On my way over to the $2,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'Em event, I reviewed my notes from poker camp, particularly the advice from poker pro Phil Gordon who was head and shoulders the best teacher I had at camp.
I took my assigned seat and waited to scope out who my opponents would be. I was not a happy camper when Alan Goehring took the seat to my immediate left, and Carlos Mortenson took the seat to his left. Alan is a 42-year-old retired New York junk bond trader, who says he plays poker for fun, not for the money. He won the $1 million World Poker Tour championship last year, and has made a number of World Series final tables including the final table of the championship event once.
Carlos "The Matador" Mortenson is a 33-year-old professional poker player from Spain. He burst onto the tournament scene when he won the World Series championship in 2001. He won a million dollar tournament at the Bellagio last year, and has been a regular at the final table of World Series and World Poker Tour events. He is regarded as one of the most dangerous opponents on the circuit, as he is capable of playing any two cards. You just never know what he has, and he bets so aggressively you have to be prepared to risk death to challenge him.
Having to act before those two players in every hand was a HUGE disadvantage. Players like Alan and Carlos feast on less experienced, conservative players like me. I felt like a minnow tossed into a fish tank with two piranhas.
As I sat there thinking about how to adjust to this unfortunate situation, I spotted Phil Gordon settling into his seat at a nearby table. I decided that my poker camp tuition entitled me to a post-graduate refresher, so I went over and asked him for advice. Basically he recommended that I tighten up my opening hand requirements for the first few hours, and not play any hands that I would not be prepared to raise with and to call a re-raise from Alan or Carlos. He also predicted that because of their highly aggressive style, the odds were that both of them would bust out by the end of the third hour and my problem would go away.
In contrast to the satellites I had been playing in, which are designed to end within a short time, World Series events are designed to give the players more time to wait for good hands and good opportunities. Skill is a more significant factor, and short-term luck less so.
It turned out that having two strong, aggressive players on my left helped me play my best game. I was less tempted to limp in with marginal hands hoping to hit a big flop, as I had to assume that if I limped one of them would smell weakness and raise, forcing me to throw away my hand and waste the bet I had made.
No limit hold'em is a game of position. Being the last to act is a tremendous advantage, and being first to act is a big disadvantage. For that reason, unless you are a world-class player like Mortenson, you play very few hands in early position, and as many as possible in late position. The only time I would have a positional advantage on Alan and Carlos would be when they were in the blinds and I was last to act.
After throwing away a dozen or so unplayable hands, I picked up the jack and ten of clubs on the button. Everyone folded until it got to me, and I opened the pot for $75 (three times the amount of the big blind, a standard pre-flop raise). Not surprisingly, both Alan and Carlos called, since they had already posted $25 for the blinds and it only cost them another $50. They figure position does not matter so much against an amateur player, as they expect to be able to outplay me from any position.
The flop came eight-six-three with two clubs. All three of us checked. The turn card was the lovely 7 of clubs, giving me a flush. Alan bet $200 into the $225 pot. I was confident I had the best hand, but did not want to take the risk of another club coming on the river. While Alan might be bluffing, he probably was not betting without some "outs" in case he got called – either a straight draw or the ace of clubs. So I moved all in, making it clear to him that I had a flush and that he would be a big underdog if he called in the hopes of catching another club on the river.
A less conservative player would have just called, in order to try to trap Alan for another bet on the river if a safe card appeared. But the way I had been running all week, I preferred to lock up a small win in the first pot I played. He got the message and folded. It felt great to stack the chips.
By the end of the first hour when the blinds went up, I had increased my stack from $2,000 to $3,150. Alan had lost a sizeable pot to Carlos, and had pulled in his horns waiting for a strong hand. Carlos had doubled up to about $4,000 and was constantly chopping away and picking up small pots from players who were afraid to call his raises.
I was the tightest player at the table, throwing away hand after hand after hand. I had only played two pots, and had not shown my hand either time. When I picked up the ten-nine of diamonds in middle position I decided it was time to exploit my tight table image. I raised, and everyone folded. Sweeeet!
Now we're playing the game! Not long after that I picked up my first premium pair, queen-queen, in late position. One player had called the $50 blind, so I raised it to $200. Carlos tossed in another $150 to call. The guy who had just limped in for $50 initially now re-raised to $800. He had been playing a lot of hands, and had shown down a number of hands with lesser cards than his betting indicated. In short, he overplayed a lot of hands.
I could not assume he had me beat, so I called with the expectation that if an ace or king came on the flop, I would not put any more money into the pot. Carlos folded. There was $1,850 in the pot at this point. The flop came ten-six-four with two spades. The limper moved all in for $1,100. Now I was sure I had him beat. No way he pushes all in if he has aces or kings. It was the kind of overly aggressive bet that is hoping not to be called.
Finally, the odds evened out for me. I had been outdrawn so many times in the past week, I figured the cards had to even out some time. No ace or king came, and I busted him. My chip count was now up to $5,200, more than double the starting amount in less than two rounds!
When the blinds increased at the start of Round 4, I had about $4,200 in chips and Carlos had about $6,000. By this time Alan Goehring had been eliminated (as predicted by Phil Gordon). I picked up a pair of nines three seats from the button. Carlos called, as did the big blind. The flop came seven-five-four. The big blind checked and I bet $1,200, in an effort to lock up the pot right then and there before any overcards could come.
I was not happy when Carlos called. I had to consider the possibility that he had both a straight draw and an overcard, such as ace-six suited. He had been playing all kinds of suited connectors and suited aces. I didn't think he had an overpair. But I was nervous just being in a pot that size with him, especially out of position.
When an eight fell on the turn, I was not a happy camper. I checked and Carlos moved all in. I took a long time to make my decision. Had it been any other player at the table I would have had to give him credit for the straight. But Carlos was clearly capable of making that move when a "scare card" appeared, especially given my obviously tight and cautious play up to that point. So I swallowed hard and called (all in).
He tapped the table and said "good call". I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But I still had to sweat the river card. Carlos turned over the ace-three of diamonds. He had flopped a straight draw, and had 5 outs to beat me (any ace or deuce) and four cards to tie (any six). Luckily none of them came and I doubled up at his expense.
Later, Carlos was eliminated by another player and I breathed a big sigh of relief, and silently acknowledged again Phil Gordon's wisdom.
When Round 4 ended, there were 440 players left out of the 1,072 starting field. That meant the average stack size was $4,872 and I had $10,300. Then as the fifth hour began, the blinds remained at $100 and $200, but now each player was required to post a $25 ante in addition before the flop. With nine players at the table, there would be $525 in the pot each hand before the cards were dealt. As the leading book on tournament play says, Round Five is "when the carnage begins."
Players start dropping like flies, as the small stacks take risks in a desperate but necessary effort to accumulate chips, and the big stacks lay in wait for them.
I had been trying to get a read on the player who filled Carlos Mortenson's seat two chairs to my left. He was wearing a championship gold bracelet, indicating that he had won the World Series 7-card stud event in 2000 (or had borrowed a friend's championship bracelet for effect). He appeared exhausted, and was laying his head on the table to rest between hands. I was less intimidated by his physical presence and the bracelet than by his hand protector – a big rubber pterodactyl with huge red teeth. Definitely the coolest card protector I had run across all week, except maybe for the mysterious Petri dish.
Unfortunately I never got to find out how he played, as they closed down my table and redistributed us into seats at other tables that had been vacated by people who had busted out. I was unhappy to have to move from my lucky seat, and from a table where I had come to know the playing styles of all but the most recently arrived players.
I was sent to a table that looked fairly safe. There was only one recognizable pro at the table, Kenna James. I had played at the same table with him in the championship event in 2003, and impressed me then as a very strong player. He is married to one of the top women players, Marsha Waggoner, and used to be an actor before he turned poker pro. Clearly a player to respect, but not as dangerous and unpredictable as Carlos Mortenson. Best of all (for me), he had a small stack and was not in a position to wait for big starting hands.
I was just getting comfortable at my new table when a player busted out and the vacant seat (two seats to my left) was filled by Humberto Brenes, one of the most talented and successful pros on the tournament circuit. He is one of the top money winners every year, with countless titles and final table finishes including the World Series championship event.
With about a half hour to go before the 6:45 dinner break, I picked up a pair of queens in late position. The player on my right raised to $800, a little less than three times the amount of the big blind – pretty much a standard raise. Believing that I probably had the best hand, I re-raised to $2,400 – a standard re-raise of three times the raiser's bet. Unexpectedly, the player in the big blind moved all in! The player on my right who had started this raising war quickly folded. I assumed he had raised with a weak ace or a middle sized pair, and knew that either the big blind or I (or both) had stronger hands than that.
I called the all in bet without hesitation. The only hands I feared were pocket aces or pocket kings, and if I was unlucky enough to run into one of those hands, so be it. You can't win at no limit hold'em if you run away from the third best starting hand in the face of a raise.
The way the big blind hesitated before putting his chips in the pot led me to feel pretty confident that I had the better hand. And I did. He turned over ace-king. For whatever reason he had decided to gamble on a race for virtually all his chips. He had to assume that either the player on my right or I had a big pair, and I had almost as many chips as he did. I was a 57-43 favorite before the flop. I pleaded with the dealer to bring low cards. And he did. The flop had nothing higher than an 8. Now I was a 76% favorite to win. Again I called for a low card, and he dealt a 4 on the turn. My odds went up to 86%. One card to go, and I would be one of the chip leaders going into the dinner break.
I can't begin to describe how it felt when the dealer turned over an ace on the river. I was stunned, and felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus. I stared at the cards, not wanting to believe it. Instead of being one of the chip leaders, in great position to make it into the money and with luck, a shot at my first World Series final table, I was knocked out in 288th place. For nearly six hours I had played my best poker, only to see my hopes dashed by one heartbreaking final card.
After calling home, I sat and replayed the hand over and over again in my mind. I beat myself up for an hour or two, but eventually came to peace with my decision. It helped to counsel with other more experienced and talented pros. I went over to the hospitality suite hosted by the poker web site FullTilt.com, where I found Erik Seidel and asked him what he would have done in my position. He agreed it was a judgment call, but unless he had a strong read on the other player that indicated he was up against aces or kings, the pot odds dictated a call. Being content that I made the correct decision does not ease the crushing disappointment I still feel.
For now, all I can do it review my notes of my play for the past week, learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others, and get back up on the horse next week when 6,600 of us will compete in the $10,000 championship event. It would certainly take the edge off my disappointment if I finish in the money in the championship event for the first time.