Recently at the WPT North American Championships in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I had the chance to apply what I've learned in 6&43; years of playing online poker. I have long preached about the valuable lessons learned from online poker; but it is rare to go deep into a massive tournament like this one by using everything that was learned. In Niagara Falls, it was my chance to parlay my thousands of hours of online big field tournament experience into a great result. At the end of four days of marathon play resulting in my first WPT final table appearance, I finished in fourth place for a score of just over $289,000.
Day 1 was all about surviving the landmines and trying to pick a good spot to gain some chips. I struggled throughout the day, picking my spots, staying out of big pot coin tosses and slowly and steadily picking up chips. I didn't over-commit to pots against players who I knew would be willing to gamble for large pots; instead I tried to win the pots either pre-flop or on the flop, with strategic betting and plays. It was working amazing well for the better part of the day, considering I wasn't getting very many big hands to play with. I was hitting my suited connectors and low pairs for decent-sized pots, but not doubling up. We started with 20,000 in chips and within about four hours, I was up to about 28,000, through good play. I took a hit about an hour before the dinner break when I lost set over set in a 25,000 pot. That knocked me down, but I wasn't out.
Just before the dinner break on Day 1, I limped in fairly early position with an A-7 of hearts, if I remember correctly, and was raised approximately three times the big blind. I decided to take a flyer and call the raise to see the flop. The flop came down with two hearts on it and I had the ace as an overcard. The big blind checked, as did I, and the original raiser followed through with a bet on the flop. I don't remember the exact amounts of the bets so I can only give an overview of the action. The bet he made wasn't a substantial bet and the big blind called, giving me slightly better odds to try and chase the flush, so I called as well.
The turn brought a heart and I had the second nut flush based on the straight flush possibility that was out there. I discounted either player having a straight flush, so I was not too scared of the hand. The big blind came out betting pretty heavily, and after what looked like a hard decision for me, I flat called, trying to induce a call or raise from the original raiser left to act behind me. He folded, so I was heads up with the big blind, holding what I thought was the nuts. I was just praying that the board didn't pair on the river. The river card brought a brick. The big blind came out swinging pretty big. I thought about it for quite a while, posturing before I announced all in. The big blind almost fell off his chair. He turned white and went into the tank for what seemed like ten minutes. He finally called, flipping over the king-high flush, and was sick when I rolled over the ace-high flush, busting him. That hand propelled me up to 49,000 in chips just before the dinner break. I left for dinner feeling energized, positive, and in great spirits.
After the dinner break, things slowly disintegrated. I don't remember if we played three or four more rounds after dinner, but those hours were the worst card-dead experience I've had in ages. When I did finally get bigger pairs like Q-Q or JJ, after I'd raise, I'd get one to three callers; the flop would have one or two overcards and I'd be facing large bets. My stack dwindled down to 13,000 before the final two hands of the day. I had no intention of paying the blinds again just before the end of the day.
I was stalling on the final three hands before the big blind was going to hit me. On the second hand I got dealt 8-8; I raised and the blind called me. The flop came with all unders, he checked, and I moved all in. He folded, giving me a few chips. On the very next hand, with about three minutes left to play, I stalled for as long as I could before a player actually called a clock on me. When the time was starting to run out on my clock, I looked down at pocket aces.
It was the first time I had been dealt pocket aces in six live event tournaments. With five seconds to go before they called my hand dead, I raised the minimum amount and was called by a middle-position aggressive young player. The flop came down with nothing scary and I bet weakly into the flop, trying to induce a raise from this player. He did as I thought he would and put in a good-sized raise. I waited quite a while before saying something like, well, I'd rather double for tomorrow, or bust and not have to drive here; then I moved all in. He folded fast... maybe I shouldn't have said anything. I ended day one at a disappointing 26,600 chip stack
I drove the hour back to my house and arrived home at about 3am. I was exhausted, frustrated, and depressed. I didn't sleep well that night,and on my drive back to Niagara Falls in the morning, I made the decision that I wasn't going to pull any punches: I was going to have a great day of cards, or go down swinging.
I started off day two with a KILL, KILL, KILL attitude. I wasn't going to be bullied and I was determined to scare the snot out of the players at my table if they dared raise me or enter a pot with me. The strategy worked and I was the only player getting walked in my big blind. I started to take some risks and played some hands aggressively, slowly starting to build my stack. After busting two players, I was into the zone and on a roll. I raised pre-flop with J-J, another player moved all in on a 9- high flop; I called and the player rolled over A-Q; he didn't improve and I gained some much needed chips.
The other player I busted was amazed I made the call on him, but something just didn't seem right to me and that induced me to make the call. The cutoff had raised about 3 times the big blind, I was on the button with 6-6, and I called. The small blind instantly moved all in for a fair-sized bet, and the original raiser folded. I thought about my hand for a very long time. I studied the player and, quite frankly, he looked like he was going to have a heart attack. I made the call and was delighted to see him roll over 4-4. He didn't improve and the hand propelled me to over 70,000 in chips.
After taking a 4-1 favorite all-in beat a little while later, I was sitting at about 53,000 in chips when Freddie Deeb was moved to my table. I have all the respect in the world for Freddie's game, but I know that he is capable of making moves in position with a wide variety of hands. One hand that was very interesting came up and to this day I don't know whether I made the right decision or not in terms of chips, the pot, etc. I just had a very bad feeling and ended up folding. Freddie was sitting one seat to my right and raised the pot on the cutoff. I looked down on the button at Q-Q and reraised his 4,500 bet to 12,000 to go. The small blind beat me into the pot for an additional 23,000 over and above my bet. Freddie folded and I was left with a big decision. Calling him would leave me with only 18,000 in chips after I had been playing so hard and well to finally start moving in the right direction; and I could only put the guy on one of three hands. He was a tight player and wasn't making many moves at all. I could reasonably only put him on A-A, K-K, or A-K. Two of the hands completely dominated me, and I was racing against A-K. The pot had approximately 53,000 in dead money for a 23,000 call.
I just couldn't get past my bad gut feeling, and I ended up folding. I was a little sick when he rolled over A-K, but I still could have lost the hand. The problem was that the decision I made rattled me. My instant gut feeling when he moved all in was to call if Freddie folded. But, after counting down the chips and outthinking myself, I changed my mind and folded. Regardless, because of my finish in the tournament, I was happy I made the decision I did; as I could have lost the hand crippling myself - but I still don't know if it was the right decision or not.
For the next three hours I played terribly and got my chip count into trouble. Things finally started to swing my way after I was moved to John D'Agostino's table, and I started chatting with him that I was going to double on him. We had some friendly competitive banter back and forth for quite a while, as I was sitting there short-stacked at this point, under 19,000 again, and no threat to anyone at the table. I went on an aggressive little heater, raising and betting the flops and built my stack back up to about 41,000.
I was finally dealt A-A when J-Dags limped into the pot in front of me. I did about a four times big blind raise and J-Dags called me. The flop came something like 9-8-2, with 2 clubs. J Dags checked and I bet about three-quarters of the pot. J-Dags called me fast. The turn brought the 4s; he checked and I then moved all in, grossly overbetting the pot. I was worried that he was trapping with a set, but I thought that he had a piece of the flop and maybe a flush draw. He thought about it forever, trying to talk to me, doing his best to gain some information. I tried to look as nervous as I could and didn't talk back to him at all, instead, trying to look away to induce his call. Once he hesitated I knew I was ahead. He finally made the call, rolling over the 7h 8h. The river was a blank, and it doubled me up and rolled me over 100,000 for the first time in the tournament.
After that hand, I really got into the groove and started playing my Agame again. I got into a hand a while later with Steve Paul-Ambrose who was playing very aggressively to my left at the new table I was moved to. I started chatting at him to see if I could get under his skin a bit, as he was by far the most aggressive player at the table. I think it worked because a hand came up that I raised with Q-10 off in middle position when it was folded to me. Steve called on the button and the board came down 3-K-J. I was first to act, and after a little pause I checked, with Steve checking behind me. The turn card was a nothing card for me - an off suit six - but I took a swing at the pot anyway. My heart sank when he flat called my bet. I had already decided that I wasn't going to invest another dime into the pot if I missed the river. The river was my dream card, an off-suit ace, giving me the nut straight. I hesitated a bit and checked again, figuring that Steve would take a good swing at the pot, as he was playing aggressively and he obviously had a piece of that board. He did what I wanted him to do, and after a delay I moved all in on him with a massive overbet. He had me easily covered at this point and I was praying he was going to put me on a steal and call me. After about five minutes, without moving any chips into the pot, he quietly said, "Call."
No one really heard him; I know I heard something, but had no clue what he said. I asked him out loud, "Did you say 'Call'?" He confirmed his call and I was tickled to roll over my Q-10 for the nut straight. That pot propelled me to over 180,000 in chips, and gave me a real boost in confidence. I was extremely happy with the way I played the hand and had maximized my return with my check-raise on the river.
After that pot I yo-yoed a bit on my stack and took a few hits. I got into a pot again holding Q-Q, and it played out similarly to how the hand that Freddie had raised earlier in the day played out. But this time I made the call and busted the player, getting back up to about 150,000 in chips. We ended the day at 45 players and I had built my stack up to a respectable 202,000 to finish the night. I was exhausted again and really didn't feel like driving home. The floor managers arranged a room for me at the hotel and I decided to stay in Niagara for the night and try to get some extra sleep. It worked well - I slept in until my alarm went off at 11am, giving me a great night's sleep.
The first hour of Day 3 three started off fairly slowly for me. I didn't get any hands at all. Didn't even get good position for steals, so I just had to ride it out and wait. I got moved off my starting table to another table and was put into the big blind at that table. My big blind was noneventful; someone raised and I folded junk. On my small blind, however, a player under the gun moved all in for 85,000 in chips. It was folded to me and I looked down at K-K and moved all in over the top of him, isolating him by inducing the big blind to fold. The player turned over Q-Q and was busted when he didn't get any help. I was on my way. I won a few more pots through aggressive play and found myself sitting at about 350,000 in chips a couple of hours into day 3.
A little while later, Allen Cunningham moved all in on my big blind from early position; again I looked down at K-K and made the call. I believe he had 8-8 and ended up busting out. I was over 500,000 in chips now and really playing well. I continued to build my stack over the course of the day, making some great reads, folds, and calls. Sometimes it seems like you're making all the right decisions and day three was one of those days for me. I wasn't really getting lucky; I just wasn't getting unlucky on my biggest hands.
At the dinner break on Day 3, I was at about 860,000 in chips and sitting pretty with only 16 players remaining. It was getting exciting! I went card dead for a few hours after dinner, so I just played tight and maintained my stack. I actually even increased it a bit through steals with position. They made a single table when we got down to ten players. I was still card dead but had a healthy stack. When we got down to the final seven players, needing to bust one player for the final table of six, I was still card dead and hovering around 800,000 in chips. John Juanda and Adam Dunkle were both the shorties, with about 450,000 in chips. Right after a break, I had the small blind, with a very aggressive Marc Karem to my left in the big blind and he had about 1,290,000 in chips. It was folded to Adam Dunkle on the button and he moved all in for 400,000. I looked down in the small blind at 9-9 and was sick because I didn't know what to do and, honestly, I didn't know if I had the guts to call him for more than half my stack.
On top of that I was scared that Marc would wake up to a big hand and clobber my 9-9. I thought about it for nearly ten minutes, agonizing over what to do. I decided to make the call, but not reraise all in, just in case Marc woke up to a hand. If he reraised me, I was prepared to fold and make the final table and fight it out tomorrow, even though I would be short. I called, Marc ended up folding, and Adam rolled over 5-5. The board came J-8-4, then a 10. And after a drama delay by the dealer, he rolled over a 3, busting Adam in seventh place and soaring me to the final table with 1.3 million in chips. I jumped about 20 feet in the air and probably have never been so excited about any hand I've played in my entire career as I was about that one. My girlfriend Monica jumped into my arms and the room went wild. It was a pretty exciting moment. My first WPT final table and it was me making the call to bust the seventh place player. It was truly the scariest call I've ever made since I started playing tournament poker.
Day 4 was filled with interviews and prepping for the final table. Monica and I relaxed and watched movies in the room for the rest of the day and just tried to remain calm and focused. The final table started with a bang. On the very first hand of the day, it was folded to me on the button, where I made a standard three times big blind raise. I was raising into Marc Karem's small blind and Jason Sagle's big blind. I had already decided what I was going to do if either player reraised me. I knew that Marc was playing aggressively and decided that if he reraised me pre-flop I was going to push all in on him. If Jason reraised me, I was going to flat call and see the flop. Jason seemed to be playing tighter and better starting hands. I'm not taking anything away from Marc's game, as he had played three days of dominating cards. It's just that his game was more open than Jason's seemed to be. Anyways, Marc reraised my 90,000 bet to 290,000 and I stood up and said something like, well, this could be my fastest final table ever, and announced that I was all in.
I think my family and friends in the audience all suffered strokes when I said that because I looked back at the 14 people who were my guests and they were all as white as ghosts. Marc thought about it for a while and mucked his hand. You'll have to wait for the program to see what we had. I reraised Jason when he raised my big blind and he mucked. I reraised all in a few more times and wasn't called pre-flop.
We had gotten down to four-handed when Jason Sagle raised my big blind and I looked down at Ah Qh. I had 1.1 million in chips with monster blinds. He had raised it to 250,000ish on 40,000/80,000 blinds and I didn't think it was wise to flat call and have to lay down that hand. I took a swing at the pot all in and Jason, after thinking for a while, made the call.
To my horror, he had A-K of clubs and I didn't get any help. I busted in forth place for a payday of just over $289,000. It was a great result, but as a competitive poker player, it is hard not to get the win I so badly wanted.
The final table day and play were a lot of fun. It was my third TV table and I was very relaxed and enjoying the moment. The players at the table were fun to compete with and enjoyable to have there. It was a memorable day that I will look back on with both fondness and regret. I regret two decisions I made at that table, but because there was no flop, who knows whether they would have worked out had I acted differently on those hands. I was happy with my final table play for the most part, but still agonize over the two decisions that might have been mistakes. Mistakes happen in this game; you just have to try to minimize them and reduce the damage done by them.
All of my experience playing thousands of online tournaments did more to help me be successful in this tournament than I ever could have imagined. My instincts were honed and right on, and my situational awareness was sharp. Don't discount what you can learn from playing the maniacs online; you just may be pleasantly surprised one day in a live event when things seem to come together for you, with you making all the right reads and plays because of your online experience.
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