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.


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