This report by Ken Adams is part of a series for CBSNews.com offering commentary on the world of poker.
November 2 was my grandson's first birthday. I celebrated by placing second out of a record field of 1,245 in the $500 No Limit Hold'Em event at the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods (Connecticut). I collected $61,821 in prize money, and in the process broke the hex of the "dinner break curse."
While of course I wanted to win, my primary objective going into the tournament was to finish in the money. Even the best tournament players in the world can't expect to win a lot of tournaments with starting fields as big as this, but they finish in the money consistently. No matter how well I think I am playing, until I get to the point where I finish in the money more consistently than I have in the past I cannot kid myself that I am playing at a high level.
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Each player started with $1,500 of tournament chips. The small blind and big blind started out at $25 each, and were increased every 50 minutes.
After the first six hours of play, I had increased my chips from $1,500 to $15,625 and had only shown five hands. I had won 20 uncontested pots by raising before the flop and, when called, betting aggressively after the flop. I had a conservative table image, and people tended to assume that when I raised I had a strong hand. I was able to capitalize on that by raising a lot in late position with hands that I would have had to fold if anyone had played back at me. That only happened once or twice.
That is one of the big differences between a $500 buy-in event, populated by lots of inexperienced amateur players, and a $10,000 event in which all the experienced pros compete. The pros play much more aggressively, and would never have allowed me to pick up so many uncontested pots.
Things continued to progress nicely along these same lines until just before the 6:30 dinner break. Historically, the dinner break has been a major line of demarcation for me. When I have made it past the break in decent chip position, I have finished in the money.
Unfortunately, I have an unlucky history of going broke just before the dinner break. The last time it happened, I vowed that in the future I would throw away the last few hands before the dinner break without looking at them, in order to avoid the "dinner break curse."
Well, I didn't keep that promise to myself. On the second to last hand before the dinner break I picked up a pair of aces, the strongest starting hand in hold'em. At that point I had about $16,000 in chips (With about 200 players left, the average stack was roughly $9,000.)
I opened the pot for $2,000 in late position. The player in the small blind re-raised to $4,000. He had about the same number of chips as I did. I moved all in, expecting him to fold rather than risk elimination. He called, and turned over a pair of kings.
I was a 4.5 to 1 favorite before the flop, which came 8-8-5. When fourth street brought a meaningless 7, I was more than a 20 to 1 favorite to take all his chips. The only way I could lose was if one of the two remaining kings in the deck was dealt on fifth street. Of course that is what happened! I jumped out of my chair and screamed in disbelief. It was a $30,000 pot – enough to easily propel me to an "in the money" finish. Instead, he had caught a miracle card and I was as good as dead. With only $1,300 left, I did not even have enough left to post the blinds one more time.
Needless to say I did not enjoy my dinner. It was about as desperate a situation as one can be in, in a no-limit hold'em tournament. Worst of all, it triggered memories of all the situations at the World Series this year when I played well, was in good chip position, and suffered a horrible beat. It just feels so unfair, especially when I watch other players getting lucky and being successful (like the guy with the kings who took almost all my chips).
But at the same time I was not about to give up without a fight. I mapped out my strategy and hoped for the best. My plan was to move all in with one of the first three hands dealt (before I had to post the big blind), and if I won, do it again before the big blind came around a second time. That meant I had to get lucky (or pick up a strong hand) twice in 15 minutes. If I could do that, then I could wait two rounds for a strong enough hand to move all in with again. If I survived that situation, I would then have enough chips to raise before the flop without getting called by marginal hands. With the blinds and antes totaling more than $3,000, all I needed was to steal the blinds a couple times. I didn't like my odds, but at least I had a plan. The rest would be up to the luck of the cards.
The one good break I caught was that I was moved to another table to fill an empty seat, so I was up against a new lineup of players who had not seen my aces get cracked. They would be less likely to come after me than the players at my previous table, who would sense that I was running bad and would tend to come after me with marginal holdings when the opportunity arose to eliminate me.
On the first hand at my new table after the dinner break I picked up the ace-king of clubs. That is a raising hand even when you are not desperate. So I pushed in my remaining $1,100 (I had spent $100 on antes in the final hand before dinner and the newly dealt hand). Another player re-raised, holding ace-queen of diamonds. Everyone else folded, and the two of us saw the flop. Neither of us improved, and I raked in the $4,400 pot.
I soon moved all in three more times with queen-jack, ace-four and a pair of nines — and I added to my stack each time. Then I realized that I was nearly back to the level I had been at when disaster had struck before dinner! I thanked the dealer, and wondered whether the curse of the dinner break had finally been broken.
An hour later, when the blinds and antes went up again, I found myself in the unexpected position of being close to finishing in the money. With 109 players left, I had $20,300 in chips – a little above average. (The top 100 players would get paid. The players eliminated in 101st through 109th place would get nothing.)
Soon, some unfortunate soul busted out in 101st place and a cheer went up as all the rest of us were "in the money." I could hardly believe it. I had been so close to elimination at the dinner break, I was elated to have made a comeback.
At this point in a tournament, ordinarily the play changes from very tight and conservative (as people try to avoid being eliminated just out of the money) to very loose and aggressive. The payout was the same whether you finished 61st or 100th – you got $936 either way. Then the payouts increased to $1,561 for those who finished 41st through 60th, $2,185 for 31st through 40th, and so on. To get more than $10,000 you had to finish in the top 11.
But for some reason, my table continued to play fairly conservatively — and I was able to take advantage of that. During the next three hours I did not have to show down a single hand. I won 11 pots by raising before the flop or betting aggressively after the flop and not getting called. While players at other tables were being eliminated or losing ground to the increasing antes and blinds, I was building my stack nicely at almost no risk.
Ordinarily play continues until you get down to the final table of 10 remaining players. Then everyone quits for the night and the final 10 players return the next afternoon to play to the end. But because the starting field had been so big, it was getting close to 1:00 am and we were not even down to 20 players. The dealers were all working overtime and getting cranky. So the tournament director announced that we would quit for the night when we got down to two tables (20 players). It did not take much longer for that to happen, and when play ended for the night I had $206,000 in chips. Of the 20 surviving players, I was second in the chip count! Not only had I survived, I was in great position to finish in the top five, and maybe even to win it all. It was a great feeling.
The tournament resumed the next day at 4:00. For the first three hours I was not dealt a single premium hand. Meanwhile it cost each player more than $150,000 in chips just to pay the blinds and antes. I played 20 hands during that time, raising or re-raising and either winning the pot uncontested, or being forced to fold in the face of a big re-raise by another player. I only showed down one hand in the first three hours.
A little while later I made one of my best plays of the tournament. I raised in middle position with ace-jack and was called by a fairly loose player who had less than half as many chips as me. The flop came two-two-two and we both checked. When a six came on the turn, I thought it was highly unlikely he had called my raise before the flop with either a two or six. I wasn't sure whether I had the best hand or not, but I was in a position to represent a strong hand (specifically a pocket pair, for a full house) as I had raised before the flop. So I made a pot-sized bet of $48,000 and he folded.
He turned over his cards and showed that he was folding ace-jack. He asked me whether he had folded the best hand. Ordinarily I do not give out any information about folded hands. But he was an emotional player and I thought it might put him on tilt if I showed him my cards, so I turned over my ace-jack.
My other reason for doing that was to send a message to the other players at the table, that I was capable of representing a hand and making a sizeable bet whether or not I actually had the cards to back it up. I was hoping that it might induce someone to call a big bet later when I actually did have the goods.
Soon we were down to 10 players – I had made the final table and was still in second chip position, even though I had not been dealt a single premium hand. Finally, I was dealt a pair of aces in the small blind. A short stacked player moved all in for his last $32,000 with ace-king. I called, and knocked him out. Soon after, I knocked out two other players.
Later I was dealt queen-jack in late position. A short-stacked player moved all in with ace-three and I called. I got lucky and made a straight to eliminate him, leaving only four of us remaining. The chips were fairly evenly divided, though I had the most with about $590,000.
By this time the blinds were up to $10,000/$20,000 plus a $3,000 ante. That meant there was $42,000 in the pot before each hand was dealt. Stealing the blinds and antes became essential to survival.
After some more good plays, I soon had over $1 million in chips; the other three players had less than $900,000 among them.
Not long after, I made what turned out to be a fateful miscalculation. The player with the shortest stack, Mike, moved all in before the flop for $52,000. The player on my right, Kyle, folded. I was in the small blind with jack-seven of hearts, and it would have cost me $42,000 to call. The player in the big blind, Ylon, was in a similar position – it would only cost him $32,000 to call.
I was certain that Ylon would call with almost any two cards, hoping to eliminate Mike. The optimal play would have been for both of us to call, no matter what cards we held, and then to check until the end of the hand hoping that one of us would get lucky and eliminate Mike. The difference in prize money between fourth and third place was significant, so we both would gain by eliminating Mike and moving up a spot in the prize money. On the other hand, I had never played with Ylon before and could not count on his making the optimal play.
I decided I did not want to take the risk that if I called, he might raise and I would have to fold, wasting $42,000 chips. So I folded. As it turned out, I would have won the pot and eliminated Mike. Instead, Mike beat Ylon in that hand.
Later, immediately after I lost a big pot to Mike, I picked up ace-king. I raised before the flop and both of the short-stacked players (Ylon and Kyle) called. The flop came out ace-seven-three, all hearts. Since I had no hearts in my hand, I decided to take the pot right there and not take the chance that another heart would come out to give one of them a flush. So I moved all in, forcing each of them to a decision for all their chips if they wanted to try to outdraw my pair of aces. Both called!!
When they turned over their hands, Ylon had king-nine with the king of hearts and Kyle had king-queen with the queen of hearts. If no heart came, I would knock them both out at once, and would go heads up with Mike for the championship with a commanding chip lead. A crowd formed as the announcer explained the situation. My supporters (and I) were calling for black cards. Ylon's supporters were pleading for a heart. (Kyle was packing up his stuff, as there was virtually no way he could win unless two queens were dealt on fourth and fifth streets.) Fourth street was the harmless 4 of clubs.
I was one card from glory. Then the dealer turned over the 10 of hearts, and Ylon tripled up. Kyle was eliminated, leaving three of us. As a result of my losing a big pot to Mike, and the last pot to Ylon, Mike was the chip leader, Ylon was in second place, and I had the fewest chips.
But later, fortunes shifted and I became the chip leader again with about $750,000, Mike was in second with $650,000, and Ylon was in last place. But before long, Mike eliminated Ylon and became the chip leader again.
On the first hand of heads up play I was dealt king-eight of clubs, a better than average hand in a two-handed game. I raised and Mike called. The flop came seven-four-three and the seven was a club. We both checked.
When the 9 of clubs came on fourth street I decided to make a move on the pot. I bet $200,000 hoping Mike would fold, but if I got called by a better hand I still had "outs" as any club would give me a flush, and I figured my king would also be good if another king came on the river.
I was not happy when he called. But since he did not raise, I figured he did not have much of a hand either. I decided that no matter what card came on the river, I was going to move all in. Having represented strength before the flop, on fourth street and again on the river, I didn't think he would call me unless he had a big hand.
I was right. The only problem was that he did indeed have a big hand. He had flopped a straight with the six-five of spades! By "slow playing" the hand in an effort to get all my chips, he took the risk that I might outdraw him, as I would have if a club had come on the river. But Mike's luck held up, as did his straight, and I was eliminated in second place. (Mike won about $149,000.)
While I am disappointed not to have won, it was a great experience. I can't wait to do it again.
By Ken Adams