I decided not to play in Thursday's event, the $2500 No Limit Holdem 6-Handed tournament. Short-handed play is a specialty all unto itself. It is offered at many of the online poker sites, and there are online players who specialize in 6-handed play. I am not one of them. I have very little experience with the game, and I did not view this event as a good opportunity for me.
I thought it might be good to take a break from the madhouse of the World Series for a day. I checked out the poker tournaments being offered at other casinos around town, and decided to go to the Mirage which was holding an afternoon tournament with a $300 buy-in. I slept late, ate breakfast, bowled a few games for exercise, showered, and headed over to the Mirage.
In the late 1980's and early 1990's I used to go to the World Series just to watch the final table of the main event, and to cover the final table play for Card Player magazine. I generally stayed at the Mirage, which had the top poker room on the Strip at that time. (In those days poker was not popular and only a handful of Las Vegas casinos had poker rooms.) I played in the small stakes games there during the day, then went downtown to Binion's to cover the tournament at night.
So it was nice to visit the Mirage, even though the place has been substantially made over and the poker room has been eclipsed by those at Bellagio and Wynn as the places where the major games take place. It was a bit sad to see how empty the Mirage poker room was, compared with the long waiting lists they used to have. Even sadder, I was the only one who showed up for the afternoon tournament so they cancelled it.
I had just enough time to catch a taxi over to the Bellagio for their afternoon tournament, a more expensive $1000 buy-in event. I shared a cab with a nice couple from Iowa and the 5-foot tall plush giraffe they had bought at the Mirage for their daughter. I love Las Vegas. Where else are you going to share a taxi with a giraffe?
The Bellagio now hosts the top poker room in Vegas. It is huge, plush and humming with high stakes poker action. It includes a separate glass-enclosed room where the highest stakes game in the country takes place each night as the top professionals compete against the super rich for million dollar pots. In poker circles, it is referred to simply as "the big game". Regular players include Todd Brunson, Johnny Chan, Ted Forrest, Chau Giang, Jennifer Harmon, Howard Lederer and Phil Ivey. A highly publicized epic contest took place recently over a three year period , involving 7 competitions between a wealthy Texas banker named Andy Beale and a group of the top poker pros. Each side put up $10-20 million in each match, and played a series of heads-up games. Tens of millions were won and lost before Beale called it quits. The whole saga is memorialized in a fascinating book titled "The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King", by Michael Craig.
In return for the $1000 buy-in (plus $30 for the house), each player was issued T5000. The blinds started at T25/T50 and went up every 40 minutes. That was the good news. The bad news was that they had such a large starting field we would have to play 11-handed until the field shrank. .
During the first round I won a few small pots, including one hand where I was dealt A-A, made a standard opening raise, and everyone folded. When round two got under way I had T5675. I won a few small pots, and laid down a few hands after the flop when I gauged I was in second place. Then I picked up 10-10 in late position. A player on my right made a standard opening raise. I re-raised, to see whether the original raiser would call or re-raise. I had position on him, but wanted to try to get a handle on whether he had a higher pair (as distinct from the statistically more likely A-K or A-Q) . My attention quickly shifted from him to the player in the big blind, who doubled my raise! The original raiser folded. If I had had my wits about me, I would have done the same. Ordinarily the third raiser before the flop has A-A or K-K. If the big blind had the hand he was representing I was a 4 to 1 underdog, and should fold. But I reacted instead by moving all in, trying to bully him into folding if he had K-K or A-K. He quickly called and turned over A-A. No ten came to save me, and I was eliminated.
I made my way from the Bellagio poker room to the main lobby to get a taxi back to the Rio. There I encountered none other than Bernie Nash, resplendent in a dark suit, engrossed in conversation with two Pfizer lawyers. We talked briefly, I declined their generous dinner invitation and headed back to the Rio to get ready for Friday's tournament.
After paying my entry fee for Friday's $2,000 No Limit Holdem event, I took a seat in the next $525 STS. I was cruising along nicely until I flopped top pair and ran into an opponent who had flopped three of a kind. Maybe a better player would have figured out he was behind and gotten away from the hand, but I doubt it. I played the hand aggressively in the belief I was ahead, and lost most of the chips I had built up. At that point I was down to T800 (each player had started with T2000) . After paying the blinds and antes I was down to T550 and had to make a move in order to accumulate some chips. I moved all in before the flop with a suited K-7. Two players called. When the flop came K-7-7 (a full house for me) I tripled up. By the end of that round I had built my stack up to T4300. With only four of the original ten players remaining, par (average) was T5000. I was below par, but only one pot away from being in position to win. When I was dealt a suited K-7, I just had to play it. I got lucky again and knocked out a player. That left three of us, with the chips fairly evenly divided. We agreed to take $1,000 each, and play for the remaining $2,120. Fifteen minutes later the other two players were out and I collected a total of $3,120 for the win. In addition to the cash, I had found a new lucky hand: K-7 suited. Many poker hands have nicknames. 9-5 is a Dolly Parton. 10-4 is a Broderick Crawford. K-K is "cowboys". There are many names for Q-Q, including Siegfried & Roy, "the ladies", Mary & Elizabeth, etc. K-J is Kojack. My favorite is A-K which has been known for many years as "big slick" (for reasons no one can remember) but has become known more recently as Anna Kuornikova ("looks great but doesn't win very often"). I have never heard anyone give a name to K-7. Since it sounds sort of like "king salmon", and since the best king salmon comes from Bristol Bay in Alaska, I named it Bristol Bay.
After dinner I caught up with Adam Green, a poker buddy from D.C. who is not only a successful tournament pro but also the country's leading expert and dealer in ancient Tibetan coins (see his web site, www.tibetancoins.com). He is a fascinating guy who has pursued many different paths during the first 40 years of his life, reads broadly, is extremely knowledgeable and interested in Eastern religions and cultures, and scarcely fits the stereotype of a professional gambler. We went to dinner at the excellent Italian restaurant in the Gold Coast hotel, where we were joined by a mutual friend, Rich Korbin of PokerStars.
I am not sure of Rich's exact title at PokerStars, but he is involved on the marketing and player relations side. In addition to overseeing PokerStars' hospitality suite (which won the "best food" award hands down) Rich is also responsible for seeing that things go smoothly at the WSOP for the hundreds of PokerStars players who have won World Series seats playing in satellite tournaments online at PokerStars during the course of the past year.
I took advantage of the opportunity to lobby one of the top executives of the second largest online poker site with regard to one of my pet issues – the risk of a scandal in tournament poker, and the preventive steps I believe can and should be taken by the tournament directors and sponsors. (This was the topic of one of my cbsnews.com articles last November, titled "Tournament Poker's Great White Shark.which has been widely circulated within the tournament community, as it brings out in the open a subject everyone talks about privately but is afraid to talk about openly.) Because the risk of collusion is much lower online than in live play (as the major sites like PokerStars have invested millions of dollars in fraud detection software that can detect patterns of unusual or abnormal play, just like the software used by credit card companies to flag unusual patterns of purchases), the online sites have not paid a lot of attention to the issue. But I believe they have as much to lose as do the World Poker Tour sponsors and ESPN and the Travel Channel and Harrah's if there is a major public scandal in tournament poker.
I climbed down off my hobby horse long enough to listen to Rich's engaging tales of the interesting and absurd things going on today in the high stakes business of poker, now that poker has become a big business. Most of the stories he told to me were related "off the record," so I will honor that and not repeat them here.
Somehow we got to bragging about our bowling skills, and I challenged them to join me upstairs for a bowling match. Rich quickly realized he was being hustled and begged off. He joined Adam and me for the first game (and won a side bet he made with Adam), but headed back to his hotel at that point. Adam and I bowled a few more games before calling it a night. (Yes I beat him, but we did not make any wagers.)
By Ken Adams