Poker Stories (Vol. 1)

It’s June, which means Vegas is being overrun by douchey poker players and the World Series of Poker.

There is one big positive and one big negative about being in Vegas for the WSOP. The positive is that you can find a poker game any hour of the day, any day of the week.

The negative is everything else. Vegas sucks because it costs $15 for a smoothie, the traffic is terrible and its 110 degrees. Poker tournaments suck because the skill factor illogically decreases as the monetary stakes become higher. Poker players suck because they’re all douche-robots who take 20 minutes to fold, never talk and look like this guy.

This was the first image that came up when I Googled “poker douche.” No idea who this guy is.

Over the past 10 years I’ve tried just about everything when it comes to Vegas and the WSOP. Three times I’ve loaded up the whole family, rented a house for the month and made an extended vacation out of it. Some years (like last year) I didn’t bother going at all. Other years I do what I’m doing this year, flying out for just a few days.

Seems like a good time to tell a few of my favorite Vegas poker stories, as well as the reason I quit playing hold em tournaments pretty much immediately after actually doing good in a hold em tournament.

The first time Missy and I ever went to Vegas, when I still worked at the paper and before we had any kids, we stayed at the Mirage. My “Welcome to Vegas” moment happened on about our second night there, when I couldn’t sleep and went downstairs around midnight to play poker. I played until 3 a.m. and then as I was heading back to the room I was stopped by two ladies of the evening who asked if I would like them to “tuck me into bed” (That’s exactly what they said lol). I told them my wife was already in the bed and she probably would not appreciate the disruption. They said “we can be really quiet,” so I said, “Um, I guess you don’t understand, I’m just saying no.”

There was a time many years ago when the Mirage had the premier poker room in Vegas. But that was when limit poker was king, so by the time I arrived the Mirage was somewhat fading into obscurity as a poker room. That means there weren’t very many poker games there, but the ones they had were pretty good.

One summer when I brought the whole family out, Eric Wolf stayed with us and we played quite a bit at the Mirage. One night we were playing and a middle aged guy sat down on my right and started bragging about how good he was and how he had mastered the game by recently attending a World Poker Tour boot camp. Back in those days a good way to make money off of me was to get on my nerves, because I would go out of my way to try to beat players like that.

So this guy was being annoying and also seemed to be playing too cautiously. On one hand he made a raise and I figured I’d just take his money real quick so I re-raised. I don’t even remember what I had but it wasn’t very good. But he didn’t fold like I expected him to and I could tell he actually had a good hand. The flop came KQ4. No flush draw or anything. I didn’t have anything at all. This guy tenses up and thinks for a long time and then checks. I thought he probably had a hand like AK and wasn’t going to fold so I didn’t want to blow any more money on this hand so I checked. The turn was a 7 or something like it, a completely inconsequential card. This guy pauses for awhile and then checks again. Back in those days a good way to make money off of me was to check it to me twice. I couldn’t help myself, I’d take a stab at the pot. So I made a normal-sized bet. This guy thinks for a minute and then starts his speech.

He says, “I used to go broke on hands like this all the time. But not anymore. Not after the WPT boot camp. But I don’t know if I can fold this hand.” I thought he might have AQ or a pair of jacks or something. He stopped to think for a long time.

Then he turns up his hand. He has pocket queens — a set of queens! — the second-best possible hand at that moment. This guy didn’t even have that much money left, there’s no way he should ever even consider folding that hand. I was getting annoyed again. First at him for wasting so much time when he was clearly going to go all in. Then at myself for betting after already deciding I wasn’t going to bluff on the flop. I was basically just lighting money on fire. I figured since he had already shown me and the whole table his hand, he might just call instead of going all in. I decided I was going to just muck my hand as soon as he called so I wouldn’t be tempted to bluff again on the river. I was drawing completely dead, there was no card I could win with.

Then he says, “Nope, I’m not giving you my money. I know you have the set of kings. You wouldn’t have bet if you didn’t have it. I’m the only one in here who’s good enough to fold this hand.” And then he folded. I glanced over at Eric, who was incredibly and understandably annoyed that I had gotten away with this terrible play. I couldn’t look at him without bursting out laughing. That was probably seven years ago and Eric is still mad about it.

Another time we were playing at the Mirage when some typical cocky frat boy sat down. He started bragging about how much money he had and how much he could bench press and how many women he picked up in a typical week. I’m sure he and Eric shared a wink and a frat brother fist-pound. Back in those days a good way to make money off of me was to get on my nerves, because I would go out of my way to try to beat players like that.

I don’t remember how the hand started but I know I had 23, which is technically the worst starting hand in hold em. He had pocket aces, which is the best starting hand in poker. And I either raised or called his raise or called his re-raise with that hand. I also don’t remember exactly what happened on the flop but it was something like 962. All I know is that I was betting the whole hand, whether I raised him or he was just calling me I don’t remember. The turn didn’t change anything, I still just had a pair of deuces. I bet again and he called. Then the river was another 2, which gave me the best hand. I went all in and he called and was not happy to see my hand.

But remember he’s the cool frat boy with all the money and all the girls so he had to act like it was no big deal to him. He wasn’t going to rebuy so he got up from the table, walked over to me, said “Nice hand bro” and slapped me on the back as hard as I’ve ever been slapped on the back. I think it left his handprint there. I was worried that he was trying to fight me but he ambled off into the night to do some more pushups and meet some more girls.

About seven years ago we went to Vegas and I was in the middle of the worst poker slump of my life. I’ve never liked hold em tournaments but I decided to play one just to try something different. Today just about every casino runs a tournament series concurrent to the World Series, but at this time the Venetian was the only competition to the WSOP. This was also before the WSOP started having $500 buy-in tournaments. Because of those things, the fields at the Venetian were way bigger than they are now. I entered a $300 tournament and there were more than 900 people in it.

I think we played 14 hours of poker on the first day, until the field was down to the last 10% who would make the money. I wasn’t getting very many good hands but when I did get a good hand I won every pot it seemed like. So I didn’t have a big chip stack but I was never in danger of missing the money either. I believe the field was 915 players so the top 92 would make the money. When it was down to 93 they did hand-for-hand play so players with short stacks couldn’t take an excessive amount of time just to try to sneak into the money.

By this time it was like 3 a.m. and I was exhausted. A guy at my table got all in with Ace-Ten and he was up against pocket tens. It was down to the last card and unless he hit an ace he would be eliminated and we could all go home for the night. Sure enough, the ace came on the river. A few minutes later someone else got busted.

The next day I think we started at noon, so I didn’t get much sleep at all (especially since it took about 30 minutes to drive to and from the house we had rented that summer). Day 2 was about like Day 1 for me. I wasn’t getting a lot of good hands but I won enough to keep my head above water while other people got eliminated. When we got down to the final table I couldn’t believe who had the biggest chip stack — it was the guy who had caught the ace on the last card the night before! (They re-draw for table assignments to start Day 2 and I hadn’t played with this guy the whole day. He was a terrible player and I never dreamed he would make the final table, much less have a huge chip lead).

At the final table I was one of the shortest chip stacks, but I was never short enough to have to panic or go all in with a bad hand. At one point I flopped a set and one of the bigger stacks kept bluffing and eventually went all in with no pair and no draw, so that was good for me.

The final table was being played on a portable table just outside the main Venetian poker room, in the middle of the slot machines basically. They had the table roped off but the slots were all around it. My friends Travis Brassfield and Jason Garder were staying at our house that summer and they were trying to watch and root for me at the final table. They were sitting on slot machine chairs but had the chairs facing away from the slots and toward the poker table. Casino security came over and told them they had to be actively playing the slots to sit in the chairs. So Travis put $20 in the machine just so it would be “active” but never played it. While he was watching poker somebody walked by and cashed out his $20 lol.

The tournament was supposed to last three days but the guy with all the chips was from Portugal and had a flight out the next morning. The supervisor decided we would just play the tournament out that night.

Eventually it got down to three of us. The other two guys had $5 million each in tournament chips and I had only $1 million. First place in the tournament paid $42,000, second place was $35k and third was $30k. So logic would dictate that the other two would wait for me to get eliminated before they locked horns in a big pot. Instead, they got all in against each other, and each only had one pair. The Portuguese dude who had caught the ace the night before was behind but he caught a second pair to eliminate the other player. This made me an extra $5k just for sitting there but also meant I was at a 10:1 chip disadvantage going into heads-up play.

I got back to nearly even with him at one point but he had about twice as many chips as me on the final hand, when I missed a straight flush draw and his buddies draped him in a Portuguese flag and sang the anthem about 20 times in a row while we waited to get paid. This was maybe 3 or 4 a.m., and I was so tired that I literally forgot I was in Las Vegas. I thought I was at Riverwind.

The $35k was by far my biggest score ever, although oddly that year still ended up being my worst overall year so far. It definitely came at a good time, yet I’ve hardly played any tournaments since then. I really did not like how delusionally tired I was at the end of it, and it also seemed stupid that after two whole days of play that one lucky or unlucky card could change your net worth that significantly. If this had been a more expensive tournament like the main event of the WSOP, one jump in the pay scale could be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

I did play one or two more tournaments that summer, but I haven’t played a hold em tournament in about five years. I usually end up playing one Omaha tournament per year, like the $1500 WSOP tournament I’m planning to play in about 10 days when I’m out there. Hopefully I can get heads up against the same Portuguese guy. Surely he can’t beat me twice in a row 😉

This was taken at the house we rented in Vegas the last time I took the whole family out there, in 2016.

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