The poker chronicles: A look at a solid run in a WSOP event
The World Series of Poker Main Event starts today, and it is one of my favorite contests of the year. I will watch countless hours of poker over the next couple weeks, primarily because you can always learn new tricks. I last played the Main in 2006 and have been slowly working my way back into tournament poker. Life gets in the way, divorces get in the way, jobs get in the way. This year I decided to play my first big tourney since the 2007 Seven Clans at Coushatta by entering Event #32 at the WSOP, the Seniors event. (Over 50. I hate the term senior, but oh well. I am old).
I chose this event because I would be one of the younger players, it was a four-day event with an excellent structure that played to my strength: patience. The strategy for a tournament like this is simple; wait for hands, trust your reads, avoid disaster early. Like a big golf tournament, you can't win the tournament the first day, but you can damned sure lose it. There were times during the three days where I would go two or even three hours without playing a hand.
There are a LOT of really good players in Houston who have made deeper runs in bigger tournaments recently. But for a first effort in over a decade, it was not a bad result. I would finish 132nd out of almost 6,000 players. Of that, 888 finished in the money, the top 15 percent of the field. I prefer the top 10 percent, but the new structure allows for more players to cash and feel good about their experience.
When I first went to get my Player's Card, the woman asked me where I had been for the last 11 years and they had thought I had "passed away." I was glad to let them know I was not dead, despite what you might have heard on the radio. Here is how the tournament played out for me:
Day 1: A big mistake, and recovering quickly
My initial strategy was simple; be patient early, try to catch some hidden flops with small cards and snap off a couple big pots. The problem was everyone else at the table was doing the same thing, and playing extremely tight. I took down a few moderate pots before making my one big mistake of the tournament.
I raised from the button with pocket 10s and was called by the small blind, who had been playing very tight. The J-K-2 rainbow flop was not what I had in mind. I made a continuation bet and he called, and at this point I am ready to surrender on the hand. We both check a blank on the turn, and the river brings a 10, giving me a set. But the little voice in my head kept telling me he had AQ and hit his straight. Usually I listen. This time I did not. I led out, he re-raised, and I made a very bad call. He did not even need to show the AQ. This took me down to about 15,000 chips (starting stack was 20k). I dabbled in some pots for the next couple hours and was down to about 10k at one point. There was a buy back option for another three levels, so I decided to double up or buy back.
I woke up to AK hearts in middle position, and pushed all in over a raise. He called with QQ, and I spiked a K on the flop and then ran out the flush to get back where I started. From there I quietly built back up to about 26k.
One of the fun parts of Day 1 is all the familiar faces. I saw actor James Woods get knocked out, played with a couple former main event champs, including 1983 winner Tom McEvoy, who was an absolute delight to play against. After my screwup, I really settled down and began playing my best poker. In a way it was a positive, because I would trust that little voice the rest of the way.
Later in the night at a new table I would make a play that would guarantee me a trip to Day 2. After being card dead for two hours, I woke up to AK again from cutoff. The blinds were 600-1200-1200 (this is the first time I have played with a big blind ante; I liked it). Under the gun limps, so there is 4,200 in the pot. I am happy to take that down without a fight, so I make a slight overbet of 5k. Big blind calls, limper folds.
The big blind had been extremely aggressive and calling with a wide range of hands. Every time he had a pair, he had re-raised pre-flop. So when the board came A-5-8 pre-flop, I felt pretty good. He checks, I lead out for 8k, and he instantly shoves all in. This was a decision for all my chips, with only top pair and top kicker. Having watched him play for two hours I could safely rule out a set of aces, eights or fives. I put his range as Ax, with only A8 and A5 having me beat. I made the call. He turned over 6-7 offsuit for an open-ended straight draw. He never improved, and I now had over 50k in chips, a stack I would carry until the end of the night. I hated his pre-flop call, but loved his shove. It was not an easy call, but it put me in a good spot.
Day 2: Wild swings and bad luck
Day 2 is moving day. You play to the money, and position yourself for a deep run. The morning was pretty boring; I played maybe two hands the first four levels. But there was an extremely aggressive player at the table stacking chips. He was playing every hand, so I basically waited him out. I took a couple pots off him by limping with JJ and AQ to chip up over 100k, then laid a trap with pocket kings. I raised to 10k, he called, and I flopped a set. I check called the flop and turn when he made big bets, then led out with a three-quarter sized pot bet on the river. He tanked for 10 minutes, then called. I was now over 200k and able to coast to the money. I cruise controlled my stack for the next several levels. After the dinner break, I was moved to another table, where I would make my move.
With two one-hour levels left in the evening, an extremely drunk player showed up at the table with almost two million in chips. Immediately, several of us began targeting him. After an hour, I had taken down several big pots and was sitting on almost 800k. It was then that I got the hand that would define my tournament.
The blinds were $5,000/$10,000/$10,000 and I was the big blind with $20k in the pot. Drunk villain raises to 70k, I call with pocket 7s. The flop was K-7-2 rainbow, with the 2 being a club. I check, and he shoves all in for 700k.
This was the exact scenario I was hoping for. As drunk as he was, he was playing to a pattern. If he had pocket kings, he would have checked behind. So I knew I had the best hand. There were no draws, and with second set I had nothing to be afraid of. He had made several earlier shoves with air and other players folded. I snap call, and he grumbles that he was trying to steal the pot and turns over 10-8 of clubs. This is the scenario you dream of if you want to go deep in the tournament. Win the hand, you are sitting on a million and a half headed to Day 3 with a real chance to go very deep. Better yet, I was holding one of his outs with the seven of clubs.
Sometimes, however, the luck factor gets you. He caught runner runner clubs, and suddenly I was down to 50k.
In the old days, I would have gone on tilt, donked off the rest of my chips, collected my meager winnings and spent Saturday at the pool. There was a time when I was a real jerk to play with and took losses very poorly. Over the last couple years, I have finally weaned that out of my game and learned to enjoy the experience, win or lose.
So I shook it off and grinded back to 254k in the next hour, enough to at least be in the mix. I needed some cards, but at least I was still in it.
Bad beats are going to happen; I would take the same scenario 100 times out of 100. You are going to lose a few of those. This was one of those times. All it meant was a strategy shift - play the short stack hard. And keep smiling and enjoying myself, no matter what.
Day 3: Out with a whimper
I wish there was a sexy story here. I basically milked my short stack for three hours while completely card dead, leveled up a couple money jumps and went out with AJ against 99. The disappointment of going out was mitigated by the trip to the money cage.
At some point, you have to get cards. It was a little disappointing, but all in all a great experience and a solid result. It seems counterintuitive, but in three days, your tournament revolves around eight or nine hands. It would be easy to dwell on the bad beat, but the reality is, if I don't fade the straight draw Day 1, it never happens anyway. The one thing you won't get watching on TV is how often you fold. Sometimes, the best hands are the traps you avoid. I folded AK at least three times pre-flop, and was dominated each time. I lost chips, but basically the minimum. Those kind of plays aren't sexy, but they keep you in the game for the times when you are on the right side of things.
The other key thing is I stuck to the same routine every day. Go for a run on the strip, have a nice breakfast, get to the Rio five minutes before cards are in the air, focus solely on the poker, study the players when you aren't in a hand. Pick up their patterns for when you do catch something.
There were 15 minute breaks every two hours. I would go to the other side of the casino, grab a Gatorade Zero and a sugar free Red Bull and drink those over the next two levels. I had no alcohol, other than a couple drinks at the end of the night when I got back to my hotel. Staying sharp is critical, especially late in the evening. The days are between 12 and 13 hours, and it becomes a grind.
Having said that, I highly recommend the experience. You can sign up ahead of time at WSOP.com and pay your entry via debit card, which saves you a long wait in line. There are dozens of events to choose from each year.
If you watch the Main Event and get the bug, try some of the preliminary events next year first. My next move is to play a few more "senior" tournaments this year. As one of the younger players in the field, I feel like I have an advantage. If I have some quality results - a final table or a win - I will look at a more ambitious schedule in 2020, including a return to the Main.
This year, though, I will just be watching. A lot.