January 26, 2004

Are the Stars out tonight? The 2004 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure

Continental comes through

PokerStars decided to have a last-minute World Poker Tour event on the Royal Caribbean ship Voyager of the Seas so we booked a Continental Airlines connection from Seattle through Houston to Miami, shunning the Alaska Airlines nonstop for three times the price. Our upgrades came through at the three-day window so we left for the airport our normal hour and 40 minutes before flight time. A tip on FlyerTalk got us a great deal on parking at AirStar ShuttlePark, which fortunately didn't charge by the embedded capital letter, and the blue-carpet elite check-in had no line when we arrived with our overpacked whales to check through to Miami. The nice lady tagged them and put them on the conveyor belt, and we breezed through elite security and ensconced ourselves in the Presidents Club until boarding. The nice lady apologized that they hadn't yet put in the free wireless Internet access but offered that we could use it in Houston. Since our connection was 38 minutes, I thought that unlikely but thanked her nonetheless.


The incoming aircraft was delayed about 15 minutes and we departed late by the same amount. I was concerned about our baggage making the connection but all the Continental employees told me they were very good about baggage and not to worry. Shortstack and I ensconced ourselves in seats 4A and B in the 737-800 and had water and Diet Coke in plastic cups before takeoff. We were in the air 13 minutes late and the very friendly crew served drinks in highball glasses and warm mixed nuts. The movie, dredged out of the vault, was Nurse Betty, an offbeat romantic comedy with Renee Zellweger, Greg Kinnear, and Morgan Freeman slightly more entertaining than watching Renee watch a soap opera for two hours. Lunch was a choice of Southwestern chicken sandwich or mushroom soup and salmon salad. Only the latter remained when they got to us in the last row but we would have ordered it anyway. It was delicious, served with a hot roll and a small Ghirardelli mint-chocolate square same as on Alaska.  We landed 13 minutes late but waited another 10 minutes for a gate.


Our connecting flight was just across the hall and they were waiting for us so there was no problem getting on. They delayed the flight to accommodate the connecting bags so we hoped ours was among them. This flight was on an MD-80 and at an hour and 57 minutes it was too short for a movie even if the aircraft had had an in-flight entertainment system. We did get preflight drinks and, once in the air, another drink service and a hot meal. Shortstack passed but I had a yummy barbecued-brisket sandwich with tortilla soup. We landed in Miami around 10. Our priority-tagged bags were not the first off but they did arrive so we got a taxi to the Hyatt Regency Miami to rest for the night.


The Hyatt had no Diamond check-in line so we waited a few minutes in the regular line along with the World Poker Tour technical crew. I looked around in case Shana Hiatt was there but didn't see her. We got upgraded to the Regency floor, which had a choice of wired or wireless broadband Internet access. Shortstack got some room service while I caught up on my email and we retired for the evening.


A new angle

We shared a cab to the ship with PokerStars Vice President Dan Goldman, gave our bags to the porter along with a generous tip, and proceeded to the VIP check-in lounge, one perk of booking a suite. After standing in a short line to get our pictures taken for security we were on board and in our beautiful Grand Ocean View suite, a double-size cabin with a large bath, double-wide balcony, sitting area, and wet bar. First order of business was to get one of the very limited in-cabin Internet connections so we headed to the Guest Relations desk and snagged one. Luis, the assistant purser, warned us that many people had trouble with it and we could return it within 24 hours for a full refund. "Are you willing to use Outlook?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "I'm willing." He frowned. "Oh. Then you may have problems if you are willing to use Outlook, especially if you send mail. The web mail works better." We took our chances, even though we were willing to use Outlook, but we went to the suite immediately to test it. The connection was slow and somewhat intermittent as expected but it was a quantum leap over utter isolation from the virtual world. I answered a couple emails and then we were willing to set out to explore the ship.


We had sailed on Explorer of the Seas, Voyager's sister ship, a few years ago and had a wonderful time. The ships were enormous and well designed with something for everyone. They had a rock-climbing wall, an ice-skating rink, and even a Johnny Rocket's for those who preferred a burger and shake to the formal dining or buffet. Food on Royal Caribbean, in our experience, was good but not great: better than Carnival but a notch below Princess. We got a bite or six at the buffet and then found the poker room down on deck two. They had brought in 25 or so tables and it looked like the room had been designed for poker. At the moment the entire staff was involved in unpacking and distributing the welcome gift for tournament players, a black imitation-leather duffel bag stuffed with fabulous prizes.


At 4:30 was the mandatory lifeboat drill. On Princess it was possible to hide in your cabin and avoid it but here they sent troopers to pound on doors and yell, "Roust! Everybody roust! Roll call!" We put on our lifejackets and headed down to the muster station where we saw two-time WPT winner Gus Hansen stroll onto the ship at the last minute. Aha! That was how you avoided the lifeboat drill! These world-class players always had angles I hadn't thought of.


Right after the drill it was sailing time. Having been on many RCCL cruises before, we knew that the best place to be while setting sail was the Crown Viking lounge. It was no surprise, then, that WPT leading money-winner Paul Phillips and his brilliant and beautiful wife Kathleen should be already up there, playing Scrabble and sipping Bombay Sapphire. We called Andy Bloch and met him up there and ordered a few martinis while we watched the Miami scenery fade into the distance on the way to our first port in Haiti.


Dinner was at 8:30 in the La Boheme dining room. We were seated with Andy as requested but instead of putting us with the 600 other poker players they seated us with a solo South African lady and five Norwegians who were friends of the captain and didn't speak much English. I washed down the forgettable meal with a glass or two of Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon. Andy cut out early to play in the super satellite but I was willing to call it an evening and Shortstack and I retired to our suite.


I finally got to play poker

Monday was a fun day at sea so I decided to play in the super satellite at 12:30 just to get my juices flowing. Since I had already bought into the big event, I was playing for cash rather than a tournament entry, but that was fine. I started off with a bang when I reraised Internet player Marc "Capone" Aubin all in with a Pair of Jacks on a Nine-high flop. Surprisingly, he called with only Ace-Queen overcards but he hit the Ace on the Turn and I yelled, "Rebuy!" I treaded water, playing cautiously, and made the final table when I called an all-in bet from a short stack with King-Nine offsuit. He had Ace-Jack suited so I was a 2:1 dog but I hit my King and he was out. I now had 7000 chips and we were down to nine players. The top three got $8000 tourney entries and the fourth got around $5000. The blinds were 400-800 with a 100 ante so I didn't have too much time to wait for a monster hand. I found Ace-Seven offsuit on the button and made it 2000. Annand "Victor" Ramdin, who finished third at the Showdown at the Sands, called on the small blind. The flop came Queen-Seven-Three, giving me a Pair of Sevens. I thought my best shot was to push in the rest of my chips, hoping the flop missed him. Unfortunately he made a good call with pocket Tens. None of my five outs came so I was out of the contest.


I had barely an hour to change and prepare mentally for the big event. I drew table 13 seat 1. Elie "Rocky" Marciano, a well-known French player, was the only one I recognized at my end of the table but the other end was very strong: David Benyamine, winner of the 2003 Aviation Club de France championship event, WSOP-bracelet holder Josh Arieh, and the winner of the biggest prize in the history of poker: World Champion Chris Moneymaker, diamond-encrusted horseshoe bracelet dangling from his wrist. I had exceptionally bad cards and played very few hands, which meant that when I did make a bet everybody folded so I got no action on my Ace-King or pocket Sevens. I had pocket Tens but by the time it got to me the pot had been raised and reraised so I mucked them. It was a painful two and one-half hours till the dinner break, more painful because when Moneymaker busted early he was replaced by Bill Gazes, a well-respected and dangerous player who began raising most pots and who somehow got David Benyamine to call off all his chips with pocket Fives even though there were four overcards on the board by Fifth Street. Gazes turned over pocket Aces and Benyamine was out. I called Gazes a couple of times in late position but didn't hit so by 12:18 a.m. when Day 1 ended I was down to 4500. Besides Moneymaker I had outlasted Phil "Tiger Woods" Ivey, Erik "Rounders" Seidel, Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren, and Paul Phillips, all of whom were free to enjoy the rest of their cruise without the distraction of $1,657,500 in prize money. I got a Bombay Sapphire martini in the casino and unwound in the suite.

Triple Play

We awoke Tuesday morning to find the private beach of Labadee, a peninsula of Haiti fenced off from the natives for the private use of Royal Caribbean, outside our balcony. We took a tender ashore and had a tepid barbecue lunch in the picnic area before we set out to find the ideal lounging area. When we found it, it was no surprise that Kathleen Phillips and her beautiful and brilliant husband Paul were camped out under the best palm tree. They were just leaving so we took over their spot for a bit before we decided we were well enough baked and returned to the Voyager.


The tournament resumed at six. I had drawn table 14, the first table scheduled to be broken. I was happy about that because Bill Gazes had drawn the seat to my right and once again was entering most pots before me, making like difficult for my short stack. After a couple rounds I found Ace-King under the gun and made a small raise. A crusty old sailor who looked like a cigar belonged in his mouth called. The flop came King high, two Spades and I pushed in the rest of my chips. He called with an Ace-high Flush draw but I made Kings Full and doubled up. The table broke and I was moved to table 3. Mike "The Mouth" Matusow and Paul Wolfe, both finalists at the Showdown at the Sands, sat across the table from me with big stacks, raising a lot of pots. I had a few good hands but got no action and when I reraised an Internet player on my right with a Pair of Queens he thought long and hard before folding. Meanwhile Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer sat down to my left. I treaded water and by the dinner break I had just barely more than my initial buy-in: 7775 chips.


We grabbed a table in the dining room allocated to the poker group with Andy, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, tournament regular Steve Brecher, and an Rob, and Internet player from Chicago and his wife Kathy. During dinner two men came over to have their picture taken with Andy and Chris. Steve, sitting between them, held a napkin over his face since he hadn't been on TV and therefore wasn't a good photo op. I remarked it would have been amusing if Paul Phillips, who had won more money in the WPT than anyone but wouldn't be on TV for another couple months, had been the one sitting there, unwanted. The food was mediocre.


I returned to table 3 and Paul Wolfe got moved away to balance the tables. Mike Matusow, who had lost most of his chips to a huge bad beat to Internet player Tyler Bacon when Mike flopped the nut Straight to Tyler's Set of Kings and the board Paired on Fifth St. to give Tyler a Full House, moved in the rest of his chips with King-Nine suited and got called and lost. Unfortunately for me the two of them were replaced by two of the top players in the game: Surindar Sunar and Daniel Negreanu. They both played a lot of pots and when I saw Ace-Ten offsuit in second position I raised with it. Haralabos "Bob" Voulgaris reraised me all in, something he had been doing with some frequency. The pot was laying me about 2-to-1 odds on the call but I figured if he had a bigger Ace or a big Pair I was a big dog so I folded. Later I regretted the move, especially after he told me he had had a Pair of Eights. To win a big tournament I would have to be willing to call off all my chips in situations like this.


That hand, hereafter known as the Haralabos Incident, took me down to 5000 and I soon found my patient self down to 3300 on the small blind. Surindar came in under the gun for 1800 and Daniel called. It folded to me and I saw Ace-Queen offsuit. I preferred to be the first one in the pot with that hand but beggars couldn't be choosers so I pushed all in. Surindar and Daniel called the extra 1700 chips of course and the flop came King-Queen-Ten. I was rooting for a Jack but I didn't need it as they checked their rag hands down and mucked them when I showed I had made a Pair of Queens. I had tripled up to two of the best poker players in the world and I had new life! We broke at 12:30 and I finished with exactly triple the chips I started the day with: 13,500. I was still a short stack but there were only 40 people left and 27 got paid. Daniel,  Andy, and Foxwoods winner Hoyt "All In" Corkins all had a bit over 100,000. Jesus had around 62,000 and Howard 33,000. Andy, Chris, Steve Brecher and I went to the Connoisseur Club for martinis and found Paul "Beanie" Nobles and Hoyt there spinning yarns. Afterwards, a few of the guys went dancing but I went to bed. Big day tomorrow!


De Gustavo non disputandum est.

I tried to sleep in on Wednesday but they had a long and loud emergency drill for the crew in the very early morning, around 10. We had docked in Jamaica and had a tour booked to the famous Dunn's River Falls, a natural water park with a waterfall that was fun to climb. We got to the pier and found our tour had been canceled. We were supposed to have been notified that we were switched to the morning tour but no dice. Shortstack wanted to walk around the marketplace but I wanted to get out of the sun and back to bed. I rested my eyes for a few hours and then prepared for poker. There may have been a few trips to the buffet in there too.


I had drawn a tough table for the third day in a row. Howard was there again and so was Jesus. I had played against both of them before but the third big gun at my table was a guy I'd been fortunate to have avoided up until now: Gustavo Hansen, the only other two-time WPT winner besides Howard. Gus was two to my left so I knew if I raised on the button or cutoff I'd better have a hand because he was likely to call. I had 13,500 and the blinds were 600/1200 with a 200 ante. We were seven-handed so that meant I would be blinded off in four rounds: I needed to make some bets. Gus immediately busted the player two to my right by calling his all-in with an Ace-Eight. The bettor had Queen-Seven suited and Gus's hand held up. Soon thereafter I saw wired Eights in second position. With five players left to act my only real options were to bet a third of my chips or move all in. Since I didn't really want to see a flop with the snowmen I shoved it in. Gus thought for a minute and then reraised himself all in. Several people gasped audibly. Gus was a very exciting player – you never knew what he had. Howard grimaced on the big blind, laying down a hand he would have liked to play under other circumstances, and I prayed for Gus to turn over Ace-King. Unfortunately for me, he had two black cowboys and although I flopped an open-ender with Seven-Nine-Ten his Kings held up and I was out of the contest. I finished 38th, my best big-event result so far but still out of the money.


I asked Shortstack to take a silent walk with me on the warm windy deck while I meditated on my abrupt exit and she happily agreed. That didn't completely do the job so we went to the concierge lounge to meditate over a martini. When I was able to laugh about it we went back down to the poker room to pick up dinner companions at the break. We were aghast to see Howard slowly rise and walk away from the table, eliminated just out of the money. He limped over to us: the night before Mike the Mouth, emphatically retelling his bad-beat story for the 17th time, slammed down a chair and broke Howard's foot. Andy, Chris, and Steve joined us for dinner along with two Internet players, Brian and Cheryl. Those of us not still in it shared a bottle of 2000 Robert Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. By the end of dinner I was ready to crash.


Cayman Canceled

We were supposed to dock at Grand Cayman Thursday but the seas were too treacherous to load and unload tenders so we had a fun day at sea instead. I spent the fun day locked in the suite in a deep depression, playing Bespelled and deleting spam from my inbox. Somewhere in that fog I decided to go to Tunica for the tournament next Monday, meaning I had to buy an expensive last-minute ticket so I fought the intermittent Internet service and wound up with a Northwest nonstop from Miami to Memphis and a Hertz rental car. When it was nearing dinnertime we put on our formal outfits, had a complimentary drink in the concierge lounge and then went down for dinner with Steve, Andy, Cheryl, and Jonathan "NotNoPair" Kaplan and his brand-new fiancée Kathy. They were out of the Mondavi Cabernet although I had only had one bottle so we ordered the overpriced and inferior Jordan. After dinner we went back to the suite for a bit and then headed down to watch the tournament. Jesus had been eliminated and we were aghast to see Andy get up and walk away just as we arrived to finish 13th, knocked out by Hoyt Corkins. When the day was done it was Daniel Negreanu, Gus Hansen, and Hoyt Corkins along with three Internet players making the TV table to be played on Saturday.


Toura Lura Tulum

Friday we docked at Cozumel, an island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Shortstack had booked us a shore excursion to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum. This time the tour wasn't canceled and we took a 35-minute ferry ride to Playa del Carmen, where we boarded a luxury coach that deposited us at an artisan market for a shopping stop under the guise of a restroom break. Once back on the bus, the tour guide gave a long sales pitch for personalized Mayan hieroglyphics of your name and horoscope. The Mayans, it turned out, were pioneers in the science of astrology. The ruins themselves looked as expected, the remains of 3000-year-old limestone buildings. More interestingly the site overlooked a topless beach beyond which lay a stunning vista of Caribbean blue, I was told later.


For the coach ride back we got a box lunch and a choice of cheap beer or Pepsi. As we approached the ferry terminal the tour guide begged for tips. I resisted the temptation to suggest that he tip us for putting up with all the sales pitches since I expected some of the customers really did want to buy the genuine Mayan chess sets. We tried to get on the ferry that went direct to the Grand Princess, docked next to our Voyager of the Seas, but it was not possible so we took the boat we were supposed to go on, which for some reason was to deposit us several miles from the ship. The seas were so rough they were passing out barf bags like candy but after 40 minutes or so we docked off downtown Cozumel, where we and 400 others had to hail cabs back to the ship at $6 a pop. We ended up in a van where the driver charged $6 per couple so ended up making $24 for the ten-minute ride: not bad, even by Vegas standards!


When we returned we cleaned up and used our VIP passes to get into the taping of the PokerStars World Cup finals, a series of heads-up matches between South Africa and Costa Rica. It would be more interesting on TV but watching a heads-up match without seeing the hole cards was about as interesting as watching synchronized snoring. If it hadn't been for the presence of Shana Hiatt, taping spots right next to us, I wouldn't have lasted the half-hour I did. I had brought copies of Shana's two published works – the August 1995 Playboy, of which she graced the cover, and the Girls of Hawaiian Tropic DVD, in which she reportedly did a nice soft-core porn number although I hadn't got around to watching it yet – with the thought of getting her autograph on one or both. I forgot to bring them to the set, though, so it would have to wait.


Between the sun and the seasickness Steve was the only one who showed up for dinner. I had martinis and lobster tails.


Final table, final day

Saturday was the last day of the cruise and we spent a bit of it watching the final table. We got seats as close to Shana as possible and she recognized me and gave a smile and a little wave. "I just missed the final table again, Shana," I said. "Maybe next week." "Oh, are you going to that one too?" She asked, visibly excited at the prospect. "Yes I am," I said wittily.


Gus's streak continued as he knocked out the three Internet players unbelievably quick, once with Ace-Queen against Ace-Jack but the other two times on pretty big suck-outs.  The final-table set was built right on top of the ice-skating rink and the players were shivering, the pixyish Daniel Negreanu especially. Someone got him a jacket to put over his clothes and he was a little more comfortable once he was doublesuited. Daniel may have been cold but Hansen, used to cold nights in his native Denmark, was running so hot he seemed unstoppable as he took his unprecedented third World Poker Tour victory. Along with his third-place finish at Bellagio, Hansen had passed Paul Phillips as the leading money-winner on the tour.


We had to return our Internet phone by six so we were unwired the rest of the evening. PokerStars threw a cocktail party for everyone at Cleopatra's Needle so I congratulated the final three as Beanie passed out Cuban cigars. Mike the Mouth was fidgeting near the barstools so I made sure my feet were out of the way until dinnertime. Steve, Andy, Shortstack and I had a final dinner, washed down by the suaver among us with martinis. Later, I found Jack Fox and former World Series of Poker winner Brad Dougherty up in the Connoisseur Club and smoked Beanie's cigar with them as the last evening of the cruise faded into history.

It's all over

We got up with the sun at 7:07 Sunday morning and grabbed a quick buffet breakfast before they kicked us off the ship at eight. Customs was implementing the new system of fingerprinting all foreign visitors, creating an uncharacteristic jam-up at the exit that lasted a half-hour. Andy, Steve and the two of us shared a van to the airport for the flat fee of $21. We checked in for our respective flights and found Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren and Josh Arieh and family breakfasting at Chili's. I bid Shortstack farewell as she headed back to Seattle and the rest of us looked in vain for a WiFi hotspot, then played a bit of Chinese poker to pass the time until our flights to Memphis.

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