American sports and folklore are full of epic tales in which the hero snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. The buzzer-beating basketball shot to win the championship, the Hail Mary pass with no time left on the clock, Truman's 1948 election victory despite nationwide headlines proclaiming Dewey the winner.
The same thing occasionally happens in tournament poker. The ultimate example was the late Jack "Treetop" Strauss' come-from-behind victory in the 1982 World Series of Poker.
Strauss was one of the giants of poker in the days when the only thing harder for a professional poker player than winning money at the tables was collecting it and getting out of town in one piece. In Strauss' day there were no luxurious public card rooms or online poker sites run by regulated public corporations. You "faded the white line" — drove the highway — to whatever town was said to be fixin' to hold a big game, talked your way into the game, beat the game and ran for your life.
In the very first World Series of Poker, held at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas in 1971, Strauss finished second to Johnny Moss, the dominant player of that decade. He never came that close again to a world championship until 1982.
At the 1982 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Strauss got involved in a huge pot against a lone opponent. When the last card was dealt, Strauss pushed all his chips into the pot on a bluff. When his opponent called it appeared that Strauss had been eliminated. He stood up from the table, put on his coat and prepared to depart. Then he noticed a single $500 chip on the table underneath a cocktail napkin alongside his drink. He was still alive, though barely so.
He took off his coat, sat back down, moved all-in on the next hand and won. He moved in again and doubled again. Two days later he had all the chips, beating Dewey Tomko (a former kindergarten teacher and still a top professional player) in a heads-up battle to win the title.
Strauss' improbable comeback victory has given rise to the saying that "all you need is a chip and a chair" to have a chance to win the World Series of Poker (or any other tournament).
I had my own "chip and a chair" experience for the first time in a no-limit hold' em tournament at the World Poker Finals, held at Foxwoods in November 2005.
I was one of 1,245 players who competed for $625,125 in prize money. Shortly before the dinner break on the first day of the two-day event, I was cruising along with well above-average chips. I picked up A-A in late position. The pot already contained 2,200 chips from the blind bets and antes. I opened the pot for 2,000 chips. A player holding K-K raised, and I re-raised all in. He had fewer chips than I, and called for all that he had.
The flop came 8-8-5. Fourth street brought a 7. Unless one of the two remaining kings came on the river he would be eliminated and I would become one of the chip leaders. I was a 21-to-1 favorite. When the dealer turned over a king on the river, I felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus.
I couldn't believe it.
Instead of eliminating a player I was on the verge of elimination myself, with barely enough chips to pay the blinds and antes for one more round. It was torture to spend the next hour during the dinner break re-living that hand while waiting to return to the table for the executioner to deliver the inevitable coup-de-grace. I was aware of the Jack Strauss legend, but I had never actually seen anyone come back from such a position to win, let along done it myself.
Like Strauss, after dinner I went all in five times and won all five hands. Within an hour I had rebuilt my stack to the level it had been prior to the A-A vs. K-K disaster. By the time play adjourned for the night, I had twice the average number of chips and was in good position to make a run for the final table. In the end I finished second and claimed more than $87,000 of the prize money, my biggest win to date.
I did not expect to re-live that experience any time soon. But last week at the 2007 World Series it happened again.
I was playing in a single-table tournament. Ten players each put up $500. The winner got $5,000. About halfway through the tournament I flopped a straight. I was holding 10-9 and the flop came K-Q-J. I checked, my opponent bet and I moved all in.
He called quickly, as he held Q-Q and had flopped three queens. An 8 came on fourth street. Unless the board paired — giving my opponent a full house — he would be eliminated and I would be the chip leader.
I was a 3.5–to-1 favorite. But the dealer delivered another king on the river and I had to ship all but 600 of my chips to my opponent. I had enough left for only two more rounds of blinds. A few hands later I pushed all in with the Q-9 of hearts. Four other players called. I stood up to leave. But somehow I won that pot, quadrupling my miniscule chip count and giving me enough to wait for a hand.
Two hours later there were only two of us left and I had 75 percent of the chips. I agreed to split the prize money 75-25 and paid silent tribute the late, great Jack "Treetop" Strauss.