December 2, 2004

The BTF Poker Tournament

Last night, 19 baseball and poker nuts ponied up a $20 buy-in plus a $2 entry fee to play in the very first Baseball Think Factory Poker Tournament on Poker Stars. It was my big chance to put my money where my mouth is, as I've been talking about my improving poker play here for the last couple months. The tournament started at 8:00 my time and by 8:01 I was in last place.

On the very first hand of the tournament, I was dealt pocket queens, raised it to 80 in chips (four times the big blind), and was promptly re-raised to 225. Now, obviously I had no clue what type of player I was up against, so I debated whether to call or re-raise. With 1,500 in starting chips, I figured just about any sort of re-raise under half my stack was likely to be called, so I decided that my two choices were to call or go all-in.

On the off chance that he woke up to pocket aces, pocket kings or ace-king, I really didn't feel like going all-in, being called, and getting knocked out on the first hand of the entire tournament. In a normal situation, playing in a regular tournament against people I didn't know and who wouldn't be able to ridicule me for the rest of my life if I got knocked out first, I would have likely gone all-in. In this case, I decided to just call.

The flop was complete rags -- I think it was something like 9-5-2 without any matching suits. I checked, planning on trapping, but then became really worried when he bet out huge. I can't remember the exact amount, but it would have pretty much pot-committed me for the rest of my chips. So there I was, with a great hand and a great flop, with a big pot and plenty of chips. And do you know what I did? I laid down the queens.

I tried to find out what the other guy had, both at the time and after the tournament was over, but he wouldn't tell me. Honestly, I'm not sure what he had, which is the danger of getting into a huge pot with someone who you've literally never played a single hand with before. If he had pocket aces, pocket kings or a small pocket-pair that flopped a set (three-of-a-kind) when the rags came up, I made a great laydown. If he had anything else, I made a horrendous play and lost out on a chance to double up right off the bat.

My general strategy in tournaments is to play very conservative early, try not to get involved in any coin-flip situations, hang around until the field thins a bit and the blinds go up, and then get aggressive. I'm not sure that laying down queens in that spot is being "conservative early" (as opposed to "idiotic early," for instance), but I just didn't feel comfortable risking all my chips immediately. As it turns out, the laydown worked out well, although it didn't look that way early on.

For the next few rotations around the table, I couldn't get anything decent as a starting hand, and the mid-level stuff I did play never hit anything on the flop. I was being blinded away and found myself with about one-third of my original chips and the blinds rising to dangerous levels. I needed to make a stand, so I went all-in with Ac 8c. I was called and found myself a huge underdog (though I can't remember to what) and hit miracle runner-runner (two in a row) clubs to make my flush. Suddenly I was back in business, although still relatively short-stacked.

A little later, I went all-in with ace-king unsuited and tripled up against pocket fives and ace-jack unsuited when an ace hit the board. I pretty much rode that huge pot to the "final table," which consisted of the last nine players. I was the low stack, yet again, and a couple guys had me out-chipped by nearly 10-to-1. I needed to make another move and found myself all-in with ace-jack unsuited against pocket fours, and had another miracle card come off on the river, this time an ace (although it should be noted that ace-jack against a pair of fours is basically a coin-flip situation).

Later, in what was one of the biggest pots of the night, I grabbed 8,800 in chips when my pocket kings knocked out pocket nines. Suddenly I was one of the big stacks at the table and my focus turned to making the money, which went to the final three finishers. With four players left, I raised with ace-queen and was re-raised very heavily by the other big stack. I thought about it for a long time, and put him on a pocket pair of at least tens. That meant, if I was right, it was a coin flip situation against two of his possible hands (tens and jacks) and I was a heavy underdog to the other three (queens, kings, aces). Even if he had ace-king, which I doubted, he would be a huge favorite.

The opportunity to double up is obviously huge, but I couldn't risk losing nearly my entire stack when I was so close to the money and there was another player with a very low stack. So for the second time I made a laydown that I wasn't exactly happy about, and this time the other player showed me what he had: pocket jacks. So I gave up a few chips and a coin-flip chance at doubling up. Not a horrible decision, and I was happy that my read on his hand was more or less correct.

Down to three players, in the money, and getting fairly low on chips yet again, I called the big blind and was raised. I had Js 10s and was almost certain I was a fairly big underdog, but a suited connector is at least a good hand if you have to comeback to beat a high pocket-pair. I called and when my opponent turned over pocket queens I literally said goodbye to everyone (and there were a whole bunch of people "watching" and chatting while we played). For the second time in the tournament, I hit runner-runner (this time spades) to make my flush and win the pot.

I road that lucky win to the final two, but was severely out-chipped once we got to heads up (one-on-one) action. I had around 5,000 and my opponent had around 20,000, making me a 4-to-1 underdog. My plan was to see as many cheap flops as I could and hope the chip leader's aggressiveness eventually got him into trouble. As any heavy chip leader should, he continuously raised me, forcing me to fold time after time. My stack was dwindling and I was absolutely getting "run over."

Then the moment I was waiting/hoping for finally arrived. I was dealt pocket queens (definitely the hand of the tournament) and limped in, like I had in nearly every other hand since we got heads up. As usual, the big stack raised me a large amount. I paused for a while, making him think I was in deep thought, and then went all-in. He quickly called and turned over pocket jacks, making me about a 4-to-1 favorite. My queens held up and I doubled up, taking over the chip lead.

My opponent went all-in a few hands later and I called with king-queen suited, figuring he either had a "middle ace" (an ace with a low second card) or a small pocket-pair. Turns out he had ace-eight unsuited, and he doubled up on me when three more eights hit the board, giving him four-of-a-kind. We then played back and forth for quite a while without much movement and I was down 17,291 to 11,209.

I was dealt ace-deuce unsuited, a very solid hand heads up, and was immediately faced with a raise to 3,600, about a third of my stack. I felt like he probably didn't have an ace, so I re-raised him all-in, figuring there was a pretty good shot he'd lay down the hand and give me the 3,600. Instead, he called and turned over king-jack unsuited, making me a favorite. The flop went A-K-Q, giving me a pair of aces and him a pair of kings. My hand held up when the turn was a harmless five and the river was another deuce, giving me two pair (which I didn't even need).

Now leading 22,418 to 6,082, I limped in with queen-four unsuited in the very next hand and the flop came Q-9-5, with two diamonds. My plan was to trap and check-raise, figuring my top pair was good. To my surprise, I didn't get the chance, as my opponent immediately went all-in for his remaining 4,807 chips. I called, hoping he didn't have a flush draw or a "bigger" queen. When he turned over five-four unsuited, giving him a pair of fives, I was relieved. The turn and river were both blanks and my pair of queens held up, giving me the victory.

I was down big early, made a couple of questionable laydowns, got lucky at least twice to stay alive, and found myself playing heads up at the end, severely out-chipped. I always feel very confident heads up, regardless of chip positions, and in this case I felt like it was only a matter of time before I could pounce on a mistake and get back in the game. It was really pressure-packed, as we must have played for at least 45 straight minutes, back and forth, with people watching and commenting.

It felt really good to win the tournament, even if it only had 19 players. I keep looking for evidence that my success playing poker recently is not just some fluke or a stretch of good luck, and this is another thing I can look to that says I am legitimately playing well. The $190 prize isn't bad either. You can't beat $168 profit for three hours worth of "work" when it involves eating Chinese food and watching the World Poker Tour while pressing buttons on a laptop. Of course, more than anything else, I think I'll enjoy the bragging rights, however temporary. Hopefully I'll have a chance to defend my title next week.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- World Cup Squads, Part 2: United States and the Netherlands (by Craig Burley)

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