Sports Nut

How I Got Banned for Life (for a Few Weeks). Plus: Gambling Habits of the Pros.

(If you need them, check out these primers on the rules and terminology of Texas Hold ‘Em.)

First day action

In 2001, I was barred for life from the World Series of Poker. The owners of Binion’s casino, the Behnen family, didn’t like some comments I made to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about how the tournament used money from the prize pool to tip casino personnel. My exact words: “The players have been misled.” The next day, I was physically removed from a cash game, told that my presence would now be considered criminal trespass, and kicked off the property.

Like many lifetime bans, this one did not stick. A few weeks later, I was unbarred just in time for the main event. I started off on a roll, running my $10,000 up to $170,000. I then got the best possible starting hand—pocket aces—twice in a row. I went all-in against opponents holding pocket nines and pocket jacks, with a greater than 80 percent chance of winning each time. The nines flopped a nine in a $70,000 pot. The jacks rivered a jack in a $170,000 pot. Instead of leading the entire tournament, I was left with a mediocre stack. I made a small comeback but ended up busting out short of the money, dazed and incredulous. As I later ruefully calculated on This American Life, getting pocket aces on consecutive hands (1/221 * 1/221) and losing both times (1/4.5 * 1/4.5) is about a million-to-one shot.

In 2004, my fourth appearance in the main event, I faced six times more players than I had in my first WSOP. I was flush with success, having won nearly $2 million in tournament poker since my last World Series appearance. Our starting table included a wild player who kept moving all-in and showing very weak hands after everyone folded. On a flop of 9-3-2, I called his latest all-in with my pocket jacks. He held 4-5 offsuit, a straight draw. I was 66 percent to win the pot and double up. He rivered an ace, and I was out. Still, I have no regrets. If you’re playing to win, you cannot fold in favorable situations just to survive a little longer. It is precisely that fear of going broke that the good players exploit to grind you away, and I refuse to be exploited like that. If I think I have the best hand I’m going to call you: Let’s gamble.

A booth babe, with a cut-out of Josh Arieh

Since I’m starting the main event with an off day, I walk over to the casino floor to soak up the drama and do some stress-free spectating. I knew the Rio would be a zoo, but I wasn’t prepared for the huge exhibition floor that brought back memories of my dot-com days. Dozens of poker-related businesses hawk everything from instructional DVDs to books to shirts endorsed by World Series veteran Josh Arieh. Like the dot-coms, they spare no expense on booths and booth babes, and like the dot-coms, most of them will soon be out of business.

Harrah’s acquired the World Series of Poker two years ago, and the abrupt change in management has led to numerous missteps. One example I noticed today: Despite documented cases of players sneaking fake chips into the tournament, the Rio is still selling souvenir chips that look almost exactly like the real thing. Even more embarrassing is a tale I heard from entrants in the WSOP’s first preliminary event five weeks ago. When they showed up, the players discovered they had been seated alphabetically, placing fathers and sons next to each other and forming a table full of the many pros named Nguyen. (The organizers eventually redrew the starting positions.) This is a nerve-racking atmosphere; I’m getting more nervous knowing that I cannot trust the basic competence of the tournament staff.

One thing I do to take my mind off the stress of a big tournament is to make proposition bets with other players. Pro poker players will gamble on anything: One popular wager is on the number of entrants in this year’s tournament. One bet I’ve made is that among the final 27 players, no more than five will have started on Saturday—I think the last starters face a huge disadvantage having to come back first thing Sunday on no rest when two-thirds of the field will have had a day off. Another perennially popular bet is to pick a large pool of players, and if any of your guys make the final table, then you win. In this field of 6,000, how many players do you need on your fantasy team before you’re a favorite? If all the players are equally skilled, about 460. But lots of guys will take this bet even if they can choose only 100. Is there enough skill in poker to make that a good bet? Nobody knows, but we wager anyway.

One of my good friends is out of the tournament already. The day isn’t three hours old when I run into a devastated Jennifer Harman-Traniello. She had moved all-in on the river with queens full, a powerhouse hand that could be beaten on that particular board only by an unlikely four of a kind or an even more improbable straight flush. As her opponent called, he said, “Looks like it’s an early day for me, I guess I’ll go do some sightseeing.” And then he rolled over his unbeatable straight flush. There are few players I like as much as Jennifer. I’m glad I wasn’t at that table, or I might have gotten myself another lifetime ban.

On Monday, I’ll write about key hands from my first day in the main event. Let’s cross our fingers that it’s hands (plural)—if there’s only one key hand you can safely wager it didn’t end well. If I do survive on Friday, then I’ll have outlasted two-thirds of the field, with a mere 2,000 players to go! It’s almost too easy.