Generally speaking New Year's Eve is by far the worst day of the year for me and I quite enjoy my birthday. I've always been keen on surprise presents, cards and cake. New Year's Eve is just horrible. All that looking back on what you've achieved, being forced to go out and enjoy yourself, getting drunk with a lot of people who hardly ever leave the house ordinarily, and all those chances to measure your success at The Game of Life. I guess it's that aspect of my fortieth that I was dreading the most. Miros tried to cheer me up by pointing out I was "another year older and closer to that yawning chasm of nothingness that greats us all at the end of this meaningless and agonising journey". Bless him for trying.
I thought maybe by going to Vegas I could forget about it. If I wasn't really up to the whole celebration thing I could just hide away, maybe sleep for a day, or just sit in a game downtown for twenty-four hours.
I started this trip staying at The Bellagio. When I first used to play here they'd give you a poker rate of $89 midweek and $129 weekends. It stayed that way for a long time, poker players were important customers and many practically lived in the hotel. Over the years things have changed. The poker explosion and the demand for hotel rooms has seen the rate gradually creep up. This trip they charged me the new poker rate of $159 weekdays and $299 weekends. It's still a lot better than the Hilton Metropole on the Edgware Road, but it just seems like they don't value us any more. After a few days I'd be moving to the Wynn. Their rates are $129 and $199, the rooms are nicer, and they just seem to want the business more.
For now though it was the Bellagio, that's where the tournaments are and that's where everyone hangs out. I managed to gather a disparate, but eclectic bunch for dinner. I don't think anyone knew more than one person other than me, but everyone seemed to have a laugh and we enjoyed some good food and wine at Prime - the Bellagio's Steakhouse. It was really nice to celebrate with top fella Champie Douglas who had just won $315k in the tournament the day before. We introduced him to the English term "nipping" which he'd already spent the day becoming familiar with.
My good friends Murray, (my legendary former flatmate), and Stewart were in town for the boxing and it was nice to introduce them to everyone, especially as we all share mutual friends. We all felt particularly pleased to get a visit from some minor poker royalty in the form of Roland, who took time out from his busy blackjack schedule at The Wynn to give something back to his people. I felt a bit of reminiscing was appropriate for the occasion and the whole day passed quite pleasantly.
For most of the other Brits in town the important event of the week was Ricky Hatton vs. Floyd Mayweather. Everywhere you went people were talking about tickets, how to get them and what they cost. Not being an enormous fan of boxing, I wasn't that excited when someone offered a free ticket, or disappointed when it fell through. I decided that I'd play the day's $5k event and I'd be very happy if I was still going and missed the fight.
The week's tournaments so far had been typical of this form of poker. In the first one Noah Boaken had called my raise with junk and while contemplating my all-in check-raise on the flop told me:
"The problem is Neil, I never think you have anything."
I did have a pair of Jacks, but he wasn't to know that, and he had quite a good draw. I also couldn't blame the guy who busted me the next day. His call of my all-in reraise was reasonable, given the chip stacks, and AK is never any good for me. The bloke managed to take my chips to the final and get fourth place. In that tournament I'd had a chance to take on Hevad Khan for the first time since the 2006 WSOP, where we'd played some one-table satellites together. I was quite surprised when he greeted me by asking if I worked for PokerVerdict (I was wearing a Bellagio shirt). We chatted about an article he's writing for the site and he turned out to be a pleasant, thoughtful and modest young man, and not at all the total and utter cock he appears to be on TV. When I busted him by check-raising all-in with a gutshot and a flush-draw to beat his top set I hoped it wouldn't stop him writing the piece.
While I was queuing to buy-in for the $5k event I took a look at the faces around me. I knew the 21st Century random draw procedure that The Bellagio use would give me a 50% chance of meeting each person at the table. With Alan Goehring in front of me I thought about popping to the snack-bar and buying-in ten minutes later. In the end I decided that as my $5k was, most likely, going to be completely gone in a few hours time I may as well get something for my money. A chance to play with a true great might be worth the investment.
I actually played with several greats that day. Alan Goehring was impressive as ever. I watched him very carefully, but it's still hard to REALLY see what he's doing. It's also hard to tell always if you're getting Layne Flack's "A"-game but he was entertaining and is still formidable. Scott Fischman is also an excellent player, as well as a really nice guy who I get on well with. He told me he's thinking seriously about moving to London. We certainly don't need him in the Vic every afternoon.
Despite this plethora of truly world-class players there was some value in the tournament. During the break Mark Teltscher came up to me and wasted five minutes of my limited time on this planet asking me about a pair of queens which he had apparently recently folded. He asked me if he was correct and I told him only a total, complete and utter moron who was playing the game for the first time would make the lay-down.
Shortly after that I raised, and newcomer to our table, Teltscher reraised for a third of his stack. Knowing that reraising aggressive players is basically all his game consists of, and suddenly realising why he told me the ridiculous pair of queens story, I now KNEW my pair of nines was good. I was still unsure whether this kid was stupid enough to call with KJ, J10,Q10 or any trash of that ilk. I decided to call and push the flop.
"You weren't supposed to do that." he told me, "I wanted to set you all-in."
I think I played the hand correctly. If his K6 hadn't have flopped a flush-draw he would have passed. Obviously knowing this is his hand, I can win the pot with a pre-flop shove, but this way I make myself a much better shot at beating AQ or AK. Anyway, that's enough lessons. The point is he's now won an enormous pot and has three times the average and I'm back in the pack. I then get to watch him put the whole lot in two minutes later in a three-way coup were his comment on the flop was:
"So I need to hit any red six."
I don't mean to be bitter, but it is just one of the many frustrations of tournament poker that he goes on to get third in this event while I manage to miss the boxing and the money.
The trip was starting to get expensive now. My birthday had passed and after all the anticipation of this enormous milestone I had an anticlimactic, slightly lonely and sad couple of days. I was also spewing money at trying to get in the Main Event, with absolutely no joy.
I did play the $15k Doyle Brunson Classic, a WPT event with 664 players. I ended up doing it only because I have a bunch of very loyal and understanding backers. They definitely got very little value for their money during the early part of my day one. A deep stacked, slow structured tournament is basically a cash-game, and should be right up my street, but it just didn't seem to go that way. It seems that when they're "just tournament chips" and you start with so many of them, people will always make the call. You end up simply waiting for a hand and it takes away so many of your weapons. When you add the fact that I was sitting there feeling utterly miserable and despondent it was going to be hard to survive the day.
In the end I played well though. From a low of 6200 I got back to 37k and I didn't want to stop. Day two also started badly. I'm not really good at waking-up and giving it my best game at noon but I'd slept well and was very focussed. Neither of those things, nor the couple of small mistakes I made helped me and I went out on a bad-beat after a few hours.
With a couple of days to kill before going home I've been playing the last Bellagio $1000 tournaments. Yesterday's was annoying. I had 84k with an average of 25k when twenty people were left and 60k with an average of 42k with eleven people left. The $35k first prize would get me out of it on the trip. Lawrence Gosney had to work hard at telling me I'd done nothing wrong and I'm still a good player after I finished eleventh.
Walking into the Cafe at The Wynn I listened to John and Yoko, Bing Crosby and several others talking about snow, sleighbells, Christmas lights and reindeer. I found myself laughing out loud. I have once been here when it snowed but it's hardly a regular event and Christmas day here is just like any other with the neon burning away as people relentlessly chase their money in an attempt to get out of it. Even the obligatory trip to Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden didn't bring back the Magic of Vegas. This is around my fortieth trip here and it's quite rare in that I'm going to be really glad to come home.
Neil Channing is hoping PokerVerdict will be happy to back his Christmas shopping expedition next week, or the poor little children will be going without.