BELLAGIO’S ‘FESTA AL LAGO III
By: Kenna James
The journey of the human spirit, in its pursuit of a major poker championship, takes many flops and turns, and crosses many rivers. As I walk into the Bellagio to find my table, I look out across a sea of people and think to myself, "How am I going to win this thing?" My heart is beating fast and I suddenly feel like Moses faced with parting the Red Sea .
The first cards are pitched at 12:10 pm. I’m in a rush to finish up a last-minute phone call as I look down at K-K! Oh my God! The fear of running into Aces the first hand and walking away jabbering to myself creeps into my head. I push the thought-terrorists to the side (Kings can help you do that) and pick up 4,000 in the hand against a lone opponent in a fishing cap and Hawaiian shirt. We’re not playing thirty minutes and the action gets hot and heavy. Players are slinging chips like they were cookies. Seeing my opponents toss in two and five thousand dollar bets with ease gives me cause for concern that I may get trapped in the crossfire. It takes discipline not to get involved in the action with mediocre hands when everyone else is having fun, and it’s patience alone that will help me avoid the flying bullets.
1:40 pm. First break. I hook up with Layne Flack and we make haste to the gift shop for some Red Bull and chocolates. I’ve increased my stack to 30,000 and the human spirit is smiling. Gabe Kaplin (Mr. Kotter) is playing on the table next to me and we exchange good-luck wishes.
Round two begins, and an hour in we lose our first player. The man in the fishing hat shows more heart than sense by moving his last chips in with King-high against top set. The next few hours are an uneventful test of patience. On one of the breaks I notice that Phil Ivy and Johnny Chan get more attention from autograph hunters than the movie star players like Tobey Maguire. I steadily build my stack to almost 50,000 before our table breaks at 6:40 pm. I want to pack my chips away for the day but they make me take a seat card and I feel like I’m walking on water to my new table assignment.
8:00 pm. It’s round five and my character is being tested. The blinds are 300/600 with a 75 ante. I’ve lost over half my chips and I’m right back to where I started the day with 20,000! Which is better: to have had it and lost it, or to have never had it at all? With Howard taking up the nickname ‘Professor’, maybe I’ll be known as the ‘Philosopher’! I’m trying to see some dark humor in the situation, as I make a 10,000 mistake against tough cookie Jeff Schulman, when I bet a big draw on the turn instead of taking the free card. He moves in on me, and all of a sudden I bet myself out of this pot and have to lay the hand down with one to come. It’s tough to go through hour after hour of pressure without making some mistakes. Those who make the fewest and exploit the most will be the ones to survive the day.
I’ve gone from playing perfect to having more holes in my game then a golf course. It’s at times like these that I need a little luck to carry me through. I find her when I pick up two Nines for my last hand of the day and limp in to the pot. Connie Kim (a solid, tight player) with a stack of 40,000 makes it 3,500 out of the big blind. Easier to remove an abscessed tooth than get me out of this pot, as we take the flop heads-up. She fires a bet of 5,000 on a flop of J-4-4 and I stubbornly peel off a valuable blue chip (5,000) and toss it into the pot. When she checks to me on the turn I know I have her and take the pot with a 5,000 return favor bet.
Day one is in the books and as the roller-coaster ride comes to a merciful end, I find myself with 31,000 in chips. The sea of three hundred and twelve entrants has narrowed to a river; albeit a river filled with a hundred and fifty-seven Piranha.
There’s more gravity than excitement in the air today. It’s moving day, and those who survive this session will not only have at least $12,000 more in their pocket, but a chance at one million dollars! I start the day facing off against Men the Master, Minh Nguyen, Paul ‘X22’ Magriel, Daniel Negreanu, Haralabos Voulgaris, and Paul Wolfe who is fresh off his third place finish in the Orleans WPPA main event.
I start the day playing fast and moving my chips like I’ve already got a million. I limp with T-J suited and Voulgaris, holding the button, looks to his left as if to raise out the blinds and isolate my short stack of 14,000. He makes it 3,500 to go and I decide to do the ol’ ‘limp in and represent Aces’ trick, and move all-in. He calls me with A-Q and, when the flop falls Q-T-9, I still have hope and now am just looking for a bit of luck to come along. A river King keeps me alive and I breath a sigh of relief. I don’t have time to catch my breath when I pick up A-A vs. Q-Q and double up yet again. In mere moments I go from having 14,000 to over 60,000!
The blinds are 400/800 with a 75 ante. I bring it in for 4000 with two Kings. ‘X22’ gives me the courtesy call and we take a flop of 9-3-4, heads-up. Check, check. Turn ten. I instinctively feel funny about the hand and we both check. Now I don’t know if Paul has checked two streets in a row in his life, and this one smelled fishy, but my aggressive tendency got the better of me and I led out on the river with a value bet of 8,000, to which he promptly trumped to what he calls a ‘double quack’ bet of 24,000. I call ‘the quack’ and, sure enough, he shows me pocket nines for a full house of nines over fours. I survive yet again but am right back to where I started the day. Again!
I keep pushing chips and double up again at the next level when I take pocket eights against A-6 suited and an inexperienced young player calls my all-in bet with a board of J-J- 6. I then lose those chips to Minh when I get frisky with the 8-5 of clubs, and flop a flush draw to his A-K. I’m back on top with a nice pot from Freddy Bonyadi when we both flop trip Jacks. He ends up laying down J-T on a board of J-J-3 after I move in on him, and I applaud his great lay down by showing him the J-Q! I get lucky to knock out Victor Ramdin when I turn a set of Sevens and he moves in on me with his over pair of Tens and I’m off to the races.
We finally go on dinner break, prepared to come back in ninety minutes and play 2000/4000 with a 500 ante. Paul Wolfe is a friend that I’ve come to know over the past few years on the tour and is kind enough to let me lay down in his room to rest from the fast paced action and stress of the battle. We order room service and end up eating breakfast at ten o’clock at night! When we return Paul loses a big pot to me when he makes it 25 dimes to go and I decide to see a flop with pocket Fours. The caller in the big blind bets 20,000 as quick as the dealer peels the cards off the deck and, by the time I take my eyes off the players and look at the flop of 9- 7-4, Paul is in there raising to 120,000! I almost fall out of my chair as I push all of my chips into the middle to take the pot right there. I’m glad I paid for breakfast or I might have felt guilty taking that monster from my buddy!
I end day two with a stack of 135,500 beautiful chips and my hope for a million still alive. With twenty-nine players left I’m below average, but elated to still be in the hunt.
The ‘Great One’, Erik Seidel, is on my left and I not only have chips to compete with him, I’m getting the cards too. You need both to even have a chance against this legend. Even with my formidable stack of 700k, I play one too many pots and he gets the better of me to the tune of a quarter million. A few hands later David Pham raises my big blind from the button. I look down and find A-K and decide to let him think that I’m re-stealing. I fold my arms in disgust and ask him, "Is this going to be a habit, David? I raise, 100k!" David cuts his chips for what seems like two minutes and then slides over half his stack in the middle, making it 350k to go. We both started the hand with a little over 500,000. After studying him I determine that he is baiting me into a call and now suddenly feel like I’ve walked into a monster! I panic and fear gets the better of me for the first time in the tournament and I toss my hand face up into the muck. David turns up K-9 and the crowd is in awe. He tells me that he did in fact think I was re-stealing and decided to re-re-steal the re-steal! Wait a minute; I wasn’t playing on that level yet. The lesson here: be careful what you ask for, you might just get it. My spirit broken, it was only a matter of time before I would drown with only eight other players standing between me and more bundles of cash than I could carry.
From a sea of people to a final table of ten, I can’t be at all disappointed in my ninth place finish here. With the ‘Great One’, Kathy Liebert, John Juanda, Carlos Mortenson, David Pham, Fisherman Greg, Minh Nguyen, Hung La, and Thang Pham, this was one of the toughest final tables I have faced in my young career. With Greg, Kathy and Minh following me to the felt, the final six will assemble for the TV cameras tonight. We will be watching from the audience with all the other casualties of war, thinking of what might have been. Take heart my friends. Maybe the next time our task will not be as daunting and it will be us up there on the stage. ‘Til then, at the start of the next major poker tournament, when I’m staring what looks like Mount Everest in the face, I’ll just raise my voice and exclaim to my friends, "Hey, let’s go climb that hill, boys!”
Kenna James is a pro whose speciality lies in Hold’em tournament events. Last year he achieved sixteen final table appearances, eight of which were wins. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and fellow poker professional, Marsha Wagonner.
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