Friday, April 22, 2005

Sweet and Sour

28th March 2005 - Salford Casino, Manchester, UK
Pot Limit Hold Em - £10 Rebuy Tournament

High up on a bookshelf, sandwiched between a couple of books, gathering dust, lies the only trophy I have ever won. On it are inscribed the words “Best Solo Trumpeter 1992”. I remember those days quite fondly, and the painstaking effort it took just to win such a simple award. It wasn’t just a case of standing up front and playing, waiting for the accolades of success. It took many, many years of solid practice, week in and week out, to reach that level. The year previously, in 1991, I had the ability to win. The reason why I didn’t succeed that year was because I was overconfident, not feeling the need to attend regular practice. On the day of the tournament, I began to play and couldn’t even get two notes in tune. It was a dreadful event. Learning from those mistakes, the year afterwards, I simply outplayed everyone to win the competition.

There are many parallels from those days when I used to play in a band, to today when I’m playing poker. The gambling way of life isn’t in my blood. Nor does it come naturally to me. I didn’t even know how to shuffle a pack of cards until very recently. I’ve read poker books, and played almost everyday for the last five years. I’ve even won a few online tournaments, albeit for small stakes. But I have never made huge amounts of cash, certainly not enough to throw the towel in at work. It’s been one hell of an uphill climb from the outset.

This night I decided purely on impulse to play live once again at my local casino at Salford. I hadn’t played live since June the previous year, and I was sorely missing the experience. I invited my mother along, as she has always wanted to see what the casino was like. Admitting a non-member into a casino as a visitor is not a pleasant experience, enveloped in bureaucratic red tape. “Fill this form out… sign here…. Stand in front of the camera so that we can take your picture….. Have you got any form of identification on you?…. No that one won’t do…..” It took five minutes to simply walk through the door.

All of this formality had worked up my thirst, so we headed to the bar for a couple of drinks. I explained the casino layout and the types of games on offer, if my mother felt the desire to play. She didn’t, instead preferring to watch my game of poker. During the tournament, I made sure that the waitresses provided her with cups of tea which are continuously given out free during a match. She also enjoyed fish and chips in the bar area, so I knew she was happy. She is also a very talkative, articulate and intelligent woman. I would glance over often to see her chatting to some of the other spectators and having a laugh. It’s hard to imagine that only a few months ago she was in a vegetative state, suffering from a ten year depression which had robbed her of her soul. These days, she has the sprightly gait of a twenty year old. I can only describe events in the last year as a miracle.


The whole tournament seemed to flash by very rapidly. It’s amazing how quickly six hours can pass when you are engrossed in psychological warfare, or poker as it is commonly known. My first table was largely uneventful, and involved re-raising skirmishes on my part which were rarely challenged. This was mainly due to my very tight image which I project early in a tournament, and that I am an unknown player. It would happen, purely by chance rather than design, that the same guy raised the pot only for me to re-raise him all in. After the third time, he was really confounded, saying “I don’t know whether to call you or fold, because I don’t know whether you are playing solid or just another dumb maniac.” He never called a hand I desperately tried to engage him in. One thing which really upset me was every time this happened, the dealer would show my mucked hands to his friend who was sat to the left of him. I was sat to the dealer’s immediate right. If everyone has folded and you’ve won the pot, you are not obliged to show your cards. I was quite livid, but decided not to create a scene. I will simply avoid this casino in the future, favouring tournaments which still provide a house dealer. If anything, I used this to my advantage later in the game, because every time it happened, I was holding high pocket pairs, reinforcing my tight image.

Unfortunately, in a tournament, especially a re-buy tournament, tight is not necessary right. No-one would engage me in a hand, and gradually my stack was being whittled down by the blinds. I decided to go all in with garbage and made a re-buy rather than get left behind with a very small stack. I’d rather have 1000 chips in front of me than 150 chips, because you are aiming to double up your stack every time you play a hand. You have to think three, ten and twenty hands ahead in tournament play.


After the re-buy period finished, this table broke up very quickly. I was still in the game but in bad shape, having very few chips left despite my single re-buy. Moving onto my second table, I had already worked out my game plan before even sitting down. I was positioned a couple of seats behind the chip leader, who appeared to be a very loose, aggressive player. My plan was to isolate him in a heads up all-in situation and pray. Doubling up your stack is far more difficult in a pot limit game compared to the no limit version, especially if you are the aggressor in early position. You can’t simply push all of your stack in the centre and hope someone calls. Instead you have to carefully build the pot until it reaches a critical size. Then you can make a big bet. I feel this is why pot limit demonstrates a far higher skill level than no limit. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry too much as the chip leader made a pot sized bet pre-flop UTG, which I re-raised the remainder of my meagre stack, holding A 10. Everyone else folded to the chip leader who called which total garbage, and I successfully managed to double up. I now had enough ammunition to put up a decent fight.

This was a case of playing the player rather than the cards. Normally with pocket Aces I would raise to protect them, but in this instance I smooth called pre-flop in early position. The same loose aggressive player is the button who has successfully managed to isolate me. I checked the flop looking as though I’m weak and missed my card. He carefully checked behind me. Turn followed. I checked. He checked. The river card still did nothing to improve my hand. I knew exactly what he was going to do, if only I could make my deception look realistic enough. I checked and he made a huge pot sized bet, which I quickly called. Turning over a pair of queens, he gasped when he realised it wasn’t enough to win the pot. There were about 26,000 chips in the middle, which took about five minutes just to count out. Looking over to Mum, I gave the thumbs up, and she looked on in amazement.

I had such a significant chip lead, that there was little doubt that I would make the final table. It’s amazing that just a couple of hours earlier, I was down to just a few chips, and that I had played relatively few hands to jockey for the position I was in at this moment in time.

I was quite astounded myself, as this was a new experience to me. After a couple of departures, the two remaining tables were now being played hand for hand. Holding an Ace, I made a raise in middle position, and the button re-raised the pot. This was an agonising situation, because I looked across at his stack and knew that if I re-raised him, I would have had him committed to the pot. I decided it was best to make a retreat and folded the hand. He turned over J5, which brought a chuckle from the table. I gently patted the felt to acknowledge that I had just been outplayed.

The very next hand, the roles were reversed, although I passively called to see the flop. If I have a choice, I usually prefer to play a hand after the flop rather than before it. On the flop, he bet which I verbally stated I would re-raise, in an attempt to re-enforce my command of this table. I took my time, considering how much I would like to raise. He folded before I placed my chips in the middle. I felt quite good about that as this time I was bluffing.


Before the final table play, there was a chip count and a well earned interval. Seating on the final table was random and I was to play in seat 5, my chip count being approximately 76,000 chips. In terms of actual money, that was worth £760 ($1450). If I wasn’t the chip leader, I was very close to it. That was all about to change very rapidly with the next three hands which I played.

UTG short stacked player raised. I paused and decided to fold 66. He enquired, “You looked like you were going to call there. Why did you fold.?” I replied that something just didn’t feel right. He stated that he was holding pocket aces. He did actually look very worried after that hand, as though I had seen something, which perplexed him a little.

There were a couple of retirements, and I was slowly creeping up the payout structure as expected.

This is where my game simply fell apart at the seams. The player two places to my left called on the button. I’m in big blind with AA which I foolishly slow played. Flop was all raggy with nothing larger than a Jack. I bet the pot, and he quickly raised all-in which I called. He made two pair and my hand didn’t improve on the turn or the river. Whilst this didn’t cripple me, emotionally I think it managed to tilt me. I had gone from being very calm and collected, to fiery and impulsive. Even still, there were several very small stacks which were barely hanging on by a thread. All I had to do was sit there patiently and wait for a big payout.

This same player started to dominate the game, virtually winning every pot. I don’t like being pushed around at the best of times, and at the earliest opportunity, decided to take a pot shot at him. Completely ignoring his UTG raise pre-flop, I fire back all-in holding pocket eights. Which he very quickly called. I knew I was in deep trouble. All of a sudden there was a huge crowd surrounding the table, as everyone wanted to see the outcome. He turned over pocket aces. Five cards to come, but my luck had run out of steam, finishing in seventh place, winning £70.

It took a great deal of soul-searching to get over that, although I can laugh about it now. Even though I made my first ever final table in a live event, and I had made a profit, I felt like a total loser. It’s very difficult to explain to someone who has not been there, just how bad it feels to finish like that. I think my face betrayed me, because my mother asked what was wrong. It reminded me so much of that disastrous event in 1991, as a solo trumpeter, full of arrogant self-confidence and ending up falling on my backside.

Hopefully, I will learn from my mistakes, and rise out on top next time.