May 2, 2005

Champing for a bit: The 2005 WPT Championship at Bellagio

Not this year

I had already bought into the $25,500 World Poker Tour Championship, a tournament that set the world record for juice at a whopping $1250, so that I could get into the celebrity freeroll at the Commerce and get some value for my juice. I had half-expected that with that enormous rake the Bellagio would surprise us with some nice gift or comp but as usual the only comp forthcoming without begging was the $15 buffet discount and the full comp to the dinner buffet for those still in the event. I totaled up the juice I had paid over the last not-quite-two years at Bellagio: $11,665. I hoped the growing competition among poker rooms would sweeten the deal a little bit for the tournament players.


I entered both of the $2600 super satellites, playing for cash since I had the entry, but got nowhere in either and settled instead for some nice dinners at Ah Sin and Les Artistes steakhouse across the street at Paris. At Artistes, Shortstack and I had been drinking the 2000 Ch. Branaire, a moderately priced Bordeaux from what was of course one of the best years in history. I couldn't get away from the bone-in Filet there, a fabulous dish at what would be the best restaurant in town most places but here in the capital of world cuisine just another hotel steakhouse. At Ah Sin we dined with Russell Rosenblum and Matt "Jacks Up" Matros, whose excellent book The Making of a Poker Player I was about halfway through, and feasted on soup, sushi, satays, and stir-fry. Their wine list wasn't terribly exotic but the 2001 Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was expectedly yummy, a great year for an extremely reliable classic.


Bellagio had broken the 452 entrants in the Championship into two flights for day one and I had drawn the second flight so I had the day off while most of the TV pros played, which was fine with me. When my day arrived I drew table 44, seat four. Shortstack said that was great because I'd already flopped a set. I wasn't unhappy with my table but the toughest players were lined up like a rogue's gallery on my left: Swedish pro Ken Lennard in seat five, Jan "Le Grande" Boubli in seat six, "Magic" Antonio Esfandiari in seat seven, and my pal Chad Layne, a very tough and smart player who made several final tables in the Ultimate Poker Challenge at the Plaza, in seat eight That was a difficult lineup to get frisky with. Seats nine and 10 were players I didn't know: David Sutcliffe and Richard C. Roberts. In seat one was Shahram Sheikram; seat two, Ram "Crazy Horse" Vaswani, a tough and potentially wild player, and on my right was WSOP champ and author Tom McEvoy, an old-school player who not only played by the book but also wrote it.


I had my work cut out for me.


Ken Lennard and Jan Boubli were making plenty of moves on pots but Antonio was playing as tight as a drum. I hovered around my 50,000 starting stack, going to the first break with 48,100 and the second with 52,475. Richard C. Roberts in seat 10 was getting hit with the deck and taking plenty of chips from the aggressive players on his right. I lost several small pots, and then finally I defended my big blind against a button raise from Ram with Four-Trey of Diamonds. The Flop came Jack-Eight-Deuce with two diamonds and I decided to check-raise him and try to pick up the pot right there. He called and the turn was the Five of Clubs, giving me an open-ended Straight draw as well. I bet out and he called. The river was the Ace of Diamonds, giving me both a Straight and a Flush. I decided to check it and induce a bluff but Crazy Horse didn't get crazy and checked behind me. I showed the Flush and he mucked. I was back up to 43,125 at the next break.


I struggled and lost a couple pots and was down to 30,350 at the end of level four. The Swede Ken Lennard busted out and was replaced by the Dane Mads Andersen, whose Aces I had cracked on a suckout in Tunica. All of a sudden Antonio shifted gears and started raising every pot. I looked for something to play back at him with and settled for calling on the button with Ten-Nine offsuit. I check-raised him on a Nine-high flop and he studied me for a couple minutes, trying to get me to talk to him, then tossed in 25,000, putting me almost all in. I studied him and decided he probably had me beat, especially since the last time he had tried that move on me I had called him with top pair and busted him. I mucked and he showed Ace-Ten offsuit for what would have been a three-outer. I outsmarted myself on that play, giving Antonio too much credit, and should have called. But I still had 20,000 and, as Phil Hellmuth, Jr., would say, I was in! In! In!


Soon thereafter, Antonio raised yet again and McEvoy called on the button. I found pocket Sixes in the small blind and pushed in, thinking I probably had the best hand. Antonio immediately folded but McEvoy, to my surprise, called with pocket Fives. Unfortunately, the board came all Hearts and McEvoy's Five of Hearts played, sending me out of the contest with 171 remaining in flight two.


Russell and Matt busted out soon thereafter, as did my buddy Andy "The Rock" Bloch. Russell and Matt, best friends, had both made the final table last year and hoped to repeat but it was not to be. Matt sequestered himself to decompress but Russell, Andy, his girlfriend Jen, and I had a yummy dinner at Elements at the Aladdin, washed down with the wonderful 1989 Ch. Pichon-Baron. Shortstack had taken an earlier flight home so I called Alaska to change my flight so I could join her. She picked me up in Lioncar, the silver Sebring convertible, and we settled in for some time off before the next big event at one of our favorite places, Lake Tahoe.


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