I’ll never run with the bulls in Pamplona.
For one thing, I don’t run. It’s tiring. But mostly, stampeding bulls scare me.
But a person gets to a point in life where he wants to something fun, exhilarating, and maybe a little crazy. So I recently played in the World Series of Poker.
It was fun. And exhilarating. And maybe more than a little bit crazy.
Poker requires skills in both math and reading people. Not to brag, but I have pretty good math skills honed from decades of computing scoring-averages and other useless minutiae.
Plus, a considerable part of my career has been spent observing people, trying to figure out where they’re coming from and what they’re really saying verbally and non-verbally.
The trouble is, lots of people are good at math, and don’t need psychology degrees to read me. Also, they’re a lot better at poker than me. But a boy can dream …
First off, no, it wasn’t the World Series of Poker event that’s on television every year. That’s the Main Event, the culmination of the six-week, 61-event WSOP.
The entry fee for the Main Event is $10,000. For the No Limit Hold’ Em Seniors Event, it was $1,000. Some friends offered to shoulder some of the financial load. They were the real risk-takers.
As for the “Seniors” part of it, the tourney was for people 50 and older. I’m not an actual senior. Not that there’s anything wrong with seniors. I have nothing against seniors. Some of my best friends are seniors. But I am not a senior!
No way would I jump in a WSOP tourney with 22-year-old pros who wear hoodies and sunglasses, stare holes through poker tables, and play with the aggression of one of those bulls let loose on the streets of Pamplona.
But I figured that if surrounded by people my own age who were looser with their tongues and tighter with their chips, I might have a chance.
And I did. It just wasn’t a great one. Which I knew going in, since only 10 percent of the field gets paid.
The tourney commenced at 10 a.m., on June 15. The Rio casino was full of 50- and 60-somethings milling about waiting to find their table and chips. I was in a Rio snack shop around 9:30 to get a banana and a diet soda (for nutritional balance).
As I was in line waiting to pay the cashier someone handed me a wrinkled dollar bill that he picked off the floor, thinking I’d dropped it. The person behind me saw I was a buck ahead before the tourney had even started, told me it was a lucky sign, and said “See you at the final table.”
But not everything is an omen.
I was nervously excited in the weeks before getting to Vegas. It wasn’t that I had any illusions about making a run at immortality. I just didn’t want to do something stupid and be eliminated in the first 10 minutes. But once I got to the Rio I didn’t feel the least bit jittery.
Looking back, I think it was that I didn’t quite accept being in the middle of 4,128 people (a one-day record for players in a poker tourney) trying to see if they could survive for three long days and make it to the land of big money.
It felt like a reality show was unfolding before me, and I never wanted to be in the middle of a reality show.
But then I got to my table and the nine other people there seemed like well, nine other people. There was a man from Ashton, Neb., population 213. There was a man who owned a chain of Subway sandwich shops in the Pacific Northwest. There was a woman from Canada. There were two men from Georgia, one from Peachtree City.
I won the first two hands in which I tossed in chips, both on bluffs that took small pots. I can play here, I thought. But the third bluff didn’t go as well. Someone with a psychology degree was apparently at my table.
The first two hours went faster than any two hours I can remember. I had 2,675 chips, down from my starting stack of 3,000. During the 20-minute break at the 2-hour mark, the realization I needed to be more assertive was nagging at me as I joined 4,000 people in searching for a restroom at the same time.
That was a pretty fierce competition in itself.
In the third hour, something wonderful happened. A man with just 850 chips remaining went all-in. I called him. I had ace-queen. He showed a pair of fours. A queen came up on the flop. I won the hand, and eliminated someone from the World Series of Poker.
I felt bad for him, I truly did. But oh, did I ever feel good for me. I was slightly above the average chip-stack size with 3,625 after four hours, and had a little confidence again.
A monster hand or two, and the sky was the limit, right? I could make it through the 11 hours of play in Day One and get closer to the next day’s money bubble (the top 423 finishers got paid, with 423rd getting $1,858). Then, the sky would be the limit. First-prize was $603,713. A boy can dream …
During the 20-minute break after the fourth one-hour level of play, I came upon a vendor in a hallway giving away samples of something called Alpha BRAIN, dietary supplements that claim to produce “mental dominance.” I need that, I thought, and gulped two of the pills on the spot. That was done by someone who a) doesn’t believe in brain pills and b) doesn’t like pills, period.
Play resumed, and I kept grinding along when I suddenly found myself in possession of pocket aces. I raised the big blind of 200 chips to 800 and got called by one player. The three-card flop came up 10-7-3 of different suits, and he shoved all-in. If he had anything but three of a kind, I was in good-to-fantastic shape. Did he have three of a kind?
My mental dominance pills must have convinced me the answer was no. I should have stuck to bananas and soda. He had three 10s. I lost and was down to 1,125 chips. But two hands later I went all-in with ace-king and got two callers. A king came up and I tripled my chip-total. Alive again!
Soon after that, I got pocket kings. A nice enough guy otherwise, the man from Peachtree City bet all-in. I immediately called with all my chips hoping he didn’t have pocket aces. He had queens. If my kings held up, I would double up and was looking good to at least play into the evening. And if the cards kept running good like this … be still my beating heart.
I was an 81.7 percent favorite. The flop came and I was still golden. The turn card, no sweat. Then came the final card, the river.
Six hours and 20 minutes after the tourney began, I was busted. Everyone at my table but Peachtree groaned on my behalf. He scooped the chips as if it was meant to be. I’d probably have done the same thing.
I think I made a graceful exit. I’m kind of proud of myself for not cursing out loud when that queen came up on the river.
Inside, though, I may have been swearing a little. I may still be.
But that’s poker, as they say. Hey, it was still better than having an unlucky ending while cliff-diving, rock-climbing or bungee-jumping.
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