LEDYARD, Conn. -- Greg Raymer is the Rodney Dangerfield of the poker world -- he don't get no respect.
A couple of weeks ago, in his backpage column in Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly took a few shots at poker players in general, and at Raymer in particular.
"This poker craze is the biggest waste of time since Stevie Wonder went to a mime festival ..." Reilly wrote. "... I haven't seen this many doughy people since the Krispy Kreme company picnic. Do they tan under 40-watt bulbs? Where is the thrill in watching guys with 300 cholesterol levels play cards and rattle their chip stacks 1,000 different ways? The current World Series of Poker champ, Greg (Fossilman) Raymer, wears back-of-the-comic-book gag glasses and gemstone necklaces and goes about 275 pounds, though a good 3 percent of that is muscle ...
"These people spend more time on their butts than FDR did ...
"What's ESPN going to put on next, the World Hairline-Receding Championships?"
Raymer, who, like all championship poker players, is extremely competitive (despite his genial manner), responded by e-mailing Reilly a challenge to play him in a racquetball match. Reilly turned him down, claiming he had never played racquetball, and suggested they do battle in golf, a sport Reilly plays frequently. (Yes, this is the same Reilly who once famously challenged Sammy Sosa to pee into a cup on the spot after Sosa claimed he was willing to do just that to disprove rumors that he was a steroid abuser, and then publicly took the Dominican slugger to task for chickening out.)
In a subsequent e-mail, Raymer politely pointed out two things to Reilly:
1.) "I thought that was the point of the column -- that a physically fit guy like you could beat a doughboy like me in any competitive activity requiring legitimate athletic ability."
2.) Even if he somehow beat Reilly in golf, it would do nothing to disprove Reilly's contention that the average poker player is a hopelessly immobile lard-butt, "since there are plenty of top golfers -- even some major tournament winners -- who are fat."
But it isn't just writers and other top pros who tend to disparage Raymer, mostly on the grounds that, as he said with supreme irony about himself a couple of weeks ago, "I may be the worst player in the world, but I guess I picked the right week to get lucky."
Even the hoi polloi is down on The Fossilman. Just before the recent $10,000 buy-in World Poker Tour event, I was watching an Act III at Foxwoods with a player I've come to know a bit over the last few months; and I was talking about how much I'd learned from playing against and listening to Raymer.
"Is he any good?" the guy asked, echoing the thoughts of many middle-level players with whom I've discussed this. "I watched all the World Series of Poker coverage, and I got the impression that he made a lot of questionable plays but got incredibly lucky, winning almost all the coin-flip hands and even a few key ones where he was way behind until the river."
I explained that the coverage of the WSOP is heavily edited, that it features the coin-flip hands because they are dramatic (and high drama is like heroin to TV); that you don't see all the brilliant chip-accumulating plays Raymer made to get into position to win all those coin flips; that he is, in fact, a brilliant and creative thinker about poker; that it's hard to stay lucky for an entire week of 15-hour poker sessions without making a single fatal misplay, etc., etc., etc.
The guy listened respectfully -- even though he isn't a fan of Raymer, he actually thinks I know what I'm talking about (what a crazy world we live in, eh?) -- but I could tell, by the end of our conversation, he was far from convinced.
And maybe you, dear reader, are also far from convinced.
Well, in Part II of my World Poker Finals diary, which follows, I'll try to change your mind by describing what I learned during my six hours of competing with Raymer at an 843-player, $565 buy-in no-limit hold 'em tournament which took place at Foxwoods a couple of days before the WPT event.
THURSDAY, 10 a.m. -- My assigned seat: Table 8, Seat 3. Sitting right behind me in Seat 4: Greg Raymer, world champion of poker, a hyper-aggressive and unpredictable player who figures to make my morning -- and afternoon, if I somehow manage to last that long -- a nightmare of stack-destroying raises.
|Got a poker problem or want more details about Jay's poker adventure? Send in your questions and comments.|
More to the point, I'm almost surely going to come out of this with some good column material, which makes almost everything, including losing money, palatable.
10:15 a.m. -- We're still at the $25-25 level (blind levels for this tournament last 50 minutes, which is a big advantage for better players since it reduces the huge luck factor involved in tournaments with more rapid level changes -- usually only 15 or 20 minutes per), when I get involved in a monster hand.
I'm in fifth position with 10-10. The guy in front of me raises to $75, and I re-raise to $225 (we started with $1,500 in tournament chips), hoping to win the pot right there or, at the very least, isolate one opponent. (The other option is to limp in for $75, hoping to flop another 10, but that doesn't fit with the new aggressive Jackpot Jay.) A couple of other players fold, a guy at the other end of the table calls, and so does the original raiser.
The flop comes Qs-10s-3c, giving me a set.
The original raiser bets $225, and I'm trying to figure out how to milk as much out of the pot as I can. Though it's doubtful, given the betting so far, I know it's possible that someone could be sitting there with two spades, but I decide not to worry about that. This is a great chance to double up -- or better -- and I decide to go for it. So I raise to $525, when ...
... the guy across the table goes all-in.
The original raiser folds. I, of course, am going to call, since there's no hand he could conceivably have that beats me at this point (I'm assuming that if he had been sitting with Q-Q, he would have made a big re-re-raise before the flop). But before I call, I try to figure out what he might have -- and all I can imagine is 3-3, which would be great for me since he'd only have one out.
As it turns out, he's holding As-Ks, which gives him a lot of outs -- any spade (nine outs), plus any jack (three more outs) -- as long as the board does not also pair up. And from his perspective, he may have felt that he had a few more outs than that -- for example, any of the other three kings if I happened to have something like A-Q.
Sadly for him and luckily for me, blanks come on the turn and river; and, for a few blissful minutes, I'm probably the tournament chip leader.
"Nice hand," Raymer says. (I told you he was smart.)
In many ways, metaphorically sitting at a master's feet for the better part of a morning and afternoon, soaking up knowledge and wisdom while at the same time competing on a level playing field -- well, almost -- is the ultimate poker fantasy come to life for a wannabe like me, especially because the chatty Raymer is not the kind of player who keeps secrets. The lessons never stop.
The guy sitting behind Raymer, a Foxwoods local, asks him how he feels about going all-in and thereby risking your tournament life when you think you only have a small edge -- say, 10 percent.
|Have you become obsessed with poker too? Well, no worries -- Page 2 has launched its very own poker section. Check it out.|
"But what if it's the only tournament you are ever going to play?" the guy asks.
"First of all, it's not going to be the only tournament you ever play," Raymer says. "But even if it is, you've got to take advantage of that kind of edge. Even if somehow you can go back in time and play the same tournament over and over."
12:35 p.m. -- WARNING TO WOMEN, CHILDREN AND MEMBERS OF THE MORAL MAJORITY: AVERT THINE EYES AND SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH:
I've just set a personal record for my poker "career." I've made it through three full 50-minute levels without having to pee. I might have the brain of an amateur, but I'm developing the kidneys of a pro.
Mostly thanks to my set of 10s at the right moment, I'm sitting with about $5,000 in chips, more than twice as many as the "average" player still left. It's amazing how much easier it is to be both patient and aggressive when you have chips.
1 p.m. -- Ron Rose, a WPT winner, joins the table.
"How'd you do in the Professional Poker Tour event?" someone asks.
"One-ninety-eight," says Rose, meaning not that he finished in 198th place but rather that he is sitting on $198,000 in chips at the final table (that tournament has been adjourned until after the $10,000 WPT event is completed in a few days).
Rose is a modern renaissance man -- he's been successful at everything he's tried from business to duplicate bridge to poker -- and he's not shy about how great he is. (To be fair, arrogance is a good quality to have if you want to be a top player.) He fixes Raymer with his trademark owlish squint and says, "I need you to double me up. I promise it won't hurt."
Raymer smiles. "You know the answer to that, Ron. It always hurts."
Rose is sitting at the other end of the table, and he seems to be staring at me like I'm the appetizer. (Maybe all this poker is just making me paranoid.) I close my eyes and offer up a rare prayer to He (or She) Who Determines What Happens in Our Universe: "Please, please, let me bust this guy and I will die a happy man."
3:15 p.m. -- I bust Rose. Maybe there is a God.
On a number of occasions during the previous two hours, Rose and I had gone head-to-head on hands with the potential to change the tournament. But one or the other of us always folded in the face of a big bet. Once, the guy sitting next to Rose had whispered, sotto voce, "It looks like he has it in for you."
|Confused by some of the terms Jay uses in his poker columns? Get their definitions right here.|
"I didn't like that bet," Raymer said to me, "unless you had some kind of middle pair -- 7-7 or 8-8 -- and were trying to push him off a higher pair."
At the moment, I didn't really understand what Raymer was trying to say. My thinking was that if I made a normal bet -- say, $1,200 -- Rose would know, for a fact, that I had an ace and would surely fold what I presumed was a middle pair. I was hoping to intrigue him with my all-in bet. But later, while reanalyzing the hand, I suddenly understood something about poker that I had never understood before: that it is possible to think on the fourth level, beyond What I Have, beyond What He Has, beyond What He Thinks I Have, all the way to What to Do About What He Thinks I Have."
In Zen Buddhism, pupils often suffer along for years, cutting wood, trudging through snow and mud, meditating until their heads feel like they are going to split open, when, out of nowhere, a seemingly chance remark by a teacher will enlighten them (in Zen parlance, satori is achieved). Raymer's comment had that effect on me.
Anyway, the hand with which I bust Rose starts off modestly enough: 7-5 unsuited in the big blind. Rose limps, the small blind just calls, and I'm in the hand without any further investment.
Which turns out to be a great thing when the flop comes ... 6-4-3 unsuited, giving me a hard-to-read nut straight.
I check, Rose bets $600, I raise to $1,500, Rose calls. The turn is a 3. I go all-in, and Rose calls with 5-5. When the river brings a superfluous 4, Rose is gone and I have the best moment of my six-month rollercoaster poker career.
3:45 p.m. -- About half an hour later, I also knock Raymer out of the tournament, a turn of events that leaves me with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I'm happy to have the chips, and I know it's a good story to tell my readers -- and my grandchildren.
On the other, it's an end to the free lessons and the loss of a congenial playing companion -- a real rarity in the dog-eat-dog world of poker. I know, Maess (my frequent e-mailer from Minnesota) I'm a hopeless loser.
With the Ah-Kh in ninth position, I raise the blinds (still $100-200) to $525. Raymer, on the button, makes it $1,525. I call. When I tell Matt Matros about the hand later, he says he would have re-raised. Given that I'm a lesser player, it probably makes sense to take every opportunity to go all-in with any kind of edge, or even a slight disadvantage. But I had a decent amount of chips left after calling Raymer's raise; and I wanted to see the flop, hoping I could either trap him with a favorable one, or back off and live to fight another few hands if the flop was unfavorable.
Anyway, the flop comes K-10-9 rainbow. I look up and see a sight that has frozen many a player's blood. About a foot away, Raymer is staring at me through his weird "Alice in Wonderland" glasses. I was taken aback for a moment -- he hadn't put on the glasses in the few other hands, all small, he had played against me earlier in the tournament.
"What's with the glasses, Greg?" I ask. "You didn't need them earlier."
He continues to stare at me until I check, at which point, as I suspected, he goes all-in for his last $5,000, slightly less than I have left. Now, it isn't impossible that he has me beaten. I rule out a Q-J, and K-K seems rather unlikely since I have one and another is on the board. But he certainly could be holding 10-10 or 9-9. In either case, there's nothing I can do about it; I can't get off A-K at this point. But the reality is that I'm pretty sure I've got him beat.
So I call. And sure enough, he's got an A-Q, meaning he needs a jack or running queens on the turn and river to win. Luckily for me, the turn and river bring a couple of meaningless small cards, and I'm suddenly sitting there with about $15,000 in chips, and some of the other players are starting to call me "The Terminator."
Still, I feel a pang of loss.
5 p.m. -- Our table breaks up, and I am moved to a seat at a new table. I'm between Men the Master on my right and Herman Zango, a friendly dude from Costa Rica who, unfortunately for me, is sitting behind a pile of chips so high that it's hard to see his face. Given that Men is one of the most aggressive players on the planet -- he makes Raymer look like a high school librarian -- I don't figure to be long for the tournament. I am down to about $8,000 in chips; the average amount for all the players left (roughly 125) is $10,000-11,000. However, I manage to hang in there until ...
8:30 p.m. -- ... I run into the following hand in the big blind -- Ac-8c. The blinds are now $300-600 and the antes are $100, which means each orbit of the table costs $1,900. With my stack down to about $7,000, it's time to make a move.
Everybody folds around to the guy just to the right of the button, who limps in. This is noteworthy, since, for the previous couple of hours, he has raised every time he entered the pot with any pair, including 2-2, and any two high cards A-J or higher. So I'm pretty sure I have him beat. I put him on a range of hands from middle connectors, suited or otherwise, (Q-J, J-10, 10-9) or maybe even something like K-J unsuited.
So when it gets folded around to me, I raise $2,000, which he calls. The flop comes Q-6-4 rainbow, and I figure I might as well go all-in with my last $4,300. If the flop missed him, he'll fold. If not, I am dead anyway, because, if I check, he's definitely going to put me all-in. He's got a ton of chips, and he's obviously not afraid to use them -- and there's enough in the pot to warrant my trying to draw an ace on the turn or river.
Not an unreasonable way to play the hand, I think, even though he had a Q-J and no ace arrived to save my rear end. I go out in 86th place, meaning I outlasted more than 750 players. But I wind up with no money for my effort, since they are only paying through 80 places.
However, on the drive home, I realize I missed the chance for a better play. I should have gone all-in, pre-flop. Here's why:
1.) I didn't raise enough to force him to fold. My $2,000 raise meant there was $4,500 in the pot, so he was getting better than 2-1 to call -- and he could afford it. Assuming I didn't have a hand that dominated his -- A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-Q, A-J, K-Q or K-J -- which was pretty likely, given that I was short-stacked and in the big blind, then the worst odds he was getting was 2-1 against (if I had A-K); or, more likely, only 3-2 against (if I had an ace or a king and a non-picture card). If I happened to have a pair 10-10 or lower, even better for him -- pretty close to a coin flip. On the other hand, if I went all-in, pre-flop, for my remaining $6,300, there would have been $8,800 in the pot, which means he would only have been getting worse than 3-2 odds.
2.) Of course, he still might have called, but so what? No matter what happened on the flop, I was pretty much going to be forced to go all-in anyway. So why not do it when it could afford me some leverage?
3.) If I had gone all-in, pre-flop, I would have maximized my profit opportunities. If an ace or king or both had showed up on the flop, he might have folded when I bet my last $4,300. If he was already all-in ... well, too late.
But you know what they say: Too soon old, too late smart.
Of course, as my writer/player/friend Ashley Adams, author of the excellent "Winning 7-Card Stud," says, my biggest mistake was not cooling my roll for a few minutes to make sure I made it into the money. As Ashley so wisely put it, "Mathematically, making the money is infinitely better than not making the money."
I'll tell you one thing I do know, though: When Rick Reilly makes fun of me, I'm challenging him to a head-to-head duel, live, on ESPN's World Hairline-Receding Championships. And I don't want to hear any excuses about his handicap -- those dozens of new hair plugs he finagled on his SI expense account.
NEXT COLUMN: Jackpot Jay tests his newfound knowledge and aggressive playing style in the $10,000 buy-in World Poker Tour event. Plus, he gives himself his midterm grades.
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.