Sports Nut

How I Blew $350,000. Plus: My Chemical Weapon, Modafinil.

2000 WSOP champion Chris “Jesus” Ferguson

I’ve got $260,000 in chips in front of me, the biggest stack at the table. With only nine players left, I’ve got a great chance at winning $350,000 and a World Series of Poker bracelet. We’re playing the tourney’s final preliminary event, an obscure game called “deuce to seven lowball,” where the worst hand is the best hand. I’ve got the weird, backward rules down just fine—what ends up killing me is a stupid rookie mistake.

Another player goes all-in, and I call instantly without counting his stack. The dealer announces that he has—could this be right?—a not-so-piddling $160,000. Instead of making a minor dent in my chip lead, the inevitable loss leaves me on life support—I’m finished on the next hand. (Click here for a more in-depth recap.) One minute I’m the favorite, the next I’m just another guy shuffling away from the table with no stack of hundreds and no jewelry. Welcome to the 2005 World Series of Poker.

On Thursday, about 6,000 players will start grabbing for the “richest prize in sports,” the millions that go to the winner of the WSOP’s main event. So many people entered the no-limit Texas Hold’em world championships this year (I paid a $10,000 buy-in for the privilege) that the organizers have staggered the start. The tournament kicks off Thursday, but I won’t play my first hand until Friday at noon.

It’s hard to believe that casino poker was languishing just a few years ago. Since casinos don’t earn nearly as much from poker as they do from table games, poker rooms often showed up first on the bean counters’ chopping blocks. If you could find a game, it would be you and the same few guys night after night with almost no variation. And then came online poker, the World Poker Tour, and Chris Moneymaker.

The majority of this year’s entrants have never played in a $10,000 buy-in tournament, and in many cases have never played an event that wasn’t held on a computer screen. You might think they would be at a huge disadvantage to those of us who have played in dozens of $10K events. Perhaps they are, but our advantage is not big enough. In a field of 6,000 entrants, the best player in the world might generously be a 1,000-1 dog to win. After 40 years against those odds, that player would have a mere 4 percent chance of having won the tournament once, and it would take 700 years before the best player would have a 50 percent chance to have won.

No matter what I do, I probably won’t make the final table of the main event—not this year, not this lifetime. I don’t have to win the tournament to make a profit: In most tournaments about 10 percent of the field gets paid. I could play survival-oriented poker and maybe sneak into the money, but I’ll never win that way. And even though it might be irrational, the only reason I’m playing here is to win.

The view from my table

Though great play can’t guarantee me a high finish, a single bad decision will take me to the rail, as I was painfully reminded a few days ago. The most successful style of tournament poker is to attack, attack, attack, as often as you can get away with it without losing credibility. If you make them fold, your chances of winning the pot are 100 percent. If you don’t, you will have to show the best hand. Passive players are the deadest of the dead money—nobody can win enough showdowns to accumulate their chips that way.

My opponents know that I’m attacking with substandard hands—just as I know that they’re doing the same—and they’re looking for opportunities to punish me for it. If I fail to sense a trap, my punishment will be severe. After playing almost full-time for five years, my poker ability is where it is. What separates good poker players is not knowledge but execution. When I am focused, my execution is excellent. But the challenge of the WSOP is to stay focused for a week solid, for 14 hours a day. How do I do it?

I’ve long been an enthusiastic believer in better living through chemistry. That’s why, when I was diagnosed with ADHD two years ago, I didn’t hesitate to fill a prescription for Adderall. A few months later, I won almost half a million dollars in a World Poker Tour event, then another $1.1 million in another WPT event soon after.

With Adderall in my system, I am like an information sponge, able to process data from several players at once while considering my next action. It also improved my patience. I can’t count how many chips I used to squander playing hands out of boredom. Now, I have no problem folding as many (or as few) as the game conditions require.

This year, I have a new chemical weapon: Modafinil. Like Adderall, it stimulates wakefulness and enhances focus but without the annoying side effects of an amphetamine—for me, reduced appetite and insomnia. Drugs are not a substitute for healthy living habits, but the WSOP isn’t a spa. With Modafinil, I feel well-rested even on limited sleep, and during a weeklong tournament it’s pretty much impossible to sleep properly. Through judicious use of both I can operate at my full potential for days on end. And if I ever see a chip lead again maybe I can hang onto it.