LEDYARD, Conn. -- I had been looking forward to the Foxwoods World Poker Tour $10,000 buy-in event for about five months, ever since I won my seat in an Act III back in June. I had begun to see it as the final exam of my first semester as a "pro," a litmus test of my progress as a player, a chance to show all the naysayers that I am not just some kind of wannabe, made brave by the backing of ESPN.
In other words, I didn't want to walk out of the Sunset Ballroom after an embarrassingly short tournament, whining, in complete denial of the bitter truth, "I coulda been a contender."
Nothing like putting a little pressure on yourself, huh?
Despite all this, I got a good night's sleep on Friday, and I awoke early Saturday morning neither absurdly optimistic nor self-destructively pessimistic.
As I made my way up from Parking Level 4 to the casino, I reviewed my game plan:
1) Play each hand with no memory.
2) Count to 10 -- at least -- before making any important moves.
3) Think about what I am trying to accomplish with each move.
4) Play to win, not to last. DON'T BE AFRAID.
SATURDAY, 11:45 a.m. -- I give myself my last pre-tournament pep talk: "No matter what happens, I'll have a better day than Scott Peterson."
Noon -- I am at Table 13, in Seat 6. Among the nine players starting at my table, there are only two I recognize -- Tony Ma, a good-but-not-great pro, and Chris Ackerman, a local twentysomething player whose claim to fame is that he finished fourth in last year's Foxwoods event, winning enough money in the process to put himself through graduate school and buy a Lamborghini to impress the ladies.
Each level is scheduled for 75 minutes, with the blinds going up only slightly at each level -- a state of affairs that favors the truly talented. In other words, bad news for me.
As luck would have it, I get most of my best hands at Level One -- blinds of $25-50 -- and soon build my chip stack from $10,000 to about $13,000. At this point, I am dealt A-A ... and I decide to get cute with them.
For what it's worth, here's my theory about getting dealt A-A in no-limit hold 'em: While T.J Cloutier and Doyle Brunson are absolutely correct (they say A-A is the kind of hand with which you will usually either win a small pot or lose a humongous one), you have to try to take maximum advantage on the few occasions you know you've got an edge if you are a less-than-great player like yours truly.
So I slow-play my precious A-A in late position. Ma raises the blinds to $200. I limp, and Ackerman calls in the big blind.
The flop comes K-J-10 rainbow. Ackerman and Ma both check to me, and I bet $400. Ma calls, Ackerman folds.
The turn card is a mixed blessing -- an ace. This, of course, gives me a set. But it also means that Ma needs only a queen to complete his straight. When he checks to me, I feel a little better; but now I'm in a quandary about what to do.
The day before, I had overheard a discussion in which Ron Rose explained that it is important to garner information at every stage of the hand -- pre-flop, post-flop, turn and river -- and that to do so, you have to bet to test the waters.
So I decide to bet $700. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what I'm trying to accomplish -- which, right away, violates Rule 3 of my game plan -- and I am even less sure when Ma, after a long huddle with himself, raises me $2,500.
One thing I am sure of, though, is that Ma has a straight. It would be insanity, otherwise, to raise, because if I have a queen, I'm going to put him all-in; and otherwise, I'm likely to fold. So unless he has a queen himself, it's pretty much either a lose-lose situation for him, or one of the strangest bluffs of all-time.
Nonetheless, I decide to call. I figure I have nine outs to win (the last ace, two kings -- I figure he has K-Q -- three jacks and three 10s), and three outs to split the pot (the other three queens). So I'm something like a 3-1 dog, and I'm only getting a little better than 2-1 on my call -- $2,500 into a pot of about $5,300. However, if I hit any of my nine outs to win the pot, I believe I can bust Ma for his last $4,000 or so, so my "implied" odds -- if I'm right -- are almost 4-1.
Unfortunately, a 4 comes on the river. When Ma bets only $2,000, I'm sure he has the straight -- that bet screams, "Call me!" -- so I fold, leaving myself with a little more than $9,000 in chips. Hardly a disaster, but not exactly the triumph I had envisioned when I first looked down at A-A.
(Later, I wonder how I should have played it. And I'm not sure any other moves -- within reason -- would have made a difference. If I had made a standard pre-flop raise from Ma's $200 to, say, $600, Ackerman would have folded and Ma still would have called, since he'd have been getting better than 2-1 on his $400 call. Then, after the flop, it would have been pretty hard to move him off top pair with second-best kicker and the nut straight draw, even if I'd bet something like $1,500. On the other hand, of course, it couldn't have worked out much worse than it actually did, so ...)
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2:40 p.m. -- At the end of Level Two (blinds of $50-100), I have $9,125 in chips.
4:05 p.m. -- At the end of Level Three (blinds of $75-150), I have $8,425 ...
... and one good memory, when I bust Ma. It's pretty prosaic, though. He goes in for his last $1,000 with A-10 unsuited, I call him with A-Q unsuited, and the usual result ensues when A-10 goes head-to-head with A-Q.
Ackerman is the next to take that long walk to nowhere, bluffing off his last few hundred in chips with 8-3 suited.
5:30 p.m. -- At the end of Level Four (blinds of $100-200, $25 antes), I am left with my usual total of chips -- $8,175 -- plus a $10 food coupon to help pay for dinner, courtesy of those generous folks who make Foxwoods the great joint it is.
5:30-6:45 p.m. -- During dinner (a bowl of Chinese dumpling soup and some juice), I review my play. Other than the A-A fiasco, I've been playing well -- at least in my biased eyes. I haven't been getting any good hands, but I've been stealing enough blinds and antes to stay close to my original stack of about $10,000. Unfortunately, since more than 100 of the 322 players who started out at noon have been eliminated, I should have about $15,000 in chips -- or roughly twice as much as I actually have -- to be competitive.
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I've got to double up.
7:30 p.m. -- After a lot more undistinguished play -- I fold, I steal, I fold, I fold, I fold, I steal, I fold five or six more times, I get caught trying to steal, I fold a few more times, etc., etc., etc. -- I fall into the perfect double-up scenario:
As-Ks in late position.
The blinds are now $150-300, and the antes are $50, so there is $900 in the pot before anyone looks at his cards and bets. A couple of people fold, and the guy to my right raises to $900. Unless he has A-A or K-K, I am in excellent shape -- a big favorite over A-Q or worse, a slight favorite over A-K unsuited, and pretty much a coin flip with any pair Q-Q on down. So I decide to go all-in with my last $7,000 or so, hoping for the following, in order:
1) He folds.
2) He calls me with something less than a pair.
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I get what's behind Door No. 3. He calls me with 8-8, which ...
... unfortunately ...
As T.J. Cloutier likes to say in similar situations, "That's poker."
FIRST-SEMESTER FINAL EXAM GRADE: C+
I would have liked to finish better, for sure; but a better finish was not to be. So I have to settle for having played better than I would have played even a few weeks ago -- hey, progress is progress -- especially on the aggression front. I didn't get good cards after the first hour, yet I survived through dinner time, and was in good position, with a little luck, to do some early-round damage.
FINAL FIRST-SEMESTER GRADE: B-
Actually, I probably deserve a B, since I'm still up nearly $20,000, despite spending the first six months of my poker career playing against some of the best in the world, as well as venturing into games -- like the $20-40 limit hold 'em game at Foxwoods -- in which everybody else has been honing their craft for years.
However, because I've dropped down from plus-$36,000 in the past couple of months, I'll have to settle for a B-. It's all about managing expectations in this post-modern ironic world, isn't it? A guy can finish third in the New Hampshire primary and be acclaimed a success -- if he was expected to finish fourth. But if the same guy was expected to finish second ... well, baby, look out below!
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
The week of the WPT tournament: Lost $13,445 (this includes writing off the $10,200 value of the WPT seat, which I had credited myself with back in June when I first won the seat in an Act III).
Career-to-date: Plus $18,939
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.