Ken Adams writes about poker for CBSNews.com.
Recently I drove up to Atlantic City to play in a "mega-satellite" at the Borgata. I consider it one of the best tournament values anywhere. Here is how it works.
Each player pays a $1,000 entry fee. For every 50 players, one $50,000 prize package is awarded. It consists of a prepaid entry to four televised World Poker Tour championship events plus $5,000 cash to help defray the cost of travel and lodging. Two of the four entries are not transferable, but the other two are. My plan, if I won a package, was to sell one entry and play the other three.
To my surprise, 481 players entered; I had expected half that number or less. As I looked around the room I was pleased to see only a handful of recognizable pros, and only a dozen or so experienced amateurs. The rest were all new faces, a number of whom had won their entry fee by playing in the $100 qualifying heats held at the Borgata during the days leading up to the mega-satellite.
With 481 players, there would be nine seats awarded. The remaining $30,000 in prize money would be awarded to the 10th through 12th place finishers, each of whom would win a $10,000 seat in the September World poker Tour championship event.
I got unlucky in the initial table draw. With only 48 tables in play, I started at table 43. After only two levels (80 minutes of play) my table was closed and I was moved to another table. That happened three more times, until I was finally assigned to table 1 toward the end of the eighth level of play at 6:30 p.m.
I find it very problematic to change tables. You arrive at your new table with no information about how the other nine people are playing — who is strong, who is weak, who is passive and easily bluffed, who is aggressive and easily trapped, etc. Most important, who is running lucky and who is on tilt. Conversely, the other nine players have had time to observe and figure out one another's playing styles, and they can all focus on the one new player — you. Sometimes your luck in the initial table draw is an indication of how your luck is going to run at the table. So I was concerned at the outset.
Play began at 11 a.m. Each player started with 10,000 tournament chips. The blinds started out at 25 and 50 chips (small blind and big blind). The blinds increased every 40 minutes..
Nothing happened to alleviate my concern during the first level. I got very little to work with, and only played five hands. I split one pot, won one small pot, and lost three others. At the end of Level One my stack of 10,000 tournament chips had dwindled to 7,725. I had not been dealt a single pair, nor any hand stronger than Q-J.
Things improved only slightly during Level Two. I won three pots with A-K, A-Q and A-K, but lost three others — including one with the only pair I had been dealt all day (7-7). At the end of Level Two, I had nearly worked my way back to the starting point, with a total of 9,075 chips.
After investing 80 minutes in figuring out the other nine players at my table, I was moved to fill an empty seat at a new table with nine new players to figure out. Moving into an empty seat is also worrisome because you have to assume it is empty as a result of some other player getting unlucky and busting out. In short, it hardly figures to be a lucky seat.
Fortunately, that was not true this time. I got lucky in one of the first hands I played at my new table and made a straight on Fourth Street. By the end of Level Three I had built my stack up to 17,500. I still had not been dealt a single premium pair all day. The strongest hands I was dealt in the first three levels were A-K (twice) and A-Q (once).
Just before the end of that level, I was dealt 9-9 — my strongest starting hand of the day. I played it aggressively, but ran into a player holding A-A. It looked like he was about to double up at my expense. The flop came 2-2-2 giving me a full house but giving him a better one. My only chance to win was for one of the two remaining nines in the deck to come out on Fourth or Fifth Street. The odds against that happening were more than 11 to 1. Things got worse when a king came on Fourth street. Now I had only one chance left to catch lightning in a bottle, and the odds of that were 21 to 1 against. Hong, the dealer, then became my best friend, as he delivered a gorgeous 9 on the river!
The poor guy with A-A couldn't believe it. For a moment he was too stunned to realize he had been eliminated. Ever so slowly, he gathered up his stuff and stumbled away from the table. I actually apologized for putting such a horrible beat on him. I know all too well how it feels to pick up A-A and prepare to double up against an inferior hand, only to lose to a miracle long shot on the river. I felt bad for him, but was ecstatic to find myself with the biggest stack at the table.
Five hours into the tournament I was dealt my first premium pair of the day — K-K. After a flurry of raises and re-raises, my lone opponent turned over the only hand I had to fear, namely A-A. Susie, the dealer, started to push him the pot. I objected, and told her "the odds are that he will indeed win the pot, but I am entitled to see five cards first". She apologized profusely. She thought I had said "fold" when in fact I had said "call". Everyone else (including the guy with aces) confirmed that I had called, so she picked up the deck and went ahead with the flop. BOOM — a king on the flop gave me the best hand. For the second time in an hour, I had caught one of two "outs" to beat A-A with a smaller pair. That officially makes August 27 the luckiest day of my tournament career. Never have I pulled that off before.
When that hand ended, and another stunned player had staggered away from the table trying to figure out how he had lost with the best starting hand in hold 'em, a new dealer sat down and dealt the next hand with a new deck. I nearly fell out of my chair when I peeked at my cards and saw the identical two black kings that had been so lucky for my on the previous hand! I raised and a player holding 8-8 re-raised all in. My kings held up, and I busted another player. At that point Level Six ended, and I had 87,250 chips with about half the field still remaining.
Then I went totally card dead. For several hours I did not pick up either a strong hand or a good bluffing opportunity. The only good news was that I got moved again, this time to Table 1. It was my fifth table of the day. But the cards had been kind, and the constant relocation had not hurt me. At least I would remain at Table 1 to the end.
I won a few and lost a few, while the blinds and antes ate away at my stack (and everyone else's). I was down to 77,800 when Level Ten ended, but many of the players with smaller stacks had busted out and we were down to about nine tables (having started the day with 48 tables).
Again the blinds and antes increased. Now there were 9,500 chips in the pot at the start of each hand, and the smaller stacks were at risk of being decimated merely by having to fund the blinds and antes if they did not catch a winning hand or two. After spending about 19,000 in blinds and antes without being dealt a playable hand, I was fortunate to pick up A-K in last position. I raised and the big blind moved all in with A-10. I called and won, eliminating him and moving my stack back up to 80,000.
On the very next hand I picked up J-J in late position. I raised and the player on my left re-raised all in. He had more chips than me, so he was daring me to risk elimination if I called and lost. He had been doing that a lot, taking advantage of his huge stack as he was supposed to do. Most of the time when he did that the original raiser would fold rather than risk elimination. But a few times people called him, and he would turn over hands like 8-8 or A-K or A-J and even A-8 once. When he moved all in I was confident that I had the best hand. If I folded I would be in a position where I would have to take some chances in order to rebuild my stack. On the other hand, if I called and won I would have 160,000 and could afford to play very conservatively, letting other shorter stacks bust out.
In the end, I called, and he turned over A-Q. I pleaded for the dealer to bring low cards. The flop came 9-9-8, making me a big favorite. When another 8 came on 4th street I was one card away from victory. Only a queen or ace could beat me. The dealer burned and turned — an Ace! I screamed in disbelief. Like the players I had busted with my 9-9 and K-K, I was stunned. I didn't want to believe I had been eliminated on the verge of victory. Eventually I staggered to my feet and headed for the exit. Instead of the road to glory, I found myself 10 minutes later on the road to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
What can I say? I played well, got incredibly lucky twice, then got unlucky. That's the nature of this cruel game I love so much. It's a sickness, I guess.