It's 4:20 a.m. and I can't sleep. The World Series of Poker kicks off with the $5,000 mixed no-limit hold 'em/limit hold 'em event in less than eight hours, and I can't wait.
This will be my seventh year competing in the WSOP, though in 2003 I only played in the championship event. I haven't, in the past, played in many events. All told, in those seven years, I've played in maybe 40 total. In that time, I've cashed 12 or 13 times and made five final tables, including a fourth-place finish in the main event in 2001.
You know what's funny? I can still remember a bunch of the hands that I busted out with at the final table, so close to a bracelet. They haunt me. I replay them over and over in my mind, especially my bust-out hand from 2001. Down to four players, I was second in chips with Stan Schrier and Dewey Tomko short-stacked, Carlos Mortensen the chip leader. I picked up A-6 and shoved it all-in under the gun, about 30 big blinds. Hee-haw! Carlos picked up Q-Q and called. Playing that badly, I didn't deserve to be the world champion. That hand still stings, and I know if I'm ever fortunate enough to get back to the final table, I won't make the same mistake again.
In 2002, I made two final tables. Johnny Chan busted me out of a low buy-in pot-limit hold 'em event in sixth place. I raised in middle position with A-7 suited, and he called on the button. An ace flopped, and we got all the money in. I was drawing slim when he showed me how to play A-K. Just a few days later, we were at the final table of the $5,000 Omaha event and the blinds got really big. I got all my money in with the best hand, but in that game, you're never that far ahead before the flop. I lost. That one hurt.
In 2005, I had a chance to win a no-limit hold 'em event, but busted out in eighth place when my pocket aces got cracked by pocket 10s, all-in for the chip lead preflop. I couldn't sleep for two days after that event. Four days later, I found myself back at the final table again in no-limit hold 'em, but couldn't quite break through and pick up a hand when we got down to three players. The guy that won that tournament raised under the gun with 9-9, saw a big stack reraise from the button, saw the small blind, another big stack, move all-in, and he called. He busted A-A and Q-Q after flopping a straight draw and turning the nuts. No justice.
In 2006, I cashed four times, getting deep in some limit and no-limit hold 'em events with very large fields. Two times I melted down with just a few players left to the final table, and twice I took bad beats. Note to self: Moving all-in preflop is a good move unless they call and have you dominated.
This year, I'll be playing maybe 10-12 events. I'm looking forward to it. I just came off a great finish at the WSOP Circuit event in New Orleans, where for two days I completely dominated the field. Heading into that final table, I had nearly a 3-1 chip lead over the next closest competitor. I had a blast in that tournament. And although I didn't take home the ring or the $516,000 in first-place prize money, I played my A game throughout and felt great at the table. Confident. Relaxed. In control.
This year, I'm going to focus on a few key principles:
1. Keep the pot small preflop. In the past, I've been a "reraiser" before the flop. That will be a very rare move for me this year. I'm going to play more pots postflop. I've found that most amateur players are very uncomfortable postflop. No wonder: The game is a lot easier to play if you don't have to make tough decisions. This strategy will also keep me from going broke with Q-Q and K-K against overpairs. Chip, chip, chip up with small bets. Think Phil Hellmuth. Make the big laydown when necessary and stay in the game.
2. Don't bluff players who can't fold. This is my biggest weakness. I often get over-involved in a pot with players that are incapable of folding top pair or an overpair. Over and over I do this. I've busted out of so many tournaments this way, it's sick. Not this year. It will by my highest priority to categorize each player at the table: "Capable of folding top pair, or not capable of folding top pair." Against those incapable, you won't see me bluffing, I promise.
3. Don't be afraid to go broke early. In the small buy-in events ($1,500 to $3,000) the starting chip stacks are small. The blinds get big very quickly. To win these events, you need to amass chips and you need to amass them quickly. I saw firsthand how devastating a big chip lead can be against a weak field in New Orleans. They had no idea what to do. I was able to keep the pressure on and pick up an enormous number of "free" chips with that big chip lead. This year, I'm going to play to win. That will mean that I'm going to have to play more hands in the early stages of the tournament. This is not normally my strategy -- I normally like to wait until the blinds and antes become significant before getting active. But this year, you're going to see a new Phil in the early going. I'm thinking "Gavin Smith" and "David Williams" in the first couple of levels.
4. This year, I'm only going to play if I really feel great and I'm ready to give it 100 percent. In past years, I've entered events just because they were happening. I knew I didn't have my best game. I was tired or distracted by work or just not feeling great. Inevitably, a few hours later, I'd be heading home. This year, I won't enter a tournament unless I'm fully prepared to battle for each and every chip.
5. I will not let the bracelet, or lack thereof, define me as a player. "How many bracelets do you have?" is a common question I get. Zero. Zero is the answer. I don't have one. I haven't played well enough to earn one yet. Maybe I'll get one, maybe I won't. There are plenty of great players without bling. Having one would be great, but having one doesn't automatically make you a great player and not having one doesn't automatically make you a donkey.
Hey, this is the greatest six weeks in poker. I'm going to have a blast. I'm going to battle as hard as I can, keep my good nature in tact, and hope to get lucky a few times along the way. I've come a really long way since 2001. If I'm ever fortunate enough to get back to a final table at the WSOP again, I'm certain that I'll be there with a chance to win.
One way or the other, I'm going all-in.
To follow all of this year's action, Expert Insight is producing a daily podcast from the floor of the WSOP. Gordon, Rafe Furst and Andy Bloch will be logging key hands, doing player interviews, and offering their impressions. Log on to www.expertinsight.com for the updates every day.