WSOP Main Event

Finally got to sit down and put together a write up of my very first WSOP Main Event.

This year they increased the starting stack to 50,000 chips from 30,000 during previous years and levels to 2 hours from 1 hour 50 minutes. I really like it as I tend to play better with a deep stack – there are more opportunities to actually play poker with a deep stack. You can both sit and wait for the hand, or you can try a few maneuvers, none of which, if unsuccessful, will be a death blow, with plenty of time to recover.

Towards the dinner break on Day 1 I built up my stack to about 55k, all without any kind of premium hand, just picking up small pots here and there. As I was relatively card dead the entire time, I expanded my range to play ace-rag. One of such hands cost me dearly. I got A4 offsuit in position and called a small raise preflop from an aggressive guy. The flop came 234. It wasn’t a bad flop for me so I decided to float the guy. He bets on the flop, I call. Turn is a 7 – a rather innocuous card. He bets again, I call. River is a K. Here he makes a large bet that could be interpreted as just going for the pot. I think that while it’s possible for him to have K (he raised preflop), his raising range is much wider than AK, KK, besides if he did have AK or any K, he would’ve probably checked the turn. So I thought my A4 was good. I call and he turns over K4 for two pair. So I was right about my A4 being good, just until the river. My stack was down to low 30s after that hand. I bagged 29,000 at the end of Day 1.

On Day 2, at a new table, I was the shortest stack. Again card dead I decided to try a few raises in position, but it’s hard to scare anybody with a short stack. After raising and missing the flop a few times my stack got down to about 15K, when they broke our table and moved us to different tables.

With blinds going up I was under pressure to do something fast, but also to balance my shoving range. Although many books will recommend shoving with any two face cards I decided to wait for some really premium hand; thus KQ twice went into the muck and so did pocket 22. Finally, when down to 11k, I peek into my cards and see KK. A raise in front of me makes my decision easy. I shove, the guy snap calls and turns over QQ. My kings stand and I double up to high 20s.

Then the fateful hand. I’m in the big blind with J8 of hearts. Now, looking back at it I missed a huge warning sign – no raises preflop. Now, at this kind of game, there are almost no unraised pots preflop. I’m pretty sure that during my entire 2-day run this was the very first pot that went unraised. So the action went very suspiciously, but I failed to give it too much thought. So I’m in a big blind and there are 3 other limpers. So I get to see the flop for free. The flop comes 567 two hearts – an excellent flop for me with a straight and a flush draws. I’m first to act, I bet about a third, utg min-raises, probably just to see where he stands, mid-position calls, button folds and I call. The turn is a 10 of hearts, I got my flush. I bet again, the utg folds and the mid-position calls. River is a black A. At this point I go all in and the mid-position snap calls and turns over AK of hearts for a bigger flush. It took me a few moments to realize I was dead and out.

So that was my run. I can’t say I got super unlucky. I’ve heard so many stories of set over set and some sick suck outs on the river that to lose with a made flush doesn’t seem like a reason to complain.

But still, poker is a cruel, sick game.

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WSOP

I just got back from playing at World Series of Poker in Vegas. I spent 2 weeks there and was hoping to stay longer, but I didn’t make it into the main event. I played a number of satellites, won some, lost some, but overall didn’t get enough lammers to pay for the main event buyin.

Poker changes you. Especially if you play non-stop for 2 weeks. When you’re in the middle of a tourney, only you and your chip stack exist. Even if the world was coming to an end, as it does, according to news, every few weeks or so, if you are at the table, still alive, with you chip stack intact, nothing outside that poker room matters.

Because poker is the game of luck and skill, you can’t really discount the luck factor. Most of my all-ins I was ahead. Most of them I lost. The game was very loose, so you can have someone to stay in the pot with you with, like, A8 off and flop an 8. Happened to me several times when I was ahead with AK, AQ, AJ vs a lesser A and the guy would flop or river a 3-outer. Very frustrating.

Even when I had a monster it wasn’t good enough. In the Little One For One Drop I get QQ. An old lady goes all-in in front of me. I snap call. I had less chips than her. Flop is Q7x. We table the cards. She has pocket 77. I begin to celebrate, but then the turn brings another 7, giving her quads. I’m out.

But I had some hands that I played perfectly. There was one hand that I’m especially proud of. I have AQ off. I raise, one caller. I’m out of position. Flop is 3 hearts, I have an Ace of hearts. I check, guy bets, I call. Turn is a blank. Check, check. River is another blank, I don’t even have a pair. Check, guy thinks for a while then bets pot-size. Now I’m thinking: On the flop I remember him looking back at his cards, as if looking for a heart. So he probably was on a one card flush draw, the same way I was. He missed, just like I did. But I have an ace. Maybe my ace is good. Maybe he’s just making a move, considering the bet size. So I call and show an ace. He mucks. Everyone at the table was like: “I wouldn’t be able to make that call.”

Another hand I decided to do what they call “floating”. I get 67 of diamonds. A guy raises preflop, I call. Flop 69T, one diamond. So I have a pair, a gutshot and a backdoor flush draw, a kind of hand perfect for floating. He bets, I call. Turn is 5 of diamonds. Now I have a flush draw. He bets small, I call. River is a 4 of diamonds. He checks, I bet big. He sits there and throws guesses out there, asking me if I got there. I mean there are straights and flushes on the board. I probably did. But he doesn’t believe me and he calls. I show my flush. He had KK.

Ironically most of the big pots I won I had some kind of shitty hand, like A high, or 67. And all the good hands got crushed. Well, that’s poker.

On Playing Short Stacked.

Being short-stacked early in a tournament, due to some unfortunate hand, is mentally draining. You barely just started and you’re already at a disadvantage. An inexperienced player will get upset and will try to win his chips back, putting himself in bad situations. A table full of smart opponents will sense his tilt and will take advantage of that player’s recklessness. When I have a short stack I generally tighten up, but when everyone shows weakness, I try to gamble. More often than not it works. And what’s more defining of poker, or of any betting situation, than the notion of “more often than not”?

But early stack sizes, as I have learned, don’t really mean much. A big stack early in a tournament, achieved through some nice double up, is not a guarantee that a player makes it to a final table. As well as a short stack is not a sign of an upcoming demise. Just yesterday, a guy at my table flopped quads early on, doubled up. Another was a luckbox, completing all his draws. I couldn’t get any cards for hours. None of those early winners, however, made it to the final table. I have. Short stack sharpens your senses, forces you to heighten awareness. You don’t allow yourself to miss an opportunity. I doubled up through some loose guy at some point.

Most of the time, though, you will just be slugging away, stealing blinds, picking up small pots here and there, keeping  your head just above water. The mastery of this grind is what gets you to the final table, not an early double up. That’s how I usually get to a final table, just crawling over the doorstep with a small, battered stack. Too many times I was at 20 and even 10 big blinds at dinner break, all hyper and adrenalized and in no mood to eat, only to double or triple up at the opportune moment and end up at the final table. When blinds go up and the pots get big, your small stack becomes a weapon that everyone has to be mindful of. When I’m yet to act everyone has to figure out if I’m gonna shove or not. And if I shove, they have to figure out how much they’re prepared to spend to find out what I have.

A few days ago, I was down to about 15 big blinds and got AK – a monster hand for a short stack. Normally, it’s a no-brainer all-in. But what gave me caution this time is that I was first to act, so instead of shoving I just made a min raise. And waddaya know, someone shoves all-in after me and another one does the same. What this told me is that whatever they thought I had, they had me beat. After an action like this, the only prudent way is to lay it down, even if that leaves you with an extremely short stack. I can’t say for sure what they have, but a raise-reraise-reraise action is a bad sign for AK. Sure enough, there were KK and AA there. I would have been dead. But I lived to see another few rounds. Preserving your stack over such pitfalls is what will carry you on to still be around when the opportunity comes to double or triple up.

I died a glorious death in a similar situation about a year ago when I got QQ. Again, I raise and there are two all-ins after me. I snap call and get into, you guessed it, KK and AA. It cost me my tournament life. At the time I just thought that the motherfuckers are simply trying to get me. A chip on the shoulder and impatience (my usual scourges) is the quickest way to get killed in poker. Over the last year I worked hard on reining those in. Today, I would have laid those QQ down after an action like this. Today, I would get the message loud and clear.

I play with a short stack so often, for such long periods of time, that I kinda got used to it. While being a disciplinary tool, short stack also unties your hand in some way. It’s like fire – deadly if mishandled, powerful if managed properly. It teaches you not to be a fool when handling it. Too much of extreme action either way, whether tight or loose, and you’re dead. What a beautiful, powerful and profound game!

My Book Is Out Today.

“The American Spellbound” is available in digital and paperback on Amazon.

I wanted to write a brief summary of what this book is about, but it was difficult to nail it down, it has too many themes: the immigrant story, the hard work, the futility of hard work, the death of the American Dream, the hubris of the elites. I covered many of these themes in my blog many times. Somehow I managed to fit it all in a novella.

So it’s not a chick lit, God forbid, not a “women’s fiction” genre.

Here’s one more small passage about poker:

A poker table is a distilled Darwinian preserve. It’s a modern-day Wild West, where a hand can either strike gold or deteriorate into an OK Corral shootout. “The gunfight is in the head, not in the hands,” a gunslinger once said, and he was right. In the long run, the best mind wins, not the hands that have been dealt.

Poker awards us a luxurious clarity. It spares us from misjudging others’ intentions. Everyone at the table has the sole goal of taking our stack. This simple axiom is liberating. It invites us to check our hubris and identity at the door and focus on the game; whether we decide to accept the invitation is up to us. In realm of poker, there are no men, women, straights, gays, Republicans, Democrats, religious, atheists. It’s a free-membership club with no agenda and no tolerance for illusions, biases or morality tales — just the rules, ordained and enforced by the Poker Gods.

The rules are strict but simple: Poker asks, nay, commands all its adherents to cut the bullshit and embrace reality. It will toy with the deluded — those who have everything figured out — with the playful cruelty of a cat toying with a mouse. Bring all of your convictions and credentials, your anger and insecurities to the poker table and the Poker Gods will tease you and mock you and fill you with false hopes and send you to the ATM a few times before releasing you, broke and steaming, at 5am.

Vegas As a State of the American Mind.

“Real dope gives you the freedom to dream your own dreams; the American kind forces you to swallow the perverted dreams of men whose only ambition is to hold their job regardless of what they are bidden to do.” Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

I’ve been to Vegas a million times, always having a great time. My routine has always followed the same pattern: sleep till noon, have a breakfast in the room – eggs, bacon, mimosa – the whole shebang. Then some time by pool. Then an hour at the gym, sometimes followed by a visit to the spa and a massage. Then light dinner and poker till the wee hours of the morning. I always loved Vegas.

It’s not like we are unaware of all of the fakery and the illusion and the buffoonery of Vegas, and yet we flock to it as if looking for something. Perhaps for an adventure that we don’t have at home. We are looking, in vain, for a contrived “Hangover”-style bacchanalia. But it only works in the movies: in real life, if you want an adventure it will be staged and choreographed, because someone has to make money off of it. In Vegas your desires will be met like the whims of a petulant but doted upon child. The staff is highly trained. The flawless diction, the straight look in the eyes, the smiles, the friendliness, the knowingness. They know what you need before you do. They know what you need to stay in the facility for as long as possible. In Vegas even TSA agents are friendly. If Vegas is a mental facility, the staff is an army of Nurse Ratcheds, schooled in the art of placating the patients.

Even if you are sane and rational, Vegas will get to you. You may be fully aware of the business model and all the tricks of trade and how everything is designed to keep you in and part you from your money and yet you will still fall under a spell. Knowledge does not protect you from the charms. It’s like heroin. You know it’s bad, you’ve heard all the stories but you do it anyway. Because it feels good.

That’s the reason the place works so brilliantly – because we seek to be fooled. We want the illusions, we want to forget our daily grind. Vegas is a hit of an anti-depressant, a quick but potent sugar high.

Maybe I needed the drug because I had a condition. In my 20s, like many others, I chose the blue pill. I have receded into the numbness of the corporate culture. I became an exemplary, abiding member of the capitalist society. It’s not like I had any qualms about it: I wanted to be the square corporate type, I wanted to get up at the same time every morning and get to work, day after day, year after year, till the day of my retirement. I followed that routine for many years. This road was understandable, it didn’t require a lot of thinking, I knew how to navigate it and it promised tangible rewards. I had everything figured out. The other path would require dealing with abstractions and philosophy. I never had a great capacity to understand art and never had time to wallow in the grey areas of metaphysics anyway; I always needed someone to explain to me why a piece of art is important. Art is for the effete eggheads, I thought, for hippies who don’t know how to make money. I was thus too honest to even pretend to enjoy European vacations – a must for the busy but self-respecting corporate types, who’d also like to think of themselves as cultured. Instead, Vegas was my mental release, an honest to God unpretentious, crude fun. This is not a place to have deep thoughts, this is a place to get away from them.

Someone must have spiked my drink with a red pill when I wasn’t looking. (We have already established that I wouldn’t have taken it voluntarily). For the past year I was writing a lot. (My book will come out, hopefully, this summer.) Writing means putting your thoughts in order and to do that you have to spend a lot of time thinking. Too much thinking is bad for you. A different me landed at McCarran International airport this time around. I arrived at the circus with an atrophied ability to enjoy the show. An inner child, who enjoyed watching trained elephants perform the tricks before, was no more.

This time I found something profoundly sad about the town. Perhaps my mood was partially influenced by a poor choice of airplane reading material – Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare – especially given the destination.

On arrival, I skipped all the usual indulgencies except poker. I played like a maniac. I haven’t gone outside for 4 days – from the moment we arrived to the day of the departure. I skipped meals or ordered food at the poker table – unable to leave the table, but too malnourished to continue to play well.

Everything except poker seemed contrived.

A big real estate convention was in town and all the bars and restaurants and night clubs were overrun by men and women in suits and convention passes around their necks. If you dissect these events they are the most boring and tedious activities. The corporate parties take place at the best restaurants and nightclubs in town. You see crowds of well-dressed participants, drinks in hand, spilling out of the venues in clusters, masking their torture and conformity, stiffness and furtive despair with fake cheerfulness. They are in Vegas after all! “We went to a party at a nightclub last night,” you would hear someone say. It only sounds like it was fun, but if you think about it what do you think they did there? Do you think they had hookers and cocaine in there? Please! They spend the whole time elbowing their way to the bar through the thick crowds of similar dealmakers, trying to outshout everyone. One can’t have a normal conversation at those parties. It’s too loud and too crowded. Free drinks and hors d’oeuvres are the only things I used to enjoy when I went to those events back in the day. But there’s no there there. Even if you want to talk business, it’s impossible to discuss anything in depth. So you end up just drinking and bullshitting. Corporate parties are an excruciating waste of time and energy. The attendees would be better off by just booking a hooker to a room and doing blow discreetly in the solitude of the bathroom. The best fun does not require crowds and nightclubs. But I doubt they do that though. How will everyone know they had a good time then? You have to be seen having a good time, so everyone goes to a nightclub party and pretends. I found myself feeling sorry for them.

In fact, sorrow was an overwhelming emotion this time around. Pity – for both the customers and the providers. Who knows what the concierge – smiling and polished and all-knowing – had to forgo to get a job serving the likes of me. What if she had an engineering degree but had to take a service job to pay her bills? How did they all end up there? And the customers – seeking deliverance, only to have their search being rerouted, profitably, into the circus tent by the skilled professionals. And the Sheldon Adelsons and the Steve Wynns, like an eye in the sky, are watching us all.

We are all customers now, not citizens. Citizenship has been diluted to the point of irrelevance and replaced with all-consuming stupor. Vegas doesn’t want you to be a citizen. Citizens think and thinking is bad for business. Being a citizen means putting aside self-interest for the sake of community, but we’ve been conditioned for too long that self-interest will miraculously translate into a societal good. No one has actually explained how, Ayn Rand’s delirious attempts notwithstanding, but everyone believes that.

“Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.”

Indeed. We are all one big Vegas now.

Borgata Poker Open Ladies Event.

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In the last 2 weeks I played in 3 poker tourneys. In two of them I finished right on “the bubble” – a poker term that can be described as “close but no cigar”.

To finish on the bubble is the most frustrating element of poker tournaments. You feel like a guy who keeps going on dates but never gets invited upstairs after a date. You spend all this time working hard on a project and then, as you come within a grasp of a win, it slips away. If you busted midway, at least you didn’t have to spend 12-13 hours grinding at the poker table.

I busted out of two tournaments in this manner. But, in the third one, the Borgata Poker Open Ladies event, I finally broke the spell and finished in the money. This is me after playing for 14 hours.

Here’s full reporting from last night’s game, with pictures, stack sizes and hands.

And here’s one of the hands that carried me through.