I arrived in Las Vegas on Saturday afternoon after a weeklong vacation with my family in Los Angeles, a trip that was intentionally designed to get me acclimated to the Pacific time zone in advance of the World Series. Upon arrival, I decided to play one four hour 2-5 cash session to get my feet wet, but first I registered for the tournament and received my table and seat assignment.
With my registration card in hand, I walked down the hall to the main WSOP area to see if there were any final tables in progress. The public has complete access to all of the events, and anyone can walk in and watch the televised final table, as long as there is enough room. I happened to wander in just as Anthony Spinella was posing for his bracelet photos for winning the WSOP event #64, for which he received $197,743.
Watching this photo shoot was inspirational. There was a raucous crowd cheering, and everyone was caught up in the excitement. I walked back to the cash section, where the no limit blinds ranged form 1-3 to the sky, with high stakes tables featuring several famous players with stacks containing tens of thousands of dollars. I bought into a 2-5 game for $500 and planned on playing only 4 hours. My first hand was dealt as I was still getting settled into my seat and the chip runner had not yet returned with my chips. The player to my left asked if I wanted to borrow a stack of 20 reds ($100) to play until I had my own chips, and I said, "Well let me look at my hand first because I might just throw it away". I looked down at two black aces and said, "I think I will play this one" in as casual a voice as I could muster. I'm not superstitious in the least, but at that moment, caught up in all the excitement of the WSOP, I felt that getting dealt pocket aces on my very first hand in Las Vegas had to be a good omen!
I raised to 20 and got 3 callers. Flop was low cards and my bet took it down. Cash play was pretty wild, as I remembered from last year and after a roller coaster session, I was up a few hundred and kept to my plan, leaving the poker room and grabbing some dinner at the Chinese dim sum place in the Rio.
After dinner, I wandered down the halls of the WSOP and decided to check out the Brazilia room where I would be playing the next day. I found the great hall completely empty and walked over to table 48. I sat down in seat 4 and took in the room. This is where it would happen. It felt like a scene from any sports movie where the athlete walks into the stadium the night before, a spotlight shines on him, and he imagines the crowd cheering. I was definitely caught up in the emotion of it.
As it was July 4, I then went outside and caught the fireworks at the strip. The Rio provides a great view, and I saw three simultaneous fireworks shows across the Las Vegas Strip.
I woke up at 4:48 a.m. on my Day 1 and was too wired to sleep anymore. Not good! I did some work on my computer until the gym opened at 6:00, and then had a good workout. Around 8 a.m. my buddy Larry Reznik started texting me inspirational messages, and I got several phone calls wishing me luck. I had set up an email list of friends who requested updates, and my virtual rail was very active in support. I got this! I can't remember ever being that pumped up for anything.
At 11:45, I met Cousin Kenny outside of the Brazilia room. His table was about 5 tables over from me, and he was just as excited as I was. It was his 8th Main Event and my first, but it seems the excitement is the same each time. As I took my seat, there was some announcements, a few short speeches, and the obligatory "Shuffle Up and Deal" announcement, and the first hand was dealt.
Playing at the Main Event is like no other tournament. At each seat is a small photo card, giving you a code where you can find yourself in the media coverage. Reporters are walking around with notebooks documenting the action, and TV camera crews are everywhere, stopping to film a hand at this table or that, with an extended microphone held out over the table. The Italian media seemed obsessed with the player in seat 1 at my table, and several people stopped by to get his autograph. I wasn't sure if he was a poker pro or some other type of celebrity. He played very well and super aggressively, so I was leaning towards "pro", but he ended up going out in flames, tilting like crazy and making some nutty plays, so maybe he's an actor who plays a lot of poker.
Level 1, blinds 50-100, stack 30,000
Level 2, blinds 100-200, stack 39,950
Level 3, blinds 150-300, stack 38,650
Level 4, blinds 150-300-25, stack 41,350
Level 5, blinds 200-400-50, stack 26,550I got off to a good start on this level. I won a few pots uncontested, and each time I took down the blinds and antes, I earned myself another round. I had conflicting goals, and I wasn't sure how I was going to resolve them if push came to shove (literally). I wanted to make Day 2 very very badly. If I made day 2, I would get to bag chips at the end of the day, and then Day 2 is in the famous Amazon room. I would have a new table and a new celebrity "Shuffle Up and Deal". I could anticipate playing in the Main Event for 2 days that I would have off. I cannot stress how badly I wanted to make Day 2. But at the same time, I wanted to play correct poker. I wanted to optimize my chances of cashing and going deep. If I fold most of my hands and take down a few uncontested unopened pots, I'm there pretty easily. But what do I do if I get a big hand and my tournament life is at stake? I wasn't sure myself how I would handle that. Pretty soon, I got my answer.
After my initial run of good cards in the first 15 minutes of this level, I went card dead, and I basically folded everything for about an hour. I was down to 23k and miserable. The table was getting even more aggressive, and some players busted out and big stacks moved in. These guys were pros. I could just tell. Nothing was going my way. So, sure enough, I picked up AA in middle position in an unopened pot. I told myself that this could be it. Win a small pot, lose a big pot. That's what aces are known for. But when you are struggling to stay above water, AA is a god send. I wasn't about to miss a chance to get back to a healthy stack. I should also add that I was in no way supposed to be desperate right now. I had almost 60 big blinds. That's enough to play some real poker for a while, and with this slow structure, even the next level on Day 2, which was going to be 250-500-50 was not too bad, and if I got here with 20k, I'd have 40 bigs, more than enough to have reason for hope.
So, I raised to 1,100, which was the going rate. Since I hadn't played a hand in an hour, I figured they might all just fold, but the big blind defended. He's the same guy from the A5 hand earlier, and I had confirmed my read of him multiple times, that he was a very weak player. I had to like my chances now. A double up would pretty much save me, and I was hoping he would have a nice second-best hand. The flop came JQK with a flush draw. That is about as ugly a flop as you can get in this spot. He checked to me. Since I put him on just about any two cards, I figured there was a good chance he missed this completely, in which case he'll fold to a bet. But there is also a chance he's trapping with two pair. I checked back since I wasn't sure there was any value to betting, and if he had a hand like J8 or Q7, he might call a bet later, but would fold to a bet on the flop. As ugly as the flop was, the turn was gorgeous. A non-flush T. Now I had the current nuts. Only worry is if also has an A. I bet 3/4 pot and he called. Hmm, we may be chopping this. The river is another T. He checks again (okay, I guess we're not chopping?!?). I can't put him on a full house based on his passive line, so I bet the pot, and he calls and turns over A9. I don't know off hand how often A9 chops with AA, but it can't be very often. That sucks.
Maybe I was tilted from that non-double up chop, or maybe I was tired, or maybe I ended up making the right play. I'm sure I'll be thinking about it a lot over the next few months, but two hands later this hand played out. The same guy from the A9 and A5 opened for 1,100. The bluffiest, wildest, most active player at my table, one who had shown down pretty big bluffs on the river (e.g. 83 after popping 3 streets and getting called all the way by the nuts against another player) reraised to 3,200. I looked down at QQ in the big blind. Okay, so now I'm really put to the test. The question is, am I playing this tournament to limp into Day 2, or am I playing poker? Putting that aside, what ranges to I assign to these guys. I would say the first raiser has a top 30% hand and will probably fold. The re-raiser knows this, and he's been stealing a lot, and so I assign him a very wide range as well. My QQ has to be in pretty good shape here, but if I'm wrong, I'm probably going broke and leaving the tournament. At this point in time, there were about 20 minutes left in Day 1. At the 10 minute mark, the tournament goes off the clock and each table plays 5 hands, to prevent people who are trying to make Day 2 from stalling. I knew about this, and I was well aware the whole level that if I took my time with every decision and every non-decision, that I would increase my chances of moving on, but that's just not how you play poker. I hate it when other people exploit these kinds of things and mess up the game for everyone else, and I wasn't going to do it myself, so I kept the game pace moving and insta folded most of my hands pre-flop.
So, back to the hand. Do I raise, call or fold? If I fold, then I'm clearly deciding that I want to get to Day 2 at all costs and nothing else matters. That's out. Sorry, but that's not why I came to Vegas and spent the last 3 months planning for my Main Event. I might do that to make the cash or to make the final table, but I'm not playing that way to make Day 2. Okay, so that was easy, now I'm down to two choices. I'm going to assume that the original raiser is going to fold regardless. So, I'll focus on the other player. If I raise and he was making a move, then he will fold, and I'll take down a nice pot. Not a bad result. But if I raise and he has me dominated with KK or AA, then I'm dead. He may also have AK. I decide to call and see if an A or a K flops. If so, maybe I can get away from the hand and survive. So, I just call, and the other player folds. The flop is 863. The pot has about 7,500 in it, and my stack is at around 20k. If I check and he bets, I will have to call. If I bet, he'll call with several hands that I am beating like 99-JJ, and he'll fold AK. If has has AA or KK, I think I'm going to lose all my chips any way it plays out. In hindsight, this morning, I think checking might have been a better play, as he would surely bet with AK but will fold it if I bet. But, at the time, I bet out 5,000. He insta shoved putting me all in. Now I had 15k left in my stack and no real decision to make. I called, and he turned over AA. And my Main Event was over with 20 minutes left on Day 1. It's a pretty sick feeling.
Looking back on my Main Event, I don't have too many regrets. I could have played a few hands differently, but for every one that I could have played better, there is one where I might have played worse. Bottom line is that as you get deeper into the tournament, the skill level goes up pretty fast. The bad players go out, and you have to be sharp and focused and catch the right cards. I had a hell of a run, both leading up to this, with all the anticipation, and I feel fortunate to have had a good first half of the day where I got to feel like things were really clicking. It was a serious rush. So, no, I won't end up with 20 friends railing me at the final table or with an ESPN special, but a small Jewish kid from Nashville who started playing poker in his mid 30s just competed with the best players in the world on the biggest stage, in the world championship. That can only happen in poker, and it's one of the reasons I love this game so much.