There will be 7,633 players. A $70 million prize purse. And $10 million for first place. Nothing else but that gold bracelet wrapped around my wrist will do, and here is exactly how it is going to go down.
July 28: $10,000 in chips, 7633 players remaining
I draw a Day 1A start, and in all honesty, I'm happy about it. I'm ready to play, and a second-, third-, or fourth-day draw will just draw out the anticipation. It's 10 a.m. and the tournament director issues the clarion call, "Shuffle Up and Deal" to a roaring round of applause. I'm seated in Seat 9, I'm wearing my FullTilt hockey jersey, wearing my noise-canceling headphones, and I crank up Moby's "Play" to calm my nerves and ease me into the tournament. Not only do I not recognize a single player at my table, I don't recognize a single player at any of the surrounding tables, either. Somewhere in the distance, 10-12 tables away, I can hear Mike Matusow trash talking someone.
For the first four hours of the tournament, I play ridiculously tight. I've failed to pick up a single premium hand, but I did get to play a few small pocket pairs cheaply. I've won one decent-sized pot from the big blind after four players limped into the pot, I checked my 10-10, and flopped a set. I repeatedly fold. I never try a steal raise. And I certainly don't bluff. Super-tight seems right.
Somewhere during the fourth level, I pick up two kings. I raise under the gun, get reraised by the button who has been playing nearly every hand and has amassed 30,000 in chips, so I pop it back again. He quickly raises all-in. I started the hand with $12,300 and I'm basically pot committed. I call, he turns over A-K suited, and I hold my breath while the television cameras roaming around the room focus in on me. He flops a flush draw and I feel sick. But, somehow, my hand survives and I double up to around $25,000.
With a very good stack size, I'm able to pick up another $13,000 by reraising the players that are too loose and stealing from the players that are too tight. I don't see another flop for the rest of the day and end with $38,000 -- well above the average of $23,800.
July 29-31: $38,000 in chips
With the first-day qualifiers going on, I go nowhere near the casino. I'm on the golf course at my country club doing my best to relax. I play 18 holes in the morning before it gets ridiculously hot and another nine as the sun sets. I get a one-hour massage every afternoon, and I work out. I'm in bed by 9 p.m. every night, and I'm eating very well. I don't log on to the Internet to check chip counts -- there is nothing I can do at this point.
Aug. 1: $38,000 in chips, 3,200 players remaining
I draw the first day of secondary qualifying and find myself in the top 15 percent of the field. An average stack is just $18,000, and I feel very confident. I should be able to pick off some short stacks today, and I'm going to focus on playing very solid, aggressive poker.
I have to re-establish my tight image and get a feel for the players at my table. Just a few hands into the day, I pick up A-Q suited in the small blind, a late-position player with 30,000 raises, and I muck it. There will be easier money at the table very soon. No way I'm getting involved out of position against a big stack with a hand like A-Q. Tight. Tight.
After that first level, I loosen up a bit and take a few shots. I flop a set against an overpair and bust a guy for $5,000. I flop a straight draw against a really tight guy with about 10K and get him to lay down what I'm sure was a better hand. And then, I get dealt A-A in the small blind. Three players limp in and I decide I to raise. I make it eight times the big blind, about $4,000, and the first limper moves in on me for $20,000. I call instantly and see his Q-Q. Unfortunately, he flops trips and doubles through me. That hurt. I try to regroup but find it difficult to concentrate. I steal a few blinds near the end of the day when everyone is tired and end the day significantly below average at $33,000. I can't help but think what could have been. That A-A hand haunts me that night.
Aug. 2-3: $33,000 in chips
I have two days off and spend most of it in bed resting. No golf, I know I'll need all the energy I can muster in the coming days.
Aug. 4: $33,000 in chips, 1,400 players remaining
For the first time in the tournament, I have a recognizable face at my table and I'm not at all happy about it. Phil Ivey is on my right with a monster stack of $95,000. I want to puke. I check the "breaking order" and I am relieved to find that we're the ninth table to break. I resolve to basically sit out until that happens, unless I pick up a really premium hand.
One orbit into the day and two tables until we break, I pick up the black K-K in the small blind. Two players limp into the pot (yes, players are still limping into the pot at this stage of the tournament, despite the fact the antes are large). Ivey calls on the button and the action is on me. I pop it to $7,000 and hope to win the pot before the flop. Both the limpers fold, Ivey peeks at me above his $120,000 stack, and calls. We see the flop. 6-7-8, all hearts. I have $24,000 left in front of me and the pot contains about $18,000. Any bet I make will pot commit me. I sense impending disaster, and I check. Ivey puts me all-in. I think about it for three minutes and eventually decide to fold. I'm down to less than half of an average stack when our table finally breaks. Ivey has $140,000 and seems completely unstoppable. I feel demoralized.
As I move to the next table, I decide to kick it into overdrive. If I bust out, at least I'll go out swinging. I'm seated in the big blind at my new table (full of total unknowns) and get dealt 9-8 of spades. A middle-position player raises three times the big blind and three players call. There is $8,000 or so in the pot. Time for "fish and chips," the old sandwich play. I raise all-in. Everyone folds, and I'm back to $32,000.
From then on, I'm fearless. I smooth-call in position and take a few pots after the flop. I flop a set and slowplay to perfection. I pick up A-A from the big blind and trap a guy who always overbets after the flop to double up.
With an average stack toward the end of the day, we approach the bubble and I change gears. With nine Internet qualifiers on my table, I am certain that no one wants to go broke. I go from playing one or two hands an orbit to playing seven. I raise and reraise with near reckless abandon and somehow manage to stay out of the way of the big pairs. These guys are playing way, way too tight trying to sneak into the money. I'll let them into the money, for sure, but they're not going to have many chips when they get there.
When the carnage ends and the bubble bursts, I have nearly every single ante chip on the table. I'm up to an impressive $210,000 in chips, more than 1½ times the average stack of $127,000.
Aug. 5: $210,000 in chips, 600 players remaining
We're going to lose half the field today, and to be an average stack at the end of the day, I need to finish with $255,000. I'm at a very tight table today. I was anticipating more space today, but the "consolation" bracelet events are going on and the room is more crowded than ever. No worries. With a tight table, I institute the game plan of just playing "small ball" all day -- steal 1.3 sets of blinds an orbit, and chip-chip-chip my way through the field while waiting for premium hands.
The strategy works to perfection. I'm able to pick off a few bluffs with reraises before the flop, I get away from a few relatively big hands because I am able to control the table so effectively, and I'm stealing at a decent, stack-building rate. I see very few rivers today, and I'm satisfied winning chips $3,000 and $5,000 at a time. I suffer no bad beats and no 50/50 propositions that cost me more than one-tenth of my stack. This was a perfect game plan for the day, and I end with $260,000, dead average.
Aug. 6: $260,000 in chips, 300 players remaining
I wake up feeling completely well-rested and ready for action. Today is moving day. I feel like the play will loosen up again and I'll need to pick up some good hands. With an assured payday, the Internet qualifiers will look to gamble. If there is any day of the tournament to transform into a card rack, this is it. Players will also be completely mentally spent, and I expect some of the less-experienced, more tired individuals to make some very big mistakes -- mistakes I hope to avoid.
Today is my day. I pick up pocket rockets six times and pocket kings three times. I get action on every single one of my hands against short or medium stacks, and I hold up eight out of nine times, well above my expectation. With showing down so many great cards, my image is spectacular and I'm able to steal with impunity. I bust Daniel Negreanu and Howard Lederer at the end of the day when they come to the table with just nine big blinds each. I'm unstoppable. I'm also in 10th place with $1,777,000 in chips, more than three times the average stack. I hope the 7-7-7 is a good omen.
Aug. 7: $1,777,000 in chips, 150 players remaining
I don't sleep well, but I get to the tournament ready to battle. As one of the big stacks, I feel a sense of calm wash over me. People will have to gamble today, but I won't. I can afford now to be patient. I form a game plan: protect my big stack. I can blind away the entire day without playing a single pot and still be above average tomorrow -- the average stack at the end of the day will be 1,270,000. No big confrontations. I'm going to wait for my spots, wait for the small stacks to make a mistake, and put less of a premium on stealing blinds. I'm going to let them come to me when I have a big hand.
As it happens, I don't get many big hands -- the best I see in 10 hours of play is a few A-K offsuits. I flop a set on one hand, I flop a flush when I get to see the flop for free from the big blind with 9-4 suited, and I end up the day just slightly lower than I started. I feel great about that.
Aug. 8: $1.6 million in chips, 60 players remaining
I'm seated at a very, very tough table again. Ivey is back, and once again he's on my right. So is Gus Hansen. They both have about $2.5 million in chips and they are completely dominating the table -- every single hand, one of them raises. In the first three hours of play, I do not have a single late-position opportunity to steal the blinds. It's time for a change in tactics: the resteal reraise. I'm in the cutoff and Gus comes in for a raise. I steady myself and reraise with 4-5 suited. He calls. I hate myself. The flop comes K-5-3. He checks to me, I bet the pot and expect to take it down. He calls. The turn is a deuce, giving me an open-ended straight draw. He checks to me again. I move all-in with a pot-sized bet. He studies me for three minutes. He fiddles with his chips. "I think you're bluffing, Phil, but good play," and he lays down 8-8. I leave the table and go to the bathroom -- a very necessary trip. Ivey gets transferred off the table (thank God) and a few blind steals later, I pick up A-A. Gus raises, I reraise, he re-reraises, and I go for the jugular. I smooth call. The flop is K-7-5 and he bets right out. I know he's pot committed, so I go all-in. He calls instantly and shows me A-K. When the turn card is yet another king, all the blood drains from my face and I am resigned to kill myself. As the dealer peels off the river, the last remaining ace, I sit back down and begin stacking the nearly $4 million pot in front of me.
Aug. 9: $4 million in chips, 27 players remaining
An average stack for the final table will be $8.48 million. If I can double up, I'll be a force to reckon with. I expect this to be an extremely long session. With an above-average stack, I vow to play very, very tightly. Early during the second level of the day, I pick up kings and put a guy all-in for about 600,000. He's got aces and doesn't hesitate to call me. He wins, and I'm back to near average. At this point, there is no limping going on, and it seems as if we go 10 hands in a row on average before seeing a flop. With so many people raising in position, I decide to try the "smooth-call" play from the button against the middle-position raisers that respect my game and play fairly straightforward poker after the flop. I'm certain that the blinds will lay down their hands -- they don't want to get involved in a multiway pot. This strategy works really well. I flop a monster when my 5-4 suited hits J-4-4 against Q-Q and I bust a guy. I flop a flush with A-6 of diamonds but don't get much postflop action -- those suited aces are very overrated.
With 18 players left, we're down to two tables. Things get very tense. Phil Ivey, Phil Laak and Phil Gordon are the only professionals remaining in the field. So much for Blair Rodman's book "Kill Phil." I have $7 million in chips.
Now it's all about taking what the table will give me and walking through the minefield. With a well-above-average stack, I'm going to be very careful. I open the pot from middle position for $200,000 with pocket queens and the big blind, a 72-year-old guy with calloused hands, moves all-in against me for 1,200,000. I throw the queens away without a second thought. As the players go bust, the prizes are increasing significantly. I am able to read my opponents and their need to move up and win an extra $100,000 or $200,000 for outlasting just a few more players. Every hand seems like a bubble -- and play is grinding to a halt as we play hand for hand.
When we get shorthanded at 12 and 11 players remaining, I loosen up my starting hand requirements appropriately and pound on the average stacks, while staying away from the big stacks and small stacks. This works well, and I'm able to pick up some pots I don't deserve. I pick up A-K a few times, raise before the flop, get smooth-called on the button, miss the flop completely and check/fold. I'm not going to chase those flops at this point.
With 11 players left, all the attention is on Ivey and Laak at the other table. Combined, they have $35 million in chips. The guys at my table feel fortunate. After so many hours with them, I have good reads and tells, and I wait patiently for Ivey and Laak to do their thing while I scoop up the pots that are looking for an owner. I don't press too much, I'm happy to play just a little bit more aggressively than the average player at my table. They seem perfectly content to let me steal the blinds once per orbit, and that's perfectly fine with me.
Finally, Ivey does it: He busts No. 10 and the final table is set.
Aug. 10: $10 million in chips, fourth place, nine players remain
Every player at the table is completely exhausted physically and mentally. All the media wants to talk about is Ivey, Ivey, Ivey, and how he's a lock to win with his $20 million stack. I don't worry about that. There are seven players that have to be eliminated before I get my crack at the best player in the world, one-on-one for the World Series of Poker bracelet.
With the intense media pressure, exhaustion and inexperience, I fully expect at least three of these remaining players to completely give up and throw in the towel. I will be there to catch it, I hope. I draw a great seat, directly across the table from Ivey with a short-stacked Laak on my right. The two tightest players left are on my left. I couldn't have picked a better spot. Sometimes, the luck of the seating draw will significantly affect your ability to win. Today, I clearly got lucky on that accord.
One by one they fall. Laak succumbs to a well-played, deceptive double gutshot straight draw and finishes eighth. The rest of the day flies by. Ivey does most of the hard work and busts four players in a row. Not surprisingly, we don't play a single pot against each other for five hours. And I have to admit, when I raised with pocket 10s and Ivey came over the top of me, I just went quietly and laid it down. The only player I bust at the final table is a 23-year-old Internet qualifier. She (yes, a "she" made it this far) limped on the button. I called out of the small blind with 2-2. Ivey considered raising and then checked. The flop came 2-8-10. I bet right out, Ivey folded, and she moved all-in for 10 million, a massive overbet of the pot. I called instantly. She had 8-7. My hand stands up, and there I am, one-on-one with Ivey. My $20 million to his $56 million.
After 12 hours of final table play, the blinds are at a very nice, comfortable $300,000/$600,000. There is, I hope, a lot of play.
Ivey is super-aggressive and believes he has this all but wrapped up. I can't fight naked aggression with more aggression -- that's the ill-fated strategy I took with Juha Helppi in Aruba a few years ago, when I looked like a complete donkey. No, I'm going to cede the initiative to Ivey and hope to pick up some hands that are good enough to trap him with.
Sure enough, just 20 minutes into heads-up play, I pick up 6-6 and limp in from the button. Ivey raises -- big surprise there. I call. The flop hits me hard, K-Q-6. Ivey bets. I just call. The turn comes a 4. Ivey bets the pot. I call again. Finally, the river hits a deuce and Ivey thinks and puts me all-in. I call in a flash and Ivey mucks immediately -- he had a busted straight draw.
I have the chip lead. Ivey looks stunned. I change gears and take the betting lead. I start raising and reraising and finally grapple the initiative from him. Then, nearly even in chips, Ivey raises from the button. I find Q-Q. I reraise and Ivey calls. The flop comes 8-4-2 with three suits. I bet and Ivey calls. The turn card comes a deuce. I bet again, and Ivey moves all-in. I call in a flash, and instantly regret my decision: Ivey has a full house, 4s full of deuces. I have him covered by about $1,000,000, but this tournament is essentially over. Ivey has won and deservedly so -- he is the best player in the world. My head is buried in my hands and I'm tearing up. The river, the beautiful river, comes and I can hardly believe my eyes. A queen. I'm the world champ. Ivey rises from the table, gives me a vigorous handshake, and says in a sincere voice, "Nice hand, champ."
So, that's how I'm going to do it. It may not go exactly like that, but I have a strategy. I'm going to take what the table gives me, change gears appropriately, play aggressively, and get lucky. That's how to win the World Series of Poker and attain a place in history. Be there for the bracelet ceremony. I'll be smiling.
Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour champion, co-host of The Poker Edge on ESPNRadio.com and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker. Phil Gordon's educational poker DVD, "Final Table Poker", is available at ExpertInsight.net and his "Little Green Book" is available now.