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Gambler's future is in good hands

Torn between going all-in with poker and folding, a reporter takes on the pros in Vegas. Will he ace his big test or flop?

August 09, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — I'm driving down Flamingo Road with $1,500 in my pocket, money that could be spent on something useful.

But no, I'm headed to the Rio hotel to buy my way into a World Series of Poker tournament with 2,700 players from around the globe. My competition will include poker pros Phil "the Unabomber" Laak, Antonio "the Magician" Esfandiari and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. The odds were so bad that I might as well roll my window down and toss my hard-earned money into the blazing desert. Not only did I not have a nickname, I didn't have a chance.

But I'd been playing poker several nights a week for the last year, steadily stockpiling my winnings and wondering if I had what it took to compete against the best.

I had also been wondering why I spent so much time playing cards. Could it be I'm hooked on the adrenaline that flows from competition? In addition to poker, my other hobby is competing in triathlons, and I make a living as a reporter in the highly competitive news business. Or does poker help me escape pain from my personal life, including a failed marriage? When I'm playing, I don't think about anything but my cards, my opponents and how to win their chips.

I'm 43. My mother and closest friends are concerned about me. Even though I win more often than I lose, they see poker as an addictive and potentially damaging hobby. Perhaps my mother remembers the trouble my father used to get into at Artichoke Joe's Casino, a few miles south of San Francisco. He once bet, and lost, his car there.

I discovered gambling at age 13 on a family trip to England, delighting at even small payouts from slot machines at a seaside casino. When I started playing blackjack in Las Vegas at age 19, I memorized charts that told me how to play each hand. Next, I tried craps. I read books, drew a craps table inside a cardboard box and mastered the most profitable bets.

In 2003, I turned to poker, where the odds can be better. The beauty of poker is that if I get a bad hand, I can throw it in the muck, often without losing a penny. When I get a good hand, I can invest in it, judging my hand's strength by the way my opponents respond to my bet.

My night stand is lined with poker books, my DVR filled with coverage of World Series of Poker tournaments. During the last year, I've turned a small profit on the low-stakes tables at the Commerce Casino south of downtown. But those tables were a far cry from the talent I expected to see at the World Series.

"The players have gotten better and the fields are so big," professional poker player Greg Mascio told me a couple of days before the tournament.

Mascio, who I met through a friend, has made the money in 14 World Series of Poker tournaments, but none this year. He said my best chance was to aggressively raise the bets of the weak players and watch them fold.

"They're the players who are just trying to hang on, who just don't want to lose," he said.

That sounded an awful lot like me.

The morning of the tournament, I rode the stationary bike and lifted weights in the gym at my hotel, the MGM, figuring exercise would help clear my mind for what could be a long day of poker.

At the Rio, two large auditoriums were lined wall to wall with poker tables. There were no professional players at my table, just 10 guys, ranging from a 21-year-old kid wearing an online casino's ball cap to a white-haired man -- probably in his 70s -- whose hands shook each time he placed chips in the pot. We were given 3,000 tournament chips each. Three days later, one of the 2,700 players would hold them all.

In Texas Hold 'Em, players make the best five-card hand out of two cards that are dealt to them and five community cards dealt face-up. There are as many as four rounds of betting per hand, and players can bet all their chips at any time. In one hand, it could be all over.

At noon, the tournament director's booming voice filled the room: "Shuffle up and deal." The tournament was on.

Within a couple of seconds, two cards skidded across the green felt toward me -- an ace and a 10. I raised to 150 chips, three times the minimum, and two players matched my bet, creating a sizable pot. The other players folded.

My heart started to race. Why did those two match my bet? Why did I raise the first hand? The first three community cards -- known as the "flop" -- didn't pair my ace or ten. My opponents didn't bet and I thought they might be afraid to take chances so early in the tournament. So I bet 250 chips, hoping they would fold. One player called. The next card gave him a full house. I lost 400 chips the first hand.

"I'm an idiot," I thought. "Why did I make that bet when I hit nothing on the flop?"

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