Playing with the Field at the World Series

The World Series of Pain

Dear reader: I wrote this in 2001, as a roving reporter for Poker Digest magazine.


I drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas with the pedal down and the volume up. Such freedom – a car, a guitar, and an air mattress. Such peace – I wasn’t traveling to risk money, but to make new friends and hang out with old ones.

The vacation mindset held. I chatted and dined with dozens of poker notables and partied hard with friends. In the town that never rests, I spent far more time sleeping than playing poker. But along the way I got bit by the WSOP bug and two weeks later I came home awed by the scene and wanting more. Now I’m like all the other regular attendees of the World Series of Poker, counting backwards from 365.

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June Field gave me a press badge. It came with hobnobbing privileges and every grinder’s fantasy: free food. June urged me to play in the media/charity tournament. I thought, perfect. We can all sit around and take notes together.

The cool thing was we started with $10,000 in chips and $25-50 blinds and played no-limit hold’em, just like the main event. Maybe that’s why so many played so well even though the buy-in was $0. (The top three finishers get to donate $5000, $1000 and $500 to their charities of choice.)

With no money on the line I started out lax. A couple hours later, sitting there in the Horseshoe, playing the identical structure of the Big Dance, against players who really know their poker, I must admit I was consumed in the moment and I wanted to win the dang thing and when’s the next one? Not for a year? Sheesh.

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I busted out late in the most brutal fashion and moped away just in time to run into my best buddy Alex who was on his way to dine with two top-notch players, Bobby Hoff and Steve Lott. Great timing, and troubles forgotten. We four have shared plenty of table time in the no-limit games at Lucky Chances. This time the table had an unstapled cloth and was covered with five-star food.

Even though I’ve survived as a full-time player for ten years, when I listened to Bobby and Steve talk about poker it felt like I was hearing Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway talk about writing. They covered everything from bankroll to game selection to behavior to differences between pot-limit and no-limit to misconceptions about winning streaks and losing streaks to stories about the games in Texas way back when. They spoke with boyish excitement about their multiple final-table finishes in the $10,000 event and the year-long anticipation and the majesty of it all. The message hit hard and stuck: play in May.

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Dante Azmo is a friend from back east. He is a gentle, saintly man, hard to lie to, like lying to a priest. That’s a problem because whenever we play together and I bet and everyone folds, Dante waits until my cards are in the muck and then asks me what I had.

I’m in the $5-5 blinds pot-limit hold’em game at the Horseshoe – right next to the rail and well positioned for visitations – when Dante and Diana stop by. I muck for a lap or two while we talk and then an entertainer impulse hits me on the button. I look at my cards, 6-2 offsuit, and show my hand to Dante and Diana. Diana knowingly nudges Dante and warns him, “Don’t watch this.”

Two players limp in for $5. I put a little pressure on, and I mean a little. I raise $5. Both blinds call and the limpers call. The flop comes K-4-4. Everyone checks to me and I toss a $25 chip into the $50 pot and everyone folds. Okay Dante, now you know.

On a theoretical note, it’s easy to stay in money at pot limit. All you have to do is miss every flop.

One more hand, this time pot-limit Omaha/high. I plop down all babbly and with no post required I take my first hand under the gun. My first two cards are jack-jack. I limp in for $5 before the other cards are dealt. “Oh, this is Omaha?” They know I am kidding.

My other two cards are queen-jack, giving me Q-J-J-J. Yuck. The flop comes Q-Q-J. Yowsa! All five players check. The turn comes a king. I bet $30 and two players call. The river is an ace, making the final board: Q-Q-J-K-A. I bet $40 and get raised $60 and the third guy folds. I call the raiser hoping he’s on a bluff or a half-bluff (betting hard on the river with a one-card straight when we think it’s a tie and there is a flush or full house possible). But I expect him to show me ace-queen and that’s what he did. I show my hand and wipe the egg off my face; the only way to get from there to here was to call preflop without looking at all of my cards.

On a theoretical note, I need to miss more flops.

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I talked to easy-going Daniel Negreanu about how to pronounce his name. Picture the arms of Moses spreading forward and up and out as the sea parted. That’s what Daniel’s arms did when he rolled the “R” and stretched the “AH” and said, “Neh-GRRAH-noo.” Then Daniel gave me the acceptable “American” version, without the Romanian R, without the parting sea, but with hands open and forward at the hips and a slight shrug. Nuhgrawnoo.

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I played with Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott . No biggie. Lots of people have. But what we played was pass-the-guitar in a hotel room. I’m here to tell you, that man can play and sing the blues. No doubt he’s paid his dues.

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Before the Senior’s event, Howard “Tahoe” Andrew said that no medication or walkers would be allowed during the tournament and that whoever was still breathing at the end would be the winner. Tahoe said he’s not taking any “last longer” bets.

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While Bob Thompson was announcing “Shuffle up and deal” to kick off the $10,000 event, I was at the Luxor Theater filling out a job application for the first time since I was 16. Blue Man Group was holding open-call auditions for Blue Man roles. I’m fanatical about this show, seen it three times so far, and I’m a slave to the music because it taps into the primal rhythms and I was a career drummer and god I wanted this job.

A Blue Man must drum and have a certain body build and look dumbfounded. No problems there. Unfortunately the casting staff also emphasizes acting experience. On that part of the resume I wrote, “I play lots of poker so I know how to stare well.” I didn’t get the gig.

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I was blown away by a dozen of poker’s finest thinkers when writer Jim Brier invited Bob Morgan and me to a weekly poker discussion group. Writers from Poker Digest, Card Player, and did two of our favorite things: eat free pizza (thanks Bob) and talk poker. What pleased me most was the community spirit. What amused me most was seeing Jim Brier make a note in a small blue spiral notepad. I pulled out an identical notepad to make a note about our similar tastes in notepads.

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Tournament Director Bob Thompson is essential to the WSOP setting. His voice is smooth and paced and easy on the ears. Bob’s cowboy hat and string tie hint of the Wild West poker days. And I love his editorial remarks. On the next to last day of the main event, Thompson wandered among the tables and announced important hands as always. A player got all-in with six-four against ace-ace. The aces held up. Thompson said, “Some try to get lucky, and some try to get real lucky.” Then he rationalized the pot-stuck momentum of short stack tournament play in homespun fashion, “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”


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