A few championship hands: Blurry recollections of poker wins and losses

September 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 10, 2014

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my accomplishments and misdeeds at the poker table. A lot has happened since then.

I got credited with my Memorial Day tournament win and wound up with eight for the six-month-long season. This disappointed me, because 10 wins would have automatically qualified me for World Tavern Poker’s national championship finals. But it turned out I qualified for the finals anyway — I had enough high-scoring near-misses to land in the top 1 percent of players in the region, the state and the nation.

The World Tavern Poker season ends with two weeks of postseason play. First, each bar or restaurant holds a championship tournament, in which every player with a ranking in the bar starts with the same amount of chips. The following week, each venue holds a tournament of champions (yes, the names are similar), in which anyone who has ever garnered a top-three finish in any tournament at the bar is eligible to play. Here, chip stacks are based on the player’s number of times earning a finish in the 1, 2 or 3 slots.

I had two notable games from postseason play, and both were at a sports bar called the Upper Deck in Cary, N.C.

In the championship tournament, I played what has become a sort of classic game for me: Sometimes up, sometimes down, rarely if ever a big stack. But I made the final table, and I ended up going head to head with a man named Mike. His chip stack was many times my size, and he ended up claiming the championship and its accoutrements: A plaque and a commemorative coin.

The following week, I played a bit better, and I accumulated momentum at the final table. I think my final opponent was a World Tavern Poker mainstay named Bob Z. The tables here were turned: My war chest was much bigger than his. I kept on getting aces, and I kept on going all in. This time, I was the victor.

The win earned me my first piece of poker hardware: A commemorative coin. (No plaque comes with a tournament of champions win.)

Two days later, it was off to New York. My first Saturday there, I played not particularly well and finished 11th in a tournament of champions. My last shot at getting more hardware was foiled by a bicycle crash, alas.

A week or two later, I was playing poker in a riverside town in New York State. I’m at the final table — not a huge accomplishment, because many of the venues in this region only attract enough players to fill two or three tables. (In North Carolina’s Central East region, where I’m based, running fewer than three tables is rare; having four or five is relatively common.)

The big stack was a man I’ll call Robin Hood. He’s an aged hippie type (although he’s probably a bit young to be a true member of that generation), a mustached and bearded former potter who walks around all the time with an expensive camera. He’s frequently clad in shorts or loose pants, a tank top and sandals.

When we went head to head, Robin Hood showed some caution despite having a treasury that dwarfed mine. He folded some small blinds, and he folded a few times when I went all in or made huge bets. The difference between our stacks narrowed modestly.

Then I was dealt ace-four off-suit, a hand that I don’t really love, but I sensed some weakness in Robin Hood. I went all in.

Robin, much to my dismay, called me. If he won the hand, he would have won the tournament.

We showed our cards. Robin Hood flipped a pair of kings. He was ahead, but I had a shot…

The flop came out king-two-three. I was devastated, because this gave Robin a set of kings. He wasn’t just ahead now — he was way, way ahead.

The turn (an eight, I think) didn’t help either one of us. But, I realized, I still had a shot: A five would give me a straight, besting Robin Hood.

“I need a five,” I muttered to myself. The sound was lost in the noise of the bar.

The river came. It was a five. I had my straight.

I raked in a big pot, and I went on to win the tournament. It was an improbable comeback.

Cut to the past Saturday morning. I’m sitting at a table in the middle of a ballroom at the Millennium Hotel in Durham, near the main Duke University campus. The occasion is the World Tavern Poker regional championships for the eastern half or so of North Carolina.

The main event will start at 2 p.m.; this is one of the satellite events. This particular tournament has a “no limp” rule. That means that anyone other than the blinds who wants to participate in the hand before the flop has to place a big bet — at least three times the big blind.

The rule has relatively little effect early in the game: Blinds are low, and it’s relatively cheap to get into hands. This changes after a little while, however. When blinds reach 1,000-2,000, the minimum pre-flop bet for anyone other than a blind is 6,000. That can be a substantial burden for anyone who hasn’t amassed a big reserve of chips.

A lot of players are pretty bleary. Many had stayed up much of the night playing in the Friday night satellite tournaments or participating in unofficial side games. I had lasted exactly two hands in the official 10 p.m. event and then got to bed uncharacteristically early, feeling exhausted from a cold that I hadn’t been able to shake.

A local tournament director named Ronnie comes in late and sits down to my right. Ronnie is a risk-taker and trash-talker, and today he wins big before he loses big. The table settles down a bit after that.

I am quiet early. Then I’m dealt queens, and I go all in. (If I have to lose with queens, I’ll lose big.) No one calls, and I collect the very modest blinds. On the very next hand, I get pocket queens again. This time I bet 4,500, about a third of my stack. Again, no one calls, and I collect the blinds. I flash my hand to the table, saying that I was only doing so because I’d gotten the same cards twice running.

The tournament grinds on and on, and I keep on staying in. The hour grows late — 11 a.m. passes, and then noon, and soon 1 p.m. is upon us. I get to the final table and people keep dropping away. I knock out a player named Donna, who had gathered a huge fortune earlier in the tournament. I eliminate another female player, P., who had boasted an embarrassment of riches when I’d joined the table.

The tournament director, a woman named Rose whom I don’t know, tells us that she won’t chip us up. In other words, we’re going to keep playing with black chips, which are worth 1,000 notional units of value. Normally, once blinds reach 5,000-10,000, they’d be removed from the table; not today. I keep on accumulating black chips, which I stack 10 high and array in two ever-lengthening rows. Physically managing my inventory of chips becomes a bit of a distraction.

The final three are me; Bob, whom I’d faced at Upper Deck and other venues many times; and an unfamiliar man named Eric, who apparently frequents the same Burlington, N.C., bar as Donna. The size of my stack varies, but it’s generally pretty substantial. I bluff with some big bets that aren’t called. I bluff on a bet or two and am forced to back down.

And I win a few hands outright. I catch pocket sevens a few times and win with them. That or a pair of fives takes out Bob. Then it’s just me and Eric.

We’re coming up on the start of the main tournament, and Rose keeps on shortening the clock. Blinds move up: 5,000-10,000, 10,000-20,000, 20/40, 30/60…

I’ve got Eric out-chipped. Then he won a hand or two, and things started to even out.

He went all in as the small blind. We counted out his chips; I had him covered. I took back my excess chips and we flipped. H had junk — a nine and a five, I think. I had queen-10 off-suit.

The board came: A jack, an eight… Nothing seemed meaningful.

Then I saw the river, the final card to be dealt, and I deflated. It was a nine, and it gave Eric a pair. My shoulders sagged.

But Josh, a local tournament director, and a man I didn’t know started calling out excitedly: “Straight! Straight!”

I looked at the board again, and I realized that I had a straight to the queen — eight, nine, 10, jack, queen. I’d won the tournament!

I reached over and shook Eric’s hand.

Then I turned around. “I didn’t even see that straight!”

“Don’t worry,” Josh and the other man told me. “We saw it! We’ve got you!”

I stood up and accepted some congratulations. I signed out on the tournament results sheet and helped transfer chips from the final table to the directors’ table at the front of the room. (I stuffed grays into the pocket of my Stanford hooded sweatshirt.)

The tournament had run about three and a half hours, and the main event was about to begin. I ran down to my car and gulped a few pieces of fruit to fill my belly.

I wound up playing about four hours in the main event, which had roughly 285 players. I went out around 34th, or just outside the top 10 percent. During the tournament, I listened to Stanford football’s agonizing 13-10 loss to USC.

One Response to “A few championship hands: Blurry recollections of poker wins and losses”

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