Going into the championship event of the 2004 World Series of Poker, I had positioned myself atop the leader board for the Best All-Around Player award. Right after winning the $2,000 limit hold’em event, I followed that up with a ninth-place finish in the no-limit hold’em shootout and a disappointing eighth-place finish in the $5,000 pot-limit Omaha event. The championship event was worth lots of points, though, so if anyone near the top of the leader board were to win it, I could easily be passed.
As I looked up at the number of entrants (2,576), I was all smiles inside. With that many players, it was going to be extremely difficult for anyone in the hunt to catch me. Minh Nguyen, who was right behind me in second place, could outlast 2,200 players and still not pass me! Needless to say, I was feeling great about my WSOP run and my chances of winning the award for which I’d worked so hard all month.
In order to do well in the main event, though, I knew I needed to block all of that out and focus on the $5 million first prize. Did I just say $5 million? Yikes, that is a lot of money!
When I was 21 years old, I was about as confident as I could be that someday I’d win the main event at the WSOP. As I looked around at the sea of tables, it dawned on me that my dream of winning the big one wasn’t something I could bank on.
While the $5 million would be awesome, I have to admit that the prestige of winning the event no longer held the same value for me. Year after year, the numbers grow and the faces are ever-changing. Gone are the days when Johnny Chan goes first, first, and second in back-to-back-to-back years. Gone are the days when the eventual champion came in as a household name.
I’ve been asked this question about a million times: How do I feel about that? Well, I have mixed emotions, I guess. On one hand, the prize money is overwhelming. The overlay that the top players get is bigger now than it’s ever been. Next year, they’ll probably get more than 5,000 players, making it even more difficult to win, but so much sweeter if you do.
So, I love the fact that poker is growing. The increasingly large fields can only help the best players in the long run. A part of me, though, still misses the “old days.” When I was 17 years old, I’d watch those old WSOP tapes in awe. Wow, that Johnny Chan is amazing. Phil Hellmuth Jr. winning all of that money at the age of 24 — awesome. Being on that wall of champions was the ultimate dream of every poker player, and I guess it still is, for most.
It’s not for me, though. I want the money, don’t get me wrong, but I just can’t allow myself to put too much stock in my results in that event. Let’s face it, it’s become for all intents and purposes a crapshoot. Picking the final nine players would be akin to winning the lottery, seriously.
When I got knocked out, ESPN asked me, “Who do you think will win it all?” My response? “Someone you’ve never heard of before.” And that is awesome. It’s what makes the event grow and grow each year, the fact that literally anybody can win the big one with some good play and a whole lot of luck.
Whether or not I ever win the big one in my career is pretty much out of my control. The Best All-Around Player award, however, is something I believe I will be in the running for the rest of my life (hopefully).
Going into the main event, I was extremely focused on the task at hand. I looked around at the players at my table, and recognized … well, no one! So, I knew wholeheartedly that I needed to play more like a robot — bluff less and just dummy up a little bit.
No fancy plays were going to work; I’d just have to play fundamentally solid poker, and I did — for a while. I don’t know, I guess I just couldn’t help myself! I had my chip count up to about $14,000 when my table became the TV table (so everybody could watch me go nuts).
I was getting nothing to play at all, and probably should have taken that as a sign that I needed to sit on my hands. Nope, I was too stubborn for that. After several risky plays I didn’t need to make, I found myself in the big blind with the Qclubs 2clubs.
A late-position player who’d been opening lots of pots made a small raise. I couldn’t tell if he was a California player or a European, but my instincts and his betting patterns told me that he was an aggressive player who didn’t need much of a hand to raise me. I called the small raise and we took the flop heads up: J-9-7 rainbow.
With $1,525 in the pot, I decided to bet out $1,000. I was hoping my opponent had raised with a ragged ace or a small pair. J-9-7 is a coordinated board, so if he didn’t hit that flop, it would be tough for him to call. Unfortunately, he did call.
At this point, I was done with it. I was about to abort the mission when the turn brought a queen, giving me top pair. Now, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I’d hit the best possible card I could hope for, and didn’t even like it! I decided to play it carefully and check to my opponent. He bet $2,500.
Well, I’ve already shared with you that my read on my opponent dictated that he was capable of betting here without a made hand, so that left me with a dilemma. I had to ask myself several questions:
Could he be on a stone-cold bluff here?
Could he be value-betting a pair of jacks?
Could he be trying to bluff me with A-K?
After some thought, I felt my opponent may have pounced on the weakness I had shown on the turn, and could in fact be protecting a hand like J-10 or possibly bluffing with A-10 or something like that. I called.
The river brought a total blank. I checked, and my opponent went all in. That bet seemed a little odd to me. For him to bet once again, he would need to have a very strong hand, I thought. Maybe that was my problem the entire tournament, I was thinking too much! I should have just shut that part of my brain down and went on autopilot.
I had such a mixed read on my opponent that I finally said, “I have absolutely no idea what to do.” I needed more info on my opponent, and since I’d never seen him before, I had little to go on. So, I asked him, “Where are you from?”
He replied, “Sweden.”
Oh no, that just made my decision even tougher. There is an army of awesome young Swedish poker online players who play on the Internet, and they are more than capable of bluffing with all of their chips. I was so hoping he would have said “Long Beach” or “Northern California.” If he’d said either, I would have folded quickly. “Oh no, not Sweden,” I said, to which he replied, “I’m actually Turkish, but I live in Sweden.” That’s even worse, I thought.
Without trying to irresponsibly stereotype people, I would say that the combination of him potentially being a Swedish Internet whiz kid and an aggressive, fearless Turkish bluffer confused me further! I wanted to fold so badly, but all of the information he was giving me made me lean toward calling.
After thinking things through, there was something I had picked up that I simply had to go with. He was far too comfortable to be bluffing. There was not a hint of fear, not a hint of stiffness. He just didn’t look worried at all, and had absolutely no problem answering my questions in detail.
I still had almost $6,000 left, so I decided to throw the hand away and hope that ESPN would choose to cover that hand, so I could find out for sure. I waited with anticipation for the telecast, and, phew, he had the Qhearts Jhearts!
It didn’t matter much, as I continued to play impatiently and got away from my game plan. Unlike past years, though, it really didn’t phase me. I wasn’t unlucky, I just didn’t bring my “A” game.
I guess the realization that 2,575 people were going to walk away disappointed was comforting to me for some reason.
I got knocked out shortly after that and it was then time for me to start anti-rooting! It was time for me to sweat out my fate and hope nobody passed me for the award. By the way, I have no problem with anti-rooting. I know the politically correct thing to say would be, “Well, I’m going to root for Chris Ferguson, and if he wins it, that would be great.” While Chris is a great guy and all, I have to be honest: If he took a bad beat, I’d be doing cartwheels inside!
Honestly, do you really think that if Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods were tied on the 18th green at Augusta that they would be rooting for each other to make their birdie putts? Fat chance! They may say, “It was an honor just to play with him, and I was happy to see him make that putt. It was a great day for golf.” However, inside they are thinking, “That lucky son of a gun! How did he make a 40-foot downhill putt that broke left, then right, then left again. Arrgh, I hate that guy!”
So, again, when I heard that Chris had made the money and had just doubled up again, I put on my fake smile and took a deep breath with my fingers crossed behind my back! Well, Chris finally did get eliminated, and the award was mine (and I could go back to liking him again).
Oh, there’s one final note: On Aug. 27, I finally proposed to the love of my life (read “The Woman Who Made Me,” Vol. 17/No 8, April 9, 2004), Lori Weber — and she said yes!