I was nervous as can be with the Shootout Finals coming up. The start time was supposed to be 9AM and I knew that if I got to sleep early, I could be up at 7AM for a shower and a real breakfast. Even though this was my first deepstacked live tournament (read: MTT, long levels, many many hours of play), I had an instinct that proper pre-tourney feeding would be key to surviving the long ordeal.
So I had the unfortunate task of going to be early, in a casino, on Saturday night. To my credit, I was in bed by 10PM. But I was awoken at 10:45 PM by a call from a friend, and then at 2AM by Matty Ebs' brother tromping through my room to pick up some stuff he had left in there. By the time I fell back asleep for good, it was 3:30AM and I needed the sleep.
Bam! The alarm sounded at 7AM and I jumped out of the comfy bed like a greyhound who's just had the gate lifted. In the shower I went and the adrenaline started. I debated what to dress in and decided on the hat, sunglasses and hoodie combination. I'm not usually one to wear that sort of unibomber getup, but it worked out great, for reasons I'll delve into later.
I met Matty and the group (his brother John and his friend Eric) down at the diner and we ate a surprisingly good meal. With just 10 minutes to spare, we were in the room and at our seats. The convention center room, where the Winter Chill Poker Events were being held, was cavernous and set up with about 100 or more tables, all in final preparation for the Main Event being held a few days later. But for now, my shootout tourney was crammed into the corner on 7 tables, having only 63 participants make the Finals. The top 20 places paid, so I needed to survive 2/3 of the field to get into the money. Starting stacks were 10,000, with blinds starting at 25-50 and 40 minute blind levels. My excitement mounted as the tournament director read off the rules of play and at 9:10AM sharp, cards were in the air! I was underway.
I won the very first pot I played in when I raised PF with Ad9d in MP and got one caller. I whiffed on the flop but C-bet when he checked to me and took it down! I felt happy to be in the mix of things and I concentrated very seriously about giving off as few tells as possible while picking up as many as I could read. This is where the hoodie and the sunglasses came into play. While wearing the hat, hoodie glasses combo, I looked a little standoffish, and therefore wasn't being talked to a lot. This was in my favor, as I was able to listen in on people's conversations without being distracted. It's amazing what people tell other people after a hand; What they had, why they bet that way and why they laid it down. All the info I was looking for was right there for the taking! I soaked it up like a sponge and vowed to use that knowledge when the time was right. In addition, the hoodie over the my head acted like horse blinders, keeping me from being distracted by things happening in my peripheral view. This was a wonderful help in keeping me focused on many little details that were going on at the table. My favorite tell of the tourney was what people did with their cards after they looked at it. Often, my opponents would look at their hole cards directly after being dealt them rather than waiting for their turn. Then, they would subconsciously pick up their cards as if to muck them, or play with them if they weren't any good. If they intended to call or raise when the action came to them, they would often pull the cards towards themselves as if protecting a treasure. Sometimes they'd even cap the cards in advance! This subtle, but highly reliable tell, gave me an incredible amount of information in advance and was the primary indicator I used when deciding whether to steal blinds or not. The other benefit of spotting the tell was that I noticed myself doing it as well! I stopped immediately and waited patiently for my turn to check my hole cards.
Because of my observations, I was able to stay afloat during the first four levels, even though I was COMPLETELY card dead. I never fell into the trap of playing trash just to see if I'd hit just because I could afford it. I waited patiently, pulling in tiny pots when I could and knew that a card rush was coming. It always does if you wait long enough. By the end of the fourth level, I was down $8,300 in chips. Not terrible, considering blinds would only be going up to $150/$300 with a $25 ante. I wasn't nearly desperate yet.
Shortly into the sixth level (200/400), a few new players had been seated at our table and I was dealt 88 in the BB. It folded around to the cutoff who bet $1100, a suspiciously low bet given the pot size and the previous play. I called, mostly because I was already priced in and my opponent had twice my chip count. I could feel him setting a trap and if I flopped big, I might get paid off. The flop was a pretty dreamy 9c-8c-4h. There were flush and straight draws on board, but I read his small bet in late position as desperation to build a pot with a big pocket pair and I went with my gut on the read. I bet out $3000 to try to represent a draw, or maybe top/top, and he shoved on top of me. I snap called and showed him the bad news. True to my read, he showed AsAc! The turn and river bricked out and I doubled up nicely to just over 17,000, which was about 5,000 over the average chip stack. Given that there hadn't been too many bust outs, given the generous blind levels, it was a good position to be in. Unfortunately, I was seated to the direct right of the chip leader of the tournament. The guy had gotten incredibly lucky when he raised PF with 99 and was called by a guy holding KJo. The KJo call was terrible, but the flop came Kxx. The 99 bet out 3/4 the pot and the KJ called. The turn was a Jack and the 99 shoved! OMG, how bad is that? The KJ insta-called the rest of his stack and a 9 came on the river to felt him. Super ouch. This put the 99 in a HUGE chip lead, with something like 45,000 in chips! The next highest stack in the whole tourney was maybe 25,000. I wanted to crack that guy so bad but didn't get a chance until....
The biggest hand of the tourney for me, and the one that put me in a commanding lead for a long time. It folds around to me int he SB and I look down at KK. I don't want to limp and have the guy bet me off when a raggedy flop comes, so I raised to 3.5X the BB. I wanted to make it look like a blind steal and I was hoping the big stack would play back at me with his ego. He raised $3,000 more, to my surprise, which made me happy and I decided I was going to bet 1/2 my stack on any flop that didn't have an Ace. I called his raise and the flop was blocked a bit by the dealers hand on the right side of the table, where I was, but I could see an Ace come out the door and I died a little inside. Until he removed his hand and I saw a King too! The flop had come AKx and it was all I could do to contain myself. I was pretty sure he either had an Ace to call my PF raise or was intent on bluffing on the flop if scare cards came. I was motionless for a few seconds, my hands in a fist over my mouth, before I checked. He fired another $3,000 bet and I sat motionless before announcing a raise to $8,000 total. He immediately put $10,000 on top and I shoved. He called me like lightning and showed AK! What a cooler! To flop top two against a dominating set must sting. The turn and the river didn't save him and I ended up doubling through him to become the chip leader of the tourney! I would remain in that position for another five levels, nearly 3.5 hours.
After a bunch of hours sitting motionless except to go to the bathroom ocassionally and get updates on my compatriots progress, I was bound to lose a few hands. As we ground down the players, my stack kept growing a little at a time, until I was up to $70,000 at one point. At this level, far and away the chip leader at my table, I was able to make a few moves without worrying too much about losing my advantage. Like a book, when I applied pressure, usually as a semi-bluff with draws but sometimes ahead, the competition would fold, not wanting to get mixed up with the tourney big stack. Also working heavily in my favor was the fact that we had gotten down to about 28 players, only 8 shy of the money. Play was tightening up and I was taking advantage when I could. I was also mindful that short stacks would be shoving 10 BB's with premium hands and I shouldn't be goaded into calling simply because I could afford it. I know that's what the rest of the crew wanted, for me to start taking out players, but my job was to accumulate chips, not eliminate players. *By the way, I read that quote in Cardplayer Magazine and it focused my way of thinking when playing the big stack*. As an example of my discipline, I found myself in the BB when 3 people limped into the pot. The SB shoved for 10x the BB (about $10,000) and I looked down at TT. I considered the situation. If I call here, some other small stacks might be tempted to call and I'm probably a big dog in a multi-way situation. But if I raise, I might be committing much more than the 10,000 if one of the limpers shoves with something like AQ. Besides, I'm a coin flip AT BEST against the raiser and I'm dominated heavily at worst. Just because I had 70,000 in my stack doesn't mean I need to defend here. I mucked and the guy took the pot down with AKo (he showed, I didn't). Why flip when I don't have to? That's the luxury of the big stack.
Alas, though, all good things come to an end. A guy at the end of the table, with about $11,000 in his stack, calls my PF raise to $3,000 from the BB. I have KdQd. The flop comes AdJd4c. He checks to me and I put him all in. He calls in a heartbeat with 44 for the flopped set but I still love my hand. Nothing comes to help me, though, and I double him up. I'm still healthy at over 50,000 in chips, about 3rd stack in the tourney, so no big deal.
A few hands later, I raise in MP with AKo to $3,500 and get a call from the same guy! Matty, who had already busted out of the tourney, had told me already that this particular guy was a little loose, so I assumed I was ahead. Maybe way ahead. The flop came 2h-3h-3d. I check and he bets out $4,000. I read this as a steal since I couldn't imagine a way in which that flop, given his PF raise, could have helped him. I read him for an Ace with a weak-ish kicker, maybe AJ, so called. The turn put the 5h on board. This time I checked and he checked behind. The river was the Js. Since I put him on AJ or something similar, I checked, intending to fold if he bet. He did, indeed, lead out the betting with $7,000, but the bet was so small that I called because I thought he might be trying to take it down with Ace-Rag. Instead, he showed Ah-7h for the nut flush and I mucked. Arguably, this was my only poorly played hand of the tournament, but even this one didn't hurt me terribly. It did, however, take me out of the comfortable chip lead I had enjoyed for so long. It looked like it was time to play some real poker again.
At this point, the number of players had dwindled down to 22. There was nearly no chance of me NOT making the money since I had a good lead on the chip average at about $30,000 in chips. But play was tightening up near the bubble and Matty's brother John was down to less than 5,000 in chips. Matty's friend Eric has busted so they were both railing us. The situation with Matty's brother was that I had purchased 10 percent of Matty's second shootout attempt with the idea that he would sell the seat for $1,000 if he won it and give me $100. But when he couldn't sell the seat immediately, he gave it to his brother who was not an experienced tourney player! I tried to sell my share in him back to Matty but no dice. He told me to have faith in his brother and I figured, "What the hell, it's only $30". But here he was, super short stacked with 2 places to go to the bubble. In a few short minutes, someone else busted out and we were down to the bubble position. Play tightened up considerably at this point and I decided to do something to protect my $30 investment. I would offer a bubble prize! I floated the idea to my table that in order to speed up play, which had been going on for 7 hours at this point, we would eliminate the bubble by giving him his money back. If we took $30 of the top ten places, none of them would feel it and we would be able to create a $300 21st place prize. I glanced at John while I made this suggestion and saw he was at $1,400 in chips! With blinds at 600/1200!!! We were in desperation mode and I worked feverishly to get everyone to agree. Finally, I called the floor and asked them to stop the clock while we worked this out. To their credit, they did and we all agreed on the $300, though we finally ended up taking cash out of our pockets ($15 each) to do it. No sooner had play been started up again, than John busted out, taking the $300 and earning me back my $30! Oh sweet lord, I dragged him over the finish line.
Now that the bubble burst, play started in earnest. In a very short time, players started busting out left and right. All of us kept one eye on the table and another on the screen flashing the prizes. As each new player busted and the prize money we were assured went up, everyone seemed to feel better about their situation, no matter who they were. I was chipping up nicely again at this point, even busting a few smaller stacks with hands like top/top on the flop against TT. I had AK on a board of Kxx and he shoved into me. I called and he walked. Just like that. In short order, I was once again the big stack of the table at 75,000 in chips, although jsut 3rd in the tourney as another table had two big stacks on it. When we were down to 15 players, I heard an audible noise from one of the other tables. It turns out the two big stacks at that table had gotten into a big pot and the one big stack drained the other one down to the felt with a flopped set vs. a flopped two pair. It put me in 2nd place in the tourney but gave the other guy almost twice the number of chips I had!
3 bustout later, there were 12 players left, 6 on each table. I called Matty over and asked him to do some calculations. Given the number of prizes already out, how much is left and how much would it be for an even split. He informed me that it would be about $4,000 to each of the remaining players if we chopped evenly. I was excited about the prospect, given that that would guarantee all of us better than 4th place money! I floated the idea and my table seemed enthusiastic except for one guy wearing a red Ferarri branded jumpsuit. He argued that it wasn't enough to play for and he would rather have a bigger first place prize than chop evenly. The chip leader also complained, arguing he would want more money given his place. I then floated the idea of $3,000 each, with the remaining $10,000 to go to first place or possibly $6,000 for first and $4,000 for second. Again, Red Ferarri guy said no. He offered $2,500 and I came back with $2,750. "C'mon," I said, "meet us in the middle". He finally agreed to that amount and we also agreed to pay the big stack an extra $1,000 on account of his being easily able to derail the whole agreeement. Once we hammered out those details, the floor went to put in the paperwork and we all clapped in congratulations on our having locked in some good money! There was $13,000 left over in the prize pool after our machination and we all agreed to 3 new prizes of $10,000 additional for first, $2,000 additional for second and $1,000 additional for third.
After the chop, Matty comes up to me and whispers that I should tighten up a bit because things would start loosening up because of the guarantee. I nod in agreement and he starts to walk away. A tiny stack at the table (maybe $7,500) pushes all in and it gets to me and I look down at AQo. I call and Matty flips around with a look on his face like, "didn't I just tell you to tighten up?!?". He's relieved to see I'm up against A7 and I flop a Queen to lock it up.
We were one bust away now from the final table, which happened in a most fantastical way. I was in the BB with 8h-5h. Blinds were $1,000/$2,000 with a $200 ante. UTG limped. UTG+1 limped. The button (Red Ferarri) limped. The SB completed and I checked. It was a family pot!!!! Wow. The first one I'd seen in the last two days. The flop was an unbelievable 8c-5c-3s. I flopped top two! The SB, a very short stack at $8,000 more, shoved on the flop. It came to me and I decided that since I was only losing to a set, I'd isolate the short stack. I moved all-in for $55,000. It folded to Red Ferarri, who tanked! What the hell was he thinking about? A raggedy flop and two all in's behind you, including a guy who has you covered?!?! Are you kidding me? He thinks for a good 60 seconds and you could just see the resolve on his face weakining. Finally, he says the phrase no poker player wants to hear, "What the hell, I call". Ferarri flips over 3c-7c for bottom pair and a flush draw. SB shows 69o for a gutshot and I am leading with top two. The turn is a 7, giving the SB his straight, but thanks to the donkey call from Ferarri, the side pot stands to be much bigger than the main pot! The river is a brick and I go over 90,000 in chips and bust Ferarri! And *he* didn't want $3,000 a piece. Pity.
I coasted into the final table with the 3rd biggest chip stack and a bounce of excitement. I did it! I final tabled my first live big buyin (read: bigger than the Showboat's Saturday night tourney) MTT!!! When the seats were re-drawn, I naturally got sat to the direct right of the big stack. What else?
Play went fairly quickly in the first dozen or so hands. I managed to bust another small stack with another AQ. He flipped over KT and said, in a heavy European accent, "Don't worry, I'm good here". He had hardly uttered the last syllable when two Queens flopped and he changed his tune. "Um, maybe not". The table laughed at the jest but a 9 came on the turn just to give me a sweat. Fortunately, the river bricked out and we were good. Red Ferarri, who just made it into the final table with maybe 3 BB's, busted out soon afterwards, as did another short stack. We were now down to 7 deep stacked players, each with at least 20 BB's and it was looking like it could be a long contest for the $10,000 first prize overlay. I was in the one seat and the 10 seat, whom Matty had identified to me as a bit of a luckbox, kept min-raising my blinds! I folded with holdings like 83 and 94 but I finally got sick of it. I vowed to re-raise him next time and I did, re-raising him to 20,000 total with Js9s. He folded. The next hand, I had AKo and I thought it would be the perfect setup. He was on the button and min-raised again and I popped it to 20,000 again, saying audibly, "Stop stealing my blinds!". I was hoping it would goad him into calling or raising, but he folded again. Still, I was happy to have the pots. I knew I would need to do battle with Mr. Big Stack on my right. I got a chance a while later when I completed the SB with Qh9s after a few people limped. Big Stack checked and the flop came down Qc-9c-7s. Top two. I bet out $5,000 and Big Stack calls. Everyone else folds. The turn is a brick and I check. He bets out $10,000 and I pop to $30,000 (nearly half my stack). It was a strong move and he folded.
Another player busted about an hour later and we were down to 6 players. Someone else started talking about a chop and I was happy to agree to it. The idea would be to give everyone at the table $2,000 of the final prize pool, $500 extra to the big stack and $500 to a guy who was willing to sign for the biggest prize. This was an important consideration because at Mohegan Sun, they will give you a W2 tax form for any payout over $5,000. The poker room had already done the paperwork for the $2,750 and wasn't going to do another chop so anything we did had to be on the side. Which meant that somebody would have to be paid out the $10,000 first prize and therefore sign a tax form. A guy at the table wanted to do it for $500 extra and we were all happy to oblige. We followed him to the cage, got our payouts and were very congratulatory to each other. It had been a day of some success, for everyone.
I'm very happy to have made such a good score, my biggest tournament win ever. Could I have taken the top prize? Definitely. I was 3rd stack at the table, with good reads on the players and a great mental focus. But I locked in 2nd place prize money and was perfectly content not to let luck be a factor. Perfect Poker.