All year I've been waiting for this event. I've been visualizing myself at the final table, heads-up with the chip lead and all-in with the best hand nearly every single day for an entire year. And when push came to shove, I lasted all of five hours and played about 150 hands.
In the days leading up to the tournament, I made mental notes of the keys that would lead to success:
• Play tight in the early levels
• Play from position
• Avoid playing all easily dominated hands
• Keep the pot small
• Don't make any "big mistakes"
• Avoid bluffing when at all possible -- they just don't fold
• Make it to the fourth level, the ante-level ($100-$200 with a $25 ante) with an average stack
• Before every hand is dealt, repeat my mantra to myself: "I play tight, aggressive poker and I make winning decisions."
The blinds started at $25-$50, $10,000 in starting chips. I drew a table of unknowns. Three of them asked me to autograph their entry form as soon as they sat down. I liked my table very much. In the first two orbits, I identified five "weak" spots that I could exploit. The guys on my immediate left were particularly easy marks -- blind stealing should be a piece of cake.
Hand No. 1
Around 30 minutes into the tournament, I picked up A-10 offsuit in the big blind. A loose, overly aggressive player in early position limped in for $50, the small blind called, and I rapped the table and checked, despite the fact I thought there was a good possibility I had the best hand: "Keep the pot small."
The flop came down Ac-Ad-4d and the small blind checked to me. There was $150 in the pot, and I thought there was a good chance that the preflop limper would bet if I checked, then I could check-raise and find out exactly where I stood. If I bet out and got raised from the limper, this hand will play very poorly unless I can pair my 10 or the board -- I'll really have no idea if I'm ahead. I checked, and the limper checked.
The turn card, the Qc, didn't hurt my hand a bit. The small blind fired $150 at the pot. I felt like he was just trying to pick up the pot and didn't really have anything at all. At this point, I felt like I could raise, or I could just call and hope he bluffs at the river. "Keep the pot small, avoid losing chips with easily dominated hands," I said to myself when I just called his bet. To my surprise, the preflop limper raised to $600. The small blind quickly folded. Does limper have A-K, A-Q or A-J and decided to slow-play? He might also have a flush draw and be making some sort of play. Regardless, raising just can't be that great a play. If I have the best hand and he's making some sort of move with a Q-J or K-Q, I will not win another chip from him by raising. If he's on a flush draw, he only has eight outs and is 16 percent to win with a diamond on the river. "Keep the pot small, let him bluff off his chips on the river if a non-diamond hits the board on the river, make a defensive bet of $1,000 and see what happens," I told myself. I called his raise, and I was nearly certain he would put me on an ace (or, perhaps, a flush draw myself). The river, the 7d, didn't make me particularly happy. I checked. He fired a bet of $1,000 and I had an easy call. Of course, he turned over 8d-5d and won with a suck-out flush on the river.
I hate the way he played this hand. After the post-turn bet of $150 and my call, he was getting 3-to-1 on his money and could easily just call the bet with proper implied odds, no chance of a check-raise. There is very little chance that the small blind bet and I called with hands that we would both be willing to fold to his post-turn raise.
Alas, he was stacking the chips, and I was down to $8,300.
Hand No. 2
We're at Level 2, $50-$100 blinds, and I have $8,500. The same guy from Hand No. 1 limped from first position. Two more players limped from middle position and I looked down on the button to see 5d-3d. Not the greatest hand in the world, but this plays reasonably well against multiple opponents. If I can flop a monster, A-2-4, 2-4-6, 5-5-x, 3-3-x, K-5-3, or any flush, being in position should allow me a chance to extract a lot of chips from a second-best hand. I called the $100, the small blind folded, the big blind checked. Five-way action.
The flop, 7d-5s-4d, was a great flop for my hand -- I have a pair, a flush draw and a gutshot straight draw, with the 6d giving me a straight flush. The same guy from Hand No. 1 who limped under the gun fired $400 at the $275 pot. Perhaps he limped with an overpair? He certainly can't be on a stone cold bluff here because he is facing four players. When everyone folded to me, I had yet another decision to make. Do I call this bet, or raise? If I raise, is there any chance that he will fold an overpair, or is it possible that I'll be facing a reraise? In the end, I decided that he had an overpair and that there was virtually no chance that he'd fold. I called the $400. I felt like my call did not make him particularly happy.
The turn card, the Kc, didn't slow him down a bit. He fired another $1,000 at the pot, giving me 2-to-1 on my money to call. Now, unless he's on K-K, A-A, or a set, a raise here has a decent chance of picking up the pot -- he will have to fold every pocket pair between Queen and eight. Then again, I have about 17 outs against his likely hands (a three, any six, any diamond, and two fives). I calculate that I am about 35 percent to hit my hand on the river, and the pot odds justify a call no matter what he has -- "Keep the pot small," I say as I call.
The river, a complete blank: 9s, a miserable card. My opponent checks to me and I have to decide if I'm going to bluff. I don't think my hand can win unless I bet. To bluff, I'll need to risk about 70 percent of the pot, about $2,200, to be at all credible. I could have many, many different hands on the button in this spot, and it will be very, very difficult for him to call me with 10-10 or even Q-Q. If he was on a bigger flush draw, he'll have to fold as well (though I will likely be bluffing with the best hand). I can definitely get 6-6 to fold. In the end, I decide to fire the bet. The roaming ESPN cameras see the action and rush over, videotaping me and my opponent who goes into "Hollywood mode." I know he's going to make "the big call" as soon as the cameras come over. Sure enough, he does. He flips over K-6 offsuit. Yes, he limped under the gun with K-6 offsuit, and yes, he's stacking my chips and gloating to the cameras. I'm down to $4,000.
Hand No. 3
The blinds are up to $100-$200 and I'm at $3,600. I have 18 big blinds. This is the danger zone: I don't have enough ammo to be able to afford many steal attempts, and with the ante level starting in about 30 minutes, I really need to pick up a pot or two to give myself any kind of shot. In middle position, I find A-Q offsuit. I give a fleeting thought to limping, but decide that I can afford $600 -- if a tight player reraises, I can fold and still have 15 big blinds, if a loose player raises, I can move in and take what I hope will be a 50-50. I need chips when the antes kick in.
A relatively tight player two to my left calls my preflop raise and we see the flop heads up, with me out of position. 8h-2h-2d. I'm done with this hand. I'm not going to lead here -- it's too easy for him to call me with any pocket pair. I am going to save my chips and hope to be able to use my $3,000 more effectively. I check, and he checks behind me. That check from him is somewhat ominous -- most players will take a stab at the pot in that spot, but then again, he might be fearing my check-raise with a hand like 7-7 or 9-9.
The turn card, the Qd, is a very welcome card -- it's the first good thing that has happened to me all tournament. With $1,500 in the pot, I decide on a relatively small bet of $500, leaving me with $2,500. I want him to call me with 9-9, 7-7, 5-5 or other similar hands -- he's drawing very slim, and I'm not at all worried. I'm not at all worried until he raises me $1,500 more to $2,000.
Dear God, can I possibly fold this hand and leave myself with 12 big blinds? Is it really possible he slow-played a hand like A-2? The only real hand that makes sense in this context is a super-slow-play full house like 8-8 (and with that hand, wouldn't he raise a small amount?) or a hand I can beat like 9-9, 10-10 or K-Q. We might even have the same hand, A-Q. In fact, I think A-Q is the most likely hand I'm facing. I just can't see folding here. If I'm calling this bet, I might as well move in. And that is exactly what I do. He beats me to the pot and turns over 8-8 for the flopped full house.
And, with that, my WSOP is finished for 2006. All year I've been looking forward to this event, and now, five hours after the start of play, I'm on my way home. When I arrive, my finacee has a hug, a beer, and a smile on her face. I'm still on tilt, but the tilt fades quickly over the next several hours when I realize how incredibly lucky I am.
Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour champion, co-host of The Poker Edge on ESPNRadio.com and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker. Phil Gordon's educational poker DVD and books are available at ExpertInsight.net.