Winning my first bracelet

There are a few tournaments that the poker world absolutely loves to watch, and one of them is the World Series of Poker $5,000 pot-limit Omaha with rebuys. It's a who's who of poker, and many are willing to spend more than you and I make in a year during the rebuy frenzy. After three days of play, BLUFF columnist Phil "OMGClayAiken" Galfond captured his coveted first WSOP bracelet in a very tough field. We sat down with Phil and he was kind enough to talk us through his big win.

Day 1 -- Getting in Cheap

I had been really looking forward to this event in particular. This was almost the perfect event for me. First of all, the field was very small. Second, I have so much more Omaha experience than the field on average, and third, I could afford to fire as many barrels (rebuys) into the tournament as possible.

I had about $100,000 in my pocket that I was ready to use, but if I ran out of that I would have been able to get more cash if needed, as I had plenty of friends around. I was sure that with every rebuy I was positive-EV (Expected Value), so I was prepared to do as much as needed. Now, that doesn't mean I was trying to get my money in bad. I avoided being a 65-35 underdog, and I even tried to avoid 60-40 spots. However, if I could get my money in as a slight underdog of about 45 percent or as a favorite, I would obviously take the gamble in order to build my stack. I only ended up spending $25,000, which was almost the bare minimum, considering I did the double buy-in as well as the double add-on at the break.

I was lucky and ended up winning most of my flips during the rebuy period. I was somewhat disappointed by my table draw, as it was not an action-filled table. I wanted the (Phil) Iveys and (Daniel) Negreanus and Patriks (Antonius) at my first table. Don't get me wrong -- I think they are all great players. I just wanted a lot of money at my first table, and a lot of chips. The only person at my table who was gambling a lot was Chau Giang. He was seated immediately to my left, which is obviously a bad spot for the biggest gambler at the table in my eyes. I was still able to utilize all of the experience I had playing against Chau online at Full Tilt and win a few nice pots off of him. There were no real key hands on Day 1, but I was very fortunate to run my stack up to about $100,000 without much risk.

Day 2 -- Grinding to a chip lead

The structure of this tournament was amazing. I talked to Daniel Negreanu a bit, and he takes credit for it being so slow, so thank you, Daniel. There was so much deep-stacked play and skilled poker in this tournament, much more so than any other tournament at the WSOP so far this year. It seemed that everyone left in Day 2 was very deep-stacked, making for interesting poker.

To my left to start the day were Brian Rast, Erick Lindgren and Daniel Negreanu -- not a great starting table. All three are great players and they all had position on me. This would have been a great Day 1 starting table when rebuys were still an option, but not so great for Day 2. My goal was to play a lot of pots, but I didn't want to open many pots with that group to act behind me. My goal after the rebuy period through the final table was to keep pots small. I never made big raises preflop -- I either barely doubled the blinds or open-limped. I felt that my edge on people postflop was so great that it was pointless to play big pots preflop. On the beginning of Day 2, with the exception of Brian Rast, everyone was allowing me to open-limp and see flops. Erick and Daniel were happy to see a lot of limped three-way and four-way pots. My strategy was working, and I didn't play any large pots early in the day, though I continued to slowly build my stack.

With 24 players remaining, which was very close to the bubble, I got moved to a much better table. Pretty much everyone at the table was shorter-stacked and playing very tight, with the exception of David Benyamine, who was across the table from me (keeping us out of each other's way for the most part). If David was out of the hand, I was opening most pots. I would open-raise, usually get one caller, bet the flop and my opponent would fold. At this stage in the tournament those pots were significant. Every time I did that I added about $20,000 to my stack, so you do that 10 times and all of a sudden you have picked up $200,000. The few times I was played back at, I usually had to make the call with inferior hands, which I actually think I lost more of than I statistically should have. Even though I tried avoiding Benyamine, I did in fact win a few medium-sized pots off him when I would raise, he would check-call the flop or turn, and I would hit something like a weak two pair on the river, with him missing a big draw with one pair. All of those pots add up, and I was happy to have them augment my stack.

Once the bubble burst things picked up pretty quickly. I was able to bust some of the smaller stacks on our way to 10-handed final-table play. As we got closer, I had to tighten up a bit when I moved to another table with a really bad seat draw. Negreanu and Rast were directly to my left again and prevented me from stealing many pots, which I had been so successful with earlier in the day.

There was one huge pot late in the day that propelled me into the chip lead, and it started with me having about $600,000 or so. Daniel and I both saw a flop of Jd-Kd-8h; I bet $50,000 and he called. I had flopped top set with Kh-Ks-Qc-7h and I decided to check the turn, which was the 3s. If I had bet the turn, which seems like the standard play, he calls with a lot of hands, and that's fine because I am ahead of them. However, most hands he's calling with there have a lot of outs. On that board, about half the deck makes my hand much less valuable. He could have hit a diamond or straight card and I would be forced to check to him because I am out of position. If a flush card hits and he missed a straight draw, he may shove. If he hits the flush, he will shove. If a straight card hits and he missed the flush, he may shove. If he hits a straight, he will shove.

With any of these scenarios I will most likely have to fold my hand with my tournament life at stake. So on top of all of his actual outs, he has all of these scare-card outs. I chose to check, and keep the pot small. It also adds some deception value, so if the board does pair or brick off it will be very difficult for him to put me on a set of kings there. I was extremely happy that he decided to bet $150,000 after I checked to him because I thought it was more likely he had middle set or top two pair. When I reraised all-in he called me with the 8c-9c-10h-Jc. I was very happy that I had two of his blockers with the Qc and 7h. My hand held up, and I took the chip lead with about $1.3 million going into the final table.

Final Table -- The glory

Entering my first WSOP final table I was very excited and nervous. I didn't think much about how stacked the group was. I was thinking more about whom I wanted to stay away from and whom I wanted to target. Holding the chip lead at a WSOP final table is not an opportunity that comes up very often, and I wanted to make the best of it and not blow it. I knew that if I made one wrong play I would not be able to forgive myself. Even though I had played a ton of hours and hands against many of my opponents online, the World Series is a much larger stage and the money is a lot bigger as well. The other difference from playing online is that I had 70 big blinds to start the table and I couldn't reach into my pocket at any time to reload. Every hand counted. As nervous as I was about it, I think it helped me focus and play even better than I thought possible.

I was again fortunate to be able to minimize my involvement in big pots but still slowly chip up and retain my chip lead. There were a lot of pots in which I would raise or limp and we would see a flop where maybe one bet was put in and called and we would check it down to a showdown. I won a lot of those pots. Things seemed to be going my way. I was checking behind with a lot of strong hands that in a cash game I would bet all day, but I didn't want to get check-raised all-in, knowing that a lot of times my hand was at best a 55 percent favorite.

One thing I noticed at the final table was people overplaying their aces. I, on the other hand, approached them more conservatively. I think there were three hands in which I didn't reraise aces preflop, and I showed down two of them to win and won the third uncontested. One hand against Benyamine, I had A-A-Q-9 single suited. He raised preflop and I called. I picked up an open-ender on the flop and check-called the flop and turn. The river was checked, and I showed down aces to win the pot.

The other hand was against Johnny Chan, when he raised in early position and I called from the big blind with A-A-2-3 rainbow, which is as bad as aces get. So many people reraise in the big blind there, but I think that's a horrible play. You could put your hand face-up and you would still be in bad shape. You aren't looking to flop anything at all, just hoping your aces hold up. I check-called the 10-5-2 flop and we checked it down to the river. Luckily, my aces were still good.

We got down to three-handed play pretty quickly; it was Benyamine, Adam Hourani and I playing for the bracelet. I had seen Hourani playing $50/$100 online, but I had no reads on him, other than knowing that he was a winning player. It proved beneficial that I had at least this information on Hourani, as he played very tight at the final table. If I didn't know he was beating some big games I would have thought he wasn't capable of making any big moves or of higher-level thinking, which he proved quite proficient at later on. I had played a lot with Benyamine; that experience helps, but at the same time he also had a lot of info on the way I play. On Day 2 he actually sniffed out a big bluff I attempted, as I was trying to play against the image he had of me.

My preference going heads-up was to not play against Benyamine. I watched his stack all day, wanting him to lose any time he was in a pot. That's not very nice, I guess, but it was out of respect for his game. I got my wish when Hourani flopped a set of queens against Benyamine's pocket aces, eliminating Benyamine. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to play Benyamine, but I quickly remembered that I still had to play heads-up for the bracelet.

Hourani and I played an extremely long heads-up match. I think in heads-up PLO a lot of people tend to play way too many hands out of position. He and I both knew not to do that, so it ended up with a lot of small-pot, back-and-forth poker. At one point he had doubled up and chipped up to about $2.4 million, and that was after I had him down to about $500,000. I had thought it was close to being locked up earlier, and now he was back with more than $2 million, so I was definitely feeling the heat and was very nervous.

Before I knocked him out, there were two big hands that got me back on the brink of the bracelet. In the first, I had raised with A-8-8-5 with two hearts, and he called. The flop was Ad-2h-Qc, and we checked it around. The turn was the 3d and he bet out. I made a very loose call, thinking maybe my ace was good and that I had a few outs. The river was the 10d, basically completing every draw on the board. Adam checked, so I knew there was no chance my ace was good in this spot; however, I decided I could turn my hand into a bluff. Since I know he is capable of higher-level thinking, bluffing here is great because what could I call the turn with that does not have showdown value with that river card? I bet $700,000 and he ended up folding what I assume was a pretty big hand. It really curbed his momentum, and it gave me a lot of confidence.

Another hand came shortly after in which I made a huge call on the river with nothing but second pair on what was a very scary board. I'll be giving you my analysis of that hand in the next issue of BLUFF.

Winning those two crucial hands on my way to the bracelet was very special to me because I got to really utilize my high level of thinking and skill to win. They weren't necessarily two hands that played themselves out -- it was my play that was integral in depleting his stack, momentum and confidence.

When the final card fell, it was a surreal feeling. It didn't hit me at first, but at the same time it was what I had waited for and was the entire reason I was there. I don't like live poker that much. I don't like tournaments, traveling or Las Vegas. The only reason I put myself through all of that was to win a bracelet. I knew how big of a deal this was for me before it happened, and I am very fortunate to have succeeded in my goal.

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