Concert at King’s College

February 15, 2010

Went to Cambridge to see a concert. This special event was organised by Sir John Myrig Thomas, the chemist, as a double memorial to his wife Margaret, Lady Thomas and my uncle Andrew O’Neill. Andrew died in 2004. Sir John is fiercely proud of being Welsh, and spoke only in his mother tongue when he met my Aunts and I at the reception. My Welsh is not so good, so I just smiled as they talked. Sir John is one of those men who just command attention. In a circle of people he will usually be the one talking and everyone else is rapt. He is the kind of bloke that could tell a shit joke and you would think it was the funniest thing you have heard all week. He does not just talk, he delivers his thoughts as if he were on stage. Its OK though, because he loves people and conversation so much, the enthusiasm of this 77 year-old man draws you in and makes you smile. While he is talking, he observes the people around him, looking for the person on the outside of the circle, drawing them back in with more eye contact or a special comment.

My hotel room was upgraded because they had no cheapo single rooms left. I got an ensuite triple for the same price as the single room. Felt like a bit of a waste being in that room on my own. One funny thing about it was the bathroom shelf above the sink. The fittings were loose, so this glass shelf was tilted down slightly. I laughed when I noticed it because I had read a review of this hotel online, where a guy complains about the tilted shelf above the sink in room 3b. You don’t realise its tilted until you put your stuff on the shelf. Very slowly your stuff will start to slide, then it will drop in the sink. I proudly set out my American Crew hair wax, nail scissors, shaving apparatus and toothbrush on this shelf. No toothpaste. No toothpaste in the toiletries basket. Why do hotels provide bath foam, moisturiser and shampoo but no toothpaste? I set about brushing my teeth with cold water. I notice my American Crew slipping towards the edge. Into the sink it falls. A? Thats annoying, I think as I put the stuff back on the shelf. Slowly it makes its way back to the sink. I finish the brushing, and put my toothbrush on the glass shelf. It takes half a minute to creep down to the edge of the shelf. I watch the toothbrush fall into the sink as if this is the first time I have observed the phenomenon. Later that night, and the next morning, I go through the whole routine again, forgetting the tilted nature of the shelf, resetting my stuff and saying ‘for fucks sake’ every time an object crashes into the sink.

Queuing outside the Chapel, I realise I that I need a piss. I’ve never been to King’s College Chapel, but I bet there are no bogs inside. I leave the queue and eyeball some stony medieval doorways and dark corners. I consider stepping into the shadows for a piss, but decide that would be too disrespectful, and perhaps I would be arrested. A lady directs me towards a building where I find a toilet. Trotting back I see that most of the audience have entered the Chapel now. A lady holds open the gate for me and we chat as we make our way into the venue. She is Julie Bressor, Director of Development at King’s College. She is from America and has only been here two weeks. She seems genuinely interested in meeting people. Her job is to talk to raise funds for the College. When we speak further at the reception later on, she explains that she meets a lot of very successful people who want to do good things with their money. I explain that I work in a poker club where I meet lots of scumbags, desolates and delusionals who want to win each other’s money. Julie is a historian. She is an extremely intelligent woman and I am interested in her views. I ask her what she thinks about the state of mankind, ‘coz it seems like we’re doomed…’ and straight away she pounces on my negative aspect. Mankind has been through many tougher times than the present. We got through tough times before, we will get through this one. She thinks my opinion of man has been negatively biased by my job and the people I meet. Julie thinks that she has a better opinion of people because she works with well-off men and women who want to donate money to King’s College. Also she socialises with brilliant people because she lives at King’s College.

The champagne helps me feel a little more at ease in a room full of academics, knights, lords, broadcasters and assorted other people more intelligent and more successful than I. Most of them have paid £250 for the privilege of good seats at the concert and a chance to meet the star afterwards. Bryn Terfel mingles with the guests here in the Provost’s Lodge, while waiting staff rotate unending silver platters of nibbles. I munch on oysters wrapped in bacon, kebabs, tuna cakes, salmon sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches and exquisitely presented little desserts, far too numerous for me to sample each one. All the while they keep filling up my flute. Why not? I say. For it is good champagne. I talk for a while longer with Julie about language and people. I am thrilled to hold a conversation with, and have a laugh with, someone so eminent and intelligent.

Bryn is a huge man, and when he shakes my hand he looks at me and says ‘wow’. The last time he saw my sisters and I we were teenagers. Like Sir John, he has that charisma thing where every person he meets goes away smiling, and one can allow oneself to think ‘he really liked me’, ‘I know him’. Also Bryn has this centre-of-gravity effect, where everyone around him turns their attention toward him. At the reception there is always a little crowd around him. Afterwards, at the hotel bar, he is one of a circle of 20 or so people sat. However its not quite a circle because most people are slightly turned towards him. He is the centre. Consequently I suppose he is always being asked to perform, whether he likes it or not.

Terfel trots into King’s College Chapel and tosses off (excerpts from) Elijah, some traditional songs, and Faure’s Requiem. He is relaxed. The performance seems very easy for him. There are more than two hundred in the audience, and more than one hundred performers. I am seated on the front row, directly in front of the double basses. The players of the London Philharmonia are excellent, as are King’s College Choir. The chapel is cold. The wood panelling behind the choir reveals a huge wooden door. When it opens I am reminded of the Houses of Parliament. Above this is the resplendent organ, its scores of gold pipes reaching up to the chapel ceiling. Tonight the stained glass windows are dark. I can however admire the stone sculptures set into the walls. Being ushered to my seat is like being drawn into a fairy tale, timeless place. Its easy to imagine having an experience just like this hundreds of years ago. I close my eyes and let the power of the basses, and Terfel’s baritone, blend with the wonderful strings and the crystal choir.

My family and I are the last to leave the Provost’s Lodge. High on champagne, again we march along the stone paths of the front court. The unlit buildings loom upon the lawn. One cannot help but allow the imagination to stand up and stretch its legs, thinking about what if I had come to Cambridge, or what if I was born in the 18th Century…

My Aunt says Joe with your brain you could have been… Chancellor of the Exchequer! I say thanks then she says no actually maybe that’s a bit unrealistic. Marilyn is excited about her upcoming trip to Alaska. She and her husband have visited every one of the other 49 states, so this year they are completing the set. Marilyn is mad on Presidents, so she is going to write to Bill Clinton to see if he will meet her. ‘Well, he can only say no, can’t he?’ My mother announces her decision to make a film. She has made her mind up that this year will be the year that she records her recipe for Cawl and posts it on Youtube.

Then I remember a 15 year-old bet. In 1995 or 1996 I wagered my school friend that I would be a millionaire before I was 30. Oops. The last time I saw David was when I visisted him at Kings College in 1998 or 1999. I have not kept in touch with him since, and I do not know how he has progressed with his computer studies. However, I hope to see him in October this year. Precisely, I will be waiting for him at 10am on the 10th of October, in Trafalgar Square. For that is when the bet is due to be settled. Fortunately the amount is only £10.

Blackpool

February 13, 2010

Went to Blackpool last weekend for jokes and for poker. The Hilton have deals on this time of year so three of us stayed there. My word that breakfast was excellent. We also availed ourselves of the health suite (which doesn’t cost any extra) on Saturday morning. However, even after a full English AND continental breakfast, followed by swim, steam, sauna and gym AND a red bull, I still felt hungover on account of Friday night. This troubled me a little, as I had only had around 6 bottles of beer and two whiskies. Perhaps I can’t handle it anymore, or perhaps I was suffering because I had drunk no water and eaten no food the previous night.

We visited a trio of Blackpool cesspools with loud music, drunkenness, and toilet attendants attacking you with a cocktail of knock-off fragrances. Only after a couple of drinks would I accept this lavatory advance, tossing a pound coin into his tray and cheerily announcing ‘cheers mate’ as he ejaculated half a bottle of fake John-Paul Gaultier on to my crotch, grinning broadly as he did so, winking at me and adding ‘one for the ladies’.

Driving to the casino the next afternoon, my head turned right, dreamily observing the sea. I felt a little bad that there was no time for a bracing seaside walk. I didn’t feel so bad after realising just how cold and icy the town was today. That bitter wind was not only bracing, it was shocking.

No weather in the casino. We sat down to a 15,000 chip starting stack, 166 runners, and a 45 minute clock. Sounds great. Should have been great, but some poor quality dealers and a steep structure made the tournament less of a ‘deepstack’ than it could of been. Still, over twelve hours later some lucky fish would be taking down the £6,000 first prize.

Third hand in, a middle-aged guy raises to 350 from under-the-gun, in a ten-handed game. I don’t know anything about this guy, whether he is a rock or a maniac. Very likely he has a massive hand like Aces, Kings, Queens, perhaps AK or JJ, maybe a lower pair or AQ if he is a fish. Who knows? I know that he thinks his hand is massive, his breathing has got a little heavier and he was very positive about throwing chips in for his 7x raise.

Two folds and I look down at two jacks. I could muck these, but decide to call as I have great implied odds to flop a jack if he has an overpair, and if he doesn’t have an overpair I’m ahead. The problem is that if a raggy board comes and he bets out, I will lose some chips to queens, kings and aces.

A third man also calls. A raggy board comes and the raiser bets out 750 into a pot of 1075. For fks sake, I think, as I flat call with the intention of giving up if he shows strength again on the turn, or if the third man gets involved. The third man folds. The turn comes another rag, but its an interesting rag. Now the board reads 4 5 7 6. The raiser doesn’t like it but he keeps betting, now 1500 into 2575. Urgggh, i hate it. At this stage I can fold, because the guy is so likely to have my jacks beat. I rack my brain for a reason to call and manage to find two-and-a-half reasons. I don’t know this player, maybe he is playing TT or 99 like this. Perhaps he is playing AK like this. If he does have me beat, an 8 or a 3 on the river will chop the pot. A jack will win me the pot. If he does have me beat, and checks on the end, I can bluff him off with a big bet.

Perhaps if I had not drunk too much the night before I would not have entertained these bullshit thoughts. I had a chance to make a great fold. Of course I called. Now when the river came an 8, and he bet 1850 into 5575, I did not need to call his bet to know what his hand was. That blocking bet said it all. ‘I have a big pair, and I am pretty sure we are chopping this pot. Just call.’

On the turn I had passed up an opportunity to make a good fold. On the river I can just call, or I can raise. The only hand he can realistically have that beats me is 99. If he doesn’t have 99, I can make a raise and put him to a tough decision. Now there is 7425 in the middle. If I shove, he has to call all-in for more than 10,000 chips, in order to win around 15,000. He could fold and preserve two-thirds of his starting stack, or call and risk going out on the fourth hand. The best thing about this situation for me is that my shove is almost risk-free.  Around 5-10% of the time he will have two nines, and he will check his cards to make sure that yes, he does have two nines and this idiot has just shoved all in on the fourth hand of a deepstack competition when the board reads 4 5 7 6 8 (no flush). The rest of the time I either gain 7425 or lose nothing.

His blocker bet gave me an opportunity to make a great play. Of course I didn’t make a great play. I just called, and the guy showed two kings. I felt lucky to have chopped the pot, and said ‘bad river card for you’. Unfortunately it was only in hindsight that I realised just how bad that river card should have been for him.

Played many hours of solid tight poker. Bled down to a short stack. Eventually went out with AK vs AJ. The standard of players was predictably poor, but the structure was inhibitive. After the first two or three levels, the average stack is too low to allow for much play. My frustration grew as I sat hour after hour waiting for the right cards or the right spots, missing every flop and watching fish hitting flops. Many of the dealers were quite poor, dealing something like 20-25 hands per hour. A poor dealer makes a steep structure even steeper.

By the time I exited the tournament I was on tilt. I found my friend arguing with the tournament director. Apparently, Grosvenor Casino have a rule which states that a player is allowed to take their bet back if they have mistakenly put chips in the pot.  I.e. if a player does not pay attention, and calls a bet without realising there has been a raise, they can take it back. When I found this out I was even more tilted, and still tired, and still hungover. The cash game lists were filling up. My better judgement kicked in and I decided not to play.

One good thing about G-casino in Blackpool is the restaurant. We enjoyed a really good steak dinner before heading back to the Hilton.

I feel pretty anti-tournaments at the moment. Compare them to cash games. Beyond the first few levels of a tournament, the cards I play become quite narrowly specific, strictly dictated by my position and stack sizes. If I’m short I have one bet – all in. If I’m not so short, I can raise and shove the flop, or perhaps I have enough to raise and fold to a re-raise, or maybe I have enough chips to bet the flop and fold on the turn. Its not that complicated. Beyond the first few levels of a tournament, I often feel that I have my hands tied together. There is not much opportunity to leverage an advantage against less skilful players. That is why it puts me on tilt to see a fish raking in all the tournament chips.

Playing a cash game, a deep stack is the tool which allows one to leverage an advantage. Deep stacks mean dire consequences for bad decisions. Position is more important, and quality starting hands are less important. The ability to reload is a beautiful thing – if a fish takes your money, it doesn’t matter! You have more! If a fish loses his money to you, he can reload and give you some more! In a cash game, a hand can take a variety of different lines, and there is much more to think about. You get to choose where you sit, and take advantage of the information you have carefully accumulated on each player. You can take a break anytime you like… I could go on.

I can think of two really fun things about tournaments as opposed to cash games. One is that you get to make well timed all-in bluff shoves or re-steals. The other is that once in a blue moon you go on a rush of cards, get loads of chips, and get to play a final table where there is serious money to be played for. That is a lot of fun.

Returning on Sunday afternoon, I made sure I was back in time for some Sunday night tournaments. At least on the internet you can play several at one time, reducing the tilt factor. Perhaps one day I will turn a few dollars into several thousand. As far as live tournaments are concerned, I don’t intend to play one until November.

Pub quiz left me inconsolable

February 4, 2010

I had a disturbing experience in the Chestnut Tree. My ragged performance at the pub quiz left me distraught. At some unknown point over the last decade, the power of my brain had peaked. Now I realise, the only way is down. I can only hope to reduce the decline as much as possible. I sighed a long sigh, and an earthy dismay filled up my chest. The left corner of my mouth jutted over to one side as my lips pressed together, and my right eyebrow was raised. I will be 30 this year. Not to mention the body – gaining fat and beginning to lose hair from its head. It is not the body that bothers me, it is the mind. I am aware that bodies start to grow old almost as soon as they become adult. What is happening with my mind?

Question no.1 – Which nation shares its Patron Saint, St. Patrick, with Ireland?

Question no.2 – The name of which character in Moby Dick is also the name of an international high street chain?

Question no.3 – Which Arabic word is translated as elder, wise man or scholar?

Question no.4 – The Scottish, Nimzo-Indian and Sicilian are examples of what type of movement?

I know the answers to two of these questions and could take an intuitive guess at the other two.  As no other member of my Chesnut Tree team ventured an answer, I put the guesses down. Upon further reflection I altered my answers, as I was able to come up with more sensible answers. Or what I thought were more sensible answers. Perhaps I changed the answers simply because I had thought about the questions a bit longer, and therefore the alternative guesses were better thought-out? This was an error, as boiling a kettle for ten minutes does not make the water any hotter than boiling it for five minutes.

I have read Moby Dick and am familiar with its characters. At the Chesnut Tree I struggled to recall the names of any of them beyond Ishmael and Captain Ahab. Is there a chain of stores called Ahab’s? …I know, the answer must be Moby Dick’s Fish’n’Chips, although that does seem a little obvious.

I racked my brains for the solution to the question of the Nimzo-Indian, Sicilian and Scottish movements. I thought about politics… sport… Again, no-one could help me on this one. I came up with an inspired but wacky answer. These were all examples of… Independence Parties. Hmmm.

Of the other sixteen questions, we either knew the answer outright or had no chance whatsoever of getting the answer right. It was the above four questions that caused me grief. Internal, painful grief. Let me also tell you that I was not in this quiz to win it. That is the reserve of the braniacs and eggheads who frequent the pub quizzes, and invariably take home with them the bottle of plonk or meal voucher for two.

When the answers were read out I buried my head in my hands. I have studied chess and am familiar with these openings, how could the proverbial light bulb not have come on when the quizmaster said Nimzo-Indian?  What the hell is a Nimzo-Indian when it is not a chess opening?

Patrick is the Patron Saint of Nigeria as well as Ireland, and Sheikh is an Arabic word meaning elder, wise man, scholar. Impressively I had correctly guessed these answers. Disturbingly, I had rubbed them out and replaced them with ‘Scotland’ and ‘La-la’. What was wrong with me? Have I lost faith in myself? Confidence? I find it interesting that I would literally second-guess myself in this way.

Finally, imagine the large proverbial kick I administered to myself when I was reminded of a character called Starbuck from Moby Dick, also the name of a popular chain of coffee shops.

Inconsolable, I ordered another pint.

Suck it up Joe

November 8, 2009

An optimistic attitude to risk, some poor decisions and an awful run of luck reduced my poker bankroll beyond the point where I could continue to draw an income from it.

On the Sunday I continued to thrash 15 to 20 tables of $.50/1 Omaha on Pokerstars, losing dollars but racking up the player points. My immediate aim was to collect enough points to claim an $800 bonus, which would have kept my hopes alive for that week at least. If I could keep any sort of winrate up at this high volume, my supernova status would allow me to claim another several thousand before the end of the year. Unfortunately I was a losing player over tens of thousands of hands. I had decided to start playing Omaha seriously because it was the fastest way to earn player points, shortstacking as many 6-max tables as possible. With a shortstack at 6-max, its difficult to keep up with the rake. Over 15-20 tables, my skills were also struggling to keep up with game.

It being Sunday I played the familiar glut of Multi Table Tournaments. Familiar bad form continued and another 20 or so tournaments went by without a meaningful cash. I had no problems with my tournament play, and actually I was playing better than ever. However I was at the bottom of a very long and low curve, having played several hundred tournaments without any big score. I had heard about these runs before, but never experienced one. When I most needed the big boost to my bankroll, it cruelly evaded me.

On the Monday I decided, far too late, to switch back to Sit-n-Gos. My bankroll was at a critical level, and it required a boost in the form of several winning sessions and some bonuses, if it was to survive. I had a good enough record at Sit-n-Go tournaments, and I could generate enough player points with some high volume, to make a recovery feasible. It was perhaps already too late. If I had decided to switch to Sit-n-Gos earlier things might have been different, who knows?

About the time I went to Las Vegas back in June, my bankroll was healthy enough for me to reduce my hours at work and begin to draw an income from it. The decision to go part time unfortunately co-incided with a big increase in my living costs. Never mind, I thought, if things continue as they are I will soon be able to draw all of my income from my poker money. Never mind, I thought, if I make any kind of a decent score in Vegas my bankroll will be large enough to generate a full and generous wage. Never mind, I thought, if things do not go so well I would only get into hot water if I had a bad downswing…

Like building your house next to a volcano, its quite a bad idea to plan your life around  something bad not happening.

By Monday night another couple of losing sessions had been and gone and it was time to face up to reality. My funds had dipped below the point where a few winning sessions could bounce me back into a comfort zone. I considered one last ditch attempt at a bunch of tournaments, but decided instead to cash out and re-evaluate.

I traded in my player points for an Amazon voucher and a Pokerstars Supernova shirt with my name on it.

On Wednesday I went into work and requested more  hours. Management were happy for me to return to full-time work as they had just increased opening hours and lost a number of staff. So that was good timing at least, I could work as many hours as I pleased whilst I enjoyed a much-needed break from playing Poker.

Now I’m playing 3 or 4 tables of microstakes Omaha. I am not, of course, drawing any money from my roll, and have given up on tournaments altogether. I am winning at a rate of knots and will soon be moving up the levels. It might seem on paper that I am back to square one, grinding a small bankroll at the low stakes, as I was when I started playing seriously 20 months ago. However I am a much more skillful and experienced player than I was back then. Never again will I put my bankroll under so much pressure as to risk destroying it.

If The Human Race is to Survive

October 3, 2009

If The Human Race is to Survive, and we are to step back from the precipice of oblivion, we need to start thinking logically and straightforwardly. I could not help but laugh when I heard this guy at the table tonight. As jumbled up and contradictory were his comments, so he seemed to pronounce them with the conviction of a man who believes that someone is interested in what he has to say.

Comment #1 – Rebuy satellites are crapshoots

“Its just all-in poker, to be honest. There’s not much play”

Well of course you’re right, it is largely ‘all-in’ poker, but what is wrong with that? Its £10 rebuy! The point is to allow you the chance to get a £300 seat for a tenner. Anyway this comment was just to put something out there, so that he could contradict himself later.

Comment #2 – The structure of the £25 comp is too slow.

“People travel miles to play a comp, and some people have got to go to work the next day. You can’t be sitting there at 2 or 3 in the morning when you’ve got work the next day. They could structure it so its finished by 12. Who can afford to miss a day’s work? These days? I’m normally out of the comp by 12 though so its not normally a problem.”

So dumb its difficult to know where to begin a response. If you want a tournament that has any play in it, it has to last a while. If you don’t want a late night, don’t play the tournament. If you do have a very late night that will mean you will cash so you get paid. The structure of the £25 comp has already been shaved down to the minimum. Reducing the levels or chipstacks further would have a large and unpopular impact.

Comment #3 – Shortening the levels of the comp from 24 to 20 minutes would not make much difference.

“You could take the clock down to 20, it wouldn’t make that much difference.”

So do you want to change the structure drastically or don’t you? You said you wanted it to be over by 12 midnight, but you don’t think that shaving the duration of the tournament by more than 20% would actually alter it? So why are we having this conversation?

The man was a back-door wind-up merchant, driving people mad without realising it, putting forward his cack-handed views to a table of sane people. Then again, was it a table of sane people? How many of these logic opt-outs are there? I fear that quite a lot of people actually think like this, and that is the reason why we humans find ourselves here, teetering at the brink.

“I mean, don’t they understand, people have got to work tomorrow”.

Lucinda Williams Gig, Manchester

August 5, 2009

I was sitting on my arse last week when a thought passed through my head. I wonder if Lucinda Williams is playing the UK this year? By golly what a timely thought – not only was she playing this year, she was playing this week. Fantastic. I had already missed the Glastonbury Festival because I hadn’t got a ticket in time. I had lamentably failed to notice when my hero Neil Young came to Nottingham. This is the cost of not reading music magazines or perusing websites.

I found that Lucinda had played London on the Sunday night and would be in Manchester on the Thursday. I thought ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss this gig’ and purchased a ticket straight away. On my own, on the train, I would have to choose between missing the end of the gig or missing the last return connection. Shelling out for a hotel room or staying up all night in a poker game, If I could find one. I don’t need to tell you which option I chose.

The Bridgewater Hall is home to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Its a medium to large sized concert hall, very clean, filled last Thursday with hundreds of thirty and forty-something couples going to see Lucinda Williams and her band, Buick 6. When the opening act finished their set, the bass player took care to tell the audience that ‘Lucinda really likes a noisy, boisterous welcome’. I thought that was a bit optimistic. It didn’t matter. Excited, I found my seat and drank a large red wine quickly. It was fun having an adventure on my own in an unfamiliar city. For two hours I sat and watched the stage, drinking in the incredible voice and the genius songs. Listening. My face beaming in a smile or else open-mouthed and wide-eyed. I guess I couldn’t believe she was so good. The pure, simple songs, well fleshed out by the workman-like but perfect four-piece backing band. The voice that soared and dipped, zig-zagging between coarseness and smoothness, sweetness and bitterness. Real power and real control in the voice. Real grit and real honesty, she obviously never writing a word or singing a word she did not believe, she never writing more words than necessary. Not a voice that could ever act. When you heard her speak it made you smile, because she spoke in just the same way. A delectable southern drawl, the quality of which greatly appreciated by the passing of decades, also throaty and also sweet. I asked her later if it was her conscious choice to write, like Hank Williams, the fewest words and the most direct and simple words to convey the song. She said yes that was her aim. She took her time when she spoke, not rushing to get to the sharp end of what she was saying. In her songs the few words are sung over long phrases and slow tempos.

After the gig I found Chinatown and started to look for somewhere to eat. After walking three or four streets I was back where I started. ‘Oh, is this it?’, I thought. The Chinese Arch was a lot smaller than I had expected. Then I thought well I’m in Manchester not London or New York, what did I expect? Steam rising from pavement grills, live ducks and chickens in baskets on the street? When a 55-year old prostitute called over ‘yoo-hoo! Are you looking?’ I thought it was about time to stop wandering around and enter the closest restaurant.

Forty-five minutes later I was back on the street on my way to the Casino. I passed the Bridgewater Hall and noticed that Lucinda Williams and her band were outside the stage entrance, talking to fans. There was a little huddle of about eight middle-aged men in raincoats around Lucinda. She patiently answered their questions and signed their albums. She liked to talk, but did not seem able to talk and sign at the same time. Therefore the whole thing took twice as long as it should. When each man had asked her some question and got her to sign something, he would request a kiss on the cheek and awkwardly lean over to her. Lucinda was awkwardly obliging. I had to wait fifteen minutes to speak to her because the guy before me had brought along his copies of every single Lucinda Williams album ever released. She was patient enough to sign every one, pausing between each album to confirm that she liked Brazillian music, she had not spoken to her brother in a very long time, and she got a much better response in gigs outside London. I thanked her for inspiring me and got her to sign my ticket. I shook her hand but did not ask for a picture because it was quite dark. It didn’t feel so much like meeting a genius artist, more like meeting a friend’s mum. Albeit a very scatty and contemplative mum. She did not have any star-attitude, even though this small band of followers were very much starstruck. She had a lot of time for her fans.

I found a game at Manchester 235. The game was pretty boring until a nutcase regular turned up and showed three bluffs in a row. I played for five hours, and for the first three I was card dead. I raised once with JQ. I got pocket aces and split the pot. I dug deep and found the reserves of patience and control I so sorely needed, the patience and control I often did not find in Las Vegas, the patience and control I would need to see me out of a one-month losing streak. I won three big pots late on and doubled my investment.

With two hours to kill before the first train home I was directed towards a 24-hour cafe next to Picadilly station. I had a three-quid breakfast special and read every article in that morning’s Metro. There was a homeless guy in there and a man asleep face down on the table. A drunk came in shouting about some fight he’d just had. When I realised he was from Stoke, I kept my head down and my eyes on the Metro. He sat down next to a gay guy and began to tell him, or shout at him, about his background and some of his opinions.

‘Have you heard of Stoke City? The Naughty Forty? We’ve got the hardest fans in the country. I’m in the naughty forty’ (pause for dramatic effect. Surprised not to get a reaction).

‘We don’t fight, we kill.’

‘I’m a nice guy, but if someone is not being nice to me… I can be a nasty bastard. I will kill you. I will set fire to you, and not even think about it.’

‘At the end of the day mate, you’ve got to stand up for yourself. There are some absolute psychos out there.’

‘The problem with this country is, those bastards’ (points to Asian cafe-owner). ‘Its gone too far now. People are going to get together and fight back… Stoke, Bolton, all getting together to fight back. Are you going to join us or not?’ (gay guy stares drunkenly at his new companion, wearing a smile, not responding). ‘The thing is mate, they will retaliate. There will be a war. So if you haven’t chosen what side you’re going to be on, you’ll be sitting at home, this war will be going on outside, and how are you going to defend yourself? You need to defend yourself.’

‘Can I ask you a question mate… Are you gay?’

I went to the train station and read The Times for an hour. There was an elderly guy asleep on the bench next to me. When I’d finished reading, I noticed he had stopped snoring. I wondered if he had overslept and missed his train. I looked over and saw he was not moving at all. Should I wake him, to make sure he would not miss his train? Would he not appreciate being disturbed? He still wasn’t moving. Perhaps he was dead! He had passed away peacefully in his sleep, here next to me, on a wooden bench in Picadilly Railway Station. What do I do now? If I were to lean over and shake him, then find him dead, I would have to go and alert the authorities. What consequences would this entail? Would I have to give a statement? Would I be detained? Would I miss my train? Perhaps I should leave the corpse for someone else to discover. After all, it wouldn’t take long. The train station was getting busy now.

A loud announcement was heard over the tannoy. The man quickly opened his eyes and sat upright. I made my way to the platform and waited for the train.

Akenhead: “I had Aces”

July 16, 2009

With two tables remaining in the Main Event, James Akenhead did the UK proud with a tenacious short stack performance. Supported by various members of the hit squad, plus very loud family and friends, he was not content to fold his way to the final table.

Several hundred poker fans filled the platforms and the bleechers overlooking the ESPN feature table. The atmosphere was fun and the action was surprisingly fast, the field thinning from thirteen to ten within around one hour.

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Shortie Jamie Robbins had moved in several times already this session, avoiding elimination in fourteenth place when his TT spiked a set on the end to best Steve Begleiter’s pocket aces.

Akenhead was the unenviable target of the Ivey stare down when he made what could have been a squeeze play. Phil called an early position raise from his button, only to see Akenhead move in from the blind. Phil must have had a medium pair as he gnashed over the decision for most of his chips, finally laying it down after a few minutes deliberation. Akenhead walked over to the bleechers and confided that he actually had pocket aces. Obviously this was no time to slow play them, or raise small enough to let anyone outflop.

Jamie Robbins would finally go out in eleventh when he moved in on Ivey’s blind. Phil made the gutsy call for half his stack with AhTh. Robbins showed KQ. The room held its breath, as all poker fans (if not the other players) wanted to see this ace-high hold up. It did hold, giving Ivey the chance to be the first big-name pro to win the modern Main Event.

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The final ten became the final nine oh too soon for one of the chip leaders, Jordan Smith. He played his aces a little slower than our Akenhead, making it 2.1 million to go after an early raise to 800k and a flat call from the chip leader on the button. The first raiser folded and Darvin Moon called the 1.3, giving him a chance to stack Smith if he hit…. the perfect flop.

Moon’s set of eights was check-raised by Aces… all in! The set held and Jordan Smith looked like death. Suddenly the room erupted because it was all over till November, and Ivey was going to be there. Short stack Akenhead was going to be there. The Brits were the loudest group in the room.

Beer Ponged

July 11, 2009

Went to Poker Stars party last night in Rain at The Palms. In the queue met BigMickG from Dublin, who is a massive sit n go player on Stars. If you look him up on Sharkscope you may not be that impressed with his results – an ROI of 3% generating $30k over 36,000 games. However, Sharkscope does not show rakeback income. According to Mick, attaining Supernova Elite status on Stars allows one to obtain bonuses equivalent to 80% rakeback. A sit n go regular playing $100+ tournaments will generate a sick amount of rake. Mick got $120k back in 2007 and $160k in 2008.

Mick had three beautiful girls on his arm and was still in the Main Event, playing day 3 the following afternoon. I had three mates on my arm and had already busted, meaning I could let my hair down a bit and take advantage of the open bar. Who wins?

I can really blame Poker Stars for today’s hangover. The only food they provided was a couple of trays of auderves. I had already drank two pitchers of Bud Light during a bad session of beer pong.

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Naturally the crowd was made up of 90% men. The situation was helped a little by a team of beautiful podium dancers in various costumes. Rain is a big cavernous club with two mezzanine floors circling the arena. You had to be Supernova status to access the first floor, and Supernova Elite/Team Pro or a VIP to access the second floor. Of course this created a bit of a segregated feel, with the Supernovas and the Pros looking down over the plebs.

I was not the only busted main event player letting his hair down at Rain. Negreanu was having a great time mixing it up down on the dancefloor. He was all smiles and perhaps a little worse for wear, even swapping places for a few minutes with one of the podium dancers. He seemed to be getting quite friendly with Liv Boeree, and the crowd made a little space on the dancefloor for an impromptu dance off between them. I felt in a dancing mood and jumped in to show them some moves. Five seconds later I fell on my arse. I tried to get up quickly and smoothly, so that my fall might look like part of the routine. In hindsight I don’t think that fooled anyone.

I had a little chat and a grip and grin with Daniel. Then Shaun Deeb roared past. I got a bit excited and shouted “Shaun Deeb!” at the top of my voice. He turned round and shouted “yeah!”. I bumped into him three or four times during the night, each time shouting his name loudly in his face, and he would reply “yeah!” with similar enthusiasm. It seemed to make sense in the middle of a loud club. Perhaps it was a bit weird later on when I shouted at him outside in the queue for a taxi.

When Nelly came on I rushed to the front of the stage. I suddenly became the biggest Nelly fan ever, singing along, dancing along and loving it. I thought about trying to dive on to the stage to have a dance but then thought better of it. A girl next to me got really pissed off and started saying weird nasty things. I told her to cheer up. The security guy agreed with me when I said “we’ll all here to have a good time”.

The night finished at a bar a mile away from the Palms called Money Plays. It is a real genuine American bar, with locals, a barman who knows everyone’s name, a pool table and even a shuffle board. A shuffle board is a fifteen-foot wooden version of curling. If you don’t manage to keep  one puck on the board you have to do the ‘walk of shame’. All customers of the bar shout at you while the proprietor shines a torch in your face, as you walk a circuit of the room. I did not have to do the walk of shame.

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Main Event Day 2b

July 11, 2009

First hand I play I double up, an instant remedy for the hurt of Day 1d. The chips are a gift from the player to my immediate left, who bizarrely just calls my under-the-gun raise when he holds AA. Of course two other people flat the raise also. Of course I flop a set of sixes on a ten-high board and lead out small. AA raises me up, I flat, check the turn, he goes all in, I call and double up.

Twenty minutes into the day Seat 3 turns up. The dealer doesn’t ask to see his ID like he has done with all the other players. “Its OK man, I know who you are” (smiles). Then I realise who it is, its Jon van Fleet, aka Apestyles, a huge Poker Stars beast. Thank f*ck he is seated to my right.
 
Although I have one of the best multi-table tournament players in the world at my table, my draw today is actually pretty good. Again the weaker spots on the table are situated to my left. There are three other tough (presumably pro) players in the two, four and nine seats. The empty seat to my left is filled by a tight and quiet English player. Seats seven and eight are occupied by two amateurs who do not seem to have any moves. They do not play a lot of hands and also give away some information with their body language. Good times.
My nemesis is in seat one, an american guy with a lot of chips who plays a lot of hands. I find it very difficult to figure out if he is a maniac, a really good player, or just on a heater. It seems like he might be doing what I was doing on Day 1, taking advantage of the lock-ups and putting maximum pressure on the table. However he seems to be making big bets and raises without much rhyme or reason. He seems to make big bets when the board gets scary. He gets caught making big bluffs a couple of times but he has been getting the best of this table.
Listen to this for a weird hand. Seat one raises JcQc and calls a three bet from the pro in the seat behind him. The flop comes queen high with two diamonds. Seat one check-calls the flop, check-calls the (brick) turn and then fires out the full pot of 25k on the (diamond) river. The pro shows 3d4d and rakes in a massive pot. Wtf was seat one doing? I guess he put the guy on Aces or Kings and turned his hand into a bluff on the end. During the first two levels he made several big-bet plays like this. I suspect he may have been playing on instincts, bluffing randomly or whenever he sensed weakness.
I want to make a half-decent hand against seat one and just call him down. Unfortunately I’m card dead and can’t find the spot. Lacking any big hands, I rely on a couple of steals to keep my chips up. When seat one raises and gets re-raised by Apestyles in seat three, I already decide what I’m going to do before I look at my cards. The blinds are 250/500/50 ante. Its gone raise to 1350, re-raise to 3600, action to my big blind. I look down at my hand, sit erect in my seat, pause for a moment then raise it up to 10,100. While the other players fold I think what a good decision it was to not introduce myself to Apestyles, compliment him on his book or tell him how much I have learned from him.
With a shorter stack and a much more active table, I play day 2 far tighter than day 1.
During the second level I raise JsTs in early position. My fine effort is rewarded with three callers and a king-high board with two spades on it. The tight English guy to my left is in the pot. I lead out 4k and he makes it 10k. The others fold. Time and time again I have seen players make this small-ish raise with a weak top pair. Its an information raise, “I want to find out where I am. If he comes back over the top my KJ is no good”. I am of course very happy to let him know where he is, by shoving my flush draw all in for about another 40k. He folds, I’m back up to around 66k, just below the average.
We get a 90 minute dinner break and I feel really good. I’ve bounced back from the dodgy start to almost average chips. Thats a lot of chips. I am happy with the table and if I get a run of cards I can get a lot more chips. I’m a bit confused about seat one but I think I can trap him if I can make a hand.
Five minutes after the end of the dinner break I’m out of the tournament. The table is playing six handed as not everyone has taken their seats. The small and big blinds are absent. I raise KJo under-the-gun and get called in three places, including seat one, who has position. The flop comes a nightmarish 9-T-J rainbow. There is about 10,000 in the pot. I lead out 6,500, two players fold, now seat one makes it 16,500 to go. I go into the tank.
He likely has a better hand than mine right now, most likely two pairs or a set, perhaps AJ. His raise is small-ish, offering me good odds to call. That suggests he either has 7-8 or Q-K for a made straight, or is raising two-pair or a set or AJ for information. If he is raising one of those hands for information he is likely to fold to a re-raise. He could also be semi-bluffing with a pair-plus straight draw hand like QT, QJ or Q9. I’m ahead of those hands, and also ahead of him the few times he is bluffing with air.
The safe option is to fold. I look at the pot, which contains 33,000 chips. I look at my stack, which contains about 57,000 chips. I shove all in with my top pair and gutshot, knowing that I can bluff better hands out of the pot and protect my hand against weaker ones. He instantly calls me because he has the nuts.
I say “oh shit” and get up to leave, always showing class, with a handshake and a “well played”. My three outs to a split do not show up. There is no backdoor full house. I feel cold. When my friends see me walking up the long Rio corridor they instantly know what has happened. We retire to Money Plays for Heinekens.
I realise I have fallen into the same trap that thousands of players fall into every year when they come to play the Main Event of the World Series. Only a fraction of competitors actually have the bankroll to play in this tournament, never mind the skill set or the outrageous luck required to do well. They play because they are willing to buy-in to the dream and the glory, the chance of fame and riches. The dream is very well-marketed by ESPN and Harrah’s. Somewhere between winning that seat three weeks ago, and walking down East Flamingo Road this morning, I too fell into that irrestible trap. The trap is believing that unlike the thousands of disappointed players you will do well in this event because you are special.
Like San Remo, playing this tournament has been a watershed for me. I really brought my A-game to the table and found myself competing with world-class players. I also found that there are many exploitable players at this level.
Now I have to go I my time is running out on this machine and I have loads of poker to play.

Main Event Day 1d

July 8, 2009

After low turnouts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, almost 3000 people start the Main Event on Monday the 8th July. Every table and dealer is in use across the Rio. There are tables in the hallways.

Thankfully the organisers keep the games nine-handed. I get to know the other eight players at my table quite well over the twelve-hour day. There are more strong players than weak ones, but fortunately the weaker spots are situated to my immediate left. In seat 9 is an inexperienced internet qualifier from Wales, who plays really tightly. In seat 1 is the owner of the Asian Poker Tour, who is playing for fun and likes to play many hands. After a couple of levels he will get bored and stack off more than 100 big blinds with AK. He is replaced by a shorter stack who does not waste much time before busting with TT v KK. He is replaced in turn by a loud Slovakian man with whom I will play a very big pot later on.

Seat 2 is occupied for the first half of the day by a very young Scandanavian who is a little aggressive but in an exploitable, transparent way. He likes to three bet from his big blind and then bet any flop. I get some chips from him early on when I raise my button, call his three bet, float his flop bet, and bet the turn. Later I win a few thousand when I raise my button with air in anticipation of his three bet. I put a large re-raise in and watch him tank for a couple of minutes. I get a little worried when I realise he must have a hand this time, and if he should call I will have to bet the flop! Thankfully it doesn’t come to that.

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His laydown was in keeping with the flavour of the day. Throughout the first four levels I played the most aggressive poker of my life. I played more hands than anyone at the table, and re-raised many times. When I felt I could put someone on a close range of hands, and felt that I could represent strength, I went for it. Not running good in terms of the cards I was being dealt but running good in terms of situations. I was not playing wildly, but kept cropping up all over the table like a bad smell. It worked beautifully. My timing was spot on, as time and time again players would lay down hands to me.

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Remember this is the Main Event. $10,000 buy-in, 300 big blind starting stack, two hour levels. Players are trying to avoid playing poker, to survive that much longer in the tournament they have been looking forward to all year. This attitude was vocalised by Charlie in Seat 3 (Dusk Till Dawn staff will remember Charlie, a big american guy dealer/floorperson, from Norweigan Open 08). He trotted out the ‘would you fold aces first hand of the main event’ hypothetical question and said, yes, of course he would fold aces, because he could find a much better spot to get his money in later on in the tournament. (????)

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So, in this context, it made perfect sense to me to raise KJo under-the-gun during the first round. I wondered what the button in seat 5 might be raising me with when he made it 1000 to go. QQ+? JJ+? Hmmm, OK lets find out, and turn this KJ into a bluff. If he doesn’t have Aces or Kings he won’t call. I make it 3000 to go and he thinks a little then flat calls. The flop comes jack high, but my pair of jacks is kind of irrelevant. I continue the bluff with a 4000 bet and he folds Kings face up! He folds Kings face up on a jack-high board. He put me on aces when I four-bet and called to try and flop a set. This, my friends, is the Main Event of the World Series of Poker.

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By the end of the first level I have 45,000 in chips. By the end of the second level I have 60,000 chips, double the starting stack and almost double the average. Halfway through level four I have 90,000. Then, this hand comes up.

With blinds at 150/300/ante25, the Slovakian makes it 1200 under the gun. He is the weak spot at the table and has been overplaying his hands. He called the young Scandanavian all in for lots of chips with a pair of nines and won. He calls with draws and makes large obvious bluffs on the river. He and I are the larger stacks at the table. I make a large re-raise with AhKh from the small blind and he calls. The flop comes down Qh 9h As. I lead out, he makes it 16k, I shove him for his remaining 30k, he snap calls with a set of nines. Bollocks. Thats one of three flops of a gazillion possible flops where he can get it all. He doubles through me and suddenly I’m down to 37k. Gutted. On the bright side, the average stack is only 39k!

On the down side, half an hour later I make an ill-conceived move with QTo with which I lose 7.5k AND I am forced to show it to the table. After that I’m like a neutered terrier, without the chips or the confidence or the cards or the image to continue my glorious assault.

The last hour of the day is a struggle, but I do manage to control my emotions and keep my stack intact. Its hard not to feel bad after losing a pot that would have put me in the top 10 chip leaders in the biggest tournament in the world, but I simply cannot afford to let it get me down.

I pick up Aces when Sam Simon (co-creator of the Simpsons) raises his cut-off. Surely Sam, I think, you have to shove when I re-raise you this time. Of course he doesn’t.

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We bag up the chips and I have mixed emotions. I have played the game of my life but ended up with 5k less chips than I started with. I have ran over a table comprising of tough professionals and rich amateurs all day, then took one wrong step and ended up with my tail between my legs. I remember the buzz of trotting to the dinner break as the big stack. I wonder what it would have felt like if that nut flush draw had come. I feel deflated.

The story doesn’t end there. I’m going to play day 2 of the Main Event. I have 50 big blinds, more than enough to play poker with. I will start again, setting out with the same attitude that got me this far. I will have a new table with a new set of players to face. It will be more difficult, as until I accumulate a lot of chips I will not have a lot of leverage against the other stacks. I may have to change gears and spend time waiting for a hand. If things don’t go my way, I might get really short, and then I will have to get lucky.