February 23, 2004

It Rains in Southern California: The 2004 Los Angeles Poker Classic

I caught a rush

I had a coupon for a free weekend from Hertz so I booked a trip to Vegas right before the next World Poker Tour event, the Los Angeles Poker Classic No-Limit Hold 'Em Championship at the Commerce Casino. Hertz had upgraded me to a black Lincoln Town Car so I got a Starbucks and drove it around town a bit after spending several minutes finding the very hidden latte holders, before returning it early Saturday morning at McCarran Airport. It was cool and drizzly in Las Vegas so I felt right at home. To my surprise the "free" rental turned out to be actually free: there were no nickel-and-dime charges of any kind. The agent said, "Sir, your total is zero dollars and zero cents." I said, "Must be my trick ear. Sounded like you said, 'Zero dollars and zero cents.'" The agent affirmed it. Some people are fond of "I love you" but my three favorite words are "No charge, sir."


I checked in at the Northwest Airlines kiosk and breezed through First Class security at the D gates. I had seat 2C on the Airbus 320 and there were only three other occupants of First Class although economy was about two-thirds full.  The coffee was on so I got a Styrofoam cup before liftoff but the flight attendants told me Northwest didn't allow use of laptops while the plane was sitting on the ground with the door open – although they did allow cell phones! I didn't see the point but rather than be escorted off the plane by Federal marshals I powered down Lionfish and stuck it in the seat pocket. I got a second warning when the flight attendant saw the stand-by light flashing and had to turn Lionfish completely off so the flashing light didn't interfere with the delicate navigational system. I asked if I should turn off my watch too. Apparently watches were OK. Once airborne I got an actual mug of coffee and a glass of water plus all the foil bags of almonds and pretzels I could eat. When Shortstack and I lived in Marina del Rey we had taken this flight, on several different airlines but mostly the now-defunct National, dozens of times. Although National served a hot breakfast on this 42-minute segment they never made time like these guys: the eight o'clock flight took off at 8:03 and we landed 20 minutes early in LA. I went to Hertz and picked up a nice Toyota Camry, not free, with Neverlost to take me to Commerce. It was cloudy and cool in LA and the shuttle driver told me it had been raining and they were expecting more.


I checked into the Wyndham Hotel Commerce, conveniently located in an outlet mall a half-mile from the casino, and made sure the Internet access worked before proceeding to the tournament. They weren't taking signups yet but I ran into Erik "Rounders" Seidel and we got some brunch while I quizzed him on pot-limit Omaha. By the time we were done they were ready to register us so I filled out the WPT release form one more time, hoping this would be the time they needed it.


Every World Poker Tour event was breaking records these days and as the staff at Commerce attempted to adjust to the huge field of entrants we started a stunning 90 minutes late. It was a new record for entrants, 382, and a new record prize pool of $3.7 million. Commerce took only a very reasonable $100 entry fee out of the $10,000 buy-in, making its 1% juice by far the lowest on the tour for me so far.


I drew table four, seat three to start the event. The only super-aggressive player, other than the new frisky me, at the table was 2002 US Poker Champion John "World" Hennigan in seat nine. Johnny World got a big bluff called by a guy named Caldo in seat five and was almost down to the felt before recovering nicely with a couple of big pocket Pairs. To my left in seat four was Dan Dumont, who had been at the Phil Hellmuth, Jr., table with me at the Sands. The charming Marla Schwartz was in seat seven, making sure she knew everyone's name and lobbying for the benefit to the poker world of a woman (her) making the final table. She put a bad beat on Dan, hitting a five-outer on the River and taking most of his chips. I took the rest of them when he had the misfortune to pick up pocket Kings against my Aces. We went all in before the flop and his miracle didn't come so he was out.


Johnny World eventually busted and was replaced by 1998 World Series of Poker winner Scotty Nguyen, whom I wasn't too worried about because he tended to play very tight early and anyway I owned him since I had eliminated him at Bellagio one time. After seat six busted out just before the first break he was replaced by the tough Peter "The Poet" Costa. I won some chips from Peter, who couldn't seem to hit a flop against me and couldn't call my raises out of position. I played aggressive and hit some hands and ended up with 25,000 chips by the dinner break thanks to many small pots and two nice sized ones versus Peter and Marla.


The Commerce was kind enough to give us complimentary buffet coupons so I had dinner with Hoyt "Mr. All-In" Corkins, who had already made two final tables in season two. On the way to the buffet I saw Shana Hiatt setting up for a shot in front of the main casino. I gave her a smile and wink and she stopped what she was doing and game me a huge smile and wave. I thought I might be leading the poor girl on so I made a mental note to take the charm down a notch or two.


Most of the chips at the table were being accumulated by me and the guy to my right, Joon "Mike" Lee. One benefit of my newfound friskiness was that no one was messing with me. The couple times that Mike or Greg in seat one raised my big blind I had decent hands and reraised so they laid down. Neither Mike nor I wanted to bust out on a big gamble with each other's big stack when there were so many small stacks at the table to pick on. Towards the end of the day I got an amazing run of cards. I picked up pocket Queens three times in four hands but won only the blinds and antes twice and had to lay down to Peter when an Ace hit the flop and he bet. I was up to 30,000 when I got pocket Kings against Marla. She called on the big blind and the Flop came Jack-Four-Four. She bet out 2000 and I made it 6000. She deliberated a bit and then called. I didn't think she would call preflop with Ace-Four so I put her on Ace-Jack. Of course it was possible she had pocket Fours or Jacks, in which case I was in big trouble. I was hoping she'd call off all her chips with top Pair but when an Ace hit the Turn and she checked I was pretty sure she had me beat and wouldn't lay it down so I checked behind. Another Ace hit the River. She moved in and I immediately mucked. The Cowboys had cost me 25% of my hard-earned stack. Marla came around, gave me a little hug, and said I was a great player. Later she told me she had Ace-Four so the Ace on the Turn actually saved me a bundle.


Then I got Queens again and lost another 3500 when an Ace hit the flop and I didn't realize the new guy who had taken the busted Caldo's place in seat five was in the pot along with Scotty Nguyen and me. He called my 2500 bluff when an Ace hit the flop although Scotty folded as I thought he would and I gave up on the pot. Then I got Ace-King against an Asian kid named Tommy, who had come in to replace Frank in seat eight and who had been moving all in with his short stack with alarming frequency. I wasn't going to lay this down against him but I didn't get help and he doubled up on me with pocket Tens. Now I was down to 15,000 and ready to scream. How could I catch a rush like this and lose half my stack? Last hand of the night I saw two red Aces. I thought about pushing all in and trying to sucker someone into thinking I was on tilt but I just made a standard raise to 1100. Tommy called on the big blind. The flop came Ten-Six-Five rainbow. He checked and I bet 2500. He check-raised me the minimum, 2500 more, and I quickly moved all in, hoping he would think I was trying to run over him and hoping he hadn't flopped a Set. When he didn't call right away I knew I had him beat. I made the monkey face so he couldn't read me but he finally folded, at least giving me some of my chips back. I finished the day with a disappointing 22,250.


WPT Leading money winner Gus Hansen was out, along with T.J. Cloutier and Phil Ivey. Superstar Andy "The Rock" Bloch had 56,000 chips. "You think that means you're better than me, don't you?" I asked. He smiled and shrugged. Steve Brecher, who was eliminated, and Avi "Wookie" Freedman, who was not, shared a drop of Lagavulin with me to take the edge off and while Steve packed, Avi and I packed it in to rest up for day two. The sound of the rain on the windowpane lulled me to sleep just after 3 a.m.


Double Digits

We had redrawn for seat assignments the night before. Mike "Kazoo" Keohan, who had eliminated me at Foxwoods, told me he was at my table and showed me a seat map he had scribbled down. I was in seat four. Mike was two to my left in seat six. Marla, from day one, had seat seven and the aggressive high-stakes player Ted Forest, who was involved in The Hand with Alan Goering and Doyle Brunson in the 2003 Bellagio WPT Championship, was in seat eight. A short stack to my left, Raymond Davis, busted out quickly when Greg "Real Estate" Geller in seat two made a great read on him and called his all-in bet with a Pair of Sixes. Raymond's two high cards didn't get help and he was replaced by the guy who owned the massage service that was providing in-seat treatments during the tournament. The three to my left were playing pretty conservatively so I was able to pick up a lot of blinds and antes, especially when I intimidated them with my monkey face.


Seats one and three busted out and were replaced by two more guys named Greg so now everybody on the right end of the table was named Greg. Greg in seat one was raising a lot in early position but my read on him was he had a hand this time so I called his 2200 with a Pair of Tens, hoping he was on two big cards. The Flop came Ten-Six-Three rainbow, giving me top Set for the nuts. Greg bet 5000 into the 6000-chip pot. I had to decide whether to call or raise. I decided to play it conservatively and move all my chips in when I knew I had a huge advantage. He thought for a long time and folded, showing one Jack, presumably part of a Pair. With no draw on the board I should have just called and hoped he bet again (and didn't hit his two outs for a better set). The win brought me to a new high of 45,000 chips but I wasted the opportunity to win perhaps 20,000 more with my monster. They moved Greg to another table right after that and broke our table soon after.


The new table, 11, was a nightmare. Whereas I was one of the chip leaders at the last table, everyone here had more chips than I. I had seat one with 1994 WSOP champ Russ Hamilton to my left, three super-aggressive players in the next three seats, one tight conservative player, then Ted Forest and the dreaded Jeff "Happy" Shulman, who had put me out of my first big tourney at the Orleans. We were down to 11 tables, 99 people, so I had made it to double digits for the third WPT event in a row. Barry Shulman, Jeff's father and CEO of Card Player Magazine, came by to ask how it was that I kept making it so far in these big events. Jeff jumped right in and said I had been playing for 30 years in Europe without their knowledge. As far as I was concerned 28th paid the same as 382nd so unless I ever made the money there was nothing to write home – to Hungary – about. With the loose players on my left my strategy was to play quality cards and catch their bluffs. My best hand, though, was the troublesome Ace-Queen and when seat four reraised all in to my under-the-gun opener, I thought for a long time and reluctantly mucked, thinking the best I could hope for was to be a slight underdog to a middle pair. The blinds and antes had gone up to 800-1600 and 200 so all of a sudden I was a short stack. Ted Forest limped in on my big blind and I had King-Six of Hearts. The flop came Ten-Six-Five, two Spades, and Ted bet out 3500 into the 6400-chip pot. I thought for a long time. I had 18,000 left and I would win 10,000 if Ted folded. I didn't think he had a hand he could call a big raise with so I moved all in with second Pair and an overcard. I decided to mix it up by not making the monkey face and he folded so I was back up to 28,000 when they broke the table.


I sat down at table 10 seat five. This time the aggressive players, including the dangerous Amir Vahedi, were to my right. It wasn't more than a few hands into the new table when I was on the Big Blind and it folded around to the Small Blind, who raised. I saw two Tens and pushed in all my chips. He turned over two Queens. I didn't get the miracle and I was out of the contest, finishing 69th. The other players at the table said that was the first real hand he had had all day.


I said my goodbyes to Andy and Howard, who were still in it, and walked out to the parking lot in the cool rain, splashing through puddles and pressing the remote over and over again to make the Camry sing out its location. I called Shortstack to report the bad news and as always she showed genuine surprise and disappointment even though the result had been the same as it always was, kind of like a Seattle weather report. I had a couple days to relax and hit some of my favorite LA restaurants before the Celebrity Invitational began on Wednesday.


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