December 16, 2003

It's a Lot Nicer than Downtown: The 2003 Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Championship

I flop the nuts

With Shortstack on a secret mission in Toronto, I flew back to Vegas solo for the main event, a $10,200 buy-in four-day No-Limit Hold 'Em extravaganza at Bellagio. I arrived the day before to find Jim "Krazy Kanuck" Worth doing well in the satellite and Erik "Rounders" Seidel on his way to winning the Pot-Limit Omaha championship. Jim unfortunately ran into cold cards and got eliminated before he could win a seat to the big event so he flew home, not wanting to overplay his bankroll by buying into the expensive longshot – a more fiscally prudent plan than many of the 314 entrants who needed to borrow money for their shot at the $1.1 million first prize. Well, they were probably more fiscally prudent than whoever lent them the money.


Jack McClelland announced a record prize pool for a WPT event but he was incorrect since Bellagio takes an additional 3% out of all prize pools in lieu of tips so the Foxwoods tourney with 313 people actually had a bigger prize pool. But if anyone was planning to tip $90,000 Bellagio's got 'em covered. I actually like having the staff paid from the entry fees and think tipping casino employees, who possibly have the power to cheat for or against certain players, is unethical and should be illegal. They should just come right out and tell you it's really a $9700+500 buy-in, not $10,000+200.


The tourney started only a half-hour late and I got table 48, seat 3, with David Grey, who finished eighth at this year's World Series of Poker, to my right and Allen Cunningham, who finished third in last year's WPT event in Paris, two seats to my left. There was no one else I recognized, which was good. Two players were quickly eliminated by the two pros and filling their seats were Vegas legend Bob Stupak and World Poker Tour founder Lyle Berman, who despite possible appearances of impropriety plays in all the events himself.


Since we were starting with 20,000 in chips and the blinds were 50-100 I decided I was going to play a lot of small pairs and suited connectors early and try to trap someone with a big hand. I limped in with Seven-Six of Spades on the button and got called by the small blind with Allen checking on the big. The flop came King-Seven-Six, two clubs. Seat three bet out 300 and Allen raised it to 1800. I couldn't figure out what he had. It was possible but unlikely that he had a Set of Sixes or Sevens, the only two left in the deck; he could have a Flush draw with a pair or with a Straight draw; it was even possible he limped with Jacks or Queens, or even Kings and flopped top Set. I decided to call and see what he did on Fourth Street. An Ace came and Allen bet out 4000. Now there were even more hands he could have that could beat me: Ace-Seven, Ace-Six. He very likely could have nothing, seeing how I sweated out the call on the Flop. I said, "I can't believe I'm laying this down," and decided not to take the risk with my bottom two pair. I just didn't think he'd bluff off a quarter of his stack so early in the tournament against an unknown player. Possibly I got off cheap for 1900 chips. The very next hand he limped with Ace-King so he was capable of disguising a big hand.


The play was conservative for the first couple levels but then a hand came with six limpers and the flop came Ace-Ace-Trey, two diamonds. David Gray bet out and the short stack to my left went all in for a few chips more. Lyle Berman called and so did David. The Turn came Ten of Diamonds so now there were all kinds of possibilities. Three Aces could be beaten by a Flush, which could be beaten by a Full House. David bet and Lyle put him all in which he quickly called. The three players turned over their hands: Seat 4 had pocket Threes for a Full House. David had an Ace and the last Three for a bigger Full House. But Lyle turned over Ace-Ten for the mortal nuts. David could only hope for one of the last two Tens to hit the River and split the pot but it didn't and Lyle had eliminated two players.


Two hands later I limped in with Six-Four of Diamonds and Seat 9, a big good-looking  European man with a pony tail, checked on the big blind. The flop came Five-Trey-Deuce, two Clubs. I had flopped the nut Straight but was vulnerable to a flush draw. I didn't think it was likely he had two clubs and our stacks were much bigger than the pot so I just bet the size of the pot, 400. He made a big raise back at me! I pretended to think for a minute and then pushed all in and he beat me into the pot. I turned over my hand and his face fell as he showed me Ace-Four offsuit for the baby Straight. He had no Club so his only hope was a Six to split the pot, which didn't come. I doubled up to 34,250 and he was almost out.


This was my best early result yet in a big tourney. I watched as Phil Hellmuth, Jr., held onto a very short stack for hours before finally getting knocked out. Andy Bloch walked by and said to hurry up and lose so we could have dinner at a decent hour. Howard Lederer continued his cold streak and got out early but I was sitting on a nice stack.


Lyle eliminated a couple more players with more nuts and a kid came in and sat at Seat 8 across from me. He immediately lost most of his stack doubling up another player and the very next hand he said, "Let's try this again." He bet out and I saw Ace-King on the Big Blind so I put him all in. He called with a Pair of Sixes and they held up so I was down to 30,000. A few hands later I raised in middle position, again with Ace-King. The same guy reraised me. I had an odd feeling that he had a very strong hand but I didn't trust it. I should have. I reraised him all in and he turned over Aces, which also held up. Now I was down to 22,000.


The antes were getting bigger so I tried opening with more marginal hands in late position but each time I did I got reraised by Allen Cunningham. He either thought he had me completely under his control or it was just a coincidence that he had hands every time I did. Then the pony tail guy raised my Big Blind. I put him on a steal so I reraised him all in with King-Queen offsuit. He called with a Pair of Tens, which held up, and now I was down to 7500 and the blinds were up to 300-600 with a 50 ante. I asked Seat 8 if he'd be willing to double me up a couple times. When it folded to me I saw Ace-Queen suited and moved all in. Seat 8 asked me if I wanted action. I shrugged existentially. He called with pocket Jacks but a Queen hit the flop and I doubled up.


Bob Stupak had blinded off most of his chips and had started moving all in a couple times a round. He got caught early this time and was replaced by a fidgety gambler-looking type who raised the pot every single time it folded around to him. After a few rounds of this I played back at him with Ace-Eight for my 14,000 remaining chips. My timing was bad: this time he had Ace-King. No eight came so I was out of the contest.


I called Andy and said it was dinnertime but he was having appetizers with producers and starlets so we decided to wait till 9 p.m. and include Erik. Erik finished the day with what must have been close to the chip lead. He, Andy, young Indonesian star John Juanda and I had dinner at the Artistes steakhouse at Paris. They made a mean bone-in filet and we washed it down with a bottle of 1996 Pichon-Longueville. When I got back to the room, Krazy Kanuck messaged me and asked what my plans were for tomorrow. I replied, "Learn how to play poker."


December 9, 2003

The Stakes Increase: Bellagio $2500 No-Limit Hold 'Em Tourney

Surindar Dorothy

Having packed Shortstack's parents safely away on Carnival's new non-smoking cruise ship, fondly dubbed the Ventilation, we flew back to Sin City for the second of three No-Limit Hold 'Em tournaments in Bellagio's Five-Diamond World Poker Classic. Having played like a moron in the first one, a $1500 buy-in, my goal here was to play smart, take my time, and see if I could read people to make good decisions on whether to hold 'em or fold 'em. Having signed up the night before I showed up around 11 and had a buffet brunch with on-line star Jim "Krazy Kanuck" Worth, Aruba champ Erik "E-Dog" Lindgren, and his friend Josh, whom it turned out I had played against on PartyPoker without knowing it. We ate light so as not to slow down our brains for the tourney.


I got seat seven at table 40 and brought my reading glasses with me to help me distinguish 4's from A's. We started with 5000 chips, twice the dollar value of our buy-in. Two empty seats were to my left, which usually indicated pros, and to my right was Mel Judah, winner of the big event at the Bicycle club earlier this year to be broadcast on the World Poker Tour show in the spring. He played extremely tight in the early going so he wasn't much of a factor for me yet. Arriving a few minutes late in the empty seats to my left were the famous Bob Stupak, who built the Stratosphere hotel, and the very dangerous Surindar Sunar, who was at my table at the Sands. Across the table were Steve, a doctor who was playing a lot of pots with hands like King-Jack offsuit, and a nice lady with a foreign accent who smiled apologetically whenever she won a pot. Since those two were playing almost every pot I decided to wait until I had a powerful hand to beat them with. Soon enough I saw two black Kings and made a small raise in early position. It folded around to the nice lady, who called, and the Flop came Queen-Queen-Six.  I bet out the size of the pot, 700, and she re-raised me, only she didn't re-raise me enough so the dealer made her put in the minimum raise, making it 1400. I looked into her soul and I couldn't think of a thing she could possibly have except a Queen. "You have a Queen?" I asked, and she gave me a Mona Lisa smile. I mucked the cowboys and she proudly showed me the Queen of Clubs. I had lost 20% of my stack but that was probably the least I could have lost with that hand so I felt OK.


I got Ace-King a couple times and the nice lady called me. Both times the Flop came Jack high, she bet, and I folded. One time she showed me the Jack; the other time she may have been bluffing but all I had was overcards so I didn't see a reason to push it. Then I got a Pair of Jacks in the hole in early position. I made a small raise and got re-raised by a Chinese gentleman wearing logo apparel from a California card room. I looked into his soul and decided he had me beat, especially since it was his first re-raise of the day and he was experienced enough to know I was playing tight. He showed me the same black Kings I had lost my first 1000 with. "Nice hand," I said.


By now I was down to 3600 chips when I saw two red Aces on the button. I raised and Surindar called. The flop came Ace-Eight-Four rainbow, giving me a Set of Aces. I tried to remain calm as I pondered. Since Surindar was very aggressive, when he checked I decided to represent a bluff by betting the pot emphatically. "Seven hundred!" I said, slamming the chips down in front of me. He didn't bite and I took the small pot. Perhaps I should have slow-played it, the traditional course of action when flopping a Set of Aces.


One round later, once again on the button, I raised Surindar's blind with Ace-King offsuit. He called and the Flop came King-Eight-Six, two Diamonds. He checked and I once again bet the pot. This time he re-raised me all in, perhaps starting to smell a rat. I thought about the five tournaments I had recently lost with Ace-King but I looked into his soul and decided he was bluffing and if he had flopped a Set, so be it. "I call," I said, and flipped over my hand. "Nice call," he said, and showed Nine-Eight offsuit. He had five outs and they didn't hit so I doubled up to 6250.


The blinds went up and Bob Stupak, having lost a few pots, was down under 2000 chips. He was moving all in frequently, which he did with any ace or pair, and getting some back. I saw pocket Queens on the small blind, made it 700, and Bob reraised me all in. I forgot to look into his soul and called right away, thinking he just had an Ace overcard on me, but he in fact had two of them and I was once again down to 3000.


The guy to Surindar's left had busted out to Steve with a bad all-in reraise and a bad call that hit the river. An Italian-looking gentleman replaced him and when I found Ace-Queen of Spades in late position I bet a third of my remaining chips, 900. The Italian gentleman reraised me all in. I looked into his soul and decided he was weak so I called for my remaining chips. He turned over Ace-Jack suited, making me a big favorite, but a Jack came on the flop and I was out of the contest, finishing 159 out of 297. "Good game," I said, and hung out with superstar Andy Bloch, who was out in the first five minutes, until dinnertime. We wandered over to watch Phil Hellmuth, Jr., make an amazing recovery from 2600 chips to around 70,000. I wondered if I could learn to duplicate his skill.


Dinner was at Aqua with Andy and Rounders co-star Erik Seidel, who showed up five minutes after we had left him with 35,000 chips but got eliminated on a horrendous bad beat of pocket Kings to Vinnie Vinh's Queen-Ten when he flopped two pair after all the money was in. Howard Lederer passed, showing his iron discipline in his daily workouts that help make him one of the most telegenic of the poker stars. Dinner was good, washed down with a bottle of 1989 Pichon-Loungueville Bordeaux. I bid the two world-class pros farewell and told them I'd see them next week at the big event.


December 1, 2003

Bellagio been berry berry good to me

But not this time

Bellagio scheduled a series of high-stakes tournaments during the slowest time of the year, the first half of December, so I decided to make three separate trips down to Vegas to play in the three No-Limit Hold 'Em events. The first was a $1500 buy-in event on Dec. 1. I registered the night before, a good thing because the line the next morning was cantankerous. Shortstack and I had dinner with our buddy Jim "Krazy Kanuck" Worth at Aqua.  We ordered the seven-course feast and a bottle of the 1999 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, which they had to steal from Picasso. The dinner was awesome as was the company.


I got assigned to table 33 seat 8, a good table for Shortstack to watch me. The tournament started 90 minutes late because of computer problems. There were no world-famous players at the table but the woman to my left was Olivia, the wife of a friend of a girl I grew up with. Small world. Many of the usual suspects were there: Erik Seidel, Chip Jett, Johnny Chan, and David "Devilfish" Ulliott were all thankfully assigned to tables other that mine. Phil Hellmuth, Jr., was nowhere in site but my table was full without him.


When we finally started I drew the big blind and the sunglassed kid in seat 1 raised the 50 blind to 200. It folded to me and I saw a Pair of Aces, Pocket Rockets, American Airlines. I made it 700. He thought awhile and then put in 250. The dealer told him the raise was 500 and he took it out but I said, "I believe that's a call." House rules at Bellagio stated that if you put in half the bet it was considered a call and you had to put in the other half. The dealer offered to get a floor decision and I assented but the kid in seat 1 said, "Fine, I call," and put in 500. The flop came Q-9-6, two Spades. I hoped he didn't hit a Set and moved all in. He folded and I won the first pot of the day.


I won Olivia's blind a couple of times as she folded every hand, playing conservatively in the early going, and then I found Ace-King of Diamonds in early position. I made it 175 and it folded to seat 3 who moved all in. AK suited is my favorite hand for calling all in and I would still have 1500 chips left if I lost so I called. He turned over Jacks and although the flop came two Diamonds the Jacks held up and I lost. I had had visions of being the chip leader but instead I was down to half my starting stack.


Soon after that debacle, I limped in with Seven-Eight of Spades and the flop came 8-6-3, two Spades. I bet 175 and it folded around to my right where an experienced player named Mike called. The Turn was the Nine of Hearts and he checked it to me. Now with a Straight draw and a Flush draw, I bet 325. He reraised me all in, another 1200 or so. I had seen him go all in on a straight draw earlier so I knew he was capable of a semi-bluff with a hand like A-7. I figured I had 13 outs even if he had already made the Straight with a 7-5 and 20 if he hadn't. The pot odds were about right at 2-1 so I gambled and called. He turned over one of the worst hands for me, Jack-9 of Spades, meaning I had only 11 outs: two Eights, three Sevens, four Tens and four Fives. The River was a Jack and I was out of the contest.


November 25, 2003

Back to Jersey so soon? The 2003 Showdown at the Sands Million Dollar Deal

Party suite

The Sands Atlantic City scheduled a guaranteed million-dollar no-limit Hold 'Em tournament to be televised on Thanksgiving Day on Fox Sports Network so I booked the US Airways nonstop back to Philly, the closest place to Atlantic City you could get to from Seattle without changing planes. Shortstack got up before the chickens to drive me to Sea-Tac airport in time for my 6:30 a.m.flight. US had recently banned my friend Jeffrey and confiscated his frequent-flyer miles after he wrote a column critical of them so let me just say that of all the airlines that charge $3112 for a First Class ticket but serve drinks in plastic cups, have no audio entertainment, show children's movies, and completely ignore the First Class passengers for three hours after the meal service, they are one of the best.


We landed in Philly almost an hour late due to de-icing in frosty Seattle but I found my mid-size Hertz car had been upgraded to a nice Toyota Camry with Georgia plates. I set the Neverlost for Bally's Park Place and after my traditional missing of the turn for the Walt Whitman Bridge and a bit of traffic getting to the Atlantic City Expressway I sailed easily into America's Favorite Playground. The Neverlost actually found Bally's, making it the first Atlantic City hotel it had ever located for me. I valet-parked it, found the VIP check-in, and the butler escorted me to my suite in the Towers. It was quite the party room with mirrors everywhere, a nice view of the ocean, a separate bedroom suite and a sitting room off the living room. The main room had its own large bathroom with a shower, double sink, and Jacuzzi by a picture window. The refrigerator was stocked with Pepsi products. I mentioned to the butler that I preferred Diet Coke and he went down and brought back a six-pack. I didn't know how much to tip a butler so I gave him $10. He took it without a smile or a word and I didn't see him the rest of the trip so it might not have been enough.


Andy Bloch had invited my to a VIP dinner with Carl Icahn, owner of the Sands next door, so I changed into my VIP outfit and crossed the skybridge to meet him there. Phil Gordon and Rafe Furst were there so I said hi and good luck. Andy introduced me to the dapper Paul Phillips, a former computer programmer like me and the second-place finisher at this year's first World Poker Tour event at the Bicycle Club in California. We had a lively conversation until we were escorted into the Italian restaurant for an excellent dinner and a speech by Carl Icahn. He told us about how he got a bargain on the latest two casinos he purchased in Las Vegas and we told him we wanted to play poker against him. "I bet you would," he said, no dummy, "but unfortunately they won't let me enter." Fox sports got some footage of me pretending to laugh and gesture at his jokes so I thought maybe I'd make the broadcast.


The tournament started early the next day so I got a good night's sleep in the party suite.


Sick, sick, sick

Turnout for the televised tourney was pretty good and because of the rush of last-minute registrants we started almost an hour late with 197 people each putting up $10,000 for the prize pool plus $200 for the house. Many had qualified via smaller buy-in satellite tournaments, which was great for them because it gave them a shot at the big prize and also great for the expert players because it filled the room with people they had an advantage over. An advantage, however, was not the same as certain victory, as Chris Moneymaker's much-heralded victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker proved.


I got assigned a table in the corner with no one I recognized and three empty seats. Empty seats usually meant pros and sure enough, Mike "the Mouth" Matusow, an aggressive Vegas poker professional, sat down across the long table from me. Two seats were left and soon the one next to Mike was filled by Surindar Sunar, a seasoned tournament player whom everyone referred to as "Surrender." We got underway with the last chair empty. The walls were dark and reflected little light so where I was sitting, back to the wall, I had a great deal of difficulty seeing my hole cards as I guarded them with my hands and turned up the corners. I raised the first pot with what I thought was a Pair of Aces. Everybody folded and I looked one more time before tossing my cards to the dealer. It turned out I had Ace-Four! That could have been a problem.


That last seat was still empty. Since the Phil Hellmuth, Jr., jinx had been broken at Foxwoods I only laughingly told Mike the Mouth that the last seat was probably Phil.


It was.


Phil and I didn't play too many pots together but he went back to referring to me in the third person as he criticized the way I looked at my hole cards. I lost half my stack when I flopped a set of Fours to a dangerous board of Six-Five-Four, two Spades. I bet the pot, 500, and got called heads-up by the Gary, the player to my left. The turn brought a Three.  I wanted to make a bet big enough to make Gary fold his draw but there was a chance  he had already made a Straight and I'd be drawing to 10 outs (one Four to make Quads and three ways each to pair the remaining cards on the board to make a Full House). I ended up betting the pot again, 1500 and once again he called. The Ace of Spades came on the River. I probably shouldn't have paid him off when he bet 3500 more after making his Flush but I hated the thought of getting bluffed out with a Set. He turned over King-Six of Spades and I felt sick. "That's a good hand," I said, tossing my cards in the muck.


Mike the Mouth expertly demolished the player two seats to his left and another top pro, Young Phan, came to take his place just in time for me to play the worst hand of my tournament career to date.  I looked at my cards and saw two Nines. I looked carefully because it was dark and I was pretty sure they were Nines so I said, "Raise," and put in 700 chips. Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed that Young Phan had already raised in second position. Since he had raised the 200-chip blind 400 to make it 600 and I had put in 700, the rule was that since I had made a verbal declaration I was committed to a raise and since I had put in less than the minimum raise my raise had to be 400 to make it 1000. So I put in 1000 and Young called. Now here I was reraising the tightest player on the circuit under the gun with Nines but not knowing it was a reraise. All I could hope for was that he was confused. The Flop came Ace-Seven-Trey, all Diamonds. I felt sick again. I looked at my cards and I couldn't tell if one of them was a Diamond because it was too dark. I didn't think so. Anyway, I figured he most likely had AA, KK, or AK, AK being the most probable. He checked and I decided to bet 1500 into the pot to try to win it. He called. I figured at that point he had the King of Diamonds and an Ace. The Turn was a blank and I checked, giving up on the hand. He put me all in and I folded, having thrown away half my remaining stack on a hand I should have folded pre-flop.


The rest of it was gone soon enough. I called Mike the Mouth with my last 975 chips with Ace-Eight offsuit. He turned over a Pair of Jacks and no Ace came in five cards so I was out of the contest. I wished Mike good luck with my chips. Phil Hellmuth, Jr., still didn't know my name although I had introduced myself three times and we had played together for 30 hours or so, but I wished him good luck too.


I hung around Atlantic City for another day and a half but flew back early as the final nine were playing under the TV lights. Poker was getting very exciting -- especially if you were good enough or lucky enough to make the final table. I was working on one and hoping for the other in the near future.


The tournament is scheduled to air Thanksgiving Day in six one-hour segments back-to-back on Fox Sports. In most locations it will commence at 12:30 local time but check your local listings.


November 18, 2003

Who’s Your Little Pequot? The 2003 Foxwoods World Poker Finals

A Seattle Yankee in Chief Pequot’s Court

Next stop on the World Poker Tour was in Connecticut so Shortstack and I took the morning flight to Boston on Alaska Airlines. We got seats 1D and F and waited while two separate mechanical problems caused a 90-minute delay. The flight attendant broke from Alaska’s no-preflight-drink policy and broke out the coffee while we waited interminably on the ramp. Finally we took off into the crisp Seattle air for points east. First Class customers got breakfast, a small fruit plate followed by a choice of apple crepe or omelet. We both took the lower-carb omelet but it turned out to be laced with tortilla strips so Shortstack, who is on a diet but doesn’t need to be, picked hers out while I, who ought to be but am not, ate mine. After breakfast they passed out the new solid-state digEplayer movie viewers, which had a choice of 10 movies, several sitcoms, and various informational slides. I chose The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a historical fantasy thriller starring Sean Connery, but quickly fired up Lionfish and started playing games while I listened to the movie’s sound effects in my Bose noise-canceling headset. Shortstack watched Down with Love, which I had already seen and liked. The flight attendant’s initiative seemed to end with the preflight drinks and she sat and read for most of the flight until it was time to pass out a small cheese plate before landing. We landed the same 90 minutes late we took off in Boston, my home town.


The Hertz bus was waiting for us and took us to the Lincoln LS we had rented. It was a bit small for my taste but not a bad car although I preferred the Volvo S80 they rented for the same price. We set the Neverlost for Foxwoods but just to be sure I asked the guard at the car-lot exit for directions. I had forgotten never to ask a New Englander for directions because we are incapable of saying the words “I don’t know.” First he said, “Oh shuwah, Foxwoods, right. That’s in Connecticut. Whatta ya gonna do, take the Mass Pike oah whut? Hey Al!” He ducked inside the booth and had a short discussion. “Whatta ya gonna do, take 93 oah whut?” I said I was hoping he’d tell us. We decided to trust the Neverlost, which apparently didn’t know how to get us out of the Hertz lot but once we were in the Sumner Tunnel we were fine. With the flight delay we had missed rush-hour traffic and 90 minutes and two States later we saw the gleaming castle rising up out of the Connecticut countryside. We headed for the Grand Pequot Tower. “Who’s your little Pequot?” Shortstack sang to me. The valet took the Lincoln and we checked in at the very nice VIP reception area. The receptionist had a bowl of rocks on her desk. All the other desks had bowls of candy. I leapt to a conclusion. “Are those rocks candy?” I asked. “Yeah.” “You mean you can eat them?” “Yeah.” I picked one up. It sure felt like a rock. “So this rock is candy?” I asked. “Yeah.” “Can I eat one?” “Theyah for our customahs,” she said with a shrug. I still didn’t feel invited but I picked out a nice flat spotted one and popped it into my mouth, being careful not to break any teeth. It turned out to be candy-covered chocolate. Things were not what they seemed here at the reservation. We got our room keys and asked her to make a dinner reservation for us at the steakhouse on the reservation.


They had put us in a nice corner suite so we unpacked and headed down for dinner. The service and décor at the Cedars steakhouse were unremarkable but we had a nice Caesar salad, a very good filet mignon, and a brilliant Tanqueray Ten martini. We signed the bill, under $100, to the room, intending to use Wampum to pay later. Here in the land of the Pequot you earned Wampum from your casino play. We planned to earn heap big Wampum, especially if I got knocked out of the tournament early.


I bought in for the big event tomorrow, $10,000 of hard-earned cash plus a $200 entry fee, and we gambled a little before bed. When we returned to the room we found an enormous gift basket, a cheese plate, crackers, two bottles of wine, and one of those seafood platters on ice that they charge $89 for in a steakhouse. I ate a lobster claw and Shortstack put the rest of the crab and lobster in the fridge so it wouldn’t go bad in case the ice melted overnight.


The big event

The tournament started at noon so we had time to gamble a little and get breakfast in the Veranda Café before it started. I had drawn table one, right by the front door. When I got there no one I recognized was seated but there were two empty seats. The first was taken by no one I recognized and when the tournament started with seat five empty I could only assume it was for my constant companion Phil Hellmuth, Jr. Imagine my surprise, then, when the late arrival was not a tall young Californian but a short Asian man from Houston, Texas: Johnny Chan, winner of back-to-back World Championships and immortalized in the movie Rounders as the world’s greatest poker player.


Most of the players at the table, including me, were pretty conservative, but there was an older fellow in seat two who was playing just about every pot, winning lots of small ones and losing the big ones. I desperately wanted to get into a pot with him and make a hand. When I limped in on the button with Jack-Ten of hearts (Vince Van Patten’s favorite hand) he checked his blind and the flop came Seven-Seven-King, two Hearts. He checked and I checked for the free card. A Heart came on the turn. He bet 200 and I raised 500. He called. I didn’t know what to put him on since he pretty much stayed in any pot unless the bet was too big. I thought it unlikely he had a higher flush but there was always the possibility he had a Full House. The River was a blank and he checked again. I thought I had him beat so I bet the most I thought he would call, 1000. He called. “I have a Flush,” I said, and humbly showed my hand. He turned over a 7 for trips and grumbled about how he kept getting into trouble slow-playing. I wished I had bet more. He probably would have called any amount with that hand.


I lost about a quarter of my stack overplaying an Ace-Queen when the board showed an Ace but my opponent flopped a Set of Fours. An Ace came on the River and I thought I was either a moron for calling his reraise on the flop or lucky not to have lost more—-probably both. My inexperience showed. I won a bunch back with a strong raise on the river with a weak Ace against the player to my right in seat eight, a scar-faced black man wearing a huge jewel-encrusted gold pendant, three enormous gold and diamond rings, a mink coat and matching mink baseball cap—the style of clothing sometimes described as “pimped out.” He won it back and more, though, when I foolishly bluffed all in with a Pair of Nines on a flop of Q-7-3 when he was holding Q-7. No way he would lay that down and I was now down to 6600.


Johnny Chan had hardly played a hand all this time. “Johnny,” I said, “I can see your discipline and experience working as you play very conservatively in the early rounds, looking for your opportunity to make a move.” “Nah, I’m just sleepy,” he said.


The table broke and I got moved to table 19. Still no Phil Hellmuth, Jr., but champion pro Kathy Liebert was there and the mustachioed guy to my left had a world o’ chips. The blinds were still low so I didn’t panic but I knew I needed to get some chips pretty soon. Playing with Phil Hellmuth, Jr., had taught me a good way to get chips: wait until one of the loose-aggressive players such as Phil tried to steal my blind and then reraise him. Kathy wasn’t quite as loose as Phil but she did raise more often that she was likely to get good hands so when I found myself with any decent hand I reraised her and she folded.  She didn’t seem too happy that I had discovered this tactic and she tried several Hellmuth-style conversational ploys in an effort, I supposed, to throw me off my game. Little did she know that I hadn’t much of a game to throw off. In any case, 10 years as a high-school baseball umpire and basketball referee had inured me to most taunts. Finally she pouted. It was an excellent pout and I told her so. We reached an uneasy truce and she started stealing someone else’s blinds.


Alex, a young Russian, sat down to my right and immediately started raising most pots, Hellmuth-style. When finally the table folded around to him on the small blind and he merely called I knew he either had something like Seven-Deuce offsuit or a pair of Aces because with any reasonable hand he would have tried to steal my blind. I had King-Eight offsuit so I just checked. The flop came Nine-Eight-Eight, giving me trips. Alex made a small bet and I made a small raise, thinking he would think I was thinking he was trying to steal and I was trying to re-steal. He called. The turn was a blank and Alex put me all in. “I call,” I said instantly. “Det’s not what I wanted to khear,” he said in his Teddy KGB accent. I showed him my K-8 and he turned over a Nine-Deuce of Spades. He needed one of two Nines on the river. They didn’t come and all of a sudden I had 24,000 chips.


Seat nine got knocked out and Johnny Chan popped back in to take his place. We still didn’t play a pot together, which was fine with me.  What wasn’t fine was that I got no decent hands for about two hours. I didn’t try to steal, which was probably a mistake because when I finally got Ace-King in late position the blinds immediately folded. You respect a guy who plays one hand in two hours. But I had lost half my stack to the blinds and antes and by the end of the day was down to 12,200. Johnny was in worse shape, though: on the last hand he doubled up the guy to my left, who had been slow-playing a Pair of Aces, and finished with only 8500. It was 12:30 a.m. and we went to bed.

75 left


We had breakfast in one of the many VIP lounges scattered throughout Foxwoods. The spread in these lounges surpassed anything in Vegas for variety although perhaps not quality. They were essentially a full buffet with open bar and one location even had omelets made to order.


I had drawn the seat next to Chris “Jesus” Ferguson to start day two. He was the only big name at the table and I was the shortest stack although there were three others with only a little more than me. Blinds had been raised to 600/1200 with a 200 ante so my 12,200 would only last a bit over three rounds. The button started at my seat so I would get a full round before I had to pay the blind. On the second hand the kid under the gun went all in. Everybody folded to Mike, a big guy wearing the style of goatee now referred to as “the Moneymaker,” who looked up in surprise and said, “I call!” he flipped over a Pair of Kings and the guy making the move with two Sixes was soon walking back to Houston. Two hands later it was folded to me. I saw Ace-Eight offsuit and I thought I’d go for a steal so I raised it to 4000. It folded around to Big Mike and he reraised me all in. I thought for a good two minutes. Was he using his image from his last win to re-steal from me? Did he figure I was weak and was reraising me with a weak Ace, in which case I was a big favorite, or a low pair, in which case I was almost even? If he had another big pair or a high Ace I was a dog, but not unbearably so. Ultimately I figured if I folded I was in pretty sad shape so I called and watched with dismay as he turned over Ace-King. After four minutes of day two I was out of the contest in 72nd place out of 313. It was my best finish so far in the World Poker Tour and a steady improvement. I stuck my head in a bucket of ice water for an hour or so and thought about how I could play better.


When I recovered we had an excellent dinner at Fox Harbor, the seafood-and-steak restaurant in the Grand Pequot Tower. Shortstack had her favorite Bouillabaisse while I had a filet mignon. Appetizers were yummy, a smoked-seafood platter for Shortstack and a pot of clams and mussels for me. We got the 1999 Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullinger estate Cabernet, one of the most exciting of the new mid-priced California single-vineyard cabs. We signed it to the room.


Sunday off

Since last year it had taken until 8 a.m. Sunday morning to play down to the final six, Foxwoods had scheduled a day off on Sunday with the final table to be played at noon Monday. We took it easy, chowing down periodically on the great spreads at the many VIP lounges scattered throughout Foxwoods. We had dinner with Rafe “Tiltboy” Furst and last year’s Aruba WPT pro-division champ Phil Gordon at Paragon, a world-class gourmet room perched atop the Grand Pequot Tower. They were all out of roast Pequot so Shortstack and I shared an excellent Caesar salad and chateaubriand for two. Phil told us the exciting news that he would be co-hosting Celebrity Poker Showdown, a new poker show Tuesday nights on the Bravo cable channel and we promised to watch. We ordered the Nickel & Nickel Sullinger again and the waitress was nice enough to run down to Fox Harbor to find a bottle of ’99. Andy Bloch joined us for dessert, which as a rule I don’t eat but they had a frozen espresso soufflé so I ordered just one. Phil wanted to play roshambo for the bill but I wasn’t about to get suckered into a match with these world-class players so I just offered to pay the bill if they got the tip. I figured there was a 50-50 chance the casino would pick it up and that was better than my chance of beating those guys at roshambo.


I don’t know, Alaska

I wanted to look for Shana because in Aruba we had kind of said we’d see each other here but Shortstack wanted to get an early start so we powwowed with the casino hosts over the wampum needed to pay our bill and checked out. We set the Neverlost on the Lincoln for the Chestnut Hill Mall just outside of Boston so Shortstack could visit Bloomingdale’s while I found a Starbucks and used the T/Mobile hotspot to connect to the Internet. We had our traditional lunch at Legal Sea Foods—I tried the fabulous lobster roll while Shortstack had Cajun-style salmon—and allowed an hour for the rush-hour drive to the airport but what with the Ted Williams Tunnel and all it only took 20 minutes. Once again the Neverlost couldn’t navigate to the Hertz lot but we followed the signs and zipped in no problem.  We used the kiosk to check in at Alaska and used the far security checkpoint because the close one had no First Class line. One pleasant and one unpleasant woman let us into the US Airways club with our Alaska Board Room card and we used the low-speed dialup and munched on the party mix while waiting for the 5:00 delivery of plastic-wrapped cheese bites.


The 737-700 may have been the same airplane as the one that got us here and we had the same seats, 1D and F, and the same flight attendant who seemed more interested in reading the National Enquirer than refilling our glasses during the six-and-a-half-hour flight. The digEplayers had the same program as before so this time we watched the remake of Solaris, like the original a murky sci-fi emotional poem only this time with George Clooney incongruously inserted as the lead, and X2, a weak contrived sequel to X-Men highlighted by Patrick Stewart and lots of cute mutant girls. We circled Seattle for a half-hour before landing, making this perhaps the longest domestic flight we’d ever taken. It was driving rain in Seattle but we got Lioncar out of hock and drove the 20 minutes home to find the windstorm had blown a dead Alder tree straight across our driveway. Fortunately it was rotten and had smashed to pieces, much like my poker game, and together we cleared the way to get in the house for a short night’s rest. Next stop: Showdown at the Sands.


October 19, 2003

Aruuuuba: The 2003 Ultimate Poker Classic

Poker flight

The only sensible itinerary from Seattle to Aruba was an early-morning flight on Continental connecting in Houston so we asked the UltimateBet travel agency to book us that flight, which they happily did. Since we were returning from a hastily planned trip to Vegas the night before, we decided to book a room at SeaTac Airport. We spent an unremarkable four hours at the Red Lion Seattle Airport before catching the shuttle they shared with MasterPark to the terminal, really in walking distance just across the street.

The prize package I had won didn’t include First Class travel but fortunately our elite status in Continental’s program got us vaunted on both segments. We checked in at the blue carpet, breezed through security, lounged in the Presidents Club for 15 minutes and then headed to the gate. Continental had implemented a new “elite access” program that included a special boarding line so no matter at what point in the boarding process we arrived at the gate we could cut in front of the have-nots. We settled into seats 6A and B in the 757-200 and declined the offered headphones in favor of our matched set of Boses. We pushed back eight minutes early for the uneventful flight. Breakfast was a fruit plate with a choice of eggs and Canadian bacon or Special K. They were out of the cereal by the time they reached us but we both preferred the protein breakfast anyway, although Shortstack didn’t have to say “Canadian” bacon because she’s from Canada. The movie was It Runs in the Family with Kirk Douglas and son Michael, an entertaining if a bit jumbled close-to-home story for the elder Douglas about a stroke victim’s relationship with his family. We declined the hot cookie and landed early in Houston.

We had about an hour until our next flight so we visited the much larger North Presidents Club at IAH. There was no high-speed Internet but I checked email and surfed around a bit at low speed while Shortstack brought me a complimentary Diet Coke. When it came time, we strolled back to gate C-18 where we found many familiar faces and a couple of people wearing UltimateBet logo apparel. I smelled money and looked over to see a pile of ones at the elbow of Howard “Bub” (The Professor) Lederer sitting with wife Suzie, busily playing gin with some men I assumed were part of the Vegas contingent and connecting to the same flight we were to Aruba. “Looks like you’re cleaning up, Howard,” I said to the man who had busted my pocket Jacks with his Big Slick last time we had played together. “I’m cleaning up on ones,” he retorted. “I’m glad you’re getting something,” I said to the two-time World Poker Tour winner. “You’ve had a hell of a time.”

Shortstack and I boarded first and settled into 3E and F. I had Howard’s sister’s book, Poker Face, out to finish on the flight but I left it on the armrest as I watched the contestants parade past me. Annie Duke had brought her entire family, a younger member of which eagerly informed me that mommy’s sister wrote the book I was reading. Then Layne Flack came by. I recognized him but he didn’t recognize me until I told him I was Quiet Lion, who had eliminated him in the PartyPoker Sunday tourney a week earlier. “I hate you Quiet Lion” he had chatted on line. I had told him I’d see him in Aruba but made good on it a bit earlier. Two empty seats in First Class remained and Shortstack laid me 8-to-5 that they were for Howard and Suzie. Sure enough, forced to give up the gin game when final boarding was called they filled up 2A and C and soon we were off.

The 737-700 waited in Houston ramp traffic awhile but when we took off the captain still estimated a half-hour-early arrival. I studied Poker Face for any last-minute clues to beating Howard. The same movie we had just seen was on board instead of the one they were supposed to show so they showed it again. Shortstack watched it, having slept through part of the first showing, but ended up sleeping through the same part again. I read. Lunch was a choice of steak sandwich or chicken salad. I had the former and Shortstack the latter. Both were light on meat but tasty and came with a thin chowder served piping hot with oyster crackers. Dessert was a wafer of Ghirardelli chocolate plus a hot chocolate-chip cookie later in the flight. We landed a half-hour early in Aruba.

The UltimateBet prize package included a week at the Holiday Inn but they offered a Hyatt upgrade for extra money. I paid the extra but it turned they were talking about the Hyatt Regency Aruba and not Shana Hiatt. Our Diamond status with Hyatt got us upgraded to the Regency Club level, otherwise known as the top floor, where we had a standard room with a partial ocean view. We hastily unpacked and went down to the beach to attend the welcome party. There were some scary deep-fried snacks there but we decided to get some real dinner and strolled along the beach to Azzurro, the Italian restaurant where the final table of the big tournament is held. We eyed the verandah and tried to imagine how it would look set up for the big showdown Saturday. After dinner Howard and I watched the Red Sox even up the American League Championship Series 2-2.

Cinderella Story

There was a Limit Hold ‘Em warm-up tournament Tuesday afternoon so I entered it and didn’t get put at Phil Hellmuth, Jr.’s table for the first time. I did, however get to sit with Card Player columnist Jeff Shulman and last year’s UltimateBet Poker Classic champion Juha Helppi. Juha had taped a hilarious commercial for UltimateBet that ran on World Poker Tour in which they keep referring to him as the “Cinderella story” as he nods and looks tough. At the end he turns and says, in his thick Finnish accent, “Who is this Cinderella anyway?”

There was no Cinderella story for me, though, and I was eliminated in time to watch most of Game 5 of the ALCS. Shulman took most of my chips, beating my Ace-King with an Ace-Ten that paired on the flop, and my final gasp was an Ace-Six suited that didn’t catch and lost to pocket Kings. The Yankees beat the Red Sox to take a 3-2 lead in the series.

We had dinner with Howard and Andy at the very nice Italian restaurant across the street, Hostaria da Vittorio.

Double me, Jesus

Wednesday morning I was scheduled to play in the final table of an Omaha 8 or Better free roll. I had a short stack but caught some hands early to build it up to par before losing it back to a sleepy player whose on-line name was Teddybear. I came in fifth for a whopping $140 prize, deposited to my on-line account.

In the afternoon was another warm-up tourney, this one No-Limit Hold ‘Em. I started at a pretty tough table with two players with World Series of Poker championship bracelets and superstar Men “The Master” Nguyen to my left. I outlasted Men and held my own when Chris “Jesus” Ferguson sat down three seats to my left. I had met Chris before and he was just as kind and friendly during a game as he had been then despite his intimidating black clothes and hat and long hair and beard. I could see why they started up this whole religion around him. He had been on TV slicing bananas with playing cards so I made him promise not to throw any at me but he wouldn’t promise not to beat me. I lost two big hands with Ace-King and my stack dwindled to practically nothing as the blinds grew. With 525 in chips left and seeing the 100-200 blinds coming my way I saw a pair of Eights and pushed all in under the gun. “Double me Jesus!” I yelled. “Why me?” said Chris. Unfortunately the woman two seats to my left had pocket Queens and I was out of the contest. The Red Sox came from behind to send the series into a final deciding game.

We had a delicious dinner with Andy, Annie Duke, and several of the guys with the best looking wives and girlfriends at El Gaucho, a downtown steak-and-seafood restaurant. As a rule I don’t eat dessert but the tiramisu cake was superbly done with frozen filling so Shortstack and I split just one piece although Shortstack claimed having two bites did not constitute “splitting.” We took a cab back to the Holiday Inn and discovered I had drawn the 8 a.m. session for the big tourney tomorrow so we headed back to the Hyatt after a brief hi to Erik Seidel. I had my work cut out for me: world champion Tom McEvoy was to be at my table. I looked for Phil Hellmuth, Jr.’s name but it was nowhere to be found. I guessed he’d wander in just before the start of the afternoon session and sign up. That was good, I thought, because it would give me a big advantage against him on Friday when he would be working on very little sleep.

Over the top

We got a wake-up call for 7 a.m. and as a backup I set Lionfish to play Al Hirt’s “Java” at the same time, actually 4 a.m. by Lionfish’s clock, which I keep on Pacific Time. I walked over to the Holiday Inn and signed in. The tourney started on time and to my delight I didn’t recognize anyone at the table although there were three empty seats when we started. After only a few minutes, however, two of them filled in: with Phil Ivey, who made it to three World Poker Tour final tables in the inaugural season, and none other than Howard “Bub” (The Professor) Lederer. The third seat remained empty and Jack McClelland finally took away the blinded-off stack and a player sat down there. I saw Phil Hellmuth, Jr., at another table. “At least that streak has been broken,” I thought. With those two at the table I decided to practice my folding skills for a few hours.

It was a while before we lost anyone but eventually the player to my right busted. With 225 players in the morning flight, I can’t explain how I knew but I said it for all to hear: “It’s going to be Phil Hellmuth, Jr.” Sure enough, Jack broke his table and sent him on over to add to my misery. With him raising every other pot and Phil Ivey calling every other raise I was afraid to play anything but Pocket Rockets and when I did, no one called me. The blinds went up and my stack went down. Meanwhile Barry Shulman, Jeff’s dad and publisher of Card Player, sat down at the table as did Gus, the Costa Rican champion from yesterday. Finally, with three minutes to go and the blinds at 300/600, I was on the button and it folded around to Phil Hellmuth, Jr., on my right, who made a standard raise of 1800. I looked at my cards and saw Ace-Ten. I had 6400 chips left and it was costing almost 2000 to play each round so I figured I might not have a better chance. I thought there was a good chance he had Ace-rag, two paints, or a small pair and an even better chance he would not call so I shoved all in. The blinds folded and Phil deliberated for a bit before calling. We flipped over our cards and I saw Nine-Nine, one of the better hands he might have had but only a 13-to-10 favorite over my two overcards so I still had a decent chance. When the flop came up empty I was ready to call it a day but a Ten came on the turn and I doubled up against Phil.

“Unbelievable!” said Phil. “Why do they think they can do this to me? Come over the top with Ace-Ten? Why? Why?”

“Phil,” I said, “you magnificent bastard! I read your book!

The clock ticked off and I finished with 15,575 chips, over a 50% increase from my start. Phil Hellmuth, Jr., finished with around 14,000 and Howard, playing tight through his drought of cards, had only 8,000 or so. Phil Ivey had accumulated a nice stack with his high-pressure tactics paying off. They bagged and tagged all the chips in preparation for the resumption of play tomorrow morning at ten, at which time, thankfully, we would all redraw for new tables.

We had a passable midafternoon meal at Tony Roma’s across the street from the Holiday Inn with the Canadians. I used the Hyatt business center’s DSL line to download 647 spam messages at 40 cents/minute and then headed down to the outdoor bar, which was reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s in Cocktail, with Howard and Phil Ivey and his wife to watch the Red Sox blow yet another season.

Big Slick

There were about 225 people left out of 435 and I was right about in the middle. I found myself third-shortest stack at a table with three of the top ten chip leaders and nobody I recognized. I was very happy about this. The blinds were 500/1000 with a 100 ante and I had 17,200. The button had barely gone around the table once when the kid on my right pushed his meager 1500 all in. I peeked at my cards and saw Ace-King offsuit so I raised it another 6000 hoping everyone else would fold. But it was not to be: the player to my left reraised it to 15,000 — almost all my chips. No guts, no glory, I thought, and I pushed all in. He called and flipped over pocket Cowboys. The original raiser showed Ace-Jack of hearts. That meant only two Aces left in the deck and they didn’t appear so I was out of the contest, finishing about 180th, much better than in Atlantic City but out of the money even though they paid out an astounding 100 places.

Shortstack and I went for a walk up and down the beach, watched the chameleons scurry, and had a little lunch before I played in the consolation tournament at 3 p.m. I played like a moron though and busted out early. Jeff Shulman told me he never plays in consolation tournaments for that very reason. He also told me I should have laid down Big Slick to the reraise. I wish I had, but who knew he had Kings? Well, there it is. Jeff’s dad Barry Shulman, who I had eliminated in Atlantic City, was still in it with a big pile of chips but Howard, Annie, and finally Andy were out. Andy made a $600 profit on his $4100 buy-in.

We changed our return flight to tomorrow and had a nice dinner with Andy, Howard, and Suzie at Gasparito’s, a nice Aruban-cuisine restaurant. A guitarist approached our table and explained politely that he was an independent businessman before he proceeded to play “Girl form Ipanema.” I readied a generous tip but he played a second song, and when that was over segued into “Stairway to Heaven.” Despite my pointing to the sign on the wall he played the whole thing sans vocals except for a plaintive “make me wonder” now and again. We broke into polite applause and delivered a pair of generous tips.

After dinner we returned to the tourney room to watch the field whittle down to the final six who would be on TV. T.J. Cloutier, the Canadian football player turned poker pro, had a huge chip lead but lost it with three quick bad beats and was gone. When it got down to 10, David “Devilfish” Ulliott, who had appeared last season on WPT, was in as was our two friends Barry Shulman and Erick “E-Dog” Lindgren, who had been with me at Phil Hellmuth, Jr.’s table in Atlantic City and had made the final table in Paris this season, which hadn’t yet aired. Both had a nice pile of chips and with seven players left it was finally Devilfish who pushed his short stack all-in with Jack-Seven and got called by Jack-Deuce. Devilfish was a huge favorite to double up or at least push but a Deuce hit on the flop and it was all over. Barry and E-Dog had made the final table.


Shortstack and I headed over to Azzurro to watch the start of the final table before we had to leave for our flight and ran into Vince Van Patten on the walkway beneath. I resisted the temptation to say, “Vince! What happened? I had Big Slick and I lost! I thought you said it was a monster hand!” Instead, we walked up the wooden stairs and watched the crew set up. One of the contestants had been wearing his lucky Red Sox cap but the no-logos policy of the WPT meant he had to take it off. He demurred and eventually ended up wearing the cap with a patch of duct tape over the B.

Soon Shana Hiatt arrived, bright and bubbly, and said to no one in particular, “This is my favorite location.” I smiled like an idiot. She walked over to an area that had been cordoned off for interviews and put on her microphone. She seemed to be having difficulty attaching the clip to her bikini top so I started over to help but Shortstack threw a body block on me and by the time I came to my senses she was done. We watched them film a little “B reel,” asking to audience members to feign reactions so they could splice them into the show. We wished Barry and E-Dog good luck and watched what we could for a few minutes until it was time to head back to the hotel and pack. We took one step down the stairs but I said to Shortstack, “Is it OK if I just say goodbye to Shana?” She sighed. “Go ahead.” I trotted over to the barricade and saw her sitting and watching the monitor. “Shana!” I said, waving. She looked up and smiled as she pretended to recognize me. “Oh hi!” she said. “I’m out early again,” I said, “but—I’ll see you in Connecticut!” “OK!” she said and smiled and waved goodbye. I wasn’t sure but I thought there might have been a little something going on there. Shortstack grabbed my ear and led me off to the hotel in pain.

A 20-minute cab ride got us to the airport and 45 minutes later, having passed through five different checkpoints, we were at the gate. We were once again vaunted on both segments so the flight would be a comfortable if lengthy one. Our connection in Houston had two different flight numbers and two different crews but it was the same airplane, a 737-700. They showed It Runs in the Family for the third time so we watched our own DVDs on our laptops. I watched Rounders for the first time since I started playing poker and it made a lot more sense. I made a mental note to have some of Teddy KGB’s dialogue handy for future WPT events. We skipped Legally Blonde II since we planned to see it on the second segment but they showed Agent Cody Banks instead. Shortstack and I napped on and off and we landed in Seattle a half-hour early after the long flight. We got Lioncar out of hock and drove home in the cool Seattle night.

October 11, 2003

Warm-up at the Bellagio

Pocket Aces

Shortstack and I had her folks down for a little Seattle-Vegas holiday so I decided to play the regular $500+40 (really $485+55) Bellagio Friday tourney as a warm-up for the World Poker Tour event next week in Aruba. The tourney started with 93 players including a few who entered as alternates, taking the seats of the players who busted out early. I didn’t get very good cards so there weren’t many notable hands for me other than one I wasn’t involved in. A young guy named Tony had made a small raise under the gun and while he was waiting for the other players a friend of his came over and wanted something. He emptied his pockets onto the table and searched for whatever it was, finally taking everything out of his wallet before handing a slip of paper to his friend. By the time he had reassembled his wallet everyone else had folded.  The dealer pushed the pot to him and he did a double-take. “Where did my cards go?” he asked. He looked all around, then turned beet-red as he pulled his wallet back out of his pocket and opened it to reveal—-true pocket Aces. The dealer asked, “Anyone want a new deck?” “Nah,” everyone said, laughing.


My bad run of cards continued and the blinds kept increasing. Soon I found myself down to 575 chips with the blinds 100 and 200. Fortunately I caught a few hands and doubled up several times, finding myself with the short stack at the final table. I didn’t recognize anyone other than Chip Jett, famous for losing a huge hand to Howard Lederer on the World Poker Tour by Howard catching running Fours for his only out. Chip was much funnier in person than he appeared on that show. I mused that playing hours of limit Hold ‘Em against Howard Lederer with several hundred thousand dollars at stake might sober anyone.


I fought valiantly with my meager treasure but ended up finishing eighth when a Las Vegas local to my left paired his King on the river to beat my Ace high. I congratulated him and wished everyone good luck.  Jack McClelland paid me $1127 in casino chips and told me I was moving on up from my current position as 131st on Bellagio’s list of leading money-winners. I told him I’d see him in Aruba.


September 22, 2003

The 2003 Borgata Poker Open

I couldn’t wait to check out of the Taj Mahal, which I had come to think of as the Imperial Palace East. I got a host on the phone and he took care of the room and food charges but not $8/day in taxes. For $4 (not compable) I got my Taurus out of hock and set the Neverlost to drive through Hurricane Isabel to the Trump Marina, which I knew was next to the Borgata. The Borgata was too new to be in Neverlost’s database. It got me close enough and as soon as I pulled in I kicked myself for even thinking about staying anywhere else in Atlantic City.


Borgata was a true luxury hotel. It reminded me of a cross between Bellagio and The Palms in Las Vegas. I got a minisuite on a high floor with a view of the Boardwalk three miles away and I supposed the ocean beyond it, although with the storm it all blended together into battleship gray. The bed had those sheets my wife liked where they count the threads and everything and the huge marble bathroom was big enough to rollerblade in. Best of all, I plugged my new laptop Lionfish into the RJ45 jack in the wall and—voila!—4.9 Mbit/sec Internet access. There was no payment screen so I guessed it was only free until they finished installing the billing system, but who knows?


I played a little video poker in lieu of paying cash money for the room and then went for dinner with two-time WPT finalist Andy Bloch. We had a bit of a run-in with the Maitre D’ at the Old Homestead Steakhouse when he wouldn’t let us order an appetizer at the raw bar while we waited a half-hour for a table. “Let me go over your options one more time,” he said. I decided his performance as Master of Denial conflicted with my philosophy that he’s in business to please me and not the other way around so we ended up going to the next restaurant down the line, Specchio, and had a yummy new-Italian meal.


Isabel roared through the night, spending herself against the Jersey shore and rattling windows in the brand-new high-rise.

Flushed out

There was a $500+40 warm-up tournament the day before the World Poker Tour event so I entered it and decided to try to apply what I had learned by sitting with Phil Hellmuth, Jr., for eight hours. Everything was going great until I flopped a set of nines and lost a big pot on the river to a flush draw. That reduced my stack quite a bit and then I called an all-in from a short stack to my left. I had A-Q offsuit and I was pleased to see him turn over a relatively weak hand, K-8. I was the favorite but the flop brought an 8 and I lost once again. With my meager remaining stack I got stupid and called an all-in after the flop with nothing but a pair of Aces and a weak kicker and I was out of the contest. Elapsed time: 3.5 hours.


I assuaged my misery with a nice dinner at Suilan, Susanna Foo’s Asian-French restaurant at the Borgata, accompanied by Andy Bloch once again and Annie Duke, one of the premier female players and as kind and upbeat a human being as I’d ever met. I gave her some complimentary user-interface tips for UltimateBet, the Internet poker site she consults for. Like Specchio the night before, the meal was excellent as was the service.


I rested up for the big day tomorrow.


Missing Phil Again

I got a tall nonfat—skim milk in Jersey—latte at Starbucks and went down to register for the main event, looking around for people I recognized. Other than the ones who played with me at the Taj I noticed two-time WPT winner Gustav “Gus” Hansen, poker femme fatale Jennifer Harman, and WPT announcer Mike Sexton. Sexton’s arrival spurred me to scour the room for Shana Hiatt but she was nowhere to be found and I figured she might not be in until the final day.


The tourney started a half-hour late as seemed to be the custom in New Jersey. I had an empty seat to my right with a stack of chips the dealer blinded off each time the button passed it. On the other side was Costa Rican champion Bobby Thompson. I asked if he had played in the Costa Rica WPT event last year and he said, “I was kicked out of it for getting in a fight with Phil Hellmuth.” Apparently Bobby had taken exception to some of Phil’s theatrics and started a fight. We wondered if the empty seat next to me was once again Phil’s. That might prove interesting.


We were still at the first level of blinds when I called a small raise in the big blind with 9-T of Hearts. When the board flopped 6-7-8 rainbow I concentrated on breathing. I had flopped the nut Straight. Bobby and a player to my left were in the pot. Bobby bet 1000 and I deliberated awhile and then called, slowplaying the hand. The third guy called. The turn brought an Ace. I thought this was great because one of them might have A-8 or some such. Bobby bet 2000 and we both called. The river brought another Ace. Now I was not so happy. Bobby moved all in and I knew I had to call because I couldn’t let him bluff me off the Straight. A more experienced player might have folded. Sure enough, he turned up two Sixes for a Full House. I was down to 200 in chips and was quickly out of the contest.


I made the rounds of the room and let my friends know I was going home as I wished them luck. But as I was leaving I saw Phil Hellmuth, Jr., walk in with a cup of coffee. I had to see. Sure enough, he homed in on my table—in fact, my seat. He hadn’t even sat down yet but he was already arguing. It turned out I had sat in the wrong seat and I should have had the cards Phil was dealt and folded unseen. “Phil,” I said with my best poker face, “I’m afraid that means you’ve busted out,” and I pulled out the empty chair and made as if to sit in it before we both broke into smiles. Bobby turned to me and said, “You’re a gentleman.” I thanked him. I turned to leave but then hesitated. I turned back.


“Phil?” I said. He looked at me. “Yes?” I extended my hand and he shook it. “Good luck. See you in Aruba.” I knew I would see him and I didn’t see why I wouldn’t once again be at his table, as I had been in every single tournament we had been in together.


Busting out of every tourney was nothing to write home about but it wasn’t the end of the world either. Many of the top players didn’t place, and although I probably could have played that big hand differently I was still a seven-to-two favorite to win it after the Turn—I got unlucky. Only six of the 235 entrants would make the final table so it was difficult to know whether even a long string of failures was due to bad luck or bad play. I’d give it some more time. My only regret was I didn’t last long enough to get interviewed by Shana Hiatt, who still hadn’t shown.


I went upstairs to pack and change my return flight and then called my host to have him take care of the bill. He said no problem based on my casino play—poker didn’t earn any comps though, even if you’re stuck five large. Since I had a lot of experience with casinos but no experience with him I went down to VIP checkout to verify that he had actually taken care of it. The balance was $10 and change. I asked what that was for. A tip at Specchio, she said. “I didn’t charge a tip to the room; we left cash.” She began, “All the restaurants here add on a tip—” but I didn’t let her finish. “No,” I said. “That’s not a tip. A tip is something offered freely. I was not informed of that policy, I left a generous cash tip, and I’m not paying the charge.”


She looked troubled but at this point an old mobster-type—think of Garry Marshall playing the casino manager at the Desert Inn in the movie Lost in America—stepped up and said, “I’ll take care of it.” I thanked him. “How did you enjoy your stay?” he asked. “Yours is a very lovely hotel,” I replied. “Very lovely.” He turned out to be the VP of casino operations and I was giving him some complimentary suggestions regarding the noise level in the high-limit room when a bright light to my left caught my eye. I looked over and it was one of those cheesecloth-muted camera lights along with a small crew that setting up a shoot. I could only see her back and the corona of diffused light around her honey-colored hair. I aborted the conversation with Garry in mid-sentence.


“Is that—?” I blurted out without thinking.


She turned her head towards me slowly, smoothly, her distinctive nose first coming into view, then her round face and gleaming smile. As she turned she softly flipped her hair, the ends twinkling in the camera light as if miniature bells on the ends were softly ringing. She looked right at me.


“Shana Hiatt?” I asked. Her smile shined even brighter and she took my hand as I extended it to her.


“Mommmf bmff momff fbrrt mmf maaarfff,” I said.


“Thank you,” said Shana Hiatt.


“You’re—welcome. You’re very…very welcome,” I forced out. And then I added: “See you in Aruba.”


She might have given half a wink: “You bet,” said Shana Hiatt.


I floated down the escalator toward valet pick-up, retrieved the car—Borgata happily picked up the parking tax for gamblers—and set the Neverlost for Philadelphia Airport. I called my wife, the one known as “Shortstack,” to confess my Jimmy Carter. She forgave me and we quickly healed over the rift in our relationship. I spent the hour on the Atlantic City Expressway thinking about that hand.


Hertz couldn’t figure out how to check me in so I just told them to send me a bill and if it was too high I’d let them know but if it was too low I wouldn’t trouble them. I checked in at the deserted airport and headed for the US Airways club, cleverly named the US Airways Club. I flashed my winning smile. “Got a First-Class ticket to Seattle,” I said. “Does that get me in?” Nope. “OK, well I got this American Express Centurion Card, how about that?” Nope. “OK, then I can use the pass you guys sent me.” I fished around and pulled out a pass. “This one expired in 2001,” she said, circling the expiration date. “Oh.” I fished some more. “Aha! How about this one?” Nope, that one expired in 2002. “Can’t you just cross that out and write in 2003?” It was not possible. I fished some more. “Yes! Here it is!” “This one’s expired too.” “What? But this is 2003!” I said. “It expired in February.” But under my unrelenting raising of the pot she folded. “Tell you what,” she said, “I’ll take these three for one admission.” I was in.


The club was nicely appointed but rather minimalist in its hospitality philosophy. They had no free booze, no high-speed Internet, and no food other than pretzels, apples, and party mix. I hung out for a half-hour and then went to the gate.


Flight 115 was once again an Airbus 321. This time we had preflight drink service beyond water and I took full advantage. My seat opponent was a nice lady connecting from Sweden—a long travel day! She had a little stand-alone FreeCell game she was playing. The movie was The Italian Job with Donald Sutherland, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, and Mark Wahlberg. I had seen it before so instead I whipped out Phil Hellmuth Junior’s book to see if I could come up with a way to beat him next time. The safety professional came around with a choice for dinner of shrimp scampi or chicken marsala. We both ordered the chicken but it turned out to be chicken masala, which was fine for me since I liked curry but not for my seat opponent, who switched to the shrimp.


We landed a half-hour early in Seattle but Shortstack had already looked up the flight on line and was there circling the airport in Brrrdt, the 2002 T-Bird we had won in a drawing last year. The subway from the S satellite was under construction so we all climbed down stairs onto a bus and drove to the main terminal where we climbed back up stairs and then out to baggage claim. The airport was jammed on this Saturday night but soon I saw Brrrdt’s distinctive grille and Shortstack leapt out to greet me and drive her Lion home.


September 21, 2003

Frantic City: The 2003 US Poker Championship

Taj Mahal Lanai

There were two big Travel Channel events in Atlantic City in conjunction with the Miss America pageant so I booked the nonstop to Philadelphia on US Airways. It’s possible to fly right into Atlantic City via a short hop but it takes less time to drive from Philly than to wait for a connecting flight. Flight 6 was an airbus 321 with 22 seats in First Class. Preflight service was limited to a bottle of water. After takeoff I had coffee, which was served in a Styrofoam cup alongside the other passengers’ cold drinks is plastic cups. “911,” explained the steward when I asked about the lack of mugs and glasses. Lunch was a choice of chicken salad or sliced-beef sandwich. I said I didn’t have a preference and got the sandwich. It was cold, bland, and soggy, possibly the worst meal I have ever had in First Class on any airline. The movie was the remake of The In-Laws starring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.


We landed on time in Philly and I picked up a Hertz car with Neverlost. No upgrade from the full-sized Ford Taurus I ordered was possible due to them wanting to charge me an extra $50 a day so fired up Maggie Magellan and headed out to Frantic City. Maggie was not at her best and directed me to a dark dead end alley where I witnessed a drug deal before making a U-Turn and homing in on the Trump Taj Mahal visually. I valet-parked it and rolled my luggage to the check-in line where two couples from New Jersey pushed their way ahead of me until I figured out the system. The clerk gave me the living room part of a Lanai suite with a Murphy bed because no real rooms were available. I went up and tested the bed and it was passable so I kept it. A Lanai Suite turns out to be a room on the lowest floor with an obstructed view. I thought a lanai was a patio and there was a rooftop outside my window but no way to get out on it.


I hung out in the famous Taj poker room looking for Matt Damon and Johnny Chan but eventually gave up, had a mediocre dinner in the coffee shop, and went to bed.


Miss Rhode Island

The $10,000 buy-in United Stated Poker Championship started at four so I had the day to walk up and down the Boardwalk and get the feel of Atlantic City. The weather was perfect, the calm before hurricane Isabel, scheduled to hit tomorrow. Outside the convention center I saw a TV crew interviewing Miss Rhode Island, Harvard graduate Laurie Beth Gray. She and another alumna of my alma mater were vying for the title and I silently wished them luck, realizing their chances were good since Shana Hiatt was in town for a different event and since she was married she was ineligible anyway.


I got back to the Taj in plenty of time to buy in. The Travel Channel TV crew was taping interviews with people as they bought in but they ran out of tape just as it got to me. I introduced myself to Annie Duke, whom I had met on line, and she was just as kind and gracious in person as she was on UltimateBet. I wished her luck.


Four o’clock came and went as the staff held up the start of the tournament to accommodate a flood of latecomers. The house rake for this event was a relatively reasonable 2%, although as these televised events gain in popularity I expect we will start seeing sponsors add money to the prize pool rather than have the contestants pay a percentage to the house. As it was it was still a no-budget cable production. While we waited the producers tracked me down and interviewed me. I had all my sound bites ready so I hoped I gave them some good TV.


We started 45 minutes late and I was dismayed to see I once again had drawn the table of Phil Hellmuth Jr., possibly the best tournament player in the world. He put on a clinic both with his chips and with his mouth as he steadily accumulated one of the larger stacks in the room. He was also drawing some good cards, showing pocket Jacks six times, Queens once, and Kings twice, which he hit on one occasion for Four of a Kind. Meanwhile I was putting on a clinic in folding, rarely getting anything better than 6-3 offsuit. Of course Phil played that hand and won a nice pot. To my right was Erick “E-Dog” Lindgren, one of the young up-and-comers who had won a nice-sized event at Bellagio last year. Other than Phil it was a fairly tight table and nobody busted out for quite a while.


The camera crews roamed about, covering whatever the director thought was most interesting. Other than the hole-card cams, which we were not using until it got down to the final six on day three, the most camera-worthy events were usually when one player bet all his chips, going “all in.” Dealers were instructed to yell “All in!” when this occurred so the crew could scurry around and cover the turn of the cards and possible elimination of a player. Our table was pretty conservative and we didn’t have too many all-ins but we did have some witty banter, usually between Phil Hellmuth, Jr., and someone else. A couple times when I thought the banter rose to the level of quality demanded by the Travel Channel I turned my head and yelled, “Banter-cam! Get the banter-cam!” But they were always busy with someone going all in.


Toward the end of the day I had slowly, painfully lost half my stack when I saw a pair of Queens in my hand and reraised Phil’s standard every-hand raise, which he called. The flop came 3-3-2 so I moved all in with the rest of my stack, just a bit more than what was in the pot. Phil rightly gave me respect and folded, claiming to have folded A-K but not showing them. I’m just glad he didn’t have 3-2 offsuit.


At the end of the day I had about 15,000 of the initial 20,000 in chips remaining, not a bad result considering how few decent starting hands I got all day long. 70 of 99 were left and I was still in the contest, 58th in chip position. Some of the big names had busted out, including “Action” Dan Harrington, T.J. Cloutier, and at the last minute Andy Bloch. But we all still had to beat Phil.


It was after midnight when we finished so I went for dinner in the Taj coffee shop with Andy Bloch, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Howard “Bub” (The Professor) Lederer, and Erik Seidel. The food was not great but the company was. A lady from Jersey came up to the table with a placemat and asked for all our autographs. I think she mistook me for Kevin Spacey.


After dinner I climbed into the Murphy bed and tried to get some sleep.


No Straight

Day two started a half-hour late but when it did I found myself at a nice easy table with none of the tricky big-name players. Unfortunately I continued to get no cards and when I finally bet a pair of nines, a player two to my left reraised and I called. The flop came jack high and he reraised me all my remaining chips. I hadn’t seen him play a lot of pots and I had no real reason to think he was bluffing. If he wasn’t, then pretty much anything he had would beat me. I folded.


A few minutes later I found A-Q offsuit and bet my meager stack. Everybody folded and I once again had enough chips to play 10 circuits around the table. But it wasn’t long before I found another A-Q. I shoved it in again in response to a small raise by the big stack, who I figured was just trying to steal the pot as we hadn’t seen many flops.


“All in!” shouted the dealer, and the crew from the Travel Channel came a-running, shoving the all-in cam in my face as I watched him turn over a Pair of Aces. I stood up. I needed two Queens or a Straight to beat him and they didn’t come so I was out of the contest, finishing around 60th place. I shook everybody’s hand and did a post-mortem interview with the Travel Channel. Although I didn’t get many good cards, I began to see how these champion players made their own luck. I wondered just how good I could get.


This show should air sometime between January and March 2004. Results of all major tournaments are posted rapidly at the Card Player web site.