Sports Nut

How I Busted Out. Plus: Can Greg Raymer Repeat as WSOP Champion?

Can Greg Raymer repeat?

Going into the second half of the first day, I’m in a fantastic position with $38K. I’m down to $35K when the key hand of my entire tournament comes. The table folds around to the small blind and myself. He calls, and I check with the four and two of spades. The flop comes K-8-4 with no flush draw. He immediately bets out $1,400. The small blind is a young kid who appears to be tilting after having lost several large pots. I quickly call with my pair of fours.

The turn is a four, giving me three fours. He checks to me, and I check as well. I’m nearly certain that I’m ahead and might well have him drawing dead, so I don’t want to bet him out of the pot. The river is a queen, and I expect him to bluff since I’d checked on the turn. He bets $1,500 as expected, so I raise him up to $5,000, hoping he’ll call me with a king or a queen. Instead, he re-raises me $6,500 more!

I know instantly I’m beat, but I just can’t figure out how. I take the route of bad poker players worldwide and look for a reason to call. When I do call, he turns over pocket queens—he’d made a full house on the river.

Had I bet the turn, I would have won the pot for sure. Instead, I gave him a free look at the river then raised him and called a re-raise. This hand doesn’t bust me—I only lose about 30 percent of my chips, no more than on a number of other hands. But this loss was largely avoidable, and now I’m feeling ante and blind pressure for the first time since the third level. When I lose a chunk, I try to fool myself into believing I’ve just doubled up. It’s a tough sell.

I play a couple more pots with weaker starting cards than my opponents and lose like I’m supposed to. On my final hand, I raise with an 8-9 suited and face a tiny re-raise from another short stack. When the flop comes 8-high, I have little choice but to move in with my pair of eights. My opponent calls with kings, and I don’t improve.

Strange as it may sound, that $38K might have been too many chips too soon. When I go on a good run early in a tournament, I tend to bust early as well. I suppose it’s because when the chips come too easily, I do not treat them with the respect they deserve. Chips are too hard to come by and too eager to leave. They must be treated like honored guests, not freeloading cousins.

One player who’s treating his chips just right is Greg Raymer. As I write this, 185 players are still alive, and Raymer, last year’s champion, is the chip leader. How likely is he to repeat as champion? Heading into this year’s event he was worse than 1,000-1. Now that he has nearly 2 percent of the chips, he’s 50-1 or better given his expertise with a big stack and experience in the pressure cooker. While his back-to-back performances here are incredible, many will misinterpret his success and conclude that poker is much more of a skill game than it is. If thousands of people flip a coin 10 times, some of them will hit 10 heads in a row. Is it because they’re really that good at flipping heads? There is probably an anti-Raymer out there somewhere, an equally talented player who has taken a bad beat in the first hour of the World Series two years running who continues to languish in obscurity. That’s poker, but that’s part of why we love it.

You can watch Raymer in action when ESPN starts airing the 2005 WSOP next week. Poker players have benefited from the television era indirectly, via endorsement deals and other marketing opportunities. But all the direct benefit is reaped by the casinos, the production companies, and the networks—the players don’t get any TV revenue and are still paying entry fees that are as high as they’ve ever been.

And television is intrusive. At big tournaments like the WSOP, there is typically a single “featured” table where lights and cameras are set up. At the TV table, you’re transformed from a poker player to an actor, expected to wear a microphone and possibly makeup, endure stage lighting, and have your every move and hole card recorded. It is hot, play slows to a crawl, and people start to play differently.

Once the cameras start rolling and everyone in America can see what cards we’re playing, players get fearful of doing something stupid. One of the laws of poker is that bad players can be embarrassed into playing better.Bad players chasewhen they shouldn’t chase and bluff when they shouldn’t bluff. On television, they tighten up, making it harder for savvy players to pick up their chips. I’d much rather build my chip stack against a player who chases long shots than against one who plays how he thinks he is supposed to. That’s why you’ll never see me volunteering for television duty.

Since I busted out of the WSOP early this year, I’ve had to leave the Rio to entertain myself. Where do poker players go to find solace? The stereotype is “the golf course,” and the stereotype is absolutely true. I hit the links with some fellow bustees from Scandinavia, intending to bet enough on our match that I might break even on the World Series.

Playing Chinese poker with my friends

Poker players love golf. I took it up for that reason alone: I heard about how much money guys were throwing around on golf bets, and I couldn’t stand missing all the action. Golf is a completely different game when there’s real money on it. It’s unbelievable the way perfectly composed people sometimes crumble under the pressure. In fact, there are endless analogues between poker and golf. I have often used poker as a metaphor for life, and perhaps now I’ll use golf as a metaphor for poker. Does anyone know a metaphor for golf?

After the sun goes down and golf bets become impossible, we switch to Chinese poker. Each person divides 13 cards into three successively stronger hands and plays them against the respective hands of the other players. It’s 98 percent luck, 2 percent skill, and infinitely addictive—the perfect recipe for four guys who have had their fill of Texas Hold ‘Em. I’m sure hold ‘em will sound fun again by 2006, but right now it’s more important to get my handicap under 30. I have greatly reduced my poker schedule so as not to be far from my wife and baby daughter Ivy, but I’ll be back for the 2006 WSOP. I’m sure I’ll have worked up an appetite by then.