April 1, 2004

The Biggest Little Tourney in the World: The 2004 Reno World Poker Challenge

Roller Coaster

I brought Shortstack and my brother Mike, visiting from his home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the Biggest Little City in the World to hang out while I played in the penultimate season-two World Poker Tour event, the World Poker Challenge at the Reno Hilton. The folks at the Hilton knew us well since we had been coming here for years and they gave us one of the truly luxurious wine suites replete with sunken Jacuzzi tub, dual Italian-marble sinks, and plasma TV. High-speed Internet, of course, was a must for all of us and I plugged in Lionfish, with Shortstack and Mike connecting peer-to-peer sharing the Internet connection.


I entered a warm-up tournament and a super satellite for the main event but had no luck in either. I had lost my lucky souvenir chip from the small Tunica tournament Andy "The Rock" Bloch and I cashed in and I was afraid the poker gods were angry. I hoped my luck would improve in the main event, a $5100 buy-in No-Limit Hold 'Em tourney with $100 entry fee and 3% taken out in lieu of tips. That made the juice a relatively reasonable 4.9%. During the several days we were there before the main event started we dined mostly in the Hilton's excellent steakhouse, the highlight being the very lean and delicious elk steak. We sampled the 1999 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon, fruity and delicious, the 1999 Dunn Howell Mountain, which we thought a bit uneven, and the 2001 Caymus, dark and chocolaty but otherwise uncomplex and perhaps needing a bit more time in the bottle. 2001 was said to be a banner year for California Cabernet and I was looking forward to trying many more.


Tournament director Jimmy Sommerfeld, who had a rolling Southern accent that could just rock you to sleep, was famous for starting on time and even this 342-person event started at noon on the dot. I drew table 34, seat eight to start the tourney. No stars were at the table but the players weren't pushovers either. Early in the first level, 25/50 Blinds, I found pocket Aces in early position and made it 150 to go. Alan Myerson called me in the Big Blind and when the flop came King high he bet out 500. I took Doyle Brunson's advice and, with no obvious draws on the board, played it slow by just calling. The Turn was the Nine of Diamonds, pairing the board and making two Diamonds. Alan bet 1000 and I called, still thinking he had something like King-Queen or King-Jack. I might have raised to see if he had trip Nines or better here but I didn't want to get so many chips into the pot and have him put me to the test for all my chips. The River was a third Diamond but no obvious help to anyone. Alan bet 3000 and I called. I was right about his hand – King-Ten – but they were Diamonds. He had made a back-door flush and took the pot down. I had lost half my stack. Where was my lucky chip?


I played very tight for the rest of the level, not getting any good hands and not wanting to get too frisky while I was upset over my Aces getting cracked. I called Alan's raise on the Big Blind with his King-Ten of Diamonds and laughingly folded it face up when he raised the low flop. But I hurt inside. The only thing that could salve my wound was another pair of pocket Aces and sure enough they came and I raised the standard amount. Ron Livingston on my left reraised me and I pretended to think about it for a bit before moving all in. He called with Jacks and I doubled up on him back to just over my starting 10,000. A dark cloud lifted and I was back in the game. I got a little frisky and had 13,000 at the dinner break.


Andy "The Rock" Bloch had arranged dinner at Andiamo, the Italian restaurant in just about every Hilton around the world. I introduced my brother Mike to the all-star cast: Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Steve Brecher, Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer, Erik "Rounders" Seidel, Clonie Gowan, John "JJ" Juanda, and Avi "Wookie" Freedman. Steve Brecher's friend Tyler was there and said he liked my Lion Tales although he wished I'd talk more about the food. Howard didn't like to eat much at dinner because, he said, it slowed him down. I liked to eat at any time and had a nice assortment of appetizers and the filet mignon, medium rare. There was no wine because we were playing and dinner for eleven came out to about what we normally spent on dinner for two with wine, an all-too-sobering thought. As a rule I don't eat dessert but they had the chocolate Galliano cake a la mode so I had just one order.


After dinner I got another crack at the aggressive Alan Myerson when I called his raise on the Big Blind with the tricky hand of King-Queen. The flop came Jack-Nine-Six rainbow. I checked and he bet only 300, not enough to get me to fold the inside Straight draw. I called and –  Bingo! My Ten came on the Turn. He bet 1000 and I made it 4000 because there was a Flush draw now and I didn't want him catching another back-door Flush. He called. The River was a blank and I moved all in, hoping he'd think I was making a move and not put me on making an inside Straight draw. He didn't take the bait and mucked, but I had won back almost exactly the same chips he had taken from me earlier.


I was up over 14,000 but that was my high point for a while. I had to lay down hand after hand and was down to just over my starting 10,000 when Bob Slezak in seat two busted out and was replaced by the very dangerous Prahlad "Devastator" Friedman. I avoided playing pots with him and he only stole my blind once but by the time the table broke I was down to 8500 chips.


My new assignment was table 50 seat eight, which put me to the left of top tournament pro Amir Vahedi. Amir, whose trademark was an omnipresent unlit cigar, tested me right away, raising my Big Blind from his Small. I had a decent hand so I reraised him all in and he mucked. I was back over 10,000. Then Ronnie Ebanks in seat five raised in middle position. I called for time and chewed a little, then reraised all in with pocket Kings. He thought for a couple minutes and then called with Jacks. My cowboys held up and all of a sudden I had 23,000 chips.


The blinds were 400-800 now and I was down to just over 20,000 chips when Amir raised from two off the button, making it 3000. I saw Ace-Jack of Diamonds and called with position on him, thinking I likely had the best hand since he liked to play any two face cards. It was heads-up and the flop came Jack high, two Clubs. Amir checked to me and I moved all in, not wanting to risk another Club falling on the Turn. Amir had a good draw and called with King-Nine of Clubs but my Jacks held up and all of a sudden I had 43,000. Whee! I went back and forth a little but ended day one with 42,800, just above average for the 94 players left. And I was in double digits for the sixth big-buy-in tournament in a row.


I had a chilled Gray Goose L'Orange and went to bed.


The Lion's Roar

I drew table eight, seat six to start day two and I found my lucky chip, which had been in an unusual pocket of one of my cargo pants. My table luck held out and once again there were no big names at my table. I got a little frisky and grew my stack to just under 100,000 without risking too many chips when three-time WPT finalist Phil Ivey sat down on my right. Since he was on my right it was easy for me to avoid him and they broke our table without me having to play a hand against him. It was down to 63 players and I got moved to table three, seat five. Unfortunately, now Phil Ivey was sitting on my left with a mountain of chips. He called when I opened with Ace-Queen and the Flop came Nine high. I bet and he called. The Turn was a blank and I check-raised him all in with nothing but overcards. He watched me for a couple minutes while I used Yogic state control to make myself unreadable. It worked and he finally mucked. I felt like Matt Damon bluffing Johnny Chan out of a pot in Rounders but Phil didn't ask what I had so I couldn't say, "Sorry, Phil, I don't remember."


Phil then started making a habit of opening under the gun on my Big Blind. I called with Seven-Six of Diamonds hoping for a monster Flop. It came Eight-Seven-Five, two Clubs. I wasn't crazy about the Flush draw but it was still a great Flop for me heads-up so I bet out.5000. Phil made it 15,000 and I called after a brief think. The Turn was the Ten of Spades. I checked. Phil bet 10,000 and I called. The River card was the Nine of Hearts. I checked and Phil bet 30,000. "Show me the Jack," I sighed, and threw in six orange 5000 chips. Phil tapped the table with his cards and said, "You got it." "I got it?" I said. "You got a Six?" he asked. I flipped over my hand and he threw his into the muck as the dealer pushed me the pot of 120,000.


I had 215,000 chips when we got down to 28 players and started going hand-for-hand. Phil Ivey had lost most of the rest of his chips to Londoner Tony Bloom on his left, bluffing all-in preflop with Queen-Nine suited against Tony's pocket Aces. Phil continued to raise under the gun with his short stack but the third time I called with pocket Tens and Phil was out on the bubble. The 27 of us left were guaranteed $9802 each. I breathed a sigh of relief, having taken care of another couple months of the cable bill.


With three tables left we redrew for seats. I stayed at table three but slid over to seat seven. I raised under the gun with Ace-Five of Clubs and got called by a local gentleman on the Big Blind. The flop came Nine-Five-Trey, two Spades. He checked. I bet out on the strength of my middle pair and he quickly called. The Turn was another Five. I was pondering my strategy when I heard, "I'm all in!" I figured he had trip Fives and thought I was on a Spade draw but unless he had a Nine or Trey with his Five, unlikely hands to call with preflop, I had him beat. "How much is it?" I asked, then, "Never mind. I call." I flipped over my trips with the Ace kicker and he turned over Ten-Nine of Diamonds. He needed one of the two remaining Nines but they didn't come and I took over 120,000 chips, busting him. I had 361,000 chips when we redrew for the final two tables with 18 people left.


Now I had Tony Bloom in seat one, Steve Brecher in seat two, Peter Muller, who had a beautiful white retriever with him, in seat three, me in seat four, Rosemary Maxfield in seat five, John "JJ" Juanda in seat six, Young Phan, who had given me trouble at the Sands, in seat seven, Paul "Eskimo" Clarke in seat eight, and Todd Brunson, son of poker great Doyle, in seat nine. Rosemary busted out almost immediately so now I had JJ and Young on my left, making friskiness difficult. I won another 55,000 or so from Londoner Tony Bloom in seat one when I held Eight-Seven suited, the Flop came Nine-Eight-Eight, and I ended up making a Straight. I had exactly 400,000 chips. I got out-friskied a few times by JJ and Young and when we broke for dinner I was down to 361,000.


Andy "The Rock" Bloch had set up dinner once again at Andiamo. This time we were joined by Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, John "JJ" Juanda, Paul "Beanie" Nobles, Avi "Wookie" Freedman, and Steve Brecher. Only Steve, JJ, and I were still in the contest and I was near the chip lead with almost twice the average count. I had the excellent beef carpaccio followed by a nice grilled salmon with the very sweet sauce on the side. As a rule I don't eat dessert but the chocolate Galliano cake had been lucky for me so I had just one. Despite protests, JJ left a Benjy to cover the $5 or so of food he ate and I stuck it with The Rock to figure out how to give it back to him.


After dinner they raced off the purple chips worth 500, leaving us with only the yellow 1000's and the orange 5000's, and the blinds went up to 3000/6000 with a 1000 ante. On the first or second hand Steve Brecher moved all in in second position for 99,000. I had Ace-King offsuit. Steve had been playing very tight and I decided that with only 18,000 in the pot I didn't really need to gamble 100,000 on a hand where it was unlikely I was a favorite so I mucked Big Slick. Later I saw Steve double up going all in with Queen high so I probably should have called. He had switched gears perfectly, getting me to lay down a big hand.


The blinds went up to 4000/8000 with a 1000 ante and I was down to 350,000 or so when Paul Muller limped on the Small Blind. I had King-Nine of Hearts on the Big Blind and I raised the size of the pot, 20,000. Paul quickly called. The flop came Jack high, two Hearts. Paul checked. I bet 40,000 on the strength of my Flush draw and overcard and he reraised all in for another 139,000. With two-to-one pot odds and what I thought were 12 outs, I called. He turned over King-Jack, eliminating three of my outs. It was almost exactly the same situation in which I won all those chips from Amir but this time I was on the wrong side of a busted Flush and just like that I was down to 150,000. If the Heart had come, which was just a bit worse than three-to-two against, I would have been the chip leader with 550,000 chips but now I was below average. I had been a Heart beat away from the final table.


Tony Bloom then opened for 24,000 in middle position. I saw pocket Tens on the button and heard Paul Phillips voice: "You don't win by making big laydowns late in the tournament." I reraised him all in. He turned over Aces, they held up, and I was down to the felt with 11,000. I was playing to win but with 11,000 chips I realized that if one more person busted out before me I'd make an extra $3000 in prize money so I kept that in mind. Nevertheless, on the very next hand I got pocket Deuces and bet the 10,000 I had left after the ante. Young Phan and Eskimo called and checked it down. "I have a pair!" I said. Young turned over King high. "I have a pair!" I said. Eskimo didn't catch any of the five overcards either and my baby Deuces held up! I quadrupled up to 39,000. "Watch out," I growled. Steve Brecher said, "The always-dangerous Quiet Lion has chips." I rolled my eyes. "Sometimes he's more dangerous than other times," I said.


I mucked a Seven-Three offsuit but then Eskimo made it 24,000 and I had Ace-Four so I moved in for 38,000. I got him heads up with Queen-Jack but my slight favorite faltered as Eskimo made three Queens and I was out of the contest. I finished 14th for $16,337. I got sympathy from The Rock, Jesus, Clonie, and Avi, who had been cheering me on, but if I was somewhat disappointed I really didn't feel bad. This was a personal best for me. I had now cashed two WPT events in a row and held my own against Phil Ivey. April and May, the two biggest months in poker, were coming and the Quiet Lion was roaring.


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