By Matthew E. Milliken
June 11, 2016
There were 234 two-person teams in the event. I started off at table 3 in the corner of the ballroom, mere steps from both the doors and the bar. My seat at one end of the table gave me a view of both of those locations.
My partner, J—, was sitting at a table near the far wall, about half of the way toward the huge divider that ran parallel to the main doors. (I’d peeked behind the divider at some point earlier on Monday and discovered that the ballroom extended quite a bit beyond the portion that was being used by World Tavern Poker.)
I didn’t know anyone at my original table, but as it turned out, I knew someone at my partner’s table. The first switch to be called required every player to go to the spot occupied by her or his partner. When I arrived, I found E—, a player who had been my tag-team colleague back in Vegas in November 2014.
I also, as it happened, knew someone who knew someone (and who knew me) at my original table. They started calling switches that involved only some players — for instance, switch if you or your partner is wearing a World Tavern Poker shirt, or switch if one of you is wearing eyeglasses. Through that, I discovered that a guy named Chris who was sitting at my starting table was partnered with Rachel, a New Jersey player whom I knew vaguely. (She immediately recognized me but asked if I played music, which I don’t.) Rachel happened to hold a spot at J—’s original table; I realized that she and Chris were partners because he had a small stuffed tiger mascot at his position and she had a matching stuffed fox mascot.
Poker is generally a solitary game in which each player is out for her- or himself. One thing that makes tag team poker different is that you have a partner. J— is a solid player who won a World Tavern Poker tournament directors’ event a few years ago, so I wasn’t worried about her doing anything stupid. If anything, it was the converse — I was worried about letting J— down.
And in fact, often when we switched, I found that J— had amassed quite a big stack of chips in my absence. I generally plodded along, not winning a lot and not losing a lot.
J— did run into trouble a couple of times. Once, when a switch was called, the hand had not finished playing out. “I hope you win this,” I heard J— mutter as I returned to my original seat.
I sat down and surveyed the situation. There were four cards on the board, two clubs and two spades. I don’t remember exactly what they were, but there was clearly a potential for a straight draw. The pot was signifiant but not huge; my chip stack was extremely modest.
I checked my hole cards. I had the queen and jack of spades. When action resumed, everyone checked.
Another middling black card came on the river. It was a club, so I had neither a straight nor a flush. But I sensed that none of the other players were very happy with how the hand had played out, so I made a modest bet. Everyone folded. Internally, I sighed with relief as the pot came to me.
At another point, J— had lost a lot of money from her starting stack. I took my seat and limped along, awaiting a good opportunity to make some dough.
It came just as I was in the big blind. A few people had limped into the pot when a switch was called. I peaked at my hole cards and found a pair of kings. I didn’t get to play them, but a few minutes later, I craned my neck from my original seat and confirmed that J— was still at the table.
During one of the breaks, J— thanked me for leaving her pocket kings at that moment. I shrugged it off, quipping that I was just trying to be courteous to my partner.
The action progressed for hours and hours, and I grew hungry. Fortunately, the ballroom is close to the casino food court, so on one of the breaks, I was able to run over and grab an order of sesame chicken. Midnight came and went.
Another time J— had a short stack, I took over after she’d been moved to a table far from where she’d started. Again, I struggled to find a good hand to play, and again, I didn’t find an appropriate one until right before a switch.
This time, M.G., the player at the far end of the table from me, shoved all-in while I was small stack and in the small blind. Everyone folded until action came to me.
I had about two-thirds of my stack invested in the small blind, so I would be all but crippled if I folded. Hoping to see a strong hand, I peaked at my hole cards and found…five-four off-suit, an extraordinarily weak hand.
I spent several minutes contemplating my decision. Five-four unsuited has absolutely no firepower. On the other hand, I’d played a few games with M.G. in New York, and I know that he occasionally loves to make a move while holding garbage. As weak as my cards were, there was a chance that I was actually ahead.
It was a hard call to make, but eventually I made it, committing the rest of my chips to the pot. The man in the big blind folded in much shorter order.
We opened up our hands, and it turned out that M.G. had…five-three off-suit. My hunch about his hand had been correct.
Unfortunately, right then a switch was called. All the action was over, and we asked the dealer to play out the hand, but he (rightly) refused. I walked over to the spot where J— had been playing.
After a few minutes, I searched for J—’s head of white hair. I didn’t see it, but when I stood up, I found that my partner was still in the game! Later, I learned that J— and M.G. had chopped a pot when the board showed a straight.
Sometime after 1 a.m., J— made huge amounts of money with both of our stacks. But we were getting to the point where just sitting through the blinds would take a huge chunk out of your chips, so it was hard to feel secure.
Normally, tournaments pay the top 10 percent of their players. World Tavern, however, seems to pay the top 15 players (or, in this case, teams), regardless of the number of entrants. Because the payouts to the bottom slots were low — $212 per team for 15th through 12th places, I think — that would barely cover the entry fee of $190 per team.
I noticed on one of the breaks that it had started raining outside. Unfortunately, I’d left my car windows cracked, and I didn’t have a jacket or an umbrella with me. I shrugged — at that point, it wasn’t worth running out to my car.
For a very long while, it was impossible to know how many teams were left, although it was clear that tables were being broken down as smaller stacks were absorbed by more successful players.
But at around 2 a.m., a World Tavern Poker employee named John started announcing the number of teams and players remaining. It turned out that only two teams still had both stacks.
And then, as of about 2:30 a.m., there was just one team with two stacks. After a woman was knocked off of the table where I was playing, the announcement came out: Twenty players, 19 teams (or something like that).
So J— and I still had a chance to get paid. But we’d have to progress a lot further if we wanted to get paid a lot — and there was a chance that we wouldn’t collect anything at all.
As it turned out…
The stacks shrank again, and I fought to do anything positive. After surviving a round of the blinds, I realized that I needed to push all in or face bleeding out with whatever came to me in the next set of blinds.
I was sitting in about third position when I found myself with pocket fives — a low pair, but hardly the worst starting hand. I picked up my chips and picked up the granola bar that I was using as a chip marker and dropped them on the other side of the betting line, announcing my all-in.
About two seats to my left was D.A., a North Carolina player whom I know well. He thought about his decision for a while and then went all in with a stack many many times mine. I tried to convince myself that D.A.’s huge bet was just offering me protection.
No one called D.A., who held ace-10 unsuited. Unfortunately, he hit two 10s, giving him trips — three of a kind. I stood and took my granola bar and walked away.
John saw me. “Eighteen players left, 18 teams left,” he said over the loudspeaker.
I’d gotten probably halfway to the holding pen when I remembered something. I ran back to the table and called D.A.’s name. “Do you want the granola bar?” I asked.
He shook his head no, and I walked to the holding pen. Now things were in J—’s hands.
I paced and paced, peering occasionally at my cell phone. I was afraid to sit down…
Another player went out. We were down to 17 teams. J— and I were close to the money. I paced some more…
And then I saw J—. She explained that she’d shoved wth a pocket pair — eights, I think — only to find someone else holding pocket queens. We hugged and thanked each other for a good run.
We had played about seven hours and gone to the cusp of getting paid without getting paid. It was frustrating, but we’d done all we could.