[Yesterday, for the first time in years, I reread this piece I wrote about my first tourney cash (and WIN) back in the Bay Area in 2004, and found it fun to go back and see how much of what I think/know about poker has changed, and also how much has stayed pretty much the same. I was filling in for Stephen Elliot in his weekly McSweeney’s “Poker Report” column at the time. I’ve interjected a couple of notes. It was a damn fun adventure, hope you think so too, and it illustrates what’s become my mantra about tournament poker: luck counts.]
The Poker Report: Lucky/Chances
March 17, 2004
So my dad was in town last week, and while he’s not a rich dad, he’s not a poor one either(This was back in the day when the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books were big)—he’s the kind of dad who can afford to stake his son and himself eighty bucks apiece to play in the Monday 10:30 a.m. no-limit hold ’em tournament at Lucky Chances in Colma, CA, famed city of cemeteries, knowing full well that not a dime of that $160 is likely to see the dark of his wallet ever again.
My dad’s one of those guys who’s beaten the tar out of his local kitchen game for thirty years (or so he tells me) but hasn’t played much in casinos and had never played in a tournament before. I’d played in three tourneys, most recently about six months ago, toward the end of my phase that so many of us wannabe poker stars have had these past couple of years where we’ve watched too much poker TV and seen too many Chris Moneymakers and Jim McManuses and Robert Varkonyis—”regular” guys who make it to the final table or even win the Big One—and so we buy our Turbo Tournament Poker software (remember that, kids?) and all those insanely expensive books and we read and reread and memorize and then rewatch the TV stuff (because we taped it, of course) so that when we sit down at that final table with Jesus Ferguson as we know we someday will, we’ll know just what it means when he tugs at his beard just so. I went through that phase and was caught up in it more than some because I got to go to Vegas and look over the shoulder of my friend Annie who’s one of those poker people you see on the poker TV. But I hadn’t played a tournament or really much poker at all in six months after realizing it was an education I couldn’t even begin to afford and didn’t have the time or even the interest to actively pursue. Then Dad came to town, and the phoenix of my broken poker dreams lifted it’s charred beak once more.
Tournaments work like this: in effect, you pay eighty bucks and you get $2,500 in what amounts to play money chips that could almost conceivably earn you real money later on. You play with those chips until you run out. And you do run out. That is, everyone runs out but one guy, and that guy (and at Lucky Chances, it is 99+ percent “guy”) wins the biggest piece of the real money. When I played last year, there were 50-70 entrants each time. A lot of middle-aged Asian and white men who play way too much poker. You can see it in their glazed eyes and paunchy bodies, in their haphazard clothes, in their left-hand ring fingers where there’s still a tan line where a ring used to be but no more because the car got repo-ed again and one mortgage became two and then they lost the house altogether, all for the love/obsession of playing a card game, of gambling. It was Dad, me, those guys and a few baseball-capped, wraparound-shaded youngsters with stars in their eyes where the glaze had yet to form.
The three times I played previously, twice I placed in the mid-twenties—not bad for a beginner, I thought—and once I came in eleventh, one spot out of the final table and the money, which is paid in sharply increasing increments to the top ten finishers.
Pop and I rolled into the club at 9:30 and signed up. I showed him to his table, gave him the basic rundown. By 10:30 start time, there were a whopping 110 players signed up and seated at eleven tables. The floor man called out “Dealers, shuffle up and deal” and the game was on. My reasonable hope was that both of us would last long enough to feel good about ourselves, have story or two to tell, and that maybe, just maybe, my dad would get a chance to see that I wasn’t the player he knew when we last played: a maniacal eleven-year old punk at my grandparents’ condo in Ft. Lauderdale who wanted to play “Black Mariah” (it’s a wacky seven-card stud game, don’t ask) every hand and would bet like a lunatic and lose all his pennies but not really because Grandma Bea would keep sneaking him more whenever he ran out. I wanted my father to see that I was a grown man, a solid player. I’ve watched too many cheesy movies. Of course, my wilder fantasies were a bit more involved and ranged from one or the other of us making the final table to both of us making it to the two of us heads-up in an epic Oedipal showdown.
I started off well, getting no cards and patiently folding hand after hand. Pretty soon, though, I found myself in the big blind and nobody raised and I snuck in a betwith 10-8 offsuit. The flop came A-10-6, with no betters, a terrific hand to lose a lot of money on when you’re sitting with second pair and some smartass with a pocket ace is setting a trap. A king came on the turn, everyone checked to me and I made a fairly substantial bet, trying my best to represent a pair of kings. Everyone sensibly folded and I was feeling pretty good about myself—first hand played, first hand won, and on a semi-bluff to boot. Before the first break, I won another hand, with some actual cards this time.
At the first break, I checked in with the old man; we were both doing well. At the second, the Berger clan was still hanging tough. By the fifth round, we were both still alive but the competition had only dropped to seventy-some, still a long way to go. But then, all at once, players started dropping in bunches and before we knew it we were in the top 35. The next time tables were consolidated, I was top dog at mine and my dad was moved in two seats to my left to fill the spot of a solid player who had just gone all in and had his pocket aces busted by king-8 off, giving him something almost as good as a win, a great bad-beat story.
The deal went a few times around the table, Pop and I folding like the rocks we are. The numbers dwindled, now down to the mid-twenties. Then I was dealt QJ offsuit in the big blind. My dad and another guy limped in and I let it ride. The flop came A-K-10 rainbow and there I was, first to act with the nut straight. Up until that point I was just dreaming of making the final table and was playing more and more like what’s sometimes called a farmer—a patient, passive player who waits for a solid hand and then plays it solidly but who rarely gets to final tables because of lack of aggression or willingness to take risks. But the blinds and antes (which progress throughout the tournament) were getting monstrous, and it was starting to look like I might indeed get to that last table but with almost no chips to play with. So I figured it was time to check-raise for the first time all day. I checked, and, tragically, sublimely, Mark Berger went all-in with what I later would learn was an ace to match the one on the table. The other guy folded, and I called and knocked my own dear father out of the tournament. We both laughed, smiled, shook hands, and then he joined the growing crowd of railbirds.
Suddenly I was sitting with a pretty nice stack and eighteen players left. Eighteen dropped quickly to thirteen but then seemed to just freeze there forever as I folded and folded and folded. I even folded pocket nines in pretty late position, and if you knew anything about my superstition/obsession with the number nine, you’d be more impressed than I’m sure you already are. And still there were thirteen of us and the blinds and antes went up again and my pile kept getting smaller, and then, with six players left at my table and a still medium sized stack in front of me, I was dealt QJ again, this time on the button. A short stack went all in, and a shorter stack called, and I was stuck with a big, unwelcome decision. If I called and won, I’d go to the final table with a huge stack – if I lost, I’d be the short stack at the table. But the two players already in had been pretty steady all day, so they either had high pocket pairs or ace-something, making my QJ very foldable. The odds of winning were against me but the pot odds were incredibly juicy. I took several deep breaths, looked at my pretty picture cards, then at all those chips in the middle, then my cards again (thinking maybe they’d turned into twins) and decided that, dammit, I was going to that final table, and then mucked. (Ten years, later, I’m thinking, you were thinking of calling two all-ins with QJ off!?!) I think it was my best play of the day; I would’ve thought so even if quad aces hadn’t ended up winning the hand. And then, just like that, at the other table, two players went belly-up, the floor manager called a break, and we were down to ten and on to the final table.
During the break, Dad seemed more thrilled than I was, advised me to loosen up, get a little more aggressive, and then set himself up on the rail after recruiting me a little rooting section that consisted of himself and a couple of linebacker-huge, grinning 25-year old Samoan-American guys wearing gold chains and Niners jackets. I felt strangely calm.
I was in about middle chip position as the final table began and decided to stay stonelike for a while—with each player that folded I’d make more money, and at that point, that was my plan, to sit tight for some cards and move up that payout ladder. Luckily, the first five hands or so I got nothing, and quickly three of the final ten were gone. Then things started to happen in a hurry. I’m sorry to say the adrenaline simply wiped out any memory of my actual hands, but I quickly started getting pretty nice cards, and I’m pretty sure I won three of four hands in rapid succession for medium to substantial pots. We were now down to four. My opponents were a young soft-spoken guy who I later learned was an orchestral conductor for a local girls’ chorus of some repute; a friendly, middle-aged jokester poker dealer named Walter; and a tricky player who’d been sitting to my left all day who I’m almost positive pretended not to speak English in order to mess with his opponents (space prohibits further elaboration) and who I’d been in some big hands with and really wanted to beat the crap out of. We proceeded. I beat my nemesis out of a hand that he was weakly bluffing on, then he beat me out of one when he acted the exact same way he did with the transparent bluff but then, smiling mutely, turned over pocket queens. Walter went bust, and then we were three, with me the overwhelming chip leader.
Then, all at once, adrenalized focus gave in to panic and dread as I realized I was in way over my head. Playing short-handed is a very different game from playing at a full table. It requires experience that I have absolutely none of outside of a simulated computer version. It requires spot statistical analysis that I am just not built for. It requires cojones as big as bowling balls. As the number of players gets smaller, the range of hands you should play gets correspondingly larger, and I suddenly lacked all confidence in knowing what those hands could possibly be. I was sitting pretty, with a pretty substantial chip lead, but felt like I was ready to crumble at any moment, to start giving it all back to the real players who deserved to win.
Then soft-spoken conductor guy turned to me and said the most beautiful, unexpected words: “You wanna make a deal?” This often happens in tournaments, but I had forgotten all about it. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, the difference between the payouts for first, second, and third is great enough, and the time it might take to finish is long enough that it’s often worth just splitting the winnings proportional to chip count. We looked over to the silent sharpie, who, in third place by a ton, seemed to understand the word “deal” quite well and nodded and smiled. And so we all agreed and the floor manager worked out the details of the cut and my little fanbase was clapping, people were shaking my hand, and the floor man was handing me a crisp pile of seventeen hundred-dollar bills while his cohort asked me how to spell my name and told me to smile for the camera. I smiled, big, the flash flashed, and that was that. I had won. I had won a no-limit hold ’em tournament, with my dad there rooting me on. Over a fancy steak dinner, we giddily recounted the day, and for once in my nearly twenty-year adult life of going out to meals with him, I eagerly picked up the tab.
Once the elation faded (and don’t get me wrong, a week later, it’s not gone yet, just faded a bit) the most important thing I learned and that the TV and the books and the software don’t want you to think about is that, especially in tournaments, where pros can’t just go buy more chips to come back and smack the dead-money rookie back down after a bad beat or two, luck is a huge factor. And that’s why a Moneymaker will sometimes get to the final table of a tournament, maybe even win the damn thing, once. (You may notice you usually don’t even see those guys at a final table a second time.) But people like T. J. Cloutier, Chris Fergussen, Doyle Brunson, and, yes, Annie Duke, that top one-tenth of one percent of one percent, are the geniuses, the rocket brain surgeons. They have the discipline and incredibly even keels, the math brains, the game theory brains, the psychological insight, the intimidation factor, and a few of them (John Hennigan, I’m told), well, some call them psychic—they just seem to always know what cards you have. The rest of us just fight for our little pieces of the middle and hope for some luck. That’s why there’s no casino called “Psychological Acumen and Statistical Reasoning.”
While I didn’t get the best cards on earth that day (Monday, March 8, 2004, by the way)—never had a pair of pocket aces or kings dealt to me, never rivered a flush or a full house or even a set—I did get dealt ace-king four times, and each time it came through, large. I played just fine, if a bit too passive, until I was the big leader, and I did properly push my opponents around with my stack once I was that leader, but the cards supported me every time. Solid play, a good chunk of luck and not a single bad beat. I can live with that. Heck, I can retire with that—maybe. Yeah, right