Monday, July 06, 2015

My WSOP Main Event Experience

Nothing stings like the bitter disappointment of being eliminated from the WSOP Main Event. There will be somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people entering this tournament, and in the end, only one will be truly happy when it's all over. Getting knocked out is a miserable feeling. However, I am going to try to overcome my disappointment, as I describe my experience, which was pretty incredible. I hope the fact that I'm writing this after about 5 hours of sleep following my elimination, which happened with 20 minutes left on Day 1 does not color my description of the truly amazing nature of this experience.

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

For weeks leading up to the Main Event, I mapped out strategies, and took advice from just about everyone. The plan was to go slow and steady. It's a marathon, not a sprint. My basic game plan was to keep my phone off, observe everything, and get as good a read on each players as I could. Focus, focus, focus. I would play tight and smug and not put a lot of chips at risk. Play small ball. Don't get married to a big pair. Let the game come to me. But once the cards were in the air, this all went out the window. 

I played my game. I noticed the guy to my right liked to raise a lot of unopened pots in late position, so I started 3 betting him, and he folded. When I had KQs on the button, an early position loose player raised and got two callers. I called. The flop gave me a gut shot and a flush draw. The original raiser put in a 1/2 pot bet and got one caller. I thought I could probably take this down with a big bet, a semi-bluff squeeze. Besides my big draws, my K or Q might even be good if I hit them. So much for small ball. If I am to follow the game plan, I just call here, but a raise seemed like a much better play. I came here to play poker not to be a wuss! So, I put in a big raise and took down a nice pot. 

I found I couldn't do it. I couldn't play survival poker, and aggression works well, until it doesn't. At the end of the two hours, I had increased my stack size by 30% and reached my end of day goal - although there was still a lot of poker to play. I felt really good and confident. The only concern was that the two really weak players at the table, who had contributed to my good fortune quite a bit, were on life support, and they were probably not going to be around much longer to donate chips to me.

Level 2, blinds 100-200, stack 39,950

As expected, the two weakest players at the table were eliminated early in this round. The Italian pro/actor became super aggressive and had built up a big chip stack. I decided to play a low variance game and stay out of his way, and I folded a lot of marginal to decent hands. Although I had played aggressively on level 1, I still believed small ball was a good idea at this point, and I thought I could coast for a while on the nice chip stack I had and play premium hands for a while. This would also help create a tight image that I could exploit later. 

(For most of the hands I'll describe, stacks were so deep that stack sizes really did not come into play,  and anyway, in most cases, I don't remember the exact stack sizes, so I'll leave these out of the hand descriptions.)

I had AJ in the small blind, and a tight player in middle position raised 3 big blinds. It folded to me, and I folded. Some might consider that a tight play, but I'm happy with it. I might even fold in position here, and out of position, it's a no brainer. If an A comes on the flop, and he bets, I'll be in a tough spot. I'm also not thrilled with a J high flop. If it was a loose player who opened, I could raise or call, but given this player, and what I had seen from him, I'm perfectly happy with that fold. I also folded AQ pre-flop twice in early position. So, I guess I wasn't ignoring my plan completely. Playing tighter than usual.

An early position weak player limped and got 3 callers. I was in the cutoff with A7s in hearts. I called and the BB called. Multi-way to the flop. The flop came with medium cards and 1 heart. Checked around. The turn brought the K of hearts. BB bets 1/2 pot and folds to me. I raise 3x the bet, and he calls. The river is the 6 of hearts, giving me the nut flush and the absolute nuts on an unpaired board. He puts out a small bet, about 1/4 pot. Now I have to decide how to get value. I think most likely he has a K because I don't see the first to act stabbing at a pot with 3 other players in the hand when a K comes unless he has it. I don't think he has a smaller flush because of the small bet size. The small bet indicates to me that he has a hand with some value and he wants a cheap showdown. So, that would mean I should raise on the smallish side. However, I prefer to raise on the larger side both for my bluffs and my nut hands to keep my range balanced and because when I get called I get paid more. So, I raised a bit over the pot (including his bet in the pot). He tanked and then open folded two pair. Ugh! I guess a slightly smaller bet might have been called. Incidentally, he played it awful. His two pair was T2, and he flopped it and tried to slow play it. Ended up costing him.

I only played 5 or 6 hands on this entire level. I was mostly card dead, and when I raised, I got 3 bet a couple of times and had to fold. My stack ranged from 31k to 48k during this level because the pots I was involved with were rather large, and the swings were significant.  The table got a lot tougher once the two weak players were replaced by pros. The rest of the day was much more challenging.

Level 3, blinds 150-300, stack 38,650

I was excited to play the third level of the day, leading up to the dinner break. I felt that I was in the zone and playing the best I've ever played. I had not made any mistakes that I could think of, and I had made some good lay downs as well as good calls, so things were on track. Inside I was asking myself if this was really happening. Am I really playing in the WSOP Main Event with a bigger than average stack, holding my own? In what other sport is this possible? A child growing up obsessed with basketball is as likely to make it into the NBA as to be struck by lighting several times in the same year. His chances of playing in the NBA finals in his life are even smaller. And yet, anyone can play in the WSOP Main Event, and if they are halfway decent at poker, they have a shot. That's what's so exciting about it. At the same table we had an old guy who did not realize that you don't have to call every hand and that there is such a thing as raising, and two seats over a pro who had cashed 3 times in the last 5 years at the main event. The guy to my left was a regular 10-20 NLHE player at the Commerce casino and made day 4 of the Main last year, and the guy to my immediate right had never heard of pot odds. Some of the best and the worst players I've ever seen - at the same table. Crazy!

I managed to get to this stage of the tournament without any real premium hands, except for an AK that I had to muck on the flop. So finally, I picked up KK under the gun. Small ball. Small ball, I said to myself. Don't go broke on this hand. Don't get married to a big pair. Danger alarms were going off in my head. I was determined not to lose a big pot with this hand. In a way, I felt that in this marathon tournament and these super deep stacks that I was better off without big pairs. But, I only know one way to play KK under the gun, so I raised to 800, the same raise I had made on other hands at this level. Then alarm bells went off. Literally. Not just in my head. The fire alarm at the Rio started ringing. I was worried we would have to evacuate in the middle of the hand. But, the PA announcer came on and said it was a false alarm. The dealer told us that sometimes players get upset when they are eliminated and they pull the fire alarm. Wow. I hadn't experience that since high school.

Anyway, back to the hand, which was played with wailing sirens in the background, as if the action wasn't dramatic enough. A super loose player calls my 800. Even looser player, very aggressive, and table chip leader raises to 2,000. Small ball. I'm thinking that at this stage of the main event, I don't want to put a significant fraction of my chips into play. Period. If I make it 5k and one of them raises to 15k, can I continue with the hand on level 3 of the main event with an above average stack to start the hand and 126 big blinds? So, I call, and the other player calls too. If an A comes on the flop, I will continuation bet and then fold to any raise. If a Q comes on the flop, I might do the same. It's a scary spot under these circumstances, and I felt my heart rate jump. The flop came as beautiful as a flop can be. Seriously, I didn't think it was possible for a human being to fall in love with a flop, but I was wrong. I was madly in love (sorry Ann). The flop was 7K4 rainbow. Oh, how I love thee, flop!

Now, I'm seriously hoping that one of them has AA or AK. Obviously, there is no turn card that I'm afraid of, and it's possible the K might scare someone with JJ or QQ, so I check, hoping one of them will bet, at which point I will just call. But it checks around. Ugh! The turn card is a 5 putting a flush draw out there. A couple of straight draw got there, but there's no way I'm putting either of them on that. So, now it's time to bet. I make it 4,000 and the first player folds, but the second player calls. The turn card is a very pretty 2 that completes the rainbow. I now have the near nuts, and if he's playing 68 or 36 will, then it's time for me to lose a lot of chips. 

Again I'm faced with a raise sizing dilemma. Last time I had the nuts, I value bet big, and the guy folded. I really want a call this time. So, I have to figure out what his range is here and how big a bet I can get the top of his range to call. The only two hands that make any sense to me are QQ or JJ, possibly TT. If he has AQ, he would not have called the turn bet. I don't think he raises pre flop like that with KQ, but it's possible if he was suited, since he was loose and aggressive and with a big stack. But, if he was squeezing, I would think he would bet bigger. He only raise to 2k from 800. That does not smell like a squeeze, it smells like a value raise. Okay, so if he has one of those medium pairs, how much would he call on the river? The pot has a bit over 14,000. I bet 7,000. He declares that he put me on AK the whole way and open folds QQ. Oh well. I don't think I could have gotten more out of him if I played it any other way. 

I had lost a few pots before that hand, but that brought me up over 40k at the end of the level. I went to the dinner break feeling great about my game and my luck so far, and I had a nice dinner with Cousin Kenny, his wife Laurie, and my buddy Brian Sims who happened to just arrive in Vegas for a few days just in time to join us for dinner. 

Level 4, blinds 150-300-25, stack 41,350

This level is really what did me in. Brian came back with us from dinner and railed me. My seat was right by the rail, so he could see the action. For the first 40 minutes I don't think I saw a card above a 7, and Brian got to watch me fold every single hand. Literally. I did not enter one single pot. VPIP was 0, for those of you who play online with a HUD. Finally, I pick up AK and raise. The very strong player to my left calls. The flop comes with an A, and I bet it. He calls. The turn is a brick, and I bet it. He calls. The river is a Q. No flushes or realistic straight draws. I check because I can't imagine him calling a third bet with something worse than top pair top kicker. He bets out 8,000. This is a very big bet. Did he really float me for two streets and then bluff the river? Sure seems like it. Why so much? I thought back to my value betting strategy, and it seems he could be betting a set for value here. My instinct told me to fold, but my actual mouth said "call", and he turned over AQ for a rivered two pair. That took a bite out of my stack. At that point, I was down to 27k.

I felt nauseous. I had played so well the whole day and maintained a great stack and just like that, I was below a starting stack for the first time. However, the next 15 minutes were a blur. I picked up KK and won a nice pot. Then I had 44, called a bet, checked down to the river and hit a 4. Made a bet, got called and own another nice pot. In no time I was back at 38k and feeling good. And then it happened again. Almost identical. Loose bad player raises, and I call with AJ out of position. Note the difference from the earlier AJ hand that I folded in that this was a loose bad player who entered a lot of pots. The flop came AK6. I checked to the raiser and he checked back. That's a good sign. Turn was an 8, and I lead out with a 1/2 pot bet, and he calls. River is a 5. I check and he bets out the pot. Going back through the hand and the betting I thought there was a good chance he had a K in his hand or a weak A. He checked the flop back for pot control, but he was strong enough to call the turn. Maybe he even had a hand with an 8 in it like 89s and didn't believe I had any piece of the flop. So why is he betting so much on the river? Set of 5s? I don't think he calls the turn with 55. Did he slow play a monster the whole way? I'm baffled, and I can't put him on a hand. Obviously, I didn't think it through because after I called, he turned over A5, which fits the betting pretty well. That hand hurt.

Over the next half hour, I couldn't seem to win anything. My stack was such that I was afraid to get too involved in pots, and the table was 3 betting a lot and even 4 betting, so there were no cheap flops. As we went to break, I had a bad feeling. During the break, Cousin Kenny advised me that it is worth it to try to make Day 2. If I fold every hand, I'd make it to Day 2 with about 15k in chips. That's not reasonable. But perhaps I can win a few pots here and there and keep my chip stack steady. If I can get to Day 2 with over 25k, then I start with 50 big blinds, and I can play with that. After all, Kenny pointed out that 6 of the last 10 winners had less than 30k to start Day 2. That's encouraging. Of course they also had mad skills and tons of luck. At least there was a chance I could get lucky!

Level 5, blinds 200-400-50, stack 26,550

I 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.

Friday, July 03, 2015

A short video explaining how to make online poker more secure

As I've posted here before, I've been working on a system to make online poker more secure. Here is a short video that explains in simple and hopefully entertaining form how this works. (Best to view this full screen to see the details of the hand examples.) I've also created a project page here. Please share this with anyone you think would be interested.