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Gambler’s future is in good hands

Times Staff Writer

I’m driving down Flamingo Road with $1,500 in my pocket, money that could be spent on something useful.

But no, I’m headed to the Rio hotel to buy my way into a World Series of Poker tournament with 2,700 players from around the globe. My competition will include poker pros Phil “the Unabomber” Laak, Antonio “the Magician” Esfandiari and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. The odds were so bad that I might as well roll my window down and toss my hard-earned money into the blazing desert. Not only did I not have a nickname, I didn’t have a chance.

But I’d been playing poker several nights a week for the last year, steadily stockpiling my winnings and wondering if I had what it took to compete against the best.

I had also been wondering why I spent so much time playing cards. Could it be I’m hooked on the adrenaline that flows from competition? In addition to poker, my other hobby is competing in triathlons, and I make a living as a reporter in the highly competitive news business. Or does poker help me escape pain from my personal life, including a failed marriage? When I’m playing, I don’t think about anything but my cards, my opponents and how to win their chips.

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I’m 43. My mother and closest friends are concerned about me. Even though I win more often than I lose, they see poker as an addictive and potentially damaging hobby. Perhaps my mother remembers the trouble my father used to get into at Artichoke Joe’s Casino, a few miles south of San Francisco. He once bet, and lost, his car there.

I discovered gambling at age 13 on a family trip to England, delighting at even small payouts from slot machines at a seaside casino. When I started playing blackjack in Las Vegas at age 19, I memorized charts that told me how to play each hand. Next, I tried craps. I read books, drew a craps table inside a cardboard box and mastered the most profitable bets.

In 2003, I turned to poker, where the odds can be better. The beauty of poker is that if I get a bad hand, I can throw it in the muck, often without losing a penny. When I get a good hand, I can invest in it, judging my hand’s strength by the way my opponents respond to my bet.

My night stand is lined with poker books, my DVR filled with coverage of World Series of Poker tournaments. During the last year, I’ve turned a small profit on the low-stakes tables at the Commerce Casino south of downtown. But those tables were a far cry from the talent I expected to see at the World Series.

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“The players have gotten better and the fields are so big,” professional poker player Greg Mascio told me a couple of days before the tournament.

Mascio, who I met through a friend, has made the money in 14 World Series of Poker tournaments, but none this year. He said my best chance was to aggressively raise the bets of the weak players and watch them fold.

“They’re the players who are just trying to hang on, who just don’t want to lose,” he said.

That sounded an awful lot like me.

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The morning of the tournament, I rode the stationary bike and lifted weights in the gym at my hotel, the MGM, figuring exercise would help clear my mind for what could be a long day of poker.

At the Rio, two large auditoriums were lined wall to wall with poker tables. There were no professional players at my table, just 10 guys, ranging from a 21-year-old kid wearing an online casino’s ball cap to a white-haired man -- probably in his 70s -- whose hands shook each time he placed chips in the pot. We were given 3,000 tournament chips each. Three days later, one of the 2,700 players would hold them all.

In Texas Hold ‘Em, players make the best five-card hand out of two cards that are dealt to them and five community cards dealt face-up. There are as many as four rounds of betting per hand, and players can bet all their chips at any time. In one hand, it could be all over.

At noon, the tournament director’s booming voice filled the room: “Shuffle up and deal.” The tournament was on.

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Within a couple of seconds, two cards skidded across the green felt toward me -- an ace and a 10. I raised to 150 chips, three times the minimum, and two players matched my bet, creating a sizable pot. The other players folded.

My heart started to race. Why did those two match my bet? Why did I raise the first hand? The first three community cards -- known as the “flop” -- didn’t pair my ace or ten. My opponents didn’t bet and I thought they might be afraid to take chances so early in the tournament. So I bet 250 chips, hoping they would fold. One player called. The next card gave him a full house. I lost 400 chips the first hand.

“I’m an idiot,” I thought. “Why did I make that bet when I hit nothing on the flop?”

Poker is a game of ego-inflating highs and devastating setbacks. In the last year, I’ve thought as many times about taking up the game professionally as I have about quitting it. Many times in the same day. If I was going to succeed at this tournament, I couldn’t let myself get too confident or too depressed. This was a marathon, I thought. The cards will come.

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About 20 minutes into the tournament I got my first big hand: two queens. I could feel the pulse thumping in my neck. Three players called my first raise but folded later in the hand. The pot brought me back to even.

In order to make reluctant players bet, tournaments are structured so that the forced -- or “blind” -- bets increase every hour. Within a few hours, the blinds and antes were so big that it became profitable for players to bluff. Especially at my table.

I came to realize that many of my opponents would fold to raises unless they had a pair or two really big cards. I began to exploit my opponents’ timid play. Even with poor hands like a 6 and 8 I would quietly announce “raise” and casually toss chips into the pot. While awaiting my opponents’ decisions, I would put my elbows on the table, rest my chin in my palms and try to appear calm. Inside, my mind’s voice echoed, “Please fold. Please fold. Please fold.” More often than not, they would.

Unlike televised poker tournaments featuring colorful professional players, there was little chatter among players during hands. The World Series proved one thing: It is possible to feel lonely while crammed in a room with 1,000 people.

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My chip stack soared and dived throughout the first day. I burned some of my chips chasing a couple of straights that failed to hit. Nath Pizzolatto, one of the early chip leaders who had been added to my table, bluffed me out of a big pot when he made a raise so big it would have cost all of my chips. I was angry and felt he was trying to bully me with his much larger chip stack.

In order to win a huge tournament like this, players have to get lucky. My turn came about five hours into the event. Shortly after losing that hand to Pizzolatto, I picked up an ace and nine of diamonds. Two players made the minimum bet ahead of me, creating a decent pot.

“I’m all in,” I said, shoving my remaining chips to the middle of the table. Please fold.

Across the table, another player pondered my bet for a few moments and said, “I call.” He turned over a pair of nines. When I saw his cards, I was certain my day was done. Then the dealer turned over the first three community cards. One was a miracle ace. Not only was I alive, I had a healthy stack of about 6,000 chips right before the dinner break.

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My opponent, a man who appeared to be in his 30s and wore a baseball cap and rumpled T-shirt, looked like someone had just killed his dog. He had made a big bet with the best hand and ended up losing when I caught a lucky card. He walked away from the table for a few moments, returned to his chair and sulked.

After dinner, I hit what poker players call a “rush,” a string of good hands. I had 22,000 chips after eight hours of play.

During a 20-minute break, I called a friend back in Southern California who had been following the tournament online. Most of the big-name pros had been knocked out.

When play resumed, I rode another pair of queens to more than 30,000 chips. Soon there were 271 players left and play slowed down considerably. 271st place paid nothing. 270th paid $2,750. When the tournament director announced a woman’s unfortunate elimination in 271st place, the room erupted in applause.

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I was in the money. I also was elated, almost manic, and starting to dream about a big payday. First place paid $625,000.

About 1 a.m., the tournament broke for the night. There were 225 players remaining. We were all given zip-lock bags in which to place our chips to be held until the following day. I had 37,500 chips. I was in 85th place.

On Day 2, after a poor night’s sleep, I was assigned a table stacked with talented players. Among them: Mimi Tran, a television poker professional; Ray Henson, who finished 12th in the World Series main event in 2007; and David Daneshgar, who has won more than $2.2 million in poker tournaments around the world. They all had more chips than I did.

I made an early mistake on a hand against Jonathan Dull, a tournament regular from Fresno. With a possible straight and one card to come, I bet 8,000 chips. He raised me for all his chips, which were slightly fewer than I had. My mind was spinning with possibilities. If the final card were a nine or a king, I’d run up to 66,000 chips. If I lost, I’d have 3,000 chips. The other players stared at me, waiting to see what I would do. I folded.

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The size of my chip stack compared with those of the pros forced me into an all-or-nothing mode. I folded most hands, occasionally pushing all-in if I had a nice hand. In the next hour, my stack slowly dwindled to 18,000 chips.

With only Tran and I left in a hand, I pushed my remaining chips toward the pot, which contained 7,000 chips from blinds and antes. All I had was a queen and a nine. Tran took forever to decide what to do.

“I fold,” she said, tossing a king and 10 face up into the muck.

She had the better hand. I showed her my queen and nine, hoping to get under her skin. She was upset. She asked Daneshgar what he would have done. “I would have called,” he said.

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“You’ve seen him. He doesn’t play many hands,” she said, implying that my conservative play led her to believe I had a stronger hand than I did.

While we played, about 100 fans stood nearby and watched. Poker fans were watching me mix it up with tournament pros. I didn’t want this to end.

Shortly before the dinner break, I won three quick pots and pushed up to 56,900 chips, my high for the tournament. A few hands later I was down to 41,800. I lost most of my remaining chips when my ace and queen didn’t hold up against another player’s pair of 10s. At 8:30 p.m., after nearly 16 hours of play over two days, I pushed my remaining 7,500 chips into the pot with a jack and queen. My opponent showed me a 3 and 4. He made a pair of fours and won the pot, eliminating me in 60th place.

I was not disappointed. I’d made it much further than I expected. A tournament official directed me to a payout room, where I signed some tax forms and was told my prize would be $8,454 -- nearly a $7,000 profit.

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That night, I flew a friend to Las Vegas and celebrated with surf-and-turf and French champagne at the Bellagio.

I had beaten more than 2,600 players, but as befits a gambler, I started to wonder if things would have gone even better if I had played one of my hands differently against Daneshgar, the ultimate winner of the tournament.

That’s probably why my mom and my friends can’t get hugely excited for me. The lessons I learned in Las Vegas will probably keep me coming back.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com


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