January 31, 2004

Put on your tunic-a, we're going to Tunica: the 2004 World Poker Open Championship

I went to the airport and a poker game broke out

The waiting area by Miami International Airport's gate G11 looked like the Poker Hall of Fame. The 4 p.m. Northwest Airlines nonstop to Memphis was the only direct flight from the PokerStars cruise to the World Poker Open Championship the next day so most of the big shooters were on it: besides Andy Bloch and me there were Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer, Daniel Negreanu, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, Paul Phillips, Gus Hansen, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, and many more. The World Poker Tour crew then arrived along with Shana Hiatt and Vince Van Patten. Daniel's girlfriend offered to take my April 1995 Playboy up to Shana to get it signed but I didn't feel right about it so I declined her kind offer and waited for just the right moment. The flight was uneventful and all we got in First Class were bags of pretzels and almonds. In coach they got nothing because some kid had a peanut allergy. We landed on time in Memphis and my priority-tagged luggage came off toward the end.


The caravan of limos and rental cars made the quick drive across the border in good time and I added both Mississippi and Tennessee to my list of States visited. I was pretty sure we were near Arkansas too so if I had time I could drive across the border just to say I did. I checked into a gorgeous suite at the Sheraton complete with a Jacuzzi in the bedroom and a wet bar and pool table in the living room. I went over to the tournament area at the Gold Strike and found Andy and Annie Duke along with Omaha expert Robert Williamson and his girlfriend Angela. We all went over to the Horseshoe, joined by poker expert Bobby Hoff, and had one of the best Chinese meals I'd ever had at Yasmin. I ordered the Triple Delight but Andy trumped me with the Family of Eight. Since we were at Yasmin, Annie ordered the Orange Bleeth. We washed it down with the 1998 Robert Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.


After dinner I found Jim "KrazyKanuck" Worth, who had been there for a couple weeks already and just missed cashing in several tourneys. I bought in for the main event and then went back to the Sheraton to rest up for the big day.

Playing to Nguyen

I drew table 19 to start the event, a record number of entrants for a $10,000 buy-in WPT event at 367 and a record prize pool even after the 8% for the house, the State, and the dealers was taken out. Mississippi had a 3% tax on gambling winnings that could not be refunded even if there were balancing losses so it was like paying an extra $300 in juice for the privilege of being there. Apparently people thought it was worth it.


Table 19 was the easiest starting table I had had yet. The only big pro at the table was Annie Duke and like her brother Howard Lederer she was playing tight early. There were some fairly weak players at the table and thanks to flopping three open-ended Straight Flush draws I managed to double up to 21,000 in chips before losing 8000 with Ace-King on an Ace-high flop to Scott T. Nguyen (not to be confused with former world champion Scotty Nguyen) when he flopped a Set of Tens. They came with racks to break up the table and I went all in on the last hand with a flush draw and an overcard against a Pair of Kings. A Heart hit the River and I was back in business with over 20,000.


My free ride was over, though. Table 24 had some heavy hitters: WPT winners Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren and Ron Rose, Humberto Brenes, holder of two WSOP bracelets, and Barry Greenstein, the philanthropist who gave his tournament winnings to charity. Erick was raising and re-raising and I was down to 15,000 by the time we hit the dinner break. I took Andy to the Sheraton for food and a pep talk and when I came back I was ready. I knew I had to play some poker and not just sit back so I held my breath and pretended I was Gus Hansen, raising and re-raising and taking pots right and left. E-Dog's jaw dropped and he gave me a new nickname: Frisky. "Look at you splashing chips around," he said. The last time I had played with him I was timid as a mouse at Phil Hellmuth's table in Atlantic City. No more. I knocked out Ron Rose, who got a call from me with King-Queen to his Pair of Queens because of his loose image. I flopped a King and he was out. Then I knocked out Humberto Brenes with Ace-Nine when he re-raised his short stack all in with a Pair of Fours and I flopped a Nine. I had grown my stack up to 35,000 when Tommy Hufnagle, a long-time tournament player from Phoenix, too Humberto's place at Erick's left, sipping Heineken and playing like a maniac. He reraised me all in pre-flop for all my chips and when I laid down a weak Ace he showed Nine-Six offsuit and laughed. After that, any time I bet he called or made a huge reraise and I had to wait for a real hand, which I didn't get.


Men "The Master" Nguyen came in where Ron Rose had been sitting and Barry Greenstein knocked him out in a heartbreaker, correctly calling Men's flush-draw all-in with the best hand, Deuce-Five suited with the Five Paired on the board. The Deuce of Clubs came on the Turn, giving Men the Flush, but the Barry filled up with a Five on the River and Men, disgusted, was out.


The whole table was waiting to get a hand to play against Tommy but nothing came and he finished with 61,000. I was down to where I had started the table, 20,600, but almost two-thirds of the field had been eliminated, meaning I needed nearly 30,000 chips to be average. Only 140 players would start Day Two.


Two great laydowns

Gold Strike had a nice brunch buffet set up outside the poker room, complimentary for players. I helped myself to a hearty meal and then felt like a pro sauntering up to my table just as the tournament director announced, "Shuffle up and deal!" My new table was perhaps tougher than yesterday's. I had just over 20,000 in chips and the blinds were 500/1000 with a 200 ante. The tough Ajay Shah was to my left with 53,000. Beyond him was the very same Scott T. Nguyen who won a chunk from me yesterday with a Set of Tens. To his left sat the chip leader of the whole tournament, Randy Jensen. One of the best young players in the world, John Juanda, sat to Randy's left. All the big guns were to my left, the talkative Mike Laing sat to my right with 58,500 and the unknown short stacks were in the middle.


Scott T. took a chance and busted out early on. Juanda picked some good spots and increased his stack to 30,000 or so before busting out with Ace-Queen to Randy's Queen-Queen. I went card dead and my stack dwindled down to 14,000 but then I got lucky with Ace-King v King-King when an Ace came on the river. Now I had 30,000. I tried raising some pots, limping into others, but one of the big guns on my left consistently made a big raise and I never had anything to call with. I shut down tight and waited for cards. Finally I got a Pair of Sevens but Mike Laing to my right raised under the gun. He had been playing tight so I folded and he showed a Pair of Eights – one good laydown for me. Then I got my best hand of the day, pocket Nines. Mike Laing limped under the gun. I thought for quite some time, trying to figure a way to double up with this hand. I decided to limp and if Randy reraised and Mike folded I would go all in. To my surprise, WSOP bracelet holder Jim "Cincinnati Kid" Lester, who had replaced Scott T., raised to 8600. Then Randy reraised, making it 25,000. Mike quickly folded and it was on me. I went deep into the tank. I had to believe Randy had a hand and Jim probably did too. The question was did they both have big Aces, in which case I should call, or did one of them have a big Pair, in which case I was a huge dog. I decided it was very likely one of them had a Pair bigger than mine so I finally mucked and so did Jim. Randy showed pocket Aces. Jim said he had the other two Nines! If he was telling the truth I was practically drawing dead. Two good laydowns for me!


Unfortunately I didn't make it three. Jim caught a rush and began making strong raises in pot after pot. I didn't believe him when he raised in second position and it folded to me on the big blind with King-Queen offsuit so I reraised all in. As he turned over Ace-Queen suited I heard Paul Phillips's voice in my mind. "I would have waited," it said. I was denied a third big suckout and I was out of the contest, finishing 68th. I outlasted 299 players but I was still out of the money.


Andy and I had dinner at the Sheraton steakhouse which, according to the Maitre D', had recently been converted from a high-end place to something "more accessible." Apparently this involved selling off their wine list at less than cost so we ordered a bottle of 1994 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $54. This wine, rated 94 points by Wine Spectator, cost $74 when it was released. I wasn't surprised, then, when the bottle that actually arrived was instead the Mondavi Oakville. However, it was the 1997, also rated 94 points, and an excellent wine at $45 retail. Unfortunately when we tasted it we found it had gone bad. We didn't make an issue of it but mentioned it to the waitress, who returned with the real goods: the 1994 Reserve! We enjoyed it and Andy, who usually avoids wine because it made him sneeze, had his share. The rib-eye steak was excellent and came with an enormous salted baked potato. I started with an excellent onion soup and got myself a Caesar from the salad bar. Needless to say we were too full to consider dessert, which as a rule I don't eat anyway.

A taxing experience

Wednesday morning Andy, KrazyKanuck and I decided to play in the Grand Casino's $1000 buy-in No-Limit Hold 'Em event so we drove over there and signed up. The financials of this tournament were interesting: for $1000 plus an outrageous $100 entry fee you got 10,000 in chips. If you made an up-front dealer tip of $20 you got an extra 1000 in chips. Then, any time in the first three levels, you could pay $50, which went to charity, and get 4000 more chips! You would have to be a moron not to increase your stack by 50% by paying 6% more so just about everyone did and the real juice on the event, including the questionable 3% State tax, was $200 or 17.1%! You could look at this two ways: either you'd be a fool to play in Mississippi when you could play elsewhere for significantly less juice, or Mississippi was the best place to play because your opponents didn't understand math.


I drew table 10 to start and ended up with two players from my starting table at the Foxwoods WPT event: the older guy with a baseball cap who was very loose preflop, once again a few seats to my left, and the young black man who had worn the mink coat and cap at Foxwoods, once again directly to my right although wearing a more modest denim outfit today. He actually wasn't there at the start but replaced a kid who seemed very eager to give his money away, losing 11,000 on the first hand to a gentleman across the table who flopped a set of Queens and his 4000 rebuy to me a few hands later when he came over the top of my pocket Queens with his Nines before the flop. Also across the long table from me was a beautiful young redhead wearing an UltimateBet jacket. I asked her what her handle was and she told me AlabamaSlamma. I told her I was Quiet Lion and she immediately knew who I was. She (Kristi) and her husband Mike "The Viper" (who was sitting at the next table), had played with me on line. I told her it was a pleasure to make their acquaintance.


I limped with pocket Fours and flopped bottom Set in an unraised pot. Another redheaded woman, sitting at Kristi's left, check-called me at every street. I made a Full House when the board paired Jacks on the Turn and she paid me off for 2500 or so and mucked. I bluffed off some chips to a solid player two seats to my left when the board flopped lots of paint and I had junk. He seemed to have a hand, though, and I folded when he bet the River. Meanwhile Jeremy "The Kid" Tinsley, finalist at last year's Tunica WPT event that Devilfish won, sat two seats to my right, getting a neck massage in between cell-phone calls. He didn't play many hands but I did manage to re-steal from him on the flop, my first time making that move! Then Kristi raised and I called on the button with Ace-Jack offsuit. I didn't like the hand but I thought I could bluff her off the pot if she didn't make her hand. The flop came King high and she bet. I had her 100% on Ace-King and I mucked.


They broke our table and moved me to table seven, which was in the midst of a little war when I arrived. One guy named Avner, who could barely stay in his seat let alone keep his mouth shut, was hoarding all the black chips and refusing to give change. As I sat down he doubled up the player on my left by going all in with garbage against a Pair of Tens. "OK! OK! It's all right," Avner said. "Good hand! Good hand!" He still had about 50,000 in chips left including three skyscrapers of black. My first hand at the table I saw pocket Kings. Avner, who apparently raised every hand, raised. I went all in and Avner called with garbage so I doubled up. "OK! OK! It's all right!" said Avner. "Good hand! Good hand!" Meanwhile the tournament director came over to give Avner a gentle kindergarten speech on the need to share that would have done Mr. Rogers proud. Two hands later Avner lost the rest of his chips in a similar fashion to a gentleman in seat eight. "I have him covered! I have chips!" said Avner, but when it was all counted Avner didn't have enough to cover. "OK! OK! Good hand!" Avner said. He got up and wandered off and all was quiet. He was replaced by Johnny Donaldson, finalist at last year's Tunica WPT event who trapped David "Devilfish" Ulliott with Aces before giving it back a few hands later, delivering the classic line, "I believe you got me, Fish," and busting out sixth.


Kanuck said goodbye as he busted out on yet another bad beat (which, as I reminded him, is the mark of a good player). I was still in good shape but the structure of this tournament required me to run fast just to stay in one place. Although I had doubled my starting stack to 30,000, by the time they broke our table the big blind was 800 so just opening the pot or calling a raise cost almost 10% of my stack. They moved me to table two and for the first time I sat at a table with my best friend on the tour, Andy Bloch, a tough, math-minded competitor. I was fortunate to sit to his left so I could act after him eight out of nine hands. In the WPT event the last few days I decided I had been too reluctant to call all-in raises from big stacks. I loosened that up and overall it worked great. I doubled up on Andy, reraising his small-blind steal all in with Queen-Nine suited. He called with Jack-Five and got no help. I went back and forth with a couple of short stacks before putting them out and at the dinner break found myself with 80,000 in chips with only 17 people left – I was in the money! Tenth through 18th place paid $1720, a $550 profit before the questionable 3% Mississippi tax. We redrew when we got down to the final two tables and I still ended up at Andy's left. The staff generously comped us buffets out of their $13,600 in juice and Andy and I took Mike "The Viper" and Kristi, who had both busted out but stayed to watch. It was quite a good buffet.


After the dinner break I won one set of blinds and antes to bring my stack over the 100,000 mark. At this point the blinds were 10,000/20,000 and the antes were 2000 so with six people at the table there was 42,000 in the pot before anybody bet the hand! I found myself with Ace-Jack under the gun. Ace-Jack is a tough hand because just about anyone who calls you is going to have a better hand. But with only five players to get past and 42% of my stack already in the pot I pushed all in. It folded to Andy, who looked at me. I made a monkey face at him, something Shortstack and I had been practicing for high-pressure occasions like this. He didn't take long and called with Ace-Queen. I got no help and I was out of the contest in 11th place. I gave Andy a friendly congratulatory pat on the back and when he regained consciousness and got up off the floor he went on to finish fifth, unable to lay down pocket Tens to the very aggressive Vinnie Vinh's Jacks.


 I inquired with the poker staff about the 3% State tax, since I looked up the law on line and it was pretty clear it was only due in situations where a Federal form was required to be filed, which it wasn't in this case (the winner must make 300 times his wager in a tournament in order for a form to be required). They handed me a piece of paper that reaffirmed what I thought but nevertheless they said they had been told to collect the tax. Apparently there were some other players fighting it but for $51.60 I wasn't going to get too worried. I did get the address and phone number of the Mississippi Gaming Commission and thought I might drop by or give them a call later.


Another final table absent moi

I drove around to check out some of the other casinos in Tunica and passed by the address given to me for the Mississippi Gaming Commission. There was a vacant lot with a construction trailer and a cardboard sign with "Mississippi Gaming Commission" scrawled on it in what appeared to be black crayon. I decided not to go in.


I went over to watch the final-table taping and was astonished to see a very long line of people waiting to get in. I waited around for someone to recognize me and pull me into the room and finally I got an assist from Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and took a seat in the back row. I moved up bit by bit and by the time it was down to four players I was right behind Randy Jensen, in full view of the camera every time they showed him. I thought some of you might want to see the monkey face so I made it a few times when I thought the camera was on me.


The highlight of the table was The Hand: with four players left, David "Chip" Reese moved his short stack all in. Randy Jensen folded but Reese got a call from James Tippin. Then, when Barry "Charity" Greenstein reraised all in, the crowd oohed and aahed. James took a minute and then called. Barry showed Ace King suited, James a Pair of Queens, and Chip Reese sheepishly turned over King-Seven suited, an enormous dog. The flop came Ace-King-x and the turn helped no one. An Ace on the river sealed Barry's victory and the elimination of two players assured Randy of at least the $600,000 second place.  His beautiful wife, sitting behind me, was pleased about it and cheered Randy on but he wasn't able to overcome Barry's chip lead and the $1.6 million first prize was gone forever from the poker economy, squandered on starving children throughout the world. Well, maybe they would grow up to be poker players.


Andy and I hit the Sheraton steakhouse again and tried the filet this time. It was excellent despite the coffee-shop atmosphere. They were out of the Mondavi reserve so we tried the 1995 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel (rated 92 by Wine Spectator). Priced at $41, it wasn't quite the bargain the Mondavi had been but it was wonderfully delicious. It was always nice to go someplace that didn't mark the wines up 250 percent.

A little flight

Thanks to America West's policy of reasonably priced last-minute one-way flights I booked a connection to Seattle for only a little over $200. I returned the Taurus to Hertz and looked for America West. Their presence in Memphis was so small that their name wasn't even painted on the exterior of the terminal. There was one counter staffed by Delta agents to service the regional carrier Freedom Airlines, doing business as America West Express. The three-hour flight to Phoenix was on a tiny Canadair Regional Jet but I was happily surprised to find out I was upgraded to First Class, or even that they had a First Class. Unfortunately they didn't have a First Class or elite check-in line but I found myself behind second-place finisher Randy Jensen and his family. When he found out there was a First Class he wanted to spend a bit of his $600,000 to upgrade but it was already full. The flight was delayed just enough to make me miss my connection so they rebooked me on the next flight, which meant a three-hour layover in Phoenix. I had an hour to kill here so I joined the Northwest WorldClub, which would also get me into the America West club in Phoenix.


WPT champ Paul Darden was on the flight, as was last year's Australasian Poker Champion Peter "The Poet" Costa. The First Class cabin was fitted with one seat on the port side and two on the starboard. I had 1D, the aisle seat in the bank of two. The rest of the passengers apparently took this flight every week and all knew each other. I got a bottle of water on the ground but Freedom Airlines was not licensed to serve alcohol until we got in the air. Once aloft, we got peanuts and a warning that there was no running water in the lone lavatory at the rear of the aircraft, so think before we drink. I thanked the flight attendant for the heads-up and ordered scotch on the rocks instead of with soda.


We landed in Phoenix late as advertised and I headed for the club, where they happily admitted me with my temporary Northwest card. The long layover went quickly: although they didn't yet have high-speed Internet installed they did have free dialup plus snacks and free drinks. Around eight I went over to gate A3 and boarded the 737 to Seattle. I had seat 1D, by the window, and this time they had a liquor license so I had a scotch and soda. There were some bumps and a stunning view of downtown Seattle and soon Shortstack was curbside to pick me up and bring me home to rest up for the next adventure.


January 26, 2004

Are the Stars out tonight? The 2004 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure

Continental comes through

PokerStars decided to have a last-minute World Poker Tour event on the Royal Caribbean ship Voyager of the Seas so we booked a Continental Airlines connection from Seattle through Houston to Miami, shunning the Alaska Airlines nonstop for three times the price. Our upgrades came through at the three-day window so we left for the airport our normal hour and 40 minutes before flight time. A tip on FlyerTalk got us a great deal on parking at AirStar ShuttlePark, which fortunately didn't charge by the embedded capital letter, and the blue-carpet elite check-in had no line when we arrived with our overpacked whales to check through to Miami. The nice lady tagged them and put them on the conveyor belt, and we breezed through elite security and ensconced ourselves in the Presidents Club until boarding. The nice lady apologized that they hadn't yet put in the free wireless Internet access but offered that we could use it in Houston. Since our connection was 38 minutes, I thought that unlikely but thanked her nonetheless.


The incoming aircraft was delayed about 15 minutes and we departed late by the same amount. I was concerned about our baggage making the connection but all the Continental employees told me they were very good about baggage and not to worry. Shortstack and I ensconced ourselves in seats 4A and B in the 737-800 and had water and Diet Coke in plastic cups before takeoff. We were in the air 13 minutes late and the very friendly crew served drinks in highball glasses and warm mixed nuts. The movie, dredged out of the vault, was Nurse Betty, an offbeat romantic comedy with Renee Zellweger, Greg Kinnear, and Morgan Freeman slightly more entertaining than watching Renee watch a soap opera for two hours. Lunch was a choice of Southwestern chicken sandwich or mushroom soup and salmon salad. Only the latter remained when they got to us in the last row but we would have ordered it anyway. It was delicious, served with a hot roll and a small Ghirardelli mint-chocolate square same as on Alaska.  We landed 13 minutes late but waited another 10 minutes for a gate.


Our connecting flight was just across the hall and they were waiting for us so there was no problem getting on. They delayed the flight to accommodate the connecting bags so we hoped ours was among them. This flight was on an MD-80 and at an hour and 57 minutes it was too short for a movie even if the aircraft had had an in-flight entertainment system. We did get preflight drinks and, once in the air, another drink service and a hot meal. Shortstack passed but I had a yummy barbecued-brisket sandwich with tortilla soup. We landed in Miami around 10. Our priority-tagged bags were not the first off but they did arrive so we got a taxi to the Hyatt Regency Miami to rest for the night.


The Hyatt had no Diamond check-in line so we waited a few minutes in the regular line along with the World Poker Tour technical crew. I looked around in case Shana Hiatt was there but didn't see her. We got upgraded to the Regency floor, which had a choice of wired or wireless broadband Internet access. Shortstack got some room service while I caught up on my email and we retired for the evening.


A new angle

We shared a cab to the ship with PokerStars Vice President Dan Goldman, gave our bags to the porter along with a generous tip, and proceeded to the VIP check-in lounge, one perk of booking a suite. After standing in a short line to get our pictures taken for security we were on board and in our beautiful Grand Ocean View suite, a double-size cabin with a large bath, double-wide balcony, sitting area, and wet bar. First order of business was to get one of the very limited in-cabin Internet connections so we headed to the Guest Relations desk and snagged one. Luis, the assistant purser, warned us that many people had trouble with it and we could return it within 24 hours for a full refund. "Are you willing to use Outlook?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "I'm willing." He frowned. "Oh. Then you may have problems if you are willing to use Outlook, especially if you send mail. The web mail works better." We took our chances, even though we were willing to use Outlook, but we went to the suite immediately to test it. The connection was slow and somewhat intermittent as expected but it was a quantum leap over utter isolation from the virtual world. I answered a couple emails and then we were willing to set out to explore the ship.


We had sailed on Explorer of the Seas, Voyager's sister ship, a few years ago and had a wonderful time. The ships were enormous and well designed with something for everyone. They had a rock-climbing wall, an ice-skating rink, and even a Johnny Rocket's for those who preferred a burger and shake to the formal dining or buffet. Food on Royal Caribbean, in our experience, was good but not great: better than Carnival but a notch below Princess. We got a bite or six at the buffet and then found the poker room down on deck two. They had brought in 25 or so tables and it looked like the room had been designed for poker. At the moment the entire staff was involved in unpacking and distributing the welcome gift for tournament players, a black imitation-leather duffel bag stuffed with fabulous prizes.


At 4:30 was the mandatory lifeboat drill. On Princess it was possible to hide in your cabin and avoid it but here they sent troopers to pound on doors and yell, "Roust! Everybody roust! Roll call!" We put on our lifejackets and headed down to the muster station where we saw two-time WPT winner Gus Hansen stroll onto the ship at the last minute. Aha! That was how you avoided the lifeboat drill! These world-class players always had angles I hadn't thought of.


Right after the drill it was sailing time. Having been on many RCCL cruises before, we knew that the best place to be while setting sail was the Crown Viking lounge. It was no surprise, then, that WPT leading money-winner Paul Phillips and his brilliant and beautiful wife Kathleen should be already up there, playing Scrabble and sipping Bombay Sapphire. We called Andy Bloch and met him up there and ordered a few martinis while we watched the Miami scenery fade into the distance on the way to our first port in Haiti.


Dinner was at 8:30 in the La Boheme dining room. We were seated with Andy as requested but instead of putting us with the 600 other poker players they seated us with a solo South African lady and five Norwegians who were friends of the captain and didn't speak much English. I washed down the forgettable meal with a glass or two of Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon. Andy cut out early to play in the super satellite but I was willing to call it an evening and Shortstack and I retired to our suite.


I finally got to play poker

Monday was a fun day at sea so I decided to play in the super satellite at 12:30 just to get my juices flowing. Since I had already bought into the big event, I was playing for cash rather than a tournament entry, but that was fine. I started off with a bang when I reraised Internet player Marc "Capone" Aubin all in with a Pair of Jacks on a Nine-high flop. Surprisingly, he called with only Ace-Queen overcards but he hit the Ace on the Turn and I yelled, "Rebuy!" I treaded water, playing cautiously, and made the final table when I called an all-in bet from a short stack with King-Nine offsuit. He had Ace-Jack suited so I was a 2:1 dog but I hit my King and he was out. I now had 7000 chips and we were down to nine players. The top three got $8000 tourney entries and the fourth got around $5000. The blinds were 400-800 with a 100 ante so I didn't have too much time to wait for a monster hand. I found Ace-Seven offsuit on the button and made it 2000. Annand "Victor" Ramdin, who finished third at the Showdown at the Sands, called on the small blind. The flop came Queen-Seven-Three, giving me a Pair of Sevens. I thought my best shot was to push in the rest of my chips, hoping the flop missed him. Unfortunately he made a good call with pocket Tens. None of my five outs came so I was out of the contest.


I had barely an hour to change and prepare mentally for the big event. I drew table 13 seat 1. Elie "Rocky" Marciano, a well-known French player, was the only one I recognized at my end of the table but the other end was very strong: David Benyamine, winner of the 2003 Aviation Club de France championship event, WSOP-bracelet holder Josh Arieh, and the winner of the biggest prize in the history of poker: World Champion Chris Moneymaker, diamond-encrusted horseshoe bracelet dangling from his wrist. I had exceptionally bad cards and played very few hands, which meant that when I did make a bet everybody folded so I got no action on my Ace-King or pocket Sevens. I had pocket Tens but by the time it got to me the pot had been raised and reraised so I mucked them. It was a painful two and one-half hours till the dinner break, more painful because when Moneymaker busted early he was replaced by Bill Gazes, a well-respected and dangerous player who began raising most pots and who somehow got David Benyamine to call off all his chips with pocket Fives even though there were four overcards on the board by Fifth Street. Gazes turned over pocket Aces and Benyamine was out. I called Gazes a couple of times in late position but didn't hit so by 12:18 a.m. when Day 1 ended I was down to 4500. Besides Moneymaker I had outlasted Phil "Tiger Woods" Ivey, Erik "Rounders" Seidel, Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren, and Paul Phillips, all of whom were free to enjoy the rest of their cruise without the distraction of $1,657,500 in prize money. I got a Bombay Sapphire martini in the casino and unwound in the suite.

Triple Play

We awoke Tuesday morning to find the private beach of Labadee, a peninsula of Haiti fenced off from the natives for the private use of Royal Caribbean, outside our balcony. We took a tender ashore and had a tepid barbecue lunch in the picnic area before we set out to find the ideal lounging area. When we found it, it was no surprise that Kathleen Phillips and her beautiful and brilliant husband Paul were camped out under the best palm tree. They were just leaving so we took over their spot for a bit before we decided we were well enough baked and returned to the Voyager.


The tournament resumed at six. I had drawn table 14, the first table scheduled to be broken. I was happy about that because Bill Gazes had drawn the seat to my right and once again was entering most pots before me, making like difficult for my short stack. After a couple rounds I found Ace-King under the gun and made a small raise. A crusty old sailor who looked like a cigar belonged in his mouth called. The flop came King high, two Spades and I pushed in the rest of my chips. He called with an Ace-high Flush draw but I made Kings Full and doubled up. The table broke and I was moved to table 3. Mike "The Mouth" Matusow and Paul Wolfe, both finalists at the Showdown at the Sands, sat across the table from me with big stacks, raising a lot of pots. I had a few good hands but got no action and when I reraised an Internet player on my right with a Pair of Queens he thought long and hard before folding. Meanwhile Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer sat down to my left. I treaded water and by the dinner break I had just barely more than my initial buy-in: 7775 chips.


We grabbed a table in the dining room allocated to the poker group with Andy, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, tournament regular Steve Brecher, and an Rob, and Internet player from Chicago and his wife Kathy. During dinner two men came over to have their picture taken with Andy and Chris. Steve, sitting between them, held a napkin over his face since he hadn't been on TV and therefore wasn't a good photo op. I remarked it would have been amusing if Paul Phillips, who had won more money in the WPT than anyone but wouldn't be on TV for another couple months, had been the one sitting there, unwanted. The food was mediocre.


I returned to table 3 and Paul Wolfe got moved away to balance the tables. Mike Matusow, who had lost most of his chips to a huge bad beat to Internet player Tyler Bacon when Mike flopped the nut Straight to Tyler's Set of Kings and the board Paired on Fifth St. to give Tyler a Full House, moved in the rest of his chips with King-Nine suited and got called and lost. Unfortunately for me the two of them were replaced by two of the top players in the game: Surindar Sunar and Daniel Negreanu. They both played a lot of pots and when I saw Ace-Ten offsuit in second position I raised with it. Haralabos "Bob" Voulgaris reraised me all in, something he had been doing with some frequency. The pot was laying me about 2-to-1 odds on the call but I figured if he had a bigger Ace or a big Pair I was a big dog so I folded. Later I regretted the move, especially after he told me he had had a Pair of Eights. To win a big tournament I would have to be willing to call off all my chips in situations like this.


That hand, hereafter known as the Haralabos Incident, took me down to 5000 and I soon found my patient self down to 3300 on the small blind. Surindar came in under the gun for 1800 and Daniel called. It folded to me and I saw Ace-Queen offsuit. I preferred to be the first one in the pot with that hand but beggars couldn't be choosers so I pushed all in. Surindar and Daniel called the extra 1700 chips of course and the flop came King-Queen-Ten. I was rooting for a Jack but I didn't need it as they checked their rag hands down and mucked them when I showed I had made a Pair of Queens. I had tripled up to two of the best poker players in the world and I had new life! We broke at 12:30 and I finished with exactly triple the chips I started the day with: 13,500. I was still a short stack but there were only 40 people left and 27 got paid. Daniel,  Andy, and Foxwoods winner Hoyt "All In" Corkins all had a bit over 100,000. Jesus had around 62,000 and Howard 33,000. Andy, Chris, Steve Brecher and I went to the Connoisseur Club for martinis and found Paul "Beanie" Nobles and Hoyt there spinning yarns. Afterwards, a few of the guys went dancing but I went to bed. Big day tomorrow!


De Gustavo non disputandum est.

I tried to sleep in on Wednesday but they had a long and loud emergency drill for the crew in the very early morning, around 10. We had docked in Jamaica and had a tour booked to the famous Dunn's River Falls, a natural water park with a waterfall that was fun to climb. We got to the pier and found our tour had been canceled. We were supposed to have been notified that we were switched to the morning tour but no dice. Shortstack wanted to walk around the marketplace but I wanted to get out of the sun and back to bed. I rested my eyes for a few hours and then prepared for poker. There may have been a few trips to the buffet in there too.


I had drawn a tough table for the third day in a row. Howard was there again and so was Jesus. I had played against both of them before but the third big gun at my table was a guy I'd been fortunate to have avoided up until now: Gustavo Hansen, the only other two-time WPT winner besides Howard. Gus was two to my left so I knew if I raised on the button or cutoff I'd better have a hand because he was likely to call. I had 13,500 and the blinds were 600/1200 with a 200 ante. We were seven-handed so that meant I would be blinded off in four rounds: I needed to make some bets. Gus immediately busted the player two to my right by calling his all-in with an Ace-Eight. The bettor had Queen-Seven suited and Gus's hand held up. Soon thereafter I saw wired Eights in second position. With five players left to act my only real options were to bet a third of my chips or move all in. Since I didn't really want to see a flop with the snowmen I shoved it in. Gus thought for a minute and then reraised himself all in. Several people gasped audibly. Gus was a very exciting player – you never knew what he had. Howard grimaced on the big blind, laying down a hand he would have liked to play under other circumstances, and I prayed for Gus to turn over Ace-King. Unfortunately for me, he had two black cowboys and although I flopped an open-ender with Seven-Nine-Ten his Kings held up and I was out of the contest. I finished 38th, my best big-event result so far but still out of the money.


I asked Shortstack to take a silent walk with me on the warm windy deck while I meditated on my abrupt exit and she happily agreed. That didn't completely do the job so we went to the concierge lounge to meditate over a martini. When I was able to laugh about it we went back down to the poker room to pick up dinner companions at the break. We were aghast to see Howard slowly rise and walk away from the table, eliminated just out of the money. He limped over to us: the night before Mike the Mouth, emphatically retelling his bad-beat story for the 17th time, slammed down a chair and broke Howard's foot. Andy, Chris, and Steve joined us for dinner along with two Internet players, Brian and Cheryl. Those of us not still in it shared a bottle of 2000 Robert Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. By the end of dinner I was ready to crash.


Cayman Canceled

We were supposed to dock at Grand Cayman Thursday but the seas were too treacherous to load and unload tenders so we had a fun day at sea instead. I spent the fun day locked in the suite in a deep depression, playing Bespelled and deleting spam from my inbox. Somewhere in that fog I decided to go to Tunica for the tournament next Monday, meaning I had to buy an expensive last-minute ticket so I fought the intermittent Internet service and wound up with a Northwest nonstop from Miami to Memphis and a Hertz rental car. When it was nearing dinnertime we put on our formal outfits, had a complimentary drink in the concierge lounge and then went down for dinner with Steve, Andy, Cheryl, and Jonathan "NotNoPair" Kaplan and his brand-new fiancée Kathy. They were out of the Mondavi Cabernet although I had only had one bottle so we ordered the overpriced and inferior Jordan. After dinner we went back to the suite for a bit and then headed down to watch the tournament. Jesus had been eliminated and we were aghast to see Andy get up and walk away just as we arrived to finish 13th, knocked out by Hoyt Corkins. When the day was done it was Daniel Negreanu, Gus Hansen, and Hoyt Corkins along with three Internet players making the TV table to be played on Saturday.


Toura Lura Tulum

Friday we docked at Cozumel, an island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Shortstack had booked us a shore excursion to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum. This time the tour wasn't canceled and we took a 35-minute ferry ride to Playa del Carmen, where we boarded a luxury coach that deposited us at an artisan market for a shopping stop under the guise of a restroom break. Once back on the bus, the tour guide gave a long sales pitch for personalized Mayan hieroglyphics of your name and horoscope. The Mayans, it turned out, were pioneers in the science of astrology. The ruins themselves looked as expected, the remains of 3000-year-old limestone buildings. More interestingly the site overlooked a topless beach beyond which lay a stunning vista of Caribbean blue, I was told later.


For the coach ride back we got a box lunch and a choice of cheap beer or Pepsi. As we approached the ferry terminal the tour guide begged for tips. I resisted the temptation to suggest that he tip us for putting up with all the sales pitches since I expected some of the customers really did want to buy the genuine Mayan chess sets. We tried to get on the ferry that went direct to the Grand Princess, docked next to our Voyager of the Seas, but it was not possible so we took the boat we were supposed to go on, which for some reason was to deposit us several miles from the ship. The seas were so rough they were passing out barf bags like candy but after 40 minutes or so we docked off downtown Cozumel, where we and 400 others had to hail cabs back to the ship at $6 a pop. We ended up in a van where the driver charged $6 per couple so ended up making $24 for the ten-minute ride: not bad, even by Vegas standards!


When we returned we cleaned up and used our VIP passes to get into the taping of the PokerStars World Cup finals, a series of heads-up matches between South Africa and Costa Rica. It would be more interesting on TV but watching a heads-up match without seeing the hole cards was about as interesting as watching synchronized snoring. If it hadn't been for the presence of Shana Hiatt, taping spots right next to us, I wouldn't have lasted the half-hour I did. I had brought copies of Shana's two published works – the August 1995 Playboy, of which she graced the cover, and the Girls of Hawaiian Tropic DVD, in which she reportedly did a nice soft-core porn number although I hadn't got around to watching it yet – with the thought of getting her autograph on one or both. I forgot to bring them to the set, though, so it would have to wait.


Between the sun and the seasickness Steve was the only one who showed up for dinner. I had martinis and lobster tails.


Final table, final day

Saturday was the last day of the cruise and we spent a bit of it watching the final table. We got seats as close to Shana as possible and she recognized me and gave a smile and a little wave. "I just missed the final table again, Shana," I said. "Maybe next week." "Oh, are you going to that one too?" She asked, visibly excited at the prospect. "Yes I am," I said wittily.


Gus's streak continued as he knocked out the three Internet players unbelievably quick, once with Ace-Queen against Ace-Jack but the other two times on pretty big suck-outs.  The final-table set was built right on top of the ice-skating rink and the players were shivering, the pixyish Daniel Negreanu especially. Someone got him a jacket to put over his clothes and he was a little more comfortable once he was doublesuited. Daniel may have been cold but Hansen, used to cold nights in his native Denmark, was running so hot he seemed unstoppable as he took his unprecedented third World Poker Tour victory. Along with his third-place finish at Bellagio, Hansen had passed Paul Phillips as the leading money-winner on the tour.


We had to return our Internet phone by six so we were unwired the rest of the evening. PokerStars threw a cocktail party for everyone at Cleopatra's Needle so I congratulated the final three as Beanie passed out Cuban cigars. Mike the Mouth was fidgeting near the barstools so I made sure my feet were out of the way until dinnertime. Steve, Andy, Shortstack and I had a final dinner, washed down by the suaver among us with martinis. Later, I found Jack Fox and former World Series of Poker winner Brad Dougherty up in the Connoisseur Club and smoked Beanie's cigar with them as the last evening of the cruise faded into history.

It's all over

We got up with the sun at 7:07 Sunday morning and grabbed a quick buffet breakfast before they kicked us off the ship at eight. Customs was implementing the new system of fingerprinting all foreign visitors, creating an uncharacteristic jam-up at the exit that lasted a half-hour. Andy, Steve and the two of us shared a van to the airport for the flat fee of $21. We checked in for our respective flights and found Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren and Josh Arieh and family breakfasting at Chili's. I bid Shortstack farewell as she headed back to Seattle and the rest of us looked in vain for a WiFi hotspot, then played a bit of Chinese poker to pass the time until our flights to Memphis.