One man against the world

One of the benefits of jetlag is that I had no problem being up and about at seven o’clock on Saturday morning to make my way to the Hard Rock Café to watch Ecuador beat England in the last sixteen of the soccer world cup. They didn’t. My taxi driver was a poker sickie. He knew everything . We were getting on fine until he told me he didn’t like the way I played the hand in which I got eliminated at the final table of the main event in 1999. I told him I didn’t think much of his driving either, which sort of slowed down the conversation a bit. I tipped him anyway !

I headed down to the Rio after the game to register for the first few events. Half a dozen people (four of them strangers) asked me if I was here to do something for TV, one guy asked me if I was here to write something. Only Nolan Dalla was polite enough to mention that maybe it was about time I won a bracelet. He’s a good judge that Nolan Dalla! I love the start of big tournaments. Everyone is in good humor. Two of the ladies at the registration sang happy birthday to me after examining my passport .They stopped pretty quickly when I joined in. !

It didn’t take me long to make my first final table. Unfortunately, I was there as a spectator sweating my friends Mike Sexton and Andy Black, who both made the final table of the two million dollar free roll Tournament of Champions. A strange name for a tournament where eight of the players qualified by losing (at the final table of last year’s WSOP) while genuine real world champions like Berry Johnson weren’t even invited. It was nonetheless a star-studded final table, with Mike and Andy joined by the likes of Chris Ferguson and Daniel Negreanu. Andy had a bid chip lead and Mike was pretty short stacked. The first big move of the day didn’t even involve the final table. It was an announcement by some excited guy in a suit that the 1500 No Limit Hold’em event would be played eleven handed, and involve over 400 alternates. He didn’t tell us when, if ever, the real poker was going to start. Andy came over to the rail to talk to me, and seemed in good spirits. I was delighted to see him doing well as I’m not the only one who thinks he was the best player at last year’s final table. Ten minutes later, I nearly threw up when Andy blew up and gifted three quarter of his chips to Daniel. If Andy ever stopped beating himself, we’d all have to watch out. Back in my hotel room, I emerged from a jetlagged sleep from which I emerged about every hour to check the chip-counts in the Rio. Mike against Daniel heads-up, you couldn’t make this stuff up! What TV! Great poker played in the true spirit of the game. It went on for hours, during which Daniel got the aces four times, but couldn’t find Mike with a hand. Finally, Mike emerged a winner and gave half the million he won to charity before Daniel could suggest doubles or quits on the golf course. It was a good day for poker. The last time I sweated Mike at a final table was when he finished second in the Seniors at the WSOP a few years ago. He needed the money and wanted the bracelet that day, and was absolutely gutted when he lost. Sometimes, you only find out how much a guy really cares when you see him lose. There’s a great line from a classic NBA final’s commentary, where the announcer remarks "Maybe you have to have your heart broken before you can become a real champion". It seemed more than appropriate here. Few of the enthusiastic crowd even knew that Mike had won a bracelet in the 80’s, had won a European Championship in exhibition style, or was regarded by his fellow pros as a truly world class player. Well, now they know.

I was with Mike the next day, when the Cardplayer guy, Mr. Belski, interviewed him. The interview began with Rick congratulating Mike on winning one of the most exciting heads-up he’d seen in many years. I missed the rest of what was said because I was so busy laughing because the interviewer looked to be about seventeen.

I wasn’t quite so successful myself. The end. I’m only joking. I played my first eleven handed WSOP event. Ten of us were seated with one empty seat beside me. Veteran John Bonnetti was the only one I recognized. The eleventh seat was taken by a guy who was probably one of the three biggest guys in the room. I asked him if he’d be staying long. "Probably longer than you buddy". Ouch. My cover got blown a bit when Robert Williamson III (I think he’s called the third because he’s only a third of the size he used to be) and Warren Karp dropped by to say hi. But it didn’t make any difference. Before the end of level one, I limped into a pot with the Qs 9s and a guy bet into me after a flop of Qd 8s 4s. I raised, hit the flush on the turn, and got the rest in after he checked. He had As 7s. I stood up to go. Of course the big guy was still there !

As I left the room, I stopped to say hello to Mark Sief. Mark is great. He loves a gamble and a smile is never far from his face. I like him extra well since he won the two bracelets last year. Every time I look at him, I can’t help thinking that I only play half as bad as he does, so one bracelet should be quite easy!

I’ve seen a great Brunson T-shirt. It says "Courage doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of fear". Or if you’re Irish, substitute "brains". God bless Ireland.