I’ve just got to keep grinding…
That’s the mantra I’ve lived by for the last 10 years, spent pursuing my goal of becoming a professional poker player. Well, a successful pro anyhow.
As it currently stands, I do derive the bulk of my income from playing cards, so I technically qualify as a pro. But when it comes to poker – and specifically, the grueling grind of the live tournament circuit – simply paying the bills isn’t enough.
Not when six- and even seven-figure prizes are out there waiting to be won. Not when players who aren’t on my level are scooping up life-changing scores. Not when my time is due…
I’m writing this from a dark hotel room at the Harrah’s Cherokee casino in North Carolina, a regular stop along the World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOP-C). It’s my last night here, and following a week and a half of fruitless efforts on the felt, I’m ready to get the hell out of dodge.
Living Vicariously Through Winners Until My Moment Arrives
That feeling only grew as I refreshed the live updates page on WSOP.com, which was covering the WSOP-C Main Event tournament still going on downstairs. For the low, low price of just $1,700, players took part in a multi-day extravaganza of flops, folds, and in my case anyway, frustration.
But with a guaranteed prize pool of $1 million on the line – the lion’s share coming to just under $300,000 for the winner – I lined up along with the masses to take my shot.
During Day 1A of the event – which included a pair of Day 1 starting flights that players could enter – my experience was nothing short of a disaster. My starting stack of 30,000 chips began eroding on the very first deal, thanks to a “cooler” which saw my pocket Jacks pipped by an opponent’s pocket Queens. The damage on that hand was only minimal, but it started a downward slide I couldn’t stop.
Within just two short levels I found myself short-stacked and desperate, and when a villain’s flush draw got there on the river, I was eliminated in short order.
No matter though, as I came prepared to fire two $1,700 “bullets” into this Main Event. That second bullet was intended for Day 1B, as a contingency in case Day 1A went awry, but with the reentry period still open I threw caution to the wind and reentered the fray.
This time, however, things seemed to be going according to plan. I patiently built my stack from 30,000 to 90,000 chips by the dinner break, and if things went well during the post-dinner frenzy, I saw myself bagging a stack big enough to make a legitimate Day 2 run.
Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men…
This session was cut short with only five hands left to play in the night, and this time it wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own. I thought a particular opponent was bluffable, especially on the bag and tag “bubble” when many recreational players try to pack it in and make the second day.
So, holding nothing but 7-9 off suit on a face card heavy board, I decided to go for the gusto and represent a Broadway straight. When I shoved my stack forward I thought I saw the faintest glimmer of hesitation on the other player’s face, but it was only an illusion. He made the call with top two pair, and to rub salt in the wound, the dealer was forced to flip my ragged bluff face up for all to see.
That should’ve ended my attempt at winning the Harrah’s Cherokee WSOP-C Main Event, as I was only bankrolled to fire two bullets.
But poker players aren’t exactly known for their restraint, so after negotiating a loan with my roommate and traveling partner, I was back in the game for Day 1B.
I wish I had a fun story to describe how that third and final bullet misfired, but poker isn’t always about fireworks. In this case, I just played poorly and never got anything going, leading to a meek pre-dinner bustout and the usual walk of shame.
And now, here I am, up late alone in a cheap hotel room following all the action from afar.
As it turns out, the Main Event title – along with $295,000, a shiny gold WSOP-C ring, and a free entry into the prestigious Global Championship – was claimed by Adam Ross, a recreational player who made the trip from Georgia.
When I refreshed the live updates (http://www.wsop.com/news/2018/Aug/10733/ADAM-ROSS-WINS-CHEROKEE-MAIN-EVENT.html) for a final time, Ross’ exuberant cries of celebration greeted me like a splash of cold water to the face: “Yes! Yes! Life-changing money! Finally!”
Ross went on to describe what that life-changing prize really meant to him, and his plans for the long-awaited windfall, while speaking to the WSOP.com reporting team:
“I’ve been playing poker for a long time, I’ve had a $30,000 cash but never the life-changer. This is the pay-off-my-mortgage life-changer.
I’m gonna continue to play a little poker, and continue to be a Sales manager at my job.
I think I’ll play in Vegas – the Main Event next year.”
After pulling up Ross’ page on Hendon Mob – the tournament results tracking database that has become a Bible of sorts for poker pros and fans alike -I learn that his life-changing win occurred in just his eighth cash. And then the sting starts to set in…
Don’t get me wrong now, I’m always happy to see a fellow player live out their dreams (and my dream too) at the poker table. Ross seems like a decent dude, and he deserves to savor the moment all of us pros grinding the Circuit are busy chasing.
But I can’t lie and say it doesn’t sting. Because I’ve been at this a lot longer than Ross, I’ve dedicated my adult life to this craft, and he still managed to find the winner’s circle before me.
That’s poker though, that’s the life I chose, and now it’s time to move on to the next stop in what seems to be an endless series of casinos and card rooms.
Playing Poker is Only Half the Battle for a Touring Pro
After drowning my sorrows in a gin and tonic, and sleeping fitfully for a few hours, the time comes to hit the road.
The next stop along the WSOP-C – one of a few mid-major tournament series running across the United States (link to Top 3 Poker Tours Outside of WSOP page here) – takes my traveling partner and to Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut.
That means driving up the Interstate 81 northbound for the next 15 hours or so. We try to fly when finances allow, but following a dry trip in which neither of us cashed for anything meaningful, driving becomes the right play.
I won’t bore you with the details of a daylong drive, but as you can probably imagine, there’s plenty of ways I’d rather spend 15 hours. Let’s just say country music, cigarette smoke, and swervy driving don’t really mix.
When the driving is done and we arrive at Foxwoods, we try to secure a poker rate discount on our shared room. A round of haggling goes nowhere though, and even though we combined to spend upwards of $10,000 on tournaments during the last WSOP-C Foxwoods stop, the casino says no dice on a discount.
Thus, we hoof it over to a budget motel nearby and set up our latest base camp.
And then, the whole process begins anew. Registering for preliminary events by day, trying to pad the bankroll with a few cash game wins by night. Waking up early to get a quick workout in, grabbing a bite to eat with my morning latte, and studying my Hold’em game theory solvers whenever time allows.
That’s the bland background routine underlying every day grinding the circuit, but as you might’ve suspected by now, my real passion lies with the poker itself.
Simply put, I love playing poker tournaments. The challenge of competing against elite players, the competitive spirit shared by everyone who still has chips in play, and of course, the massive payouts waiting up top for the winner. All of this was intoxicating to me from the first time I played, and it remains so to this day.
For this reason, I’ll never complain about the inevitable downswings that plague all poker players – even the most successful pros on the planet. After all, if Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu – only the winningest tournament player of all-time at $40 million in earnings and counting – can admit to suffering consecutive losing years (https://www.pokernews.com/news/2018/01/daniel-negreanu-back-to-back-losing-years-sets-2018-goals-29633.htm), who am I to lament a losing streak?
I mean, just take a look at the numbers posted by Negreanu to his personal Full Contact Poker blog as a New Year’s resolution of sorts:
- Events 49
- Cashes 10
- ITM % 20.4
- Buy ins $1,546,355
- Payouts $300,431
- Profit (-$1,246,693)
- Avg Buy In $31,558
- Hourly Rate (-$3,097)
- Events 71
- Cashes 21
- ITM % 29.6
- Buy ins $2,874,164
- Payouts $2,792,104
- Profit (-$86,140)
- Avg Buy In $40,481
- Hourly Rate (-$144)
When one of the best players to ever live can lose more than $1.3 million over a prolonged two-year slump, it puts the sheer difficulty of playing poker professionally into perspective.
That’s why I won’t worry too much about the cash-less run at Harrah’s Cherokee, or my middling results thus far at Foxwoods.
At least I made the money a few times during this trip, helping to offset those expenses that always seem to pile up when you’re on the road.
A 29th place run in a $400 buy-in preliminary event returned enough cash to pay my partner back for the previous Main Event loan. From there, I nearly made the final table in another $400 event, and the 11th place finish provided enough cash to pay for laundry service, a full tank of gas, and a nice dinner out with some fellow pros.
But in the end, a handful of cashes won’t provide that life-changing money Ross was so happy to have finally won. Until I can make my own breakthrough, the lifestyle of a touring pro will always remind me of poor Sisyphus.
In case you’re not a fan of Greek mythology, Sisyphus was doomed by the gods to suffer a particularly cruel fate. His lot in the afterlife involved pushing a massive boulder up a steep hill, but whenever he was close to reaching the peak, the boulder simply rolled back down to the bottom – where Sisyphus was forced to resume the grim punishment all over again.
If that doesn’t sound like much fun at all, playing poker tournaments for a living probably isn’t for you.
The Ecstasy of Victory Meets the Agony of Defeat
One way for poker pros to lighten the load of that proverbial boulder is through the satellite qualification process.
While many players simply pony up the $1,700 entry fee to play WSOP-C Main Events, others try to secure their seat on the cheap. During the preliminary phase of the series, satellite tournaments run daily to give players an opportunity to qualify for the Main Event.
These satellites typically come in two formats.
First, you can buy in for $200 and play a “sit and go” – or a one-table tournament – against nine opponents. With 10 buy-ins contributed, minus the casino’s $30 cut, the eventual winner takes home $1,700 in prize money – which, ostensibly, is used to subsidize their Main Event entry.
Second, multi-table satellites allow any number of players to enter, with the combined prize pool divvied up to the final 10 percent of the field. Whomever survives the gauntlet is rewarded with a $1,700 payout which can be used for the Main Event.
That was my plan anyhow, so I sat down in my first sit and go satellite of the Foxwoods stop looking to run good. I was feeling confident in my play after the earlier deep runs, and as is usually the case in a qualifier, the opponents weren’t exactly Negreanu-level players.
And so it was that I began steamrolling the table, using a combination of monster pocket pairs and well-timed bluffs to quickly amass the leading chip stack. In the wake of a horrible downswing at Harrah’s, I’ve got to admit that playing well – even in a one-table sit and go against inferior players – felt really good.
Soon enough I played my way to the heads-up phase of the game, and even though my opponent asked several times to “chop” the $1,700 into two equal halves, I decided to forge ahead and play for it all. This angered the other player to no end, and I was given a dissertation on the proper “etiquette” of satellite poker.
I don’t care much for faux etiquette, not when I pay my bills by succeeding at poker, so I resolved to play my best and let the cards fall where they may. In fact, knowing my opponent was so desperate to chop made things much easier, as I was able to apply pressure using my slightly bigger stack to force him into tough spots.
Little by little, I whittled his stack down to a just a few big blinds, before finally finishing him off with a cooler – my 10-high flush barely beating his 9-high variety.
And just like that, I was through to the WSOP-C Foxwoods Main Event on a 90 percent discount.
Winning in poker – not just a single hand, but claiming every chip in play – is always a cause for celebration in my book. Outright wins just don’t happen very often, especially in the modern game when ICM chops and the like have become the norm.
With that in mind, my traveling partner – who also managed to win a satellite seat for the Main Event – dressed to the nines and hit the casino nightclub like were in college again. The tournament circuit can definitely be a grind, so whenever we get a chance to let loose and blow off some steam, we’ll certainly go all-in on that note.
A night of hard partying later, we both awoke with the expected hangover that signals your younger days are in the rear-view mirror. No bother though, as this was planned for all along. We left ourselves a one-day window before the Main Event kicked off, and that day was spent recuperating at the spa, and then the buffet, and then the sports bar.
Twenty-four hours after waking up with a splitting headache, I rose feeling especially optimistic. I’ve been playing well here at Foxwoods, and in my mind, I picture myself finally digging out of the downswing and hitting the “heater” all poker players hold dear.
Another round of studying my game theory solvers, a few strategy chats with peers I respect, and a quick confidence-boosting chat with my Mom set the stage for my latest attempt at winning life-changing money.
On this day, my attempts to manifest a heater seemed to be paying dividends in the early going. Through the first four blind levels I didn’t lose a single meaningful pot, steadily increasing my chip count as the day progressed. I did suffer one late setback just before bagging and tagging for the day, but like they say, you can’t win them all.
Day 2 began with just over 100 hopefuls remaining in the field, each and every one of us hungrily eyeing the $169,052 top prize awaiting the eventual champion. My chip stack was slightly above average, and after taking an early look at the table draw, I liked my chances to make a deep run.
While many of the 10 remaining tables were lined with pros I recognized from the circuit – including six-time WSOP-C gold ring winner Roland Israelashvili – I was sitting with a table full of strangers. These “hometown heroes” represent the local player base, Foxwoods regulars looking to make their bones against the pros invading their beloved card room. And while they can play the game, most of these recreational players or small-stakes grinders simply don’t have the skills to compete with pros over the long-term.
Unfortunately for me, however, a single Day 2 in a single tournament is far from the long term. In that highly condensed sample size, containing as it does only a hundred hands or so, literally anybody can beat anybody when the cards cooperate.
And so it was that late on Day 2 – with the final table and five-figure payouts at the very minimum so close at hand – I suffered an especially cruel bad beat.
An amateur player opened the action with a standard raise, and after peeking down to find pocket Kings, I came over the top with a hefty reraise. By betting right around half of my stack, I was signaling my intention to commit it all, but I obviously welcomed additional action holding the second-best starting hand in all of Hold’em.
So when my opponent announced “all in” for a stack that just barely covered mine, I was happy to make the quick call with my two red cowboys.
And then the strangest thing happened…
The other player in the pot chuckled to himself while turning over the King of spades and the King of clubs, giving us the exact same hand. In this scenario, which is extremely rare by the way, the pot will be chopped more than 95 percent of the time.
On exactly 4.34 percent of deals, however, one of us would find a four-card flush on board that matched up with one of our King’s suits.
Lo and behold, the flop rained down Ace high with three spades, swelling my opponent’s win rate to a whopping 36.36 percent. The turn card brought a harmless heart, dropping their win rate to just 20.45 percent, but I could hardly exhale yet – not until the river came clean.
And that’s when the dealer slowly slid the fifth and final board card onto the felt – deuce of spades.
In a flash, I went from a contender for the final table to just another casualty. A few thousand bucks served as my consolation prize, but it meant nothing at all in light of the circumstances.
I retreated to my hotel room once more, fired up my laptop, and sweated the Day 2 playdown in the dark.
The old timers like to say that pro poker is the “toughest way to make an easy living,” and boy do they know their stuff. The game of poker itself is getting more difficult by the day, and players who don’t study their asses off are inevitably left behind. Throw in the daily logistics involved in following a traveling circuit like the WSOP-C, inevitable downswings that can carry over from stop to stop, and the looming specter of mental fatigue – and this life just isn’t for everybody.
I still love it though, so I’ll be out here grinding until it’s my name splashed atop the live updates page. And even though I know that day might never come, the journeys I’ve experienced – the new places discovered and new friendships forged – are enough to keep me coming back for more.