Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Olof Thorson broke my heart, and made history

May 22, 2003
The 2003 World Series of Poker was a tense time for me, starting well before the Main Event and extending through the final hand. I had bet a considerable amount of career equity on running WSOP satellites on PokerStars, and while I won the argument it was far from a sure thing.

But one thing was pretty consistent throughout - PokerStars started with about 5% of the field and rarely fell below that number. I finally started to relax a little when the starting field of 839 winnowed down to three tables (27 players) and we still had 3 players in - we were now at 11%, but more importantly we had one of the chip leaders in a solid Swedish player named Olof Thorson. With the blinds at 4,000-8,000 I checked on Olof and our other two players (Chris Moneymaker and a British player whose name I unfortunately don't recall) and Olof had an impressive stack of around 800,000. With an average stack size of about 310,000, Olof looked to be in fine shape.

I continued to circulate around the three remaining tables, thanks once again to a press pass I probably shouldn't have had, peering over shoulders and taking the occasional photograph. And the three became two, and a few more players were eliminated (including the unfortunate and anonymous British player) and suddenly we were at 16 players. And more importantly, Olof Thorson was now the chip leader with about 1,300,000 (with an average of 520,000). The blinds had now gone to 5,000-10,000, meaning that Olof had about 130 big blinds, a huge stack this late in a tournament. And the very slow structure of the WSOP, coupled with very long rounds (two hours) meant that he was in a commanding position to make the final table.

[Note for anyone reading this who isn't a poker player - the final table of a tournament is where the lion's share of the money is awarded (in 2003, 71% of the prize money went to the final table). And it's also a badge of honor for a poker player to make the WSOP Main Event Final table - it's an elite club with only about 400 members out of the tens of thousands that have played the event. While he would never have done this, had Thorson simply left the building and never returned, he would have made the final table, and would likely have finished 6th or 7th.]

Before I go on with this story, let me get back to the career equity issue for a minute. In 2003, the WSOP was a big deal, but nothing like it would become in the subsequent few years. ESPN dedicated quite a few hours to WSOP broadcasts - I recall that they did about 10 hours of Main Event coverage (feel free to correct me, fact checkers!) - but in later years that coverage would drastically expand, making the WSOP ubiquitous for at least three months following the event. I was betting this career equity on PokerStars getting enough exposure on the WSOP broadcast to justify the $370,000 we took out of its poker community to send 37 players to the Main Event. I considered the possibility of our having a champion only in passing - it wasn't exactly like winning the lottery, but it was a huge long shot.

Now, nothing is certain in no limit poker tournaments - unless you're the chip leader, you can be out on the next hand. But since our guy was the chip leader, I thought I was justified in doing what I did next: I went up the street to the Golden Gate Casino to grab a $0.99 shrimp cocktail. It was late afternoon at that point, and I had suddenly realized that, other than coffee, I hadn't eaten at all that day. It took me about three minutes to walk there, maybe two to get the shrimp cocktail (they were, and are, famous for these, although they're $2.99 now), five to eat and three to walk back. Thirteen minutes - OK, let's call it fifteen.

I walked back in through the side entrance of Binion's and was about to get on the escalator up to the WSOP venue when a reporter from the Baltimore Sun stopped me. 

"Hey, what happened with your guy Thorson?" he asked.

I stopped for a minute, not sure how to answer. "I went to get something to eat. When I left, he was the chip leader. Something changed?"

Silence for a few beats, then, "Yeah, something changed. He's out."

There was no fucking way this could have happened. Nonetheless, I bolted up the escalator just in time to see Olof walking out of Benny's Bullpen, running his hand over his face over and over. It didn't seem like a good time to stop and ask him what had happened.

I found Nolan Dalla, who gave me the short version - Olof got involved in back-to-back hands, one with Amir Vahedi (a guy I used to play $10 tournaments with at Hollywood Park) and one with Sammy Farha (who would go on to a heads up battle with Chris Moneymaker). And he was indeed out.

Since I didn't witness the hands, I'll only give a brief recap - the hands in question are available on YouTube. In the first hand, Vahedi raised with Qd 8d and Olof reraised with Ad Ks. Vahedi called. The flop came all small cards with two diamonds. Olof bet and Vahedi moved all in. Olof had started the hand with just over a million in chips, Vahedi with about 600,000. Olof had absolutely nothing, but believed that Vahedi had a worse nothing. After a lot of thought, he finally called. Given the hands, the two were mathematically almost exactly tied, with Olof a tiny 50.8% favorite. The turn card was harmless, but the river card was an 8, giving Vahedi a pair and the chip lead.

The very next hand, Olof picked up Ks Kd and raised, getting only one caller, Sammy Farha, with Ac Jh. The flop came with an ace, but Olof, obviously still steaming from the prior hand, made an absurd overbet of almost 400,000 into a pot containing about 100,000. Farha instantly called, and in two hands Olof went from an almost-guaranteed final table appearance to the rail.

I couldn't believe how unlucky I had been. Here was an otherwise great player, who had shorted out within sight of the big prize (for all of us) and killed our one real chance. I didn't take time then to feel bad for him - I felt bad for myself and for PokerStars. Selfish? Yup. Hey, that was my career equity he had just flushed. He could go find someone else to feel sorry for him.

There's no way to tell what would have happened had Thorson won either of those hands, or had folded the hand against Vahedi (which, of course, would have changed everything that followed, thanks to the butterfly effect). But it's pretty likely that the subsequent events (which I'll get to in my next post) would have played out very differently.

Olof, in a way you never wanted, you made history, and affected poker in a way no one could have anticipated. Chris: you really should send him a thank you note.

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