I am not one to tell bad beat stories. Every professional player knows that winning poker tournaments is a delicate balance between skill and luck. To the railbirds telling their tales of woe, I've said things like, "If the bad players couldn't occasionally get lucky and win, there would be no poker games worth playing," more times than I can count.
I know, intellectually, that winning at poker is about making winning decisions, and that once the chips are in the pot and I'm a statistical favorite and did the right thing, the outcome of that particular hand is largely irrelevant. And yet, wanting to win so badly makes the brutal, fetid, putrid, rat feces-infested river cards that claim my tournament life so painful, I sometimes feel like puking.
I've been deep in two no-limit hold 'em tournaments thus far. In both, I had my money in with about a 75 percent chance to win. In the first tournament, my opponent called a $50,000 postflop bet holding A-Q offsuit looking at a board of J-6-2 after I had raised before the flop. That $50,000 remaining in front of him represented an average stack. And yet, he called all-in in a hand he could have been drawing nearly stone-cold dead. I had the best hand when the money went in and was 76 percent to win with my pocket pair. When the River Styx hit his Queen and busted me, the blood drained from my head, my toes went numb, and it took every bit of self control I had to keep from vomiting on the felt. As I staggered from the table, my giddy opponent, not realizing how close I was to mental seizure, said something along the lines of, "I guess that's what you get for all the bluffs you've run on television." Yes, that's what I get. I get an average stack to call all-in after the flop with no pair, no assured draw, and a 25 percent chance to win. If that's what I get for "bluffing on television," then I'll accept the consequences.
Just today, there were 61 players remaining in the $1,000 no-limit event with rebuys. I had a slightly below-average stack of about 35,000 and had been playing squeaky tight. In 14 hours of play, I had never been all-in and called. I felt great about the way I was playing, my image, and my chances of making a run at the bracelet. I was playing, and feeling, my A game. Large piles of chips were being tossed around the table like rag dolls. In the hand before my bust-out, the chip leader in the tournament, a Greg Raymer look-alike without the Greg Raymer IQ or Greg Raymer demeanor, had completely bluffed off more than 70,000 of his 100,000 stack. Our genius was in the small blind looking down at 100,000 in chips, the chip lead, and an average stack size of about 40,000. He's got two short stacks on his right, and several players at the table that will, eventually, put their money in the pot with no chance to win. Yet, when a tough professional with 60,000 in chips, "Captain" Tom Franklin, raised from middle position, Einstein calls the 6,000 preflop raise. When the flop came Q-Q-7, he fired off a 12,000 bet and Captain Tom called quickly. Everyone at the table knew that Tom has a queen in his hand. The waitress delivering water to the table during the hand knew Tom had a queen in his hand. The 47 people on the rail knew Tom had a queen in his hand. Maybe A-Q or K-Q, but Tom had a queen, no doubt about it. The turn card hits and it's an offsuit 10, making the board Q-Q-7-10 and Mr. Mensa bets 28,000. Tom moves all-in, another 15,000 or so. No real surprise there. Now, our hero says, "Well, the pot is too big to fold now," as he turns over his 9-8 for the straight draw. Tom shows the requisite queen and miraculously avoids the 16 percent suckout on the river. Our savior is down to about 35,000 in chips.
The very next hand, I pick up A-K under the gun. I raise to 6,000 of my 32,000 stack. Instantly, he moves all-in and just as quickly, I know that I have to call. When he turns over his K-J offsuit, I was mildly shocked but hardly surprised. I expected to be up against A-Q or maybe a pocket pair. There is literally no hand that I could raise with under the gun that doesn't have this hand completely dominated, or at worst, at a 55-45 percent disadvantage. And, because he's clearly and obviously on tilt, I'm going to call with all of those hands. I survive the flop. The turn gives him no help. I'm visualizing myself with about 70,000 in front of me, an average stack of 50,000, 60 players left in the field, and the final table within sight. That vision, however, becomes quite blurry, when the river hits his jack. "That's how you do it!" he exclaims as he pounds on the table.
I try to get up from the table. My knees are weak. My brain isn't functioning properly. I forget to tell my friends at the table good luck. I'm stumbling, fumbling my way to the door, backpack over my shoulder, head throbbing, eyes watery. As I get past the ropes and stanchions, my fiancée offers condolences and a hug, but I don't even feel it.
As my vision focuses, I see the four eager poker fans with World Series of Poker hats and T-shirts with their sharpies: "Mr. Gordon, can you sign my hat please? Can we get a picture with you?" As I scrawl something barely readable on their memorabilia, I can only wonder if they'll be asking the King-Jack Genius for his signature on the next break.
It's a long drive back to my house. As I pull up to my house, I remember the last time I felt this dejected and miserable. I was 14, my parents recently divorced, and my dad was coming to pick us up for the weekend. As he pulled into the driveway, my puppy, Tiger, chased the car and won the race but clearly lost the war. His back end completely smushed, Tiger somehow managed to crawl into my lap and take his last breath.
"Guess Tiger committed suicide," Dad said an hour later, adding in what I'm sure was meant to be a mistimed joke. "He was probably tired of living with your mother."
And yet, another tournament looms on the horizon tomorrow. And the day after. And another one the day after that. How will I be able to bounce back and play my A game tomorrow? How will I control the urge to play too fast, too loose, too recklessly in an attempt to build a stack that can withstand the undertow of a furious, fetid river? That, dear friends, is a tall order.
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 and books are available at ExpertInsight.net.