January 31, 2004

Put on your tunic-a, we're going to Tunica: the 2004 World Poker Open Championship

I went to the airport and a poker game broke out

The waiting area by Miami International Airport's gate G11 looked like the Poker Hall of Fame. The 4 p.m. Northwest Airlines nonstop to Memphis was the only direct flight from the PokerStars cruise to the World Poker Open Championship the next day so most of the big shooters were on it: besides Andy Bloch and me there were Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer, Daniel Negreanu, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, Paul Phillips, Gus Hansen, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, and many more. The World Poker Tour crew then arrived along with Shana Hiatt and Vince Van Patten. Daniel's girlfriend offered to take my April 1995 Playboy up to Shana to get it signed but I didn't feel right about it so I declined her kind offer and waited for just the right moment. The flight was uneventful and all we got in First Class were bags of pretzels and almonds. In coach they got nothing because some kid had a peanut allergy. We landed on time in Memphis and my priority-tagged luggage came off toward the end.


The caravan of limos and rental cars made the quick drive across the border in good time and I added both Mississippi and Tennessee to my list of States visited. I was pretty sure we were near Arkansas too so if I had time I could drive across the border just to say I did. I checked into a gorgeous suite at the Sheraton complete with a Jacuzzi in the bedroom and a wet bar and pool table in the living room. I went over to the tournament area at the Gold Strike and found Andy and Annie Duke along with Omaha expert Robert Williamson and his girlfriend Angela. We all went over to the Horseshoe, joined by poker expert Bobby Hoff, and had one of the best Chinese meals I'd ever had at Yasmin. I ordered the Triple Delight but Andy trumped me with the Family of Eight. Since we were at Yasmin, Annie ordered the Orange Bleeth. We washed it down with the 1998 Robert Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.


After dinner I found Jim "KrazyKanuck" Worth, who had been there for a couple weeks already and just missed cashing in several tourneys. I bought in for the main event and then went back to the Sheraton to rest up for the big day.

Playing to Nguyen

I drew table 19 to start the event, a record number of entrants for a $10,000 buy-in WPT event at 367 and a record prize pool even after the 8% for the house, the State, and the dealers was taken out. Mississippi had a 3% tax on gambling winnings that could not be refunded even if there were balancing losses so it was like paying an extra $300 in juice for the privilege of being there. Apparently people thought it was worth it.


Table 19 was the easiest starting table I had had yet. The only big pro at the table was Annie Duke and like her brother Howard Lederer she was playing tight early. There were some fairly weak players at the table and thanks to flopping three open-ended Straight Flush draws I managed to double up to 21,000 in chips before losing 8000 with Ace-King on an Ace-high flop to Scott T. Nguyen (not to be confused with former world champion Scotty Nguyen) when he flopped a Set of Tens. They came with racks to break up the table and I went all in on the last hand with a flush draw and an overcard against a Pair of Kings. A Heart hit the River and I was back in business with over 20,000.


My free ride was over, though. Table 24 had some heavy hitters: WPT winners Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren and Ron Rose, Humberto Brenes, holder of two WSOP bracelets, and Barry Greenstein, the philanthropist who gave his tournament winnings to charity. Erick was raising and re-raising and I was down to 15,000 by the time we hit the dinner break. I took Andy to the Sheraton for food and a pep talk and when I came back I was ready. I knew I had to play some poker and not just sit back so I held my breath and pretended I was Gus Hansen, raising and re-raising and taking pots right and left. E-Dog's jaw dropped and he gave me a new nickname: Frisky. "Look at you splashing chips around," he said. The last time I had played with him I was timid as a mouse at Phil Hellmuth's table in Atlantic City. No more. I knocked out Ron Rose, who got a call from me with King-Queen to his Pair of Queens because of his loose image. I flopped a King and he was out. Then I knocked out Humberto Brenes with Ace-Nine when he re-raised his short stack all in with a Pair of Fours and I flopped a Nine. I had grown my stack up to 35,000 when Tommy Hufnagle, a long-time tournament player from Phoenix, too Humberto's place at Erick's left, sipping Heineken and playing like a maniac. He reraised me all in pre-flop for all my chips and when I laid down a weak Ace he showed Nine-Six offsuit and laughed. After that, any time I bet he called or made a huge reraise and I had to wait for a real hand, which I didn't get.


Men "The Master" Nguyen came in where Ron Rose had been sitting and Barry Greenstein knocked him out in a heartbreaker, correctly calling Men's flush-draw all-in with the best hand, Deuce-Five suited with the Five Paired on the board. The Deuce of Clubs came on the Turn, giving Men the Flush, but the Barry filled up with a Five on the River and Men, disgusted, was out.


The whole table was waiting to get a hand to play against Tommy but nothing came and he finished with 61,000. I was down to where I had started the table, 20,600, but almost two-thirds of the field had been eliminated, meaning I needed nearly 30,000 chips to be average. Only 140 players would start Day Two.


Two great laydowns

Gold Strike had a nice brunch buffet set up outside the poker room, complimentary for players. I helped myself to a hearty meal and then felt like a pro sauntering up to my table just as the tournament director announced, "Shuffle up and deal!" My new table was perhaps tougher than yesterday's. I had just over 20,000 in chips and the blinds were 500/1000 with a 200 ante. The tough Ajay Shah was to my left with 53,000. Beyond him was the very same Scott T. Nguyen who won a chunk from me yesterday with a Set of Tens. To his left sat the chip leader of the whole tournament, Randy Jensen. One of the best young players in the world, John Juanda, sat to Randy's left. All the big guns were to my left, the talkative Mike Laing sat to my right with 58,500 and the unknown short stacks were in the middle.


Scott T. took a chance and busted out early on. Juanda picked some good spots and increased his stack to 30,000 or so before busting out with Ace-Queen to Randy's Queen-Queen. I went card dead and my stack dwindled down to 14,000 but then I got lucky with Ace-King v King-King when an Ace came on the river. Now I had 30,000. I tried raising some pots, limping into others, but one of the big guns on my left consistently made a big raise and I never had anything to call with. I shut down tight and waited for cards. Finally I got a Pair of Sevens but Mike Laing to my right raised under the gun. He had been playing tight so I folded and he showed a Pair of Eights – one good laydown for me. Then I got my best hand of the day, pocket Nines. Mike Laing limped under the gun. I thought for quite some time, trying to figure a way to double up with this hand. I decided to limp and if Randy reraised and Mike folded I would go all in. To my surprise, WSOP bracelet holder Jim "Cincinnati Kid" Lester, who had replaced Scott T., raised to 8600. Then Randy reraised, making it 25,000. Mike quickly folded and it was on me. I went deep into the tank. I had to believe Randy had a hand and Jim probably did too. The question was did they both have big Aces, in which case I should call, or did one of them have a big Pair, in which case I was a huge dog. I decided it was very likely one of them had a Pair bigger than mine so I finally mucked and so did Jim. Randy showed pocket Aces. Jim said he had the other two Nines! If he was telling the truth I was practically drawing dead. Two good laydowns for me!


Unfortunately I didn't make it three. Jim caught a rush and began making strong raises in pot after pot. I didn't believe him when he raised in second position and it folded to me on the big blind with King-Queen offsuit so I reraised all in. As he turned over Ace-Queen suited I heard Paul Phillips's voice in my mind. "I would have waited," it said. I was denied a third big suckout and I was out of the contest, finishing 68th. I outlasted 299 players but I was still out of the money.


Andy and I had dinner at the Sheraton steakhouse which, according to the Maitre D', had recently been converted from a high-end place to something "more accessible." Apparently this involved selling off their wine list at less than cost so we ordered a bottle of 1994 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $54. This wine, rated 94 points by Wine Spectator, cost $74 when it was released. I wasn't surprised, then, when the bottle that actually arrived was instead the Mondavi Oakville. However, it was the 1997, also rated 94 points, and an excellent wine at $45 retail. Unfortunately when we tasted it we found it had gone bad. We didn't make an issue of it but mentioned it to the waitress, who returned with the real goods: the 1994 Reserve! We enjoyed it and Andy, who usually avoids wine because it made him sneeze, had his share. The rib-eye steak was excellent and came with an enormous salted baked potato. I started with an excellent onion soup and got myself a Caesar from the salad bar. Needless to say we were too full to consider dessert, which as a rule I don't eat anyway.

A taxing experience

Wednesday morning Andy, KrazyKanuck and I decided to play in the Grand Casino's $1000 buy-in No-Limit Hold 'Em event so we drove over there and signed up. The financials of this tournament were interesting: for $1000 plus an outrageous $100 entry fee you got 10,000 in chips. If you made an up-front dealer tip of $20 you got an extra 1000 in chips. Then, any time in the first three levels, you could pay $50, which went to charity, and get 4000 more chips! You would have to be a moron not to increase your stack by 50% by paying 6% more so just about everyone did and the real juice on the event, including the questionable 3% State tax, was $200 or 17.1%! You could look at this two ways: either you'd be a fool to play in Mississippi when you could play elsewhere for significantly less juice, or Mississippi was the best place to play because your opponents didn't understand math.


I drew table 10 to start and ended up with two players from my starting table at the Foxwoods WPT event: the older guy with a baseball cap who was very loose preflop, once again a few seats to my left, and the young black man who had worn the mink coat and cap at Foxwoods, once again directly to my right although wearing a more modest denim outfit today. He actually wasn't there at the start but replaced a kid who seemed very eager to give his money away, losing 11,000 on the first hand to a gentleman across the table who flopped a set of Queens and his 4000 rebuy to me a few hands later when he came over the top of my pocket Queens with his Nines before the flop. Also across the long table from me was a beautiful young redhead wearing an UltimateBet jacket. I asked her what her handle was and she told me AlabamaSlamma. I told her I was Quiet Lion and she immediately knew who I was. She (Kristi) and her husband Mike "The Viper" (who was sitting at the next table), had played with me on line. I told her it was a pleasure to make their acquaintance.


I limped with pocket Fours and flopped bottom Set in an unraised pot. Another redheaded woman, sitting at Kristi's left, check-called me at every street. I made a Full House when the board paired Jacks on the Turn and she paid me off for 2500 or so and mucked. I bluffed off some chips to a solid player two seats to my left when the board flopped lots of paint and I had junk. He seemed to have a hand, though, and I folded when he bet the River. Meanwhile Jeremy "The Kid" Tinsley, finalist at last year's Tunica WPT event that Devilfish won, sat two seats to my right, getting a neck massage in between cell-phone calls. He didn't play many hands but I did manage to re-steal from him on the flop, my first time making that move! Then Kristi raised and I called on the button with Ace-Jack offsuit. I didn't like the hand but I thought I could bluff her off the pot if she didn't make her hand. The flop came King high and she bet. I had her 100% on Ace-King and I mucked.


They broke our table and moved me to table seven, which was in the midst of a little war when I arrived. One guy named Avner, who could barely stay in his seat let alone keep his mouth shut, was hoarding all the black chips and refusing to give change. As I sat down he doubled up the player on my left by going all in with garbage against a Pair of Tens. "OK! OK! It's all right," Avner said. "Good hand! Good hand!" He still had about 50,000 in chips left including three skyscrapers of black. My first hand at the table I saw pocket Kings. Avner, who apparently raised every hand, raised. I went all in and Avner called with garbage so I doubled up. "OK! OK! It's all right!" said Avner. "Good hand! Good hand!" Meanwhile the tournament director came over to give Avner a gentle kindergarten speech on the need to share that would have done Mr. Rogers proud. Two hands later Avner lost the rest of his chips in a similar fashion to a gentleman in seat eight. "I have him covered! I have chips!" said Avner, but when it was all counted Avner didn't have enough to cover. "OK! OK! Good hand!" Avner said. He got up and wandered off and all was quiet. He was replaced by Johnny Donaldson, finalist at last year's Tunica WPT event who trapped David "Devilfish" Ulliott with Aces before giving it back a few hands later, delivering the classic line, "I believe you got me, Fish," and busting out sixth.


Kanuck said goodbye as he busted out on yet another bad beat (which, as I reminded him, is the mark of a good player). I was still in good shape but the structure of this tournament required me to run fast just to stay in one place. Although I had doubled my starting stack to 30,000, by the time they broke our table the big blind was 800 so just opening the pot or calling a raise cost almost 10% of my stack. They moved me to table two and for the first time I sat at a table with my best friend on the tour, Andy Bloch, a tough, math-minded competitor. I was fortunate to sit to his left so I could act after him eight out of nine hands. In the WPT event the last few days I decided I had been too reluctant to call all-in raises from big stacks. I loosened that up and overall it worked great. I doubled up on Andy, reraising his small-blind steal all in with Queen-Nine suited. He called with Jack-Five and got no help. I went back and forth with a couple of short stacks before putting them out and at the dinner break found myself with 80,000 in chips with only 17 people left – I was in the money! Tenth through 18th place paid $1720, a $550 profit before the questionable 3% Mississippi tax. We redrew when we got down to the final two tables and I still ended up at Andy's left. The staff generously comped us buffets out of their $13,600 in juice and Andy and I took Mike "The Viper" and Kristi, who had both busted out but stayed to watch. It was quite a good buffet.


After the dinner break I won one set of blinds and antes to bring my stack over the 100,000 mark. At this point the blinds were 10,000/20,000 and the antes were 2000 so with six people at the table there was 42,000 in the pot before anybody bet the hand! I found myself with Ace-Jack under the gun. Ace-Jack is a tough hand because just about anyone who calls you is going to have a better hand. But with only five players to get past and 42% of my stack already in the pot I pushed all in. It folded to Andy, who looked at me. I made a monkey face at him, something Shortstack and I had been practicing for high-pressure occasions like this. He didn't take long and called with Ace-Queen. I got no help and I was out of the contest in 11th place. I gave Andy a friendly congratulatory pat on the back and when he regained consciousness and got up off the floor he went on to finish fifth, unable to lay down pocket Tens to the very aggressive Vinnie Vinh's Jacks.


 I inquired with the poker staff about the 3% State tax, since I looked up the law on line and it was pretty clear it was only due in situations where a Federal form was required to be filed, which it wasn't in this case (the winner must make 300 times his wager in a tournament in order for a form to be required). They handed me a piece of paper that reaffirmed what I thought but nevertheless they said they had been told to collect the tax. Apparently there were some other players fighting it but for $51.60 I wasn't going to get too worried. I did get the address and phone number of the Mississippi Gaming Commission and thought I might drop by or give them a call later.


Another final table absent moi

I drove around to check out some of the other casinos in Tunica and passed by the address given to me for the Mississippi Gaming Commission. There was a vacant lot with a construction trailer and a cardboard sign with "Mississippi Gaming Commission" scrawled on it in what appeared to be black crayon. I decided not to go in.


I went over to watch the final-table taping and was astonished to see a very long line of people waiting to get in. I waited around for someone to recognize me and pull me into the room and finally I got an assist from Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and took a seat in the back row. I moved up bit by bit and by the time it was down to four players I was right behind Randy Jensen, in full view of the camera every time they showed him. I thought some of you might want to see the monkey face so I made it a few times when I thought the camera was on me.


The highlight of the table was The Hand: with four players left, David "Chip" Reese moved his short stack all in. Randy Jensen folded but Reese got a call from James Tippin. Then, when Barry "Charity" Greenstein reraised all in, the crowd oohed and aahed. James took a minute and then called. Barry showed Ace King suited, James a Pair of Queens, and Chip Reese sheepishly turned over King-Seven suited, an enormous dog. The flop came Ace-King-x and the turn helped no one. An Ace on the river sealed Barry's victory and the elimination of two players assured Randy of at least the $600,000 second place.  His beautiful wife, sitting behind me, was pleased about it and cheered Randy on but he wasn't able to overcome Barry's chip lead and the $1.6 million first prize was gone forever from the poker economy, squandered on starving children throughout the world. Well, maybe they would grow up to be poker players.


Andy and I hit the Sheraton steakhouse again and tried the filet this time. It was excellent despite the coffee-shop atmosphere. They were out of the Mondavi reserve so we tried the 1995 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel (rated 92 by Wine Spectator). Priced at $41, it wasn't quite the bargain the Mondavi had been but it was wonderfully delicious. It was always nice to go someplace that didn't mark the wines up 250 percent.

A little flight

Thanks to America West's policy of reasonably priced last-minute one-way flights I booked a connection to Seattle for only a little over $200. I returned the Taurus to Hertz and looked for America West. Their presence in Memphis was so small that their name wasn't even painted on the exterior of the terminal. There was one counter staffed by Delta agents to service the regional carrier Freedom Airlines, doing business as America West Express. The three-hour flight to Phoenix was on a tiny Canadair Regional Jet but I was happily surprised to find out I was upgraded to First Class, or even that they had a First Class. Unfortunately they didn't have a First Class or elite check-in line but I found myself behind second-place finisher Randy Jensen and his family. When he found out there was a First Class he wanted to spend a bit of his $600,000 to upgrade but it was already full. The flight was delayed just enough to make me miss my connection so they rebooked me on the next flight, which meant a three-hour layover in Phoenix. I had an hour to kill here so I joined the Northwest WorldClub, which would also get me into the America West club in Phoenix.


WPT champ Paul Darden was on the flight, as was last year's Australasian Poker Champion Peter "The Poet" Costa. The First Class cabin was fitted with one seat on the port side and two on the starboard. I had 1D, the aisle seat in the bank of two. The rest of the passengers apparently took this flight every week and all knew each other. I got a bottle of water on the ground but Freedom Airlines was not licensed to serve alcohol until we got in the air. Once aloft, we got peanuts and a warning that there was no running water in the lone lavatory at the rear of the aircraft, so think before we drink. I thanked the flight attendant for the heads-up and ordered scotch on the rocks instead of with soda.


We landed in Phoenix late as advertised and I headed for the club, where they happily admitted me with my temporary Northwest card. The long layover went quickly: although they didn't yet have high-speed Internet installed they did have free dialup plus snacks and free drinks. Around eight I went over to gate A3 and boarded the 737 to Seattle. I had seat 1D, by the window, and this time they had a liquor license so I had a scotch and soda. There were some bumps and a stunning view of downtown Seattle and soon Shortstack was curbside to pick me up and bring me home to rest up for the next adventure.


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