The Greatest Showdown on Earth: 2004 WSOP Championship
I had flown back to Seattle to change my underwear and returned in time to make the annual World Series of Barbecue party thrown by Steven "Z" Zolotow and Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer. I won't divulge the full extent of the saturnalia that transpired therein but I will report that I won my first World Series event, croquet, shaving a full three strokes off the score of Ted "Teddy Bear" Forrest and winning the coveted pooka-shell bracelet awarded by Howard's wife Suzy. Despite my success I decided not to enter the hula-hoop event.
The next morning I got a call from Avi "Two Cokes" Freedman saying the tournament, scheduled for noon, wasn't starting till one. I had a leisurely lunch and then drove over to the Horseshoe from Caesars Palace, where I was staying because they were giving away a BMW but they gave it to somebody else. Because of the expected size of the field, the tournament had been divided into two starting days. I had drawn day two so by the time I started last year's champ Chris Moneymaker was already out. When the dust had settled a mind-boggling 2576 starters had entered the main event, about three times last year's field. Where would it end?
I drew table 74, set up outside the sports book right next to a bar where people liked to smoke cigars. The only face I recognized was that of Tomer Benvenisti, who finished fifth in this event last year. He was in seat nine and I was in seat two. Seat 10, I found out later, was Terrence Chan, one of the executives of PokerStars. The guy to my right in seat one was chain-drinking vodka tonics and when the waitress seemed miffed that he was forgetting to tip her I slipped her five bucks and told her to get him whatever he wanted. He soon realized his error and started tipping her $5 to $20 per round, tipping over his stack as he searched for money. "I know I can't win this thing sober," he said.
We were near the end of the first level when I called a raise in position from the loose aggressive player in seat seven, whom I'll call Arizona Danny, with Ace-Eight of Diamonds. The flop came Ace-Eight-Four, two Hearts. He checked and I bet 500, around the size of the pot. He called. The Deuce of Hearts came on the Turn. Danny checked and I bet 1500. He made it 3500. I had to decide if he had the Flush made or he was semi-bluffing. He had been so aggressive I decided he had the Ace of Hearts and I moved him all in. He called and turned over Six-Five of Hearts for a made Flush. I needed an Ace or and Eight but they didn't come and just like that I was down to 1400 from my starting 10,000 just an hour and a half into the competition. I felt sick. At the first break I was down to 1375.
I walked around outside to clear my head and came up with a strategy, which was to double up against drunk boy on my right. When we resumed I moved all in a couple times without getting a call and then drunk boy raised on the Small Blind. I saw Ace-King and reraised all in. He called with King-Ten and I narrowly escaped a chop when the first four cards on the board were all Diamonds, which neither of us had. The river was a black card and I doubled up to 3100. By the next break I had come back up to a third of my starting stack, 3350. It sure was easier to lose the chips than to get them back.
The blinds were up to 100-200 and when they broke the table I was down to 2550. I got moved to the other side of the room, table 25, seat three, drunk boy gone three sheets to the wind. On my left was Stan Schrier, a nice guy from Omaha who finished third in this event in 2001. The rest of the table were unknowns but I glanced over my left shoulder and saw what I had narrowly missed at the next table: David "Bubble" Plastik, Phil Ivey, and several other top pros. Brr. I had my work cut out for me without entering that hornet's nest. I got nothing and just before the dinner break I raised in middle position with Ace-Queen. I got called after some thought by seat eight on the Big Blind.. The flop came King high and he instantly moved all in. I tried to figure out what that meant but ultimately I decided my remaining chips would be better served in another pot so I mucked, down to 1675 at dinner.
Avi "Two Cokes" Freedman, who had made the final table in the WSOP Pot-Limit Omaha championship this year, had sent an advance party to Tony Roma's to secure us a table. I ordered a wimpy chicken thing while Avi and his brother Noam, also in the event, ordered Flintstones-sized portions of ribs. Avi gave me a rib out of pity but it didn't noticeably diminish the size of his stack. The rest of the party, who had earlier partaken of the Bally's Sterling Sunday Brunch, didn't eat much. As a rule I don't eat dessert but they had the Brownie Skillet Sundae so I had just one order to give me energy for the upcoming battle. We wished each other luck.
We got back from dinner and while the blinds stayed at 100-200, now there was a 25 ante. I won a few uncontested all-ins and then when three players limped to me on the Small Blind I saw Queen-Six offsuit. Since it was my lucky hand – I busted Kathy Liebert's Aces with it last week – I threw in one of my precious 100 chips and saw the flop. It checked around five ways and I caught a Six on the Turn. That checked around and so did the River and miraculously I won the pot with my Pair of Sixes. I was up to 6000.
I lost a number of small pots and paid my blinds and antes and was back down under 5000 when I raised a limper in late position with pocket Nines and got a call from Simon on the Big Blind two seats to my left and from the limper. The flop came Jack high and Simon moved all in. We folded and I was down to 4250. By the next break that had dwindled to 3550. I called Shortstack and told her I was still hanging on.
After the break they moved us en bloc upstairs. Seat 10 busted out and was replaced by a kid who raised on the cutoff. I found pocket Sixes in the Big Blind. I read him for weakness so I moved all in on him, having a few more chips than he did. He called with pocket Fives and didn't improve so he was out and I was up to 7300. Then I raised on my button with Ace-Nine. Simon reraised me on the Big Blind. I should have respected his reraise but instead I moved in and he called instantly with pocket Kings. The flop came Queen-Jack-Ten, though, and when he made a Set on the Turn the King made me a Straight and I doubled up. The cameras were recording my all-in so I looked up and said, "I depend on luck to make up for my lack of skill." Simon agreed but it didn't change the fact that I was ahead of my starting stack for the first time in the tournament with 11,800. With some chips in front of me I got frisky and when they broke the table I was up to 13,350.
My new table was 106, seat seven. There were a few faces I recognized but no one I was scared of. I was up to 16,000 when five callers limped to me on the Big Blind and I saw pocket Jacks. I considered my options and decided to raise the size of the pot, about 2000. The only caller was Mike Jacobs, who had limped under the gun. The flop came King high, two Clubs. I bet the size of the pot, 5000, and Mike reraised me all in. I thought it likely he was bluffing but I wasn't willing to risk the tournament on it so I mucked. Now I was down to 8500 and the antes brought me down to 8300 at the break. It was 11:30 so I called Shortstack and said goodnight.
When we returned I pulled a reversal of the hand I lost most of my chips with this morning. I slow-played the nut flush made on the Turn against seat 10 and doubled up as he bet into me on the River. Now I was at a high of 17,950 and feeling good. I played conservatively for the remaining few minutes, chatting with Rob Boyd, brother of the infamous Russ "Dutch" Boyd, on my left in seat four. He was stealing pots right and left and I probably should have been too but I was just exhausted and didn't want to make a mistake. I finished the day with exactly 16,000 chips and I was happy about it.
I drove back to Caesars Palace and went to the swanky bar with the fish to get a Lagavulin on the rocks but they were closed so they sent me to the hooker bar. They didn't have Lagavulin so I settled for a Glenlivet while a Sharon Stone look-alike drinking Cognac with a Coke chaser tried to pick me up. I escaped with my virtue intact and crashed hard.
I drew table 41, seat four to begin day two. That put me back downstairs. Seat one was the table's chip leader, the very tough Gary Lent, who had won most of my stack at Foxwoods when he made a Flush on the River to beat my Set of Fours. Seat two was my old friend Allen "Double OJ" Kessler, playing in his second No-Limit Hold 'Em tournament. The first was the satellite he won to get into this one. Gary was frisky early but calmed down when one of his questionable pre-flop raises was shown down. I raised once with Ace-Queen in early position but when the very tight OJ reraised me on the button I mucked it in an instant. He later told me he had Aces.
We were nearing the end of the second level with blinds at 300-600 and a 50 ante. I was down to 13.500 when seat eight, who had been raising in early position with some frequency, did it again. I found Ace-King and pondered my options. I decided to move all in since I was getting low on chips and the blinds would soon be going up. He called with pocket Queens, making my odds just shy of a coin flip to more than double up but it was not to be. All the cards came low and I was out of the contest.
I called Alaska Airlines and changed my flight back to leave the next morning but stayed to have dinner with Andy "The Rock" Bloch at Nero's. We had delicious filet mignon and washed it down with one of the wonderful 2001 California Cabernets, the Stag's Leap Artemis. I almost overslept my flight but got to the airport in time to return the maroon Kia Optima I'd kept in Vegas for the last few weeks and settle into seat 2D for the journey back to Seattle. While I hadn't been playing poker for quite a year, this marked the end of the poker season. Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren had told me the first couple years were tough. I hoped the second would be better than the first.