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In short, internet players tend to overplay their medium-strength hands and otherwise fail to adapt to the deeper structure of large buy-in live tournaments like the WSOP. Up until now, that has been a handicap, but at this stage of the tournament the blinds and antes have reached a stage that really is comparable to the later stages of an internet tournament, and now it is time for us internet donkies to shine. There is a mathematically correct strategy when your only option is to fold or raise all-in, and it relates to the number of players left to act behind you, the likelihood of each calling you, the size of the pot, and the number of chips you have remaining. Although I don't have the math down cold, I have a much better feel for it than the average live player, and I expect to use that to my advantage.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time describing my tables today, because I wasn't at either one for too long. My first table was a great one for me: the average stack size was about half the average for the tournament as a whole, which means it will be easier for me to get away with moving all in to pick up the blinds and antes without being called. The most colorful character at the table is AJ Shulman, the wife of Cardplayer magazine founder Barry Shulman and co-owner of the magazine. She's been around the world of cards for a long time and seems to know what she is doing, but she is even shorter than I am, so she is not much of a threat to me. She's a vivacious woman, probably in her 50's, loud and talkative but also friendly and mostly good-humored, except for when she is unhappy about how some detail of how the tournament is being run. She is sitting to the immediate left of the dealer, with whom we are talking before the tournament director gives the order to "shuffle up and deal". I've heard a lot of complaints from the dealers about how Harrah's has been treating them, both with regard to their pay (Harrah's claimed at one point that staff would bet getting 3% of the prize pool, but it sounds like the actual number is 1.5%), their accomodations (many have traveled from casinos around the country to deal this event, and have had to handle travel and lodging expenses out of pocket), their training, and the respect they are generally afforded by management. Apparently, they are also not allowed to have any food or drink while they are at the table or even during their breaks. We end up devising a plan whereby I order a coffee from the cocktail waitress and pass it to AJ, who places it on the floor next to her so that the dealer can surreptitiously sip on it.
Unfortunately, AJ is not destined to be with us for long. There is a raise and a re-raise in front of her, and she shouts, "Come on Aces, show me Aces!", shuffles her two cards a few times, taps them, blows on them, and finally peeks at them. "All in" she announces. Both players call, and the flop comes out Ace-Queen-Four. One player bets, the other folds, and now that it is heads up, AJ and the other player can turn over their cards. AJ reveals a pair of Kings, the second-best hand she could have hoped for. Her opponent was dealt a pair of Queens, way behind AJ before the flop but now way ahead with three-of-a-kind. AJ has only a 5% chance of improving, and she does not, meaning that she has been eliminated in a most unlucky way. I've seen players handle poor fortune in a wide variety of ways, from cursing their luck to cursing their own play to berating the play of their opponents to calmly saying "nice hand" and tapping the table, but AJ's response was unique. She shakes the hand of everyone at the table, then sticks her tongue out at the player who eliminted her and blows a very genuine raspberry (I was sitting next to him and could see the mist) before wishing everyone good luck. A few hands later, I am dealt the coveted pair of Aces. It is tempting to make a small raise and try to invite action, but I decide to play it like I would any other hand and just move all in. This may actually be perceived as weakness by someone who understands good late-game tournament strategy, and regardless, if everyone folds, I can show the hand and hopefully earn some respect for future all-in steals I have to make. Sure enough, everyone folds, and I show my Aces to the table. A few hands later, I re-raise all-in with Ace-Jack over someone's raise and he says, "Aces again?" before folding, so it seems like my plan worked.
I don't get a lot of mileage out of this play, though, because not long after, our entire table gets broken down and we are scattered across the room. I am moved to a new table with Jason (very strong 21-year old player mentioned in an earlier e-mail) who now has about 700,000 chips, another high stakes player I played with for a while on Day 2, and a few more very strong players with mountains of chips in front of them. The blinds and antes quickly eat away at my stack and before long I am down to just 50,000 chips. I haven't had any good stealing opportunities, and have been waiting very patiently, maybe too patiently. It hasn't been completely in vain, because in the time I have waited players have been dropping like flies and I have been slowly climbing the pay scale, now having about $30,000 wrapped up. Still, while I know that the correct strategy is to focus on accumulating chips and not focusing on these small increases in prize money, a few thousands dollars is really not small to me and I am a little more inclined towards patience than I would be if the stakes weren't so high. In one moment of particularly poor judgment, I am in the big blind, forced to put up nearly 10% of my stack blind, and five players just call the blinds, meaning that the size of the pot is now very nearly the size of my stack. The correct play here is to go all in and hopefully get it heads up with just one player and a giant overlay from all of the dead money in the pot, and I am ready to do this, but then I look at my cards and see Ace-Deuce. Anyone who calls me will probably have either a pair or a better Ace, meaning that I would actually be in better shape with a hand like Ten-Nine, which would at least give me two live cards. I chicken out, check, and fold to a bet. I asked Jason about this hand later, and he said I shouldn't even have looked at my hand, but just gone all in. My next time in the big blind, six players fold before someone finally raises. I have a pair of 5's, and figure this is the best chance I am going to get. "All in," I announce, and the raiser smirks, realizing he is priced in to call me with whatever garbage he was trying to steal with. He turns over a 9 and and a 6 is pleasantly surprised to see that with two overcards to my pair, he is nearly 50% to win the pot. My hand holds up, though, and I get a much needed double up. This marks the first time the entire tournament that I could have been eliminated, being all in against a player who had more chips than I did.
I'm sitting almost immediately behind Humberto Brenes, a Costa Rican pro famous (or notorious, depending on who you ask) for his over-the-top antics. Needless to say, the cameras love him. He is using a toy shark to protect his cards (it is a player's obligation to be sure the dealer does not accidentally muck his hand and that his cards do not become confused with anyone else's, so most put something on top of their cards to protect them) and explaining to his table that it is not he but his friend the shark (also named Humberto) making all of the decisions at the table. Any time he calls someone's all in, he stands up and shouts "Humberto huuuuuuungry! Humberto huuuuuuuuuuuungry!" repeatedly, and sometimes the shark travels across the table to devour and retrieve the chips he has won. These days, being a pro is as much about marketing as it as about playing poker. I go into the break with over 100,000 chips, still not a lot of breathing room but a big improvement over the 70,000 I started with. I run into Rizen and learn that he is up over 500,000. As much of a minefield as these huge tournaments are, it is very reassuring to see great players doing well, especially people as nice and deserving as Eric (his real name). He tells me some stories about how bad the play is at his table, and I am extremely jealous, because mine is tough tough tough. Level ? (lost count), blinds 2500/5000 with a 500 ante. Even with 100,000 chips, I am still in desperation mode, able to afford less than ten times around the table. I keep my head above the water with some steals and re-steals, get dealt Kings once but just take the blinds (which is not trivial, at this stage), and then finally see a big starting hand in Ace-King. There is a raise in front of me, and I re-raise all in. My blood runs cold, however, when Jason looks down at his cards and announces "all in". He's seen a raise and a re-raise in front of him, and is still willing to go all in? Thankfully, he turns over Ace-King as well and we chop the pot. Phew, that could have been bad.
Then I finally run into a good spot. Jason opens from first position for 15,000 and the high stakes kid calls him. I have nearly 130,000 chips at this point and am dealt a pair of Aces. Again, I am tempted to make a smaller raise, but these are two very smart players and both seem to have some kind of hand to raise from first position and to call a first position raise. I've been going all in a lot, so a smaller raise might around suspicion. Besides, while I'd badly like to double up again, taking down the 50,000 chips currently in the pot would not be a bad result either. I announce "all in" and they both fold, taking me up to 180,000 chips. What happens next is perhaps the most painful thing I have ever witnessed in my time playing poker. Jason raises to 15,000, and another player with a huge stack re-raises to 75,000 from the small blind. Jason announces "All in" for 400,000 more and the other player calls fairly quickly. Jason turns over a pair of Aces, the best possible hand, and the other guy has Ace-King of spades. There are nearly one million chips in the pot, making this probably the largest pot played so far in this tournament. These chips represent the combined fortunes of 100 players who entered this tournament but have not survived this far. Jason is an 87.23% favorite to win, and winning would likely give him more chips than any of the roughly 300 players who remain. It is hard to convert tournament chips into an exact dollar figure for a player's equity at a particular moment in the tournament. Before play began, everyone had paid $10,000 and received 10,000 chips. However, Harrah's took a cut of the prize pool for their profits and to pay the staff, so even at that point there was not a 1:1 conversion. Furthermore, one must account for the nebulous skill factor that makes chips worth more in the hands of a good player than in the hands of a bad player. Then there is payout structure of the tournament. At the moment when the bubble burst and fewer than 873 players remained, a player with just a single black chip, worth 100 in tournament units, would nonetheless be entitled to $14,500 in real money. Now that some portion of the prize pool has been paid out but the same number of chips remain in play, each chips is worth proportionately less than it was at the start of the tournament. Still, a conservative estimate would be that the 1,000,000 chips in this pot represent at least $250,000 in real money equity, and in the hands of a skilled player like Jason, they could easily be worth $500,000 or more. His opponent, previously one of the larger stacks in the tournament, now faces an 83% chance of being eliminated in one fell swoop. ESPN camera crews rush over to record the action The dealer raps the table, "burns" the top card from the deck, and flips over the three flop cards: Jacks of spades, 9 of hearts, 4 of diamonds. It's a very safe flop for Jason, improving his odds of winning the pot to 93.64%. The only way he can lose now is if his opponent catches two perfect cards in a row: two spades to make a flush, a queen and a ten to make a straight, or two of the last three kings in the deck to make three of a kind. I grimace and watch Jason do the same as the the dealer reveals the turn card: a Queen of spades. This is one of the worst cards in the deck for him, instantly giving his opponent 13 ways to win on the river, either with one of four tens to complete a straight or one of nine spades to complete a flush. But still, Jason is a 72.73% favorite to win. The dealer raps the table one last time, burns a card, and reveals the river, which will likely be burned in Jason's mind for the rest of his life: a 6 of spades, giving his opponent a flush. "Oh God," I say, literally feeling sick in my stomach. The table explodes. Jason's opponent, a long-haired, goateed twenty-something from Dallas, leaps out of his chair and claps his hands. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Jason's face is a mile long, but he is remarkably calm, just staring at the felt and muttering, "So sick." Finally, he asks the dealer, "How much is it?" He has more than his opponent, so he will get to keep nearly 300,000 chips, still in better shape than I am and about average for the tournament. The dealer counts down Dallas' stack and then tells Jason he needs to cough up about 430,000 more chips. Jason's chips are stacked in a pyramid in front of him, with pillars of yellow chips, worth 1000 each, 50 deep. Slowly, he breaks off tower after tower of yellows, several times more chips than I have ever had in front of me in this tournament, and shoves them across the table to his opponent. The rest of this level goes by in a blur and soon we are on break again. My deal with Poker Stars guaranteed me a hotel room through the night of Friday, August 4th, and when I was still in the tournament at the end of the day Friday, it was automatically extended through Friday the 11th. However, I already have a plane ticket for 11PM tonight, and frankly am getting sick of Vegas, so my plan was to see how things go today before deciding to cancel the flight. It's now 4PM and I'm still in the tournament, so I start calling people to find someone near a computer who can cancel my flight for me. My girlfriend is at the beach, my brother is at work, my friend is at the grocery store, finally I reach my mother and walk her through the process of cancelling the flight. By the time I pay cancellation fees to America West and Orbitz, I've lost nearly all the money I spent on the flight, but that's trivial compared to the amount of money I've locked up already (nearly $40,000). I check in again with Rizen, now up to 600,000 chips, tell him of Jason's misfortune, grab a granola bar from the hospitality suite (still haven't had lunch), and head back to my table.