LEDYARD, Conn. -- Ever since I won my seat, back in June, I've been looking forward to the $10,000 World Poker Tour no-limit hold 'em event, which started on Saturday, as my first semester final exam. I went up to Foxwoods last Monday with four goals in mind:
How close did I come to achieving my goals? Here's Part I of my six-day diary -- Monday, Nov. 8, through Saturday, Nov. 13:
MONDAY, 2 p.m. -- Showing respect for my aging kidneys after the long ride up from New York City, I immediately rush into the men's room outside the Sunset Ballroom (where all the 2004 World Poker Finals events are being held), when I hear, from behind the locked door of a stall, some guy shouting into his cell phone about a series of bad beats: "YEAH, THEN THIS JERK, THIS MENTAL PYGMY, CALLS MY ALL-IN BET -- I'M HOLDING K-K -- FOR THE REST OF HIS CHIPS ... WITH ACE-SIX UNSUITED. WHERE DO THEY FIND THESE IDIOTS? OF COURSE, AN ACE COMES ON THE RIVER. IT HAPPENS EVERY @#$%$!! TIME, DOESN'T IT? NO, I DON'T HAVE YOUR TWO GRAND. DON'T WORRY, I'LL HAVE IT BY THE TIME YOU GET HERE. GUARANTEED. HEY, WHEN HAVE I EVER LET YOU DOWN?"
I'm trying to imagine the look on the face of the guy at the other end of this cell phone call when I find myself inside the Sunset Ballroom, where a few hundred maniacs are rushing around the room, trying to get into various Act IIs and one-table satellites. There are sign-up sheets scattered around the room, which are sometimes referred to by floor personnel and sometimes not when it comes time to fill a new table, which leads to lots of shoving and mewling by an eclectic assortment of coach potato gunslingers. Employing the elbow-swinging, space-clearing tactics I learned as a kid while trying to get on a D train at 42nd Street during rush hour, I manage to get myself seated at a table where 10 people are trying to qualify for Tuesday's Multi-Play Finals.
(To make the Multi-Play Finals, you have to do two things: Pay Foxwoods $240 -- of which $200 goes into the prize pool -- and win your qualifying table. All qualifying table winners -- there are seven qualifying rounds, one every two-and-a-half hours, beginning at 9:30 a.m. and ending about 3 in the morning -- will then meet in Tuesday's championship, beginning at 10 a.m.)
2:45 p.m. -- In a scenario that will, sadly, be repeated many times over the next 48 hours, within 15 minutes I find myself busted out of the Multi-Play qualifier when my club flush fails to fill on the turn or the river.
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3:45 p.m. -- Not that I'm superstitious or anything, but I decide to put my WPT hat (a "gift" for signing up for the Multi-Play qualifier) in the car. For luck. Here's how well that works: By ...
9:45 p.m. -- ... I've bombed out of another Multi-Play qualifier and two more Act IIs without coming close to making a single other player feel the slightest bit endangered.
10 p.m. -- I decide to give the Multi-Play qualifiers one more chance. We are down to five players, when, with 5-5, I go all-in for my last $1,200 (we started with $1,500 in tournament chips). Everybody folds around to the short stack, who thinks about it for a while, then calls with his last $850 with A-4 unsuited, making me a 70-30 preflop favorite to win the hand. However, when 4-4-x come on the flop, not to mention his fourth 4 on the turn, I'm down to my last $350 in chips. The hand after, I triple up with Q-Q, the guy to my right opens for $1,200. I quickly call with Ac-Kd. He turns over A-J unsuited and says, "Why do you always call me with a better hand?" The flop is x-x-x, with two small diamonds, and a third small diamond arrives on the turn. This means he has two outs -- the two jacks that do not include the jack of diamonds, which will give me a flush -- making him a 21-1 underdog. This is small consolation when the jack of clubs comes on the river, sending me to bed at 11 p.m., a very unhappy and much the poorer camper (out $1,170 for the day).
TUESDAY, 11:50 a.m. -- I run into a guy who witnessed my bad beat of the night before, who pays me the following compliment: "After that jack came on the river, you never even blinked. I would have been foaming at the mouth. You were like some kind of Vulcan, or something." Nice, but I'd still rather have won the hand.
12:30 p.m. -- Sitting at a $125 buy-in one-table satellite (winner-take-all: $1,100), I have just folded 28 hands in a row -- no pairs, not a single ace, no good stealing opportunities. On Hand No. 29, I go all-in on the button for my last $900 in chips (we started with $1,500) with A-6 suited and am called by the big blind with K-Q unsuited. A king comes on the river.
2:30 p.m. -- In another Act II, I go all-in for $1,250 with 8-8 (we started with $1,000 in chips), am called by A-J unsuited and watch, with growing horror, as an ace comes on the river.
3:10 p.m. -- During lunch -- a bowl of assorted dumpling soup and a nutritious diet soda -- I give myself a pep talk. "Self," I say, "you are getting depressed and playing too passively. Get more aggressive, or STOP!!" Self nods vigorously, but by ...
8:50 p.m. -- ... I've bombed out of another Act II, a $125 buy-in satellite and two $230 buy-in satellites. No interesting hands.
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For the day, I am down a depressing $1,280, and, in two days -- total losses: $2,450 -- I haven't come close to winning a penny. On my way back to my hotel room, I wonder if my game just stinks. Maybe I'm not getting bad cards; maybe I'm just in denial about how baaaaad I really am at poker.
TUESDAY NIGHT/WEDNESDAY MORNING -- Not surprisingly, I am having trouble sleeping. I fall in and out of consciousness. At one point, when I am not really sure if I am awake or asleep, I am visited by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the late psychiatrist who studied human reactions to death. Kübler-Ross discovered that when someone close to us dies, or is dying, we -- all of us -- go through five stages:
5. And, finally, Acceptance
"C'mon, Jackpot," she says, "look at yourself. You know what's going on."
"You mean, I'm in denial, Doc? That I stink and just won't admit it?"
"Noooooo. Think, Jackpot, think."
"I'm not, you know, literally ..."
"No, it's someone -- or, rather, here's a big hint -- something close to you."
I stare blankly at her for what seems like minutes. After a while, she gets frustrated. "It's your bankroll, silly boy. You are in denial about the death of your bankroll."
I think about this, then say, "OK, I can see that. And I can see the depression part, too. But what about the bargaining, and the anger. Remember what that guy said about me being like a Vulcan. Vulcans don't show anger."
"That's true, but they feel anger. Think back about when that guy compared you to a Vulcan. Didn't you want to grab his head and demonstrate the power of the ol' Vulcan Mind Meld, like Mr. Spock."
"Hmm, maybe, if you say so. But what about bargaining? I don't remember doing any of that?"
"Oh, no? How about a few minutes ago, when you got up to go to the bathroom, and you said, 'God, if I can just win a single Act II, this week, I'll never ask for anything else from you'?"
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"Hear all, know all."
"So, I guess the next step for me is acceptance. When does that happen?"
"Soon enough," she says with exasperation, climbing through the window. "Geez, I thought poker players were supposed to be patient."
WEDNESDAY, 1 p.m. -- As I drive over to Foxwoods at about 30 miles per hour, with a line of cars behind me honking away, I realize that going 0-for-two-days has taken the life out of this adventure. I'm getting up later, taking longer for breakfast, motoring around at the speed of a stunned sea turtle.
However, just at the right moment, a miracle happens! -- I "win" a $230 buy-in one-table satellite. (Actually, I come in second, with a third of the chips, and "chop" the prize pool with Mr. Chips, who gets $1,400, while I take down $700.) I am up for the day!
And suddenly, all the bad luck, all the terrible cards, are forgotten. I'm smiling, I'm enjoying life again, I'm giving Elizabeth Kübler-Ross the finger.
I find myself in another Act II, this time with a Chinese pro named Bobby Cheung, who always wears a suit but still vibes like a modest-sized well-conditioned sumo wrestler. Cheung is a good-natured attention-hog who never stops talking, whether the TV cameras are on, or not. Every time he goes all-in, whether it's the championship tournament at the World Series of Poker or a lowly Act II at Foxwoods, he will stand up and growl in a voice that could penetrate the hull of a nuclear sub, "I am professional! No fear! You can NOT win at this game if you are afraid!"
And if anybody tells him to pipe down, he will look at them and growl, "Do not tell me how to play poker! I am professional!"
Early on, during our Act II, there are two people in the pot when the flop comes J-9-4 rainbow. As it turns out, the guy has J-J in the hole, and the woman has 9-9. Needless to say, all their chips eventually go into the middle of the table, and the woman is busted.
"Don't worry, lady," Bobby says, kindly but loudly. "There was nothing you could do on that hand. Phil Ivey would have gone broke on that hand. Even George W. Bush couldn't help you on that hand."
The woman smiles, as do the rest of us.
In fact, I am still smiling early that evening when I stop to watch a $1,035 buy-in one-table satellite. There are three players left, with the winner getting $10,000-plus, or enough to buy a seat into the $10,000 WPT tournament. One guy has about 90 percent of the chips, and the other two guys, in the blinds, have just about enough left to cover the big blind. So, in effect, the big blind is going to be all-in no matter what he has, and the small-blind, who is getting 3-1 on his money against a random hand, pretty much has to go all-in, no matter what he has.
As it turns out, the small blind has 9s-7s and the big blind has Q-5 unsuited. The board is 2-8-2-6-8, so the dealer starts to push the pot over toward the big blind, when the small blind suddenly says, "Hey, wait a minute! How come he gets the pot? Don't we both play the board and split it?"
Well, no, the dealer and the other players patiently explain. You see, sir, the way you determine a winner in hold 'em is to combine your hole cards with the board, pick the best five-card hand out of those seven cards and ... that's it. So the big blind has a hand of 8-8-2-2-Q, while you have a hand of 8-8-2-2-9, which is not as good.
The small blind listens to all this and says ... "Call the floor."
In other words, here is a guy who put up more than $1,000 in cash to play a satellite against top-flight players ... and he doesn't even know how to determine what his own hand is, or whether it's a winner.
So between Bobby Cheung and this rather spectacular case of dead money and the fact that I finally won something, I'm feeling a lot better when I hit the sack -- despite having frittered away most of my winnings in a couple more $125 buy-in one-table satellites and another Act II.
For the day, I'm up $70. "I AM PROFESSIONAL!!!!!"
NEXT COLUMN: In Part II, things begin to look up as Jackpot Jay spends six hours sitting next to world champion Greg Raymer and starts off on the path to poker enlightenment.
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.