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WSOP 2007 Main Event: Day 1A
I left the house around 11AM on Friday bound for the Rio and the main event of the 2007 World Series of Poker. Vegas is experiencing record highs for the weak, with the thermometer topping out near 120 degrees. It's enough to leave me sweating after a two block walk to the car. As I cruised up I-15 with A/C on full blast, George Thorogood came on the radio. I'm not generally the sort to sing out loud, but this seemed like a good way to get pumped up, so I declared along with him that I was, "B-b-b-b-b-aaaaaad. Bad to the bone!" Then, sadly, an even more fitting song came on: Elton John's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart".
This year, 6000 people are expected to enter the $10,000 poker tournament. If that number proves accurate, then there will be 5999 broken hearts. No one enters the tournament without a dream of winning it, and in fact, everyone has a chance, no matter how slim, of actually taking home the bracelet. One of the keys to poker's appeal is that it blends elements of skill and luck. The best players win often enough to show a profit, but they still lose often enough to give everyone else a chance. Even though I believe I had a substantial edge over last year's field, I was still very fortunate to finish in the money. There were many players better than I who did not do as well, and many players worse than I who did better. That's poker, and heart-breaking as it can be, it's also the beauty of the game.
In the last year, I've improved a ton as a poker player. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that I will win nothing in this year's tournament. After all, only 10% of us will win anything. A top player, and I am not quite in that echelon, might have a 25-30% chance of taking home a prize. This is why it is so important to focus on winning the largest prize possible, even if this means slightly increasing your chances of winning nothing at all. Since you will cash infrequently, it is crucial to make the most you can when you make anything at all.
After reporting on the three preliminary WSOP events that I played without cashing, I got a few concerned e-mails or phone calls asking me what was wrong. Not to say that I played flawlessly, but there's really nothing at all out of the ordinary about losing several tournaments in a row. I've played hundreds of poker tournaments on the internet this year and finished in the money in only 17% of them. This includes streaks of a dozen or more tournaments played without winning anything. Nevertheless, I've seen a return of about 35% on the money I've invested in this way. That's just how poker tournaments work: you lose most of the time, but occasionally you win big. Really big. The winner of the 2006 WSOP main event took home $12 million, the largest cash prize in sports history. So that's what's at stake as I slide into my seat just before noon. When the tournament director announces "shuffle up and deal", four of the ten seats at my table are still empty. This is not a good sign. Only very good players can afford to be blase about showing up on time for a $10,000 poker tournament.
This year, we start with 20,000 chips, and the blinds begin at 50-100. I try to size up my table immediately. I identify at least two players who, though unknown to me, seem to know what they are doing. Thankfully, they are both to my immediate right, meaning that they will almost always act before I do when we play pots together, which gives me a tremendous information advantage. My goal is to avoid playing pots out of position against these guys, but as it goes with the best laid plans, this one was quickly laid to waste. The guy two seats to my right was very young, probably younger than I am, and very aggressive. He was opening literally 50% of the pots with a raise to 350, which meant that if I wanted to play any hands at this table, I was going to have to tangle with him. Early on, he raised to 350 on the button (meaning he was last to act before the blinds, and could therefore raise an even wider range of hands than usual), and the other good player called in the small blind. In the big blind, I had Ace-Queen, which is a huge hand relative to the stuff these guys could be playing. Still, I'd be happy taking the pot down pre-flop, so I made a pretty large reraise to 1500. Thankfully, the button folded. The small blind called, but that was less worrisome, because I had position on him.
The dealer spread a flop of Q95, all different suits. This gave me top pair with the best possible kicker, which is a monster hand in this situation. There were so few draws on the board that I felt comfortable checking as well when my opponent checked to me, figuring that he'd be more likely to pay off with worse hands if I didn't bet the flop. The turn was a 3 and put a possible diamond flush draw on the board. My opponent bet 3500, which I called. The river was the 8 of diamonds, and he checked to me. I contemplated betting my pair of queens for value, but his turn bet was so big that I think it's almost impossible for him to put me on a worse hand than the one I have. If the diamond draw had missed on the river, I could bet hoping he would put me on a busted flush draw, but here, I just turned over my hand. He mucked, and I won my first pot of the 2007 WSOP, and a sizeable one at that. The young guy two seats to my right kept up the aggression, and I reraised him once pre-flop as a bluff. His constant raising had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the table, either, and they started playing back at him as well. Around this time, I found myself holding pocket Tens one off the button and staring at yet another raise from this guy. I should have reraised him, but for whatever reason I elected to just call and play a pot in a position. A Danish guy who had been quiet and seemed like a solid player also called in the SB, and the three of us saw a 8d 6d 3h flop. The aggressive guy bet 800, I raised to 2500, and then the Dane, whom I expected to fold instantly, started counting chips. That's not good. Finally he put out 2500 for a call, and the other guy folded.
Wow. I stared at him, trying to figure out what he could have to call that raise from out of position. He wasn't getting the right odds to play just a flush or straight draw, and he seemed smart enough to know that. But with so many draws possible, I'd expect him to put in another raise with a monster hand like three of a kind rather than give two players a chance to outdraw him on the turn.
It seemed to me his most logical holding would be either 86 for top two pair or something like 9d 7d for both a flush and a straight draw. Based on that read, I should have bet the 9h that fell on the turn, but his call scared me so much that I feared a check-raise and declined to bet. The river was the 7d, making the final board 36789 with no flush possible. My pair of T's had suddenly turned into a straight, the second best possible hand. The Dane bet 3000, and I raised to 11,000. On the one hand, this is a really big raise that I can't expect him to call very often. However, when I raise here, I am representing either a straight or a bluff. Whether he calls with worse hands depends on the frequency with which he thinks I am bluffing. If I make a smaller raise, it will be harder for him to think I am bluffing, and consequently easier for him to fold. Thus, I raise big because that is the only way my bet could plausibly be construed as a bluff. He folded 9d 7d face up, and I won another big pot. Just as I was starting to feel good about things, a young guy in a Cardrunners sweatshirt sauntered over to take one of the empty seats. Cardrunners is a subscription-based website where you can watch instructional videos, with commentary, of some excellent internet poker players as they do their thing. This sweatshirt already identified the new player as one of a few individuals, and now I just needed to figure out which he was. I watched as he passed his seat card to the dealer, and I saw the name I was praying not to see... Brian Townsend, AKA aba20, AKA sbrugby. Brian is the best poker player you've never heard of, and if you have heard of him, well then he may just be the best player you have heard of. He's a regular winner in the largest poker game available online, which is a no limit hold 'em game with $300 and $600 blinds. The buyin for the game is $60,000, and readers of Brian's blog know that it is not unheard of for him to win or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in a day. This guy voluntarily plays nosebleed stakes heads up with Phil Ivey... and wins.
I was not thrilled to be at his table. Thankfully, he was playing very tight, and I was able to stay out of his way. Nevertheless, I decided to investigate a rumor I'd heard that you could request a table change at the WSOP. I stood up from the table, found a floor man, and asked him if this was true. He looked at me like I had two heads. Oh well, guess I'm stuck with these guys.
To my great joy, however, our table was one of the first to get broken down so that we could be redistributed into recently vacated seats. My new table looked much less scary, populated primarily by a bunch of middle-aged small business owner types. These guys are great because they are usually poker enthusiasts with substantial non-poker income who can afford to play the main event even though they often cannot count on having a positive expectation. To my left was a young, very tricky, loose, and aggressive player who was either Mexican or from the Mississippi Delta, I never did figure out which. He knew a bunch of the staff at the Rio and was almost certainly a professional poker player. He gave me a ton of headaches at this table, and I left with a lot of respect for his game. To my right was one of the strangest looking men I have ever seen in my life. I think he was either an oil tycoon, a pirate, or both. He was a short, rotund, well-dressed, heavily-jowled older man sporting a large white Stetson hat and, I kid you not, an eye patch. This wasn't one of those temporary deals you get when you have eye surgery, this was an honest-to-goodness shiver-me-timbers pirate patch. Here's a picture, though unfortunately the patch is a little tough to see: To his right was a guy from Eugene, Oregon with a shaved head and goatee who looked eerily like a tall, white version of my friend Dave. Also like Dave, this guy was a Raiders fan. Unfortunately, Tall White Dave didn't last long, and he was replaced by a kind of annoying guy named Cory. I didn't play many hands at this table, but still managed to go into the first break with over 30,000 chips, an increase of 50% from my starting stack and a great spot to be in relative to the average, which was only like 22,000 at this point. I even heard a rumor that the chipleader had less than 40,000, though that seems unlikely.
After break, blinds doubled to 100/200 and things went downhill quickly for me. I finally got dealt a pair of Aces and raised to 600 from early position. Two guys who both owned car dealerships called me, one from late position, the other from the small blind. I bet 1500 on a Tc 7s 5c flop, and only the small blind called. He checked and called 3000 on a 6d turn. The river was an ugly Qc, completing a possible flush draw. My opponent bet into me for 7000, and I reluctantly folded. He later got caught bluffing in a similar spot, so I may have folded the best hand, but it seemed reasonable at the time. This, combined with a few aggressive moves that got snapped off by the tricky guy on my left knocked me down around 20,000.
Not a whole lot more happened in this level, and I went to break with a slightly below average stack of 22,000. I came back to find that blinds had doubled again to 200/400. This Cory guy I mentioned who had replaced Tall White Dave at the table seemed like he was going to be annoying. There were two car dealers at the table, and although Cory wasn't one of them, he sure looked like a man who could sell you a used vehicle. Here's a picture: . As soon as he sat down, he started running his mouth about nothing in particular, just kind of trying to loosen up the table and saying stuff like, "Who's having fun? Everyone's so serious. Eh, look at this guy, he keeps looking at me like he wishes I would shut up. Hahaha." He was talking through even really straight-forward decisions every time he played a hand and generally wasting everyone's time. Most of that stopped after a little while except when the cameras were around. I didn't know this at the time, but this Cory guy made the final few tables at the 2005 main event and went deep in a few other tournaments (there's a little bio of him in the link above). For whatever reason, ESPN was always checking in on him, and even though he mostly quieted down at the table, he'd always start yammering again when they were around. I tried to call him on it but to no avail. I spent most of this level pretty card dead, and the few times I did make a play at the pot, nobody believed me. Then I finally got a pair of Aces, raised, and everyone believed me. There was this Frenchman at the table who was intermittenly reading a book (specifically I think it may have been a Star Wars novel!) while at the table. He'd shown down some weird hands after raising from early position, so I wasn't giving his raises a ton of respect. He opened to 1100, but from what I could tell, though he didn't have his book out at the time, he wasn't paying much attention to the hand in question. A kind of loose, middle-aged guy from Washington State called the raise, and the action folded to me on the button. I was holding King-Queen and sitting on a stack of 16,500. This seemed like a good spot to make a squeeze play, because I'd be putting in 25% of my stack against an early position raiser, which looks very strong, and although I would appear committed to the pot, I'd actually have room to fold if the Frenchman moved all in. I raised to 4500 after some thought, and the Frenchman folded quickly, as I believed he would. Then the Washingtonian stared me down and called. Those who don't play tournament poker may not grasp the significance of this, but it is very odd just to call a big bet like this out of position. At this point the size of the pot is about equal to the size of my stack, so I would expect the guy who is going to be out of position post-flop either to fold or to move all in on me rather than putting himself in an awkward spot. Based on how he's played the hand, it looks an awful lot like he has a medium pocket pair. Pre-flop, my hand is essentially a coin flip against any pair Jacks or worse, so I would have been willing to call his all in. I would rather not flip a coin for my tournament life, but at this point there was a lot of money in the pot, so it would be worth it. However, the flop came out J83, and only then did my opponent bet into me. While I could have gotten all in pre-flop, with five cards to come, I now had only two chances to hit my King or Queen and consequently had to fold to his bet. It really sucks to have to fold at this point, leaving myself with only 12,000 chips, but I do think it's the correct play, and it's what I did. If he's going to call my reraise with a medium sized pair, then this is actually a really good way for him to play it. However, I think he should be folding to the reraise, which is why I made it in the first place. If I have two high unpaired cards like KQ, AQ, or AK, he's got 50% equity in the pot, so given the hand I actually had, he played well. However, the problem for him is that I might also have a pair higher than his, in which case he has only about 20% equity. I could very easily have JJ, QQ, KK, or AA with this preflop action, in which case he is going to lose a big pot. But in this case, he was fortunate that I had indeed missed the flop with my overcards, and he won the pot. So I went into the dinner break with 12,000 chips and a bad taste in my mouth. It was really frustrating, after getting off to such a good start, to find myself short-stacked so quickly. On the plus side, though, my dad and brother had come out to Vegas to watch me play and generally to hang out, so it was good to see them. We got dinner at the Sao Paolo Cafe. Well, actually, just I ate, as they'd already eaten, but I bought my brother a beer, because he is now 21. When they came to watch me last year, he kept getting carded and kicked out of the Rio. He was like three months shy of 21 at the time. This year, now that he's legal, no one's carded him yet.
Poker WSOP 2007 Main Event | 2007 World Series of Poker
Blinds were still 200/400 after dinner, but now every player had to ante 50 chips every hand as well, which made stealing the pot pre-flop even more important. My chip stack would afford me barely ten times around the table, meaning I wasn't quite desperate, but I needed to get some chips soon. I folded for the first orbit or so, then got dealt the King of hearts and the Queen of clubs in middle position. I came in for a raise of 1100. The tricky guy on my left called, and the Frenchman called in the small blind. Man, I am just getting no respect at all. I raise 10% of my stack and get called twice?!?!? The flop came out J84, all hearts. Holding the K of hearts, I was satisfied with this. There was now 4200 in the pot and 10,000 left in my stack. My goal in this situation to get someone to take a stab at the pot, at which point I can raise all in. I may get the better to fold a pair, and even he does call, I'll probably have an almost 50% chance of winning the pot. The Frenchman checked, and I checked, hoping the aggressive guy would bet. He did not oblige, but the turn card was a King, giving me top pair with a good kicker and also the second best possible flush draw. I checked again, as the pain in my neck on my left seemed almost unable to keep himself from bluffing after getting checked to twice. But still, he didn't oblige. The river was something irrelevant, and possibly I should have just bet my hand for value at this point, but I checked one more time hoping against hope that the guy might bluff. No such luck, though. He checked, and I won the pot but no further money. It's really the hallmark of a good player that he was always betting and raising when I didn't want him to but that I couldn't induce a bluff from him when I needed it. Captain Ahab on my right got eliminated and was replaced by a pretty well-known tournament player who's had success both live and online. I don't know his real name, but he plays under the online moniker UGotPzd. One of the car dealers at the table recognized him and pronounced his screen name "You Got Pezzed." Uh, sir, I don't think that's what he was going for, but it's cute that you thought that. The car dealer, it turns out, was none other than internet player brsavage, who has in the past been ranked the number one tournament player online by both Poker Stars and an online site called Pocket Fives that tracks such things. Brsavage has recorded some videos for PokerXFactor, a site similar to the Cardrunners one that I mentioned before. I actually stirred up some bad blood with him by publicly questioning some of his advice in a kind of flippant way on an internet forum, but quite a few very strong players agreed me about the content of what I said, and Savage himself didn't even really dispute it. He's got no idea who I am, but I've got some idea of how he plays, which is nice. He certainly held his own at the table, but I didn't think he was anything special. I also had a bit of history with UGP. From what I know, he is a smart and courageous player who is very willing to make a heroic call if he suspects you are bluffing. Though he had no idea who I was, just from the fact that I was wearing a Poker Stars hat he could probably make some informed guesses about how I play. He was open raising quite a lot pre-flop, but I knew he knew that with my stack I was going to be looking for an opportunity to make a move on him. The implication was that I needed to play a wider range of hands for value and not look to bluff him. Fortunately, I got dealt a pair of Aces on one of the many occasions when he opened to 1200. I very rarely slowplay a hand, in part because it's unnecessary and in part because I am so aggressive with weaker hands that I can usually get action on my monsters. With about 14,000 chips, however, it was going to be awkward to reraise here. Even UGP's penchant for heroic calls might not be enough to get me action if I raised. So, I just called. We went heads up to a flop of 7h 4s 3s. He bet 2200, and I moved all in on him. This was going to be a key hand for me. If I could get a call here, I'd be a huge favorite to win and double my stack, which would get me back to average and buy me a lot of breathing room. I knew UGP was expecting me to make a move on him, and this was a great board for it, as there were a lot of draws I could be semi-bluffing. As he stared me down, I did my best to remember how I felt, and hopefully therefore how I looked, when I made my unsuccessful bluff against the Swede in the 5K event. I planted my face on my hands, which were balled into fists obscuring my mouth. Through my dark sunglasses and under the rim of my black Poker Stars hat, I stared hard at the felt. My heart was legitimately pounding, because although I knew I had the best hand, I was nonetheless putting my life on the line for the first time. If my opponent did call and got lucky, he could eliminate me right here. And even worse, there was the risk of him folding when I so badly needed the double up. I just hoped that UGP, seated next to me, could feel the heavy, rhythmic thumping through the table. Author Mike Caro, known as the mad genius of poker, argues that players have a "calling reflex." It's more exciting to call than to fold, so everyone looks for excuses to call. If you suspect your opponent is about to fold, he suggests, you might as well do something to trigger his calling refles. If it doesn't work, well, he was going to fold anyway, so no harm done. I swallowed hard and shifted in my chair. "Call," UGP announced, tossing 10,000 chips defiantly into the pot and flipping over a pair of 9's. I turned up my Aces, and he nodded. "I was afraid of that." When the money went in, I was a 90% favorite to win the pot. Only if the turn or river was one of the last two nines in the deck could my opponent pull ahead. It is very, very rare to get your money in this good. I was fortunate both that my opponent had a pair as good as 9's and that we got a flop with no cards higher than his pair, making it easier for him to make a big call against me. My hand held up, and suddenly I was back in good shape. Still, you can see what a role luck plays. Even after a lucky pre-flop match-up and a lucky flop, there was stil a 10% chance that I could have been eliminated from the tournament right there. And to win an event like this, a player will need to survive much worse than 90% odds many times. So there's a lot that can go wrong to cause you to get your money in bad, and a lot that can go wrong even after you've gotten your money in good.