I missed my exit. Completely drove right past it. Oops. Ok, just a quick turn around and I’ll be there. Nope. Another 15 minutes go by and all I can do is smile, because I finally arrived. I had just reached the place that would hold my dreams inside. I was so nervous and my mind had been racing all morning (or the past few months, actually), that I drove right past the exit to reach the casino.
I had been to Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee, WI probably over a hundred times by now. I have gone to place horse racing bets. I have gone to play bingo. I have gone for my brother’s 21st birthday. And of course, I have gone to play poker many, many times before there. Only this time, it had a special aura to it. The building itself seemed to sparkle in the late morning sunlight as I pulled up to the parking structure. All I wanted to do was just park my car, get inside and register for Event #1.
To rewind a little bit, as most of you know, I am a poker fanatic. I just love the game. Ok, I don’t just love it, I breathe it. I embrace it as a lifestyle and a choice to play whenever I can. I will admit I’m obsessed with the game.
To watch, to read, to learn, to blog, to talk and to play; I just can never get enough.
I’ve been told that I’m addicted to it, and on one hand, I could see that. But not in the way that I lie, cheat, steal or do anything dishonestly to keep playing the game. Not to the point that I would pass up paying my bills to play poker. Hell, I used to pay the bills WITH poker. But really, when my time is up, it’s up. When my buy in is lost, I get up and walk away knowing that’s it. Sometimes it hurts a little more than other knockouts and I go on a little rant, but the next morning, I’m right back at it. I use that pain of losing to fuel my winning. I use each loss as a learning tool. When I win money, I feel relieved and grateful that my skill won out that night. The only thing that absolves losing, is winning.
Since 2005, when I first learned about the game of poker, I was hooked. I won’t go into the life story again, but if you want to, you can catch up right here: Life Is a Gamble. If you’ve ever watched ESPN or poker on TV, you know that the most shows are the World Series of Poker. ESPN started airing the annual tournament series that takes place in Las Vegas, NV every summer, on TV. And it became a gold mine, with the first episodes being broadcast back in 2003. It took off when a no name player won the $10,000 Main Event for $2.5 million after besting over 800 players. Chris Moneymaker (yes, his actual name) won his Main Event seat by winning an online satellite for $86. Satellite tournaments are smaller buy in tournaments in which a winner gets a seat in a larger tournament.
This was also about the time that online poker was becoming huge as well. It was so easy to just play online, against real, live people anywhere in the world for real money. So, in combining the ESPN coverage, online poker and the fact that all the “big name pros” weren’t the only ones winning anymore, poker took off. Anyone who could learn the game, thought they could do it. After all, you just watched an accountant from Nashville, TN (Moneymaker) win the 2003 WSOP Main Event for $2.5 million off just a mere $86 investment.
Naturally, me and my friends watched the WSOP on TV every chance we got. We would learn quite a bit from watching, learning certain plays and looking for betting patterns and facial tells as they were being shown on TV. Of course, there is no substitute for playing live, to see for yourself, but watching the WSOP gave us visual aides to use. Instead of just reading about poker in books or playing online with cards, we could see humans playing, and how the ups and downs of the game affected them. It was emotional drama at its finest.
I mean, there was money and bracelets on the line, after all.
Wait, bracelets? Yep. The WSOP in addition to handing out prize money for those fortunate enough to make the money in these tournaments, the winner also receives a gold, diamond encrusted bracelet commemorating the occasion. The World Series of Poker has been handing out bracelets to winners since its inception in 1970. Think of it like winning an NBA title or the Super Bowl, you get a trophy at the end, if you win. The same thing with bracelets, for winning a tournament. The current record holder is none other than Wisconsin’s very own, and my favorite player, Phil Hellmuth Jr., who has 14 of them.
I’ve been wanting a bracelet ever since I found out about the WSOP giving them out. To me, the prestige, having something tangible and etching your name forever as a winner for a specific tournament means more than the money. Is the money awesome? Absolutely. But money comes and goes. I can always make money from other avenues, so when I play, I’m playing to win. No really, I. Play. To. Win. Which is why it’s so disheartening to me because of how much I care and want to win, every single time. I don’t care if I’m playing for pennies or thousands of dollars.
When you win a bracelet, that’s your glory. That’s your name in the record books. And no one can ever take that away from you.
After years of always saying I was going to head out to Vegas and play in the World Series of Poker, I just always found an excuse not to go. Next year, I’d say. Money was certainly an issue some of the time, and other times it was just being afraid. What if I wasn’t as good as I thought I was? What if I get out there and I get so beat that it just turns me off from the game? Maybe I should just use the money elsewhere. This went on for nearly 12 years. 12. Fucking. Years.
I don’t know about you, but 12 years is a long time to not do something you’ve always wanted to do.
Another thing that happened with the WSOP, is that it became so popular that they started doing year round tours. They called these “Circuit Events.” These events were smaller buy in tournaments that then would give out rings instead of bracelets, in addition to the prize money. The circuit tours would come to each state’s biggest casino and hold week long tournaments, instead of the months long tournaments out in Vegas. This would be my shot. This would be my opportunity to not use the money as an excuse. Instead of the $1,500 – $10,000 buy in events out in Las Vegas, the circuit events had a buy in range of $365 – $1,600. Ok, that I can swing.
Only, the circuit events never came to Wisconsin. It took until the summer of 2017 when they finally would. Once again, I found one more excuse not to play, although a legitimate one. I had been doing pretty well online through the first half of 2017 and when I found out the WSOP was coming to my city, Milwaukee, I was in. As luck would have it, my car started having major issues in the beginning of the summer, and I had to take out all of my online poker money and put it into fixing my car. Dream over.
Luck would rear its head once more though, this time in my favor, as in 2018, it was announced that the WSOP was coming back to Potawatomi in Milwaukee, WI! No matter what, I was playing in this. I don’t care what the situation is in my life, but I cannot let this pass me by any longer. I’ve since gotten a brand new car, thanks to a lot of help and people making some calls on my behalf, so there’s no worry about getting there. I have two weeks of paid vacation at work, so there’s no worry about getting the time to play. I have the money, which took all kinds of different ways to reach the $2,000 to set aside outside of my other accounts, to just play poker with. I would have enough to play at least 6 tournaments if I deemed prepared for. This was money apart from my bills, bank account and other investments. This was money that I was prepared to lose, if need be.
But I have to play this time. This is my dream, remember?
Now, let’s get back to the present time, where I have just finished my first ever WSOP event.
Just walking into the casino, had a completely different feel to it. There were signs and banners and brochures everywhere promoting the World Series of Poker, at Potawatomi Casino. I was in Heaven. It truly felt like it. I was almost in tears, it felt so good to finally walk through the walls and know I was going to be playing in the very tournaments I had seen on TV thousands of times. I couldn’t help but smile, and happily turn in my $365 to register. The starting time was 11:00 AM and it was set to be a 1 day event, so they would play down to a winner by the end of the night, no matter how long it took. After doing some calculating based on how the tournament structure was for breaks, blind levels, and the number of entrants, I figured it would take around 12 hours. I was ready for it.
Nowhere else in the world can you just pay an entry fee, register for a sporting event and play with the best. I can’t just go shoot hoops with Lebron James. I can’t join a baseball team and hit balls with Mike Trout. Only in poker, can you register for a tournament and be sitting next to, and playing poker with, the very best in the game. Hellmuth. Chan. Brunson. Ivey. Seidel. Negreanu. Dwan. Holz. All of those names are legendary, and modern day great players that you, me, or anyone could sit next to as long as you pay the entry fee to get in the tournament. Pretty awesome, am I right?
I’m always asked how I can sit that long and play poker optimally. I sit online and play for an entire day and night a lot. And online is worse, because you’re staring at a computer screen and it’s a lot more fast paced, because of the time limits on hands and the human factor being taken out of things (no dealing, shuffling, getting moved from tables, breaks, etc.). But when you’re in the zone, nothing else matters. I can play my “A” game and make great decisions for long periods of times, because I know that’s what it takes in order to win.
There’s plenty of time to rest when you get knocked out or when you take it all down.
I would end up playing for 5 hours, reaching two separate breaks. And with 367 total entrants, I made it all the way down to 106 players. The top 45 would get paid out, with 45th getting you $500 back and 1st netting you over $24,000. Not bad for a 12 hour day of playing a card game eh? And the whole time, I thought I would do it. I thought, what a great story this would be. I would not only cash in my first ever WSOP event, but I would be the last player standing.
Throughout the tournament, I was extracting value from my made hands. I was able to lay down my losing hands and big hands that I knew I was beat on. I was playing pretty well. I even had a couple of bluffs go through for some decent sized pots. I wasn’t getting out of line and was able to keep my composure when I went card dead for an hour. Then, with 106 players remaining, I decided to go for one more bluff.
The blind levels were 500/1000 with a 100 ante. I had a stack of 38,000, which was good for the 2nd biggest stack at the table. The biggest stack would raise in early position to 2,200 and I looked down at A♦8♦ on the button. I thought of reraising him if I was going to play the hand, but he was the chip leader, so I didn’t want to get into a raising war with him. I just called and the blinds both folded, to my amazement actually.
The flop comes out 9 ♦10 ♦J♠! Ok, so not only do I have a straight draw (a 7 or a Q helps me), but any diamond gives me the nut flush as well. The big stack lead out for 3,000 into the 6,800 pot. I thought of raising him here, as I had a monster hand, but thought he might fold any non monster hand, and I wanted to string this one along and not show my strength, so I just called. The turn was a red K♥, but it wasn’t a diamond. He leads out for 6,000 this time, into the 12,800 pot. I’m around 33,000 right now in chips, so I can still afford the call, but if I miss, I’ll be faced with a tough decision. I couldn’t fold though, as my outs still haven’t changed, but I am now resigned to the fact that the 7 may not help me, as it’s likely he has some kind of a Q hand for a straight himself already. I end up just calling the turn bet and the river brings me a big old blank.
I think it was like a 4♠ or something pretty insignificant., with the final board of 9♦ 10 ♦J♠ K♥ 4♠ showing. The player checks to me, and now I’m screaming inside my head to just check it back and give it up. I’ve seen this play online so many times and it always turns into a check-raise of all in. I keep telling myself I’m beat, that he has the straight. And then, I do something stupid, after 5 hours of playing near perfect poker. I shove my remaining 27,000 stack of chips in the middle, and am quickly called. I honestly don’t know why I did that. I guess I thought that he could only call me with the straight right at the end of my thinking? I explain to everyone that I have nothing and ask for him to show me his straight. He does (Q♠9♣ for those keeping track back home), I say good luck to everyone and how much fun it was to play with them today. I had a blast. It was truly a moment in time I will never forget.
As I make my walk of shame back to my car, all I can think about is how I beat myself today. I had an above average stack and with the rate people had started getting knocked out in, I probably could have coasted to the money, at the least. But that’s not how I play. I play for the glory. I play for the pots to put myself in a chance to succeed for more. I play for it all. I play to win, and that’s no bluff.