Saturday, October 30, 2004

Foxwoods Day 2

"Bye bye Men."

Those were the parting words of "The Master" as his all-in attempt was beat two tables to my left. The morning began with 498 players in the $500 limit hold'em tournament. Nguyen departed with about 200 left. I had hovered between 1,000 and 2,000 chips most of the day from our starting point of 1,500. The tournaments are set up well at the World Poker Finals in that the blinds rise slowly, giving participants plenty of play for their money. Even though I went a long stretch without any good hands I was still hanging on.

At the 5:30 p.m. dinner break I had about 8,000 chips with 90 players left after catching AK, 10-10 and a couple of other good hands. I made a bad mistake in calling a guy down to the river with 44 with a 10 high board. I put him on AK and he turned over 55. I should have either folded or check raised at some point in the hand.

We get down to 65 players, 40 get paid and the winner gets $61,000.

I pull two miracle river cards to stay alive. The first I have 88 with enough chips for three BB. I raise it and get called by a woman with a mountain of chips. The flop is K-10-7. She bets and I have to call. She turns over KQ. The turn is a blank and the river is an 8. In the second miracle. I am all-in in the BB with K-10 vs. A-10. The flop comes A-9-7 all clubs. I have the K of clubs. The river is a club.

But it is a bad beat the puts me out. With $2,500 left and the blinds at $500-$1,000. I raise under the gun with AQ. The guy in the BB calls and the flp is Q-5-3. He bets my last $500 and I call. He has J5. The turn is an A. The river? A 5 of course. And just like that I'm out in 42nd place, right on that bubble.

The river giveth, the river takethaway.

The $500 NL is in the morning. I'm going to sleep.

Foxwoods Day 1

Having never traveled through New England before, I will sum up the fall foilage using a poker analogy. Every tree has pocket aces.

I landed in Hartford Friday afternoon and headed straight to Foxwoods, which looms high above the woods of eastern Connecticut. I met my friend Tony there, who compares the place to a mall. I'm not sure that is the best description, but whatever works.

The ballroom in which the World Poker Finals is held is not as large or impressive as the one they use in Tunica for the World Poker Open, but the 80-table poker room is superb, if incredibly crowded. I hear that there is usually at least a two-hour wait for a table, even though nearly every poker table is being used. Considering that New York, Boston and Philadelphia are all less than five hours away I should not be surprised.

No pro spottings yet. I've seen several of the yokels I have ran into in other places, like Vegas or Tunica, who are semi-pretenders like me, I guess. Tony has taken to calling me "Tuscaloosa" Johnny whenever we are at the same table up here, trying to market the image. Please, no autographs.

At least in the melting pot of Vegas, my accent doesn't stick out much, but here it sticks out like a sore thumb. I have some fun with it, bringing my Lynyrd Skynyrd cap with me. As one player said, "A guy with a Lynyrd Skynyrd cap can't be all that bad." I eschewed bringing a set of "Bubba teeth" with me. I thought it a bit much.

Tony and I immediately hit some $80 satellites to try and win some tournament buy-in chips. I went out quickly in the first two, both no limit satellites. In the second, I held AK with the ace of diamonds and decided to just call the $50 BB after there were a few limpers in front of me. The flop was 3JQ, all diamonds. I just smooth called the $200 bet by the player in front of me, figuring I would either hit the turn or take the pot away from him there. But the turn was a blank and he bet another $300. I went all-in for $500 more, but he could not throw away his JJ and the river was another blank. So much for that hell of a draw.

I finally won in a limit satellite after pulling out an all-in with A7 with a miracle 7 on the river and then building some chips with a run of good hands. I took the $500 tournament chip I won, plus one I bought from Tony and entered the $500 limit Hold'em tournament today and the 500 NL Sunday.

So here I sit at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, having gotten a restless night of sleep on a twin-sized air mattress, which is much like a rocky boat. You turn one way, the other side of the mattress lifts up. I am perusing my dog-eared copy of Sklansky's Tournament Poker for my usual last-minute review before the 75-minute drive from Bristol to the casino. More to come later.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Why I hate computers

Last night I was playing the $50 NL on PokerStars, had just made the final table out of 288 players and lo and behold the Internet went out. I sit there stunned as my icon flashes "Disconnected" and my rage boils. I try everything I can think of to get it to work, but nothing works. Luckily for me, my friend Brian was watching me play the tournament, so I called him up and he logged in for me and he played my hands for me over the phone. As soon as he logs in I get monster hands -- JJ, AK, QQ and it's not long before I moved from ninth in chips to second. Unfortunately, with me not being able to see the screen it's hard for Brian to relay not just my hands, but my chip count, my position and the other players' chip counts in a matter of seconds, so we have some difficulties and miscommunications that hurt my chances. I put nearly half my chips in with AQ, thinking I had more chips, get raised all-in and before I can tell Brian to call, the time runs out and my hand is folded. D'oh! I finished 7th and made another $250 over what I would have finished had I not gotten back into the game so all is certainly not lost.

On another note, that is the fifth PS tournament in the past two weeks that I have finished 11th or better with at least 120 people in each one so I am feeling good about my tournament game right now. I fly up to Foxwoods tomorrow and will see if my hot streak can continue.

Monday, October 25, 2004

2005 WSOP schedule

Here is the press release from Harrah's today anouncing the 2005 WSOP schedule. As you can see it is jam packed with events this year.

LAS VEGAS, Oct. 25 -- For 35 years, the World Series of Poker has been an all-Las Vegas affair. But in 2005, the road to poker's ultimate championship begins in Atlantic City. From January 7-18, Harrah's Atlantic City will host the premier event of the 2005 World Series of Poker Tournament Circuit, a series of five poker tournaments hosted by Harrah's Entertainment, Inc. The tournaments will precede the 36th Annual World Series of Poker at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

"In 2005, the World Series of Poker begins its evolution from a month-long special event into a year-round sport," said Ginny Shanks, senior vice president of acquisition marketing for Harrah's. "The road to the WorldSeries of Poker Championship will be a challenging and arduous one. But unlike professional football, basketball, golf or auto racing, even the greenest of amateurs can mount a challenge for the title."

Players will earn points based on their performance in the circuit tournaments and the World Series of Poker. The top 100 point-earners will receive a free invitation to the 2005 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, where a single winner will take home a top prize of $2 million. Following the January tournament in Atlantic City, the Tournament Circuit will make stops at Harrah's Rincon near San Diego (February 20-March 1), the Rio (March 12-22), Harveys Lake Tahoe (April 26-May 10) and Harrah's NewOrleans (May 21-30). Each of the events will be taped and aired on ESPN.

The 36th Annual World Series of Poker is scheduled to begin June 2, and will run through July 15. An estimated 5,000 players are expected to participate in the $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas hold 'em Championship, double the number that competed in 2004. To accommodate the large expected field of participants, most of the 2005 World Series of Poker will be held at the Rio, though the final two days of the championship tournament will be held at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown LasVegas. The 2005 Tournament of Champions will take place soon after the conclusion of the World Series of Poker Championship event, and will be held at the Rio.

For additional information, call 1-877-367-9767, or visit Various subsidiaries of Harrah's Entertainment, Inc. own or manage 28 casinos in the United States, primarily under the Harrah's and Horseshoebrand names. Founded 66 years ago, Harrah's Entertainment is focused on building loyalty and value with its valued customers through a unique combination of great service, excellent products, unsurpassed distribution, operational excellence and technology leadership. Additional information about Harrah's Entertainment is available at

2005 World Series of Poker Schedule of Events

Date Tournament Buy-In
June 2, Thursday Casino Employee No-limit Hold'em $500
June 3, Friday No-limit Hold'em $1,500
June 4, Saturday Pot-limit Hold'em $1,500
June 5, Sunday Limit Hold'em $1,500
June 6, Monday Omaha Hi-low Split $1,500
June 7, Tuesday Short Handed (6/table)No-limit Hold'em $2,500
June 8, Wednesday No-limit Hold'em w/rebuys $1,000
June 9, Thursday Seven Card Stud $1,500
June 10, Friday No-limit Hold'em $2,000
June 11, Saturday Limit Hold'em $2,000
June 12, Sunday Pot-limit Hold'em $2,000
June 13, Monday Pot-limit Omaha w/re-buys $2,000
June 14, Tuesday No-limit Hold'em $5,000
June 15, Wednesday Seven Card Stud Hi-low Split $1,000
June 16, Thursday Limit Hold'em Shootout $1,500
June 17, Friday No-limit Hold'em Shootout $1,500
June 18, Saturday Limit Hold'em $2,500
June 19, Sunday Seven Card Stud Hi-low Split $2,000
June 19, Sunday Pot Limit Omaha $1,500
June 20, Monday Pot-limit Hold'em $5,000
June 21, Tuesday Omaha Hi-low Split $2,500
June 22, Wednesday No-limit Hold'em $1,500
June 23, Thursday Seven Card Stud $5,000
June 24, Friday No-Limit Hold'em $2,500
June 25, Saturday Pot-limit Hold'em $2,500
June 26, Sunday Ladies No-limit Hold'em $1,000
June 26, Sunday Pot-limit Omaha w/re-buys $5,000
June 27, Monday Limit Hold'em $5,000
June 28, Tuesday No-limit Hold'em $2,000
June 29, Wednesday Seven Card Razz $1,500
June 29, Wednesday Short handed (6/table) No-limit Hold'em $5,000
June 30, Thursday Omaha hi-low split $5,000
July 1, Friday No-limit Hold'em $3,000
July 2, Saturday Seniors No-Limit Hold'em $1,000
July 2, Saturday Pot-limit Omaha $10,000
July 3, Sunday Limit Hold'em $3,000
July 4, Monday No-limit Hold'em w/re-buys $1,000
July 5, Tuesday Super satellite day (10a.m./3p.m./8p.m.) $1,000
July 5, Tuesday No-limit 2 to 7 Draw Lowball w/re-buys $5,000
July 6, Wednesday Super satellite day (9a.m./2p.m./9p.m.)
July 6, Wednesday Media/Celebrity Event

No Limit Texas Hold'em World Championship: Date Tournament Buy-In

July 7, Thursday Day 1A, First 1,000 - 2,200 play to 500-650 $10,000
July 8, Friday Day 1B, Second 1,000 - 2,200 play to 500-650
July 9, Saturday Day 1C, Third 1,000 - 2,200 play to 500-650
July 10, Sunday Day 2, Play down to 500-1,000
July 11, Monday Day 3, Play down to 200-400
July 11, Monday No-limit Hold'em 1-day event $1,500
July 12, Tuesday Day 4, Play down to 100-150
July 12, Tuesday No-limit Hold'em 1-day event $1,000
July 13, Wednesday Day 5, Play down to 27
July 13, Wednesday No-limit Hold'em 1-day event $1,000
July 14, Thursday Day 6, Play down to 9 (Binion's Horseshoe)
July 15, Friday Day 7, Final table (Binion's Horseshoe)

Gearing up for Foxwoods

I fly to Hartford on Friday for my first taste of the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods and New England in the fall, which I am sure is absolutely stunning. I am generally feeling good about my poker game, particularly tournament play. The PokerStars tally in the past week: a first and third place finish in three 128-man heads up no limit tournaments. A 4th in a 117-man limit tourney and an 11th in a 190 or so player limit tournament. Hopefully, the good play and fortune will continue for the next week in Connecticut.

I'll try to post daily trip reports if time allows during the Foxwoods trip and maybe an interview or two with some pros.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Don't believe your own press

I probably no longer earn the moniker "Tuscaloosa" Johnny, as this year has been a greater struggle than the last, when it seemed I couldn't lose. Perhaps it proves a point I occasionally make to my fellow players that you are neither as good as you think you are when you win, nor are you as bad as you think you are when you lose. (This applies only to quality players, of course.)

Take this week for example. On Sunday, I drop the $470 in the 10-20 game, my set losing to a straight, my straight losing to a higher straight and so on. On Tuesday, I play the heads up tournament on Poker Stars and win it for a profit of $746. Then on Wednesday, I go out of the same tournament in the first round, get booted from a WPT qualifier and drop another $100 at the 3-6 shorthanded tables.

I guess we play this game because it drives us insane.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

On gambling money

In the surreal world of gambling, a dollar is not a dollar, nor is a dime a dime. The higher the amount of money in the real world, the smaller the phrase coined for it in the skewed realm that is the gambler’s universe. One hundred dollars is a “dollar” and a thousand dollars is a “dime.” The phrasing is not taken to the next extreme, however. The buy-in to the championship of the World Series of Poker is not a penny; it’s ten dimes.

The purpose of this terminology is to reduce the effect the loss of cold hard cash has on the gambler’s psyche. Losing a dime sure sounds better than dropping a grand. It’s much easier for a gambler to call his bookie and say, “Give me five dollars on the Padres” than to ponder the thought of losing $500.

The method of betting at a casino is also designed to soften the blow. Give a store clerk a $100 bill and the clerk will do everything short of carbon dating testing to verify its authenticity. Drop the same bill on a gaming table in a casino and the dealer will snatch it and drop it in the money slot with the speed of a drawing wild west gunman. In gambling, the money is not as important as the action. Casino owners certainly don’t want a player to ponder how many Big Macs that $100 could have bought after a player’s 20 lost to the blackjack dealer’s five-card 21. They would prefer, of course, for the player to pull another $100 out of his pocket for another drop in the box.

The same effect carries over to the poker table. Betting with round clay chips is much easier psychologically than dropping Benjamins on the felt. The sting is less for most. It’s only so much Monopoly money for them. The poker culture trains many players to have a disregard (I would argue reckless disregard) for their money, leading them to play limits above their bankroll allowance. This philosophy allows a lucky few to hit it really big, winning large sums of money, while others inevitably go bust.

Not me, though, and perhaps it’s why I may never be a great player, merely better than average. I can’t yet take the plunge into high-stakes gambling, preferring to grind out a consistent profit. At 28, I’m still young enough to remember working at K-Mart for minimum wage, and am especially reminded of so after dropping several hundred at the tables. During a recent $10-$20 Hold’em game, I lost a big pot, leaving me with about $30. Rather than throw it in on a hand and try to make a miraculous comeback from my $500 deficit for the night, I cashed in and drove to Winn-Dixie to buy some groceries. My bill? $30. That money sure came in handy.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Two questions with Greg Raymer

I will try posting this feature on a semi-regular basis, a "mini-interview" by email (or in person as travel allows) with some poker professionals. First up is the 2004 WSOP champion.

Q. How has your life changed since you won the WSOP?

A. I used to work 9-5 as a corporate-employed patent attorney. Now I travel to major poker tournaments, make public appearances, and am writing a book and putting together a website ( I used to travel about 3 times a year. Now it's 3 times a month.

Q. What advice would you give those aspiring to follow in your footsteps?

A. First and foremost, never gamble with money you can't afford to lose. Second, you have to treat this like any other profession. You have to study, train, practice, and work hard at improving yourself. I'm sure you can't imagine becoming a world class athlete in any sport without training hard for years, and the same is true about poker. You have to train mentally to become one of the best. Because of the luck factor in poker, somebody who is not the best will win sometimes, but in the long run, you must work at it to become one of the best.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Kids these days

Another example of how poker may have "jumped the shark." Check out this lead in a recent news article on poker:

Poker isn’t allowed in school, so eighth-grade would-be card sharks ditch telltale chips, gather at lunch and use push-ups as currency: ‘‘I see your five push-ups and raise you 15.’’ Faced with the same dilemma, high schoolers bet bags of potato chips and cookies from their lunches, or toothpicks that they can quickly stuff into their pockets if the principal happens along.

Favorite poker haikus

Scouring the 'net, I found some creative poker haikus that some players had written. Here's my five favorite:

I paired my kicker
His chair is now empty seat
Victory is luck

A gutshot straight draw
My card comes on the river
Poker gods love me

World Series, Heads Up
Turn Gives Me The Holy Nuts
He Moves All-In - Call!

Went all in with rags
He is reaching for his chips
My fate is at hand

In poker and life
Two broads seem like good fortune
But will leave you broke

Friday, October 08, 2004

Success in Aruba

The following is an account of the Classic in Aruba from Denver resident Arthur Kane, a regular Joe like you and me who qualified online and fared quite well in the tournament:

I started playing poker seriously about a year ago. I had played with friends once or twice before but really didn't understand the game. Last year, I was trolling around the TV channels and noticed poker games on a few networks. At first I thought it was a joke, but I was really drawn in. I watched some guy who won a trip online to Aruba won about $23,000 on the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour. About the same time, I heard about Chris Moneymaker winning $2.5 million at the World Series. I decided it might be a good way to get some free travel. I didn't seriously think I could compete with the pros.

A friend gave me a copy of Positively Fifth Street and he also recommended several books so I bought those. T.J's book, Sklansky and Doyle's. I reread them several times and started playing online whenever I had a chance. I was playing $10 and $14 tournaments that would get me an
entry into the larger games that gave away the trips. At first, I was bumped out first or second almost every time, but eventually I started winning my way into those larger tournaments.

I was concentrating on because that was the Aruba trip. By early spring, I had collected half a dozen entries into the big tournaments and started playing them. I was getting pretty far but usually you had to come in first or second to win the trip. In May, I played a tournament and won after a great rush of hands. I knocked out four of the 10 people at the final table and ended up with like 70,000 in chips versus about 7,000, heads up. That when I knew we would be headed to Aruba in September. It had cost about $2,000 in online play.

The trip was really first class. It was free and they were giving out the entry free to the main event so they didn't have to really class it up. But they did. They gave us the flight times we wanted, the resort was first-class, and they had two really top-end banquets at the beginning and end of the trip. They gave us two bags of trinkets and UB clothing. On top of that, they had
held some gold bracelet tournaments online with the final table being played in Aruba. I made it to the final table of the Pot-limit hold'em tournament and ended up winning it. The prize was $600 and gold bracelet.

The first thing you noticed was that everyone at the resort and on the plane was a poker player. It's low season in Aruba so Ultimatebet pretty much bought out the whole resort and three others on the beach. There were 647 players and most won their trips online. There were also top pros everywhere you went. The Devilfish at the pool, the Unabomber at the casino. I was watching Phil Laak play a cash game at the Radisson's casino, and he wasn't even bothering with chips. He had like $20,000 in $100 bills and was just betting with that.

The main event had three days of qualifying rounds with each player getting a day. If he or she survived, the main event started on Wednesday. My qualifier was Sunday so I had a couple of days on the beach on either side. That first day I was really nervous. I had received a list that showed all the pros playing in my "flight" and I didn't know what to expect. But the first table I was at had two pros and both busted out early. They were trying to bluff too much and people at the table either didn't know or didn't care who they were and called them. The first three or four hours I wasn't going anywhere. We started with 12,000 in chips and I was going up and down though I never went below my 12,000. I wanted to come out of the first day with at least 30,000 in chips because the blinds were pretty aggressive on the first full day.

Ace King was a key hand for me in this tournament. The first key play was against this kid from Chicago. I had AK and raised to about 2,000. The blinds were about 150-300. I had about 15,000 and he about 7,000. He looked at his cards, hesitated and then went all in. With hesitation, I put him on a mid pair and called. He turned over queens so it was 50-50 and I caught an Ace and a King. That brought me over 20,000 and the table broke up soon after. The next table I had a couple good pots, bringing me to around 30,000. Then I was moved to a table with Thomas Keller to the right of me. He won a gold bracelet in a side event in this year's World Series, but we had about the same stacks and were the table's chip leaders. So I started raising anytime he passed. One time he raised 2,000 and I had AK again and raised to 10,000 because I wanted to end it there. I ended up stealing about 12,000 in that last hour bringing me to 14th place the first day with 41,200. I was so burned out that first day that one of the staffers had to help me count my chips at the end of the day because I kept getting different counts. Much vodka was consumed afterwards since I didn't have to play for another two days.

On Wednesday, I was put at this table with this annoying woman who wouldn't shut up. She kept telling the dealers how to deal and talking about all the tournaments she had been in and complaining about internet players. My only complaint with the tournament is that it was structured strangely. It paid 200 places with places 100-200 getting $7,000. By the first full day there were like 280 people so I was playing extremely tight to get into the cash. Once the 80 people got bumped, I loosened up and played my regular game, but I couldn't get much past 40,000 in chips early on. And this woman was really pissing me off.

Finally our table broke up and low and behold she's put at the same table as I was so I started to bluff her. I had her covered by about 5,000 chips and ended up stealing a couple of pots from her in a row. The third time I look at AK and make it about 5,000 to go with 200-400 blinds. She pushes in another 20,000 or so. I figure her on middle pair and think she was just pissed off
at all the stealing I've doing so I push all in. She turns over KK. It was the only time I got really lucky in the tournament, catching an ace on the turn. She was so pissed and it felt particularly good to get rid of her.

The hard part about day two is that I always had a big stack to the left of me. But once I doubled through her I went on a rush. John Juanda and Chris Bigler were at the table. Bigler was short stacked (about 30,000) and he came in for about 3,000. I had nearly 150,000 at the time and I called with AJ. A king and two blanks flop. He pushes in another 20,000 and I go all in. He waits, and stares and waits and throws it away. My first big bluff against a pro.

That day was a massacre. We went from 280 to about 30 players. It was the last round of the day and I had somehow frittered away most of my stack. I was down to 60,000 and it cost about 10,000 to play 10 hands. I was in the big blind with K9 of spades and the small blind who had about 55,000 called. The flop came K, spade, spade. The small blind put in about 30,000
and I moved all in. He turns over K8 so I am a huge favorite. He catches an 8 - and not the 8 of spades - on the river and I have 5,000 left which goes all in the next hand of 68 of diamonds. I had outlasted 601 players and made $9,000. Had the tournament been structured properly I probably would have come out with more than $20,000, but I was happy with my first tournament.

Now I'm gearing up for next year. I hope to play the World Series, the
Aviation Club in Paris, Aruba and anything else I can get my hands on.
Basically, I'm hooked.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

WSOP article

The following is the article I wrote in May after attending the WSOP. It goes with the previously posted picture. I'm working on an article to run in The Tuscaloosa News this weekend about the imfiltration of poker tournaments into local bars and the legal and social ramifications of above ground poker here in Tuscaloosa.

Poker face
Card sharks gather in Vegas for the annual World Series of Poker

By Johnny Kampis
Staff Writer

May 16, 2004
Email this story.

This city is known for dancing water fountains, erupting volcanoes and more neon than the strained eye can stand. But at this time of year it’s poker that’s the draw.

On April 22, the World Series of Poker kicked off at Binion’s Horseshoe for the 35th time. The event is a month-long series of tournaments culminating in the $10,000 buy-in championship event that will start Saturday -- an event in which the winner may earn up to $4 million this year. Held in a city that is the center of the gambling universe, the WSOP attracts thousands of players from across the globe -- many of them professionals, and many of them amateurs like myself, albeit good amateurs.

Even so, it was not without some trepidation that I plunked down 10 Benjamins --that’s $1,000 -- to enter the No Limit Texas Hold’em tournament held on April 28. It sounds crazy to casually hand over $1,000, but this is not food money or the mortgage payment. This is money that had been won at poker, and money won at the table can be lost at the table. I’d had success in the Mississippi casinos and the backrooms and kitchen tables of Alabama. It was time for a trip to the major leagues of poker.

After paying the entry fee, I was given a card for Table 38 Seat 3. Until the tournament started at noon on Wednesday, I had no clue how stiff the opposition would be. Before the day was through, I would face a former nine-time WSOP champion, the runner-up for player of the year in 2003 and two recent finalists in World Poker Tour tournaments. And I relished it.

A popular game

Poker has long been a popular game, although one enjoyed mostly in the shadows of society. In the past year, poker has enjoyed a renaissance, becoming the cool game of the moment. Actors Ben Affleck, James Woods and Mimi Rogers are among the regulars at major poker tournaments. The increased popularity was largely ushered in by the start of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel last year. For the first time, viewers could see the hole cards, or unexposed cards, of the players through the use of cameras on the table. Now that viewers could see what cards the players held, they could watch the trick plays, bluffs and mind games that are at the heart of poker. The WPT quickly became the most popular program on the Travel Channel.

ESPN followed suit by airing the championship event of the WSOP over the course of seven episodes last summer. The network is taping more WSOP tournaments to air this summer, beginning in June.

Texas Hold’em, now easily the most popular poker game, is the variety played in most of the televised tournaments, but is much different than the poker games most people grew up playing at home with friends or relatives. For starters, each player receives two unexposed hole cards. There is an initial round of betting. Then three community cards used by all the players are dealt face up in the center of the table. Another round of betting follows this deal, also known as the flop. A fourth community card, or the turn, is dealt and a third betting round ensues. The dealing of a fifth and final community card, also known as the river, results in a final round of betting. Players use five of the seven cards available to them to make the best hand. Because several community cards are used, the differences in the hands are often slight. As one saying goes, Hold’em takes a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.

I had about four years under my belt when I flew into Las Vegas two weeks ago with longtime friend Brian Wright. Before diving into the WSOP head first, we decided to play in some smaller tournaments around town. The difference between a regular cash game of poker and a tournament is that as long as you have money, you can buy more chips in a cash game. But if you lose all your chips in a tournament, you are out. Tournaments are played until one person has all the chips and a small percentage of the players earn money according to their high finish.

It was at a tournament at the Sahara, on the northern edge of Las Vegas’ famed Strip, that I met Mike Toal from Boise, Idaho. The 37-year-old, dressed in the popular poker gear of a baseball cap and sunglasses, had only been playing the game a week, but he had won the previous night’s tournament at the Sahara, pocketing a cool $2,700. He picked up the game, like so many others, after watching it on television.“It’s kind of the hype, isn’t it?" he asked.

Toal used to be a ranked professional darts player, but gave up the game. He said playing poker tournaments gives him the same rush of competition that darts did. I told him if he wanted a rush he should take his tournaments winnings and play in a WSOP event at the Horseshoe.“I know better than to do that," he replied.

The tournament

No poker tournament compares to the spectacle of the WSOP in the old-school Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, with its ornate woodwork, bolo tie wearing dealers and late-night steak and eggs special for $3.99. Imagine more than 100 poker tables spread over two floors, all filled with players riffling clay chips, wearing headphones and trying to look as cool as possible. On the second floor, ESPN had set up a mini-studio, with its specially designed table with the hole card cameras flanked by larger television cameras and metal benches for spectators.

The Horseshoe, at 128 East Fremont St. in the heart of downtown Las Vegas, was founded by Benny Binion in 1951, but ran into financial problems and was closed down in January. Gaming company Harrah’s purchased the casino and re-opened it April 1, ensuring that the WSOP would continue.

The WSOP officially began in 1970, but its beginning can be traced back to 1949, before the Horseshoe even opened. That summer, as the story goes, inveterate gambler Nicholas 'Nick the Greek’ Dandolos approached Binion with an unusual request -- to challenge the best in a high-stakes poker marathon. Binion agreed to set up a match between Dandolos and the legendary Johnny Moss, with the stipulation that the game be played in public view. During the course of the marathon, which lasted five months with breaks only for sleep, the two men played every form of poker imaginable. Moss ultimately won an estimated $2 million. When the Greek lost his last pot, he rose from his chair, bowed slightly, and uttered the now-famous words, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go." Dandolos then went upstairs to bed.

Only a handful of players participated when the WSOP made its official debut in 1970, but the number grew to 839 for last year’s championship event, and more than 1,500 are expected this year. Thousands more players participate in the smaller buy-in tournaments and cash games that are also held at the Horseshoe. Last year, Tennessee native Chris Moneymaker won his seat in the championship event by winning a $40 satellite on a poker Web site. He then proceeded to capture the $2.5 million first prize.

The WSOP was looking for its next Moneymaker. Would it be me? Not unless I could find someone willing to donate $10,000 toward the effort. While I didn’t have the bankroll to buy into the championship, I figured I could take a stab at one of the other tournaments. I decided the $1,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em tournament was my best bet. I just hoped to sit with at least one top pro. I would eventually sit with a table full of them.

Game time

The tournament began at noon -- high noon -- on April 28, with 538 players participating. I was clad in a black baseball cap, dark sunglasses and the gaudiest poker shirt I could find at a local gift shop. It was made of black polyester, with playing card suits all over it, and flames, dice and aces around the sleeves and shirttail – pure Vegas cheese.

I struck up a conversation with the dealer, Dave Dobyns, as we waited for the tournament to start. Many poker dealers travel across the country from tournament to tournament because the money is good. Dobyns, a nine-year dealer at the Ameristar Casino in St. Louis, just started the circuit, having driven the 25 hours to Las Vegas with two fellow dealers the week before. “I had a couple of buddies that do it, so I decided to do it," he said. “I love Vegas. So I figured, why not?"

The table began to fill. To the right of the dealer sat Amir Vahedi, last year’s sixth place finisher in the WSOP championship event and runner-up for Card Player player of the year in 2003. Three seats to his right was Charlie Shoten, who finished second at the Borgata Open in Atlantic City, a WPT tournament, earlier this year. After about 15 minutes, a player quickly busted out and was replaced by Dewey Tomko, a two-time WPT finalist, who was moved from another table.

This was going to be fun. Unfortunately, I had little with which to work. I was down to about $500 from my original $1,000 when I raised all-in with ace-three, hoping to steal the blinds, or forced bets that rotate around the table in place of an ante used in other poker games. The player to my left quickly called with ace-king, also known in Hold’em parlance as Big Slick. Unless I caught a miracle three I was a goner, less than an hour into the tournament.

The pros

Many of the pros playing in this tournament could probably use $20 bills to start fires. Some have tournament winnings in the millions and even bigger victories in cash games. At heart they love to play games. Many grew up playing bridge or chess, like top pro Howard Lederer, picking up poker later in life.

Andy Bloch, a two-time WPT finalist, is the reigning rock, paper, scissors champion. (Yes, there is such a thing.) The Connecticut native began playing poker when the Foxwoods Resort Casino opened up in his home state 10 years ago. He started playing low-limit Hold’em games, like $3-$6, and saw a flyer about a poker tournament. “I looked at it and said, 'Wow, what’s a poker tournament?’ I ended up winning it and I was hooked," he said.

Now thanks to the WPT, people stop him on the street and ask him for his autograph. Suddenly, professional poker players are celebrities. That increased popularity has caused the tournament fields to grow in size, which has both positives and negatives, Bloch said. “It puts more money in the pot, but it’s also harder to make it to the final table," he said.

After my ill-advised all-in raise with the ace-three, the final table was the last thing on my mind, but the dealer flopped a three and I won the pot when no king fell, doubling my chips. I barely escaped a bear trap laid by Vahedi a few minutes later when I held queen-ten and the flop was ace-ten-four. He and another player checked, I bet $200 and only Vahedi called. A second ace came on the turn and he checked again. I gathered my remaining $800 in chips in my fist, preparing to go all-in and bully the pro out of the pot, but at the last moment I changed my mind. “Check," I said. The river card was a king. Again, Vahedi checked and I checked behind him. He showed ace-eight for three of a kind, or trips.“I thought you would bet when the king hit," he said with his thick Iranian accent. I made a motion as if pulling in a fish. “You nearly reeled me in," I said.

A tough table

Unlike most other tournaments, this event allowed rebuys and add-ons, which meant that players who busted out could buy back into the tournament for $1,000 or add more chips to their stack at the first break two hours into the affair. I was going to have to make do on my initial $1,000. After Shoten lost, rebought and lost again, he got up from the table. In his place came Phil Hellmuth, one of the most recognizable names in poker. Hellmuth, at age 24, became the youngest WSOP championship winner in 1989 and has won nine WSOP tournaments, which ties him for most all time with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. The winner of each tournament gets a gold bracelet. Hellmuth bragged to Tomko that he was going to win his 10th bracelet, giving the fellow pro a high five. Hellmuth is known unaffectionately in the poker world as the “Poker Brat."

Shortly afterwards, we arrived at the 15-minute break. I had managed to build my chip stack up to $1,100, but it was a pittance compared to some of the large stacks at the table.My friend Brian walked over to talk to me and couldn’t help but laugh when he saw the players at the table. He informed me of his own good news. He had just won a seat in a $220 super satellite, giving him a chance to win a seat in the $10,000 event. One out of every 50 players in the super satellite would win a seat in the championship.When I returned from break and waited on the action to begin again, the new dealer smiled at me and spoke. “Tough table, huh?" he asked. I just chuckled.

Playing in T-town

A poker game isn’t hard to find in Tuscaloosa if you know the right people. Just don’t look in the Yellow Pages. District Attorney Tommy Smith said that courts have generally ruled that private poker games are legal as long as someone doesn’t profit from the game’s operation. “Private individuals having a poker game, the courts have said they can do that," Smith said. “If there’s a house that’s getting a cut, that’s illegal."Smith said he couldn’t recall anyone being prosecuted in the county for running a poker game.

Poker games appear to be particularly gaining popularity on college campuses.There’s often a full house at Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity on the University of Georgia campus -- in more ways than one. At any time, day or night, fraternity brothers and their friends are playing poker, putting aside studying for class to instead learn the tricks of Hold’em and other games. “If everybody has nothing to do, we’ve had seven-to eight-hour sessions. It’s so addictive," said Marshall Saul, a sophomore whose room is decorated with a poster of dogs playing poker. Some online poker companies are targeting students with tournaments such as the first College Poker, which began free qualifying rounds in January. Prizes range from $500 to $50,000 scholarships, and student winners also can donate up to $100,000 to charities of their choice.

“You mention Texas Hold’em two years ago, people maybe wouldn’t have known what it was; now it’s part of mainstream culture," Saul said. Students spending so much time playing poker, betting and acknowledging that the game can be addictive is of concern to gambling advocacy groups. The 18-to 24-year-old age group has some of the highest rates of gambling addictions, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Online tournaments such as College Poker are “extremely troubling" because they target students and do not put out warning signs or post helpline numbers for addicts, he said.

Tom Strong, dean of students at the University of Alabama, said what he calls “penny ante" games probably occur on campus, but he’s not aware of any serious violations of the university’s anti-gambling policy, such as a large poker ring. “I’m not aware of anything that goes on involving more than a few friends," he said. But the campus newspaper has reported anonymous sources talking about underground games where hundreds of dollars sometimes exchange hands.

Knowing when to fold

When we returned from break, I was dealt ace-queen, both of them hearts, and promptly raised to $300. Hellmuth looked my way, appearing to size me up. I slowly turned my head towards him and we were locked in a stare, both hiding behind sunglasses. A few moments later he folded. Maybe he had nothing. Maybe it was the shirt. It didn’t matter, as a king and no ace on the flop, and a bet by another player caused me to fold.

The winner of the tournament earned $365,000, but I couldn’t even sniff the money. I was finally put out about 370th when I called all-in with ace-eight and lost to a pair of sevens. At least Vahedi was put out of the tournament on the same hand. I played a few hands of blackjack as I waited for Brian to finish. He fared no better than me, but did share some good news. After he lost and headed across the casino to meet me, he spotted a busted Hellmuth, walking down Fremont Street.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Reach Johnny Kampis at johnny.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Me at the $1,000 No Limit Hold'em tournament at the WSOP. At various times, professionals that included Phil Hellmuth, Amir Vahedi, Dewey Tomko, Blair Rodman, Charlie Shoten and David Plastik sat at the table. I outlasted Shoten and Tomko. Vahedi and I were both put out on the same hand by Plastik, who is to my immediate left. Posted by Hello

Poker Nation

A man wearing a faded Phoenix Suns T-shirt, leaning back in a wooden chair on the front porch of the shack, pointed us inside. Used tires, torn screen doors and other various junk was propped against the wall.

Inside the building, past the small barbershop and left of the pool hall, was a small room, dimly lit by a couple of fluorescent lights hung directly above a poker table. Framed prints of dogs playing poker adorned the walls. At the table sat a man with a torn white T-shirt and spiky white hair. A jagged scar ran down the left side of his neck. His name was Danny. He would be our dealer for the day.

We took our seats at the table -- one of those with the folding legs and cup holders that could be had on eBay for a couple hundred bucks -- and handed Danny $110. The Benjamin was for the buy-in, the Hamilton his to keep for his trouble.

Seven of us were playing in this No Limit Hold’em tournament, my friends Lane and Scott, two brothers from Tuscaloosa called Tony and Taco, two men I had never met and myself. Danny, who could barely see straight, appearing to be in a drug-induced haze, started dealing the cards, two to each player. Although he wasn’t playing, Danny kept mistakenly dealing himself in.

The game took place in rural Walker County, Alabama, in a small community called Kansas. Legend has it there is a stump somewhere in the county where one can insert a $100 bill wrapped in a piece of paper containing a person’s name if they want that person whacked. The winner of this tournament would make off with about $400.

Early in the tournament I was dealt 7-8 in the big blind, the largest of two forced bets used in Hold’em instead of antes. The hand was checked to me and Danny dealt the flop, or first three cards. The board came 5-6-8, with two clubs, a great flop for my hand, giving me top pair and an open-ended straight draw. I tossed in a $100 bet of the $1,500 in tournament chips I started with. Only Tony called. He gave me a semi-smile. The turn brought a queen and I decided to check. Tony fired out $400. I thought for a long time, my concentration interrupted by a break shot on a pool table in the next room. Was Tony bluffing? I stared over at him. I felt he didn’t want me to call. I pushed all-in and he quickly called. Tony had the A-2 of clubs, giving him a flush draw only, and making his call of my all-in bet a poor one, given his poor odds of making his hand. The river missed him and I scooped the pot. Scott looked at me as if I was one of those “gift-wrapped ATM players” he loves to poke fun at, so named because of their bad play and plentiful cash. “How could you go all-in there?” I could hear him thinking. After careful analysis, the play proved easy. I went on to split first place, but did not seek the stump after my victory.

It’s telling how popular poker has become that I spent this Sunday afternoon in rural Alabama playing with a few guys who barely knew how to determine their Hold’em hands only four months after playing at a table with top professionals like Phil Hellmuth, Amir Vahedi and Dewey Tomko in a $1,000 buy-in tournament at the 2004 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Only a year prior to that I was pleased to win $100 in a $3/$6 limit Hold’em game, if that’s any illustration of how far my poker maturation had developed in 12 months.

Thanks to the advent of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, increased coverage of the World Series of Poker on ESPN and other poker programs like Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo, the popularity of poker continues to grow. The game has not just spread to all parts of this country; it appears to have taken a stranglehold on our culture. Bars are finding loopholes around existing gambling laws to host tournaments on their property. Casinos, having shut down their poker rooms to make space for more slot machines, are bringing the games back for the increasing numbers of poker aficionados. Fraternity brothers, returning from summer vacation, throw their bags down on their beds and don’t even bother to unpack before the first game starts in the fall.

I’ve been able to witness much of that growth first hand in the past few years, from my trips to major tournaments such as the WSOP and the World Poker Open in Tunica, Miss., on the Mississippi River, the birthplace of modern poker. I’ve walked the not-so-dusty streets of Deadwood, S.D., the town famous for the death of “Wild Bill” Hickock, that is now a tourist and small casino mecca. I’m traveling to Connecticut later this month to visit a friend who works for ESPN, and plan to play in the World Poker Finals.

I like to travel and I like to play poker, but I’m not about to claim I’m a world beater at the game. Just like you, my dear poker peers, I win sometimes and I lose sometimes. I do win more often than I lose, or obviously it would be pretty hard financially to make the trips I have discussed. What really spurred me on was an unbelievable winning streak in the last half of 2003 that had other local players watching me in amazement and earning me the nickname “Tuscaloosa” Johnny, after the city in which we live and play in the back rooms of social clubs and car dealerships.

After that success and a final table finish at a major Tunica tournament in January, I began to ponder a new move for myself. I watched in excitement the growth of the game and knowing my way around a pen, pondered a foray into the book market. Of course, in the past year numerous people have had the same thoughts, as the plethora of new books has led booksellers to increase their shelf space. Some of you may have visited Jay Lovinger at ESPN Page 2 online and read some of his entertaining columns that describe his adventures in poker and discuss his book plans. (If not, I highly recommend it.)

But I believe there is room still on those shelves for a different kind of poker book, a travelogue that details how poker has expanded -- some might say infested -- this land, from the glitzy cardrooms of Vegas and LA, to the seedy backrooms in New York, and, yes, even Walker County, Alabama. (And yes, I know the title Poker Nation is already taken, as any connoisseur of poker literature is aware. Damn you Andy Bellin!)

My goal, beginning in June 2005, when the WSOP moves to its new home, the Rio, is to take a year off from my reporting job here at The Tuscaloosa News and travel the country, spotlighting the poker culture while trying to make a living at the game for a year that would end at the 2006 WSOP. I will post updates on here frequently and would love for you, dear readers and poker friends, to follow me on this journey.