A few days before the start of the World Series of Poker’s championship event, The Venetian hosted a Last Chance In super satellite poker tournament, which offered five $10,000 seats into the main event for the top five finishers.
The $125 buy-in tourney attracted more than 200 participants, including recreational players, seasoned veterans, a few top pros and famed celebrity players Jennifer Tilly, Phil "Unabomber" Laak, Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari, Shannon Elizabeth, Clonie Gowen and Lee Watkinson.
The Venetian was gracious enough to extend an invitation to yours truly — an absolute poker neophyte — which I happily accepted, based in part on my need to collect material for this article, and my curiosity to actually see Jennifer Tilly and Shannon Elizabeth in the flesh.
After about seven hours of intensive tournament play, I amazingly found myself at the final table, along with eight other Chris Moneymaker wanna-be’s.
I say "amazingly" because this tournament marked only the third time I’d ever sat down at a live poker table. Of course, I’m familiar with the game, having interviewed players, read books, reported results, studied instructional videos, watched TV tournaments and pestered GamingToday’s poker expert Joe Awada with incessant questions.
But that’s not the same as playing in a live game.
Nevertheless, once the cards were in the air, I somehow felt like my cards had just as much chance of winning as anyone else’s. And the more I played (without getting knocked out), the more comfortable I became.
It helped to have genuinely decent people playing at your table. One fellow, Kevin O’Donnell, I recognized from the World Poker Tour broadcasts.
Kevin’s a restaurant ("sports bar with good food") owner from Scottsdale, Arizona, who has made the final table in a WPT event, as well as a couple final tables here, at the World Series.
More important, Kevin’s an all-around nice guy, fun and easy to talk to and a darn good poker player. It certainly took the edge off the competition, when you can carry on pleasantries with the people who are trying to destroy you.
Whatever the reasons, I really had no trouble advancing in the tournament. I kept playing while other top players like Kevin, Esfandiari, Jennifer Tilly, Clonie Gowen and the rest were getting knocked out.
At one point I even knocked out the chip leader (at my table) on a poorly-conceived (on her part) all-in bet.
Despite the ease with which I was advancing, my inexperience was apparent. Several times I made the wrong-sized bet (usually a raise), but was always assisted by surprisingly-patient opponents. I also piped out of turn a couple of times, the result of not really knowing the betting order after the flop.
Moreover, at the very start of the competition, basic things such as simply announcing my action — a bet, raise, call, fold or check — took careful consideration and thought, often accompanied with some trepidation.
I quickly discovered that announcing my first all-in bet was kind-of like the first time you got up the nerve to ask a girl to the junior prom. You want to be cool and calm, all the while praying that your voice doesn’t crack, or worse yet, lapse into that hideous quivering falsetto.
But behind my oft times shaky exterior was someone who could quote odds of starting hands, their ranking and chances against random hands, as well as other cryptic though probably useless statistics designed to aid in the decision-making process.
The result was that virtually everything I did — raises, calls, check-raises, all-ins, etc. — seemed to work as they were drawn up in the strategy guides.
The way things were going, I felt like I would win every race, showdown and all-in encounter. And I did, until the last one.
When we reached the final table, I was among the short stacks, but survived a couple of all-in showdowns to make it to sixth place.
That’s where it all ended — in sixth place, one spot short of the money.
Nevertheless, I was happy with the outcome. The Venetian — which put on a great event, thanks to Kathy Raymond and her staff — awarded me a handsome duffle bag along with the (usually dreaded) parting gifts.
I probably wouldn’t have used the $10,000 seat. Who has the time to sit for 15 hours a day over the course of nine days, just to win $10 million?
Besides, if they had given away 10 seats, I would have finished eleventh. That’s the story of my life. I’m just one of those hapless geeks who always end up on the outside looking in. If I showed up at Noah’s Ark with my invitation, he would tell me I couldn’t get on because I failed to RSVP.
But I’m not complaining. I have a beautiful new Venetian poker cap and golf shirt, plus the tantalizing memory of watching Jennifer Tilly bluff opponents who were mesmerized by her cleavage.
I think I’m ready for my next tournament.