By Matthew E. Milliken
June 14, 2015
It’s May 20, 2015. I’m playing in a World Tavern Poker national championship event in the poker room at the Mohegan Sun casino in, or at least on the outskirts of, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Earlier in the day, I’d placed highly in a side tournament before joining, somewhat tardily, this event. It’s called the TOCs final; the acronym stands for Tournament of Champions.
Although I’m late to the table, which I hate, I start off pretty hot. I hit a straight, a flush, a high pair… My stack grows appreciably as I rake in pots.
Standard card tables usually have seating for 10 players. When poker tournaments begin, often only seven or eight seats per table are filled; this lets latecomers join the proceedings with minimal administrative fuss. As players are eliminated in any large tourney, event officials move the remaining people so that the tables have a relatively even number of players. When a table is broken up to balance out the other tables, each player is either given or asked to draw a seat card. (The process is supposed to be random, however it’s done.) This card designates the player’s new table and seat.
After I got moved for the first time, my luck waned somewhat. Shortly before the tournament took one of its scheduled breaks, I ended up hitting a boat, which is also called a full house. (This is a five-card hand consisting of three of a kind plus a pair — in this case, if memory serves, king-king-king-six-six.) The hand helped me collect a bunch of chips from the guy seated to my right.
Otherwise, however, I never quite seemed to connect on hands, and my stack shrank a bit. I didn’t lose enough to feel extreme discomfort, but I definitely wasn’t thriving the way I’d been at my first table.
Then that second table got broken up, and I was sent to one at the far end of the room, where the lighting was rather dim. And that’s when it happened.
A player — I later learned that his name was Fred Gentile — was seated in first or second position.
(Quick lesson for the uninitiated. The deal rotates one spot to the left after every hand is completed. Similarly, within a hand, the action within a hand always proceeds to the left. First position refers to the order of play in the first round of betting, which is known as preflop betting. The player in first position always sits three spots to the left of the dealer.
(Once the flop comes out, the first player to act is the person sitting closest to the left of the dealer who remains in the hand — that is, the player closest to the left of the dealer who called the last bet. Depending on what happened with the betting, that player can be the small blind, sitting one spot to the left of the dealer; the big blind, sitting two spots left of the dealer; first position, who is three spots left of the dealer; etc. etc.
Anyway, a guy named Fred was in first or second position. He shoved all in with about 20,000 in chips — not a tiny amount, but not exactly pocket change, either. It’s a little less than half the amount of chips that I have sitting before me.
Players fold, fold, fold… No one wants to call Fred’s all-in.
Action comes to me. I peek at my hand for the first time. My hole cards are ace-ace, the strongest possible starting hand.
My heart races. This is a big moment, and I potentially stand to haul in a nice pot of chips.
There are five or so players behind me who have yet to act. Because my hand is so strong, I wouldn’t mind terribly if someone other than Fred and I comes in on the action. However, I don’t want more than one other person potentially playing spoiler — when there are too many players in the hand, the chances of the best starting hand losing will increase.
So I hem and haw. I pretend like I’m making a tough decision.
As it happens, I’d gotten pocket aces a number of times at Mohegan Sun. I’d won with them virtually every time. My course of action is fairly obvious — I need to go all in — but I have a second of doubt. What if, I thought, this is the first time pocket aces fail me?
But there’s nothing to be done about that possibility. I take the plunge: All in.
Action continues around the table. Fold, fold, fold…
The small blind folds, which doesn’t surprise me. The big blind needs to make a decision, because he already has about 6,000 in the pot. (I may be misremembering the amount of the blind.) This gentleman thinks about calling my bet and ultimately decides against it, throwing away his cards.
I don’t remember which specific aces I had. I don’t remember the specific cards that came out on the board. But I do remember how I lost a vital hand on a very very bad beat.
As mentioned, I had pocket rockets — twin aces. Fred had an ace, too — the ace of diamonds. His other hole card was the king of diamonds.
No king came out on the board. Nor did Fred hit broadway, the highest of all possible straights (10-jack-queen-king-ace). What did happen, however, is he got a solitary diamond on the flop, the first three community cards to come out.
On the turn, the fourth community card, Fred got another diamond.
And on the river, the fifth and final community card, Fred got…yet another diamond. He had a flush — five cards in the same suit, a hand far superior to my pocket pair. It was a devastating defeat.
Things were never the same for me after that. Bit by bit, my stack shrank. I moved to another table, but this didn’t help.
Then I got moved yet again. Before I sat down, I saw that I was about to be placed in the big blind, which would consume all of my chips. I tried to dilly-dally about actually taking my seat in the hopes that I could wriggle out of paying the blind, but it didn’t seem feasible, so I swallowed and took my medicine — and I survived the blinds.
(Another quick lesson for the uninitiated. The blinds are payments that the two players to the left of the dealer are required to make. The big blind is two spots of the dealer’s left; the amount he or she is required to pay is the minimum bet that can be made. The minimum rises every so often — typically, 15 to 20 minutes, although the levels can last different periods of time. The small blind is required to pay one-half of whatever amount the big blind is. If no one calls the big blind, meaning no one pays into the pot that amount of chips, the big blind automatically wins, repossessing his or her chips and taking in the small blind.)
A few funny things happened when I was in the blinds from the point forward, although I don’t remember the exact order of events, so the following hands may not have occurred in this sequence.
I was in the big blind. Everyone folded to Fred, who was seated to my right in the small blind. (This was coincidence — remember, seat cards are given out randomly.) He ended up folding. I don’t know what hole cards either he or I had, but his fold in all likelihood allowed me to continue in the tournament. (That may have been my first hand at my final table, although I can’t remember for certain.)
At one point, a player — her name, I later learned, was Stephanie Magnum — made a big bet. I was in the blind this time, too (small blind, I think). I didn’t have a lot of chips, and folding seemed to be folly; if I dropped out of the hand, I’d have even less money than my already measly holdings. My hole cards were eight and three (unsuited, if memory serves), which is a terrible hand, but what could I do? I called Stephanie.
No one else got in on the action. She revealed pocket 10s — a pretty decent starting hand, especially against a weak one such as mine. But both an eight and a three appeared on the board, leaving me with two pairs — eights and threes — to Stephanie’s one pair. I still had a little life remaining.
The TOCs tournament had started with 122 players. (This field of qualifiers had been winnowed down by some earlier play-in events.) We started off with something like 15 or 20 tables, but the number steadily dwindled. As the afternoon faded into the evening, there were only about five tables left. That shrank to three tables of 10 people apiece.
And then there were 24 players.
For reasons unknown to me, 24 is a sort of magic number for the TOCs event. When we get to this number, all play pauses, we gather for a group photograph and then we take a short break.
Once the card-playing resumes, other players drop off quickly. First John from Maryland is knocked out. Then Jack from New Jersey loses an all-in bet. Ryan from New Jersey is next go, out in 22nd place.
And then it was my turn.
I believe I was in first position. I had pocket jacks, which is a good hand but not a great hand. (Someone who calls JJ with, say, queen-two will win if a queen hits the board.) I shoved all in with what remained of an extremely modest stack.
I knew my best shot of surviving would be to have everyone fold. And that’s what happened…
Almost. I can’t remember if Fred’s big blind was more or less than my all-in. (If I had more than the big blind, which was 10,000 chips at that point, then it wasn’t by much.) At any rate, he called my all-in play.
It was just the two of us, so we flipped our cards face up and watched the board come out. Things proceeded pretty quickly. I think Fred had king-six. A king came out, giving him a bigger pair than I had. I think a six came out as well. The board didn’t help me. I was out in 21st place. I stood up and hugged Fred, who had first crippled my stack, later spared me and bankrupted me.
As pioneering newscaster Linda Ellerbee used to say, “And so it goes.”
Ironically, Fred wound up finishing as the runner-up in the tournament. He was defeated by Stephanie, whose pocket 10s had fallen, so improbably, to my extremely unimpressive eight-three.