Monday, June 9, 2014

Odd stuff in poker and elsewhere

First, if you read this blog regularly you know that I have really been trying to get into the habit of posting at least weekly. In fact, I created a penalty for myself - anyone who catches me going more than a week gets to donate $100 of my money to the charity of their choice. This worked for quite a few months, and then the run-up to the World Series of Poker started. This has cost me $300 so far, and since it's likely to get worse as the WSOP goes on, I'm temporarily calling off the $100 penalty, so as not to have to go on food stamps before the summer ends.

As a further excuse for this past two weeks, I have played in 4 WSOP events - the Casino Emloyees $500 event, a $1,500 NLHE, the $1,500 Pot Limit Hold 'em and the Seniors event. The first two were a complete bust - I didn't make it to the dinner break in either. I felt only a tiny bit better about the $1,500 NLHE event because I had nearly freerolled into it - I won a seat on

After that event, I had no intention of playing anything else other than the Seniors event, which I think is the best value at the WSOP if you're 50+. But then I won ANOTHER seat on into my very favorite game, Pot Limit Hold 'em. And not only did I go deep, but I made my first final table ever at the WSOP. I finished 6th for just under $29,000, which is good in any case but terrific for a $63 investment. The final table was the most fun I've ever had playing poker - if you watched the video stream, you probably noticed that I had my hand over my mouth most of the time. That was to hide the giant grin that was there throughout. I even had a terrific surprise - in addition to the 30 or so people railing me from the grandstands, Sharon surprised me and showed up, even though she had told me the night before that she wasn't coming (which was actually my suggestion). 

Less than 24 hours after that final table, I started the Seniors event. I went deep there, as well, finishing 160th for just under $3,000. I should have gone deeper, but that will wait for another day. My friend Dennis Phillips went VERY deep, finishing 5th for $154,000. And a very old friend from my Hollywood Park days, David Tran, also made the final table, finishing just behind Dennis in 6th. David and I were at the same table for most of Day 1, and I came very close to busting him, so I feel like I had some part in his outstanding finish - I way underbet a full house on the river, underestimating the strength of his hand. I had TT on a T5232 board, and it turned out that he had KK. My river bet was about 1/3 of the pot, and he later told me that he would have called off his whole stack.

And now on to the promised poker/gambling weirdness discussion.

Commerce Casino, February 2004
The poker boom was in full swing by the time the Commerce Casino's annual LA Poker Classic started in early February 2004. Two things were obvious at this point - (1) poker was huge and about to be much bigger, and (2) celebrities had discovered poker. 

On a typical day at the Commerce, the Bicycle Club, Hollywood Park and the Hustler, it wasn't unusual to see Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, Norm Macdonald, Sam Simon (co-creator of "The Simpsons"), James Woods and a host of other celebs playing anywhere between very small and very big stakes. On this particular day, I was on the board waiting for a $5-10 No Limit Hold 'em game when they started a must-move game (a 'feeder' game for the established games - if they call you for the established game, you're forced to move). The game started short-handed - there were five of us, including Tobey Maguire.

I had played with Tobey before, and found him particularly thoughtful and conservative, given that the total amount of money on the table in this game was roughly 0.005% of his paycheck for his last movie. We had been playing for about 30 minutes when the following hand came up.

I was in the big blind, and Tobey was to my immediate left. He raised, everyone else folded and I looked down to find a hand nicknamed "presto" - pocket fives. I called and the flop came down just as I had hoped - Q85. I checked, he bet and I called. I checked the turn, hoping to get a check-raise in, and fortunately for me, he bet again. I put in a medium-sized raise, the same size raise I would make in any case (real hand or bluff). 

At this point, Tobey went into the tank for a very long time, so long that he apologized to the rest of the table for taking so long. I realized at this point that he had a real hand, either AA or KK, and was trying to work out whether i had flopped a set on him. After what had to be three or four minutes, eons at the poker table, he flipped up AA, folded and tapped the table (poker players' way of saying "nice hand").

Just to be clear here, the amount of my raise was something like $500, an amount of money that he might have set on fire without remembering he had done so. I was surprised and impressed.

Epilogue: Two years later, I formally met Tobey when Nolan Dalla and I were attempting to negotiate a deal to get him on Team PokerStars. After Nolan introduced us, he looked at me for a bit and said, "I know you. We've played together." I nodded, and mentioned that he had folded AA face up when I check-raised him.

His response: "I remember. You flopped a set on me."

MGM Grand, June 2006
The 2006 World Series of Poker was among the most surreal and absurd experiences of my life. The poker boom had gripped the US to the point where you couldn't really go anywhere without seeing it. The 7-11 around the corner from my house had an entire display dedicated just to chips and cards. My gas station sold WSOP shirts. And the World Poker Tour was everywhere.

We decided to be even more aggressive at PokerStars to make sure we had a stranglehold on WSOP entries. We had lost a bidding war for the WSOP felt to PartyPoker (another story), and needed our presence at the WSOP to be wide and deep. And it was - by the time the first hand was dealt, we had over 1,600 players in the event, about 18% of the field (see The Girl With the $16,000,000 Purse and other posts here for more details). 

All of this was managed by Sharon and a team of friends and family she brought to Las Vegas. The key people were Sharon's sister Marie, plus Shaena and Steve, two friends of ours who lived with us for the summer to help manage the massive amount of money and swag. Everyone was working 16-18 hours a day, and by the time early July rolled around, we all needed a break. Sharon suggested dinner and gambling somewhere away from the Rio, and we ended up at the MGM Grand.

I'm not sure exactly how we decided what to play, but we ended up at a Let It Ride table. By the time we got there, we were all pretty toasted, making lots of noise and generally disturbing the peace of everyone around us. I was playing much bigger at this game than I usually did - $25 a spot. 

Short explanation if you don't already know the game - the object of the game is to make at least a pair of tens. You aren't competing against the house or other players - if you make at least a pair of tens, you win. But if you make something bigger, you win more - up to a royal flush, which can pay as much as $100,000 when you're playing $25 a spot. You start with three cards, and have the option of removing one of your three $25 bets if you don't like your hand. The dealer exposes a card, then you can remove one more $25 bet if you want. The last $25 bet always stays.

On this hand, I started with a terrific hand for this game - TJQ, all diamonds. This is a perfect hand to 'let it ride' - that is, not to remove the first $25 bet. I did. The dealer then exposed the stunningly beautiful King of diamonds.

Summary: I now have a 1 in 48 chance to win about $100,000. The three $25 bets pay 1,000:1 for a royal flush, plus a bonus bet and a few other payoffs. But in addition, I also have a 1 in 48 chance to hit the 9 of diamonds for a straight flush (200:1 payoff), a 7 in 48 chance to make a flush (8:1 payoff), a 6 in 48 chance to make a straight (5:1) and a 12 in 48 chance to make a pair for even money. Total: 27 of the remaining 48 cards pay me something.

The dealer, who was a lot of fun and had been playing along with our obnoxious behavior, decided to have some fun himself. Instead of turning up the last card, he slipped the cut card under it and then turned it over, so the cut card completely obscured the final card. He then pulled it down ever so slowly. At first, I saw a red, pointy-tipped card - there are only 4 cards in the deck that look like that (red 4s and red Aces). As he pulled it down a little further, we all realized it was a red Ace.

Now there was some real excitement at the table. The last card could only be either the Ace of hearts (paying a paltry 5:1 plus a few bonuses, or around $600 total) or the Ace of diamonds, the monster card that would net me nearly $100,000. The dealer called a floorman over to watch - since he had done something that was not quite by the book, he didn't want to have the hand disqualified. He told the floorman what had happened and the floorman nodded, so all appeared to be OK.

The dealer then started slipping the cut card sideways. If you're a poker player, you know that you can distinguish a heart from a diamond with only a tiny speck of the card exposed - if there's a point, it's a diamond. He squeezed a millimeter at a time. No point. Another millimeter, still nothing. Finally, he exposed enough of the card that we could all see that it was, alas, the Ace of hearts and not diamonds. By this time a crowd had formed (this whole thing took quite a while), and everyone sighed their disappointment.

But the story's not over. The dealer then said, "Let's see where it was," and turned over and spread the deck. After a minute of looking, we all realized the same thing - there was no Ace of diamonds in the deck.

We all just sat there, looking, sure we had missed it. Finally I realized what had happened, and pointed to the discard tray. The game is dealt with a shuffler, which deals three cards at a time. But the game calls for only two cards to be dealt to the board, so the dealer discards one of them. The three cards in the board hand were A of hearts, A of diamonds and K of diamonds. It was that close.

The result was far from what we wanted, but it created a lasting moment of excitement.


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