April 26, 2005

Pppppppt: The 2005 Bellagio PPT

Busted Bub

My initial excitement over the "tour" aspect of the World Poker Tour had faded and at this point I was happiest to go back to Las Vegas, where the streets were lined with world-class resorts, restaurants, and casinos. Bellagio was not my favorite place to play because of the constant cigarette smoke drifting into the supposedly non-smoking poker area. Nice hotel though.


As always the Professional Poker Tour event was a freeroll, meaning I didn't have to pay, and I donned a polo shirt bearing the logo of my sponsor, Full Tilt Poker, before heading over to the B. There were 230 entrants. I drew table 41, seat three, and as usual for these events had a table full of good players. On my left in seat four was John Stolzman, the young gun who won the WPT event in Tunica and caused a tempest in a teapot when he tipped the staff an extra $500 over the $45,000 "tip" he was forced to leave when 3% was deducted from the prize pool. (Even this freeroll event, nominally a $500,000 purse, really paid only $485,000, the other $15,000 going to the tournament staff.) Seat five was the tough John Myung. On his left was Chris Bigler, another tough and aggressive player. Seat seven was my buddy Russell Rosenblum, and in seat eight was Ken Goldstein, brother of Stan. The Professor himself, Howard "Bub" Lederer, had seat nine. In seat one was Lyle Berman, majority owner of the WPT and PPT. I asked him why a guy who flipped burgers at McDonalds couldn't play a scratch-card game in his restaurant but it was OK for the guy who owned this tournament to play in it. "Because I'm dead money," he replied. Finally, on my right was Ron Faltinsky, a tournament veteran.


I tangled it up with Howard early when he raised in late position and I called on the button with Queen-Ten of Diamonds. The flop came Nine-Eight-Trey with the Nine and Eight of Diamonds, giving me a Straight Flush draw. Howard bet out and I made a modest raise. He came over the top, again modestly. I put him on a big pair and I moved all in. Howard thought for a while, gave me his patented staredown, and then said, "Oh well, I have a lot of work to do today," and called all in. I had him covered since he had lost a small pot earlier. He turned over the expected Aces and I'm sure he was happy to see I had the big draw, making him a slight favorite, and not a set, which would have made him a seven-to-one dog. The turn gave me a flush and the river made my Straight Flush. I had busted Bub and, classy guy that he was, he gave a tight smile, wished me luck, and lumbered out of the room. I was up to 17,325.


My old nemesis Phil Hellmuth, Jr., took Howard's seat and immediately ordered several bottles of Dom Perignon from the cocktail waitress, although he didn't drink them. As was my tradition, I asked Phil if he knew my name yet. He looked annoyed, like a fly was buzzing around his head, and barely shook his head. A few others at the table said, "Really?" and "You don't know who he is?" I told Phil we'd probably played almost 40 hours of poker together and flipped him a Lion Tales card. Finally he remembered Aruba. "You're the guy who came over the top of me with Ace-Eight in Aruba and beat my pocket Tens!"


I said, "I had Ace-Ten and you had pocket Nines, but yeah. You talked about it for three hours."


"But there was only an hour left in the day," he said.


"Actually it was the last hand of the day. I came back a couple hours later and you were still talking."


He wrinkled his nose and clammed up.


Ron Faltinsky got moved to the spotlight table and then Ram "Crazy Horse" Vaswani took his seat. I had 17,600 at the first break. John Stolzman busted and Phi Nguyen took his spot on my left. I wasn't too happy about that as Phi was a very tough player. Nevertheless, I chipped up with a couple small pots to 22,000 at the next break.


Tony Cousineau took seat two when Ram busted and then the winner of the Party Poker Million last month, Mike Gracz, took seat seven when Russell lost all his chips. I played a few pots but got raised out by the aggressive guys on my left and was down to 13,350 at the break. Then Ken Goldstein slow-played a flopped set of Aces and got some chips when I tried to pick up the pot on the river. Mike Gracz busted and was replaced by a guy I didn't recognize, sipping a cocktail, who said his name was John. I figured he was a high roller put in by the Bellagio but when the President of Bellagio, Bill McBeath, came up and stood behind him, I got suspicious. It turned out Bellagio and used at least some of its entry slots for hotel executives rather than as rewards for loyal customers, as every other PPT host casino had done. John turned out to be a finance bigwig at Bellagio and a very nice guy. Bellagio's management were in the enviable position of not having to try very hard to attract customers or earn their loyalty. It would be fun to see how they adjusted when they were no longer the premier destination in town.


Chris Bigler went out and the man himself, Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, took seat six. I remarked to Doyle that the last time he was at my table I got knocked out with Aces Full to Four Kings and I blamed him. He had heard it all over the years and just smiled. But then, down to 7000 or so, I raised in second position with Ace-King. Kenny G moved all in over the top and I called. He showed Ace-Queen, making me a big favorite, but turned a Queen and I was out of the contest.


The $25,500 WPT Championship was next.


April 20, 2005

Conrad's House of Elk: The 2005 Reno World Poker Challenge


Shortstack wouldn't miss a trip to the Reno Hilton, which she calls "Conrad's House of Elk" after the delicious game meat entrée served in the steakhouse there. She actually went down a day early to play in the ladies' event while I recovered from the Party cruise and I joined her the next day. Shortstack outlasted about half the field but got few playable hands and the fast structure chewed her up. I ended up flying down with Lee Markholt, also a Washingtonian, who finished second to James van Alstyne in that Poker Royale thing they played at the Orleans last year and televised on the Game Show Network. I signed up for tomorrow's main event and then we had dinner with Matt "Jacks Up" Matros, author of the hot new poker book The Making of a Poker Player. We washed the generous portion of elk down with a 1999 Stag's Leap Cask 23, always fabulous.


That thing

I drew table 39, seat two, to start the $5100 event, the smallest buy-in on the World Poker Tour. There were 361 starters and no one I recognized was at my table, which was great, although I later found out that seat five was occupied by Alex Prendes, who had recently made a major final table. Shortly after the start, James van Alstyne sat down fashionably late on my right in seat one. He had been on my left with a huge chip stack at the Bellagio $15,000 event and I much preferred him on my right, where I had position on him. When I had first met him at Bellagio I tried to figure out who he was and then it clicked. "You're the guy who won that thing," I had said. The Stanford grad turned his sharp eyes toward me, expressionless, and said, "Yeah, I won the thing." Someone else at the table piped up, "What did you get for winning the thing?" James replied, without missing a beat, "Some stuff."


The table was full of what are known as "calling stations," players who don't fold marginal hands. James tested a few of them unsuccessfully and bluffed off most of his chips while I sat back and waited for hands, which weren't forthcoming. I was down to 7675 at the first break and hovered around that level as the blinds and antes increased and the table got tougher and tougher. Seat six busted and was replaced by Richard "Got Milk" Grijalva, finalist at the 2004 WPT Championship. James couldn't make anything happen with his short stack and busted out, to be replaced by the dreaded Phil Ivey, who immediately started raising 50% of the pots. That wasn't so bad for me but I needed a decent hand to play back at him with. I decided to see a flop on the button with King-Queen offsuit but mucked it to Ivey's bet when an Ace hit and my cards didn't. Rich Grijalva busted and my buddy Andy "The Rock" Bloch, looking mean in his Full Tilt sunglasses, took seat six. I was practically down to the felt and when the button open-limped and Ivey completed the small blind, I found pocket Nines on the big and moved in the rest of my chips. The button called, Ivey folded, and to my surprise the button turned over pocket Kings. I would have called had he raised anyway but I thought it was a weird play. I didn't improve and I was out of the contest, finishing 261st.


I headed to the high-limit slot room to play a little video poker and the bust-outs dribbled in behind me: John "JJ" Juanda, Allen Kessler, and finally Josh Arieh. I got no love from the machines and the elk was calling so I went for another round with Avi "Two Cokes" Freedman, this time accompanied by the 2001 Caymus Special Selection, yummy out of the bottle but deep and lush after 45 minutes or so.


Next stop: Bellagio. Civilization. Ahh.


April 9, 2005

Cruising for Cash: The 2005 Party Poker Million WPT Cruise

Some party

Way back in September I had won an entry into the Party Poker Million cruise through an on-line satellite so I went on the cruise rather than the WSOP Circuit event at the Rio that conflicted with it. Shortstack had a conflict as well and sent me off alone so I dusted off my sandy ego and booked an Alaska Airlines flight down to San Diego. This year's cruise was on a newer Holland America ship, the Öosterdam. The décor was nicer throughout than on last year's Ryndam, but they still had outrageous charges for Internet access: $0.50/min. in the cabin or $100 for 250 minutes using wireless access in the public areas. Royal Caribbean had several years ago gone to $100 for in-cabin access for the entire cruise. PartyPoker, a company that makes its money off people getting to them via the Internet, might at least have cut a deal if not comped the whole thing. I ended up spending $600 on Internet.


PartyPoker held a reception on the first evening with complimentary cheap wine by the glass. I looked for the usual complimentary martinis but didn't find any. CardPlayer Cruises boss Linda Johnson explained that we were to tip the dealers in the cash games on board because they weren't actually getting paid anything out of the $4/pot rake. She also mentioned that they were tacking on a mandatory $70/person service charge onto all of our bills, just because. With the exception of tea and coffee, all the drinks in the poker room and restaurant were extra. Some party.


I wondered what kind of financial troubles PartyPoker must be in to nickel-and-dime their best customers this way so I did some calculations. With 735 entrants plus eight no-shows, PartyPoker was collecting  $594,392 in juice (including 3% in lieu of staff tips but not including another $2100 per winner subtracted from the prize pool to pay for the cruise, surely more than the actual cost). But wait: that's not all! Sixty players entered the on-line semifinals for each cruise winner and each paid $16 in juice for a total of $960 per winner. If they started from a smaller sub-satellite they paid even more. Subtracting the 80 or so direct buy-ins, that's another $636,480! So not even counting the advertising value of this event, Party started the week ahead over $1.2 million. It was as if the couple next door had won the lottery and invited all their neighbors to a party but asked them to bring their own drinks and charged them for parking. I did get some logoed T-shirts and polo shirts but no nice denim shirt like last year – the cutbacks – and a couple of logoed beach towels I left on the ship.


Chicken man

I shrugged off my opinion of PartyPoker and decided to have a good time on the cruise. On board I ran into Gary "Benji" Lent and he attempted to teach me some limit Hold 'Em skills in time for the event. I had drawn day one of the two-day split start, table 14, seat four. I didn't recognize anyone at my table but seat one was a guy in a chicken suit who was wearing it on a bet. It was tough to get a read on him and the tournament directors finally made him take it off but his friends said he won the bet anyway. I started off rough, getting pocket Tens and Queens beat, but then made a Straight while defending my blind with Six-Trey offsuit. I went to the first break down slightly from the starting 10,000 at 9125.


From there I caught a rush, winning several small pots – well, you can't win that large a pot in limit – and got to 19,050 at the next break and then to 31,000 at the next. I busted chicken man, getting him all in preflop with my Ace-King of Spades versus his pocket Eights and flopping a King. My friend Gavin Griffin took seat nine toward the end of the day and I avoided him. I got to a high of 39.050 and finished the day with a nice 34,000.


The tournament ended at a reasonable hour so Benji and I went to dinner in the main dining room, where we were joined by tournament regular Dan Heimiller and a blonde 22-year-old lesbian tattooed stripper from Oregon. The tattoos were visible all along her left arm and she cheerfully told us, alternating between sipping a Bloody Mary and a glass of cranberry juice, that they go all across her torso and down her right leg. Apparently she was sharing two cabins with five young men from Eugene and they had brought her along in hopes that she would attract other, preferably heterosexual, 22-year-old women. But while most cruises have an overabundance of unattached females, this male-dominated poker charter was slim pickings so she ended up dining with us, perhaps comfortable in the avuncular warmth of Gary's and my baldness. Gary had the Mike Sexton New York Steak and I had a nice salmon without a celebrity name attached. Like last year, they named the dishes after the event staff and stars but I thought it was a little over the top to have (I am not making this up) "Shana Hiatt Red Snapper." We washed down dinner with a bottle I had brought aboard, the 2001 Nickel & Nickel Tench Vineyards Cabernet. It was sublime. They charged us $15 for corkage.


Day off

The second day, like the first, was at sea. I had the day off while the second half of the field started the tournament and I played some on line at great expense. I met up with Gary and Steven "Zee" Zolotow for dinner in the main dining room where we split the second Nickel & Nickel I had brought, the 2001 Rock Cairn. This one was yummy but not as lush at the Tench. Zee wanted to meet the stripper but she was nowhere to be found. An experienced cruiser, I suggested the most likely explanation was seasickness as I didn't think she could resist Zee's shining presence (his other nickname was "The Bald Eagle" in addition to Benji's and mine. The food wasn't bad on this tub, better than last year.

Limit is for suckers

Day three of the cruise we docked at Mazatlan, where I had been many times and saw no reason to visit again if I couldn't go to Señor Frog's and drink their nuclear margaritas, which I couldn't because I had to play that night. So I stayed on board and played a little on-line poker. When we set sail it was time to resume play in the tournament with the combined winners of the split day one. I drew table eight, seat nine, and who should be there but Gary "Benji" Lent in seat four. I didn't recognize anyone else but it didn't much matter as I got absolutely nothing to play. I was down to 19.500 at the break and soon thereafter we were all in the money for $5000 with 180 left. Benji got knocked out and I hung on to move up to the next cash level when it folded to me on the button with Jack-Ten suited. I raised and before the small blind could act, the little old lady in the big blind mucked her hand out of turn! Now the small blind could call with almost anything! I was furious but when he three-bet me I figured he had a real hand anyway. I called and the flop came Ten high. I put my last chips in and he called with Ace-Jack. I had been dominated before the flop but I caught my Ten on the flop to take the lead. But limit is about sucking and re-sucking and he hit the dreaded Ace on the river to knock me out in 111th place, cashing for the second year in a row for about the same amount, $10,426.

All over but the cruising

For the rest of the cruise I played some cash games in the poker room and some on line. Some of the guys got off in Puerto Vallarta the next day, including Benji, but Zee and I wore out the palm of the Maitre D' at the gourmet room, eating there most of the rest of the trip for a modest $20/person extra charge. I ran into the tattooed stripper again once, at the poolside bar on deck nine. She jumped up and gave me a big hug, then tapped her temple with her finger and said, "I like intelligent men." I glanced over to see who she was sitting with, a grizzled drunk near 60 with a cigarette between his fingers burnt down so far as to be close to searing the flesh. "That's nice," I said, and excused myself with a frozen smile.  I didn't see Shana at all, which didn't surprise me as I think she's keeping a safe distance after the magical chemistry we had during the interview at the WPT Invitational. I was happy to get off and catch the next Alaska Airlines flight back to Seattle, where my Shortstack picked me up eagerly in the black T-Bird. I had only a brief rest before the next stop, Reno.