Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grinder of the Tournament

I got to Berlin from Malaga via Dublin late Monday. I met Jason and Alan in terminal 2, and we ran into Dermot Blain, Isildur-tackler Seamus and Nick (Newport), all of whom were booked on the same flight. They were all playing day 1A, and the conversation centred around that being the better day to play (less travelling pros). I was down to play 1B and hadn't given it any real thought (other than wanting to give myself a full day's rest between Malaga and Berlin).

Romantic opportunities
I was rooming with Jason for this trip, and when we got to the Grand Hyatt, we found we'd been given a room with a double bed. I'd specifically requested a twin room so immediately rang reception.
"I booked a twin room but this one's a double".
"All the twin rooms are gone".
"Um, ok. Can we separate the beds at least?"

The receptionist obviously considered any further discussion of the matter to be futile because the next thing I heard was a click telling me he'd hung up. History teaches us that arguing with a German is not advisable unless you're prepared for a protracted and bloody ground war, so after informing Jason, we decided to let this one go. The bed was pretty big and a line of pillows down the middle seemed like the optimal play. Luckily, like myself, Jason is pretty easy going and doesn't tend to sweat the little things. Even more luckily, he's probably the world's quietest and stillest sleeper. Of course, I'm not as goodlooking as his other half Joy so he had every incentive to stick to his side of the pillow line.

R n R (rest and railing)
My day of rest was very restful, interrupted only by wandering over to the casino to see how the lads were getting on at breaks. Mostly they were flying: Derm and Seamus were up to 100K before you could say "Bob ist dein Onkel", Nick made steady progress throughout the day up past two starting stacks. Not much went right for Alan early but he knuckled down and also finished over double starting stack. No such luck for my roommate who lost the chance of a double stack early when he had aces busted by the kingers, and late in the day he was on the other side of a KK/AA cooler and didn't suck out. True pro that he is, after a short break to clear his head, he was back grinding at the cash tables. Jason is a phenomenally talented player who I expect to have a career in poker as long as he wants, due to his temperament and discipline. Jason is also entirely self taught, which I think is a huge long term advantage. In an era when the training sites are churning out legions of trained monkeys, being able to work things out for yourself from first principles is a big advantage, as the game keeps changing and evolving.

The year of the nit
Feargal Nealon has said to me on more than one occasion that 2011 is likely to be The Year of the Nit, and I'm kinda coming round to that way of thinking, at least in slow structured live tourneys like EPTs. In the second half of last year, buoyed by the success my LAG online game was having, I essentially tried to play a very similar game live. It's always hard to draw definitive conclusions live because sample size is so small, but in the run up to Galway, I started to think maybe I'd opened up a bit too much and crossed over into spewland. The EPTs create an interesting dynamic because you have such mixed fields. You have recreational players who are not used to playing deep stacks and slow structures, and are therefore liable to make horrible mistake either before the flop, like thinking it's ok to 8x AK and then shove 300 bigs when you get three bet (this actually happened!), or after, like getting the farm in with one pair. To take advantage of these players while they still have chips, the better young players are playing looser and more aggro than equilibrium strategy (game theory parlance for the optimal way to play if everyone else is playing optimal). This in turn makes them exploitable if you know what they're doing, adjust accordingly, and they don't readjust. Basically, the TAG game becomes very effective again so long as you choose your targets wisely (the aggro LAGs who are good enough to know they're supposed to fold if a TAG shows strength, but not good enough to realise they're being exploited).

That was basically my approach to day 1B, a day of card death where most of the chips I got came from the stealing from the better LAGs. As such, it was a pretty uneventful day, the highlight of which was having one of the top female chess players in the world, Almira Skripchenko, to my immediate left. I don't get star struck around poker players, if I was sitting between Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius I'd just be thinking awful seat draw, but chess, well, that's different. Smart chicks kick ass.

The nit against the maniac
The most interesting hand of the day for me started with me minning to 400 utg with tens. The table maniac called behind, as did the BB. Flop came 954r and the maniac called my cbet. The turn was a ten, and I went for and got the check raise. The river was another 5 and I bet less than half the pot for a couple of reasons:
(1) To get value from weak one pair hands that would fold to any chunky sized bet
(2) Hoping my opponent would interpret it as a weak lead and raise if he had air.

Apparently my opponent did think I had some sort of weak one pair hand I could be pushed off because he immediately moved all in and my chips were in before his. He had KJo. Towards the end of the day, I tried to cash in on my image and any reluctance of other players to play big pots before the bags came out, but ended up getting a few raises snapped off.

That, and losing a chunk with KK v 44 on a ten high flop that also featured a 4, meant I ended day 1A with a bit more than starting stack, an acceptable outcome. Jude Ainsworth and Tom Finneran were the other two Irish playing 1B, and every time I spoke to them at a break they seemed to have at least twice as much as me, but stack envy is not particularly helpful in the early stages of a long tournament. As it happened, they both got done towards the end of the day while the nit squeaked through. At the dinner break we legged it over to the mall. I reminded Tom that the last time I ran into him was just before the IWF last year, and he was congratulating me on my year and saying he was having a bad one. Since then, he's gone on a real heater and has been the most successful and consistent Irish player on the international live circuit in the past 6 months. I hope it's not the case that every time we meet our fortunes flip, as if it does, that means I should be avoiding Tom like the plague, and he's a fun guy to spend time with. Thinking aloud, he reckoned none of us imagined we'd be making our living this way when we were studying for our Leaving Certs. He also told us he'd dug a ditch the previous week and on balance thought it might be an easier way to make a crust. I definitely agree with the first proposition, but I'm not sure about the second. We went for a cappucino in the Hyatt after and ran into Donnacha O'Dea, who told us he was over for the cash action, which was already mental by all accounts.

Back in the comfort zone
If there's one thing us online tourney bumhunters do well, it's playing stacks of 30 bbs or less. I started day 2 with 27 bbs, and apart from a brief surge on day 3, remained between 15 and 30 bbs for the rest of the tournament, picking my spots well and making the most of the few hands I did get to have the Poker News blogging team dubbing me "Grinder of the Tournament". Big stacks are more fun, and my record in rebuys online where the stacks are deeper is much better than my record in freezeouts where they're not, but I firmly believe that the true pro plays all stack sizes and structures well, which means being prepared to grind it out for long periods when you drop low rather than just flinging it in in an attempt to gamble your way to a big stack.

Payback with AK
AK was my scourge live all last year. If I'd folded it every time I'd have had a better year live. But day 2 was the day it repaid my faith in its charms. The day was another one of card death. The few hands I did get were AK though, and I generally doubled up with them.

Late in the day, I got moved to Nick Newport's table, a few from the bubble. A few hands later, he was dogged with AQ v the table chipleader's A5o, a cruel fate. Apparently he went out near the bubble of his last EPT too, but he's obviously doing something right getting to the bubble, and it's only a matter of time before he gets through one. It's a good sign too that the thought of blinding through the bubble never crossed his mind.

Bubble? What bubble?
A couple of hands later, just as the dealer was telling us that she once dealt a bubble that lasted over 3 hours, it was announced that we were on the bubble, but that there were all ins on three different tables. They played this out quite tortuously to heighten the drama, but I was pretty sure the bubble had effectively burst, as more often than not the short stacks are behind in these spots, and the chances of all three surviving seemed remote. In the event, one guy did (by chopping) but the other two didn't. I was glad the bubble didn't go on too long as with my stack (about half the average), there was little point in taking any unnecessary gambles with stacks that covered me. Playing for the win is all very nice and macho, but there are certain times when stack size and payout structure makes caution more prudent. With half the average stack and 120 players left, you're still a 100 to 1 shot at best ftw if you double up, and most of your equity resides in your chances of cashing. One such spot presented itself the hand before Nick's exit: utg opened. I covered him and he looked like the type of player who might be looking to exploit the bubble, so I had decided to ship AQs if folded to me in the BB (discretion may be the better part of valour near the bubble, but that won't stop me if I think I'm almost certainly ahead and can get it in first with fold equity). But then the chipleader reraised, meaning if I do ship it now, I'm doing so without fold equity. I may very well be ahead, or flipping, but I'd be risking a lot more equity if I lose than what I gain if I win, so I just folded without too much thought. The chipleader showed jacks after the other guy folded so I was well out of that.

Having made day 2 in my last 4 EPTs without a single cash, it did feel pretty good to be bagging up in the money.

Day 3 was the day I finally started getting cards. Still grinding a 20 something bb stack, I did drop perilously low early in the day until I found a spot. Previous EPT winner Joao Barbosa opened in early position playing not much more than me. I wasn't exactly fist pumping on the inside when I found tens in the BB because Joao was by far the tightest player on the table (I've played with him a few times before and he always is) so there was every chance I was crushed and little chance he was folding, but you can't be folding tens with 12 bigs and antes in play either, so I sucked it up and shoved. He didn't look happy but called with a dejected shrug and turned over eights. My tens held and I got another doubleup two hands later. French livewire Aurelien Gugliani opened the hijack and after briefly considering the smaller raise with AK on the button, I decided to make things simpler and just shoved, since the smaller raise commits me anyway (not that I'm ever folding AK with just over 20 bbs). This has the disadvantage of folding out most hands I crush (weaker kings and aces) but might fold out some hands I want to fold (small and medium pairs). My general rule of thumb is that if the shove adds 20% or more to my stack if it gets the fold then I prefer to shove.

Much to my horror, my neighbour to the left who after a brief attempt to run over the table at the start of the day had settled down immediately reshoved. Gugliani tank folded and once again I found myself racing with AK, this time against tens. My chances were greatly helped by the news from Gugliani that he had folded the other two tens (this actually makes me a 52% favourite rather than a 43% dog). It also meant when the king popped out on the turn I was home and hosed.

Suddenly I'm up to almost average stack with 60 odd left.

The plainclothes detective strikes again
I drifted back to 275k when the Big Hand arrived. It was last hand before the break and I minned at 4/8k on the button with KcJc. A very loose German reraised to 40K from the BB, playing 250k. I quickly ran through the options:
(1) Fold. I ruled this out because I think my hand is too strong to fold in this spot against a very loose player who rarely if ever folded his blinds. The fact that it's the last hand before the break makes it more likely he has nothing much (he might be trying to exploit any reluctance I have to play a big pot just before the break having recently doubled up twice). The fact that it's the first time I've raised his blind might make it more likely he had a hand (as he'll think I'm more likely to have one), but not necessarily (I know players like Carter Philips routinely test players with an atc reraise the first time they raise to see how they react to a 3 bet). It being the last hand before the break, he may think it's more likely I have spanners. Another reason for not folding is I figure the time had come to move up a gear or two to try and start putting together a final table stack. If I folded I'd have 23 bbs after the break, back in the sub 30 bbs zone where there's very little room for creativity. I therefore ruled out the fold.
(2) The 4 bet. The problem here is that even if I raise to only 80k, I'm pretty much committed against his stack. So if I 4 bet, I'm likely to fold out all hands I crush and be forced to get it in against everything that crushes me. I might fold out hands like 22 or KQ (or maybe not) that I want to fold, but on balance the 4 bet didn't look very appealing.
(3) By a process of elimination we're left with the call. This seemed the most sensible option with a position and a suited hand (the suitedness makes it more likely I'll pick up flush equity that makes it profitable to shove over his inevitable c-bet). So I called. It's less than 10% of the effective stack to call and folding on the flop if it comes horrible is ok I think.

The flop came QcTs2s and he led at it for 41K. I didn't think very long before shoving: tbh I think it's pretty standard (and the other Irish I talked to agreed). He doesn't have to fold very often for the move to be profitable given my open ended straight draw and backdoor flush draw. Once I announced all in, he looked pained, and I relaxed thinking he was definitely folding, or if I was called, I was in decent shape with 10 to 14 outs. He looked to be on the verge of folding a few times and I thought he was just Hollywooding, but he eventually found the call. I was pretty sick when I saw his hand: AK, an ace high hand I have fewer outs against than if he has a set. No 9 or ace or club appeared, and I was left with 3 bbs.

As we walked away from the table to the break, WPT winner Cornel Cimpan beside me commented "Brilliant shove, terrible call". I guess it's either a terrible call or a brilliant one: most of my range crushes AK there and with the board so draw heavy I'm also shoving all my made hands, but I guess he figured at the very least he had 15% equity with the gutter and he was getting 2 to 1 on the call. He also had a backdoor flush draw with the ace of spades.

I have no real regrets about the move. Even if it didn't work on this occasion, I think it would more often than not (and on another day I'd suck out), and as I said, I felt the time had come to kick it up a notch after grinding 20-30 bbs for 2 days.

Last Rites
I came back from the break thinking I had a round to get it in, but actually I only had one hand. Moved to a new table, I found myself pot committed in the BB with 76. The small blind shoved AKs and after an interesting 543 flop that gave me the nuts but him the nut flush draw, I doubled up. I needed one more double up to get back into the tournament properly but it wasn't to be. I got moved to another table which featured eventual winner Ben Wilinofsky (who apparently never shuts up at the table, but is an entertaining motormouth rather than an irritating one and carries himself with considerable class). After finding 42o in the BB and having to fold (I'm a 2 to 1 dog at best), I found 55 in the SB, good enough to call the utg shove from a guy with only slightly more than me. He turned over A7s so again I was racing for my life. The flop bricked out, but he caught running clubs to flush me out.

All in all, an oddly anticlimactic end. Having found myself in survival mode and thinking about the equity of money jumps for most of the day, after I hit 300k I stopped thinking about the money jumps as now most of my equity resided in the chance of the big score, only for it all to go quickly wrong. I usually feel devastated after exits but bounce back quickly: this one was kind of the opposite. Immediately afterwards, I felt kind of numb and not too disappointed as I was happy with how I'd played. Delayed reaction I guess cos I woke up the next morning feeling worse than I ever have the morning after. I guess it took the night for it to sink in how little the 12500 I got for 56th really was in comparison to what was on offer for the big prizes, and how rare these opportunities come along.

The show must go on
Still, no point brooding too much over what can't be changed, so I jumped straight into the 1K side event. I got off to a very good start: the general standard was quite shockingly bad. I was feeling very confident when one of those spots arose, you know, the heartbreaking ones where you do everything right to get the farm in as a 92% favourite but find it's the one time in 13 you're destined to lose. Cornel Cimpan opened utg to 500 at 100/200. I flatted behind with aces, as there was a bunch of trigger happy squeeze merchants yet to act. Sure enough, the kid in the BB ramps it up to 1850, Cornel calls, and I thought for a while trying to decide how much to raise to. In the end I went with 4200, chosen to make it look like I'm not yet committed and might fold to a shove. The kid was clearly having a hard time believing I could have a proper hand here and after spending a few minutes staring at me while I tried every reverse tell in the book, eventually shipped AK. The board ran out QTxJx to leave me with debris, and I never recovered.

The turbo king strikes again
The one advantage of the quick bust out in the 1K game meant I could play the 300 turbo. My only ever EPT side final table came in a turbo (I chopped one in Vilamoura last year) and I do very well in turbos online so I love to turbo. The key is to win your first all in, something I managed to do (with a flush against top pair) and I mowed through the field into the chiplead with 10 left. At that stage I had 35% of the chips. From there it was all downhill, as one of the most tilting players I've ever encountered took my stack in instalments.

Hand 1: 10 left, it's the final table bubble, and a short stack moves in for 5 bbs. The drunk old Russian calls in the sb, as do I, and after I bet the queen high flop he shoves and I find myself admiring his set of sixes. 25k goes east.

Hand 2: Early on the final table, the drunk Russian who was antagonising everyone even the dealers with his antics (playing so slowly he kept getting clock called on him and needing to be told to ante every hand, occasionally refusing to do so with a shrug and a "No understand English") raised the button playing 20 bbs. His steal stat was 100% (he'd already showed up with T5o utg after one such steal attempt) so ATs looked pretty big in the big blind. I shoved and found myself admiring his aces. Ship another 60K east.

Hand 3: Shortly afterwards I called a shorty shove for 30k with AQs and lost a race against sevens. I folded a bunch of 7 and 8 highs while I waited for the really short stacks to get blinded out, which left me with 30K and 5 bbs six handed. QJs seemed like a reasonable hand to shove over the Russian's range of atc. He called slowly and turned his cards over even more slowly after nodding and saying nice hand. This time I found myself admiring a pair of queens.

So out in 6th for 1450, which meant I'd made a profit of 20 euro on the day. Who says there's not good money to be made playing live tourney poker? :)

I played the other 330 turbo the next day. This time I didn't win the first all in, so I had an evening off.

The Great Berlin Robbery 2
Last year, the Berlin EPT made news all over the world by virtue of a daring daylight robbery by some guys in balaclavas. This year's daylight robbery was considerably less daring and is unlikely to make the news anywhere. Last year the robbers wore balaclavas: this year Spielbank employee uniforms. Let's just count some of the ways this robbery was perpetrated
(1) When you pay €20 reg in the Fitz for their monthly tournament, they give you free drinks all night and a three course slap up feed. When you pay €300 in Berlin, they give you, well, less than nothing. I say less than nothing because not only do you not get fed or watered or even a €10 voucher, they charge their captive clientele criminal prices for food and drink. Like €5.50 for a small bottle of water. The same bottle will cost you 11 cents in the supermarket across the road from the casino. So why doesn't everyone just buy the water across the road and carry it in to the casino? Ah, they've thought of that too. They simply don't allow you to bring any food or drink in from the outside, and the King Kong sized security men guarding the entrance to the casino seemed more concerned with stopping people sneaking cheap water into the casino than preventing a recurrence of last year's robbery.
(2) Exorbitant cash game rake meant I made no appearance at the cash tables in Berlin. While my attitude to live cash tends towards the "I'd rather be digging ditches", I had intended to play some this week given that the wifi connection in the Hyatt didn't inspire confidence. But as a matter of principle, I refuse to play in a game where most of the money is going to inevitably end in the rake slot.
(3) Most reprehensibly of all, they rob the dealers of their tips. As I was cashing out, there was the usual guilting "Would you like to leave a tip for the dealers?" inquiry. This always seems a little rich when you've just played for 3 days for double your money back, but on this occasion I was more than happy to leave a few hundred because the general standard of the dealing was excellent, and I personally know several of the English dealers and one Irish dealer and they're all good people and a few I'd even consider to be good friends. Several were wishing me good luck throughout the tournament and clearly rooting for me when I was all in so I'd have to be a real bastard not to want to tip them. Imagine my horror therefore on discovering from one of my dealer friends that they receive not a penny of the tip I or anyone else left. They worked very long shifts in trying conditions (poker players are a grumpy lot at the best of times and even more so when they're being asked to pay a 5000% rake on water) so keeping their tips is just taking the piss. Particularly when you consider that the dealers were by far the most professional aspect of the tournament: the Spielbank employees didn't do a great job of breaking tables properly, the clock was a joke (it kept disappearing and when it re-appeared was generally incorrect in terms of players left and average stack), and announcement of blind changes were unreliable (all the more important when for some bizarre reason most tables seemed to be positioned so the dealers had their backs to the clock).

My advice to poker players on tipping: ask a dealer first if they're actually going to see any of it. If not, buy them a drink or find some other way to show your appreciation.

State of the Nation
Last year I had extreme doubts over the wisdom of playing EPT main events, wondering how much of an edge anyone could have. This year, after a full year of concentrating on mtts online, I can see that the better online mtters (and I like to kid myself that I'm one of them) have quite an edge, so playing an EPT main event no longer needs to be justified purely as a chance to socialize or chase glory but is plus Ev. It also has to be said that pitting your wits against the best players and trying to think of new edges to exploit them as they try to exploit the live donks is a tremendous challenge beyond anything you'll have to deal with grinding the nightlies online or playing fast structured Sunday majors. While I'm much more confident in my ability to hold my own or better against the best these days, I don't think I'm optimal in every situation yet, but I have a good collective brains trust of poker peers and friends to run stuff by so I think I can continue to improve.

It's noticeable that the Irish are getting more numerous at these events and it's becoming less of a rarety for an Irishman to cash or go deep. In this EPT, about 30 from the bubble with only 20% of the field left, over half of the Irish who started (5 out of 9) remained. I was the only one lucky enough to cash, but I think it is evidence that more and more Irish are approaching these events properly and are all capable of running deep. When you see someone like Alan who just showed up at his first EPT with the game and the courage to go deep (and he went out shortly before the bubble in this one), it does suggest that we're finally becoming a force to be reckoned with.

When we went to dinner, Tom Finneran remarked on how much value there was in the field. Jude concurred, but qualified it by saying that once you got down to 60, there would be predominantly only good players left. With 60 left, I remembered Jude's words, and it did seem to be the case. That means that from that point on you mainly have to run good and but also be prepared to go for it (up the aggression or get run over). I think all the Irish playing EPTs regularly now are more than capable of doing that. I therefore expect us to keep getting into position regularly, and I firmly believe it's only a matter of time before one of us wins an EPT. A generation of predominantly live grinders is giving way to a new generation of players who honed their skills online and had played a thousand online tournaments and a million hands before they ever showed their face at an EPT. More are waiting in the wings.

Forwards and Backwards
The plan was that Berlin would be not only my only EPT before Vegas but my last trip abroad. Under pressure from Mrs. Doke to justify leaving the house when nearly all the profit seems to happen when I'm in the house, and not particularly enjoying the live grind, that seemed sensible. But after three winning away trips on the bounce and getting better at actually enjoying these trips, I may be going back to the Boss asking for permission to hit San Remo (by all accounts the softest EPT of them all) or even Madrid. Manchester was pretty grim but Malaga was a blast and a week spent in the capital of Europe's oldest civilisation and richest culture wasn't half bad either. Good food, good company, and a few very pleasant runs in the Tiergarten.

Before that though, it'll be back to the online grind after a 2 week break, and then the Irish Open. Having gotten the "never cashed in an EPT main event" monkey off my back, the next two monkeys to be tackled are a deep run in Ireland's premier tournament, and a WSOP event. The word in Berlin from the English camp is that very few of them will be travelling to the Burlington this year due to competing events that week, so the chances of a home victory are probably higher than in recent years. It would be nice for an Irish person to win the Irish Open this year. It would be even nicer if I was the Irish person :)



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