I was about one week into my planned three weeks of preliminary WSOP events, and I was not off to a good start. After busting just a few hours into each of my first five tournaments due to some combination of bad luck and arguably bad play, I’d finally survived nearly the entire first day of a Venetian $2,500 deep-stack tournament only to bust with less than an hour remaining. Not that there’s any prize for surviving a full day, but there’s something especially disheartening about playing all day and having nothing to show for it, not even a Day 2 redraw slip.
On the plus side, I was free to play the Saturday $1,500 WSOP no-limit hold ‘em event, which despite a kind of fast structure is a great tournament in terms of the field it draws. Although it too ultimately ended in frustration, it presented a few opportunities to renew my confidence.
The first occurred shortly after Phil Ivey took a seat on my immediate left. Rather than cursing my luck to end up with one of the very best of the thousands of players still in the tournament, I resolved to look at as a cool experience and learning opportunity. Blinds were 100/200, and he had only about 5,000 chips, so how much damage could he really do anyway?
I opened to 400 with KT in middle position, Phil called, and everyone else folded. The flop came 6 4 3, and I began strategizing how to structure the betting so that I got to make the last bet without shoving several times the pot. I decided that a small bet might induce a bluff-raise, so I bet 450. Phil raised to 1,100, I jammed for 3,500 more, and he folded quickly and returned to his texting.
Phil probably forgot about this hand seconds after it happened, but although it was in some ways a standard spot, I intend to remember it as the time I outplayed Phil Ivey. I knew what I wanted him to do, I made a plan to induce a bluff-raise from him, and it worked. This may sound arrogant, but I figure if you’re going to be hard on yourself about your mistakes, and most of us are, then you better take time to give yourself a pat on the back when you do something well. I can only imagine how impossibly excited I would have been eight years ago if you’d told me that I would one day be putting a move on Phil Ivey at the World Series of Poker.
At my next table, I made another move I’m proud of. Blinds were 300/600/100, a good player opened to 1,300 in early position, got one call, and then I called with A9 in the big blind. I checked intending to fold a J T 5 flop, but I reconsidered after it checked around, concluding that neither of my opponents was likely to have a strong hand.
The turn was the 7, I bet 3,000, and surprisingly they both called. A 2 on the river brought another opportunity. Figuring that either of my opponents would have bet a flush draw on the flop, I bet 8,000, and they both folded.
In the last hour of the day, I was fortunate enough to have two of the least tough players at the table on my immediate left. Blinds were 800/1,600/200, and for a variety of reasons, I expected that the blinds would only call pre-flop with hands they considered “good” and that they wouldn’t three-bet light. So, I opened with a raise to 3,200 holding 52. The small blind called and the big blind folded.
The flop came 8 4 2. Villain checked, I bet 2,000, and he raised to 5,500. I thought he was most likely on a bluff, possibly with a draw but maybe even with just two overcards. I called.
The turn was the T, and he bet 6,500. Suspecting that he had either nothing or a huge hand, with the former being a lot more likely than the latter, I called.
The river was a 9, and he bet 10,000. I was getting nearly three-to-one, there were very few value hands I could see him playing this way, and the flush draw missed. I called, and he showed 76 for a gutshot that ran out a different straight.
I’ll never know whether he would have played two spades or KJ the same way, but given that my read was right on the first two streets, it’s tempting to think that he would have. He doesn’t have to be bluffing often for my river call to be correct, so I’d like to think that I just got unlucky to run into a backdoor straight. Of course there’s a case to be made for folding pre-flop, or for jamming the turn.
This is one of the hardest things about poker, that there are so many spots where you’ll never know whether you made the right play. Sick as it may sound, I practically welcome bad beats. I know I’m not going to win most of the tournaments that I enter, and especially when I’ve sold action, it’s so much easier to be able to point to a four-outer and say, “Whelp, I got our money in good, what are you gonna do?” I’m selective about the people to whom I sell action – they all understand how poker works and trust my judgment, and I’ve never actually had any of them express regret about investing in me – but it still hurts to keep sending them paragraphs-long explanations of how I lost all or most of our chips with 52 on a 842T9 board.
That’s why it’s so important to remember times when you played well. It’s a tremendous relief to be able to point to something like that Phil Ivey hand and say that that, unequivocally, was a damn fine hand of poker.
Although I’d just taken Thursday as a day off, I’d spent 13 hours on each of Friday and Saturday grinding tournaments with nothing to show for it, so I gave myself Sunday off as well, and then played another Venetian tournament on Monday.
It got off to a bad start. On the fourth hand, the player in the CO took a good long look at his cards, often a sign of a non-nut hand, and then opened for 250 at 50/100. The button and the SB called, and I had AJ in the BB. I reraised to 1,250, and only the CO called.
The flop came 852 with two hearts, I bet, and he called. I barreled an offsuit Q on the turn, and he called again. The river was a K and I decided it was worth taking one more small (relative to the pot – it was about 1/3 of our starting stack) stab in case he’d been stubborn with a medium pair. He called with 88.
In a sense, my read was right: he did have a non-premium hand pre-flop, and given that I’m going to squeeze big pairs in this spot, I can make his set-mining strategy less profitable by squeezing some big suited Aces as well. I wouldn’t always barrel them like this, but the nut flush draw is an awfully good barreling hand. This is what I call a bluff-cooler: he was lucky to make a set on a flop that also gave me a lot of incentive to bluff with a hand that wouldn’t ordinarily pay off a set.
Even when they don’t work, bluffs don’t always cost you as much as it seems. You may recoup at least some of your losses in the form of additional action on your big hands later. That’s what made it especially frustrating to go card-dead for the next few hours. I didn’t expect to move anyone off of any sort of hand, so I mostly played passive poker, trying to see flops and make hands that could get paid off. I wasn’t getting any premiums, and I wasn’t hitting any flops.
The biggest hand I got was towards the end of the 100/200 level. The first player to act, with a stack of about 30K, raised to 525. The next player called with 16K behind, then the button made it 2K from a stack of 35K. He’d reraised like this more than once, but he’d shown a big pair every time, so I had a decision when I looked down at AKo in the SB and 8K in my stack. I knew he wasn’t folding, and a race was the best I could hope for. Of course if I did actually get it heads up with button, there’d be 1,350 in dead money to race for, but with an under-the-gun raiser still holding a live hand, that was a big “if”.
Part of me was tempted just to shrug and stick the money in. The tournament was already not going my way, why not just gamble, get lucky or go home? Who would fault me for stacking off with AK and a short stack?
But I knew it wasn’t the right move, and I’m proud to say I made a disciplined fold. The original raiser ended up four-betting and getting it in on a ragged flop with JJ versus the button’s QQ. Knowing that those were their hands, folding my AK was at least a small mistake (assuming one of them would have folded – it was a big mistake if I could have gotten all-in against both of them), but I felt vindicated: I was right that they had big pairs, and either could easily have had a bigger one.
There’s so much glory in a big bluff or heroic call, but I encourage my brain to give me a shot of dopamine when I make a big fold, too. I know I’d be a more successful player if I made them more often. In this tournament, it turned out not to matter: I blinded down a bit and then lost a flip for the last of my chips.
My next event was the $3,000 Mixed Max. I was on the fence about playing, because I knew the field would be tough, but it sounded like a fun event, and for whatever reason I felt extra-motivated on the day of the tournament, so I bought in.
On Day 1, we played nine-handed. Faraz Jaka was the only player I recognized at my starting table, but most everyone played well. Needless to say, with Faraz at the table, there was a lot of action. In the first half-hour of play, we saw two six-bet pots. In the first, Faraz five-bet and folded to a shove. The very next hand, he six-bet shoved Aces and got called by AQ to win a massive pot. Obviously getting good action with his premium hands is one of the perks of Faraz’s hyper-aggressive style, but still, how good do you have to run to pick up Aces immediately after getting caught in a light five-bet?
The table only got tougher when Vanessa Selbst joined the table two seats to my left. As I did with Phil Ivey, I decided to do my best to study the play of this superstar. I did come away from the experience with a confidence boost, but not in the way I expected.
Vanessa actually played pretty tight, and the first time she attempted a squeeze, one of her opponents quickly moved all-in for several times the pot. She folded and went off about how she never gets any respect, this was the second light 3-bet she’d made all series and both times people jammed on her for absurd amounts, how if she could ever just pick up a hand people were ready to just hand her stacks, etc.
We all just continued playing as though she weren’t talking, and pretty soon her rage subsided. To her credit, she apologized to her opponent and to the table at large, saying that it had been a frustrating series and that she was currently 0-for-12 in the tournaments she’d played.
I’m ashamed to say that I took a perverse pleasure in that. As bad as my series had been so far, I was still doing better than Vanessa Selbst! And I was keeping my emotions together better, too. It just goes to show you that no one is immune from doubt and frustration.
Between all the pre-flop aggression play and the tough table, my plan for the day was just to keep my head down, play only hands that could take a lot of heat, and let my opponents drive the action. It ended up coming together beautifully when an under-the-gun player raised, I flatted with Kings in middle position, the cut-off shoved, the original raiser shoved over the top, and I ended up eliminating both of them.
That was the only big pot I played all day, but it was enough to make it through to Day 2 with a slightly below average stack. Both Faraz and Vanessa had been eliminated, and I was feeling good.