Not an auspicious first 48 hours in Las Vegas. When I arrived at my hotel and went to unpack, I realized I had left my backpack on the plane.
Not only did it contain the keys to my car, which is in a parking lot at the airport, but more importantly it contained several lucky items I always keep on the table when I play tournaments -– photos of my family in a silver frame, and an ancient Tibetan coin which carries hundreds of years of powerful protective magic (if you follow the link, it's the one on the top left).
It took me an hour to get over being upset and angry at myself (and to get through the endless United Airlines computerized phone response system to the point where I could leave a voicemail with the flight and seat number and describing the backpack I had lost.)
Eventually I gathered myself and headed over to the tournament area. I stopped at the registration desk to get my player card and my seat assignments for the five events I am going to play in.
When I walked into the tournament area and scanned the sea of 200 poker tables and the hundreds of players, I saw many of the same faces I have seen at the World Series for years and years. What is different about this year is that for every old face, there are a hundred new ones I have never encountered before, many of them in their twenties.
The other thing that is new is the merchandising. There must be 50 tables of vendors hawking every imaginable poker-related item and service. Competition is strong among the Internet poker sites, with hospitality suites and give-aways galore. And of course each has its own coterie of poker rock stars (past world champions) who are wearing that site's logo wear and available for photos and autographs.
I sat down in a $175 single table satellite. Each of ten players pays $175 to play. Each is issued $1,000 in tournament chips (no cash value). The blinds (an ante which must be posted by two players before the cards are dealt) start at $25, and double every 15 minutes. In short, if you throw away every hand you are dealt, you will be out of chips in less than an hour. As the size of the blinds goes up relative to the number of chips in your stack, satellites become a crap-shoot. You have to win one or two big pots to survive and you don't have time to wait patiently for a strong starting hand.
Each satellite comes down to one critical hand you have to win. You try to get your chips in with the best hand and hope to not get unlucky. I didn't.
After busting out of the satellite I bumped into Adam, one of my poker friends from home who plays in my monthly game. He is a world class expert on Tibetan coins, and has the leading collection of ancient Tibetan (and other) exotic coins.
It was Adam who had given me the Tibetan coin (a thangka) that I used as a card protector in the tournament I won in March, and which was in the backpack I left on the plane. When I told him that I blamed the loss of my lucky coin on not having my lucky thangka, he reached into his bag, pulled out another one and gave it to me.
That boosted my confidence and I decided to try one more satellite before going to bed. Since it was only 10:00 Vegas time, Adam decided he would play too. We were quickly seated in a $525 satellite ($5,120 to the winner). I had my new thangka covering my cards and Adam had a rare "srang" on his (a heavy silver Tibetan coin, from the first series of coins ordered by the 13th Dalai-Lama in a move to modernize Tibet's currency in 1909 – very rare.) Early in the first round I raised in late position with a king and jack in my hand. Adam called. Thangka vs. srang. My thangka proved to have superior power and I won the pot. Later, however the thangka's magic was not strong enough for me to win -- or the ancient monks of the Ga-Den monastery where the coin was hand pressed in 1912 did not want me to win, for reasons that are beyond me. Discouraged, I trooped back to my hotel next door and went to bed.
Wednesday, I spent the morning taking care of business, and figuring out how to get a replacement set of car keys sent to me. I reviewed my strategy notes and headed over to the tournament hotel to get mentally prepared for the $1500 No Limit Hold'em tournament that started at noon.
As expected, more than 2,000 players put up the entry fee (or won a seat online) –- an unheard-of number in previous years. All the other players at my table looked line online players –- all in their twenties, with PokerStars hats and sunglasses.
After a few minutes I was dealt a pair of kings in the small blind, a very strong starting hand. I raised and got one caller. The flop (the first three common cards turned over by the dealer, shared by both players) was queen-jack-three. I bet half the pot and he called. When an ace came on 4th street, I was concerned that I might have gotten outdrawn, but I bet as though I had an ace and he folded. My first pot of the 2005 World Series!
I continued to build my stack by betting aggressively, and was cruising along when lightning struck. I picked up a pair of aces in late position, the holy grail of No-Limit Hold'Em. One player limped (just called the amount of the blind) and I raised three times the amount of the blind, my standard raise. The player on my left called and everyone else folded. The flop came king-three-three with two hearts, a good flop for me. It was unlikely my opponent would have called a raise with a three in his hand, and if he had a king it would be hard for him to get away from the hand.
I bet a little more than half the pot, and he called. I narrowed down his likely hands to either a king or two hearts. When the jack of clubs came on 4th street ("the turn"), I bet about two thirds of the amount of the pot, figuring if he had a king he would call hoping he had the best hand, but if he had two hearts he would fold as the pot was not offering him odds anywhere close to the odds against making the flush (with one card to come he was a 4 to 1 underdog). He called. When the 8 of hearts was dealt on 5th street ("the river") I checked and he bet. The pot was too big for me to throw the hand away, so I called and lost to his ace-queen of hearts. The monks must not approve of poker.
After that hand I was well below average and had to play more hands – in short I needed to take some risks in order to accumulate chips. Unlike the satellites, where the blinds go up every 15 minutes, in a World Series event the blinds go up every hour, so there was plenty of time before I would be in jeopardy.
I built my stack back up to $2,700 by the end of the fourth round, when a player at my table busted out and the vacant seat was filled by Andy Bloch, an experienced professional from Montgomery County, Maryland. Andy's parents were not too pleased when he announced, after graduating from Harvard Law School, that he had decided to play professional poker for a living instead of practicing law.
While Andy is not one of the top superstars on the tournament circuit, he is a smart, experienced tournament player whom I should have stayed away from. Instead, I got involved in two hands with him and lost both. Four hours after we started I was eliminated. About two thirds of the field remained at that point.
I had not played my best game after losing the key pot with ace-ace vs. ace-queen, and felt the need to redeem myself. I signed up for the cheapest available satellite, a $50 event. I needed a win to regain my confidence, and did not want to invest much money when I knew I was not in the best frame of mind. The structure of the $50 satellites is a little different from all the others. They play until two players remain, each of whom gets a $225 entry into a "second chance" tournament played at 11 pm each night for those who have busted out of that day's main event. While I played my "A" game most of the way, I finished in third place.
All the experts insist that if you play your best game, and consistently get your chips in the pot with the best hand, eventually the cards/luck will even out and you will be a winner. Counting on that, I decided to try one more satellite before going to bed. I took a seat in another $525 satellite.
The only player I recognized was Barbara Enright, who was one of the top women in professional poker 10 years ago when very few women competed in that arena. It was an amazing table. In the first two hands two players busted out! Within 20 minutes two more players had busted out. However, it ended up being another third place finish for me.
Not my day. I gave up and went back to my hotel to go to bed. The only good thing that happened was that United Airlines found my backpack and had returned it to the hotel, so I got my original lucky thangka back, along with my family photos and car keys.
My next event is the $2,500 No Limit Hold'Em tournament. I am expecting "only" 750 or 800 players to participate. I plan to make the final table. If my pocket aces hold up, I should at least finish in the money.