It's now eighteen years since I first came to Vegas. I haven’t missed a year since that first one and sometimes I've come here as many as four times in twelve months. In that time I've never stayed here for longer than seven weeks, but I reckon I must have spent a total of two years of my life in this town. For the first few trips I never even played poker. The friends I used to come with were, like me, far too nervous to join a game where everyone seemed to know all the points of etiquette and procedure that we had no clue about. To "outsiders" like us it all seemed very daunting. Instead the focus of our trip would be golf, drinking and blackjack. Ironically, it's now the same for a lot of the top poker pros.
The first games I played then were $4-8 limit Hold 'Em at The Horseshoe and a win of $100 would be a terrific result. I remember playing Telly Savalas in that game and, even more memorably, stepping up to the $10-$20 game to take my shot at an elderley Johnny Moss. He was definitely past his prime, but I was still proud to hold my own.
My first WSOP was 1999 and I was pleased to see Stu Ungar play the final table on Freemont Street, and to be introduced to him during a break. With two tables left we discussed his odds to win, I said evens, he argued 8/5 was the correct price. I remember my friend Dominic Bourke losing heads-up to some youngster called Daniel Negreanu who was winning his first bracelet.
In 1999 I played a hotshot called Allen Cunningham in a plh cash game with $5, $5 blinds - he played pretty tight. That same trip I beat Kathy Liebert in a one-table satellite which was $120 to enter. I remember because I was impressed that she had a backer. It was he who refused my offer to split the money heads-up. He was Amarillo Slim. Puggy Pearson was fourth in that particular satellite.
All this sudden nostalgia is my way of making a point. In those days the game was a lot smaller and the top players were more accessible in all ways. The main thing that has now changed is that you got to play them. They were actually around the place, playing in side games, and they weren't all millionaires who played in private rooms. They were grinding away just like I was.
The one-table satellites were often the place you would see them and I remember clearly my first WSOP one table - I got heads-up with a bloke I vaguely remembered from the Vic. I thought he was Irish and he looked like he hadn't slept, or changed his clothes, for three days. Despite my 55%/45% lead I thought I'd do him a favour and chop the $5k. He refused and then wiped the floor with me. I made a mental note to avoid satellites with Rob Hollink.
I also used to studiously avoid ones with Devilfish and Layne Flack, which was hard as they were in a lot of them. I actually always did well against Layne, but he used to scare the shit out of me. The other guy I used to always avoid was a bloke I only knew as Greg. For years I'd try not to play the one-tables with him as he was a massive winner in them. One day though he paid me an enormous compliment. He sold his place in a satellite to someone else because he hadn't realised I was in it when he bought in. Then in another satellite I was flattered when he split the money evenly with me despite having a 60/40 chiplead. I wrote a diary mentioning it at the time and this caused Greg Hopkins to become a loyal reader, and a friend.
With the trip going badly, and a change of emphasis needed, I felt a return to the old days might help. Each day I would get up and go to the pool for a few hours before heading off to play the one-table satellites feeling totally refreshed. The $525 ones which I have been favouring pay $5000 in lammers (chips that can be sold to other players or used to buy into satellites or tournaments) plus $120 in cash. The house only takes $13 in juice per person, and this is offset by the $10 discount food voucher you get given.
In this modern era of poker there are very few pros to be seen playing the one-tables. Sit 'n' Go specialists can multi-table online more effectively, and the sponsored pros don't need to win satellites to pay their tournament entries. It was to be an extremely focused and hungry Bad Beat taking on a bunch of tourists. They wouldn't know what hit them.
After four days of this relentless grinding I'd really started to get things back on track, fiscally speaking, and felt I could think about a competition or two. Friday's $2000 PLH is best glossed over. I have to say I didn't play at all well and I was gutted to see the last of the PLHs finish for me. Having played in the $1500 NLH on the previous Saturday, and seen some remarkably poor play from a wide range of players, I couldn't miss this one. I was also inspired by Praz who was a few tables away doing brilliantly on his day two of the $2000 PLH. When I looked around the players at his table who should I see but Greg. I chatted away to them during one of my breaks and it seemed they'd been involved in several pots together and had developed a healthy mutual respect.
My own tournament was also going incredibly well. My stack climbed to 18k with the average around 7k. I was dominating the table and had succeeded in raising, and winning, six consecutive pots at one point. Maybe this was the main reason why my one bad hand was SUCH a terrible error. I don't think I've made such a bad mistake for a number of years. Just because I thought the guy in the cut-off might be weak, because he raised eight and a half big-blinds, it doesn't mean I have to go all-in for sixty big-blinds. I had only been playing with the bloke ten minutes and I only had KhQh. Although there were hundreds of people left in, this was definitely my best chance of a bracelet so far. I'd completely blown it. I couldn't forgive myself for this one.
I was so busy wallowing in misery and self-pity I struggled to do a good job of consoling Praz. His fifteenth place finish was because of a bad beat, and it was difficult to convince him that it was a great performance after his equally shattering tenth a few days earlier. I assured him that if he keeps playing so well a second WSOP final is sure to happen, and I know that to be true. Eventually we bumped into Greg who was taking the second biggest stack into Sunday's final. He gave us a lift and we had a couple of Guinesses in the Bellagio.
I arrived at The Rio on Sunday just as he won it. He'd waited over six years for another chance at a WSOP final, and showed what the old-school players could do. I was delighted he didn't play the one-table I was in that night, but I'm pleased to report he did stake one of my opponents, who looked a bit down on his luck. I hope the bloke didn't tell Greg it was me who busted him.
Neil Channing will be putting some of his satellite winnings into some more poker tournaments wearing a shirt that says PokerVerdict.com