Friday, February 22, 2008

Sleepless and deepstacked

I've debated with myself whether I should even write this up, or how much detail to go into, but in the end I'm going with my brother Sean's view that it's something I'll want to have to look back on after the memories have muddied a bit. So here it is, in quite excruciating detail.

Should I even be here?
I played a number of satellites online and got very close. Then on the Sunday before the main event, I played a live satellite in Drogheda and got close again (10th, with 7 tickets). Played another satellite on Tuesday and got nowhere close, my tournament ultimately coming unstuck when my Queens were cracked with great skill and cunning by 8's to leave me shortstacked by the break. It seemed to confirm a recent worst-ever run of 5 or 6 tournaments without cashing, usually as a result of losing an overpair v. underpair all in (even my most recent success, fourth in Cool Hand Luke's End of the Month, was undermined on the second last table when my Aces got cracked by 10's and my Jacks by 6's: otherwise I'd have been a crushing chip leader on the final table rather than a hanging-on-for-dear-life shorty).
So after the second satellite in Drogheda, I decided not to enter. I rang my wife Mireille to tell her to come get her despairing husband, and that the chicken-livered wimp had decided not to play. She was having none of it.
"You're playing. This is the tournament that suits your game best, you need to get in and mix it with the best. I put a blank cheque in your inside pocket, use it to enter before I get there or you'll have me to answer to".
If only all poker wives could be so supportive and sensible.

Getting ready to play
This was only my second major outing on the live multiday MTT poker tournament front. Nevertheless, I saw no reason why I shouldn't prepare and "train" for it with the same intensity as I do for any race. So in the weeks before, I scaled back the number of tournaments I was playing both online and live, and concentrated on online cash. Given the structure of this deepstack tournament, I felt that good cash skills would be needed more than the traditional tournament skills, particularly early on. I've been a good (or at least winning) online cash player from day one, but I still felt it best to try to get myself into as good a shape as possible on that front. The other positive was that in the few weeks "training", I made more than enough to cover the buyin for Drogheda (plus the satellites I played, plus the satellite stake I gave Sean), so in a sense, I could feel I was freerolling. That was important because after the Irish Poker Championships in Galway where I bought in and staked Sean, the fact that neither of us cashed meant that my profit from live play was cut almost in half by that one event. That seemed to depress me more than it should have. If I now failed to cash in Drogheda, my live profit would again be down to almost half.

Yes, but what should I wear?
As well as honing my cash skills, I put a lot of thought into what image I wanted to project. I knew I'd be an unknown to almost everyone I'd have to play with, and this set me to thinking what that would mean as far as how they'd play against me. On my first outing in Galway, I'd noticed that the really good tight aggressive players tend to assume an unknown is playing straightforward ABC poker (never bluffing or making moves or being deceptive or tricky), while some of the loose aggressives tend to think you can be pushed off any pot you don't bet aggressively at.
I didn't see any point in trying to project a pretence that I was more experienced than I am, but I saw potential value in pretending to be even more of a novice than I actually am. I felt this would cause other players to underestimate me, and in the right spots might make my bluffs more likely to get through, and my big hands more likely to get paid off. I'd also noticed on the few occasions I'd gone straight from work to the club in my business suit than when you dress conservatively, other players give your bets more respect on the assumption that you're playing conservatively, particularly if you're not playing many pots. In an era when it's all manky T-shirts, and baseball caps and hoodies, you also stand out more in a suit. So I decided the suit was part of the game plan.
I also decided to wear sunglasses for the first time at a poker event. I read a Vicky Coren piece that suggested that nothing screams nervous novice like sunglasses, and I also felt it could be to my advantage for other players not to be able to see my eyes. I pride myself on picking up physical tells, it's probably my greatest strength as a live poker player, but I've noticed that sometimes my gaze alerts the teller to the tell and they stop doing it.
However, I have to say I found the sunglasses quite annoying, so in the end I went with the compromise of only putting them on when I was in a pot, a la Juha Helppi. This had some amusing effects on other players. More on that later.

Here is the plan
I talked with Sean, my poker teacher, guru and mentor from day one. He sat me down last year and explained to me how to play. He sat beside me online as I learned the game, telling me how to play specific hands and situations. He listened to my bad beats and bad plays and told me what I should have done. He provided endless encouragement that maybe I could be as good as him. He's the finest poker brain I know personally, who can always be relied to work out optimal strategy from first principles. In my opinion, the only reason he hasn't made a huge impact on the poker scene (that's not to say he's made no impact: in the last few months he's won the Fitz EOM and the Ladbrokes Face Up World Championship) is he's hopelessly underbankrolled, he's allowed his bankroll to get frittered on lifestyle expenses, and he doesn't enjoy the game enough to be able to grind at it for more than a few hours a week. He also lacks confidence at times and suffers in the bad runs more than his optimistic idiot of an older brother. And he sometimes lets tournament situations get to him. It's also not easy to balance his burgeoning career in academia (lecturing in philosophy) with the demands of grinding poker. But if poker was just about having plenty of time and no pressure to find the theoretically optimal approach to every situation, I'd back Sean to win every time. Luckily for me though, it's not, and my competitive instincts stand me in good stead.
But Sean is my secret weapon: the guy I talk to about strategy and technique.
We agreed the correct approach to this deepstack event early on was to play it like a deeepstack cash game early on: uber tight, but aggressively competing in the few pots I was in. Hopefully build my stack gradually by winning small pots and staying away from big ones that would force me into decisions for most of my stack. Also try to curb my natural instinct to bluff almost every pot I'm in (a good start in Galway came to a shuddering halt when I almost but not quite bluffed Adrian Walshe off bottom pair). Simple enough.

Beauty and the beast
So I breezed into the club in Drogheda hoping for a nice easy table. Would have been nice, but instead I find myself wedged between Jen Mason (only last year's festival main event champion!) and the equally impressive Adam 'Snoopy' Gouldling. Beside him is Daniel Bolton, one of the country's top young online players, sporting headgear from his excursion to the Dortmund EPT. Across the table from me is Kevin Fitzpatrick, who is one of the best and trickiest players I've ever played against and someone I find particularly difficult to read. Beside Jen is a nordy player I don't recognise but quickly realise is damn good. So, table of death, basically.
It also seriously doesn't help that Jen Mason is the best looking woman in the room. I blame Maud Mulder's arrival at my table in Galway for my deterioration in play there, so clearly there's a conspiracy to ruin my game with the distraction of beauty.

And we're off!
Play starts and I manage to stick rigidly to the plan for, oh, at least the first orbit or two . Then I get a free go in the big blind, flop comes rags, and I check raise Jen with nothing. She calls. Another rag on the turn, she checks, I fire another bullet, she folds showing bottom two pair. So much for not bluffing.
A while later I'm in the small blind with KQ, flop comes Q high, Daniel (I think) continuation bets, Jen raises him (she's playing every pot she's in aggressively so I'm not even sure she has something here), I reraise, Dan drops out like a scalded cat, Jen ponders and folds showing a queen, noting sweetly that it's the second time she put down a big hand to me. That's what good players do, I'm finding out.
Suitably chastened, I play very few pots for the rest of the hour, connect with nothing and have drifted back from the starting stack of 50K to about 48K when my first big hand happens.

What was that plan again?
I pick up pocket kings in mid to late position. I have three very aggressive players to act behind me, an English guy who played every pot almost until half his stack was gone, Conor Doyle who showed up late and is giving off the impression of being bemused by the whole deepstack thing and not really all that keen on it, and Kevin Fitzpatrick in the small blind. So I decide to just call with my kings.
Right on cue, Conor raises. Kevin calls. I reraise, and they both call. At this stage I think Kevin has a hand, probably either Ax or a smallish pair, and I think Conor could have almost anything.
Flop comes 567. Kevin checks, I check, Conor checks. Turn comes a King, giving me the set but not changing a lot. I'm still behind any hand I was already behind to, except two pairs, and given that Conor could have almost anything, I decide to check. Conor overbets big, 14K. Kevin folds and now I have my first major decision. I decide to call because 14K doesn't look like a value bet from someone who has hit their straight, and at the very least if the board pairs on the river I have the second nuts. The other crucial factor is I believe I've spotted a tell on Conor when he's bluffing, and he's just exhibited it.
The river is a 3, and now there's that sick feeling that he's got a 4 and I just misplayed the hand most horribly. I check, and Conor bets 26K. If I call and lose, I'm more or less gone, with just 6K left. What was that thing about avoiding big decisions again?
Conor's just exhibited what I think is his tell again, so I decide to call. Conor turns over 85 to general surprise at the table. He claims he thought he had 84, and had flopped the straight. If so, my tell clearly was no such thing. But lucky for me, I thought it was. I'm now chip leader in the whole tournament.

More fun at the table of death
The English loose aggressive goes all in under the gun, Conor instashoves all in himself. I'm on the button with a hand you could only consider calling an all in from either a short stack or someone who went all in on the blind. Unknown to me (or anyone else at the table), Conor and the English bloke agreed to do just that (go all in on the blind). Conor wins the battle of the mediocre hands and the English guy departs, to be replaced by Daniel's brother (I think). Another very good player at the table of death.
Soon after, I get moved. Glad to get out alive with a dose of chips, but I enjoyed playing at the table. Jen and Adam are both delightful people that you could never imagine screaming "How could you call with that, you moron?" at anyone, in stark contrast to some of the older English pros I later lock horns with. In an era when it's fashionable to knock "the youth of today" for supposed declining standards, it's refreshing to run into such decent civilised young human beings who are a credit to themselves, their profession, and their country.

Here comes the donkey with the mountain of chips
The table I get moved to isn't really any easier. There's a couple of good American pros, and a smattering of good young Irish players. Beside me is a gentleman giant that I quickly realise in Lloyd O'Farrell, a 24 year old with some great tournament results including a win here 2 years ago. I can see they have no idea who I am, and they seem a little curious as to why I might already have so many chips. Nothing screams maniac like a big bunch of lowest denomination chips like the mountain I have in front of me, but after a few orbits during which I barely move a chip, I think I've re-established my nit cred.
There's one very loose player at the table, Colin Studdard, who seems to be playing almost every hand and raising or reraising half of them. He's already raised ahead of me when I pick up my first big hand, Kings. I reraise and everyone folds.
About one orbit later, the exact same situation arises, only this time Colin decides to call. Flop comes J 10 x, Colin checks, I bet 6K, Colin reraises to 20K.
Ugh. What was that about not playing big pots? I started the hand with 130K, Colin had about 80K, so it's now all in or fold. I ask him how much he has left, and try to decide which it is. Eventually I talk myself into an all in on the basis that he might be doing this with KQ, or Q9, or maybe even 89, or maybe even a bluff. Deep down though, I think I know I'm wrong, and I'm making my first major mistake of the tournament.
And indeed I am. Colin calls quickly and flips over J 10. Oh well, at the very least I have 5 outs on the turn and at least 8 on the river. In fact the turn is an Ace, so now I have any Ace, any x, and any queen. River is an ace and luckbucket O'Kearney takes down the biggest pot of the tournament and surges through the 200K mark.
Colin takes his bad beat like a gentleman and I feel genuinely bad for him. As someone who is usually on the other end, I take little pleasure in benefiting from a mistake due to pure luck.
I resolve to be a better poker player and try not to muppet away my ill-gotten stack. By close of play, I'm up to 230K, almost 50K ahead of everyone else. So much for the slowly slowly plan to try to noodle up to 80K or so.

Day 1B
I'm an ocean of conflicting emotions as Mireille drives me home, trying to process the day. Apart from Colin's exit hand, I'm happy with my play for the day. I find it hard to believe I'm chipleader, and that it all came down, or mostly came down, to two huge hands. Not at all as I anticipated day one would be.
Mireille is less surprised at my good fortune. Benefiting from her little but not a lot knowledge of poker and an endearing tendency to totally overrate her husband in everything he does or might do, she seems to think it was more or less to be expected that he'd claw his way to the chiplead through a field of that high quality. She says there's now no reason why I can't go on to win the whole thing.
When we get home, I find I can't sleep. Insomnia tends to strike in times of high excitement or stress, so it's not totally unexpected. I stay up and try to find out what I can about the players I played against today, and might play against on Friday. I catch up with work I should have been doing today or should be doing on Friday. I decide to stay away from the online poker tables. Normally I play online to relieve the tedium of work, but I don't want to be all pokered out for Friday.
I look at my running coach's schedule to see what training I'm supposed to do today (Thursday). Speed session, 3 1500s in 5:20 with 90 seconds recovery. Ugh ugh ugh. I put it off as long as possible, but at 5 PM there's no putting it off any more so Mireille drives my sleep deprived apprehensive body to the ALSAA track. I feel dreadful, but bizarrely once I actually start the session, I'm flying. I hit the times and it doesn't even feel hard, it's like I'm cruising. I guess I'm still on a high from the previous night's poker. As a bonus, I run into my friend Chris Keeling at the track and warm down with him.
When I get home, I do some more work. I still can't sleep so I stay up, periodically checking on how Day 1B is going. Seems a lot tighter than Day 1A and at the end of it, I'm still overall chip leader going into Day 2 on Friday. I try to get some sleep but it's still not happening, so I get up and kick around a few poker sites for a while. I put in a full day's work by midday, then decide to check Norrie's schedule to see what I'm supposed to run today. I'd originally planned to skip if I was still in the tournament, but now I figure I might as well do the run, as it should relax me.
20 mile long run. Ugh ugh and did I already say ugh? Oh well. Out I go and two and a half hours later I'm back home and in the bath, physically tired but mentally refreshed and energised. Affter the bath, I ring Sean to finalise strategy in light of the unexpected chipleader situation. Sean suggests I loosen up my game and be prepared to raise any unopened pot from almost any position with almost any two cards. He feels that the nitty image I established on day one will stick and it'll take people a while to pick up on the gear change, allowing me to steal a lot of small pots and build my stack even more while risking little. The idea is to try to double my stack during the day (or night) so that I'm approximately average stacked once the bubble bursts. If I'm lucky and have a bigger stack than that as the bubble approaches, I'll get even more hyper aggressive.

Day 2
I fall asleep for about 20 minutes as Mireille drives me to Drogheda. I wake up feeling more tired than ever, but once I sit down at the table in Drogheda, it dissipates and I'm ready to play.
There's been a total redraw but two of the players I played with on Wednesday, Lloyd O'Farrell and Peter Murphy, are both at my table. Luckily I still have position on Lloyd, who impressed me as one of the better players I've played against. It seems to me that Lloyd uses table talk very well. Perhaps it's just his natural friendliness, but in any case, he gets me to diverge from my pre-ordained strategy of telling noone nothing at the table. Lloyd was at the table when I made my big mistake and got lucky against Colin Studdard, but I still get the feeling he's got a better read on me than anyone else at the table, and might not be entirely buying the luckbox nit image I'm trying to project.
I try my new strategy but it just doesn't work. The table is just way too active and willing to play back, and before I know it, I've blown about 40K of my stack. I decide to go to plan B (or rather, to revert to Plan A), and go back to playing a tight game. I win my first decent-sized pot when I raise from early/mid position with AQ, and get one customer, Peter Murphy, in the small blind. Flop comes KQx, and Peter check-raises me. Pre-flop, I put him on a lowish pair or Ax. I think he'd have reraised anything stronger so I decide my middle pair top kicker is possibly still good. I call, the hand is checked down, and I take the pot. Good for the confidence.

I thought you were a better player than that
I'm now card dead for ages. Eventually I pick up A9s in early/mid position and decide it's good enough for a raise. Given that I haven't played a pot in about 17 years (or so it seems, might have only been 16), I'm expecting respect. Respect? Phooey to that. John Eames (who has just arrived at the table and motored into a huge chiplead thanks to three quickly flopped sets) calls, as does Peter in the small blind. Rob Taylor, a big name pro with a great record, raises from the BB to 13.5K. He's drifting towards a short stack and hasn't played a hand in ages either, so the alarm bells go off. Specifically the alarm for "big pocket pair", which is what I put him on at this point.
I almost fold, but in the end, I decide my odds (over 3 to 1) are just way too good. It's just another 9K into a 29K pot. If I get heads up against Rob, I have the odds for a call unless he has Aces, which given that I have an ace is the least likely big pair for him to have. If Peter or in particular big stacked John decide to come along for the ride, then I have huge implied odds to hit my flush. So I decide to call, which Rob in his post-bad beat rant at me says was ridiculous.
As it happens, Pete and John both drop out (better players than me, clearly) and the flop comes 10 8 7. No spades, but I've now got the open ended straight draw, so Rob's bet of 15K into 38K is nowhere near enough to get me away. Turn comes J, completing my straight, and Rob is all in for the rest of his stack. I insta call, Rob flips over Aces, and with no help on the river, is out. He then launches into a colourful rant. I'd seen him do something similar in the satellite where I'd finished tenth when Martin O'Rafferty took him out with a dominated raggy ace, so I took it as par for the course. Naturally, I could sympathise with him as someone whose pocket aces had just been donked by ace 9. So I just sat there impassively until the volcano blew itself out. The one comment I took notice of was "I thought you were a better player than that". I decided that if the notion stuck with other players that I was a luckbox donk, then it wouldn't do me any harm, so long as I realised that's how they saw it. If nothing else, people were unlikely to try to bluff me pre-flop, as I might as well have been sitting there with a Calling Station sign around my neck.
Unfortunately, the table broke shortly thereafter.

The last table I played on on Day 2 was another interesting one, with Tony Baitson, Fran Egan, Kevin Fitzpatrick, John Falconer, Michel Abecassis, and two Scots, Rory Matthews and Graham Clarkson. I continued to be utterly card dead until near the end of the day, and drifted back to about 250K. Then I won one big pot (Michel was allin over an early called with AK, I called on the button with JJ and held up), and one decent sized one (Fran raised from the cutoff, I reraised with KK, Fran called after some verbals about how much I fancied my hand, and then folded when I checkraised him on a raggy flop) to finish the day, unexpectedly, in the chip lead again.
The table started out friendly enough but quickly took on a more combative edge. Earlier in the tournament Adam and Jen had joked about the fact that I was fishing the glasses out every time I played a pot, with Jen describing them as pure intimidation and Adam suggesting he'd fold blind if I put them on, and a few other players had made jocular comments along the way, including John Falconer. Towards the end of the day, John was getting short stacked and perhaps a little tetchy, so he started goading me every time I put them on ("Go on then, get yer bleedin' glasses!"). Then he goes all in on my big blind, I look down to find a hand I'd normally call an all in from the short stack with, and I reach for the glasses. He reacts gleefully and disparagingly. I pause for a minute to reflect on how to interpret this. I decide it screams monster and talk myself into the notion he's sitting there with pocket Aces. I ask him if he wants me to call. He says he does. I take off the glasses and fold. He mucks his card in disgust with some more verbals. Now I'm more convinced than ever I dodged a bullet. Shortly afterwards he's moved.
Graham Clarkson arrived at the table shortish stacked, picked up a few big hands, and got into a good position. He then seemed to skilfully profit from that by stealing a lot of pots, showing big hands or at least decent ones, presumably whenever he had them. He was immediately to my right, so he was dangerous to me. All in all, he came across as a good loose-ish player with good table presence (a sort of cheeky chappy Scottish persona with an Edinburgh accent).
Last interesting hand of the night was when Rory raised from early position, and Fran started to ponder. After maybe 5 seconds, Arnaud Mattern (the EPT prague winner) called clock, to general consternation at the table. He explained that as he was short stacked and the day was nearly over, he wanted as many hands dealt as possible.
When the day ended, I was back up to 450K, a major result considering I'd been at about 250K thirty minutes before. Most amazingly of all, with less than 6.5% of the chips in play and only 22 players left, I was chip leader again (despite having less than 50% more than average!).
Originally the plan was to play down to the money, but it was taking too long, so it was decided that the 22 would come back about 12 hours later.

Taking stock
On the drive home, I reflected on the day. I was very happy with the result, I'd achieved the target stack despite being virtually card dead for most of the day. I felt I'd played even better than on the first day, as I'd had to think of my feet and change strategy when the one we'd decided on wasn't working. I'd also had to deal psychologically for the first time with reversals of fortune, nothing major, but a gradual loss of the chip lead due to being card dead, yet had kept my composure and discipline.
Again, sleep proved impossible, so I just relaxed as best I could, went for my run, and talked strategy with Sean. An interesting situation had arisen with 22 players left, to play down intitially to 14 for the money. I was nominal chip leader, but that meant very little given how flat the field was. A couple of players were within a few thousand chips of me, and nobody was hopelessly short stacked with less than 100K. In essence, the field was bunched around the average. In the circumstances, it was more difficult to come up with a pre-ordained strategy for how to approach the last day. Sean suggested that my chip lead was not big enough that I could attack the bubble with impunity, but it was big enough that I could probably fold into the money if I wanted to. I decided I didn't want to. But equally, I didn't want to kamikaze attack the bubble and risk elimination and blowing the goodish position I'd worked myself into.
So we talked about the need for a more fluid "play as you go" strategy that had to take into account table image, how others were playing, stack sizes and so on. A case of picking my spots very carefully.

Enter the Elegance
There was a total redraw for Day 3, so I found myself at another interesting table, with Graham Clarkson, Tony Baitson, Michael Trimby, Paul Daly, Kevin Fitzpatrick and, ahem, Joe Beevers. Beevers was two to my right so, um, yeah, nice seat draw for me, not.
Sean had promised to try to get here by train to cheer me on and encourage me. By the time he had arrived, I'd drifted back from 450K to about 330K when I caught my first break of the day. Graham Clarkson was raising just about every unopened pot and did so again on my big blind. This time Tony Baitson called on the button, giving me value to call with 67. Flop came, incredibly, 345. Only the nuts, but how to get paid? I instacheck, Graham bets, Tony calls, I ponder a little and just call. Flop comes Ace which is a great card for me as I'm pretty sure at least one of the lads has an ace, and if I'm really lucky, Graham might even have a 2. Quick check, Graham checks, Tony bets biggish, I ponder and decide to just call, hoping Graham will stay in, or better yet go mental and reraise. Unfortunately the Scot is too canny for that and he folds. A third heart arrives on the river and I trap check, but Tony's too clever to bet again. Still, I take down a good sized pot and I'm back in a good position.
Few more interesting hands from the second last table, not involving me.
Early on, Joe Beevers button raises, and Graham Clarkson reraises from the big blind. Joe folds and Graham flashes the obligatory ace. Someone (not Joe) insists Graham show the other card, Graham quickly tries to muck, and gets a warning from the tournament director for his troubles (it was a 2, BTW). After that, people are understandably cagier about showing one card.
Graham, who as I said, raising and reraising almost constantly, raised early, Kevin Fitzpatrick who is shortstacked moved all in, Graham decided he's priced in with K9o. Kevin flips over KQ, but Graham wins to knock Kevin out. Kevin takes it like the gentleman that he is.
Joe Beevers button raises, and Tony Baitson moves all in from the big blind. Joe quickly calls with AQs, and Tony turns over Q10. By the river, neither has hit but with two of Joe's suit on the board, Tony's drawing to a 2 outer, which duly arrives. Horrible bad beat for Joe, but I think the table made a collective sigh of relief as the last thing anyone (apart presumably from Joe) was Mr. Poker Million with a big stack. Joe's now so short stacked we think he's almost out, but the way he takes the beat underlines his class. No histrionics, no "How could you go all in with that?" rant, he just walks away from the table, presumably clears his head, and comes back and plays his way back into it. A class act in every way.
Tony was now chip leader or there or thereabouts. I'd been picking up big hands on his blind and shortly afterwards, I picked up AK and raised again. It gets folded round to Tony who points out it's the third or fourth time I've raised his big blind and asks me do I not realise he covers me now and he could knock me out. He still hasn't looked at his hole cards and I'm praying for him to pick up something like K10 and decide to make a move like the one he did against Joe Beevers, but instead he folds saying I'm lucky he can't catch a hand. Robbie McCormack humourously asks if I'm scared now and the tension lifts.
After Kevin Fitzpatrick's exit, Barry Hand arrived at the table. He looks the part, and seems to be playing a good aggressive game, but he's also good enough to get away when he should. Like he raises early with AJ, gets reraised by Joe Beevers, and then folds showing. Later he button raises. I look down at 99. Robbie McCormack has just lost a big pot to leave himself shortstacked. I figure if I go all in now, Barry (who I have well covered) will fold and Robbie will call light, so I go all in for the first time at the table. Robbie quickly calls, Barry seems to blow a gasket in folding, particularly when I flip over 99. Amusingly, Robbie has AA, and they hold up. Barry points out I'd have been in a world of pain if the Aces had been the other side of me.
That loss knocks me back into the pack. By now we're on the bubble and hand for hand. Paul Daly is being uber aggressive. After playing nothing for a few orbits, I pick up Ace Jack in early position and raise to 20K. Paul reraises to 50K. Normally I'd throw my AJ away at this point, but with Paul being so loose I decide to call. Flop comes 755. I decide to take a pop at it and bet 60K. Paul calls with apparent reluctance. I now figure he's got an Ace, and wonder whose kicker is better. 7 comes on the turn, so now I'm thinking split pot. No need to inflate the pot any further, so I check, as does Paul. Then my bingo card on the river, a jack, and the only question is how big a bet with Paul call. He has about 250K left so I throw 80K into the pot, and he calls reluctantly. He turns over A10, so actually I was ahead the whole way (except at the turn, when I was splitting).
As I rake in the chips, I feel Joe Beevers' eyes burning into me and I can almost hear him noting that I continuation bet.

When is a move not the best move
A few hands later, Paul is hopelessly shortstacked, with less than one BB. He moves all in under the gun. Tony Baitson calls. Barry Hand raises (I think) 5 BB in what looks like an isolation play. I figure he's probably got 99, 1010, or JJ. I look down at 75s on the button. I easily cover Barry and both blinds so now I start to wonder what'll happen if I go all in. It being the bubble, I think everyone will probably fold and I'll scoop a pile of dead money regardless of whether I beat Paul or not. I weigh it up, and in the end decide not to. I think my table image as a relative newcomer who doesn't bluff much and is playing big hands only is more valuable at this point. If I move all in now and flip over 75s, the better players will immediately realise I'm capable of such a move, and that'll make it harder to pull those moves at potentially more crucial moments at the final table.
Barry does indeed have JJ, and they hold up and the bubble bursts.
We get from there to final table fairly quickly without me winning another pot, so I'm starting to wonder if my decision not to make that move on the bubble was a good one. I'd been sitting on about 1 million in chips, but I lose a biggish pot to Tony when I decide to defend my blind with K10, and lose to his pocket jacks on a 10 high board. The only positive thing about that hand is I could very easily have lost more, but in any case, I start the final table with just 690K, just below average. Tony is the chip leader and Lloyd is the short stack.

Final table
I draw a good seat. On my immediate right are the best player left in the tournament (Joe Beevers), the chip leader (Tony), and the short stack (Lloyd).
Even as the second or third shortest stack, there's no need to panic yet as there's plenty of play left. I keep reminding myself of this as I sit there virtually card dead for the whole of the first session. The only decent hand I pick up is 1010, and Lloyd moves all in ahead of me from early position. I have a bit of a ponder. I figure I'm ahead of most of his range, but it's for half my stack so it's effectively for my tournament, and most likely scenario is I'm only a marginal favourite in a race. There are 5 players to act behind me, so because of that and to save myself that sinking feeling of watching him flip over pocket jacks, I decide to wait for a more clearcut opportunity. Later in the session as my stack drifts back to 500K, I start to revisit that decision.
I stay afloat only by virtue of a few blind steals from early position. The table is playing quite active so late position steals just aren't coming my way. I'm UTG when Joe Beevers' is in the BB, and it's clear Joe's the only player at the table less emotionally attached to his blinds than I am. I'm also pretty sure he has me down as a tight solid player. First time I rob he tells me he has blackjack. Second time, he shows KJ. That was last hand of the session. With blinds about to go up and not having moved a chip in ages, I figure it's the ideal time for an UTG steal.
But maybe not. First Fran asks how much I have left. I tell him "approximately half a million". He ponders and folds. Then Lloyd asks the same question, and gets the same answer (from Joe Beevers if I remember correctly). Ponder, fold. Tony looks at my stack, and Joe suggests jokingly that he ask what I have left. Tony asks the dealer to count and it's 505,000. Tony folds. Joe passes up the opportunity to further put me through the ringer, showing KJ but folding quickly. Apparently there were four better hands than mine out there, including AJ, KJ, 77. So maybe it wasn't a great time for a steal, but it got through.

Break time
At the break I'm a little disconsolate as I realise that I'm not that far off all in or fold short stack poker, which I hate. Sean is great though, telling me to keep it together, and I also meet Smurph (Collette Doherty) who I know well from the Fitzwilliam Card Club and she tells me to enjoy it. So I'm in a better frame of mind when I walk back to the table, and it gets even better straight away. Robbie McCormack, who has been playing very very tight, raises huge UTG for over half his stack. It's folded round to me in the big blind and I go to look at my cards knowing only monsters need apply as calling hands in this situation. First card Ace. Second card Ace. I look back at his stack to make sure he's pot committed, and go all in. He actually takes a while to call and I start to wonder if the crude all in was a mistake. Part of my reason for doing it was to reenforce my table image as a fairly unimaginative player only playing big hands. Thankfully he did call in the end, and flicked over pocket Queens. There are three hearts on the board after the turn so I quickly check and phew, yes I have the ace. Fourth heart arrives and I've doubled up.
Robbie exits a few hands later, unlucky to be first player out. Shortly after, Tony who has had a very swingy final table exits (he was unlucky to lose an all in preflop with 10's against Fran's 4's).
The hand I'll tell the grandkids about
I'm in the small blind. Lloyd (I think) calls from late position and Joe Beevers raises on the button to 90K. I look down at AK, in the SB and reraise to 270K. Folded to Joe, who takes a little while (unusual for him as he generally acts quickly). My sunglasses are down and I'm staring straight ahead, aware that 25% of my chips are in the pot and the most solid player at the table clearly has a hand. I know he's not folding: he seems to be deciding between a flat call and an all in. He eventually flat calls. I'm now thinking he most likely has jacks or queens. Flop comes 10 5 5. No help there, although the 10 is slightly useful. We both know the other guy got none of that. I instantly realise I have to take a pop at it. If I just surrender the pot, Joe will be up over 2 million chips and in my opinion unstoppable. Knowing you have to, and being able to get the chips into the pot without trembling like a pneumatic drill being powered on, are two different things. As calmly and deliberately as I could, I announce "bet", take one stack of 20 10K chips, then just over half of my other stack of 20, and push about half of my remaining stack across the line, while my heart pounds at my teeth looking for permission to leap out onto the table.
Joe has seen me continuation bet in an almost identical situation earlier at the second last table, so I have to think he's going to call. He ponders for 90 seconds or so while I sit there with the sunglasses down trying to look calm as my tournament hangs in the balance. My brother tells me later Joe stared at me the whole time before he eventually decided to fold. Later, with the game still on, Lloyd remarks I've always turned over the goods when called, and Joe says yes but I think I may have put down the best hand against you that time, telling me he did indeed have jacks. It's still game on and I think I'm benefiting from my straightforward "big hands only" table image so I reassure Joe I had queens. Lloyd says "Good fold Joe" but Joe wasn't born yesterday and says "of course you'd never lie about it, would you?". No Joe, I'd never lie.

Mark McConnell, who has been playing a very good final table, has by now moved into a commanding chip lead when I pick up KK on the button. I raise, he reraises in the small blind, I think for a few seconds, and I'm all in. Mark looks at me and says, quite accurately, "You did it faster when you had Aces". I sit there like a statue in sunglasses. Mark eventually calls and flips over AK. No ace comes and for the first time since shortly after start of play today, I'm chip leader again.
The next major pot involves Mark too. Barry flatcalls from early position, it's folded round to my small blind, I decide to flatcall with 44, and Mark checks. Flop is Q94 rainbow. I check, expecting one of the two aggressive players behind me to fire at it, but they both check. 3 on the turn and a possible flush draw, so I check again. Mark bets, Barry folds, and I reraise. Mark looks at me and asks if I was trapping Barry too. Again, I'm a statue with sunglasses. Mark has a very long ponder, then folds what he claims (but doesn't show) is 43 (bottom two pair). I muck, and Joe asks me to make him feel good about folding his Q9 (top 2 pair) by confirming I had a set of 3's. I tell him (truthfully this time) it was 4's.
By the time we go to the final break, I have about half the chips in play.

At the break, I ask my brother if he knows what I had in the hand against Joe Beevers. My main reason for asking is to see if I'm giving of tells: I figure if the guy who knows me best can't guess what I had, nobody at the table can. Sean says "You must have had Aces, or Kings". When I tell him I had one of each, he almost faints.
I ask Sean what the plan is now I have half the chips. He says "Just keep doing what you're doing".
When we resume, we're quickly down to 5 with Joe Beevers gone after pushing with 77 and running into Gary's KK. I know I already have enough chips for a headsup battle so I start thinking about who I might end up heads up with at the end. I figure given the way it's going and the stack sizes, it'll most likely be Gary, or else Lloyd. I rate both of them very highly based on what I've seen so far, so while I decide to tighten up and let the other four duke it out for the chance to take me on headsup, I don't want to totally hand the initiative to either of them. I mention this because it was a major factor in my decision making in the few pots I did play, and one I didn't, in the final session.
At the start of the session, I happily fold the garbage I'm dealt for a while, surrendering my blinds without fuss. This seemed to frustrate some of the other players who clearly expected me to use my big stack to start knocking people out, but as I said, I thought I now had enough for heads up, and was happy to let them take each other out.
The first hand I pick up is 66, on the button. Lloyd, now shortish stacked again, moves all in just ahead of me. I have a long ponder. I figure I have to be ahead of most of his range, so in normal circumstances it's a pretty easy call. But I don't relish doubling him up and figure most likely I'm a marginal favourite in a race. But after some thought, I decide to call for three reasons: the chance to knock a very dangerous opponent out for only 15% of my stack, the table has picked up on the fact that I've tightened up so I want to let them know I'm not autofolding to every all in and if I do have a hand, they'd better be prepared to risk elimination, and finally I figure there might be some hands in Lloyd's range here like rag aces or low pocket pairs that I'd be well ahead of. Lloyd flips over AJ, and spikes a jack on the turn.

Dodging a bullet
Lloyd raises on the button, and I'm in the small blind with a medium suited Ace. Again, I figure I'm ahead of most of his range, having seen him raise as weak as 75 suited in this spot, so I start to ponder. Lloyd smiles and jokes "Jaysus Dara you're an awful card rack" and now I'm pretty certain I'm ahead as he doesn't sound like a man who wants a reraise or even a call. Question is: how far ahead? I figure at best it's probably one of those 60/40 situations. Do I want to risk doubling him up again on something that's only a bit better than a coin flip? I look at Fran watching intently behind me in the big blind and some instinct says he's got a hand. So I decide to fold, and tell Lloyd he's too dangerous to double up now he's got chips.
Fran instantly shoves all in behind me and I'm already glad I folded. Lloyd is priced in with his KJ. Fran flips over pocket 10's and they hold up. No Ace either, so he'd have got my chips too. Phew. Sometimes it's good to be a nit.

A nasty move
My last major hand involves Gary. He raises 3 big blinds (or 150K, three times the starting "deep stack" - that's how these things go). It being Gary, I know he has a hand. I'm big blind, and looking at garbage I'd normally throw in the muck without a second thought, but I decide now might be a good time to get creative and let the table know I'm still willing to play. Since I tightened up, the table's been taking it in turns to raise my big blind, and I choose now as a good time to fire back. I think Gary's a good target because he's good enough to know he shouldn't really mess with the big stack unless he has a monster, and disciplined enough not to make a petulant move. I reraise to 450K and Gary pretty quickly throws his 66 away, verbally confirming that he knows he can't play with my stack at this point. Afterwards, he called it a nasty move, but it was born out of respect for his game and discipline.
That hand may effectively signalled the end of the tournament. I got a sense that the others now wanted to deal, and sure enough two hands later, it's folded around to me on the button and as I'm about to act, Lloyd wonders aloud if I'm willing to deal. The others seem keen to deal, and Gary asks if I'm going to answer Lloyd's query. I confirm I'm willing to talk deal, as I simultaneously decide now's a good time for one last button steal and raise. The steal gets through and it's time to deal.

Did you just give up 4K for a big vase?
I go to consult with my brother as to what I should be looking for in the deal. Lloyd generously suggests that if Sean is helping me with negotiations, he should be allowed through to the table. Someone suggests a 5 way even chop but since I now have about 43% of the chips, that clearly isn't going to happy. A straight chop by chip count a la Sklansky would give me 55K, but with that being just 9K short of first prize, I think it equally unlikely the others will agree to it, so the question is what I should be shooting for. Sean suggests 45K as a very minimum.
Lloyd asks what's the minimum I'd take and I say 47K. The tournament director helpfully suggests another common formula involving chopping half the remaining prizes equally and dividing the other half by chip count. Under this formula, I come out with 51.2K. Lloyd cannily points out that that's 4K more than I asked for, so he suggests the others all take an extra K. I'm happy to do this so long as I'm declared the official winner. Fran comes up with another suggestion that we play on for the 4K and the title. While I'm not averse to trying to win the title this way, Sean rightly points out that that would mean I was donating 4K of my money and "my" title to a freeroll. So I solidify my position to I'll take the 47.2K but only if I get the title too. To be perfectly honest, as nice as the money is, my main consideration at this point is the title. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take down a prestigious poker title, and I feel it would be the perfect end to what is easily the best few days poker I've ever played.
The others all agree to the deal, Fran somewhat reluctantly I think, and the tournament is over. Everyone seems reasonably happy with the outcome and the deal, and to be honest, while there was still some play left, it was likely to come down in the end to who ran best from this point. I was on a personal high as it suddenly hit me I'd won this thing, and as an added bonus I got to be photographed with a big novelty cheque, something I've long harboured as a secret ambition.



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