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.


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