"Mother f*cker, you almost won."
I hear my coach on the other line as I answer the silver Blackberry in the middle of March, 2010. I'm outside my apartment with a training ladder for footwork drills. I won my first three in the academy tournament. I'm not eligible for the international junior tour any longer, but I can play in US-exclusive and Florida-exclusive tournaments. Despite my hometown ranking, I'm disappointed at the dismal nationwide ranking collegerecruiting has assigned me.
"Yeah, couldn't get it done. He was too tough in the third. F*cking guy didn't have to play a match - I played three!"
"Dude, man up. You play a couple p*ssy matches against a few kids as a warmup and you're b*tching? How did you not close it out?"
"I don't know. I had it... 6-all in the tiebreak in the second. I had it but he didn't miss."
"Goddamnit. Guy's like 30 in the world and you can't close it out. It's like sealing the deal with a gorgeous sorority chick, Jiganti. You don't put in all that work just for the blueballs."
"But motherf*cker, you almost won, you moose. 30 in the world."
The abrasive coach largely responsible for my rise to the top group in the academy shows something I haven’t seen much of – he’s impressed.
Standing outside my apartment doing footwork drills after being two points from beating the best player I’ve ever played, I feel something I’ve spent years trying to find, and it's not analogous to the feeling of blueballs, which I've certainly experienced fewer times than most eighteen year olds.
I look towards the one-bedroom apartment and the one-dimensional lifestyle it represents and experience the full impact of this feeling. Despite everything I’ve missed out on as a teenager, my lack of concern for these things hits me. The dedication, the focus, the sacrifice. My existence hinges on this moment – I myself have been rationalized. It’s nothing less than life changing.
Realization. Validation. Satisfaction. Euphoria. Surprise? Exhilaration. Preparation, anticipation!
I jump back on the footladder.
May 30th, 2012
After grabbing a Big100 protein bar out of my backpack while walking out of my room in the Stratosphere, the HU loss drifts from my mind. It’s again time to put in the work to build up a stack – this time in Pot limit Hold’em. The no-ante structure will require some adjustments, as players won’t have as much incentive to be active. Not exactly beneficial to an online heads-up player used to playing a lot of hands, but I’ll oblige and nit it up if necessary.
I’ve fallen into the groove and have my driver’s license and the dealer’s copy of the event ready as I reach table 46, seat 2. I’m there just as we start, but two players are missing. The action starts and it’s clear a kid in his mid-twenties with a baseball cap is going to be table captain. He opens a ton of pots, mostly for minraises in every position and picks up a lot of chips pretty quickly. He doesn’t take long to make decisions, and before the first hour is over he’s up to almost 9k.
The table is soft aside from him – nobody under forty aside from baseball cap, but a couple of my opens get 3bet and I’m a little short.
I open at 25/50 to 125 in the cutoff with two black tens and baseball cap quickly 3bets small, 325 to go. I flat and the dealer presents us with a 987 two-heart flop. He bets 325 again and I call with about 3500 behind. The turn is a four of hearts and he makes it 700 after deliberating for about a quarter of a second.
I decide to slow the pace of the hand down and let the gravity of the situation sink in. He can’t be doing this enormously wide, but I’m sure there are combo hands he’s destined to have to bet/fold on the turn. I could ship it as something of a protection raise, but I’m not entirely fond of it. Folding seems weak. I think he thinks I’m calling my sets here anyway, not shipping them. So I flat.
The river is a queen of hearts and he wastes little time sliding his stack of purple and yellow T500 and T1000 chips forward. This is the sign of an experienced player, from what I can tell. Most recreational guys will go through the trouble of pushing each and every chip into the middle, even though their big chips are enough to put another player all in.
Regardless, it makes my decision an easy fold and I go on the first break with a little over half the starting stack, dejected that I can’t make the most of a good table draw.
We come back to 50/100 and I fold two orbits, but baseball cap gets in some trouble. He gets coolered and makes what appears to be a big fold when the river 4-straights. I pick up a few small pots and bust a shortstack to chip up, while he seems to be doing exactly the opposite. Down to his last 3k but not slowing down, I open two sixes UTG with about 5k behind and he 3bets in MP to 600. He’s certainly savvy enough to know that I’m supposed to think a 3bet vs a UTG open is strong, so I’m not shipping a ton. How wide can his value range even be? I can’t think he’s 3betting many pairs.
I look at him. The guy who’s been silent for nearly three hours, content to let his chips do the talking, is a statue.
I ship it and he snaps, flipping up two tens before I can react.
Embarrassed, I toss the smaller pair forward and the dealer shows us KJ7. The turn is another 7.
Before I even realize I’ve rivered sixes full, he chunks the rest of his chips towards the middle of the table in silent frustration and is halfway out of Brazilia.
He’s replaced by a sixty year old and things are looking bright as we jump to 75/150. I pick up a ton of pots and run my stack up to 10.5k with virtually no resistance by the second break.
As we return, I notice we’re not far away from getting broken. It should happen before dinner, but I’m determined to make the most of the next ninety or so minutes left here.
I do, and without showing a hand down I’ve got 16k when we rack up. I’m moved to table 18 in Brazilia Gold – the last section to break. A Russian kid to my left with a lot of chips is playing some sort of Sims-like game on his iPad while flicking chips away from his stack most of the times he receives cards, as if it’s a trade he’s obligated to take part in. Two orbits into my new table, he opens the button and a disgruntled older gentleman has a question for him.
“Let me ask you this, kid. You know you’re gonna raise, so why do you even look? What’s the point in taking that extra time to look if you already know you’re gonna raise!” The man is down to his last ten big blinds and apparently some of his buddies are also at the table, chuckling at the comment. The Russian, however, can’t hear what’s going on through his Beats headphones and poor English.
“What?” He asks, confused.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just tilted!”, says one of the big blind’s friends, grinning. The Russian stacks his chips and goes about efficiently conquering some achievement on his iPad while constructing another stack of green T25 chips in what is becoming his side of the table.
In my first orbit at the table, I decide to battle. This kid’s clearly been running over everyone, but despite being out of position against him, I intend to rain on the parade.
I open KQo in MP and he flats, and we see a two-tone Q76. I bet about 2/3 pot and he calls. I’m a little lost- for some reason it’s harder to get a read on non-English players. I can’t pretend to imagine their conscious thought process, because it’s not even in a language I can understand. The turn is an offsuit king, and it matters less.
I bet about 2/3 pot and decide to look at him, asserting how comfortable I am not only in the hand and at the table. Perhaps I’ll get him to think on the level I want in the hand and pay me off; if not he won’t see my cards but will be forced to acknowledge my disposition.
He tanks for a minute, then flicks his cards to the dealer. I can’t tell if he’s frustrated, or simply has the type of personality I’ve noticed of many Russians that can be misconstrued as such.
A few hands later I open JTdd UTG+1, and the Russian quickly 3bets fairly small. I consider 4betting but decide to flat, and we see a beautiful Qd9d6c flop. I check to him and he bets about 2/5 pot. I click it back.
I could’ve misconstrued his reaction to the raise, but it looks a lot like he’s trying to hide his surprise, as well as what I hope is frustration. I’m given more to think about when he calls, and the turn is a nine.
I bet about half pot, leaving myself with a little over a PSB on the river if he calls. After watching the dealer burn & turn, the eyes of the Russian haven’t left my face.
“All in,” he tells the dealer in a thick accent. The dealer leans forward and he repeats the statement, more earnestly.
I’m not much for hollywooding, so my cards hit the muck pretty quick, and I’m sick that I was somehow forced to fold an open-ended straight flush draw, hypnotized by the diamonds until a Russian awoke me to the fact that I’ve simply got jack high on the turn. In Soviet Russia, cards play you.
The next hour is uneventful, aside from a picking up a few small pots and doubling up a shortstack, and I go on break with less than 7k in chips.
When we return, I intend to pick my spots fairly carefully until I can find some chips. This is exactly what happens, and I win a flip against a short stack, then get three streets of value with a set against a poor older gentleman who decided to slowplay two kings. By the next break, I’m up to over 20k and our table is close to breaking.
I’m in the big blind with two fives and the Russian opens. He’s sitting at about 30k after systematically chipping up then losing pots at showdown. Two tight players call and I flat. We see a beautiful A35 and I check to him. He quickly bets, and another player calls. I check-raise small, he calls, and the other guy seems pained to let his hand go, but he surrenders.
The turn is a four and I bet 2/3 pot, and am quickly called. The river is a ten and I bet fairly big, about ¾ pot. I figure it’ll look bluffy and he’s not going to assume I’d go for three streets of value with a set.
But again, he makes the correct decision and sends his cards careening towards the dealer. We’re moved shortly after and I view my seat card as a foreshadowing: Table 1, seat 8.
There are more chips on this table- the guy to my right has me covered by a lot, and is likely among the chip leaders. I count out my 35k and look up at the screen directly behind me – 108 players remaining. With 72 making the money, perhaps I can avoid bubbling a third straight event.
Seat 7 seems to want to win the tournament today, however. He’s either opening or limping almost every hand, and making quick decisions postflop usually betting or raising. I isolate one of his limps and he folds, and the next hand I 3bet his open with AK.
“Ok, let’s try it”, he says, tossing the call chips forward. We see a ten high flop and he calls my half-pot cbet.
The turn is a queen and he checks. I neatly stack out chips, as if I was never considering checking, and bet 3/4 pot. He looks at me again, and the dark sunglasses apparently don’t manage to peer into my soul: his cards hit the muck.
Around this time, the noise from table five, right across from us, seems to be getting louder. Esfandiari and a few somewhat recognizable faces are there, treating a WSOP bubble like a home game. I’m glad I don’t have to be at that table, dealing with the faked astonishment at the fact that an inexperienced 21-year old isn’t going to be most dynamic personality on the bubble of a live event.
A few orbits later seat 7 limps in the small blind and I check 34cc. The flop is 56K and he bets small. I raise, and he calls a little too quickly. There’s ego at play. The turn is a five and he checks. Again, I bet as if there’s no other option and he almost beats me into the pot. The river is a ten.
He checks. It’s an unusual check: he taps the table in my direction, almost invasively close, as if it’s my action and I don’t know it.
Undeterred, I fire a third barrel. He’s frustrated, and vocal about it, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. I’m not too concerned when he folds, though. I show him the bluff and he erupts.
“Ooohh! You’re messing with the wrong guy, kid. I’ll promise you this- I’m not the kinda guy you want to mess with… Showing me that bluff, not a good idea!” I watch as his left hand grips the string of beads he’s been holding a little tighter, causing the multiple gold rings around his thick fingers to disrupt circulation.
I smirk and drag the pot, a little less sure about my ability to survive the trip, but a little more sure about the prospects of my tournament life.
A few orbits later, I open AKss under the gun and am flatted by the man who seems like he’d like to take my stack along with my wellbeing. I’m excited about the K32 rainbow flop, and cbet much smaller than normal, a little less than half pot. He calls, as if the only other option is to raise. The turn is a ten, giving me a flush draw and he check/calls a larger bet. The river is a blank and he checks.
I decide to tank for an unusual amount of time before betting. I finally size out a bet, and slide it into the middle, but he doesn’t take long to fold.
I pick up a few more small pots and find myself at over 50k when we get close to the bubble. The last break has ended, but they’ve decided to play down to the money. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until the 20-minute break is over to play those last few hands. I meet up with Brian Pellegrino (PrimordialAA on 2+2) who wins a big pot on the last hand before break. We’ve got a similar amount of chips, but I’m impressed by the mountain of ante chips he’s amassed.
After break I win a couple pots uncontested, and it looks like we’re going to be done in a few minutes. A fairly loose/passive player opens in early position and I look down at two aces. I was planning on picking up a few pots before making the first day two of my career, but it appears like I have work to do. Simultaneously, it looks like the bubble’s just burst and we’re done for the night in a hand or two.
I 3bet fairly big, and it’s folded to the big blind, a spikey-haired guy with glasses who’s been pretty quiet despite being pretty deep. He’s frozen for a few seconds, but 4bets a little less than a fourth of his stack. The opener tanks.
It’s a neat spot to Hollywood for me, and I go about figuring out how to do it. I think I’ll just become increasingly uninterested in the situation as time passes, representing a 3bet gone wrong. But he folds.
At this point I’m almost certain he’s not 4betting to tank if I ship, but I take a few seconds anyway before announcing a pot-sized raise. He stacks his chips into a neat pyramid and slides them forward.
He shows two kings.
I rise and table my hand, a little stunned at the situation. As the board blanks out, an announcement is made: we’ve all survived the day.
I count my stack: 102.5k. As I bag up, head back to my room and do two sets of push-ups while listening to Foster the People, the shadow of a feeling I live my life for returns.