The World Series of Poker … and me

In my previous post, I talked about the people I met and the epiphany I realized in Las Vegas last month.  Now, I want to talk about my original motive in going to Sin City:  to play in the World Series of Poker,

Ever since I was a schoolboy, I remember playing poker with my Dad.  We often played games after dinner (once my homework was done, of course!).  My father loved games and taught me many of his favorites:  chess, backgammon, gin rummy, dominoes and mahjongg.  But poker was my favorite, as this game is not static.  What was the winning hand the previous round could be the loser the next round.  This kept the game very dynamic for me; I could not settle on one strategy and run with it (which is what I usually do with many board games like Risk or Settlers of Catan).

What I didn’t know back then was my father only taught me the poker variants that he played with his buddies.  About once a month, we would go to a party hosted by some of my parents’ friends.  While the women usually occupied the main living areas, the men would usually be sequestered in the garage or back room, playing different games.  Being the weird kid of the group, I would usually watch the men gamble than hang out with the other boys my age.  When I was deemed old enough, my Dad would let me sit in for him when he needed to use the bathroom or grab more food. (Lord knows the game would not stop for one man’s desire for more lumpia or lechon!)  During these few minutes, I was one of the guys, even though they were all my parents’ age.  Even though these moments were short, I looked forward for the next party so I can play with the big boys.

Inevitably, I moved out for college.  As I started meeting new people, I realized that the poker games my dad played with his friends were not standard.  I learned the regular variants, like 7 card stud and 5 card draw, with no wild cards.  Again, the rules changed for me, and I had to adapt to keep up.  Thankfully, as college students with very limited disposable income, the swings were never more than $20.00 per session.  While some of my peers would hit an Indian casino on the weekends (back then, you could gamble at those establishments at 18), I was still too timid with my game to play with stranger for any real money.

(A quick aside on how much game playing was vital to my college experience: in my first month of school, I was sitting in my room with my roommate Kevin and 4 other guys from our dorm.  We had been playing cribbage since we got back from lunch.  I was already done with class for the day, but the other 5 guys were in a 3 PM Physics class.  Around 2:45 PM, Kevin declared “Physics is about to start.”  No one looked up from their cards, and we proceeded to continue playing cribbage until dinner!)

After graduation, I moved into an apartment with my friend Brant, who is an excellent game player in his own right.  During our college days, many nights were spent (wasted?) on late sessions of board games.  I still blame Brant for personally lowering my GPA by convincing me that hanging out playing games (or late night runs to Jack-In-The-Box for Jalapeno Poppers, or just talking on the Quad during the day) was more important than studying or going to class.  (If he tries to refute this story, I still maintain I tried to get him to study more, to no avail!).

During these early years of living on my own, money was tight.  My day job paid the bills but left me little for savings (or having fun).  I was looking for a 2nd job that I could do during nights or weekends to supplement my income, and found a very promising post on craigslist.  (No, I did not find this post in Casual Encounters!).   A local company was looking for poker and blackjack dealers for corporate events and fundraisers.  They offered paid training and only needed staff for the weekends.  The offices were even 5 minutes from my apartment!  I answered the ad right away, and soon got an email inviting me to their next training.

A few days later, I was ushered into a warehouse with a poker table and blackjack table. After a round of introductions with the trainer and 3 other applicants, we started the training.  Basically, the trainer wanted to know what we knew.  We started at poker, playing a simulated game where each of us dealt a few hands each.  No problem:  I’ve been playing poker my entire life, so this was second nature to me.  Later we switched to the blackjack table.  I’ve played plenty of blackjack in Las Vegas, but was not as familiar with the dealing procedures (and had never dealt out of a shoe).  After a 5 minutes crash course from the trainer, I was dealing blackjack like a seasoned veteran.  30 minutes into the 2 hour training, the trainer pulled me aside and said I didn’t need to stay for the rest of the session.  He hired me on the spot, and my first gig  was the following weekend.   That was in 2000, and I haven’t looked back since.

(If you are needed a little extra money – if you live in the Bay Area, we all do! – think about working as a casino dealer for a party company.  Even if you’ve never played any casino games, but are good with people, shower regularly and can count to 21 while sober, most companies will train you on blackjack.  And if you are willing to learn and stick around for awhile, they may train you on other games, like poker, roulette and even craps.  Basically, you get paid to play games with some nice folks in a lot of cool locations.  The current company I work for is this one, but there are a bunch of them all throughout the country.)

Even though I was dealing poker, I wasn’t playing that much.  The local cardrooms and casinos were still intimidating to me, and I couldn’t find a decent home game.  But the poker world changed after the 2003 World Series of Poker.  After the amateur Chris Moneymaker beat out 838 other players to win the Main Event and $2,500,000 (after only initially paying out $86.00 in tournament fees), every gambler with a few bucks and a dream started playing Texas Hold ‘Em.  Soon after, I started playing in home games and settled into a good one in Oakland.  I played tournaments at this game weekly, and occasionally played the cash games, too.  With regular games for over 4 years, I honed my game immensely, enough to boost my confidence and start playing in some of the local casinos.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.  Our host moved out of the area, and the game fizzled after that.  I haven’t found a regular home game since, but still venture into card rooms occasionally.  The majority of my poker playing nowadays is through charity tournaments.  The play is generally more relaxed than a casino, and the money goes to a good cause.

When my family decided to sell our Store, I knew I needed to get away.  Las Vegas was calling me, so I booked my flight to play in Event 2, the Colossus event.  For a buy-in of $565.00, each of the 21,613 entries was competing for a first prize of $1,000,000.  Not a bad return of investment.

The first time I walked into the Convention Center of the Rio, I felt like I’d reached the center of the poker universe.  Over a thousand poker players were spread throughout the Amazon Room, all with the same purpose.  All around the room, people were winning and losing chips, hanging on a thread with each card shown.  The most eerie thing about this room:  except for the occasional plea for a miracle card (“One time!“), you don’t hear anyone talking.  Just the sounds of shuffling chips echoed throughout the huge room.  And the Amazon Room is just one of several rooms for the World Series!  (Tip:  forget going to the bathroom during the breaks.  You will be waiting in line with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.)

Unfortunately, my time at the World Series was not as successful as I hoped.  This event paid out 15% of the participants, which came out to over 3,000 players.  But to make it that far needed at least 12 hours of play!  To make it to the very end was 4 days of 14 hour play.  (As they say, it’s a hard way to make an easy living.)  I did play for 8 hours, but did not finish in the money.  I played more poker over the weekend, including some time at other casinos.  So many poker players travel to Las Vegas during the World Series, many of the other resorts have their own tournament series to attract business.  Every where you look, there are throngs of poker players.  Now I know why some many players make annual pilgrimages to Vegas each summer!

Even though I did not find fame or glory in Las Vegas (not even a minute of TV time!), there were some highlights to my poker experience:

  1.  I played a lot tighter than normally.  When I play for lower stakes, I’m pretty loose, playing lots of pots and bluffing regularly.  But with the higher stakes, I folded a lot more than usual.  In hindsight, I was playing “face up,” practically giving away my cards to the more seasoned players.  Though this strategy allowed me to survive for long periods of time, I was never a big stack.  Next time, I will try to play my normal game and forget about the buy-in.
  2. In large tournaments, there is a lot of player movement.  As people get eliminated from play, staff move people to new tables, eventually ending with one final table.  During my time at the World Series, I ended up sitting next to Greg Raymer, the 2004 Main Event champion.  As a very famous poker player, he was holding court during our game, answering questions from the other (obviously star-struck) players and telling numerous stories.  During my short time playing with Greg, he was very gracious, joking with all of us and having a great time.  With numerous stories of poker professionals berating amateurs when they play poorly, Greg was very kind to every player at the table, including me.  When they broke our table, I shook Greg’s hand and wished him well.  If only all poker players were as kind and generous as him!

Lastly, in my desire to become a better poker player, I realize that I need to double-down on my studies.  Everyone at the World Series is a good player, even one of the better ones in their home towns.  To succeed at that level, I will need to supplement play with focused study.  Books, online forums, maybe even poker coaching will be in my future.  While my goal is to be in the 80th percentile of poker players, that alone is not good enough for the World Series.  When I go back to Las Vegas next summer, I will be better prepared to face that next challenge.


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