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Live from the Rio: 2006 WSOP Experience

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Las Vegas and I’m still not sure if I’ve recovered.  What a trip.  Two plus weeks, two separate trips.  Vegas is like no other place on Earth, if you’re there long enough, you begin to lose track of time, not to mention the date (I’m still not sure, please don’t ask).  I got tired of Las Vegas after 2 weeks, yet I didn’t want to leave… 

Looking back on the trip, I would have to say it was quite a rollercoaster ride.  We arrived feeling upbeat with a nice group of qualifiers and big expectations, followed by a bunch day 1 bust outs and bad beat stories, followed by an amazing run by a good friend in the Main Event.  Overall, it was an incredible ride I’ll never forget...

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
 
The turnout for the 2006 World Series of Poker exceeded all expectations.  The final tally was 8,773 players, a ridiculous number for a single poker tournament with an even more ridiculous grand prize: $12 Million.  Without a doubt, winning the WSOP Main Event has become the New American Dream, with everyone and their brother giving it a shot.  The large numbers of foreign players make this a major international event.
 
A couple things that stood out to me about this year’s WSOP.  My first impression was there was a much bigger corporate presence compared to last year.  Advertisements were oversized.  All the big online poker sites had their own hospitality rooms (and they weren’t your typical banquet rooms) complete with posh furniture, fully stocked bars, plasma TV’s, and scantily-clad models giving away freebies galore.  These rooms had the ambiance of a hip nightclub, without the overpriced drinks.  In fact, the drinks were free!
 
Another big change was the WSOP tournament directors did a good job of fixing some key problems from last year.  They staggered break times (split the room in half) so the bathroom rush wasn’t ridiculous.  They also did not allow spectators on day 1 until all alternates were seated.  I have to say they did an amazing job handling 2,000+ players for a single tournament (and I thought it was work running a tournament with more than 100 players!).  I imagined being in charge of moving players, breaking tables, etc.  No thanks.

EVENT #37 – WARM UP TO THE MAIN EVENT

The league sponsored a total of 8 players in this year’s WSOP, with 3 in the main event, and 5 more for Event #37, a three-day $1,500 NL Holdem tourney.  What a difference from the year before when the league gave away just a single main event entry!

League Qualifiers in Event #37:
Eugene Flohrs – Torge’s, Fairmont, MN
Dick Jones – Brothers Bar & Grill, Rochester, MN
Nick Paulus – Long Branch Saloon, Worthington, MN
Lyle Preston – Torge’s, Fairmont, MN
Pat Moon – Playmakers, Fargo, ND

The event started on a Tuesday and all of the players came to town the day before.  League coordinator Pete Bushey made sure everyone was registered in advance and confirmed their safe arrival and he also had his sights set on playing the event.    A few of us in the crew also registered including myself, Mitch Schock (league rep from Bismarck, ND) and Derek Melicher (former Dakota Poker League champ in 2005).

The halls and the registration area were packed with people trying to buy in late.  The event ended up filling to capacity and final tally was 2,803!  In fact, there were so many people who wanted to buy in that they ended up turning a lot of people away.  The floor was setup for around 2,200 players, so those who registered late were considered alternates and had to wait until tables broke before they could take a seat.  It was unbelievable.

Ironically, Nick Paulus ended up drawing a seat right next to Derek Melicher (Hagge’s Bar-Mapleton, ND).  Derek was the first big winner in the Dakota Poker League, having won a seat to the 2005 WSOP where he battled Phil Ivey.  Derek had qualified for the Last Chance Final Tournament but did not crack the top 5 to earn the free seat, so he decided to put up the entry fee on his own.  It was nice seeing him back at the WSOP for another round.

The players were definitely familiar with the structure (same as league - except with one hour levels).  Despite the hour long levels, the pace was extremely quick.  Players were busting left & right from the get go.  Tables were breaking fast and players were moving like crazy…This made our reporter Jason Drake’s job of trying to cover the tournament very interesting!  However, he did a good job of capturing the details and snapping photos for our online blog.  The highlight of Drake’s trip was playing in the Media & Celebrity Tournament and busting out to defending champion Shannon Elizabeth.  You remember her from the movie American Pie.  Elizabeth cracked his pocket Kings with A-J!  Jason insisted she pose for a picture as payback.  I think he was quite happy with that.

When the tournament director announced the prize pool everyone applauded.  The top 270 players would get paid and first place would get $765,226!  Wow, what an opportunity…We were all very hopeful someone out of our group would get lucky and go deep in the tournament. 

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen…In fact, the day ended was characterized as one incredible run of bad luck. 

Pat Moon (Playmakers-Fargo) was the first to bust.  He made it into the 2nd level but was short stacked after a player ran him down with A-K.  In the end he made a move with A-9 and ran into pocket Kings.  Luck appeared to be on his side when he out flopped the Kings, hitting an ace and then another ace on the turn!  However, his hopes were dashed when a King landed on the river giving his opponent a full house and the re-suck out!

The 3rd level decimated most of the remaining players in our group.  Lyle Preston (Torge’s-Fairmont, MN) was understandably upset when he got all his chips in with pocket Aces and lost.  Then, Eugene Flohrs (Torge’s-Fairmont, MN) woke up to pocket Kings and made his stand, only to run into pocket Aces!  That hand crippled Eugene and the very next hand he put the rest of his chips in with A-K, got called by pocket Deuces and the ducks held.  Dick Jones (Brothers Bar & Grill-Rochester, MN) also busted in this level, as did Mitch Schock.  Mitch would go on to have better luck in the Main Event…(read further...)

My day?  Things were going just fine into the 4th level, sitting with the chip lead at my table with around 5,200 in chips.  Then it began to all unravel.  A 3-outer on the river punished me and then I couldn’t win a race to save my neck.  Next thing I knew I was short stacked and looking for a hand to double up with.

Meanwhile, Derek and Nick were still battling it out on the same table.  Derek ended up busting with top 2-pair (A-Q) when his opponent caught a King on the river for a set!  Nick ended up busting in the 5th level, hanging on short stacked and unable to get anything going.  Pete made a small comeback for a while but also ran out of gas.  My day lingered on for a while, but I was getting cold-decked and finally got put out of my misery when pocket Jacks ran into Queens.

All of the league qualifiers represented themselves very well, but it just wasn’t meant to be in Event #37.  Not one out of our 5 league players made the money or even came close.  But hey, it’s hard to be disappointed when you win a free vacation to Las Vegas.  Most of the guys took it in stride and looked to make the most of the rest of their vacation.

Most of the staff brought their wives and we all hit the town throughout the week waiting for the start of the Main Event.  With day one split into four rounds/four separate days, we certainly had a lot of time to burn.  We pretty much did about everything you can imagine a fun group of adults would do in Las Vegas.  I won’t go into details because what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…

MAIN EVENT – THE BIG ONE

When we sobered up from our week-long partying and late night poker sessions, we took to the floor of the Poker Lifestyle Show at the Rio, which featured elaborate booths from all the big online poker sites and other poker industry movers and shakers, including our friends with MPA Magazine J.  We got to meet a lot of people and had a good time browsing for a new high-end poker table.  I almost pulled the trigger on a TV table that would make Greg & Todd of the Heartland Poker Tour jealous!  Almost.

League Qualifiers for the 2006 WSOP Main Event:

Jim Nelson – Silver Dollar, Mandan, ND

Dustin Gulbrandson – Depot Express, Alexandria, MN

Jeremy Heller – Ruttles, St. Peter, MN

The amount of press and people swelled on day 1 of the big event.  Jim Nelson got his shot in the opening round of action on Friday, July 28th.  At the last minute, an announcement was made that “Absolutely no `dot com’ logos or advertisement can be worn”.  This was a bit controversial.  Dan Goldman from Poker Stars was seen running around with rolls of duck tape covering up their players’ gear.  To be safe, Jim did not wear his Dakota Poker League shirt since there is a dot com in the logo.  Actor James Garner announced “Shuffle Up & Deal” and the race was on…

Jim got off to a decent start and felt very comfortable at the table.  We were very confident in Jim’s game.  He was on quite a hot streak before and after winning the Dakota Poker League championship in May.  He won a charitable tournament and also qualified for the “Last Chance” Championship Tournament through the league.  We felt whoever ended up sitting with him was in for a challenge.  Jim can flat out play. 

Unfortunately, in just the second level Jim’s day came to an abrupt end.  He had settled down with about 12,500 in chips to begin the 2nd level, looking forward to a long day of poker…Two separate hands led to his fall.  The first came early in the level when he raised preflop with A-K and flopped an Ace.  When his opponent bet into him 1,000 Jim fired back a re-raise of 3,000, and his opponent immediately moved in.  Jim ended up folding and later told Jason that he was not going to bust out of the WSOP with one pair, at least that early in the tournament. 

After that blow, Nelson was unable to make any significant gains and then came the final hand of his tournament.  Jim made a play with Q-10 spades in late position, raising a middle position limper.  He was impressed with the flop of A-7-4, all spades, the 2nd nut flush!  When his opponent fired out 1500 on the flop, Jim re-raised to 3500 and his opponent moved in.  Jim felt he had to call.  What are the odds that his opponent flopped the nuts?  Well, he didn’t, but he had the nut flush draw holding A-K with the King of spades and sure enough, the turn was one of only 7 remaining spades in the deck which sent Jim to the rail.  When asked about if he would change anything about the way he played, Jim replied, “No.”  He brought his family with him to Las Vegas and they planned on staying the weekend regardless. 

Jeremy Heller and Dustin Gulbrandson took their turn on Sunday, July 30th, round three of day one.  Mike “The Mouth” Matisow was on the ESPN feature table.  Both players got off to decent starts, with Jeremy getting all the way up to 19,850 in the first level.  Dustin struggled a bit in level 2 and found himself hovering around 6,000 in chips.  In level 3 Jeremy built on his stack and peaked at around 22k and then Dustin made a nice comeback to get around even with 10k. 

Just before the dinner break Jeremy fell victim to the hand that nearly finished his day.  He had flopped 2-pair holding K-Q and got called on the flop and turn by a player chasing a flush.  The flush got there on the river and Jeremy paid the price, doubling the player up.  At the dinner break, he was all the way down to 7k.

Meanwhile, Dustin was now sitting with one of Steve Danneman’s home game crew (featured on ESPN) and woke up to pocket Aces, doubling up to 10k.  He won another pot with pocket Queens to build his stack up to 12k before running into more bad luck.  With AK vs. AK his opponent flopped the nut flush.  By the dinner break Dustin was all the way down to 3k.

After the break, Jeremy Heller got a nice double up with pocket sixes to his opponent’s pocket fives to get up to roughly 12k.  But soon after he gave back that gain after trying to make a move and got caught trying to steal a pot. 

Bad news for Dustin, his day ended when he busted from middle position holding pocket 10’s after running into pocket Aces...In a cruel twist, Jeremy’s day ended when he woke up to pocket Aces and had them cracked by a player holding pocket Tens!  Jeremy was bummed out as you might expect…

That would do it for our league champs in the 2006 WSOP.  Shucks.

The only thing left to do was take my seat on day 4 of the opening round.    By the time that moment arrived, I had already been in Las Vegas for a week.  After a lousy showing in Event 37 and after witnessing a tough ride for our league champs, I was optimistic that the bad luck streak was due for a swing.  I was relatively loose due to the fact I had qualified for the entry through Poker Stars and really didn’t have much to lose.

Mitch Schock (tournament director and league Representative from Bismarck, ND) called me the night before to let me know he too was going to buy in, entering as an alternate at the last minute.  He was a having a nice run in side tournaments at the Rio, having made the final table in each of the previous two nights.  Mitch is a real solid player with a lot of experience having played professionally for 8 years.  He likes to say, “I was poker when poker wasn’t cool.”  We were both ready to give it our best…

Despite my optimism, I got off to a horrendous start.  It took almost 2 hours before I dragged my first pot!  The very first hand I played (A-K from the button) got looked up by a middle position limper (K-2 clubs!) and called my flop bet after I hit an ace.  I think he was the only bad player on the table and ended up hitting his flush on the river to steal the pot.  Shortly after that I lost with pocket Tens.  After that, I was running bad and not playing particularly well, either.  The worst tournament situation is when you’re extremely short-stacked and getting cold-decked.  That’s the position I found myself in.  Not fun.  Somehow I hung on to survive for more than 6 hours and make it to the dinner break. 

At dinner I hooked up with Mitch and he told me he managed to make a nice comeback after getting as low as 3200 in chips.  He was sitting at 17k and felt good about his table. 

Shortly after the dinner break I woke up to pocket Aces and was happy the chip leader was betting into me.  I got the opportunity I needed, but when the guy hit 2-pair holding K-10 (yuck) I was not happy.  I walked away from the table in disgust and headed straight for the bar.  At least Mitch was still alive…

Several cocktails later along with an ill-advised gambling binge which involved roulette, blackjack and craps, Mitch called to tell me he had doubled up to around 34k.  This was a very good turn of events.  He was ecstatic.  Last year Mitch survived day 1 with only 9k in chips and managed to go on to cash in the top 400.  With that experience, I knew he would be very dangerous with an above-average stack of chips.

Mitch went on to survive day two, but unfortunately my flight was scheduled on Thursday with the rest of the crew.  I told him if he made it past day three I would have to come back to support him.  

Mitch is an intense guy.  If you ever see him run a tournament, you’ll know exactly what I mean.  He is very animated, flying around the room, making wise-cracks on the mic and having a good old time.  And he knows his poker.  He can rattle off percentages and read outs as fast as you can burn and turn, and I mean that literally.  It’s quite impressive.

On day three Mitch made some serious noise.  He ended up sitting next to the overall chip leader in the tournament at the time (Dmitri Nobles ended day 2 with more than 600k in chips!) and was the beneficiary of Nobles’ wild play, doubling through him no less than four times, including one particularly interesting hand that was captured by Card Player and ESPN cameras.  After flopping a set and several verbal exchanges throughout each street, Nobles announced “All in” on the river when an apparent flush draw got there.  “He ate my snickers.  I told you I was gonna get him back,” said Nobles.  Mitch went into the tank and Nobles continued to talk.  Finally, Mitch made a brilliant call and Nobles mucked.  Mitch built his stack up to 450,000 with that hand and never looked back.  At the end of day 3 he was among the overall chip leaders, sitting in 21st place.  Incredible.

At this time I was thinking back to last March when I met up with Mitch in Reno for a World Poker Tour event last winter.  We both had very bad tournaments and Mitch was really bummed out.  He admitted that my 2nd place showing in January at the WPT Caribbean Adventure had inspired him to play more big circuit events.  However, he was beginning to lose confidence that he was ever going to hit a big payday.  I encouraged him to stay with it.  Needless to say, I was really, really rooting for him now.

On day 4, Mitch held his head above water, staying among the chip leaders as the field weeded down to a little more than 200 players.  On day 5, he won timely pots to remain close to the chip average and was still remaining with 45 players left.  Oh yea, and guaranteed a minimum of $247,000!  It crossed my mind at that time that Mitch was capable of winning (as he likes to say) “The Whole Enchilada”.

Day 6 would be the next critical step.  The plans called for the field to be cut down to 27 players (final 3 tables), with the REALLY BIG money now within reach.  With the top 12 players making over a million dollars, there was no question that Mitch was possibly on the doorstep of life-changing money.  You could really sense the pressure, with dozens of cameras and photographers surrounding each of the remaining tables.  The 2 remaining big name pros were Humberto Brenes and Allen Cunningham.  Mitch was sitting to Cunningham’s left.  Mitch was patient as the action heated up and looked to be in complete control.  His family was flying in and I think I was more nervous that he was.  They arrived around 3 o’clock in the afternoon to cheer him on. 

I stayed close to Mitch’s table and was able to witness most of the action all afternoon.  Mitch was his usual self, talking it up occasionally with the other players.  At one point I heard him ask while grinning, “Why is it that everyone is excited and can’t wait all year for this tournament, and then when they get here, they’re in a terrible mood?…What’s up with that?!!”

With the blinds and antes getting up there, Mitch’s stack fell below average (but still just fine with around 1.5 million) when he got into a tussle defending his big blind.  His opponent (Leif Force, eventually finished 11th) made a standard raise with A-K and missed on the flop.  Mitch held pocket fours and correctly bet the flop.  Force hesitated, then called, and the turn provided no help to either player.  Both players checked to see an Ace on the river, the third card with clubs on the board.  Mitch took a stab at the pot, a big bet of 400k representing a possible flush or other improved hand.  Force took his time and finally called, and the hand put a dent in Mitch’s stack.

Despite playing “tight” leading up to that hand, Mitch is not a tight player.  He understands the game isn’t necessarily about “who has the best hand”.  He has an uncanny ability to read other players and the guts to outplay anyone...That’s what makes him a great player.  He simply swung and missed in this situation.  Regardless, he still had plenty of chips to recover with and his tournament was not over by any means.

What happened next was just a cruel run of cards and he simply didn’t have enough chips to survive.  In another big hand, he got to see a free flop, then check raised Erik Friberg to a board of 10-8-4.  Friberg (chip leader at the table) moved in and Mitch went into the tank with reporters gathering…Finally, Mitch folded after a solid 5 minutes in the tank and Friberg showed pocket Rockets.  Mitch shook his head and breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank you.  Almost broke there boys!”  Then, Mitch was involved in a hand with Allen Cunningham.  The flop read 6-5-6.  Cunningham raised Mitch all in and again Mitch folded.  Cunningham showed pocket 8’s.  Can you say “running bad?”

At this point, Mitch’s stack had fallen all the way down to approx 350k.  Now he was severely short stacked and needed to double up soon.  In the final hand he limped from the small blind with K-3 to see a 4-handed flop (with the size of the pot including the blinds and antes, it was very hard not to play from this position).  I wanted to scream from the sidelines, “No!!!!”…When you’re not sitting at the table, sometimes I think you can sense disaster before it unfolds.  I just had a feeling the minute he limped in that something bad was going to happen.  Just a gut feeling I guess.  When he flopped top pair he really had no choice but to put his chips in and hope nobody else caught a better hand.  Everyone folded, one by one, until the last player on the button…He slowly called with K-J and Mitch did knew he was in big trouble.  There was no miracle on the turn or river.  With that, Mitch’s great tournament run came to a sudden end.  He stood up, shook several players’ hands and with a smile on his face belted out for the gallery to hear, “Don’t ever play poker!”  Then he slowly walked away from the tournament area.  Moments later, the tournament director announced his name as the 29th place finisher over the intercom and like a madman he took off running across the room and let out a “arrrgggg!!!” as ESPN cameras trailed.  The whole room chuckled.

Mitch is fun to watch and would have been a lot of fun on the final table.  I hope we will see him in the upcoming production on ESPN.  I am very happy for him and the $329,865 he took home.  He has been playing a long time with a lot of ups and downs and I can’t think of anyone else who deserves it more.  Congrats!

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