All Poker All the Time
On Saturday, Feb. 23, 660 competitors began play in the L.A. Poker Classic at the Commerce Casino in Commerce, Calif. This World Poker Tour event featured a $10,000 buy-in and a $1.6 million first prize.
For me, personally, I was extra motivated to play my best poker for several reasons. First, despite a good track record, I have never won a WPT event, and the new players like to remind me of that little fact. Second, I skipped this event last year and regretted missing it — the tournament is truly a “classic.” Third, I had a terrible result over in London, England, in the Premier League Poker series earlier in February. And finally, after being home with my wife and kids for seven straight weeks, my ego was feeling pretty beat up! After all, when I’m on the road, people swarm me for autographs and pictures (ego rising), and when I’m at home, my kids think I’m lame and my wife expects me to take out the trash (ego falling). I really wanted to play great poker and show the world — and myself — that I could still do it.
On the flip side of the coin, I had some solid backup plans for the week. First, we had the Grammys on Sunday night, then a VIP booth at the Pearl concert (my favorite new band) on Monday at the Viper Club in Los Angeles, and finally, NBC wanted me to shoot ads for the “NBC Heads-Up” poker championships on Tuesday in Las Vegas. Although the “fluff” — attending the Grammys, partying with Pearl and filming the NBC commercials (with jets and helicopters) — would have been a lot of fun, I wanted to win the tournament. My mind-set: all poker, all day, all week, all the time. Just win, baby!
One of the rough things about a six-day poker tournament is the fact that you’re constantly exhausted. You wake up super-tired, often with a headache, and under tons of stress. One mistake, one bad play, and you’re gone! Imagine playing 10-hour days of poker — or longer — with no room for errors, the constant threat of elimination hanging over your head.
Of course, it can be said that I was exhausted when I won my 10th bracelet, and my 11th bracelet, and come to think of it, I was probably exhausted when I won all 11 of them! But you fight through the exhaustion and the pain. You dig deep and you find a way to play great no matter how you feel, and no matter what the conditions are.
On day five, after another 11-hour day, we were finally down to seven players. We needed to eliminate one to end the day, and return the next day on the big WPT stage. Of the remaining players, Phil Ivey and Nam Le were the biggest names, along with Scott Montgomery, Quinn Do, WeiKai Chang, Charles “Woody” Moore and me. I had the lead with more than $4 million in chips, the blinds were $30,000 to $60,000, with a $5,000-a-man ante. I opened on the button for $250,000 with Qc-10c. Woody moved all-in for $840,000 so that it would cost me $590,000 to call.
Then the talking began. I asked Woody whether he had a strong hand. He said, “Yes.” I asked him whether he had a small pair or a medium pair. He said, “No.” Then Woody volunteered, “I have a big pair.” And the tournament director stepped in and said, “If that’s true, we’ll have to penalize you.” Then Woody said, “Phil, you tricked me!” Which, of course, was not true at all. So I said, “You know that I didn’t try to get you in trouble!” In fact, I only started talking to try to determine whether or not Woody was pocket kings strong, pocket nines strong or maybe A-K strong. Often, if you can get your opponent to talk, you can glean some valuable information. In this case, Woody had crossed the line because in tournament poker you’re not allowed to tell the truth about your hand — but no one thought it was intentional.
After a while, I deduced that Woody probably had pocket jacks or pocket 10s. So I folded my hand, and Woody folded his hand face down. No one at the table thought that Woody deserved a penalty, and the tournament director didn’t ask to see his cards in order to try to enforce a 10-minute penalty. Interestingly, the pot was laying me exactly two to one, and I could only call if I suspected that Woody had an under pair (like 9-9 or 8-8), A-K or A-J.