Free Roll to the Main Event

It’s going to take awhile to get to sleep tonight so I figured I’d update on this unbelievable evening’s events. We had the third day of the WSOP Academy, with the formal classes ending at 1:00 pm and a very quick “shootout” tournament scheduled to take place between 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm. Everyone was then to reconvene at 8:00 in the ballroom for a banquet and the final table of yesterday’s long tournament. I was focused all morning on getting whatever tips I could to prepare for the final table I’d be playing in at 8:00. The material today was a mix of tutorial and “war stories” from three former Main Event winners: Greg Raymer, Phil Helmuth, and Joe Hachem. All good stuff.

With only 1,000 chips and blinds rising every 15 minutes, the 2:00 tournament was an exercise in aggressive play that all but required getting some cards early. The structure did not suit my style very well (which emphasizes controlled aggression and lots of patience), and I figured I’d either push quickly and build a lead, or go bust so I could get some rest before the night’s festivities. Twenty quick hands and I was headed back to the car.

I realized as I walked out of the casino to the parking lot that this was the first time I’d been outside before midnight, other than getting in the car each morning. It was a record 116 degrees outside and I noticed the iPod attached to my car stereo was not responding. It suddenly (duh) occurred to me that if it was 116 degrees outside during the day, that my trunk (where my iPod and camera had been for the past week) was probably 130+. As soon as I got back to the room I brought both upstairs and let them cool off so I could actually touch them, fearful that I’d fried both. Thankfully, a charge of the iPod and a test of the camera confirmed that both survived the Vegas stress test. Amazing.

Anyway, I didn’t sleep in the afternoon, but I did get some much-needed relaxation time. I flipped through the course material on late-stage tournament play, and re-read Doyle Brunson’s chapter on the subject. My intent was to present a very tight, conservative appearance. With over $75,000 in chips, I would have the luxury of waiting for a decent hand before getting too aggressive. I showed up about 1/2 hour before the event, checked in, got some food, and started chatting with some of the others.

We played in a huge ballroom with round tables set up for the 180 people to sit comfortably and eat while we played on a raised stage at the front of the room. They had a television camera and bright lights set up with the live image projected on a huge wall-sized screen. The pros took turns doing the commentary in real time as we played. Initially intimidating, I was really surprised that it wasn’t that hard to tune out the crowd, the cameras and the lights. The commentary, I confess, did have an influence, but I think it was probably positive. Because they were still teaching while we played, it made me play an even more solid game, with very careful attention to how I was sitting, moving chips into the pot, counting chips, etc. I wanted to avoid giving any information or providing an example that would provide “what not to do” fodder for post-hand analysis.

It turned out there were 10 of us, not 9. Among them, a couple of guys who make their living at poker tables, one a Londoner who plays mostly online (and recently won over $250K in the European Online championships), Mr. Dallas from yesterday, and a few amateurs like me. Although some looked more nervous than others, all had played solid poker to get to the final table. I identified up front who I wanted to attack and who I wanted to avoid, who I expected to play very tight and who I expected would get aggressive early.

I did not get great cards over the course of the evening, but I was very patient and waited for the right spots. In my first big hand, I called a $50,000 all-in bet with 7-7, facing down A-8, and coming out on top. That hand moved me into the chip lead which I held until I was down to the final two. I let others knock each other out, moving occasionally to steal a pot every once in awhile, but mostly I tried to stay under the radar.

The second big hand came up when I had the big blind and a guy across the table made a curiously small raise preflop. Blinds were at $5000/$10,000 and he raised to $25,000. The pro from London called, giving me a relatively easy decision. If I have something really strong, I would raise. Otherwise, it’s an easy call to see a cheap flop (bear in mind, I had the chip lead and close to $150,000 at that point with $10,000 already in the pot). I looked down and found a disappointing 8-4 of hearts before making the call. The flop came 3-4-6, a very scary possibility for virtually everyone, given the possible straight. The initial raiser checked, the London pro thought for a bit but checked, and I did the same. Thus, I got a cheap flop and a free turn card.

The turn card was an 8, giving me two-pair. I was still quite concerned about a straight draw, but figured I was well ahead before the river card dropped. I thought about it for a long time, stared down the other two, and moved in $75,000, more than either of my opponents had left. The initial raiser did not take much time, and called. For the moment, I thought I might have just run into three 5s or three 6s. The guy from London then really started thinking hard.

The whole room was absolutely silent as 180 people watched him deliberate. I then spoke up and told him: “Graham, that straight draw is no good. You don’t want to go bust on a draw. Lay it down.” He gave me a big smile, counted his remaining chips, and reluctantly folded a K-7. I was then showing down my two-pair, 8s and 4s, against, unbelievably, an A-Q. The initial raiser was putting me on a complete bluff and had only a deuce on the river as a possible winner to give him a straight. Thankfully, the deuce did not come, and I busted another player.

I ended Graham’s run soon after and I was heads up against Steve from Florida. He had been cleaning out many of the others at the table and I had probably 60% of the chips in play vs. his 40%. I took a couple early pots, switching gears to a much more aggressive game. I got him all-in with my A-8 against his Q-9. No help for either of us on the flop and I was way ahead. He spiked a queen on the turn, however, to gasps around the ballroom. I was now at a decided disadvantage in chips for the first time.

We went back and forth 4 more times, with the chip lead changing hands. Neither of us, however, could win two big pots in a row. I built back up a sizable lead and started leaning on him, raising several pots in a row. In the final hand, I made a moderate raise, inviting Steve to push all-in which he did without a lot of thought, given the size of the pot. I called instantly with A-K and this time it held up against the inferior Q-9, draining the final hand of drama when an ace hit on the flop.

While I’ve won a few tournaments at the local card clubs in San Jose, it was nothing compared to the rush of this final table experience. We did the whole photo of the winning hand in front of the mountain of chips, and the post-win interview. I had a bunch of people come up afterward to offer congratulations and I dreamily provided the organizers with all my pertinent information so they could call-in my registration to the $10,000 Main Event.

I get my table assignment tomorrow and start on Day 1B this Saturday at noon. Because there are so many entrants, there will be four consecutive starting days, beginning tomorrow. If I get through the first day on Saturday, I’ll join the other survivors on Tuesday for Day 2A (Day 1C and 1D survivors play on Wednesday). While it will no doubt be disappointing to bust out early, winning a free ticket certainly makes it easier and I can honestly say if I went home tomorrow without any further excitement, this trip has already exceeded my most optimistic expectations.

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