Aruuuuba: The 2003 Ultimate Poker Classic
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.
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.
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.