the only two players at the table on whom a bluff isn't going to work. In other words, I try to get fancy with a couple of donkeys.
That costs me another $5,000 or so.
And then, 20 minutes later, I pick up a moderately good hand, ace-queen of diamonds, in early position and, not thinking about lasting until the second day, not thinking about collecting myself and re-recouping the chips I've given away, not thinking about much of anything, I raise all-in.
This is a terrifically stupid play, since the only hands that will call me are hands that can beat me. Sure enough, a quiet fellow who hasn't played anything all day calls me with aces. Thirty seconds later, I'm out of the 1998 World Series of Poker.
I spend the next few hours--OK, the next few days--filled with self-loathing and regret. Failing to win, to place in the money, to even make the second day, wouldn't bother me so much if I had merely gotten unlucky. That happens; it's a cruel part of poker. What hurts is knowing I played so well, so beautifully, and then managed to play so rottenly. I, not fate or Lady Luck or any other euphemistic apparition, am the reason I was eliminated from the World Series of Poker. And for that I am profoundly disappointed.
For weeks, I have nightmares about my big hand with Larry. I literally wake up in the middle of the night, reliving the pot as if it were a fiery plane crash. Almost every day I torture myself (and my friends) recounting the ominous events. I talk about the hand endlessly with my poker pals, and I always come to the same conclusion: I played the hand badly, really badly.
It starts to consume me. I even suggest to my girlfriend that I might get Larry's telephone number from the Horseshoe and give him a call, tell him I'm writing a story, and, you know, would he mind telling me, for the sake of journalism, what he had?
But eventually I come to my senses. I am consoled by a simple realization: there will be another World Series of Poker next year. And the next. And I will only get better. As in life, there will be some poker decisions I regret and some I'll rejoice in, some memories I'll loathe and some I'll cherish. And, like life, the game will go on and on, making heroes and fools out of us all, long after I've stopped playing.
Gambling columnist and Contributing Editor Michael Konik's collection of gambling tales, The Man With the $100,000 Breasts and Other Gambling Stories, will be published in November.
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