Playing the satellites: World Series of Poker, Part 1

"Are you going back to this year's World Series of Poker?"

This is the most common poker question I'm asked these days. Well, I'm going to give you, the ESPN.com readers, an exclusive: Of course I am going back to Las Vegas for the 2006 WSOP Main Event! I have even planned on playing in some preliminary events, as well.

Here's another question frequently asked by poker newcomers: "Is your entry fee already covered for this year's Main Event based on your finish last year?"

Well, in a way, you could say yes -- just take away $10,000 of last year's $400,000 in winnings and there you go. However, my preferred method would be to try to qualify via a satellite again. If there is one tournament I would buy in for each year at full cost, it would be the WSOP Main Event, but before I (and my family, more important) say goodbye to 10 grand (those good Montessori preschools are not cheap), let's see whether I can win another satellite and save some big bucks.

Qualifying for the 2006 WSOP Main event is well under way at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. They run satellites daily. However, it is not very convenient for me to fly from Boston to Las Vegas every week. Thus, I will attempt to qualify the way the majority of the people do it -- online. Gentlemen, start your engines!

Satellite No. 1:

For my first online satellite, 473 online players are competing for the coveted prizes: 26 seats at the 2006 WSOP Main Event. After a disappointing Foxwoods Poker Classic Main Event, I hoped to get back on track and play well.

As the satellite got under way (starting chips are 2,500), everyone seemed to be playing extremely tight. Initially, it was difficult to take advantage of any situation. I kept looking down to see disappointingly weak hands (4-2, 6-3, 9-2, 8-4, 10-6). As weak cards continued my way during the first couple of rounds, I told myself to remain patient and wait for opportunities, albeit small ones.

One such chance occurred late in Round 1. My 10s-10c went up against a short stack player who raised all-in with As-8s from early position. After I called the raise from late position and we exposed out cards, the flop came 2c-6d-5h. After a Ks and 5c came on the turn and river, respectively, I eliminated the short stack and added my first additional chips to my stack.

At the start of Round 2 (blinds 15 and 30), I gathered a bit more in chips when I took down a modest pot from the small blind when my 8s-8d held up versus three other players. Later in the round, I raised to 100 with As-Js from mid position. When the small blind called, the two of us saw the following flop: Jc-10h-5d. Hitting top pair, I decided to make about a pot-sized bet of 200. The small blind thought for a while, but eventually called. Since the flop was a rainbow, I figured him for a straight draw (with either K-Q or maybe even Q-9) or middle pair with another 10. When the 7c hit the turn and the small blind checked, I continued my betting with another pot-sized bet (600) and my opponent once again called. When the 9h fell on the river, I feared my opponent had completed his straight. Thankfully, my opponent checked (as he tried to trap me) and I decided to check behind him. As he flipped over Kc-Qc, my fears were confirmed and I had lost my first significant pot of the night.

Midway though Round 3 (blinds 25 and 50), I limped in late position with Qh-10h after two earlier players had done so, as well. After the big blind called, we went to a four-handed flop, which came Kd-Qd-Qs. After an early position player made it 400 chips, everyone else folded except me, of course. I decided to just call the bet, hoping to trap my opponent. When the 2h came on the turn, my opponent once again bet the pot, making it 1,200 chips. That's when I decided to end the charade by raising all-in. However, my opponent did not hesitate and called. Fortunately, he only turned over Ks-5c, giving him top pair and only two outs (the remaining two kings). Nevertheless, the 10s on the river gave me an unnecessary (although I'll take it) full house, guaranteeing me the hand and increasing my chip stack to about 5,500.

After the rest of Round 3 was fairly uneventful, two hands continued my upward trend in Round 4 (blinds 50 and 100). First, I got dealt 9d-8s in the big blind. After two players decided to limp in, the small blind folded and I checked my option. The flop came 7c-2s-6s, giving me an open-ended straight draw. After the first player and I checked, the late position player, who had been playing very aggressively in the early going, decided to try to take the pot down by betting 300. Seeing his aggressiveness, I knew I would at least call the bet. However, with the possibility of me receiving a big blind special, I decided to test him with a raise to 1,000. After the mid position player immediately folded, the late position opponent did not hesitate and folded, as well.

Shortly after scooping up this pot, I was sitting in late position with Ah-3h. After two players limped, I decided to follow suit, as did both blinds. The five-handed flop brought Ac-Kc-3s. Nice! After the blinds checked, the first player bet 400 and the next player called. However, not wanting the flush draw or another later pair to potentially cannibalize my two pair (I cannot tell you how many times this has happened recently), I came out betting strong by raising to 2,000. After the blinds folded, the two remaining players both took some additional time, but in the end both decided to fold. When we went on break a few minutes later, I had almost 7,600 chips with 235 players remaining. In good shape, I was not on the first page of the online leaderboard but definitely was still in the top 50. After kissing my wife and kids good night at a break, I hunkered down for further battle for a WSOP Main Event seat.

I ended Round 5 in good position with 7,800 chips. Round 6 began with only 180 players remaining. Shortly, I played the most significant hand of my night. Early in the round, I had won a couple of uncontested blinds (which were 100 and 200) with 7s-7d and As-Ks. Then, I looked down to see 9s-8s again, this time in mid position. After an early position player limped in, I decided to follow with my suited connectors, as did the button. After the small blind folded, the big blind decided to check his option in order to see this four-handed flop -- 9c-8h-2s. Bang! Another two pair on the flop. Let us see how this hand plays out. The first two players checked. I decided to bet 750 to eliminate any possible straight draws. Everyone folded except the big blind. He raised to 2,000. Hey now. The big blind had checked preflop, checked postflop and is now raising me? What could he have? Did he limp in with 2-2 and catch a set? If he did, I would be in pretty bad shape with 4 outs. Did my opponent get a big blind special like 9-2 or 8-2? If this was the case, I would have him dominated. Since my opponent only had 2,300 chips left, I decided to put him to the test by pushing him all-in. However, the big blind called instantly. After he flipped over Qc-Qs, I was very relieved. He must have kicked himself for slow playing his queens before the flop (big mistake, as I probably would have folded my hand preflop to a raise). After the Ks and 4s completed the board, I took a huge pot that vaulted me into the top 25. As we went to break, I ended this round with a little more than 13,000 chips.

Now, 132 players remained vying for 26 seats -- about one of five remaining players would earn a seat. For me, Round 7 was fairly uneventful. I only saw one flop. However, I did accumulate some more chips by being fairly aggressive preflop, including a few re-raises with Qh-Qc, Ad-Ks and Ah-Qh.

Entering Round 8 (blinds 200 and 400 and antes 25), I had approximately 17,500 chips with only 105 players remaining. I remained in the top 25 and started to become anxious as I was close to winning my seat right out of the gate. As we started the round, I was dealt 9h-8d again, this time in the big blind. After everyone else folded, the small blind decided to call the bet. However, looking at my signature hand of the night, I decided to raise the bet to 1,200 and take down the pot. However, the small blind wanted to gamble and decided to call my raise. With the flop coming down 8h-7h-3d and delivering me top pair, I thought this hand would deliver me a hat trick on my way to capturing a seat. Trying to avoid the flush draw, I bet out 2,500, but the small blind quickly called the bet. I believed he was on a flush draw, so I was relieved to see the 5d on the turn. After he checked, I decided to put the small blind to the test and push all-in for his remaining 6,500. He immediately called and flipped over 9s-6s for the straight! I couldn't believe it. I guess I tempted fate one too many times with 9-8.

I was pretty upset at myself for losing so many chips on that hand, but I tried my best not to go on tilt. Unfortunately, after that hand, I lost five of the next seven hands I played. The cards just deserted me. For example, I got re-raised with Ac-Jc and 6s-6d preflop and had to fold. Also, after I raised with Jh-Jd and got two callers, the flop came As-Kc-5c and both players bet before me, again forcing me to fold. I entered Round 9 (blinds 300 and 600, antes 50) with just 4,700 chips with only 75 players remaining in the satellite. Although I was near the bottom of the pack, I still believed I could come back. I just needed to be patient and hopefully double up a couple of times. Remember, never give up! However, after an unplayable start to Round 9, I caught 5s-5d in late position midway through the round. With only about 3,000 chips left, I decided to make my stand and push all-in. Unfortunately, the small blind woke up with Jd-Jc. When the board read 4s-3d-7d-As-9d, my night was done in 64th place.

So close, yet so far! I should have made it! That 9h-8d big blind hand will haunt me for a while. In hindsight, I was so close to getting my seat that I could have gotten away from the hand. Then again, if my opponent had not turned the straight, I would've gotten enough chips to probably guarantee my seat. As I crawled into bed, my mind replayed my mistake for me a few more times. My wife rustled and mumbled, "How did you do?"

"I just got knocked out. I missed by 40 places."

"You'll make it next time," she mumbled.

I sure hope so!

Bernard Lee finished 13th in the 2005 World Series of Poker and is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald.