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Sunday extra

Chipping in

Writer tries his luck with contenders and pretenders ... and finds his place.

By JOHN SCHWARB
Published February 22, 2004

[Special to the Times: Eric Harkins]
Times staff writer John Schwarb, left, ponders his hand. Jason Levin hides behind sunglasses while listening to a meditation tape.

TUNICA, MISS. - Sooner or later you have to say it.

Ideally, you do it with plenty of chips and a great hand. Just as they do on television.

The reality, I found, can be much different. So with one black, three green and one red chip remaining, the last $180 to my tournament name, I clutched my ace-jack hole cards and announced the ultimate declaration of No-Limit Texas Hold'em.

"I'm all-in."

One by one the remaining players folded, but not the fellow in Seat 10. Jim Lester had the chips to handle the bet, and was seriously considering it.

All while burning a hole in me with a piercing stare.

I locked my eyes on the green felt directly in front of me, not daring to look him in the eye. If he could see inside me, he would see my heart pounding and my psyche pleading for a fold.

Perhaps he could. Lester counted out $180 of his chips, chucked it into the middle of the table and flipped over his hole cards.

I looked up.

Uh-oh.

* * *

At the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, Miss., just south of Memphis, Tenn., poker's lucky streak played out last month before thousands of players, millions of dollars and me, though I could have used more luck and more dollars.

The Jack Binion World Poker Open is the biggest tournament this side of Las Vegas' World Series of Poker, the famous event started by Jack's late father, Benny. It is an odyssey of card-playing, with around-the-clock cash games and a series of tournaments culminating in the $10,000 entry-fee No-Limit Texas Hold'em Championship, a part of the World Poker Tour television series.

I was not crazy enough to take on the feature event (okay, the $10,000 cash would have been a small problem, too), but with $500 that included "investments" from friends, I bought a seat and a chance at poker glory in a smaller event.

Smaller only in dollars.

Me and 949 other people, including television regulars such as Scotty Nguyen, Men "The Master" Nguyen (no relation), Chris Moneymaker, David "The Devilfish" Ulliott and T.J. Cloutier, entered the $500 No-Limit Texas Hold'em event, the most crowded in the entire World Poker Open.

A year ago, before poker hit the jackpot on TV, this event drew 555 players. This year it sold out at 950 players, with more turned away when tournament officials ran out of chips.

The action was held in an intoxicating, overwhelming setting. Forty-six poker tables crowded a 10,000-square-foot ballroom used for tournament headquarters, while 50 more tables filled adjacent hallways, side rooms and the Horseshoe Casino next door. Multi-colored poker chips clicked and clattered; $100 bills were littered similar to confetti on cash tables (no smaller bills allowed).

I traded in my $100 bills for Seat 2, Table 62, in a small room across from the main ballroom, and the $800 in tournament chips everyone began with: one purple $500, two black $100s, two green $25s and 10 red $5s.

My table had a mix of ages, genders and poker abilities. Both ends of the spectrum were near me in two Chicagoans: Seth Michael, a 32-year-old first-time player, and Jason Levin, a 26-year-old bond trader who finished second in the 2002 event and won $29,000.

Levin, two to my left in Seat 4, hid behind sunglasses and a portable CD player.

"Meditation tapes," he said.

* * *

With creative editing, televised poker almost always shows action where players have pairs and other tantalizing hands such as Big Slick (A-K). Most of my hands would have ended up on the cutting-room floor.

With A-J, my best hand in the first two hours, I made a fairly risky move with 2-Q-3-5 showing on the table. I not only bluffed but sent in my entire bankroll, which at that point had dwindled to $180.

The move looked solid as the table folded around . . . until Lester stared me down. In a blue button-down shirt and neat goatee, the middle-aged Ohioan and frequent tournament participant puzzled me all day. He was a true player - not afraid to bet, to see flops, to take chances.

True to form, he called and revealed 5-8.

It was a brilliant move, as my ace high couldn't have bought a used blackjack deck in the gift shop. The only saving grace was the upcoming river card, with which I had 10 outs: three aces, three jacks and four fours. Of the 44 cards unknown to me, I needed one of those 10 to stay alive.

Faster than I could make that calculation, the dealer turned over a beautiful, red-diamonded four. I had rivered a wheel, an ace-low straight.

As exhilarating as that win was, as depressing was my next all-in only a half-hour later.

In tournaments the blinds (mandatory bets that start a pot) gradually increase, forcing players to bet or be blinded off the table. With $300 left and $25-$50 blinds making the rounds, I had to go all-in again soon.

A pocket pair of queens was an ideal hand to go with, especially with a flop of jack-rag-rag.

It lost.

First to act after the flop, Leonard Rawley went all-in with about $700 in Seat 5. The 35-year-old Orlando financial consultant, another first-time tournament player, had not given me any trouble before.

Lester thought about taking him on, staring him down again (Rawley stared back, good for him) but ultimately folding.

I called with my $300. Rawley had ace-jack, but my queens were better.

Until the dealer dropped an ace on the turn.

Getting up from Table 62 with a couple of handshakes and nods, I walked away in a complete funk. The veterans know the look.

"With 950 people, the luck has got to be pretty good," said Levin, who was run off Table 62 after an hour and seemed to hardly care. "I told myself, I'm either going to the final table or going out in the first hour."

I did neither, finishing more toward the middle and outlasting about 280 players.

But in a No-Limit Texas Hold'em tournament, that's all irrelevant. You either finish in the money or you don't, and my shot at big-time poker came up dry, save a few stories for home.

"If you're beating your home game, it's great to come out here," said Cloutier, a professional from Texas widely considered one of the best tournament players.

"If you lose, there's nothing wrong with going back."

[Last modified February 22, 2004, 10:02:44]


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