“Remember this. The house doesn’t beat the player. It just gives him the opportunity to beat himself.”— Nicholas “The Greek” Dandolos
Back in December, I decided to play the $10,000 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Championship. My last tournament experience was a $1,000 NLHE WSOP…in 2012.
Over the next six months, I studied and played in a few local tournaments.
My strategy prep consisted of:
- The Game Plan,
- Modern Poker Theory,
- The Mental Game of Poker series,
- an old degen friend & tournament regular,
- my partner Melis, morale and co-backer
GENERAL LOGISTIC TIPS
Note: Skip to “DAY 1D” if you’re not playing future WSOP events
– If you don’t have a Caesar’s Rewards account and physical card, SET UP ASAP. Quite a few folks in the registration line missed this, and the Caesar Rewards Desk near the Registration room closed early evening.
– Wiring monies through BravoPoker was seamless, but I still had to go through Player Services to set up the escrow balance, etc. if I wished to late register.
– Bally’s air conditioning worked better than the Paris rooms, and certain corners of the room were colder/hotter based on where your table was. Bring clothing layers as a hedge.
– Bally’s main bathroom was set up near the middle black curtain hallway, and if you waited 5-10 minutes during the breaks and then go, it moved very fast. There is also a secret bathroom out in the casino, but that’s why it’s a secret. 🙂
– Bellagio isn’t a bad place to set up shop, especially if you have Hyatt Explorist status, because they’ll match your status with MGM Gold, which waives your resort fees. When you’re leaving the Bellagio, hang right of the horseshoe walking path to cross the Strip into Paris, which you’ll walk through Paris to get to Bally’s Convention area.
– Raw organic trail mix, blueberries, eggs, protein, and lots of water. I’d recommend Linq’s Yard House, Bellagio’s Patisserie, and Aria Crystal’s Starbucks as quick dining options.
DAY 1D WEDNESDAY
NOTE: I’ve anonymized names for privacy
“The beautiful thing about poker is that everybody thinks they can play.”— Chris Moneymaker
Day 1D attracted 4,481 players, the biggest of the four Day 1s. Because there were rumors players could get turned away, I bailed on my late registration strategy of skipping the first few levels.
All tables had to play 10-handed when I sat down in Seat #9. It was mostly no-name recreational players with only one pro from the UK in seat #7, not a bad table draw.
Day 1 was uneventful, save Seat #1 catching five pocket Aces that day and making it a point of showing them to us. Every. Single. Time.
What was more interesting to me was the solid maniac in Seat #8. I targeted him because he was opening wide as loose-aggressive (LAG) players tend to do. I also sat to his left, so I was usually In-Position (IP).
We traded back and forth small to medium-sized pots in the first level. On the 2nd level blinds at 200-400-400, Maniac raised 900 from the Button (BN) again for the millionth time to pressure me in the Small Blind (SB) and the Big Blind (BB), an experienced rec player in Seat #10.
I looked down at pocket 10s. Knowing 100% Maniac was going to continuation bet (c-bet) on the flop, instead of the usual reraise (3-bet) I mixed it up by calling. The BB player called, too. I glanced at Maniac’s 90,000 stack vs. my 52,000 and BB’s 55,000.
The flop hit the felt, 7 4 2 rainbow. I checked, as did BB. Sure enough, Maniac c-bet 1,400 into the center. I mustered up chips to call and the BB folded.
The turn brought a Queen, no flush draws. Now I was committed to check/calling him down, so when he carved out 4,200 in 1,000 yellow and 100 blue chips for a bet, we smooth called again. The pot had grown to almost 14,000.
A sweet 10 rivered the board. I contemplated donk leading, but opted to check, seeing if he’d barrel again. Maniac thought for a bit, shuffling his cards with rough, tanned fingers before announcing, “I got two pair.” I flipped over my tens and that was the last big pot Maniac would ever play with me.
At the 300-500-500 level, at starting stack, the BN moved to me. Under the Gun (UTG) was another tight aggressive (TAG) player with the second largest stack at the table who raised to 1,300. I looked down at 76 suited of spades and called. The blinds tagged along too.
The flop came 9 8 2 rainbow, giving me an open-ended straight draw. UTG c-bet 3,200 into the 5,200 pot, which we obviously called. The blinds folded, so now it was heads up.
Turn was a K, bringing a club backdoor flush draw. He bet 3,200 again, too small, so we called again. UTG started getting angsty. In my brain, I quietly chanted, “5 or a 10, 5 or a 10.”
AGAIN a river 10 hit, giving us a straight, no flushes. He stabbed at the pot one last time for 5,200. Here I tanked, trying to think of an amount UTG could call. As I grabbed a few reds and yellows, I pushed my blues with them for a re-raise to 12,000. He instantly mucked, tilted, and was knocked out losing an all-in AKo vs. KKs on his next hand. Ambulance-chasing players who were steaming became a common thread at my table.
On the last level of the night with blinds at 300-600-600, I got dealt AQ off (o) sitting on a 65,000 stack in Mid Position (MP). I open to 1,200, only the LoJack (LJ), our friendly neighbor #10 called while the blinds folded.
The flop came Ad Qh 3s. I c-bet 3,000, and MP called. The turn was a 6d, giving a backdoor flush draw. Still holding top two pair, I bet 5,200. Seat #10 Neighbor cooly re-raised to 23,000 out of nowhere. It probably was only a few minutes but felt longer as I tanked, replaying the hand over in my head.
I said, “I’m laying down a monster,” then folded. Later when the night ended the Neighbor shared he had pocket 66’s. I thanked him for sharing the hand, he didn’t have to. I’d like to think it was karma he was the only player from Days 1 and 2 that I saw make through the money bubble.
On my last hand of the day I flopped quad 22s on the BN in a four-way raised 4,800 pot, but sadly NO ONE could even call my river value bet. Woof.
I ended Day 1D at 57,100 shy of starting stack playing very ABC poker. Not bad, not great either. But it was a good table for me to catch my tournament legs and acclimate to the 13-hour days.
DAY 2D FRIDAY
“The one who bets the most wins. Cards just break ties.”— Sam Farha
I was Seat #5 with a great view of the table action. But thanks to Melis’ research, I knew the table draw was sprinkled with semi-pros with multiple cashes and the dapper Dutch on my immediate left, a known UK pro and our starting chip leader at over 89,000. Other players would come by to wish him well and Dutch knew the dealer. The soft psy-ops shit was kinda working.
The last pro to sit down was Tennessee, a burly ginger with bright, colorful tattoo sleeves depicting “Earth, Fire, Wind, Water” over both arms. His sullen body language matched his short 13,000 chip stack. Out came a silky calm voice with just a sprinkle of Southern drawl saying, “Should we just divy up my chips across the table to get it over with?” We chuckled.
Tennessee continued like he was narrating an audio book. “I’ve been just giving it all away. Over 160,000k and a downswing. Down to 13,000. I don’t want to miss lunch break and just register for The One Drop (Flight C). Busting now is better.” The table made a mental note he was on poker suicide watch.
On the very first hand of the 400-800-800 level, a 30,000 short stack Kyrgyzstan semi-pro in Seat #3 opened 2,000 on the BN. I defended my BB with K7dd.
The flop brought 7x 3c 2c. I checked, Kyrgyzstan bet 3,000 and we called with top pair. The dealer flipped a 9 on the turn, we both checked.
Kx fell on the river. After I checked, Kyrgyzstan bet 3,000 again. With a bit of theater, I re-raised to 6,500. He hate-called and threw his cards when I showed two pair.
Then chaos erupted. The silent Seat #8 semi-pro Lasagna started 3-betting Dutch’s action, crippling him when Lasagna bought a massive pot with a huge river overbet. With Dutch steaming, Lasagna caught Dutch overplaying a few hands later on a 5 5 8 rainbow flop. Dutch check-raised all-in. Without a word, Lasagna pushed a tall red stack forward, turning over A5.
Dutch grimaced. “Tsk, shit.” He flipped a suited 76. There was little ceremony with all-ins even for a respected pro like Dutch. The dealer burned turn, burned river like he was making eggs in a Vegas line kitchen. Smooth, very fast.
Just like that Dutch was out, and Lasagna was our new chip leader by like, a lot. But the draw gods replaced Dutch with a fish who loved to overcall and had bad physical tick tells all over him.
With blinds 500-1000-1000, I look down at fish hooks, JhJc on the BN. I looked over to Fish, who had already bled down to 40,000 in chips from Lasagna’s and Tennessee’s aggression. I raised 2,100, and he called.
With a sexy J Qc 3c flop on the board, Fish checked. Knowing it looked like I was button-stealing, I bet on the bigger side with 4,200. The Fish called, scratching his hands.
When the turn came a 3h and Fish checked again, I bet 11,200. He insta-jammed, and I insta-called with my turned boat. He tabled Q8o as the river was a meaningless blank, so we scooped our biggest pot so far in the tournament!
Alas, Lasagna was ruthless, 3-betting and his monster stack started pulling away from the table, knocking out multiple players, including the Kyrgyzstan semi-pro. But we found our table sheriff in the strangest of places…
Tennessee’s MO was raising 100% of his hands if it folded to him, then someone would 3-bet him, usually Lasagna. He’d 100% call, and check-call ANY bet down to the river just for showdown. He ran up his 13,000 stack to over 100,000 with multiple all-in flips. Pocket 44s, 55s, 88s, sprinkled with so many KKs the table started nicknaming Tennessee, “Mr. Kings.”
Tennessee and Lasagna developed their own coin-flip machine of shipping pots back and forth through the night. Tennessee raised, and Lasagna 3-bet him every time. It was as if the rest of us didn’t matter. We’d all fold back to Tennessee who chastise Lasagna with that silky voice.
“You know there’s no point in doing that. Why do you bet there? You know I’m calling.” I think at one point Lasagna actually broke his stone-silent stare and started giggling at how hard the 3-bets were egging Tennessee. And so on this went for 10 hours.
This was not poker, but games of chicken. By dinner break, Tennessee was back down to 14,000. His mood saddened, but he still shared some batshit golf/baseball parlay that could’ve been from Uncut Gems where he won $200,000 last year. I asked him if it was hard being a pro in this age of PioSOLVER-meta.
“No, because at the end of the day, you’re playing a human. Humans are emotional, humans make mistakes,” Tennessee pointed out.
“Well, either way, it must be hard being away from your family all this time.”
“I sent the wife and kid to Disneyland for a week, and shipped two Louis bags to her last night. They’ll be fine.” He tipped the waitress $100, but she refused, a Vegas first if I ever saw such a thing.
Coming back from dinner, we didn’t know this, but the poker gods plucked Tennessee by his ankle, not finished with him. As Tennessee went on another full-suicide run, he won flip after flip of all-ins.
The biggest pot Tennessee cooked up was when he was UTG raising, with Lasagna 3-betting. It folded back to Tennessee, who called per usual.
The flop came Qc 10 8c. With a Tennessee check, Lasagna fired a huge red stack slug. Tennessee called.
Then the flush got there with a turned 4c. Check, again another Lasagna slug, this time 25,000 green chips. Tennessee just ate it, calling.
With the pot over 150,000, the river was a K blank. Tennessee checked, and I didn’t blame Lasagna for checking back. Who was even ahead here?
“Ace high,” said Lasagna. Without a word, Tennessee flourished up pocket 22s. The dealer shoved the chip mountain to “Mr. Kings,” we all reveled in awe of Tennesee’s absolute chutzpah, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to win. He threaded that hand from fucking space to land on the Statue of Liberty. Tennessee bagged over 160,000 at the end of Day 2D, and I was in critical condition at 42,500 chips.
I will remember Day 2 as the time a pure gambler, a true player, tried to kill himself only for it to turn into the most epic face-of-the-sun heater I’ve ever witnessed at the WSOP.
But I never saw him again in the tournament.
DAY 3 SATURDAY
“In order to live [in poker tournaments], you must be willing to die.”— Amir Vahedi
At the starting level of Day 3 1000-2,500-2,500, I was in short stack territory at 17BB. I studied my jam/calling jam charts hard because I wasn’t the only short stack at my table.
The most interesting fact at the time was I had never been dealt pocket AAs yet in the tournament so far. So that meant I must be owed A BUNCH today, right? Melis was demoralized, but I was calm and determined to meet my fate.
I drew Seat #4, my birth number. Like the old soldiers of Antiquity, I saw this as a great sign. This table had the biggest stacks with four pros/strong semi-pros with multiple cash histories in the Main Event.
So of course on the very first hand of the day, I faced a UTG raise from an Israeli semi-pro of 5,000 in our BB with Q7ss. I knew what to do. I announced, “All-in,” pushing my stack forward and putting my tournament life at risk for the first time preflop. Israeli steamed, and I knew then he wasn’t going to call. After a think, he threw his raise towards my side of the table.
An orbit around the table later, we open-jammed AJo UTG+1, with no takers. Finally, a shorter-stacked pro in Seat #2 opened to 5,000 and we looked down in MP with pocket JJs. We jammed, and the pro smooth-called with 99s. I didn’t write down the board, but we held. Just like that, we’re over 100,000 in chips, and back in business!
A few hands later, I was in the BB looking at a 5,000 MP raise from the table chip leader, Seat #9. I looked down at 910hh, and called.
The flop went Jh Ax 7h, and we checked. #9 checked back. The turn was also a 6x, and it checked around.
Finally, on a Jd, we bet 11,000 with our missed flush. He didn’t think long after tossing a chip into the center, indicating a call while tabling J5cc. Bad bluff in hindsight, but it was free table marketing that I was bluffing.
Two hands later with the Dealer button in front of me, UTG+1 raised 5,000, which prompted two callers, including LJ who was the Seat #2 pro, and we tagged along with pocket 77s to set-mine. The blinds folded.
A beautiful flop of 7 10c 8c hit. There was a flush draw out there and I didn’t hold a club, so after it checked to me, I bet 10,000 into a 26,000 pot. Only LJ called, so now it was heads-up. The turn was a Jo, and the LJ pro lead-bet into me for 18,000. He was telling us the J filled his straight, it couldn’t have been JJs because he would’ve 3-bet preflop, nor did he bet the flush draw. I called.
The river was a deafening Jd, filling my boat. To my delight, the pro again bet 16,000. This was for more than a third of my remaining chips, so again I said, “All-in.”
To his credit, the pro took it well, even though he was frustrated he had to fold. And I think in general, the table was watching me all-in and run over lots of hands, which led to this next epic hand.
In the next level at 1500-3,000-3,000 blinds, I looked down at QhQs on the BN with a 150,000 stack. As action folded to me, I raised 6,500. Only the Israeli in the BB called and we went to the flop heads-up.
The flop peeled 10h 8h 6x. When Israeli checked to me, I bet 8,000. After tanking, Israeli raised to 27,000. Now it was MY turn to tank. I held the Qh, which gave less of a chance of him drawing the flush. He 3-bet range was pretty tight compared to the other pros, so I was willing to put any face-10 hand as a high possibility. I gulped, stacked together 19,000 chips, and called. An interesting tell from him was that despite his upper body being still, Israeli’s legs were shuffling all over the place. He looked uncomfortable.
The turn was a 4h, filling the flush. Israeli thought for a minute, before pushing forward 18,500 chips. I’m not gonna lie, if it wasn’t such a small bet size, I would’ve probably folded, but the bet felt so weak. Then I remembered his feet shuffling. If I was going to go out, I’d go out trusting my intuition.
“All-in.” Before I could even stack all my chips in the middle, Israeli folded. And he stayed out of my way for the rest of Day 3.
Midday, the fish in Seat #7 swam away forever, replaced by Frenchie, a Canadian pro from Montreal. My left was also replaced by a mountain man with a 500,000 stack of greens whom I shall refer to as the Mushroom King. Life somehow took him down the road of growing exotic Japanese mushrooms in the Nevada desert and now here, deep in Day 3 of the Main.
As the levels turned 3,000-5,000-5,000, UTG made it 11,000. Everyone folded to me on the Cutoff (CO) looking down at AKss. Now, some context here: Frenchie was aggro-3-betting the living daylights out of everyone, and getting away with it! This may have been a bad play in hindsight, but I FLAT CALLED. With Frenchie in BB, he thought forever. Reaching for chips, he stacked up a 50,000 3-bet. UTG mucked. This is it. This is what we wanted. This is how it goes.
I tanked for a minute or two before announcing the same words and moving my stack in the same motion, “All-in.” Frenchie’s face melted. I had only 154,000 chips, with 75,000 in the pot already. He only had to call 104,000 to win a 229,000 pot.
I stared away at Dan Harrington’s 1995 Championship banner in the rafters, channeling the Boston patron saint of nits, praying it was better than a flip. I heard Frenchie smacking his lips, arms rolling around on the felt, convulsing the energy to call it off even though every single fiber of his being felt he was behind.
“He called.” I turned around and flipped over my AKss. The Frenchie stared at my cards, and reluctantly tabled AcQo.
The flop ran 10c 8x 6c. Okay, not bad. The turn brought a Kc, giving me top pair, but a flush draw and gut-shot straight draw for Frenchie. The table sucked their breaths in, “Ohhh..”
When the 10s landed, for the first time I celebrated out loud. “Nice hand, let’s go!” Now at over 330,000 chips, this was the defining hand that I felt if nothing out of line happened for the rest of the day, I could make it in the money (ITM) at 1,300 players.
The table opinion was split on whether we’d make it ITM tonight or the next day early morning. There was a rumor they’d make us play another hour until 1am just to get ITM. I had NO idea how to tournament bubble play because I’ve only mostly played cash games. But Melis and I agreed we’d try to make a run at ITM and play conservatively for the rest of the bubble.
The big stacks descended and torched the small stacks, collecting over 15,000 in blinds from me every orbit. They took turns raising, only for us to fold. Occasionally, someone would fight back by reraising all-in, but they’d simply fold and do it again the next hand. The absolute horror of the bubble tax.
Mushroom King danced with everyone, pulling some incredible river showdowns. It was an education watching him value/bluff hands across all different boards, and I even picked up some of his bet sizing tricks in heads-up vs. multiway pots.
Of course, at the very last level on the bubble at 3000-6000-6000, I get dealt black AsAc on the BN. Wow, finally I get AAs, let it rip.
As it folded to me, I raised 13,000, getting callers from both SB Mushroom King and BB Israeli. RIPPP.
Until I saw the horrible, no-good, very bad 4c 6s 7s. Even though I had an As, this totally hit their range, despite my nut advantage. We slowly, carefully, checked all around.
The turn got worse with 8h. Mushroom King banged out 12,000, Israeli quickly folded. I whined, “Dude, this is the first time I’ve gotten them!” Because Mushroom King and I were friendly, I flashed him my AA’s.
When I mucked them, Mushroom showed me 56cc. He told me it was a good check, he would’ve ripped it on the flop with me. I chose to trust his assessment, and mustered on.
Then, we got to the infamous hand-by-hand play where they synchronized the hand action across all 150 tables. We were down to 1,304 players, four away from the money. When each table’s hand was over without an all-in, the dealer would have to stand up. The tables that did have all-ins, they’d do live commentary on the action over the speakers. Every time someone got knocked out, people would cheer. Imagine playing for almost three days and people clapping as you bubbled and walked out of the venue?
This would go on for over an hour, until a three-way all-in caused a tie for 1,300, which meant we were left with 1,299 players. We limped to the finish line almost on the dot at 1am in the morning with 171,000 chips left, but we made it!
Delirious, Melis and I spammed our emoji texts. But I had to hit the sack, Day 4 was starting at noon in less than 11 hours.
DAY 4 SUNDAY
“I like it when I lose so much money I can barely breathe. That’s the feeling I go for. I’m addicted to that feeling.”— Phil Ivey
With the day starting at 4,000-8,000-8,000, we were sitting on ~21BBs, short stacked again.
As soon as the level started, the whole room had random dealers yelling, “Payout!” and a runner would come and give the busted player their payout stub. “Payout!” “Payout!” “Payout!”
There was just one pro San Jose in Seat #2, a huge whale fish in Seat #4, and the rest of us were short-stacked. I was in Seat #8, the player sitting next to me got dealt AAs his first two opening hands, winning both big pots with runner runner flush, and then an all-in vs. AJo.
Two orbits later, and bleeding down to 16BB, I looked down in MP at KJo and shipped it. “All-in.”
San Jose 3-bet with a huge green stack, the blinds folded. He flipped over KK. I needed a lot of help on the board.
I didn’t get any: 7 6 8 rainbow, 7, and a harmless Q. GG.
I dusted off in the Payout Line standing next to Chris Moneymaker ahead of me. At least I busted after him, right? Some Japanese players in front of me started playing online poker on their phones.
I ended my WSOP celebrating with Melis by doing some shopping and having a nice dinner at Scarpetta. 🙂
“Any player that thinks card playing is a game of luck — I’ll show you a fool. That’s what the losers always say. I got unlucky, or he got lucky. The winners don’t worry about the short term; we play for the long run.”— Stu “The Kid” Ungar
Reviewing my hand history, I have a lot to improve on river betting and extracting max hand value. I was too tight (especially Day 1), but as the tournament progressed, I learned more “on the job” balancing bluffs into my play.
Except for Day 4, my table image was of someone who’d fight for pots, and was willing to ride or die with my superior hand range. I also made reasonable folds, and didn’t go broke just because I had a premium hand. I saw huge stacks lost by pros who were unlucky in getting their Aces cracked.
Tournaments are so different from cash, a special kind of mental marathon, especially near the bubble. The pack breaks apart between the group “wanting to cash,” vs. the group “wanting to win.” As tournament fish, I was so happy to place in my first WSOP. I’m forever grateful for Melis, the new friends I made along the way, and the life gems one experiences when you linger in Las Vegas much, much longer than expected.