Broadly speaking, I think of my opponents as falling into three categories. There are the dead money players who make big mistakes and are generally the best source of profit. There are straight-forward players who don’t make big mistakes but also aren’t going to give me tough decisions. Then there are the tough players ready to fight for every pot. They are constantly looking for weakness, some indication that a pot might be theirs for the taking with a well-timed bet or raise.
Our starting table consisted of one dead money player, two straight-forward players, and the other six of us fell somewhere on the “tough player” spectrum. It wasn’t an ideal draw, but mostly the problem was that several of the tough players, including Doyle Brunson, were lined up on my left, in the best possible position for causing me trouble. Fortunately, about halfway through the day we lost one of the tough players, and he was replaced by dead money, so that was a welcome change of pace.
Usually, tough players make it clear that they are going to put pressure on you constantly.That’s not how Doyle played. In fact, I can’t tell you what exactly he was doing, but it was working. In the first couple of hours, he shot up from his starting 30K to over 50K without winning any particularly large pots. He never projected the image of a bully who was pushing too hard, but he raked in a lot of medium-sized pots without showing his cards, which is pretty much the hallmark of a good player.
The first six hours of the day were largely uneventful for me. I won the biggest pots I was involved in but lost a lot of small ones, so my stack fluctuated a bit in the 30K – 40K neighborhood.
For the most part, the best way to take advantage of straight-forward players is to stay out of their way when they show interest in a pot but, especially when stacks are deep, you can sometimes find opportunities to take pots away from them.
At the 50/100 level, I limped 65 under-the-gun, a few others limped behind, and we saw a 246 flop. A tough player in the small blind bet 200, and a straight-forward player in the big blind raised to 600. Considering the size of the pot, neither of these bets seemed especially strong, though I was pretty sure the big blind at least had me beat. I raised to 1,600, and they both folded.
The first significant pot I played against Doyle occurred just before the first break. Blinds were 100-200, and I raised to 525 with 96. Doyle called from the small blind, and the big blind folded.
The flop came AK4 with two spades. Doyle checked, and I bet 700. The turn was a 9, so now I had a pair to go along with my flush draw, though I was pretty sure I wasn’t ahead. Doyle checked, and I bet 1,400. He called.
The river was a 6, giving me two-pair. Doyle checked, and I bet 2,400. He called, I showed, and he shook his head and showed me AQ. “Good job,” he told me.
I paused for a moment, letting it sink in that I’d just been trash-talked by Doyle Brunson, and then I broke out in laughter. He chuckled as well.
Almost immediately after dinner break, I won my biggest pot of the day. I opened to 750 with 99 on the button and got reraised by a tough player in the big blind. I called, and with 4,350 in the pot, the flop came 963. He bet 3,100, and I called.
The turn was another 6. He bet 6,300, and I called. The river was a King, he checked, and I pushed out 16,800, about 80% of his stack. He thought for a long time and eventually called. I raked in a huge pot that put me up to about 67K.
I didn’t hold onto it long. At the 200/400/50 level, a straight-forward player in early position opened to 850, the loosest player at the table called, I called 55 in the small blind, and Doyle called from the big blind. I checked a 632 rainbow flop intending to raise the pre-flop raiser if he continuation bet, but it checked around.
The turn was an 8. Now I figured I was probably good and could either call or raise for value if anyone but Doyle bet. I checked, and Doyle bet 2,200. I figured he had either a 6 or an 8 but that I could get him off it by representing a bigger hand. The others folded, and I raised to 7,000. He called.
The river was a 3, far from the best card for me as it eliminated some combos of sets for me, but I bet 11K anyway. Doyle hesitated a while and called with 86, which was a bit stronger than what I thought he had, though to be honest the sense I got afterwards was that he wouldn’t have folded any 6. He eventually told me. “I’d've laid it down to most people, but I knew you had that in ya.” I took that as a compliment, which was nice to hear from such a titan of the game, but I’d rather have had back the 20,000 chips I invested in that pot.
Doyle didn’t talk much, but what he did say was usually solid gold. Some of it was poker-related, but the best ranged from marriage (“You get to know ‘em pretty well after fifty years.”) to life in Las Vegas (“You get pretty jaded living here. They just push people out of the road. Dead or dying, they don’t care.“) to fame. I asked him if he thought there was anyone in the room – players, staff, media, and spectators – who didn’t know who he was. He thought for a minute. “Maybe a couple.”
“Is that weird for you?”
“It’s flattering, but it’s also annoying. I don’t usually mind taking a picture, but when you gotta pee, you gotta pee.”
It’s not only annoying for him. Our table was very prominently located and on-display, and spectators were constantly taking pictures, sometimes ignoring the prohibition on flash photography, and shouting “Let’s go Doyle!” from the rail. It was kind of exciting to be around that energy for a day, but I can see how living with it would be exhausting.
He was clearly tired by the end of the day, but then again so was I. And despite – or perhaps because of – his lack of talkativeness, he was attentive at the table. He made his decisions quickly, probably faster than any of the rest of us, and never needed to be reminded when the action was on him. It’s really nothing short of amazing to see someone who has remained not just good but great at something for so long, particularly something that requires stamina and mental sharpness that, simply as a biological fact, tend to decline with age.
He may have been tired, but when the dust settled he had about 80K chips, more than anyone else at the table. I finished the day with 17,125.
I started off short and resolved not to make any moves until I won a big pot. I wasn’t quite in desperation mode, but I would be if I lost another medium-sized pot, so I resolved to have the best hand the next time I got involved in one. I was lucky enough to double up with KK vs. AK in the first two hours.
In the next big pot I won, I got lucky in a different sort of way. Blinds were 250/500/50, and I opened to 1,000 with TT in early position. I got four calls but a relatively good 754 rainbow flop. I bet 2,800, about half the pot, and only the first pre-flop caller called. I figured he would probably raise a set, so I felt good about my hand.
A 2 on the turn made me feel even better. I bet 6,600, again about half-pot, and he called.
An 8 on the river was a card I really didn’t want to see. Not only was I now beat by 88 and by straight draws, but I feared my opponent might turn a few of his made hands into bluffs to represent the straight. I didn’t know whether he was good enough to do that, but I doubted there was anything I could do about it.
I checked, and he turned over 99. I showed my TT and claimed the pot, grateful that he hadn’t bluffed with what was probably the bottom of his range.
That table broke and I got off to a good start at the next one, calling a raise with 33 and flopping K K 3in a five-way pot. The pre-flop raiser bet 4K and I raised to 9K with 35K behind. If anyone had a King, I wanted to make sure I tied him to the pot before he had a chance to get skittish. The pre-flop raiser called.
A 3 on the turn gave me quads, and he checked. Now I figured that if he had a King, I’d get his stack on the river no matter what, so even though I thought he’d rarely have anything else, I decided to give him a chance to put more money in just in case. The river was a J, and he bet 5K. I shoved, and he called with KQ. He berated himself for not just check-calling the river, but even if he hadn’t bet, I was going to ship my stack because I knew he’d never fold a King.
The day was going great so far, but it was really just luck. I coolered a few people, and while there’s a little bit of skill involved in playing monster-vs.-monster situations better than your opponents, it’s not enough to make you a profitable player.
Because monster hands are so hard to come by, my strategy at the poker table is built around forcing my opponents to show me monsters. When I’m bluffing, I try to put them in spots where it will be extremely difficult to continue without monster hands. With my marginal hands, I refuse to fold until my opponent makes some big bet that would require either a monster hand or some serious cojones.
The first guy I put to the test was the toughest of my opponents, the only one who seemed like he had a serious background in online poker. Blinds were 400/800/100, and he limped behind a dead money player for the second time. I raised to 4K with A8s, and the action folded back to this second player, who raised to 10K.
I didn’t think he could call a shove without a monster, and I knew he wouldn’t often have a monster after limping behind. How often he’d have one after re-raising was a much thornier problem, but with a suited Ace, I had a blocker to Aces and decent equity against anything else. I put him all-in for about 35K more and lost a big pot to Aces.
The next time it happened, I overcalled a raise with AT and four of us saw a J 8 5 flop. They checked it to me, which suggested there probably weren’t any monsters out there, so I bet 4,400, about two-thirds of the pot. Only the big blind called.
He bet 5,100 on a 3 turn, with about 60K behind. I covered him, but not by a lot. I figured that a big raise here would make it nearly impossible for him to continue without the A, though in retrospect I wonder how often he has anything but the A when he leads the turn. He shoved and I felt stupid. I got outplayed pretty badly on that one.
Coming back from dinner, my plan was to tighten up and capitalize on my image by making a monster hand and getting paid off. Often chips that you lose bluffing can come back to you later in the form of extra action on your big hands. Unfortunately, I never got the big hands I needed to make that work, and about an hour later our table broke, and my expensive image evaporated in the harsh air conditioning of the Brasilia Room.
There were a couple of weak players at my new table overvaluing some junky and marginal hands, which is ultimately a good thing. However, the way to take advantage of it, especially when you don’t have a lot of chips, is just to wait for monsters and expect to get paid off. Again, the monsters never came.
I’m proud of myself for not getting frustrated and doing something stupid in the last few hours of the night. I also managed to avoid getting gun-shy about bluffing and found the courage to pull the trigger in at least one good spot despite my previous losses. Still, I finished the day with 20K, barely more than I had at the start and quite a bit less than at my zenith.
Now in desperation mode, I was at least fortunate to start in late position, which meant I got to see a few hands before the blinds took a big bite out of my stack. They were mostly complete junk, though, so I never moved in.
I paid the blinds and folded my way for most of another round before finally shoving a pair of 7s. The action folded around to an older guy in the small blind, who called so quickly that I figured I was toast. He turned over ATs, though, and I won the race.
By a strange coincidence, I’d draw a table with Shane Warne, a famous cricket player with whom I played in this same tournament several years ago. He’s not bad at poker, but as a non-professional, he was one of the weaker players at the table, so I tried a couple of times to raise with decent but not great hands when he was in the big blind. Each of those raises got reraised and I had to fold.
I actually did get a pair of Aces during my brief time at the table, but that was the only raise I made all day that my opponents chose not to contest, so I won a very small pot with those.
Shortly after that, I got into an interesting spot where I believe I avoided one common mistake many people would have made but still didn’t play the hand as well as I could have. The same guy who called my all-in with the Ace-Ten opened the pot with a raise to 3,500 in late position. As I was thinking about just what sort of a hand I’d want to re-raise all-in on him, a very good player in the small blind called.
Although that put some more money in the pot, it greatly reduced my interest in trying to steal it pre-flop. I thought he needed a pretty good hand to voluntarily see a flop out of position, and I didn’t think he’d give me credit if I shoved. A lot of people don’t like trying to play after the flop with a stack as short of mine, but when I looked down at 97, I didn’t see any alternative. It was too good to fold considering the odds but not good enough to move all-in. I called.
The flop came Q84 with two hearts, and my stack was just about perfect for check-shoving against a continuation bet, so I checked. The raiser quickly and confidently bet 8,000 into a pot of 12,000. The common mistake here would be to ignore the information he’s giving away about his hand and just proceed with the plan to check-shove. It was obvious that he liked his hand a lot, so my new plan was to fold.
Then the small blind called the 8,000, offering a much better price than I anticipated to see another card. What I didn’t consider, which probably should have convinced me to fold anyway, was that the small blind might have a better heart draw than mine. If the raiser had a pair of queens and the small blind a better flush draw, then I had virtually no chance of winning.
Anyway, I called, the turn was not a heart, the small blind bet, I folded, and the third guy called. They got all-in on the river, and the small blind had trip 8s to beat the other guy’s AQ. My read was correct that the bettor on the flop had no intention of folding, so I was proud of that.
Although I wasn’t in terrible shape considering the cards they had, my flop call was still a small mistake that I couldn’t afford to make. Those 8,000 chips were providing critical breathing room while I waited for a hand good enough to play for the last of my chips.
I got a pretty good spot when, with just eight times the big blind in my stack, everyone folded to me on the button. I was ready to move with at least 80% of the deck, maybe more. I looked down at 32o and threw it away.
After that, I never got another all-in opportunity that was even close. When it was my turn to pay the big blind, a good player made a small raise, and Warne called. The small blind folded, and it was on me. The size of the pot was roughly the size of my stack, and I didn’t think either of my opponents would have premium hands with any great frequency.
I looked at my cards and saw A5o, hardly a monster but I decided it was good enough. I didn’t expect to be ahead often, but I did think I could get it heads up and come out the winner something like 40% of the time, which is pretty good considering the reward if I succeeded.
I jammed, the original raiser reshoved with AQo, and there were no miracles. I gathered my things and walked away. It was a disappointing end to a frustrating summer, with a lot to question and beat myself up abo – er, learn from. A lot happened to inspire me too, though, not least of which was Doyle Brunson cashing in the main event in a sixth decade. I hope to be half as good for half as long.