November 25, 2003

Back to Jersey so soon? The 2003 Showdown at the Sands Million Dollar Deal

Party suite

The Sands Atlantic City scheduled a guaranteed million-dollar no-limit Hold 'Em tournament to be televised on Thanksgiving Day on Fox Sports Network so I booked the US Airways nonstop back to Philly, the closest place to Atlantic City you could get to from Seattle without changing planes. Shortstack got up before the chickens to drive me to Sea-Tac airport in time for my 6:30 a.m.flight. US had recently banned my friend Jeffrey and confiscated his frequent-flyer miles after he wrote a column critical of them so let me just say that of all the airlines that charge $3112 for a First Class ticket but serve drinks in plastic cups, have no audio entertainment, show children's movies, and completely ignore the First Class passengers for three hours after the meal service, they are one of the best.


We landed in Philly almost an hour late due to de-icing in frosty Seattle but I found my mid-size Hertz car had been upgraded to a nice Toyota Camry with Georgia plates. I set the Neverlost for Bally's Park Place and after my traditional missing of the turn for the Walt Whitman Bridge and a bit of traffic getting to the Atlantic City Expressway I sailed easily into America's Favorite Playground. The Neverlost actually found Bally's, making it the first Atlantic City hotel it had ever located for me. I valet-parked it, found the VIP check-in, and the butler escorted me to my suite in the Towers. It was quite the party room with mirrors everywhere, a nice view of the ocean, a separate bedroom suite and a sitting room off the living room. The main room had its own large bathroom with a shower, double sink, and Jacuzzi by a picture window. The refrigerator was stocked with Pepsi products. I mentioned to the butler that I preferred Diet Coke and he went down and brought back a six-pack. I didn't know how much to tip a butler so I gave him $10. He took it without a smile or a word and I didn't see him the rest of the trip so it might not have been enough.


Andy Bloch had invited my to a VIP dinner with Carl Icahn, owner of the Sands next door, so I changed into my VIP outfit and crossed the skybridge to meet him there. Phil Gordon and Rafe Furst were there so I said hi and good luck. Andy introduced me to the dapper Paul Phillips, a former computer programmer like me and the second-place finisher at this year's first World Poker Tour event at the Bicycle Club in California. We had a lively conversation until we were escorted into the Italian restaurant for an excellent dinner and a speech by Carl Icahn. He told us about how he got a bargain on the latest two casinos he purchased in Las Vegas and we told him we wanted to play poker against him. "I bet you would," he said, no dummy, "but unfortunately they won't let me enter." Fox sports got some footage of me pretending to laugh and gesture at his jokes so I thought maybe I'd make the broadcast.


The tournament started early the next day so I got a good night's sleep in the party suite.


Sick, sick, sick

Turnout for the televised tourney was pretty good and because of the rush of last-minute registrants we started almost an hour late with 197 people each putting up $10,000 for the prize pool plus $200 for the house. Many had qualified via smaller buy-in satellite tournaments, which was great for them because it gave them a shot at the big prize and also great for the expert players because it filled the room with people they had an advantage over. An advantage, however, was not the same as certain victory, as Chris Moneymaker's much-heralded victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker proved.


I got assigned a table in the corner with no one I recognized and three empty seats. Empty seats usually meant pros and sure enough, Mike "the Mouth" Matusow, an aggressive Vegas poker professional, sat down across the long table from me. Two seats were left and soon the one next to Mike was filled by Surindar Sunar, a seasoned tournament player whom everyone referred to as "Surrender." We got underway with the last chair empty. The walls were dark and reflected little light so where I was sitting, back to the wall, I had a great deal of difficulty seeing my hole cards as I guarded them with my hands and turned up the corners. I raised the first pot with what I thought was a Pair of Aces. Everybody folded and I looked one more time before tossing my cards to the dealer. It turned out I had Ace-Four! That could have been a problem.


That last seat was still empty. Since the Phil Hellmuth, Jr., jinx had been broken at Foxwoods I only laughingly told Mike the Mouth that the last seat was probably Phil.


It was.


Phil and I didn't play too many pots together but he went back to referring to me in the third person as he criticized the way I looked at my hole cards. I lost half my stack when I flopped a set of Fours to a dangerous board of Six-Five-Four, two Spades. I bet the pot, 500, and got called heads-up by the Gary, the player to my left. The turn brought a Three.  I wanted to make a bet big enough to make Gary fold his draw but there was a chance  he had already made a Straight and I'd be drawing to 10 outs (one Four to make Quads and three ways each to pair the remaining cards on the board to make a Full House). I ended up betting the pot again, 1500 and once again he called. The Ace of Spades came on the River. I probably shouldn't have paid him off when he bet 3500 more after making his Flush but I hated the thought of getting bluffed out with a Set. He turned over King-Six of Spades and I felt sick. "That's a good hand," I said, tossing my cards in the muck.


Mike the Mouth expertly demolished the player two seats to his left and another top pro, Young Phan, came to take his place just in time for me to play the worst hand of my tournament career to date.  I looked at my cards and saw two Nines. I looked carefully because it was dark and I was pretty sure they were Nines so I said, "Raise," and put in 700 chips. Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed that Young Phan had already raised in second position. Since he had raised the 200-chip blind 400 to make it 600 and I had put in 700, the rule was that since I had made a verbal declaration I was committed to a raise and since I had put in less than the minimum raise my raise had to be 400 to make it 1000. So I put in 1000 and Young called. Now here I was reraising the tightest player on the circuit under the gun with Nines but not knowing it was a reraise. All I could hope for was that he was confused. The Flop came Ace-Seven-Trey, all Diamonds. I felt sick again. I looked at my cards and I couldn't tell if one of them was a Diamond because it was too dark. I didn't think so. Anyway, I figured he most likely had AA, KK, or AK, AK being the most probable. He checked and I decided to bet 1500 into the pot to try to win it. He called. I figured at that point he had the King of Diamonds and an Ace. The Turn was a blank and I checked, giving up on the hand. He put me all in and I folded, having thrown away half my remaining stack on a hand I should have folded pre-flop.


The rest of it was gone soon enough. I called Mike the Mouth with my last 975 chips with Ace-Eight offsuit. He turned over a Pair of Jacks and no Ace came in five cards so I was out of the contest. I wished Mike good luck with my chips. Phil Hellmuth, Jr., still didn't know my name although I had introduced myself three times and we had played together for 30 hours or so, but I wished him good luck too.


I hung around Atlantic City for another day and a half but flew back early as the final nine were playing under the TV lights. Poker was getting very exciting -- especially if you were good enough or lucky enough to make the final table. I was working on one and hoping for the other in the near future.


The tournament is scheduled to air Thanksgiving Day in six one-hour segments back-to-back on Fox Sports. In most locations it will commence at 12:30 local time but check your local listings.


November 18, 2003

Who’s Your Little Pequot? The 2003 Foxwoods World Poker Finals

A Seattle Yankee in Chief Pequot’s Court

Next stop on the World Poker Tour was in Connecticut so Shortstack and I took the morning flight to Boston on Alaska Airlines. We got seats 1D and F and waited while two separate mechanical problems caused a 90-minute delay. The flight attendant broke from Alaska’s no-preflight-drink policy and broke out the coffee while we waited interminably on the ramp. Finally we took off into the crisp Seattle air for points east. First Class customers got breakfast, a small fruit plate followed by a choice of apple crepe or omelet. We both took the lower-carb omelet but it turned out to be laced with tortilla strips so Shortstack, who is on a diet but doesn’t need to be, picked hers out while I, who ought to be but am not, ate mine. After breakfast they passed out the new solid-state digEplayer movie viewers, which had a choice of 10 movies, several sitcoms, and various informational slides. I chose The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a historical fantasy thriller starring Sean Connery, but quickly fired up Lionfish and started playing games while I listened to the movie’s sound effects in my Bose noise-canceling headset. Shortstack watched Down with Love, which I had already seen and liked. The flight attendant’s initiative seemed to end with the preflight drinks and she sat and read for most of the flight until it was time to pass out a small cheese plate before landing. We landed the same 90 minutes late we took off in Boston, my home town.


The Hertz bus was waiting for us and took us to the Lincoln LS we had rented. It was a bit small for my taste but not a bad car although I preferred the Volvo S80 they rented for the same price. We set the Neverlost for Foxwoods but just to be sure I asked the guard at the car-lot exit for directions. I had forgotten never to ask a New Englander for directions because we are incapable of saying the words “I don’t know.” First he said, “Oh shuwah, Foxwoods, right. That’s in Connecticut. Whatta ya gonna do, take the Mass Pike oah whut? Hey Al!” He ducked inside the booth and had a short discussion. “Whatta ya gonna do, take 93 oah whut?” I said I was hoping he’d tell us. We decided to trust the Neverlost, which apparently didn’t know how to get us out of the Hertz lot but once we were in the Sumner Tunnel we were fine. With the flight delay we had missed rush-hour traffic and 90 minutes and two States later we saw the gleaming castle rising up out of the Connecticut countryside. We headed for the Grand Pequot Tower. “Who’s your little Pequot?” Shortstack sang to me. The valet took the Lincoln and we checked in at the very nice VIP reception area. The receptionist had a bowl of rocks on her desk. All the other desks had bowls of candy. I leapt to a conclusion. “Are those rocks candy?” I asked. “Yeah.” “You mean you can eat them?” “Yeah.” I picked one up. It sure felt like a rock. “So this rock is candy?” I asked. “Yeah.” “Can I eat one?” “Theyah for our customahs,” she said with a shrug. I still didn’t feel invited but I picked out a nice flat spotted one and popped it into my mouth, being careful not to break any teeth. It turned out to be candy-covered chocolate. Things were not what they seemed here at the reservation. We got our room keys and asked her to make a dinner reservation for us at the steakhouse on the reservation.


They had put us in a nice corner suite so we unpacked and headed down for dinner. The service and décor at the Cedars steakhouse were unremarkable but we had a nice Caesar salad, a very good filet mignon, and a brilliant Tanqueray Ten martini. We signed the bill, under $100, to the room, intending to use Wampum to pay later. Here in the land of the Pequot you earned Wampum from your casino play. We planned to earn heap big Wampum, especially if I got knocked out of the tournament early.


I bought in for the big event tomorrow, $10,000 of hard-earned cash plus a $200 entry fee, and we gambled a little before bed. When we returned to the room we found an enormous gift basket, a cheese plate, crackers, two bottles of wine, and one of those seafood platters on ice that they charge $89 for in a steakhouse. I ate a lobster claw and Shortstack put the rest of the crab and lobster in the fridge so it wouldn’t go bad in case the ice melted overnight.


The big event

The tournament started at noon so we had time to gamble a little and get breakfast in the Veranda Café before it started. I had drawn table one, right by the front door. When I got there no one I recognized was seated but there were two empty seats. The first was taken by no one I recognized and when the tournament started with seat five empty I could only assume it was for my constant companion Phil Hellmuth, Jr. Imagine my surprise, then, when the late arrival was not a tall young Californian but a short Asian man from Houston, Texas: Johnny Chan, winner of back-to-back World Championships and immortalized in the movie Rounders as the world’s greatest poker player.


Most of the players at the table, including me, were pretty conservative, but there was an older fellow in seat two who was playing just about every pot, winning lots of small ones and losing the big ones. I desperately wanted to get into a pot with him and make a hand. When I limped in on the button with Jack-Ten of hearts (Vince Van Patten’s favorite hand) he checked his blind and the flop came Seven-Seven-King, two Hearts. He checked and I checked for the free card. A Heart came on the turn. He bet 200 and I raised 500. He called. I didn’t know what to put him on since he pretty much stayed in any pot unless the bet was too big. I thought it unlikely he had a higher flush but there was always the possibility he had a Full House. The River was a blank and he checked again. I thought I had him beat so I bet the most I thought he would call, 1000. He called. “I have a Flush,” I said, and humbly showed my hand. He turned over a 7 for trips and grumbled about how he kept getting into trouble slow-playing. I wished I had bet more. He probably would have called any amount with that hand.


I lost about a quarter of my stack overplaying an Ace-Queen when the board showed an Ace but my opponent flopped a Set of Fours. An Ace came on the River and I thought I was either a moron for calling his reraise on the flop or lucky not to have lost more—-probably both. My inexperience showed. I won a bunch back with a strong raise on the river with a weak Ace against the player to my right in seat eight, a scar-faced black man wearing a huge jewel-encrusted gold pendant, three enormous gold and diamond rings, a mink coat and matching mink baseball cap—the style of clothing sometimes described as “pimped out.” He won it back and more, though, when I foolishly bluffed all in with a Pair of Nines on a flop of Q-7-3 when he was holding Q-7. No way he would lay that down and I was now down to 6600.


Johnny Chan had hardly played a hand all this time. “Johnny,” I said, “I can see your discipline and experience working as you play very conservatively in the early rounds, looking for your opportunity to make a move.” “Nah, I’m just sleepy,” he said.


The table broke and I got moved to table 19. Still no Phil Hellmuth, Jr., but champion pro Kathy Liebert was there and the mustachioed guy to my left had a world o’ chips. The blinds were still low so I didn’t panic but I knew I needed to get some chips pretty soon. Playing with Phil Hellmuth, Jr., had taught me a good way to get chips: wait until one of the loose-aggressive players such as Phil tried to steal my blind and then reraise him. Kathy wasn’t quite as loose as Phil but she did raise more often that she was likely to get good hands so when I found myself with any decent hand I reraised her and she folded.  She didn’t seem too happy that I had discovered this tactic and she tried several Hellmuth-style conversational ploys in an effort, I supposed, to throw me off my game. Little did she know that I hadn’t much of a game to throw off. In any case, 10 years as a high-school baseball umpire and basketball referee had inured me to most taunts. Finally she pouted. It was an excellent pout and I told her so. We reached an uneasy truce and she started stealing someone else’s blinds.


Alex, a young Russian, sat down to my right and immediately started raising most pots, Hellmuth-style. When finally the table folded around to him on the small blind and he merely called I knew he either had something like Seven-Deuce offsuit or a pair of Aces because with any reasonable hand he would have tried to steal my blind. I had King-Eight offsuit so I just checked. The flop came Nine-Eight-Eight, giving me trips. Alex made a small bet and I made a small raise, thinking he would think I was thinking he was trying to steal and I was trying to re-steal. He called. The turn was a blank and Alex put me all in. “I call,” I said instantly. “Det’s not what I wanted to khear,” he said in his Teddy KGB accent. I showed him my K-8 and he turned over a Nine-Deuce of Spades. He needed one of two Nines on the river. They didn’t come and all of a sudden I had 24,000 chips.


Seat nine got knocked out and Johnny Chan popped back in to take his place. We still didn’t play a pot together, which was fine with me.  What wasn’t fine was that I got no decent hands for about two hours. I didn’t try to steal, which was probably a mistake because when I finally got Ace-King in late position the blinds immediately folded. You respect a guy who plays one hand in two hours. But I had lost half my stack to the blinds and antes and by the end of the day was down to 12,200. Johnny was in worse shape, though: on the last hand he doubled up the guy to my left, who had been slow-playing a Pair of Aces, and finished with only 8500. It was 12:30 a.m. and we went to bed.

75 left


We had breakfast in one of the many VIP lounges scattered throughout Foxwoods. The spread in these lounges surpassed anything in Vegas for variety although perhaps not quality. They were essentially a full buffet with open bar and one location even had omelets made to order.


I had drawn the seat next to Chris “Jesus” Ferguson to start day two. He was the only big name at the table and I was the shortest stack although there were three others with only a little more than me. Blinds had been raised to 600/1200 with a 200 ante so my 12,200 would only last a bit over three rounds. The button started at my seat so I would get a full round before I had to pay the blind. On the second hand the kid under the gun went all in. Everybody folded to Mike, a big guy wearing the style of goatee now referred to as “the Moneymaker,” who looked up in surprise and said, “I call!” he flipped over a Pair of Kings and the guy making the move with two Sixes was soon walking back to Houston. Two hands later it was folded to me. I saw Ace-Eight offsuit and I thought I’d go for a steal so I raised it to 4000. It folded around to Big Mike and he reraised me all in. I thought for a good two minutes. Was he using his image from his last win to re-steal from me? Did he figure I was weak and was reraising me with a weak Ace, in which case I was a big favorite, or a low pair, in which case I was almost even? If he had another big pair or a high Ace I was a dog, but not unbearably so. Ultimately I figured if I folded I was in pretty sad shape so I called and watched with dismay as he turned over Ace-King. After four minutes of day two I was out of the contest in 72nd place out of 313. It was my best finish so far in the World Poker Tour and a steady improvement. I stuck my head in a bucket of ice water for an hour or so and thought about how I could play better.


When I recovered we had an excellent dinner at Fox Harbor, the seafood-and-steak restaurant in the Grand Pequot Tower. Shortstack had her favorite Bouillabaisse while I had a filet mignon. Appetizers were yummy, a smoked-seafood platter for Shortstack and a pot of clams and mussels for me. We got the 1999 Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullinger estate Cabernet, one of the most exciting of the new mid-priced California single-vineyard cabs. We signed it to the room.


Sunday off

Since last year it had taken until 8 a.m. Sunday morning to play down to the final six, Foxwoods had scheduled a day off on Sunday with the final table to be played at noon Monday. We took it easy, chowing down periodically on the great spreads at the many VIP lounges scattered throughout Foxwoods. We had dinner with Rafe “Tiltboy” Furst and last year’s Aruba WPT pro-division champ Phil Gordon at Paragon, a world-class gourmet room perched atop the Grand Pequot Tower. They were all out of roast Pequot so Shortstack and I shared an excellent Caesar salad and chateaubriand for two. Phil told us the exciting news that he would be co-hosting Celebrity Poker Showdown, a new poker show Tuesday nights on the Bravo cable channel and we promised to watch. We ordered the Nickel & Nickel Sullinger again and the waitress was nice enough to run down to Fox Harbor to find a bottle of ’99. Andy Bloch joined us for dessert, which as a rule I don’t eat but they had a frozen espresso soufflé so I ordered just one. Phil wanted to play roshambo for the bill but I wasn’t about to get suckered into a match with these world-class players so I just offered to pay the bill if they got the tip. I figured there was a 50-50 chance the casino would pick it up and that was better than my chance of beating those guys at roshambo.


I don’t know, Alaska

I wanted to look for Shana because in Aruba we had kind of said we’d see each other here but Shortstack wanted to get an early start so we powwowed with the casino hosts over the wampum needed to pay our bill and checked out. We set the Neverlost on the Lincoln for the Chestnut Hill Mall just outside of Boston so Shortstack could visit Bloomingdale’s while I found a Starbucks and used the T/Mobile hotspot to connect to the Internet. We had our traditional lunch at Legal Sea Foods—I tried the fabulous lobster roll while Shortstack had Cajun-style salmon—and allowed an hour for the rush-hour drive to the airport but what with the Ted Williams Tunnel and all it only took 20 minutes. Once again the Neverlost couldn’t navigate to the Hertz lot but we followed the signs and zipped in no problem.  We used the kiosk to check in at Alaska and used the far security checkpoint because the close one had no First Class line. One pleasant and one unpleasant woman let us into the US Airways club with our Alaska Board Room card and we used the low-speed dialup and munched on the party mix while waiting for the 5:00 delivery of plastic-wrapped cheese bites.


The 737-700 may have been the same airplane as the one that got us here and we had the same seats, 1D and F, and the same flight attendant who seemed more interested in reading the National Enquirer than refilling our glasses during the six-and-a-half-hour flight. The digEplayers had the same program as before so this time we watched the remake of Solaris, like the original a murky sci-fi emotional poem only this time with George Clooney incongruously inserted as the lead, and X2, a weak contrived sequel to X-Men highlighted by Patrick Stewart and lots of cute mutant girls. We circled Seattle for a half-hour before landing, making this perhaps the longest domestic flight we’d ever taken. It was driving rain in Seattle but we got Lioncar out of hock and drove the 20 minutes home to find the windstorm had blown a dead Alder tree straight across our driveway. Fortunately it was rotten and had smashed to pieces, much like my poker game, and together we cleared the way to get in the house for a short night’s rest. Next stop: Showdown at the Sands.