The best $5K I ever couldn't keep
I knocked out Nick Fotiu. Cracked him hard with a 2-by-4.
For a longtime Islanders fan, landing a fatal blow to the former Rangers antagonist was satisfying, even if it came far away from the ice and was delivered not with fists but by a small pair on a felt surface.
I'll take what I can get.
The chance to KO not-so-saint Nick and a bunch of his peers came at the Pucks, Putters and Poker fantasy camp organized by Next Shift Enterprises, a company created to provide avenues for NHLers seeking a life after hockey.
Next Shift is owned and operated by a few dozen hockey-playing investors who share the risks and rewards of the company's six operating divisions, which range from coffee to real estate to sports management.
"[The founding of] Next Shift was based primarily on my experience and the experience of many of my former teammates and peers when we were all through playing," said former New York Islander Gord Lane, Next Shift's founder. "Obviously, most of us didn't make much money, and even those of us who made bigger salaries weren't able to stop working [after retiring]. Most of us had limited worldly experience or business experience and limited secondary education. When you are 33, 34, 35 and you have family and kids, it's pretty frightening."
The group also spends a significant amount of its energy promoting charitable causes. Half of the proceeds from Friday night's $1,000 buy-in event went to four foundations, including ones that focus on finding cures for cancer, Parkinson's disease and autism.
To its credit, Next Shift did this event up right. While the poker tournament field (at just 49 players) was much smaller than expected, it was still an excellent night. The Grand Pequot Ballroom at Foxwoods was filled with former and current players (including legendary Red Wing Gordie Howe), a solid buffet spread, some actually memorable sports memorabilia and the real reason I was there: the gloriously green poker tables cordoned off in a corner of the vast hall.
I had never played for such stakes before. I also had never played cards before with a collective group that had decent money to burn and, for the most part, really didn't know how to play hold 'em -- a dangerous combo that called for me to tighten up my already Howard Lederer-ish playing style.
A quick pregame chat with event host Phil Gordon, who basically said bluffing wasn't worth it in an event like this (because no one would fold), confirmed that. (Unfortunately for Phil, catching aces against 7-4 offsuit wasn't any good, either, as his opponent filled an unlikely full boat and knocked him out early.)
Battle plan in place, I sat down with my 3,000 in chips and got to work.
The first inkling that I might be in good shape came when legendary Broad Street Bully Dave Schultz sat down at my table and, during the first hand, actually asked, "How many cards does [the dealer] put on the table?" (We'll ignore that I actually folded a couple of hands to Schultz in the early stages.)
Using a mix of smart play, a couple of strong strategic raises and one very well-timed bluff (sorry, Phil, had to mix it up a little), I moved my stack up to about 7,700 before a proper but untimely fold caused me to miss out on quad 5's.
That hand seemed to beget some unfortunate luck, as two straight strong raises in position were reraised aggressively by Fotiu, prompting me to fold both times -- and subsequently feel very good about losing almost 2,000 chips in total when he twice showed pocket aces.
Still, those hands helped knock me back down to 2,800 in chips. I needed to make a move, and in late position, I pushed all-in with A-7 in an attempt to steal the blinds and antes, only to be called by a bigger stack and shown (ick) 7-7. The flop, though, brought one of the three blessed aces and I was back in business. Real business.
Many players better than I say it's not the lucky hand, but what you do after it that really reflects your quality. Emboldened by my escape, I shifted gears and started building my stack with aggressive play.
I also gained more acceptance at the table, moving from "outsider with a notepad" to "friendly outsider with a large chip stack." Table banter abounded, especially from Darren Banks, an enforcer who had a cup of coffee with the Bruins and whose protestations on every hand about having to pay the antes and blinds somehow remained funny.
When I was moved to the other remaining table (with 18 players left), I was back up to over 12,000 in chips. Little did I know the fun was just beginning, in the form of a 48,841-to-1 long shot.
In Hand 1 at the new table, I was in the big blind when I caught a glimpse of the two black aces in my possession. With the blinds at 300/600, there was a caller and a raise to 1,500 before I pushed my whole stack in. Mr. Raiser called with a "thanks for playing" A-5 offsuit, and I was up to almost 20,000.
The very next hand, in the small blind, I did a mental triple-take when I saw two red aces staring back at me from the hole. Back-to-back bullets -- in the blinds, no less, as if I needed more help masking them.
Even before I had finished thinking about the best way to milk something from the hand, everyone had folded around to the player directly to my right, who said the three most beautiful words I heard all evening -- "I'm all in."
I actually had to force myself to wait a few seconds before coming over the top, driving the big blind out and leaving my opponent to sheepishly turn over K-J offsuit. Five cards later, I was up to 27,300 in chips -- and very well may have been the chip leader.
I cruised into the final table, where it finally got down to guys who seemed to know the game. Joining me there was the aforementioned Fotiu, former Boston Bruins great Rick "Nifty" Middleton, and one of the NHL's top current hardmen, Sandy McCarthy, who not only can play poker but was about as candid and interesting as any athlete you'll meet. I forgive him for terrorizing my Isles for the past four seasons as a Blueshirt.
Sadly, my benevolence (or chip-induced stupor) translated to the table and lasted long enough for me to fold about 15 straight hands (the best of which was something like J-6 offsuit) and watch my stack get halved.
Enough of this, I thought. So I bluffed. I caught some cards. I pushed large chunks of my stack in. I sent a couple of guys to the rail. And I found a new cheerleader in P.J. Stock, the NHL's diminutive tough guy who immediately conjured up thoughts of several Sugar Rays (the two boxers in his fighting skill and the musician in his looks).
With the affable Stock making periodic comments about the stark pastiness of my skin (just wait until hoops season starts eek), I elected to refrain from making a "Which is greater, your career goal total or the community cards on this hand?" joke and went about raking in more pots. Suddenly, "Frosty" was your chip leader again, with a stack approaching 63,000 in chips sitting in front of me.
The irony of what happened next wasn't lost on me, given I was filling in for erstwhile poker editor Andrew Feldman, aka "A-J Suited."
With the blinds at 4,000/8,000 and four players left, Middleton called the big blind and I promptly made it 24,000 with the ace and jack of clubs, pretty much expecting to take the pot without a peep. Fotiu folded from the small blind, the short stack in the big blind pushed his final 1,000 in (no worries) and it was over to Middleton, who thought long and hard and then reraised all-in for his remaining 48,000.
This basically was the tournament, and while I didn't love my hand, the way Middleton had played throughout the evening (and his interminable pre-bet pause) made me believe I was in a race, at worst -- and at best, he could have A-10 or something. Given it was 32,000 to call a pot that was around 99,000, I called. There wasn't much he could have that would make me more than a 3-to-1 dog.
My intuition was right -- he flipped over a pair of 5s. Sadly, his hand held up. It made him virtually a lock to take the tournament and -- presto! -- reduced my stack to 7,000.
Two hands later, forced all-in by the big blind, I made one final rush -- doubling up through a Q-10, then taking the antes with A-K and then pushing Fotiu to the rail with my 4-4, leaving only Middleton, who still had about a 7-to-1 chip advantage.
I doubled up once (when I filled an open-ended straight on the turn) before I was ousted, my weak top pair post-flop (8 7 2, top two cards were diamonds) succumbing to his 18-out draw (9-6 of diamonds in the hole) that was filled on the river by a 5 of spades.
I exited with my pride more than intact and as the proud owner of a receipt for the $5,000 second prize, the proceeds of which went to the event's charities. Damn journalistic ethics.
Money lament aside, I got to spend a Friday night eating, hobnobbing and beating up on some of the NHL's finest, and walked away knowing my participation will benefit a worthy cause. Pretty nifty, indeed.
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. He makes some walking-around money playing hold 'em with his colleagues.