This was a pretty good poker day, as I finally qualified for a seat in the World Series Of Poker Main Event — the biggest poker tournament on the planet. The seat costs $10,000, but I got mine for a $400 investment in a satellite event at Harrah’s St. Louis.
The format was a double shootout, in which there are ten tables of ten players each, and if you win your table, you go to the final table, where whoever is the last person standing gets a seat in the Main Event and some travel money, while everyone else gets some cash. Harrah’s breaks it down into two flights of five tables each, one at noon, the other at 3pm. In the first flight, I made it to the final two of my table, but couldn’t overcome a 5-1 deficit in chips. In the second flight, I again made it to heads-up, but I was the short stack once more, holding less than a quarter of all the chips on the table. I managed to fight my way back gradually until I overtook my opponent and won, earning a seat at the final table.
After a short break, I sat down with the other nine finalists to battle it out. These are not deep stack events (3,000 starting chips with 30-minute levels), so there’s no room for tricky play. You have to be patient and make moves with good cards. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many of those for the first 40 minutes until another player raised to 250 in early position (with blinds at 50-100). I was in late position with a pair of queens, so I re-raised to 1,000. Everyone else folded, and when he just called I knew he had a big hand, probably ace-king or better. The flop was king-nine-six. He checked and so did I, suspecting that the king helped him. The turn was a four, and he immediately bet out. I paused as if I was considering the situation, but I knew I was going to fold, which I did. He then showed me pocket kings! If he had re-re-raised all-in pre-flop, I probably would have called and been out of the tournament. Or, if the flop had been three cards below a jack, I probably would have put my remaining 1,600 chips in the middle, he would have called, and I’d have been eliminated that way. So, that king on the flop saved me — for awhile.
I treaded water for the next hour, managing to steal a few small pots to keep up with the rising blinds, but never building a real stack. Finally, I decided to move all-in with ace-six. The woman to my left, who had twice as many chips, called with ace-ten. My friend Pete, the chip leader, thought for awhile before calling with ace-king. Wow, was I behind — until two sixes popped up on the flop and I tripled up! That put me back in the game, and soon I doubled up again with two queens versus ace-queen. With half the table gone, I was now chip leader, a position I held until the very end.
When it got to heads-up with a tough player named Dave, I had a 2-1 advantage. I could smell victory, but played very disciplined poker, because any mistake would double him up and reverse our positions. We played a few small pots back and forth for over a half-hour. At this point, the blinds were 600/1200 as the dealer, Angela, tossed a card to Dave and then almost flipped over my first card. She paused to ask if he saw it. He said he didn’t, as did I, so she gave us each one more card. Since I was on the button, it was my turn to act, and I raised the minimum to 2400, hoping Dave had enough of a hand to re-raise. He did, and moved all-in with ace-ten. I thanked Angela for not fumbling my first card, because it was an ace — and so was the second! I had him dominated, and the five cards she put on the board didn’t change anything, so all the chips were mine, meaning I had won the Main Event seat!
Dave congratulated me, and I returned the compliment, telling him he was a tough opponent. Then other friends in the Harrah’s poker room came over to congratulate me, too. It was very exciting, but for some reason I remained very calm as I filled out the necessary paperwork and starting thinking about going to play in the event that I’ve observed and covered for so many years. Exhausted after more than 9 straight hours of poker, I went home to celebrate with my wife and daughter and reply to lots of emails and tweets from friends and followers.
So, for the next few months, listeners of my Final Table poker radio show will have to endure me asking most of our guests for Main Event advice — as will my radio partner, Dennis Phillips. This Harrah’s double shootout is how he won his seat into the 2008 WSOP Main Event, which turned him into a poker millionaire when he finished third in a huge field. I don’t have illusions about running that deep, but I hope I can play as disciplined a game in Las Vegas in July as I did here today.