As the title alludes to, I blew my shot at World Series of Poker glory. I, the self-proclaimed “titles over money” type of poker player, had a legit opportunity to finally come away with WSOP gold. The year was 2019 and I was about to leave work for the day and throw down $400 for a Pot Limit Omaha (PLO) poker tournament. The venue? Potawatomi Bingo and Casino, in Milwaukee, WI. It was an official WSOP Circuit Event.
Being a WSOP Circuit Event meant that it still counted for the yearly WSOP player standings and records (however minute); but instead of distributing gold bracelets to the winners (like they do on TV in Las Vegas), the winners would receive gold rings. Oh yeah, plus the prize money. First place from this tournament was going to receive nearly $15,000 ($14,190 to be exact). Not bad on a $400 investment, with 166 players entered and the opportunity to walk away a WSOP winner for life.
PLO (Pot Limit Omaha) had also quickly become my favorite poker game variant. Yes, this took place over two years ago, but with the recent, and annual WSOP taking place in Las Vegas, NV; I couldn’t help but reminisce about this specific tournament. The last time I played a live tournament thinking it was mine to lose, from start to finish.
Now, back to the beginning. I never wrote about this tournament, which is unusual for me, because I used to blog on MySpace back in my poker playing heyday. Yes, that’s how far back my poker playing and writing go. Every live poker tournament I played back then (2005–2011 mostly), I would come back home, win or lose, and write about it. I posted my little tournament recap on MySpace and a poker forum I also used to frequent (2+2 if anyone is wondering).
While watching the WSOP out in Vegas right now, I was instantly reminded of how much I miss playing live poker. Online poker is OK, but to me, it’s just not the same. The excitement isn’t there. The glory isn’t there. I’ve had winning days, nights, weeks, whatever it may be, online to not even respond. It’s real money, being put on the line against real people, but it doesn’t have that same feeling inside.
Live poker, is much more fun to me. It’s rare, these days, when I do get to play. Usually Tuesday or Wednesday nights if I’m able (work has certainly picked up a lot lately — funeral director here), but it’s mostly cash games with a few of the same group of players. Not too much gets in my way of winning, as most of them have their set ways of playing and I’ve figured them all out by now. I’ve had three losing sessions here out of ten. That’s actually pretty good, coming away a winner 70% of the time. But I digress.
When I play live poker tournaments over cash games, I get nervous. I get excited. I get butterflies. Whatever you want to call it, I feel it. And I love it. I thrive off such situations while playing. I’d rather run an insane bluff and be successful at it than get pocket Aces and double up my chip stack. Anyone can win with AA. But can you win with 7 2 off suit? Not many can. I can.
With tournaments, there is always that element of being knocked out. Cash games, you can always reload and leave the game whenever you like. Tournaments, it’s mostly one and done. As long as you have a “chip and a chair,” as the saying goes, you have a chance. This night, September 17 to be exact (three days before my birthday), I had a special feeling. More than a chance, I thought to myself. A chance to win.
After work, I talked to my girlfriend and told her about this feeling, too. “I’m really thinking this might be it,” I told her. I’m playing my favorite game (PLO), and it’s my only shot at WSOP Circuit Ring glory, as my schedule was not conducive this time around at Potawatomi. Usually, the WSOP Circuit tour comes twice a year to Milwaukee. This would be their final time of the year and my work schedule was just too hectic to attend. This was my only free night. This was my chance.
After throwing down $400, and finding my seat, I was quickly amazed at how fast everyone was playing. Being that the game was “Pot Limit” and not “No Limit” this meant you could only bet the size of the pot in the middle. In No Limit Hold ’Em, you can bet any amount of chips, at any point in the hand. Pot Limit is a little more methodical that way. You also get four cards instead of two (like in NLHE). This gives much more action, as you have four cards in your hand instead of two. The same rules apply, in regards to seeing a flop (3 cards out on the board), a turn (1 additional card on board) and then the river (1 last card, completing the action).
In PLO, you then choose two cards from your four, to make the best possible five card hand. You can imagine how crazy some hands can get. With the betting capped at the “pot” this allows for more betting and action, because you almost always give someone odds to call you down. With no limits in the other games, sometimes players just over bet or go all in to dissuade players from continuing in the hand. Poker, am I right?
Within the first two hours I had nearly tripled my stack. Each player began the tournament with 15,000 worth of tournament chips. I had almost 45,000 on the first break, which is given every two hours. I was basically given these chips as quite a few times, players against me would just bet and bet and bet, and I had it every time. I wish I could say I was running bluffs left and right, but I didn’t need to. Not yet anyway.
After the first break, my luck continued. I hit quads not once, but twice. Both times with QQxx in my hand (the “xx” denotes cards that are immaterial to the hand). Both times the flop came out Q Q x, as well. And both times, my opponents just kept betting and raising me, not imagining I had a Queen in my hand, let alone two of them. When you’re feeling good AND running good, that is a very hard poker player to beat. My confidence was sky high at this point.
I carried this momentum into the second break, with over 190,000 in tournament chips. Only 54 out of the original 166 players remained. In checking the scoreboard ticker, which shows the blind levels, number of players entered, prize pool, etc. I saw that 25 players would be getting paid tonight. $564 to 25th place, $14,190 going to 1st place. My mind was on first. I was going to win.
With 54 players remaining, it was time to put my chips to use. I wasn’t playing to just cash, I was playing to win. The middle stages of the tournament are when you have a feel for your table and know which gear you need to be in. If you’re very short on chips, you’ll certainly be looking for a “double up” and/or to possibly just hang on until you make some money. If you’re a middle sized stack, you can go one of two ways: Play to win and risk busting before the shorter chip stacks, or play conservatively and not too wild, staying afloat enough to cash, but limiting your chance to win.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I go full bore every single time I play. I could and should, probably switch gears a lot more than I do. But, when I play, I almost always build up a huge stack, and then use that to my advantage. I try to knock players out. I put them to the test for all their chips. This is when bluffing really comes in handy, as I don’t always have a big hand, but am willing to act like I do. This puts tremendous pressure on the shorter stacks to either fold or put their tournament life at risk. This also puts pressure on the middle stacks to continue on or then risk BECOMING a short stack.
Most of the time, this works. Until it doesn’t, of course. My beginning and middle stage poker playing is very good. I would say great, even. My end game in poker tournaments, however, is not good. I’d say borderline terrible at times. Because I am unable to switch gears until it’s too late, I often am involved with bigger pots and a lot more risk throughout my entire time of playing, when I could be slowing down in some spots. There is a difference in playing to win and being smart about it, versus just going nuts every hand.
This was one tournament, I went nuts in. Up until the final two tables, I was chip leader of the entire tournament. I was in such a zone and feeling great, I seriously thought that there was no way I was going to lose. I had this feeling immediately after knocking out a well-known pro. He was well-known to everyone but me, apparently, because I still do not know who he was.
It was during this massive hand when I found out about the importance. We were well into the money by now, with about 18 players remaining (9 to a table). The unknown pro had raised it the pot after a few players limped in, and I thought for a bit and re-raised it the pot again. I had K 10 x x in my hand. I had nothing. A total garbage hand. I was using my chip stack and the position I had on everyone in trying to take it down right then and there. The pro was the only one to call me. The flop came down K K x. He checked and I instantly bet pot, as if I didn’t have the K and wanted him to think it based on my betting so big.
A little reverse psychology if you will, as this goes on a lot during a poker game. You want players to think and feel a certain way about their hand, with your betting sizes and how soon or long, it takes you to act. I was acting strong, which I certainly was (having three Kings), but trying to make it seem I was weaker by quickly betting, as if the K K x flop meant nothing to me.
It worked, he thought for a bit and the pot size was big enough for him to go all in. I called and he shakes his head and asks me, “You have the King don’t you?” I said I did, sheepishly, as my K 10 x x holding was terrible pre flop. The professional held J J x x and was in very bad shape. He needed a Jack or running straight cards and bricked off completely. I shook his hand and that was the end of it.
Afterward, I was told he was probably the favorite to win it all as he has a very good record when it came to Pot Limit Omaha tournaments. I said I didn’t even know who he was and a few guys laughed at me. I was being serious. I still don’t know who he was (insert shrug emoji). I had to look him up after the tournament, of course, only to find out his name: Brian McDaniel, from Chicago, IL. He of the two WSOP Circuit rings and over $212,000 in career tournament wins. Meh, I got lucky, no big deal. It did give me even more confidence, however.
Knowing that I was a dominating chip leader at this point and being told I knocked out the supposed “favorite” of the tournament, I was feeling pretty high. I mean, I know I can come across as conceited at times (shoot even reading this you’re probably rolling your eyes at me), but in poker you have to play with confidence. You cannot lack for it. You need to play aggressive and play to win. You cannot fold your way to a win. You cannot rely solely on getting hands, because there will be times you will not get them. I took a risk with the K 10 x x hand and I got lucky, yes, but I also put myself in that spot to do so, and then bet the way I did, to induce a call.
It was getting late at this point (around midnight) and with me gearing up for another two or three hours of play, I was hit with a bombshell. The tournament was now going to be two days long, with play stopping in the next hour. I was floored by this. The entire time, I was under the assumption it was a “one day” tournament, in which we play down to a winner, regardless of the time it takes. I do well at these, because I don’t need the late breaks or want them. If I’m in a zone, I need to stay in that zone and play until it’s over.
I was told that days ago it was changed to a “two day” tournament and I obviously did not pay attention to things. Welp. “Why do you care Noah? You’re a massive chip leader in a WSOP Circuit Event, just come back tomorrow and win.” In my line of work, I am needed almost daily. Being a funeral director, unless I call in or take the time off, I’m expected to be there in the morning, ready to meet with grieving families or embalm, or run a funeral, whatever is needed.
I know, I know. I should have known it was changed to a two day tournament and not still a one day. I should have continued to play my game as is, and come back the next day. I should have let work know the situation and hope I was allowed to go back and finish what I started. I mean, $14K is $14K. Or, I should have just called in sick or said that I’m playing this to the end no matter what. News flash, funeral homes everywhere are always looking for help.
Instead, I chose the worst option possible. I played like a maniac. I played every single hand, betting the maximum every street. I was going to try and knock out the remaining players as quickly as possible, in hopes of the tournament ending in the next hour. By the third or fourth hand of me doing this, the players were not happy. They suddenly picked up on what I was doing and everyone told me to stop, to just play my game and come back tomorrow as chip leader. I told them I didn’t know it was a two day tournament, that I now have to try and end it tonight because of work.
Almost everyone except one other player laughed at me. They couldn’t believe I was going to blow this opportunity I had, over one day of work. Especially knowing that regardless of what happened I would be back the day after tomorrow or could have my pick of which funeral home to work at, if fired, and have $14,000 to my name in poker winnings. Needless to say, the one other player was an older gentleman who said I had to do the right thing in relation to my job. He told me to go for it tonight and show up for work.
Maybe he was saying that because it favors all of them for me to play like a maniac, because at this point it’s entirely luck and not skill. They could just wait for a good hand and double up off of me, while I just give chips away. This is precisely what happened. I doubled a few players up, and even knocked out a couple more. I would be involved in one final hand of the night, and the tournament, with the older gentleman of all players.
We played our hands, with me potting it (maximum betting throughout) the entire way through, and him thinking for quite awhile on the river card. He knew what I was doing the entire way, and he certainly had me (I actually had a set, three of a kind). The board basically had a straight on it, with him needing only the one card with any other on board to qualify for the straight, and beat my three of a kind. He finally called and took the remainder of my chips.
I was out in 12th place for tournament winnings of $941. A profit over $500 for my troubles tonight. However, as I collected my money and started walking back to my car, I knew how stupid I was. I regretted how I played at the end and how I let one day of work distract me from my chance at a WSOP Circuit win, a ring and $14,000 cash. I dominated that entire tournament, and once again, found a way to blow up at the end. I just couldn’t switch gears and/or focused on the wrong moment in life.
Even worse? The tournament started up the next day at 3:00 PM instead of the 12:00 PM restart we were originally told the first night. I could have still maintained my massive chip lead, gone to work the next day, and came back to the tournament about an hour or so after the 3:00 PM start time. With blind levels being 20–30 minutes, I would not have missed too much. I could have came back and who knows what would have happened?
Maybe I lose. Maybe I don’t. The point is, that I lost focus when it mattered most. I didn’t stop to think things through, run it by my girlfriend, maybe call the funeral home owner even and see what he thought. I could have done, and should have done, literally anything except what I did. How I played. Hindsight is certainly 20/20, but considering I was working at a place I would end up despising, I’m still shocked at my decision. But, I work for the love, not for the money.
In poker, it’s the same. I play for the love. I play for glory… until I don’t. And that is why I still do not have a WSOP ring or bracelet. I always get in my own way. I always come so close, and find a way to sabotage things, in one or the other. I’ve had my wins, absolutely. Over time, I am a winning player. Even in the six months where I live now, with the aforementioned 7 out of 10 winning sessions. I have even won two online tournaments in the past couple of months, so I know the skill is there.
I just have to stop blowing my chance. Then, now, and in the future.