August 1, 2003

On the Road to the World Poker Tour

Live from Vegas

A guy from Tennessee won $2.5 million so I decided to go on the World Poker Tour. I learned to play poker from Bill Gates about 20 years ago but never really played again until June 2003, when I started studying the game and practicing on line. I cobbled together an application in Microsoft Access to track my progress and when it seemed like I was doing OK I decided to go to Las Vegas to try out my skills for real.


I checked into my standing suite at Paris, smartly wallpapered with the money I’ve lost there, and played a little video poker to keep them happy while mentally preparing myself for the weekly Friday night tournament at Bellagio. I crossed the street and plunked down $540 to enter. The tourney was filled to capacity with 60 people and I got knocked out around 30th with little fanfare. There were quite a few things about playing at a real poker table that I was unfamiliar with, such as there was no button to press to bet or raise the minimum: you were just supposed to know. I apologized several times and explained it was my first time. Everyone was very understanding.


I had Saturday off and readied myself for the $1000 buy-in tournament at Orleans the next day. One thing I learned about Vegas tournaments is that if they say the buy-in is $1000+60 ($1000 is returned as prizes and $60 goes to the house) they really mean $970 goes to the prize pool, $60 goes to the house, and another $30 (3% of the buy-in) goes to pay the dealers. They call it a tip but of course it isn’t because it’s a mandatory rake. So the house ends up taking 8.5% off the top. That’s quite a bit more than the on-line poker rooms take.

Into the frying pan

I showed up at the Orleans and was directed up an escalator to a huge ballroom where people were playing single-table satellites to qualify for the big event. The $1000 No-Limit Hold ‘Em tourney was the finale of a series of mid-limit tournaments the Orleans was holding during the light poker month of July. I bought in and waited for the tournament to start as I noticed World Poker Tour announcer and poker pro Mike Sexton sitting on a table chatting with admirers. I picked up a copy of Card Player, the poker magazine available free at poker rooms everywhere, and looked for some last-minute pointers.


The time came and I headed to my assigned table. It didn’t take long for me to run into the big guns. There at my table were Kathy Liebert and Jeff Shulman, both world-class pros. Kathy won the Party Poker Million cruise tournament in 2001 and Jeff was editor of Card Player Magazine. I made a show of holding up my copy of the magazine and, open-jawed, looking alternately at his picture and him until he noticed what I was doing and smiled.


Jeff ended up busting me out of the tournament early on, as I got overly involved in bluffing with a Pair of Fours and got called. Kathy was very nice, smiling the whole time. When I busted out, she offered, “Just like on line, isn’t it?” I admitted it was.

Playing with the big boys

I decided to stay in Vegas because Bellagio had scheduled a series of three big tournaments to coincide with the end of the Orleans contests. The first was a $1000+60 (really $970+90) buy-in. There were 83 entrants and I managed to make it to the final table along with a few other amateurs and a few pros, including Jeff Shulman and WPT finalist Dewey Tomko. My luck held up and I ended up going heads up against another amateur who had a big chip lead over me. After only a few hands I went all in with A7 before the flop and he called with the inferior K-10 but outdrew me to win the trophy. Still, the $18,517 second-place prize wasn’t too bad for only my third live tourney. I bought in for the next day’s tourney before I left.


This time there were only 52 entrants and I started at a five-handed table with Amir Vahedi, currently the leader in Card Player’s Player of the Year. He was raising every pot to steal the blinds of the absent players and I played a few too many hands trying to keep up with him. I ended up short-stacked early and was one of the first eliminated. I bought in for the big $2500 buy-in tourney the next day.


Only 40 people entered the big event and there were plenty of heavyweights so I didn’t think I had too great a chance at this one. I sat down at a table with a couple of empty seats. Jack McClelland, the tournament director, came by with a Post-It note with the table number, seat number, and the initials “P.H.” and stuck it on the table in front of the empty seat to my right. “That wouldn’t be Phil Hellmuth, would it?” I asked Jack. “That’s right!” he said. Hoo-boy. So I sat next to the absent winner of sever World Series of Poker bracelets and watched them take off his blinds for an hour until the table broke up and we all filled in spaces in other tables left by eliminated players. Phil was famous for showing up late to big tournaments and for drooling while brushing his teeth. Now I had witnessed one of the two firsthand.


At the new table I quickly doubled up on a young Asian man who bet all his chips on a flush that happened to be lower than mine. That made me chip leader briefly. I stayed in good chip position and we switched tables again. I found myself sitting between the gracious Maureen Feduniak and the snappily dressed Scotty Nguyen, both WPT finalists. All day long I lucked out by having tight or short-stacked players to my left and loose cannons to my right. (This was helpful because I avoided betting and then having to fold by a big raise.) I complimented Maureen on her composure on camera (she said she hated it) and told Scotty, "Mr. Nguyen, my wife saw you on TV and likes your new haircut." He shook my hand and said to thank her.


I continued to hold my own and we switched tables again, down to 27 players.


This time I found myself with the actual Phil Hellmuth on my right (but on the other side of the dealer so I couldn't see or talk to him easily), Erik Seidel, No. 2 in Card Player’s list, to my left with a short stack, and Scotty to his left. Across from me was Amir Vahedi. Erik held his own against Phil raising practically every pot while I folded practically every hand. Finally I had a decent hand and reraised Phil, who folded. Heh heh.


Scotty was down to around 7000 and I had 20k or so when he doubled up on me with KK. I put him all in after his raise holding 57 with a flop of 678. No 4, 5, 7, or 9 came so he won the pot and I felt sick. However, justice reigned when he later bet a pair all in to my AK and I hit, eliminating him from the event! I was now up to 22k in chips and stayed around there until the final table, where I was luckily between Phil on my right and two short-stacked Europeans on my left. Two-time WPT winner Howard “Bub” Lederer (The Professor) sat across the long table from me. I was waiting for one of his famous stare-downs and it didn't take long. I made a standard raise with AK and he bumped it 8000. I knew I would reraise all in but messed with my chips a little bit because that's what they do on TV.


"All in," I said, and he asked how much more. It was another 7500 so he was obviously going to call but he stared me down for a minute first. He turned over JJ and I wasn't lucky enough to win the coin flip, which would have made me the chip leader with seven players left. Instead I was out of the contest and finished eighth. Since there were so few entrants they only paid the top five and I was out of the money.


The second-place finish two days earlier had bolstered my confidence (I guess we’ll see if it’s deserved) and even without it I had now played with the big boys and didn’t have to be nervous in September when I would fly to Atlantic City for my first WPT event.


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