I was fifteen years old the first time I was cheated.
It was 2004 and like any teenager who gagged at the taste of booze and had yet to be laid, I spent my friday nights with my best friends playing dealer's choice poker. Of all the rebellious options surrounding a teenage kid, low stakes gambling was groundfloor in terms of adult anxiety. Understandably, our parents had no problem stocking the fridge with pop and leaving us alone in the basement till the wee hours of the night.
It was innocent fun, typically, with losses rarely exceeding a 20 dollar bill. But as time went on and our competitive juices boiled, the stakes began to increase. And as the game got bigger, we began expanding our player field to anybody we knew who could pony up a 50 dollar buy in. After weeks of playing with the new competition, one guy seemed to never lose. The original crew stayed late one night, after cleanup, and came to the conclusion that he may be cheating.
We opted for a sting.
The next friday night we showed up early, stocked a video camera inside of a decoy case of cherry coke and aimed it directly at the culprits seat. Sure enough we watched as he maneuvered cards into certain slots while he prepared the next hands deck. I was bewildered as we rewatched the VHS in my parents 24 inch box TV.
I couldn't move, I had nothing to say.
I may have only dropped 25 dollars that night, but i lost a lifetime's worth of innocence and naivety. Not everybody was who they portrayed to be, and maybe this game of poker wasn't as innocent as our parents believed.
Cruising downhill in my A5 and out of the mobile dead zone that is Mt Charleston I felt a buzzing in my pocket that was the release of text messages trapped in Iphone limbo. Amidst the questions from standard texting buddies was one from an old bellagio acquaintance. He told me about a 5/10nl he'd been playing at a house game in one of the cities most affluent neighborhoods. This Wednesday they were kicking the game up to 25/50 and while he couldn't afford to play it, I was more then welcome to take his seat.
After missing the Turks implosion and other opportunities I was anxious for a poker adventure. Still I was mindful of a private game charging $5 a half hour, that was okay with a pro coming to play. "Why's the rake so low" I asked him? "Huge fish losses enough to keep the game profitable" he told me. "But they need to fill seats".
I passed the idea through Alyssa who could sense my excitement as she gave me the thumbs up for a night to myself.
That wednesday I dropped half my money off at a nearby friends house to hedge against a robbery set up, upgraded to a large chai latte to fight through my bodies natural 10pm resting state, and entered into unknown territory at 8 o'clock sharp.
The million dollar home had the bare feeling of a house used solely for poker. Expensive couches accompanied by no other furniture ironically describing the base of people with lots of money but little sense of visual appeal. (And this coming from a guy who wears mismatched socks and shoes with holes in them).
Two girls held the versatile role of host, sever, and masseuse. I watched their mannerisms as they flirted with the players, internally debating whether or not they added "hooker" to the repertoire come midnight. Probably not, I concluded, sensing their innocence and inexperience.
I recognized nobody, but it didn't take long to locate the fish my acquaintance was referring to, sitting to my direct left. I played a lot of pots early and showed him my inadequate cards, hopefully setting up the big payoff later in the night.
Up a few thousand I played a big one with AJ against one of the regulars. The Flop came JJ3 with a flush draw and by the time the turn solidified my fullhouse with a 2nd 3, I'd gotten my opponent to bet a big portion of his equal stack, before check raising him all in. I was called as we'd built the biggest pot of the night. The dealer was quick to turn over the Kd river as was my opponent to flip over his pocket Kings and rake in the twenty five thousand dollar pot.
I played 3 more all ins that night with one card to go and the best hand for pots between 8 and 15k, all shipped to 25/50 "pros" who somehow I'd never seen before. The total damage was somewhere north of 25,000.
There was no hidden camera to legitimize my concerns, just a memory reel of misfortune as I drove home in the dark reminiscing on the night I surrendered my innocence.
"I did the math and the odds of me losing all 4 hands was 5,500-1" I told Ben Hammnet later in the week as he had received an invite to the same game. "I'm not saying I was cheated, but I'm saying I won't go back."
He thought while nodding, as Ben often does, before reminding me of a time 3 years ago. "We played at the house of a guy who wrote a movie about hustling pool. So many thoughts of hustling went through his head that he decided to write a movie about it. And we let his friends deal our cards and gave him our chips."
He laughed and I nodded, I suppose a biological difference in dealing with pain.
Sometimes people are exactly what they portray, and this game of poker isn't as innocent as our parents believed.
I was seventeen years old when I was given advice that I'll never forget.
I was gliding through the halls of the Cog Hill clubhouse fueled by a 75 in my last ever high school golf tournament when I recognized a Chicago legend having a beer by himself.
He was well past his playing days but there was no confusing the smile of Mr Cub.
"How'd you hit 'em, Mr. Banks" I asked while pulling up a chair at the adjacent table. "Cooked" he laughed before returning to his beer for a sip. I assumed that was the end of our conversation as he scrolled through his phone, but just as I thought to get up he turned to me. "Kid" he started as he shook his head, "watch out for women." I nodded, pretending like I had a clue where this was going. "Cause they'll drain you for everything," he finished with an ironic smirk.
And that was it.
Seventeen year old me, who was still more concerned with getting women than getting rid of them, was given the most nonsensical unapplying advice of my life from a drunk Ernie Banks. It was like preparing for the end of your favorite TV show before you'd finished the first episode. I was confused and saddened and had absolutely no idea what to say as I extended the sip of my coke long enough to freeze my brain and surpass the expectation that I prepare a response.
Mr Cub was out of his mind.
A few Sundays ago I got a morning text from a friend that sent shock waves through my veins. "Turk going off" it read simply enough to the standard eye. But i knew enough about Turk to know each word was worth at least 10k a piece.
My instincts directed my fingers towards a "seats open?" return like the forces of a Quiji board. But before I could hit send, real life took over. I looked up from my phone and sitting across the table was Alyssa, smiling as she took a picture of something called a mimosa. We were miles from the action, having brunch at DW Bistro, and as much as I would've liked to speed down the 215 and lock up a seat in a dream game with the tilting Turk, it wasn't going to happen.
After years of waiting for my return to Chicago, my long time girlfriend took the initiative and began her "Bring Matt Home" tour with a strategic move to the desert. Gone are the all night sessions and spontaneous road trips. In are dog park saturdays and movie night mondays. I've spent 3 years considering mostly myself, and now I'm discovering that obligations are real things, to real people, and they're not taken lightly.
"This movie looks REALLY good" she told me in-between sips, referring to "That Awkward Moment" which I'd promised to take her to this afternoon. I created a smile as I reminded myself of it's 22% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which was actually a serviceable upgrade from the 14%er she took me to last week. "I love our lazy sundays" she told me with genuine joy.
I nodded, continuing to pour the orange juice and vodka down my throat, hindering my ability to verbalize as I dreamt off to 2005 and that crazy old man i met at Cog Hill.
Mr Cub was ahead of his time.
Walking through the desolate Bellagio casino, we took a right before reception, heading passed the high roller Baccarat lounge, and into their back room where big time pit players snacked for free. It was a fun little game during our breaks from the all night poker sessions, which were common lately, trying to adjust to Mr Mccau's schedule. The challenge was making it through the room without the pit boss knowing we had absolutely no interest in giving them action. And the prize was the cookies. The softest, most delicious oatmeal raisin cookies you can find in the valley.
It was a stealth mission that required minimal eye contact and fake conversation; The essentials to pretending like you belonged all along. I'd heard of poker players being turned away before, but those guys were careless. They were loud, and noticeable, making no mistake that they were in it for the cookies.
On this day, a day like any other, I'd taken my eyes off the floor. While only briefly, it was long enough to lock stares with the graveyard shift manager; His name tag read, John.
He knew, he had to.
I could see it in the way his eyes followed my steps. I expected a confrontation, a lecture, maybe even the black list. But just as I thought he was about to open his mouth, he smiled, ever so slightly, and nodded. I was in the clear. And that cookie, was the most delicious cookie I've ever had in my life.
"The next best thing to gambling and winning….is gambling and losing". It's my favorite of the many ramblings from high stakes regular Len Ashby. And while it doesn't fit my delicate, calculated mindset, I'm aware of the truths that bred such a statement and their presence throughout the poker room. Losing elicits a certain type of thinness in your blood stream, of lightness in your head, of panic in your heart. And while every gambler's first wish is the thrill of victory, many will settle for feeling alive.
I would never pledge allegiance to such an absurd statement, but October gave me no choice besides an involuntary check in to Len's runner up "happy place".
It all started during a 50/100nl game at the start of the month. Game's this big run 4-5 times a year and as a general rule of thumb are a good time to run your purest. I'd bought into that theory so far in my young high stakes career, choosing these biggest moments for my safest turn and river cards.
However, on this particular day, I couldn't get anything going. I was stuck 100bbs, and sitting on a 17k stack when opportunity knocked. Chris Johnson opened early, I flatted the CO with black queens and Chau Gaing came along in the bb. The flop fell 235 with 2's and it checked to me. I bet out 600, which was met with a check raise from Chau to 2k. Chau, while historically on the tighter side, had been feeling a bit frisky on this night, getting out of line on a few occasions, potentially in an effort to exploit to size of the game to his best advantage. I called the bet, predicting a favorable turn card. I was not disappointed as the Q came along. Chau showed little interest in the size of the card as he put out a $4,600 bet. With $14,500 in my stack the decision to call or jam came down to my interpretation of Chau's hand. If I thought he was weak, a call would be best. But his lack of concern for the Q told me he was strong, at a minimum the nut flush draw. I announced "all in".
Chau called the bet and we settled on a 2 river run out. Both produced insubquential red Kings; This pot would have one winner. I turned over my top set at the same time that Chau revealed 46. I took a deep breath, nodded my head at the inevitable facts and left for the day, a 27k loser, my biggest single session drop of all time.
The swings that followed were big. 25/50 was running everyday and I had 2 separate sessions of 20k in each direction. My tolerance for pain was increasing as my value for the dollar depleted. To me it seemed productive; all of the greats have little to no value for the dollar. It helps them make the biggest calls, and well timed bluffs, zoning out all the bullshit, and focusing on nothing but the logic problem at hand.
I'd always found myself in the middle of that pendulum, watching friends of mine both too nitty and too spewy, while I tiptoed cautiously on the side of logically risky. But that…was all about to change.
It was a wednesday night and the NL game had just come to end sometime around midnight. I was sitting alone with my chips, not yet tired, and hoping that maybe the game had one more chance at revival. Just as I was racking up, in walked Matt Kirk. Matt, an Australian who migrated to LA, has a reputation for playing some of the biggest PLO games in the country. But tonight, he was here for a different game.
"Lets play some Taiwanese" he asked, recognizing me from the game the night before. Taiwanese is a new age form of chinese poker. Players get dealt 7 cards and make their best Omaha, Holdem, and High Card hands. Two boards are then run out and chips are tossed to whomever made the biggest hands. There is no betting or any postflop skill, but there is strategy on where to place your cards. And since I have a lot of experience and it was Matt's first time, I was more then happy to press my small edge.
We started at 100 a point and eventually moved it to 200. By 730am I was stuck $7,000 and worried that Matt was about to call it a night. "Alright mate" he told me, "I hate to leave a winner like this, but I have given you seven hours of action."
My mind started racing through it's hysterical state. I wanted to convince him to stay, I wanted to get unstuck. But it was true, he had every right to leave. "It's cool" I told him "good game." It was then, maybe he sensed the dejection on my face, or perhaps the all night bonding made it tough to leave me stuck.
"But hey, I know how we can get even," he told me. "And we can do it together."
I should've gone home. I should've laughed off his ridiculous statement, like I always do. But I was stuck, and my sleep-deprived brain wasn't able to sense the danger.
I'd recognized my surroundings though the ground felt different. I was walking loudly, no longer on my toes, and my head was held high. I was back in the baccarat lounge…but I wasn't there for the cookies.
We sat down at an empty table, reaching to our pockets for leftover yellows and flags.
"Gentleman, can I grab your players cards," I heard drawing my attention to the suit behind the table. I saw the name tag first. And then the smile that 9 months later finally made sense. While I may had won the battle for the cookies, John had won the war.
But that was nothing but semantics at this point. It was 8am and I was stuck like a pig. I pulled out 13 yellows, refusing the dealers request for change.
The game felt like blackjack as I was dealt 2 cards, though Matt explained to me that our goal was 9. He taught me how to sweat the sides, when the dealer needed to hit, and told me about these things called "naturals".
I still can't confirm if the "naturals" were a real prize, or just one of Matt's ploys to add optimism to my diminishing stack. We never did hit one.
By the 10th hand I was immediately turning my cards face up, bypassing the "sweat" and eliminating the only ounce of innocent fun that the game supplied.
Later, two asian players joined us. They were smiling and betting black chips; really milking the sweat for everything it was worth. They looked happy…And I couldn't fucking stand it.
I moved to my own table, telling the new dealer that I wasn't here for the patronizing apologies and I'd greatly appreciate if she dealt as fast as possible.
I lost my 28th hand, driving my all time record to 4-24. I was the Jacksonville Jaguars of Baccarat. I reached into my right pocket for another reload, but there was nothing there. I reached into my left and felt the same physical emptiness.
"Ah mate, well that was shit, wasn't it" I heard from Matt, sounding as if he'd spilled coffee on his shirt, or scraped his iPhone. "Alright well, I'll catch you later" he finished, completely oblivious to the fact that I had just done the stupidest thing in my 25 years of existence.
I sat there, glued to the chair, as he waddled off into the night, left with nothing but my own regret, a 30k tab, and an oatmeal raisin cookie.
I woke up the next morning, momentarily believing it had all been a creation of my own imagination. But that pipe dream quickly burst, as the crumbles on my bed stand slapped me back to reality. In some ways I'm happy with how it all turned out. The non-stop onslaught of losing left me little doubt that I'll never be back in that room, and Matt whistling off into the night reminded me that real misery has no company.
And all I can do now is regroup and rebuild.
Clear eyes, Full hearts.
Waiting in line outside the Horseshoe casino, my attention span was tickled by the approaching valet.
"You'll get 'em tomorrow" he assured the most recent loser as he opened her driver's side door. The look of defeat was vibrantly drooping with the skin of her face, as she handed him a tipless ticket before driving off into the Indiana night.
You don't notice these things in Vegas; the lifeless looks, the sluggish exits. Misery is conveniently disguised behind desert tans and vacation bliss.
But you won't find Hammond, Indiana in Travel + Leisure.
This is compulsive gambling in it's realest and rawest form. And as I wait amongst the rest of the day's victims', the anomaly that is a winning gambler has never been more present.
In a system built to get as much money as quickly as possible, we as poker players have slipped through the metaphorical cracks. Surrounded by the equally driven but poorly guided, Im struck with guilt like a bolt of lightning.
What did I do to deserve what all these other people can't find? Why me?
Days after my WSOP final table, I was out with friends at our favorite sushi joint. A popular poker destination, it came as no surprise to see Jason Mercier, Tom Marchese, and another familiar face on the other side of the restaurant. It did however, strike me as odd, when the 3rd member approached our table, making eye contact on the way over.
"Hi, Im Matt Waxman" he said while extending his hand in my direction. "Just wanted to come over and say congrats on your run."
I thanked him with a smile, still trying to figure out why he knew the 2nd place finisher of a random 1k.
"My horse was actually at the final table" he continued, making sense of the situation. "Can I ask you a question about a hand you played?"
"Sure" I told him, flattered by the request.
"It was the end of day 2, and you went all in on a K84AK board over Chris' river bet."
I remembered the hand distinctly. With 15 players left, I held 25bbs and flatted Chris' co raise from the btn. It came K94 and Chris made a continuation bet of 21k. I called and the turn brought the 4th , an A. Chris slowed down with a check, and I mirrored his decision on the btn. The river paired the board with another black K and Chris led out for 60k. It was a large bet and after some deliberation I put my entire 173k stack into the middle. Chris, normally a quick thinker, was pained. He sat in his seat for over 3 minutes, his eyes darting between the board, his stack, and my face. Internally, I was praying he'd get stubborn with the J or T of spades.
"I had black queens," I told Waxman, as his face lit up in an I-Told-You-So manner.
"I knew it" he responded with a snap. "Chris tossed 4s full into the muck".
My jaw dropped; I was speechless.
I made three unique decisions that hand, to mask my hand against a great player like Chris. If I hadn't flatted preflop, checked back the turn, AND jammed the river, I would've been busted in 15th for 12k.
But because I played the hand against potentially the only person in the 2200 player field who could hand read well enough to fold a boat, my thin value bet worked as a 203k bluff.
Days later, one of my closest friends would finish the job that I couldn't get done. Deep Pulusani came back from a 12-1 chip deficit to win the 3knl bracelet and I had the pleasure of commentating the whole run in the ESPN booth.
Deep and I came up together in the 5/10 game. He came to town a with 10k liferoll. Admittingly, had that first week gone awry he would've been right back in Huntsville, broke and searching for a 9 to 5. Instead, he's a World Series of Poker champion, master of his own schedule.
Minutes later my car arrived, and I was relieved to escape the aura of the bottom of the gambling hierarchy. I've always understood that without the degens, casinos wouldn't exist, and I couldn't make a living. But after humanizing a statistic it became impossible to enjoy the fruits of victory without consideration for the anguish that breeds it.
I vented to Nick as we began the hour long journey back to our suburban bubble. "Dude you've worked hard to get where you're at" he reminded me in his ploy for a less depressing hour.
And he was right, to some degree. I've loved poker since the first hand I was dealt. I loved poker enough to not do my homework in high school, to skip class in college, and to bypass job opportunities.
While everybody else was doing what they thought was best for their future, I was selfishly doing what was best for my now. I didn't stay up until dawn playing online because I thought I could make a million bucks doing it one day. I did so because it was more fun then assigned reading.
And now as my friends, who always did the right thing, aren't getting the juice that they rightfully squeezed, my cup is overflowing.
The line between fortune and forgotten is so fragile in poker that the what if's have legitimate cases and the why me's deserve a shadow of guilt on their road to the top. One card here or one pot there and I could still be in the corner that my immaturity backed me into.
Instead, Im not; poker bailed me out. And for that I feel grateful…grateful and guilty.
The next day was hard. I was exhausted on all fronts; mentally, physically, and emotionally. I hadn't eaten much more then apple in 3 days, hadn't really slept either. And ever since Jason Day missed a kick in on the 72nd hole at Merion Golf Course, I'd only thought about one thing…winning a World Series of Poker gold bracelet.
"Let's hit the road" I heard from across the couch. "If we hurry, we can still make it." It was easy for Kyle to say, He had bet against Day. I was still suspended to the leather, wondering how Jason, my favorite golfer, and this week's horse had let another opportunity at a major championship slip away.
But it was 425pm on Sunday, and if I hurried out of my state of content, I could make the 440 registration deadline for the 1K NL event. I could miss game 5 of the NBA Finals and put up a thousand dollars, that historically speaking, had a zero percent chance of coming back my way.
"Going as fast as I can" I shot back sarcastically as I strolled to my room extra slowly to throw on a pair of of sweatpants and a hoodie.
We'd made it just in time. Kyle, Mike, and I all drawing the late registration table where they would quickly disperse us to open seats at all corners of the Brasilia room. Glancing at the TV, I cracked a rare Rio smile. There were only 1400 players left out of the beginning 2100, I'd already outlasted 1/3rd of the field.
At my first table, my 15bbs and I were accompanied by former world champion Jonathon Duhamel. Everybody and their mom had questions for him. What did you buy with all your money? Can you believe Joe Choung spazzed with A7? Is Negraneau really that cool in real life?
I had no interest in these mundane inquiries. I wanted to hear about his ex-girlfriend. The one who tied him up and robbed him at gun point. Moreso I wanted to know if he ever ****ed her after that. He must've, I concluded, given the opportunity.
I restrained in the name of appropriateness, Instead watching how he handled all of the attention that he undoubtedly got everytime he sat down at a table. Without saying more then 2 to 3 words to him, I decided that Duhamel was a good guy. Also a great poker ambassador. For the moment, I regretted fantasizing about his gunpoint kidnapping.
Chip stack speaking, I got off to a great start; But that goes without saying, because when you're sitting with 15bbs, those who don't get off to a great start are sent directly back to their couch. I stole a few opens and knocked off a shorties A2 with KQ to grow my 3k stack to 5500 by dinner break.
Sitting with Mike and Kyle at the Vdara bar I made a pretty bold statement in between Danny Green 3pointers. "Guys, I've got a good feeling about this tournament. I might just win the thing." They laughed while reminding me that I had 5,500 chips and it would take 6.3 million to claim victor.
We got back to the Rio a few minutes before the next level and I took the opportunity to walk down the hall that connected the hotel with the conference center. I've found that one of the cures to chronic anxiousness is walking, so whenever I have the choice between moving or standing, I move.
On the way back towards the tournament area I took a look at the Phil Ivey poster in one of the windows. Nine bracelets it read. I don't think I've made nine dinner breaks. Once again my hero had found a way to impress me. I gave both of his outward pointing fists a pound.
Phil and I were homies, whether he knew it or not.
The next few levels were all a big blur. I went on a run that I'd never experienced in my WSOP career. 400 players remained and the money bubble drew into focus as I'd grown my stack to 76k, 15k above who Pokernews had listed as the chip leader. I was playing solid and refusing to let my big stack cause me to spazz, as I took the opportunities that came my way and gave away no free chips.
I'd decided the majority of the credit was owed to Phil. And to soothe my obsessive compulsions I would walk to his poster at every single break and give him knuckles.
Back on the homefront, Mike had gotten wind of my big stack . "Bubble time" he told me. "Time to open up your game and really get some chips." He was right, I thought as I walked back to my seat after a short meeting with Phil.
Two hours later I'd ended my "opening up" experiment with half of the weapons I'd started it with. I limped into day two with 37,500 chips. We were in the money, my first ever WSOP cash, but I didn't care much. I was mad at myself for getting off my game, and knew that if day 2 was going to be special, I would have to remain true to myself.
I was up early the next day. Even though 200 players remained, I couldn't escape the irrational thoughts of winning the whole tournament. It seemed like forever, but eventually 1pm strolled around and day 2 had begun.
Before the 1st level ended I was all in against a medium stack with JJ vs AQ. I watched his face as the flop fell, and his confirming nod told me everything. The A had popped up, crippling my stack and any real thoughts of turning my first cash at the series into a meaningful one.
But the tilt that I typically feel when losing chips wasn't following. I was on the ultimate freeroll. It was my first cash, in a tournament I shouldn't have even been in. If I lost, I'd get to go play a juicy 10/20/40 game at the Bellagio. Life wasn't so bad.
I gave Phil another pound, thanked him for my first cash, and went back to work, ready to battle as a short stack. As luck would have it, the lack of investment would lead to an abundance of chips.
I had a super aggressive player to my left, which meant tightening up my opening ranges. KJ AT T9ss, all of these hands were thrown directly to the muck. When I opened, I had it. My neighbor didn't seem to care; Still 3betting me about half of my opens. I was 4betting a ton. I was check raising even more. By dinner break, with 33 players left, I was in the top half of the crowd.
As we got down to 3 tables our chips were moved to the stadium area of the Rio. Memories quickly surfaced of standing in those same bleachers last year cheering on Jeremy as he made his run in the Main Event. It wasn't quite the ultimate, but this was the real deal. I was in the spotlight with a serious opportunity here.
A hearing impaired gentleman was sitting on my right and decided to limp the co at 3k/6k like I'd seen him do before. I made it 18k on the btn with AJ, and immediately our spazzing neighbor was suspicious. He made it 47k in the sb as the co went into the tank. Eventually he rose with his right hand against his ear in the shape of a cellphone, it was his universal signal for a call. I too was now suspicious. I had 35bbs and plenty of play. AJ was a vulnerable hand. I could fold and safely look for a better spot, conservatively moving up the pay latter.
Or…I could try and win the poker tournament.
"I'm all in" I announced, my heart racing for the first real time of the tournament. The spazz folded, which was relieving, but not all that surprising. The CO was the real wild card. Minutes passed. This time he took his right finger and spun it around like a hurricane. He was all in.
The hands were flipped up as I first caught wind of his K. And then the J. The excitement took over as I flew out of my seat, standing as my essential tournament life was about to pass by in the form of 5 cards. The flop came all low, and included no diamonds. The turn paired the board. I was one non K from a really big stack. As instructed the dealer paused forever, allowing the Pokernews reporters to catch up before flipping the river.
And then it came. The T.
The day ended with 13 players left. And I, a cashless Joe Shmoe, Was 4th in chips.
As I awoke the morning before day 3, the texts were rolling in steadily. By the end of the night, I would receive 300 of them, and many more messages in the form of Facebook, twitter, and email.
The magnitude of the situation was slowly coming to light. To keep myself calmed, I did what I do and made jokes. In the WSOP Bio sheet we were all asked to fill out, I decided to live out my dream of being a pro ball player. It was an added bonus, knowing they might confuse me for the Rays left handed pitcher.
By the time they announced us for the final 9 my introduction read, "Mathew Moore, a pro baseball player, who learned the game from Chris Moneymaker has zero World Series of Poker cashes.
If it's possible to stay unnoticed without a disguise, I'd felt I'd done the job.
Early in the final table I was having trouble with the Russian to my right. A man of few words, "raise" was definitely his favorite. I tried folding, calling, and reraising, none of which seemed to work.
On the first break I went to my phone to check the texts:
Dad- Russian making you look silly.
Thanks, Dad. I hadn't noticed.
But for all the small pots that the Russian would win, I knew that if we played a big one I liked my chances.
The opportunity came when he opened the co and I 3bet the btn to 135k with AK. He 4bet small to 250K, a move that set up the perfect 1mill chip jam. But before I could pull the trigger, I had a moment of clarity. Why jam when you can give him one more chance at a bluff.
"345k" I announced.
The Russian adjusted his posture, took a swig of his Grey Goose and began playing with his cards. Fearless, as always, he reached for his chips and jammed them in the middle. I followed him in, immediately.
Again, I had to fade KJ.
I flew out of my seat and ran back to my now growing rail as we sweat the biggest pot of my life together on the big screen. The first four cards brought the Russian no help. I needed to dodge a Jack.
I stared at my friends instead of the screen, as the dealer burned the final card.
I never saw the river. Only the overflow of joy as my rail jumped in the air screaming with excitement. I let out a few right handed fist pumps, before floating back to my seat, poised to win the tournament.
Hours passed as five of us grinded out preflop raises and nobody refused to go easily. And then, in two quick strikes, the Russian and Carter Meyers were out. It was dinner break and my rail and I headed down Flamingo and Decatur for some in and out Italian food.
My phone was off the hook. "Good Lucks" and "Holy ****'s!!" coming from all directions, ranging from middle school friends to Phil Laak. My friends were completely toasted by now as they all offered the best advice they could in their certain states of mind.
Brandon Myers helped me with 20bb shoving ranges, Joe Bartholdi told me to be true to myself, and my roommate Mike frantically instructed the waiters to make sure our food was quick. My girlfriend asked why I was ignoring her and my mom called in to tell me to smile more.
The atmosphere was fcuking absurd. But all I could think about was one thing….
We got back to the Rio, walked in the main door, and I started walking left. "Where the hell are you going" I heard from behind "You're about to start again."
"Follow me" I yelled back as the entirety of my rail walked down the Rio hallway.
We got to the picture of Phil, and everybody with me gave him the good luck double fist bump, before we headed back in to the final table.
The action had already started; I'd missed one hand. But it was all good, cause Ivey was on my side.
Moments later, Jesse, the short stack was all in and behind. The chip leader held and we were heads up for the bracelet.
Chris had 4.3 million and I held 2. He held the advantage, but it wouldn't last for long. I came out of the gates firing. He was playing tentatively and I planned on taking advantage.
Chris limped the btn and I checked the bb with Q8. On a KQ4 he bet out and I called. The turn was an A and again Chris bet. I expected him to rarely bet this turn for value, so again I called. The river came one of the ugliest cards in the deck, the J. Any T, K, A, or two pair now beat me. And Chris was telling a story like he had it. He bet huge, almost the size of the pot as I sat there reading him with my 3rd pair.
I noticed a swallow, which lead me to his neck. His pulse was pounding at an uncomfortable rate. I couldn't imagine what I beat, but my poker instincts had gotten me this far and I wasn't about to abandon them now.
I through a single chip into the pot, indicating a call. Chris gulped before turning over the 96o. My Queen was good.
The energy in the room was completely on my side. I'm going to win a bracelet. My stack was now up to 3.7m as his had slid to 2.6m. I imagined he was tilting as he 3bet my KT a few hands later. I called the raise as the flop fell QJ4. Chris bet out at the flop for 400k and I called, knowing any A or 9 and the one thing I'd been dreaming about since I was 15 years old could potentially come through.
The turn was the 5 completing the flush. Chris postured, before betting again, this time 600k. My straight draw had weakened significantly; But I saw an outlet. I'd been controlling the match, Chris was out of momentum. There was no way he was going to give up on this pot on the flop.
I expected him to barrel light, and I expected him to reconsider with his tournament life on the line. The words "All in" were creeping to the forefront of my tongue. And then, in mid-thought, they spilled out.
I'd done this twice before at the final table; both with light 4bet's all in. Once I had A9 and the other time KQ, but my instincts told me my opponents were full of it, so both times I'd allowed the magic words to slip out.
And now, I'd done it again.
Chris gave a strange look, rechecked his cards, and yelled "call". My rail exploded with energy, but there was nothing to be excited about. Chris had the K3 and a stone cold lock on the hand.
As the meaningless river spilled out, Chris had taken 3/4th of my chips. I was left with under 1m.
I fought back and gained some ammo. I even got all in again, allowing me the joy of one more sweat, by the rail with my best friends in the world. But soon the blinds would raise and Chris would have a run of his own. With 1.6m and 16bbs I rejammed K6. Chris called with A7 and after flopping an Ace, it was suddenly all over.
I shook Chris' hand, told him he played great and deserved the title. After that, they rushed me off the stage and over to the payout counter.
It was over. And I had no idea what to do.
The next day was tough. I didn't want to talk, didn't even want to leave bed. I'd won almost a quarter million dollars and I was depressed. I was a prisoner to my brain as the KT hand played over and over like a radio hit. I couldn't forgive myself for how it played out, I felt I'd let everybody down.
I scrolled through my texts in the midst of the all day nap to find one from Jeremy. We talked for a bit and he told me he knew how I felt…and he did. He'd jammed in a similar spot for 10 times the stakes. He assured me that time heals all wounds, and he told me I'd be back.
He was right. At least about half of it.
It's been 3 days now, and I've had the chance to reflect on the whole experience. I've lost my connection to the bracelet and instead can look at my accomplishment as a whole body of work. My bankroll got a huge boost and my friends and family got to see me do what I love, in real time, on the greatest stage in poker.
I may have missed the putt on 18, but I missed it with my own stroke. I played my game all the way to a WSOP final table in a field of 2,100 runners.
And just like Jason Day, I'll be back.