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Three-Ring Circus

This report by Ken Adams is part of a series for offering commentary on the world of poker.

When I walked into the tournament area of the Rio Hotel on Sunday evening, the room was swarming with more than a thousand poker players. In one section, 1,128 women were competing in the $1,000 Ladies Championship event, which had begun at noon and would continue for three days. In another area, the $1,000 No Limit Hold 'em (Rebuy) event was in its second day, as the survivors among the 752 players who had begun the event the previous day battled for one of the nine seats at the final table. And at the back of the room was the "TV table," on a raised dais with television cameras and boom mikes hovering around and above the table. ESPN crew members buzzed about, checking the lighting and sound. Trying to screen out those distractions were the nine finalists in the $2,500 No Limit Hold 'em event — the only survivors from the starting field of 1,290 players who had begun two days earlier. They were battling for $1.84 million in prize money and the coveted gold bracelet that can only be obtained by winning a World Series event. It was truly a three-ring circus.

That scene would continue every single day, as a giant field of competitors competed in Day One of one event, while Day Two of another event continued with those who had survived the first day's competition, and the final table of a third event played out under the klieg lights on the ESPN sound stage.

In addition, for those of us who were not involved in any of those three events, there were cash games of all sizes and types, and dozens of single table satellites (STS for short) in which 10 people play a mini-tournament — with the winner getting anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on the amount of the buy-in.

Ignoring the fact that it was already midnight for me (Eastern time), I sat down at a $525 STS in which the last person standing would win $5,120 (the rest goes to the house to cover expenses). I recognized two of the other players. Both were seasoned tournament veterans and tough opponents. We each started with 2,000 tournament chips (T2000 — standard notation for tournament chips does not use dollar signs, since the chips have no cash value). The blinds started at T25 and T25 and went up every 20 minutes. An hour and half later there were five of us left. I only had T1200. With the blinds costing T300 each time around the table, I needed to double up soon. I picked up the ace of clubs and king of clubs, a strong starting hand. I moved all in, hoping to at least steal the blinds and add 25 percent to my stack, or beat someone and double my stack. The lone remaining pro called me with 10-10. He was a slight favorite before the flop. No ace or king came, and I was eliminated.

By that time it was about 11:30 p.m. Vegas time (2:30 a.m. for me). Monday's tournament did not start until noon, so I figured I had time to try one more STS before going to bed. Knowing it was late and I was probably not at my best, I decided to play an inexpensive $125 STS. It would be over fairly quickly, and if I got lucky it would cover the cost of my buy-in for the $1,000 tournament on Monday.

An hour later I lost a big pot with a pair of 6s versus queen-jack. I was the favorite, but my opponent caught a jack on the river. At that point I had to move all in with any decent playable hand, lest the increasing blinds eat up what was left of my chips. I pushed all in with A-9. A player with K-J called. I was a 60-40 favorite before the flop, but he caught a king on the flop and I was eliminated.

I felt so tired when I went back to my hotel at 1 a.m. (4 a.m. my time) that I was concerned I might oversleep and show up late for Monday's tournament. After setting the clock radio for 9, I called the front desk and arranged a wake-up call, just to be safe. It turned out to be unnecessary. I woke up at 6 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. So I got up, unpacked my luggage, showered, had breakfast, and went bowling. Yes, you heard me right — bowling.

The hotel I stayed at used to be a stop on the PBA Tour circuit. They have 70 lanes on the second floor, right above the casino. I rediscovered bowling this year when I learned that my law firm competes against other law firms in a local league. I joined the team in February and fell back in love with the sport of my youth. Since I still had the bowling ball and shoes my parents gave me when I captained the bowling team in junior high, I thought I was all set. Not surprisingly, the first time I put them on the shoes didn't fit any more, and when I went into the pro shop at the bowling alley to get new shoes, the pro saw my 50-year-old Manhattanite rubber bowling ball and said to his assistant "Hey Al, come over here and get a look at this. When's the last time you saw one of these?" They were excited to see such a relic. I was annoyed and a bit embarrassed. Then they explained that the technology has advanced a bit in 50 years, and to use my old ball would be like playing with a 1950's wood tennis racquet against players using powerful lightweight titanium racquets. In short I'd be giving up a huge competitive edge. So of course I had to buy a new ball, too. He was right. Five months later, my average is higher than it was at the peak of my high school career.

Knowing that my hotel had bowling alleys, I decided to bring my ball to Las Vegas and bowl instead of going on the treadmill for exercise in the mornings.

After bowling on Monday morning, I went through my prep drill (reviewing a list of reminders not to make the same mistakes that have cost me in the past) and headed over to the Rio to compete in the $1.000 No Limit Hold 'em event. It turned out that 2,890 other players had the same idea. Because they did not have enough tables and dealers to handle the record starting field, they made us play 11-handed instead of 9-handed for the first few hours. With that many hands being dealt, the odds are high that someone has a strong hand and so there is much less "action." The fewer players, the weaker the average hand tends to be and the more "play."

Each player started with T1500. The blinds started at T25/T25 and increased every hour. I was playing well, picking up small pots when I missed the flop but correctly gauged that my opponent did, too, and picking up several big pots when I was dealt a pair of aces (twice) and a pair of kings. (In the latter hand, my opponent had a pair of 10s, also a strong hand. The flop came K-10-4. We both flopped three of a kind. I busted him.)

After two hours of play, I had increased my starting stack to T5500. Then they closed our table and redistributed us among the empty seats that had opened up at other tables. I found myself with Greg Mueller on my left – a former pro hockey player and a very good professional poker player. I got very little to work with at my new table, and my stack started to dwindle.

Somewhere halfway through the fifth hour, with my stack down to about T2600, I lost discipline and patience. I overplayed three mediocre hands trying to run over my opponent each time. Each time (s)he called with a better hand. And by 6:30, I was eliminated.

I had gotten off to a good start, building a good stack in the early stage of the tournament. When that occurs you have to capitalize on it, as it does not happen that often. I was very disappointed with myself for blowing a good opportunity. On the other hand, I know that it always takes me a few days to play my way back into shape after a long layoff. That is why I try to schedule my WSOP trip so that the first event I play is a low buy-in. I know it is not realistic to think I can play once every few months and play mistake-free poker against strong competition. Still, it was a wasted opportunity and I was determined to make amends. So I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the fast food tent set up outside the tournament area and put my name on the waiting list for a seat in the next $525 STS.

When they called the list and I went to the table, I had second thoughts. It was a very tough field: a woman named Bev who used to run the satellite room at the World Series and is a very experienced satellite player; Johann Storakers, a successful young Swedish pro; Jim McManus, author of the highly acclaimed poker book "Positively Fifth Street" and a finalist in the championship event a few years ago; as well as a Middle Eastern player named Ali whom I have seen at all the major tournaments year in and year out. The rest were unknowns.

We started with T1500, and blinds at T25/T25, increasing every 20 minutes. Things were going along fine, I had built up my stack to T2250 playing aggressively but prudently, when I picked up the ace and queen of clubs in late position (a strong hand in favorable position). I raised and was called by McManus (who wrote a great book but is kind of a jerk). The flop came ace of diamonds-6-2 of diamonds. I bet about half the pot, hoping he would call. Instead he moved all in. I was confident that I had the best hand and that he was trying to move me off the pot with either a flush draw or a lesser ace. I was sure he would not make such a large bet with two pair or better, as he would not want to scare me off if he had me beaten. I called and he turned over the 5 and 7 of diamonds. He needed a diamond to win; otherwise I would double up and would be the chip leader. At that point I was a 60-40 favorite. To my chagrin he caught a diamond on the river and I was eliminated. (Happily, Bev knocked McManus out later so he did not profit from my misfortune.)

Feeling I had played well but gotten unlucky, and too stubborn to give up yet, I signed up for a $275 STS. I never won a single hand. The best hand I was dealt was A-10. I moved all in against a player who called with a pair of 6s. She was a slight favorite before the flop — and when a 6 came on the flop it was over.

Next I played a $325 STS. I was eliminated when my A-K flopped top pair (K-8-2), I moved all in and lost to a pair of aces.

At this point, I was having flashbacks to last year's WSOP, when I simply could not catch a break. But I still felt like I was playing well enough to win if the cards would cooperate, and giving up is not something I have ever been good at. So I signed up for another $525 STS. It was a good field — no known pros, and only two people I recognized as regulars at the STS tables. I got my share of cards, made the most of what I was dealt, and eventually it got down to three of us. Then I busted the short-stacked player and was heads up with about a third of the chips. The other guy offered me a split that I did not think was fair, so I made a counterproposal I thought was more fair. He declined, though we agreed to a "save," meaning that whoever lost would get his $525 buy-in back.

In two-handed play, any hand with an ace is strong. But with a mere ace-2, I was not looking for action. I moved all in, hoping to pick up the blinds and antes. He thought a long time, shrugged his shoulders and said "you have the best hand, but I'll gamble with you." He turned over the 5 and 6 of spades. The flop was J-9-2, with one spade. I was a big favorite. Fourth street was another J. At that point, unless he caught a 6 or 5 on fifth street, I would double up and he would be the short stack. I nearly jumped out of my chair when a 6 fell on the river. But for that card I would have won $3,500 and redeemed what had been a long day of losing sessions. Instead, I only got my buy-in back and went to bed around 2 a.m. Monday night disappointed.

In my next column I will report on Tuesday's events.

By Ken Adams

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