STARS AND STARDOM
For those of us who are not living in the United States of America, it is hard to grasp just how big the poker explosion has been there. My latest trip to Los Angeles had me shaking my head in disbelief. The National Hockey League players strike has led to the cancellation of their season. Has anyone noticed though? They certainly would have noticed if the LA Poker Classic had been cancelled.
Upon arrival, the cab between LAX and my hotel passed numerous freeway billboards such as, 'Watch Hold 'em on TV, Play Hold 'em at The Commerce Casino', 'The Moneymaker', 'Wednesday Night is Poker Night on The Travel Channel'. A string of huge advertisements for online casinos, live cardrooms, poker on TV and even a poker soap called 'Tilt'!
Having collapsed into bed for 8 hours recovery sleep from the long haul, my wife turned on the TV the following morning. Flicking through the channel she came across some peroxide blonde geezer wearing a bright green bet365poker shirt. I was on ESPN 2! She was well impressed. Right now, the American public just cannot get enough poker. The WSOP Omaha final table has been repeated between two and five times a week constantly since it first showing last June. How on earth can you watch the same final table twice? Surely the result is the same every time?
I walked into the Commerce to register for the 'PPT' freeroll event. For me, it was just a free entry with a shot at winning part of a $500,000 prize pool. An unthinkable opportunity two years ago. I was in for a surprise though. It is much more than that to the American public. Invites to PPT (Professional Poker Players Tour), are restricted to the 200 top ranked poker players in the World. To the American public, this was an all-star tournament. TV cameras were everywhere (well there were at least four anyway). My biggest surprise though, was the groupies clutching their 'Poker Aces' books. The blonde hair probably made me the easiest recognisable player in the book, but none of the autograph hunters had a chance of pronouncing 'colclough'.
My head had swelled to the size of an average planet by the time the tournament started. 180 of the top poker players in the world inter-mingled with half a dozen wildcard entries. Only 6 places to be paid though. A very tough prospect indeed. We were seated within a cordoned off area with a crowd of several hundred watching. Each table had it's own little red flag which read 'all-in'. There was also one 'feature' table with swing boom TV cameras and individual hole card cameras.
Phil Helmuth of course arrived late. It's traditional that he gives the field a few blinds start nowadays. A sort of sporting chance you might say. He did pull out all the publicity stops upon arrival this time though. Just to give the TV cameras their moneys worth, he requested that the dealer dealt him the *!%! in. Bearing in mind that all stacks are always dealt to in tournaments, and that bad language is being clamped down on; it was no surprise when the tournament director issued him a 20-minute penalty. A few more blinds head start for the field. A perfect TV interview opportunity for a Poker God.
Within half an hour we saw our first red flag rise, and the dealer called 'all-in'. The action had been stopped so that the mobile TV cameras could rush over, along with cute dolly bird presenter. The all-in player was duly interviewed and asked what his chances were. His red-faced embarrassment didn't need the verbal confirmation that he was in the mire. He wasn't wrong, and we had our first casualty. The normal manner would be to skulk off stage left at this point, but not so on the PPT. The poor victim had to explain on TV how he had managed to finish 'last', and then go on to 'sign out' at the PPT desk. The sign-out procedure was so that the organisers can log the result on their database. Statistics and Rankings to follow, no doubt.
I made good progress straight from the off and was soon chip leader at my table, without any major confrontations. Phil Gordon's aggressive style was yo-yoing above my stack and back down again as the hours progressed. Interestingly, later in the evening, poker enthusiast Toby 'Spiderman' Maguire is allowed through the cordon to watch the play. Film stars watching poker stars. An interesting hierarchical structure for the home of Hollywood? He watched as Phil Gordon and Doyle 'Texas Dolly' Brunson tangled in a big pot. Phil being the 'all-in' red flag recipient. The TV cameras rushed over to record his good fortune as he got the better of the legendary Doyle on the river.
The US poker phenomenon has embraced the 75-year-old Doyle as a grandfather figure. He is probably the most popular player, well ahead of all the young guns. The crowd were not happy with Doyle becoming the short stack at the table.
Two hands later and Doyle was small blind 200, whilst I was big blind 400. Running antes of 50 and a limper added to the blinds, made a pot worth stealing (1450). Doyle moved all-in for his last 2800, a slight over-bet but probably the correct play. I looked at my hole cards in astonishment, as they were two Aces. I reluctantly called after pondering for the mandatory 30 seconds (in this company it's best to take the same amount of time when making all decisions. These players will be watching for tells. The biggest tell of all, is how quickly you act. So I try and maintain a consistent 30 seconds regardless). I was calling in the hope of trapping the limper into the pot as well. He had a much larger stack than Doyle. Unfortunately, this didn't work and the limper passed.
Perhaps the limper knew what was involved, and didn't want to be the bad man who knocked out the old hero. The hole cards were on their backs, the red flag was raised and the attractive female presenter rushed over to interview the King. Doyle's 10 J suited didn't look too healthy she enthused, but the poker gods favoured the great. The crowd held their breath as a QK gave Doyle an open-ended straight. The TV cameras zoomed in and a huge roar greeted a 9 on the river. Doyle stays in the game with a straight. Fortunately, I was not asked for an interview.
An hour later, and I had another deja vu attack. This one was not as disturbing as usual though. My big blind 600, Doyle's small blind 300, running ante's of 75 and two limpers for 600 a piece. Surprise, surprise, Doyle moves all-in for his remaining 3900, and I look down at my hole cards. I wait for 30 seconds before reluctantly calling. The limpers aren't fooled this time either, and quickly pass. Doyle looks at me as the red flag is raised. The grin spreads across his face. He knows I have the two Aces again. This time his KQ does not get lucky. The crowd can only clap politely, and the TV cameras are left with some foreigner with bleached hair in a bet365poker shirt stacking the King's chips.
The hours passed. Phil Gordon finally fell along with a host of other red flags and broken dreams. After 12 hours of play an end was called to the proceedings. Only a fifth of the field was left standing for the following days proceedings. Peter Costa and Tony Bloom were the only other 2 Limeys left, assuming that Sheffield's Asher Derei still claims to be Israeli. Funnily enough, the three of us were to be drawn together for the next day's play.
Tony and Peter were in fact both early casualties the next day. The players were re-drawn again as we dropped to the last 3 tables and 27 players. At last I was drawn with Daniel Negraneu on the feature table with the TV cameras. I believe there are 3 players who appear to be 'the best' at the moment. Daniel, Eric Lindgren and John Juanda appear to be playing slightly different to the 'old school'. Daniel's term, not mine. The only way to learn from the best is to play with the best, so I was glad to get further opportunity to study Daniel's game.
As it happened, Daniel was to retire into his slow gear for the next few hours. He had built his stack, and was sitting on it. Alternatively, I had seen my stack shrink on a day of few hands. Now, on the feature table, the tide changed direction though. I managed to put a re-raise on Andy Bloch when I thought he had a marginal hand. He passed suspiciously, and I collected an average pot.
A few hands later on my small blind I found AQ suited. Everyone passed around to Andy's button. He duly raised, and I quickly re-raised. Andy was sat with A3 and obviously thought that I was picking on him. He decided to call the re-raise. The flop was KQ3 and I decided to check. Surprisingly, Andy now moved his whole stack in. I am pretty sure he would have made a smaller bet with top pair, so I called. The red flag was raised as Andy squirmed. My pair of Queens stood up, I scooped a big pot, and I was now one of the big stacks again.
When we dropped to 18 I was moved off the feature table, and sat with my other two piers: Eric Lindgren and John Juanda. Hmmm. I could now smell the money. I had a big stack, and wasn't so keen on being given a learning experience any more. Especially, at my expense.
Perhaps, my head wasn't right, perhaps I was a victim of circumstance, but when we dropped to 9 players I was no longer a big stack. John Juanda had been sat on my left and just basically outplayed me. This isn't something I remember admitting to for a long while. I didn't clash much with Eric, but marvelled at the way he turned a small stack into a monster in barely an hour. He had nerves of steel, as he called bets on the flop, turn and river. Most players would have folded or raised at much earlier points. The pots he won were therefore, considerably bigger.
So here I was at the final table of the PPT with all three of them. Eric and Daniel were the two chip leaders. John was a small stack like myself. We were to play down to 6 players, who would make the money.
The action was fast as we lost one player, shortly followed by John Juanda. 7 left, and I was definitely the shortest stack. I moved all-in with an AQ and got called by a pair of 9s. The cameras zoomed in as an Ace hit the flip. Yabbadabbadoo! My joy was short lived though as a 2 on the river gave a board of A2345. Split pot with a straight, and I am still the man under pressure.
I only had 58,000 chips left which would not last me 20 hands. So when I was dealt a pair of 6s, they were all deposited in the middle. It was Chris Bigler's obligation to be executioner. He called with a pair of 8s, and I didn't get lucky. I was out on the so-called 'bubble'. No consolation money for 23 hours of mental anxiety, torture and pain. I struggled to string a sentence together on my exit TV Interview. The attractive, cute presenter felt sorry for me. I was gutted . . . but I did wake up the following morning with a smile on my face. It had been fun. I think?