Trip to Vegas

Thanks to a long week-end and a couple of vacation days thrown in, E and I took advantage of some frequent flyer miles and and cheaper than usual hotel rates in Las Vegas a few weeks ago for a spur-of-the-moment respite from the snow in Ottawa. I can highly recommend the new Mandarin Oriental in the City Center complex. Beautiful rooms and very quiet. With no casino in the lobby, it was great to go out to Vegas, but feel like we weren’t living in Vegas.  We caught a couple of shows — the Cirque du Soleil’s O at Bellagio and four white guys from Australia singing Motown hits — that were great fun. Ate some good food. Played some blackjack and craps together. Saw some movies. Walked around a lot. Always a good place for people watching.

I didn’t plan on playing poker as the whole idea was to spend time together for five days. On the second morning, however, E asked if there was a poker tournament during the day that I’d like to play. It’s Vegas — there’s always a poker tournament. It’s been awhile since I’ve played a live tournament but, with more of her encouragement, I entered the 1:00 at the new Aria hotel and casino next door to the Mandarin. It had that new poker room smell and everything.

I had a great time, and met a great mix of tourists and locals. They run one of the best tournament structures I’ve played, short of the World Series, with 30 minute levels and a large beginning stack. Both factors go a long way in watering down the luck factor. I never had aces, king, or queens the whole day, but I was able to pick my spots because my stack never got low. The downside to the structure is that the whole thing takes much longer than the typical Vegas 3-hour tourney.  There were 65 people to start, each receiving $8,000 in chips for a $120 buy-in. Our early dinner plans fell through as I was still playing at 6:00pm.  I finally finished around 8:15pm, celebrating another tournament victory that ended up paying for the whole trip.

Here’s a link to the somewhat blurry pic of my tourney-ending stack from the poker room’s Facebook page (the orange and white chips are each valued at $10k):

 Aria Tournament Winners

Although we got a later start then expected, we had a great dinner.



Mea culpa.  It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything.  I could say I’ve been busy, but that hasn’t really delayed prior posts.  Fact is, I’ve just been kinda lazy about the blog.  I will endeavor to get back on the horse.  Until I get lazy again.

One of the nice perks of life in the foreign service is a few extra holidays.  We continue to celebrate U.S. holidays, but we also observe local holidays.  Thus, I have back-to-back 4-day weeks:  last Monday was Victoria Day while this Monday is Memorial Day.  It happens again with Canada Day and Independence Day both coming in early July.

Last week-end, I was able to take advantage of the Queen’s birthday to catch up with family and friends in Washington for a double celebration.  E and I marked 25 years together (I find myself staring at that after typing it) with a nice hotel, a great bottle of champagne, and a couple of excellent meals.  We had a really fun evening catching up with some A-100 friends over a few pitchers of margaritas at Lauriol Plaza,  one of our favs.

We were in town principally, however, to attend M’s graduation from the University of Maryland.  He chose to forgo the pomp and circumstance (and long boring speeches) at the Comcast Center in favor of a much smaller, more casual Lavender Graduation ceremony.  While I was initially disappointed not to get to see him in robes walking down the aisle in a big ceremony, this was undoubtedly a better experience for all of us.  The speeches and awards were moving, and M will remember graduation as a celebration with some of his closest friends.

I got a little choked up watching Dr. Cordell Black react with a huge smile and a bigger hug when M walked up to receive his diploma.  As an activist leader on campus over the last three years, M has taken a lot of fire from the administration, some of his fellow students, and even a state senator.  As a result, the formality of a big ceremony would not have fit.  This was a much more appropriate send-off.  Needless to say, I couldn’t be prouder of his accomplishments there (not to mention two degrees, both with honors, completed in three years).

At the end of the week-end, M came up to Ottawa with me for a few days to decompress and to catch up.  It was great having him here, although for not nearly enough time.  While I worked, he explored Ottawa, read a couple of books, and got back on the writing horse himself.  We met up for lunch and dinner each day and mostly just hung out.  It was a good week.

Work-wise, it has been incredibly busy.  In addition to the regular consular duties, I am coordinating a huge Embassy-wide project, putting together an outreach presentation for prospective H1B temporary workers, and preparing for a role as a site officer for the upcoming G8 summit.  Things should calm down by the next double 4-day week.

Anti-climactic Ending

I wish I could report from the dinner break with a mountain of chips and momentum, but afraid it was not meant to be. I actually started very strong, building up to about $23,000 in the first level, all from winning small pots. I had Rowland de Wolfe, one of the top pros across from me, and I noticed him stealing several pots from some conservative Danish internet players. I made two moves on his raises pre-flop and he folded both times. Fun stuff.

My growing stack disappeared in two ugly hands, one I clearly misplayed, and the other subject to argument, but I in retrospect, I don’t think I’d play it any differently under the circumstances. The first, I had A-K, raised preflop, and got one caller, a tight player on my left from New Orleans. The flop came A-8-5, and I fired $800. He called. A 4 on the turn, and I bet, he called. The pot now had over $5,000 in it, and the river came a 2 with no flush possibilities. I checked, hoping to win a very nice medium-sized pot. He thought for awhile and bet $5,500. He could have had a 3, but that didn’t make any sense given his call of my raise preflop, and his calls on subsequent cards. Either he was slow-playing a set of 8s or 5s, or he was on a bluff to steal the pot. I knew I was making a poor call as I tossed my chips in. Turned out, he had two-pair, aces and eights. That brought me down significantly.

I built back to about $12,000, again through small pots, and then tangled with my friend from New Orleans again on the first hand back from a break. I had 5-5 and it was folded around to me on the cut-off. I raised to $600, in an effort to isolate the hand to one other person, or perhaps take the pot there. New Orleans called on the button and the blinds both folded. The flop hit my fives, with K-5-4, all spades. I bet $2,000, hoping he wasn’t on a flush draw and, if he was, that he’d have the good sense to dump it given the pot odds. He called. The turn was a benign jack of hearts. Still scared of a potential fourth spade on the river, I bet my last $7,000+. He called instantly, and I knew I was in bad shape. He had hit the nut flush, turning over A-6 of spades. I still had some outs on the river. If a king, five, four, or jack hit, I’d have a full house or quad fives. Still a 4:1 underdog, but at least there was a chance. Alas, the 9 of spades ended my main event.

Disappointing not to go deeper, but I left this morning resolved to play my game and not tighten up too much because of the stakes. In retrospect, although I misplayed the A-K hand, I probably would have lost most of it on the set of 5s anyway. A combination of his strong play and some great cards at the wrong time would have done me in either way.

Per my post yesterday, I still feel the trip was a success. I’m not ready to give up everything to go on tour, but it was a really fun ride.

Thanks for reading and the kind wishes. Now for the long drive home ….

Day Before the Day

I was hoping to have a relaxed day today, visiting the Rio in the morning to get my main event registration squared away, get a quick peek at my table assignment, and catch a movie at the Orleans. On the eve of trial, I’ve often gone out for a movie as I find it the best way to completely distract my brain from the obsession at hand. The “quick run” to the Rio turned out to be much more involved than expected, but could have been much worse had I taken the approach of most of the obnoxious crowd.

The Rio Convention Center had a completely different feel than the same venue last week. The main event apparently brings out thousands of spectators and they jammed the hallways. Harrah’s also sponsored a “Gaming Expo” and re-routed the foot traffic so everyone, player and spectator alike, has to pass through the Expo Hall. The official theme of the expo is, I kid you not, “Girls, Gaming and Gear.” In other words, someone thought it’d be a good idea to combine strippers and poker book publishers.

Now, I’m not talking about women dressed like strippers (although most companies set up to sell something tangible had the requisite trade show booth babes), but real strippers trying to ply overweight chain-smoking guys from Georgia with discount offers from four different Vegas gentlemen’s clubs. Strippers on a mini-stage with a pole. Strippers in a dunk tank. Play one hand of poker heads-up for a free lap dance. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Needless to say, it was very bizarre and more than a little sad to watch wives and kids accompanying a player through the stripper expo to the Amazon room where the tournament is held.

I got there about 12:30, figuring that things might have calmed down a bit after the 12:00 start of Day 1A. Although it makes sense, I was still pretty shocked to see scores of players shuffling in the opposite direction describing into cell phones a bad beat or something stupid someone else had done, resulting in their quick dispatch from the biggest poker tournament of their lives. I saw one guy squatting in a corner whispering into an iPhone while wiping tears from his eyes. I lost count of the number of “can’t believe he called” and “I was so far ahead” explanations. $10,000 gone in less than 30 minutes.

Seeing all of this early carnage was actually good for me in a couple of ways. First, most of the stories didn’t make sense which means most busted out because of poor play. Second, it’s easier to be graceful in failure when so many are ugly losers. I’ll be disappointed if I bust out, no matter what the reason, and I’ll be unhappy if it results from a poor decision on my part. I don’t, however, fancy myself to be the best card player in the world and I know up front I won’t be playing flawless poker. I got lucky in several key hands, winning when I should have lost, to get to the final table last night. I’ll not only need that to happen again, but I’ll also need to get some good cards, to go deep in the main event. If the the cards come wrong and my three tens fall to three jacks or my first hand is aces that don’t hold up, I’m steeling myself to have no regrets. That’s poker and if I got that upset by bad luck, it’d be time to find another hobby.

Anyway, I found the pre-registration room which, I was relieved to see, was pretty empty. I filled out the required television release form and provided my driver’s license for them to copy for tax purposes (such optimistic requirements), and then they looked at the list. No Daniel Harris. Bummer. There were a couple of guys there acting very agitated and taking out their bureaucratic frustrations on the poor overworked staff. I talked one of the staffers, apologizing for their thankless job dealing with over-stressed poker players, into making several calls on my behalf. I made sure before leaving the event last night that I had the Academy organizer’s cell number. He didn’t pick up so I left a message, trying not to panic too much.

After a few calls, we discovered that the WSOP Academy had wired the $10K to the Rio cashier, but that there was no name yet attached to it. Jeff from the Academy called and said that he’d provided my name, but the woman at the Rio who received the information was at lunch when he’d just called her. He said he’d follow-up and give me a call when it was sorted out. I was not thrilled to know I’d have to come back and potentially wait an hour-plus in the line to get into the room and to the cashier, but I tried head off to a the movies in good spirits. At least everyone knows my situation and it’s just a matter of connecting the disparate dots.

As I was pulling into the Orleans parking lot, Jeff called to tell me the Cashier Manager had my ticket and that I was all set. I was intending to see Michael Moore’s Sicko but had missed the early show and instead caught Transformers which started 5 minutes after my arrival. Nothing like super-sized toys battling for galactic supremacy to get your mind off of a silly tournament. I certainly didn’t think about poker for two hours (although I did get kinda misty when Josh Duhamel whined about missing his baby girl … I get kinda pathetic when I’m gone this long).

The return trip to the Rio found even more people in the hallways, and more dead money swimming upstream to get out of the convention center. The line to get into the main hall and the cashier’s cage was unbelievably long. Hoping for a long-shot, I checked in with the pre-registration room to see if perhaps they had dropped off my table assignment paperwork so I wouldn’t have to wait. No such luck there, but I did see Dana, the woman who helped me earlier in the day to track down the right people. I asked her if she remembered my situation and if she knew of any way for me to get to the Cashier without (1) waiting for an hour, or (2) pissing off everyone who was waiting on line. She said she was leaving for the day, but would be happy to walk me through the side door security. With Dana leading the way, we sailed right through, and I had my ticket in hand within 10 minutes. Phew.

As I signed the wire transfer form, acknowledging receipt of the $10,000 ($9,400 goes into the prize pool and $600 to Harrah’s for administration) from the WSOP Academy, and I had very strong urge to just ask for the cash. While my entry is “free”, it does bring home the thought that this is real money, and lots of it.

On the walk back to the parking lot, I ran into a couple of people who had attended the camp and witnessed my moment of glory at the final table. One said I played great and that he put money on me to win it pretty early on in the final table. The other wanted to confirm my name so she could follow my progress, expressing great confidence that I’ll go deep. I chalk both up to my first and last poker fans, but it sure helps build confidence that the highly improbable is possible.

I got back to the hotel, added an optimistic 5 more days on the room reservation (that would get me through Day 3), had a quick bite in the lobby restaurant, and have been following the progress of Day 1A online with the TV (Man vs. Wild marathon on the Discovery Channel at Zach’s suggestion … what an amazing show) in the background. A slate of big names (Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, and Amarillo Slim), along with 400-500 other players, are already gone before the dinner break. That’s $5,000,000 of truly dead money added to the prize pool before I see my first hand.

At any rate, I’m going to go down to the gym, and then try to get to sleep early tonight. Whether I last one hand (the first one out today lost with pocket aces on the first hand), or survive to Day 2, I want to make sure I’m rested and as prepared as possible. Given the numbers, we’ll be playing from noon until approximately 2:30 am before breaking for the day.

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.

Final Table (Finally) at the Academy

After a succession of near misses, I finally made a final table last night. On Day 2 of the WSOP Academy, 185 of us sat down for a tournament structured the same as the nightly Caesar’s tournaments I described in the last post, with a couple of twists. Instead of a typical cash tournament, there is no money distributed for the top 10% of finishers. Instead, the last person standing receives a $10,000 entry into the World Series Main Event. In addition to the camp attendees, all the pros in attendance sat down and played as well. Although the pros could not win the $10K entry, they could (and did) bust out players along the path. Thus, in addition to a mix of strong and weak players attending the camp, we had Greg Raymer, Joe Hashem, Phil Helmuth, Mark Seif, and a slate of other pros. They had a side bet between them with the last pro standing collecting bragging rights and cash from all others.

I sat down to a table with some meek, and some aggressive players, along with Annette15, a pro from Norway (online cash winnings in excess of $3 million despite that fact that she’s too young to compete in U.S. casinos). My first big hand came up early on, when an aggressive player in early position raised to $150, got one caller, and it folded around to me on in the small blind. I found JJ, and re-raised to $450 with the intent of either taking the pot there, realizing that I was a big underdog (if he re-re-raised), or isolating the original raiser. Sure enough, the big blind folded, the original raiser just called, and the other player folded. Isolated against the original raiser, my jacks just improved in value. I was still, however, expecting to let go of them if a king or ace hit the flop (I was less concerned about a queen and would likely bet it if the flop was queen high).

All of those mental preparations, it turned out, were unnecessary. The flop was ideal: T, T, J, giving me a full house. I took some time, and checked, figuring the original raiser would sense weakness. He fired right away with a feeler bet of $500. This, I assume was designed to get some information, but not necessarily to chase me away given that it was less than half the pot. If I raised, he would probably shut down, but if I just called, perhaps he’d keep pushing.

I again took my time and just flat called the bet, hoping that his hand would improve on the turn so he’d keep going. On the turn, an ace hit. I again paused, and checked. I wasn’t worried about his having aces given that he didn’t re-re-raise preflop. The raiser pushed in $1000. I thought about the progression of the hand and put him either on a middle pair, or a big ace. Again, I just called. The river was a 5 — no help. I checked in hopes of getting his last $1500 which he obliged by pushing in as soon as I checked. He went a little white when I insta-called. The full house resulted in lots of oohs and ahhs as the dealer pushed all the chips over to my end (he had 9-9 so my read was right on).

Annette15 showed how she won so much online, getting very aggressive, and just abusing the weaker players at the table. She and I only tangled twice with no real damage either way. She gave me credit for hands both times given my growing chip stack. As the tournament progressed, the tables started breaking with more and more campers busting out. I got lucky twice to keep my steady accumulation going. First, when I hit two pair on the turn with 10-3o to bust a medium stack who overplayed a pair of 9s.

The second hand was a pure fluke, a mistake that turned positive for me. I read the big blind as weak when I was on the button and made a standard raise preflop. Unfortunately, given the quickly rising limits, the standard raise was about half my stack. He talked a lot, and I knew I was behind when he pushed all in, leaving me a with a very tough decision. I had 9-10 of hearts, a good drawing hand, but not a hand you want to go broke with, particularly without the benefit of seeing the flop first. I really would have at least preferred to see a flop, but I had to decide if I was going to proceed with a crippled stack or make a stand with this hand.

I put him on a big ace who did not want me to see a flop, which would have put me as a little over a 2:1 underdog, but the amount of money in the pot was giving me more 2:1 given the amount I had left. It was the right mathematical call, but I knew I’d need to get lucky as I would likely lose 2/3 of the time. I announced that I thought I had two “live cards” as I called the bet and sheepishly turned over my measly suited connectors. My opponent from Dallas was thrilled as he had a pair of queens. I was horribly wrong in my read, and I was well beyond a 2:1 underdog. I needed to get incredibly lucky to survive, with either a straight, a flush, or a miracle two-pair.

Sure enough, the poker gods sent me two more hearts on the flop, giving me 4/5 of a flush with two cards to come. Miraculously, I was now only approx. a 60:40 underdog. I very quietly asked the dealer “one more heart, please” and he obliged with the 7 of hearts on the turn, giving me a flush and converting the queens from a massive favorite to drawing dead (no card on the river could save him). While I was happy to begin stacking my chips, I had to hear about that hand the rest of the night from Mr. Dallas (who did, by the way, still make the final table).

To my immediate left was an incredibly aggressive guy, celebrating his birthday with what looked to be the tournament of his life. He was clearly starting to feel the pressure as we were working our way toward three tables remaining, snapping at his wife to get him something to eat. One thing that became clear, however, was that he was a one move player: All-in, all-in, all-in, typically in the face of a raise. I didn’t particularly want to tangle with him, but when a hand folded around to me in the big blind and with the number of players dwindling, I figured I’d be able to steal his big blind. I raised without even looking at my cards. He looked at his cards, looked at my stack, and pushed all-in. Oops. I’d seen him do it several times the same way, and I didn’t think he had anything. I had him covered (albeit not by a lot), and thought through the bet patterns and his reactions before looking at my cards. Finally, I decided that if I had an ace, a king, or any pair, I’d make the call as I had him on a stone bluff.

I looked at the first card and it was a 4. Not good. The second card was a king. Ugh. Courage of convictions? Rely on the read and hope the poker gods were still with me? Yep. With a “let’s gamble,” I called and turned over K4. The guy went absolutely nuts. “How the HELL can you call me with that shit?!” What an idiot!” yadda yadda yadda. At that point, I knew I was ahead and, sure enough, he turned over 8h 6d. The flop comes king high and the birthday boy took his rant on the road. Mr. Dallas leans over and says “nice call” and that he would have called with just about anything given the way the guy had been playing.

From there, it was a relatively easy cruise, stealing the occasional pot when in position and avoiding any hard decisions. After two more hours, we were down to 10 players, with the final 9 to play the following night for the $10K ticket. At this point, there were two tables of 5, playing hand-for-hand (meaning that when one table finishes a hand, it waits for the other table to finish a hand so people don’t intentionally delay in hopes of the other table busting someone first).

During the first hand, I was the first to act (a position that typically folds just about anything because everyone else gets the advantage of acting after you). I had a bit of a dilemma, looking at Q-Q. This is a monster hand when playing with only 5 players, but any ace or any king has the ability to beat me. I had a little above average with $40,000 or so in front of me, with blinds at $2,000/$4,000 and $300 antes. Thus, the money in the middle totaled $7,500. I thought about it for awhile, looked at everyone else who had peaked at their cards, and raised to $16,000, hoping I could just take the blinds and antes or, at worst, get one smaller stack caller. I was scared to death of the chip leader pushing back, assuming that I’d have to make an uneasy call all-in preflop. If I got a caller and no all-in preflop, I was prepared to dump the queens if a king or ace hit the flop.

The guy to my immediate left thought briefly and pushed all-in. This was actually a very good thing for me because (1) he had fewer chips than I did so worst case scenario I was still alive, and (2) it would likely chase away anyone who wanted to just call. Sure enough, Mr. Dallas in the big blind thought for a long time before mucking his pair of 9s (a very good lay-down). I called immediately and realized I was a huge favorite when my queens faced down against a pair of jacks. Both suits were identical, meaning that the jacks could not get lucky with a flush. No help on the board and we were down to nine.

We play the final table tonight at 8:00 pm during the final banquet of the Academy. There will be a raised platform up front and we’ll play with closed circuit cameras broadcasting to big screen TVs throughout the hall for the others to watch while they eat. The winner gets the magic $10K ticket, while 2nd and 3rd get certificates to a future Academy (not sure what I’d do with that). Each of us get a $300 pair of Oakley sunglasses, so at least I can say I won something tangible on this trip.

This morning’s session was fun in that they announced the final table and had us stand during the introductions. Although all the players are within range of each other, I’m in second place currently with $79,300. The chip leader has $95K and the short stack has about $25K. With the blinds at $3,000/$6,000, and $500 antes, there won’t be a whole lot of options. Each pot will start with $13,500 in blinds and antes. I’ll need to find a strong hand and push as most everyone will either fold or move all-in. I’m intending to play it conservatively in hopes that the small stacks get overly aggressive. If I get a hand, I’ll have no hesitation in moving it all in, but I think my greatest advantage would be playing heads up so I’ll likely get out of the way with anything marginal.

No matter how it turns out, it’s the perfect capper to what has been a very strong week. I’ve gone deep in every tournament I’ve played, and it gives me enough confidence and momentum to go forward with the Main Event, whether I win the ticket or not. I had a good chat with Joe Hachem, the 2005 Main Event winner (Aussi, Aussi, Aussi) who had some good first-day advice.

I’ll update with the results of the final table tomorrow.

Back-to-back Heartbreak at Caesar’s

With a day free before the WSOP Academy, I went over to Caesar’s and registered for their daily noon tournament. Over 250 people paid $200 apiece with the final 18 getting paid. My early strategy continues to work well, playing small pots, stealing blinds when the situation arises, and taking advantage of others’ ill-timed bluffs. In the first level, I took the last $2500 from a tourist overplaying an A-5 and continued to build a stack that was consistently above average for the first 4 hours.

As the blinds increased and antes kicked in, players started to dwindle fast. I ran card-dead for about 45 minutes, very tough in such a fast structure. With 40 players left, I found 6-6 on the button and pushed. I ended up all-in with the big blind who’s A-J did not improve through the flop and the turn. An ugly ace of diamonds, however, killed me on the river, 16 spots from the money. Another good run, very close to the finish, but mild in disappointment compared to the evening session.

After registering for the 7:00 pm tournament, I took a walk and got some dinner. While I love the constant availability of a poker game 24/7 in Vegas, I find myself wishing it were not in Vegas. The “oooh, look, it’s shiny” feeling seems to wear off after about the first 15 minutes, and then all I see are the overweight tourists losing more money than they can afford, and the huge immigrant labor force, legal or otherwise, killing themselves to make the place run. A few choice ‘overheard in Las Vegas’ lines while I was having dinner in the Caesar’s Forum:

— “I told you we shouldn’t bring the baby”
— “… and he’s got this AWESOME personality”
— “What do you mean, all of it? You were only gone 15 minutes …”

At least in the tournament poker room, you don’t see people over-extend themselves. Those playing can usually afford it. In the cash games, the inexperienced are very quickly parted with their money, but somehow it isn’t quite as depressing.

The 7:00 pm tournament was smaller, with about 150 people posting $300 each. First prize was $14K, but only the top 9 paid. Similar to the others, I began building chips early on. This time, however, I found myself surviving a couple larger confrontations (AK v. A-9, and JJ v. 99). I went through a stretch of busting 4 players in a row as the tournament wound down to the final 2 tables. With 12 players left, blinds at $2000/$4000 and antes at $400, I had an above average stack of $45,000. I found KJc (king and jack of clubs) and raised to $14,000. I got two callers, one person on my left who had fewer chips then me and the chip leader who had been bleeding chips quickly. With over $50,000 in the pot, the flop came down 2-5-6 with two clubs. I had two overcards and the second highest flush draw. More importantly, I felt the other two were not feeling confident on that flop.

I moved my last $31K into the pot. The shorter stack to my left quickly folded, and the chip leader went into the tank, thinking hard. I stared him down for 2 minutes while he tried to work it out. He made the call with a 7-6. While he had a pair of 6’s, I was still in decent shape. The table (as was I) was shocked to see him not only call the preflop bet with such a poor hand, but also to call half his tournament-leading stack with such a pair. The dealer flipped over a glorious king on the turn, giving me a big lead in the hand. He had 3 outs: two 7s and one 6 left in the deck that were not clubs. I was sure I was about to take the chip lead and a final table run. Everyone shouted “ooooh” as the 6 of diamonds hit the felt. After a grimmace, and a handshake with the other 5 at the table, I walked in a daze to the parking lot. 2:00 am, 2 seats from the money, and another lesson learned. Thinking it through two dozen times since, I’m not sure I’d play it differently if faced with a similar situation. Perhaps not playing a KJ in early position, but because we were playing 6-handed at the table, it was a stronger hand than nomal. I’ll as the pros at the Q&A later today what they’d have done.

The key to this game is to take what you can from each session and not dwell on the what-could-have-beens. Although this all may sound very depressing, to play so long and get so close each time, all for naught, my spirits are actually doing quite well. For me, what would be truly depressing is to last 45 minutes each time. While it would be tough to find myself in the same situation in the Main Event, I’d still rather die on the bubble than take the long walk without getting the hours of play or feeling like I played too conservatively to give me a real chance of winning.