September 22, 2003

The 2003 Borgata Poker Open

I couldn’t wait to check out of the Taj Mahal, which I had come to think of as the Imperial Palace East. I got a host on the phone and he took care of the room and food charges but not $8/day in taxes. For $4 (not compable) I got my Taurus out of hock and set the Neverlost to drive through Hurricane Isabel to the Trump Marina, which I knew was next to the Borgata. The Borgata was too new to be in Neverlost’s database. It got me close enough and as soon as I pulled in I kicked myself for even thinking about staying anywhere else in Atlantic City.


Borgata was a true luxury hotel. It reminded me of a cross between Bellagio and The Palms in Las Vegas. I got a minisuite on a high floor with a view of the Boardwalk three miles away and I supposed the ocean beyond it, although with the storm it all blended together into battleship gray. The bed had those sheets my wife liked where they count the threads and everything and the huge marble bathroom was big enough to rollerblade in. Best of all, I plugged my new laptop Lionfish into the RJ45 jack in the wall and—voila!—4.9 Mbit/sec Internet access. There was no payment screen so I guessed it was only free until they finished installing the billing system, but who knows?


I played a little video poker in lieu of paying cash money for the room and then went for dinner with two-time WPT finalist Andy Bloch. We had a bit of a run-in with the Maitre D’ at the Old Homestead Steakhouse when he wouldn’t let us order an appetizer at the raw bar while we waited a half-hour for a table. “Let me go over your options one more time,” he said. I decided his performance as Master of Denial conflicted with my philosophy that he’s in business to please me and not the other way around so we ended up going to the next restaurant down the line, Specchio, and had a yummy new-Italian meal.


Isabel roared through the night, spending herself against the Jersey shore and rattling windows in the brand-new high-rise.

Flushed out

There was a $500+40 warm-up tournament the day before the World Poker Tour event so I entered it and decided to try to apply what I had learned by sitting with Phil Hellmuth, Jr., for eight hours. Everything was going great until I flopped a set of nines and lost a big pot on the river to a flush draw. That reduced my stack quite a bit and then I called an all-in from a short stack to my left. I had A-Q offsuit and I was pleased to see him turn over a relatively weak hand, K-8. I was the favorite but the flop brought an 8 and I lost once again. With my meager remaining stack I got stupid and called an all-in after the flop with nothing but a pair of Aces and a weak kicker and I was out of the contest. Elapsed time: 3.5 hours.


I assuaged my misery with a nice dinner at Suilan, Susanna Foo’s Asian-French restaurant at the Borgata, accompanied by Andy Bloch once again and Annie Duke, one of the premier female players and as kind and upbeat a human being as I’d ever met. I gave her some complimentary user-interface tips for UltimateBet, the Internet poker site she consults for. Like Specchio the night before, the meal was excellent as was the service.


I rested up for the big day tomorrow.


Missing Phil Again

I got a tall nonfat—skim milk in Jersey—latte at Starbucks and went down to register for the main event, looking around for people I recognized. Other than the ones who played with me at the Taj I noticed two-time WPT winner Gustav “Gus” Hansen, poker femme fatale Jennifer Harman, and WPT announcer Mike Sexton. Sexton’s arrival spurred me to scour the room for Shana Hiatt but she was nowhere to be found and I figured she might not be in until the final day.


The tourney started a half-hour late as seemed to be the custom in New Jersey. I had an empty seat to my right with a stack of chips the dealer blinded off each time the button passed it. On the other side was Costa Rican champion Bobby Thompson. I asked if he had played in the Costa Rica WPT event last year and he said, “I was kicked out of it for getting in a fight with Phil Hellmuth.” Apparently Bobby had taken exception to some of Phil’s theatrics and started a fight. We wondered if the empty seat next to me was once again Phil’s. That might prove interesting.


We were still at the first level of blinds when I called a small raise in the big blind with 9-T of Hearts. When the board flopped 6-7-8 rainbow I concentrated on breathing. I had flopped the nut Straight. Bobby and a player to my left were in the pot. Bobby bet 1000 and I deliberated awhile and then called, slowplaying the hand. The third guy called. The turn brought an Ace. I thought this was great because one of them might have A-8 or some such. Bobby bet 2000 and we both called. The river brought another Ace. Now I was not so happy. Bobby moved all in and I knew I had to call because I couldn’t let him bluff me off the Straight. A more experienced player might have folded. Sure enough, he turned up two Sixes for a Full House. I was down to 200 in chips and was quickly out of the contest.


I made the rounds of the room and let my friends know I was going home as I wished them luck. But as I was leaving I saw Phil Hellmuth, Jr., walk in with a cup of coffee. I had to see. Sure enough, he homed in on my table—in fact, my seat. He hadn’t even sat down yet but he was already arguing. It turned out I had sat in the wrong seat and I should have had the cards Phil was dealt and folded unseen. “Phil,” I said with my best poker face, “I’m afraid that means you’ve busted out,” and I pulled out the empty chair and made as if to sit in it before we both broke into smiles. Bobby turned to me and said, “You’re a gentleman.” I thanked him. I turned to leave but then hesitated. I turned back.


“Phil?” I said. He looked at me. “Yes?” I extended my hand and he shook it. “Good luck. See you in Aruba.” I knew I would see him and I didn’t see why I wouldn’t once again be at his table, as I had been in every single tournament we had been in together.


Busting out of every tourney was nothing to write home about but it wasn’t the end of the world either. Many of the top players didn’t place, and although I probably could have played that big hand differently I was still a seven-to-two favorite to win it after the Turn—I got unlucky. Only six of the 235 entrants would make the final table so it was difficult to know whether even a long string of failures was due to bad luck or bad play. I’d give it some more time. My only regret was I didn’t last long enough to get interviewed by Shana Hiatt, who still hadn’t shown.


I went upstairs to pack and change my return flight and then called my host to have him take care of the bill. He said no problem based on my casino play—poker didn’t earn any comps though, even if you’re stuck five large. Since I had a lot of experience with casinos but no experience with him I went down to VIP checkout to verify that he had actually taken care of it. The balance was $10 and change. I asked what that was for. A tip at Specchio, she said. “I didn’t charge a tip to the room; we left cash.” She began, “All the restaurants here add on a tip—” but I didn’t let her finish. “No,” I said. “That’s not a tip. A tip is something offered freely. I was not informed of that policy, I left a generous cash tip, and I’m not paying the charge.”


She looked troubled but at this point an old mobster-type—think of Garry Marshall playing the casino manager at the Desert Inn in the movie Lost in America—stepped up and said, “I’ll take care of it.” I thanked him. “How did you enjoy your stay?” he asked. “Yours is a very lovely hotel,” I replied. “Very lovely.” He turned out to be the VP of casino operations and I was giving him some complimentary suggestions regarding the noise level in the high-limit room when a bright light to my left caught my eye. I looked over and it was one of those cheesecloth-muted camera lights along with a small crew that setting up a shoot. I could only see her back and the corona of diffused light around her honey-colored hair. I aborted the conversation with Garry in mid-sentence.


“Is that—?” I blurted out without thinking.


She turned her head towards me slowly, smoothly, her distinctive nose first coming into view, then her round face and gleaming smile. As she turned she softly flipped her hair, the ends twinkling in the camera light as if miniature bells on the ends were softly ringing. She looked right at me.


“Shana Hiatt?” I asked. Her smile shined even brighter and she took my hand as I extended it to her.


“Mommmf bmff momff fbrrt mmf maaarfff,” I said.


“Thank you,” said Shana Hiatt.


“You’re—welcome. You’re very…very welcome,” I forced out. And then I added: “See you in Aruba.”


She might have given half a wink: “You bet,” said Shana Hiatt.


I floated down the escalator toward valet pick-up, retrieved the car—Borgata happily picked up the parking tax for gamblers—and set the Neverlost for Philadelphia Airport. I called my wife, the one known as “Shortstack,” to confess my Jimmy Carter. She forgave me and we quickly healed over the rift in our relationship. I spent the hour on the Atlantic City Expressway thinking about that hand.


Hertz couldn’t figure out how to check me in so I just told them to send me a bill and if it was too high I’d let them know but if it was too low I wouldn’t trouble them. I checked in at the deserted airport and headed for the US Airways club, cleverly named the US Airways Club. I flashed my winning smile. “Got a First-Class ticket to Seattle,” I said. “Does that get me in?” Nope. “OK, well I got this American Express Centurion Card, how about that?” Nope. “OK, then I can use the pass you guys sent me.” I fished around and pulled out a pass. “This one expired in 2001,” she said, circling the expiration date. “Oh.” I fished some more. “Aha! How about this one?” Nope, that one expired in 2002. “Can’t you just cross that out and write in 2003?” It was not possible. I fished some more. “Yes! Here it is!” “This one’s expired too.” “What? But this is 2003!” I said. “It expired in February.” But under my unrelenting raising of the pot she folded. “Tell you what,” she said, “I’ll take these three for one admission.” I was in.


The club was nicely appointed but rather minimalist in its hospitality philosophy. They had no free booze, no high-speed Internet, and no food other than pretzels, apples, and party mix. I hung out for a half-hour and then went to the gate.


Flight 115 was once again an Airbus 321. This time we had preflight drink service beyond water and I took full advantage. My seat opponent was a nice lady connecting from Sweden—a long travel day! She had a little stand-alone FreeCell game she was playing. The movie was The Italian Job with Donald Sutherland, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, and Mark Wahlberg. I had seen it before so instead I whipped out Phil Hellmuth Junior’s book to see if I could come up with a way to beat him next time. The safety professional came around with a choice for dinner of shrimp scampi or chicken marsala. We both ordered the chicken but it turned out to be chicken masala, which was fine for me since I liked curry but not for my seat opponent, who switched to the shrimp.


We landed a half-hour early in Seattle but Shortstack had already looked up the flight on line and was there circling the airport in Brrrdt, the 2002 T-Bird we had won in a drawing last year. The subway from the S satellite was under construction so we all climbed down stairs onto a bus and drove to the main terminal where we climbed back up stairs and then out to baggage claim. The airport was jammed on this Saturday night but soon I saw Brrrdt’s distinctive grille and Shortstack leapt out to greet me and drive her Lion home.


September 21, 2003

Frantic City: The 2003 US Poker Championship

Taj Mahal Lanai

There were two big Travel Channel events in Atlantic City in conjunction with the Miss America pageant so I booked the nonstop to Philadelphia on US Airways. It’s possible to fly right into Atlantic City via a short hop but it takes less time to drive from Philly than to wait for a connecting flight. Flight 6 was an airbus 321 with 22 seats in First Class. Preflight service was limited to a bottle of water. After takeoff I had coffee, which was served in a Styrofoam cup alongside the other passengers’ cold drinks is plastic cups. “911,” explained the steward when I asked about the lack of mugs and glasses. Lunch was a choice of chicken salad or sliced-beef sandwich. I said I didn’t have a preference and got the sandwich. It was cold, bland, and soggy, possibly the worst meal I have ever had in First Class on any airline. The movie was the remake of The In-Laws starring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.


We landed on time in Philly and I picked up a Hertz car with Neverlost. No upgrade from the full-sized Ford Taurus I ordered was possible due to them wanting to charge me an extra $50 a day so fired up Maggie Magellan and headed out to Frantic City. Maggie was not at her best and directed me to a dark dead end alley where I witnessed a drug deal before making a U-Turn and homing in on the Trump Taj Mahal visually. I valet-parked it and rolled my luggage to the check-in line where two couples from New Jersey pushed their way ahead of me until I figured out the system. The clerk gave me the living room part of a Lanai suite with a Murphy bed because no real rooms were available. I went up and tested the bed and it was passable so I kept it. A Lanai Suite turns out to be a room on the lowest floor with an obstructed view. I thought a lanai was a patio and there was a rooftop outside my window but no way to get out on it.


I hung out in the famous Taj poker room looking for Matt Damon and Johnny Chan but eventually gave up, had a mediocre dinner in the coffee shop, and went to bed.


Miss Rhode Island

The $10,000 buy-in United Stated Poker Championship started at four so I had the day to walk up and down the Boardwalk and get the feel of Atlantic City. The weather was perfect, the calm before hurricane Isabel, scheduled to hit tomorrow. Outside the convention center I saw a TV crew interviewing Miss Rhode Island, Harvard graduate Laurie Beth Gray. She and another alumna of my alma mater were vying for the title and I silently wished them luck, realizing their chances were good since Shana Hiatt was in town for a different event and since she was married she was ineligible anyway.


I got back to the Taj in plenty of time to buy in. The Travel Channel TV crew was taping interviews with people as they bought in but they ran out of tape just as it got to me. I introduced myself to Annie Duke, whom I had met on line, and she was just as kind and gracious in person as she was on UltimateBet. I wished her luck.


Four o’clock came and went as the staff held up the start of the tournament to accommodate a flood of latecomers. The house rake for this event was a relatively reasonable 2%, although as these televised events gain in popularity I expect we will start seeing sponsors add money to the prize pool rather than have the contestants pay a percentage to the house. As it was it was still a no-budget cable production. While we waited the producers tracked me down and interviewed me. I had all my sound bites ready so I hoped I gave them some good TV.


We started 45 minutes late and I was dismayed to see I once again had drawn the table of Phil Hellmuth Jr., possibly the best tournament player in the world. He put on a clinic both with his chips and with his mouth as he steadily accumulated one of the larger stacks in the room. He was also drawing some good cards, showing pocket Jacks six times, Queens once, and Kings twice, which he hit on one occasion for Four of a Kind. Meanwhile I was putting on a clinic in folding, rarely getting anything better than 6-3 offsuit. Of course Phil played that hand and won a nice pot. To my right was Erick “E-Dog” Lindgren, one of the young up-and-comers who had won a nice-sized event at Bellagio last year. Other than Phil it was a fairly tight table and nobody busted out for quite a while.


The camera crews roamed about, covering whatever the director thought was most interesting. Other than the hole-card cams, which we were not using until it got down to the final six on day three, the most camera-worthy events were usually when one player bet all his chips, going “all in.” Dealers were instructed to yell “All in!” when this occurred so the crew could scurry around and cover the turn of the cards and possible elimination of a player. Our table was pretty conservative and we didn’t have too many all-ins but we did have some witty banter, usually between Phil Hellmuth, Jr., and someone else. A couple times when I thought the banter rose to the level of quality demanded by the Travel Channel I turned my head and yelled, “Banter-cam! Get the banter-cam!” But they were always busy with someone going all in.


Toward the end of the day I had slowly, painfully lost half my stack when I saw a pair of Queens in my hand and reraised Phil’s standard every-hand raise, which he called. The flop came 3-3-2 so I moved all in with the rest of my stack, just a bit more than what was in the pot. Phil rightly gave me respect and folded, claiming to have folded A-K but not showing them. I’m just glad he didn’t have 3-2 offsuit.


At the end of the day I had about 15,000 of the initial 20,000 in chips remaining, not a bad result considering how few decent starting hands I got all day long. 70 of 99 were left and I was still in the contest, 58th in chip position. Some of the big names had busted out, including “Action” Dan Harrington, T.J. Cloutier, and at the last minute Andy Bloch. But we all still had to beat Phil.


It was after midnight when we finished so I went for dinner in the Taj coffee shop with Andy Bloch, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Howard “Bub” (The Professor) Lederer, and Erik Seidel. The food was not great but the company was. A lady from Jersey came up to the table with a placemat and asked for all our autographs. I think she mistook me for Kevin Spacey.


After dinner I climbed into the Murphy bed and tried to get some sleep.


No Straight

Day two started a half-hour late but when it did I found myself at a nice easy table with none of the tricky big-name players. Unfortunately I continued to get no cards and when I finally bet a pair of nines, a player two to my left reraised and I called. The flop came jack high and he reraised me all my remaining chips. I hadn’t seen him play a lot of pots and I had no real reason to think he was bluffing. If he wasn’t, then pretty much anything he had would beat me. I folded.


A few minutes later I found A-Q offsuit and bet my meager stack. Everybody folded and I once again had enough chips to play 10 circuits around the table. But it wasn’t long before I found another A-Q. I shoved it in again in response to a small raise by the big stack, who I figured was just trying to steal the pot as we hadn’t seen many flops.


“All in!” shouted the dealer, and the crew from the Travel Channel came a-running, shoving the all-in cam in my face as I watched him turn over a Pair of Aces. I stood up. I needed two Queens or a Straight to beat him and they didn’t come so I was out of the contest, finishing around 60th place. I shook everybody’s hand and did a post-mortem interview with the Travel Channel. Although I didn’t get many good cards, I began to see how these champion players made their own luck. I wondered just how good I could get.


This show should air sometime between January and March 2004. Results of all major tournaments are posted rapidly at the Card Player web site.