I decided to take $5,000 to Atlantic City to enter the World Poker Tour Event at the brand new Borgata. I registered the morning of the tournament, and I was delighted to see an abundance of amateur players in line with me to sign up. “Good,” I thought to myself, “This line-up won’t be so dense with professionals. Maybe I’ll have a chance.”
It looked good when I sat down at my table. There were only 4 players there ahead of me. Two of the players, sitting side by side at seats 7 and 8, were adorned in internet poker website T-shirts, implying that they won their seats online. The player in seat 4 was also unknown to me. TJ Cloutier was sitting at my table, but he was two to my right, so at least I had position on him. Thus I was feeling that I would have a chance to fair well at this table.
But then the nightmare began. A who’s who of professional poker rounded out the competitors. We were ten handed and the seating went as follows. I was in seat 1. Seat 2 was Mark Seif, a prior WPT final table player. Also a very aggressive no limit player. He’s had a great year this year, with four tournament victories. He’s ranked in the top ten overall Card Player rankings this year, and is currently ranked second in no-limit hold-em Next to him in seat 3 was Tony Cousineau, another solid competitor. Seat 4 was not known to me. Seat 5 was Warren Karp, a Cardplayer columnist, who has finished previously in the Card Player top 20. Seat 6 was Chris Bjorn a long time tournament veteran with numerous high-profile Unique Casino tournament finishes. Seat 9 was Phil Ivey, who seems to be a regular finisher on the WPT and he has won $769,000 this year in tournaments. Next to him was TJ, last year’s Player of the Year, and poker author. Finally in seat ten was Mickey Appelman, who won the tournament that I took 5th place in at the WSOP. With 5 players to go, he was in last place with less than 5% of the chips in play in his stack, surprising everybody with a come from nowhere win.
With the line-up before us, other players came around and laughed at our unfortunate seat assignments, as today promised to be a challenging day. I looked forward to a chance to play against a high level of competition. I was familiar with every pro at the table, and I liked my chances to compete effectively against this line-up, through I was far from a favorite. I also relished the idea of watching the big names of poker play through the early stages of a tournament. Many of you have seen these players play now on TV, or read accounts of final table play. However final table play is so vastly different than early round play, particularly when we have 10,000 worth of chips and the blinds are 25-50. Thus I thought I should share some of the plays that these heavy hitters make in the early rounds, to give my readers a chance to see the tricks of the trade that these guys employ to get to the late stages of a tournament.
The early going had some very large pots in the very first rounds, despite the relatively small blinds. On the second hand I limped in under the gun with pocket 5’s. Everyone folded to Mickey Appelman who raised it to 500. I decided to call with my small pair, hoping to catch a set and double through. The flop came Q-10-8. Mickey checked. Now I had to think. Based on his play, I had to consider that he had an A-K, and he was concerned that I had hit that flop. I couldn’t imagine that he would give me a free card, if he had a pair. Thus I thought I had the best hand at the moment. If he would have bet, I would have folded. However I also had to consider the possibility of a big hand, with a trap. Thus I decided to take a free card. The turn brought a six. He checked again. This time I felt confident that I was up against an A-K, so I bet 1200. To my surprise he called. I had played about 4 hours against Mickey at the WSOP final table. He raised, but rarely bet out after the flop, if he missed. He regularly raised before the flop and checked it down. His call concerned me, so I planned to stop betting right there, if he checked the river. That is, until the river gave me a 5, for a set. He checked and I bet 2000. This time he folded. This was a good start, lifting me over 11,500 in chips.
I didn’t get many playable hands after that hand for quite some time. Mark Seif and Phil Ivey were battling with regularity. Phil was nearly crippled, when Mark Seif called a raise with an 8-10 suited, and made a flush on the river. Phil was down to about 4000. Mark went on a rampage. He took pocket 4’s into one of the amateurs who held pocket Aces. The amateur in seat 8 bet about 300 before the flop. Mark flopped a four, and they got all of their chips in after the flop, and the man with the Aces was gone. In fact the other two amateurs were also quickly busted out as well.
Mark was the dominating player at the table in the early going, and he was on my left. I kept telling him that I wasn’t even going to mess with him. I surrendered all of my hands to him, when we were heads-up in the blind. I convinced him that I was playing passively against him, but I secretly pushed some marginal hands into him after some of the flops we took together. He generally laid them down. On one hand I raised from mid position with A-7 suited, which is a hand, I hate to get calls with. Mark called, as did two other players. The flop came Q-x-x, and I bet out about 1000. Mark folded what he said was an A-10. I collected a decent sized pot when an Ace came on the turn. I could see the disgust on Marks’ face, as I pulled the pot in.
Another interesting hand came up between Mark and Tony Cousineau. Mickey had opened under the gun with a small raise. Mark called, but Tony came over the top for about 1000 more. The flop came 10 high, and Mark led out with a 1000 bet. Tony pumped it another 1000, and Mark called. Tony was left with only 4000. The turn was another blank. Mark bet enough to put Tony all in. As Tony considered what to do, Mark asked, “Are they red or black?” Implying that he knew Toni had a big hand, but bet anyhow, further implying that he had a set. Tony threw his Kings into the muck. Mark declared to Tony and I that he had a set. I then said, “Well, I’m glad I didn’t have those kings, because you would have busted me.”
Tony also seemed unsure, saying, “If you had a set, you played it horribly, because I would have put all of my chips in, if you would have checked. But if you were bluffing, it had to be a brilliant play.”
Mark stuck to his story, but I had my doubts. In the meantime, Mark started paying off Phil Ivey, as Phil began to strike with what was initially a small stack. Phil made a stand, checking and calling all the way with a K-J after a King flopped and Mark bet it down. The river was checked, and Mark mucked his hand, when Phil showed his King. Then I was able to see vintage Phil Ivey in action. Phil raised about every other hand three times the big blind. He generally checked, rather than force a hand after he missed the flop, but he was winning more than he was losing. He slowly built up a huge stack.
I finally caught pocket Aces in early position with the blinds at 50-100. Mickey had limped in, and I raised to 400. Two other callers and Mickey took the flop, which came 10-4-5, with the 4-5 in diamonds. Mickey checked, and I decided that with a flush draw I would need to make a big bet, rather than let the flush crack my Aces. I bet 2000 into a 1700 pot. Mickey came over the top for his whole stack. I was clearly disgusted by the fact that Mickey felt his hand strong enough to move his whole stack in. I didn’t like what he represented, which was a set of 4’s or 5’s. But I also had to consider that he had seen me bet out against him at the WSOP with nothing, just to try to bully him. In the Pot Limit Hold-em event, in which he won and I took 5th, he was very low on chips, when he raised my blind. I had a J-10 suited and reraised him, expecting him to fold with an inferior late position raising hand, but he hung on. When an Ace flopped, I bet out hoping to represent an Ace. However he was the one with an A-7, and I instead doubled him up, setting up his eventual win. I knew he thought I was capable of betting with nothing, so I hoped that he was pushing a weaker hand, in the belief that I was bluffing. I thought he had a ten with a flush draw. I called, and he confirmed my suspicions, displaying a Q-10 suited in diamonds. He had me outchipped. I stood up, but sat back down, when my Aces held the pot. I had doubled through to 20,000.
Another big pot erupted, when Tony Cousineau checked his blind later after Phil Ivey had limped in. The flop came A-5-6 rainbow. Tony check raised Phil Ivey on the flop and the turn, leaving Tony with about 1900. The board paired the 5, placing a runner-runner flush on the board. Phil moved Tony all-in, and showed a Q-5 for trip 5’s. Completely dismayed at Phil’s play, Tony flung his A-K into the muck, and left the table.
Phil continued his apparently loose play, but seemed to know when to push in with a large bet and take the pot. He was back over 25,000. I began to run into some trouble again. Phil made a small raise to 300 with blinds still 50-100. TJ called, as did Mickey. I looked down to see pocket Jacks. I decided that I needed to make a big raise and take down the pot right there. I didn’t want anyone with a K-Q or A-Q calling, so I bet 4000. I looked down at the table, and watched the blinds muck their hands, but then I started thinking that the one player to fear right here was TJ. I knew TJ wouldn’t be calling with anything less than a genuine raising hand. Then I started thinking, that I could have accomplished the same thing with 2000-3000 wager. TJ moved all in, just as I feared. And I realized that I invested 2000 too much in the hand. I thought briefly, and easily concluded that TJ had pocket Q’s or better. I through my Jacks face up, and TJ said, “That was a good laydown.” He then showed his pocket Queens.
On the last hand before the break I had pocket Kings. I made it 400 to go. Chris Bjorn called from later position. The flop came Q-Q-10. I bet out 2000 to see where I was. Chris called, causing me great concern, but he only had about 6000 left. A third diamond hit on the turn. I stubbornly decided to test him with a 4000 bet, leaving him 2000. He called without much hesitation. I really didn’t like my hand now. We both checked the river, and I revealed my pocket Kings. He showed his A-Q and dragged the pot. I was back down to 11,500.
I kept my head in the next round, and slowly amassed some chips. On one hand Phil Ivey made another raise to 600 with the blinds at 100-200. I looked down at pocket Aces. I smooth called, hoping to trap Phil after the flop. The flop came Jack high. He bet 1200, which I slowly called. A King came on the turn and he bet 4000. With two hearts on the board, I decided to move all in at that point. He folded, but I won over 6000 from Phil. Another big win came soon after that hand. Mickey made a raise to 500 from the ****on, which neither Mark Seif or myself considered to represent a big hand. I called with a 9-8, and Mark called as well. The flop came 9-8-K. I decided on a check raise, but sometimes they stay checked. Thus a free turn card hit the board and it was an Ace. I decided not to bet out in hopes that the Ace hit someone. Mark Seif did not disappoint, betting 1000. Mickey folded. Bottom two pair is a dangerous hand to slow play, so I made a 4000 check raise, ready to take the pot right there, but Mark called. The river was a blank. This time I bet 3000, and Mark called. I flipped over my two pair, and Mark mucked. I was back to 23,000.
As players were eliminated, we had some newcomers to the table, none of whom I recognized. One player sat in the 7 seat. He was very slow in acting on his hands, which often caused players to act out of turn. TJ made a raise, which this player called. The seat 7 player only had about 6000, less than half of what TJ had. The flop came with Q-Q-x. TJ checked. Seat 7 bet half of his stack, which TJ called without hesitation. The turn brought an Ace. TJ checked and seat 7 moved all in. “I know that Ace hit you,” TJ said as he called the relatively small bet. Seat 7 had Ace-deuce. I didn’t much admire the A-2 play, but I really didn’t like TJ not firing out at that pot. TJ checking that flop opened the door for an aggressive play by seat 7 and now he was up to 12,000. Allowing seat 7 to double up would come back to haunt me.
I had pocket Jacks again in mid position and made it 1200 to go, after one person limped in. Seat 7 was on the ****on. He looked around and contemplated what to do, which at first made me think that he was assessing another A-2, but then he raised me an addition 2000. He was hard to put on a hand, after the way I saw him play the A-2. I didn’t want to fold without a little more evidence. So I called. The flop came 8 high. As I considered that he might have A-K, I decided to test him again. I bet 4000, looking for him to declare the strength of his hand. His answer to my bet was to move all-in. I had him covered by 5000. The bet was for 6700, making the pot almost 15,000. I finally allowed myself to be convinced that my Jacks were no good, and I released the hand. However, this is one of those hands I will wonder about for a long time. I am just not sure how selective he is. I just hadn’t played him enough to know his game, so I had no choice. With other losses I was back to 11,000.
I did outlast Mark Seif, who really started pushing his hands too aggressively, after I showed him my two pair earlier. Having busted pocket Aces with pocket 4’s, he himself was busted while again holding pocket 4’s against pocket Aces. This time with a board of 2-3-5, Mark pushed all-in. Against pocket Kings, he would have had ten outs, but against pocket Aces he had only 6 outs, none of which revealed themselves on the board and he was eliminated.
Our table broke, and I took my stack of about 10,000 to another table. I had Erik Seidel, the man immortalized for losing to Johhny Chan in the movie Rounders, on my left. To his left was Chris Gregorian, a money finisher in this year’s main event of the WSOP. Three to my right was Barry Shulman, the publisher of Card Player Magazine. I got off to a pretty good start, stealing many blinds. The limits had gone to 200-400 with a 50 ante. With a ten-handed table, it was costing 1100 a round to play. I built my stack to 15,000. A new player came to our table. He was unfamiliar to me. He immediately moved all in with his remaining 2900 under the gun. From late position I held A-Q. I saw this as a good opportunity to get this contest heads up. As I determined the size of my raise, he was actually trying to wave me off, clearly indicating that he wanted no action. I raised another 4000, and everyone folded. He showed an A-2, but the flop brought an instant 2 to his rescue. A river Ace gave him two pair, and I was down to 12,000 instead of up to 18,000. This seemed to be the beginning of my demise.
The guy to my right was a nice amateur with over 20,000 in chips, and a fellow Southerner. I raised his blind from under the gun with Pocket tens, raising to 1200. Everyone folded to him, and he made it 2000 more. I was frustrated. Every time I had pocket Jacks or tens, I ran into a monster hand. This time, based on a few observations I had made, I believed that he had a big Ace, not necessarily A-K either. I decided to wait for the flop. I had position on him. If an Ace flopped and he checked, I would move all-in to represent the Ace, because I knew he would not check his top pair, if he indeed had made it. The Ace did flop, only he did move all-in. Thus I decided that my initial assessment was correct. He did have an Ace. I mucked.
We were getting close to the end of day #1. I really didn’t want to come back for day #2 with less than 10,000 in chips, so I decided to find a decent hand and go with it. I went a whole round without getting much of anything. Now at less than 8,000 I was dealt an A-9 suited. I was not in love with the hand, but now I could not afford patience. I raised to 2000. My only caller was Barry Shulman. The flop was A-3-5 unsuited. I decided to check the pair of Aces I now had. This is a well-described Sklansky strategy. Barry checked as well. I felt confident that I had the best hand, but Barry had read Sklansky too. The turn was an 8, and I bet 4000. Barry called with little reluctance. I had just seen Barry call down Chris Gregorian’s A-K when two Aces were on the board, paying him nearly 10,000. I now envisioned Barry paying me off just the same. I felt that my check on the flop only lured him into my trap. The river was a King. I put in my last 1900, and he called again. I showed him my Ace-9. He looked and said, “Oh, I have a Jack.” He meant a Jack to go with his Ace, and it took a few seconds to register that I was finished playing poker for the weekend.
Yes I lost again, but I have to say that today was about the most fun I have ever had losing $5,000. I came away feeling that I was competitive. I had a chance to play with some poker greats, and I felt that I was able to hold my own with these guys. Sure I feel like a goof-ball going down with A-9 to an Ace-Jack, but I was feeling a need to push a hand at that point. Besides that play, I walked away happy with my game. I actually lost 21,000 in chips with pairs ten through Kings, which are hands that you would usually hope to win with. One of these days, I’m going to hit one of these for a few hundred thousand. I definitely like the structure of these larger events. You get to start with 10,000, which gives you plenty of maneuvering room. I am probably going to focus my money on more of the bigger tournaments, rather than nickel and dime myself broke on the small ones.