I have received a number of complaints recently through newspapers and Card Player magazine along the lines of “Phil, please don’t tell us the results of a ‘Poker After Dark’ episode before it airs.” Furthermore, it is now in my contract with NBC and “Poker After Dark” that I cannot reveal the results. OK, I can still talk about the lineup and a hand that I played during an episode. As many of you know, “PAD” appears on NBC six nights a week, 52 weeks per year at 2 a.m. A hit show, it gets better ratings than most other late-night programs.
“PAD” reminds me of the old days when I competed with mostly great players, many of whom have something interesting to say because they are clever, witty and sharp as a tack. And some are just plain characters! I love the fact that “PAD” shows every hand — or the vast majority of them — instead of “highlight-hand poker” that appears everywhere else. The hand that I’m going to talk about in this column occurred during a show with Clonie Gowen, Phil Laak, Gavin Smith, Mike Matusow, David Williams and me.
(Hellmuth here: About 18 months ago, Sully Erna, the charismatic lead singer of Godsmack, took a bad beat so upsetting that he went out and got a huge tattoo on his back. Erna’s poker story — in his own words — follows.)
I had been at the Bellagio playing in a tournament with David Plastik and Gavin Smith, but I was knocked out by midday so I decided to go play in a cash game. I sat in on a $5 to $10 no-limit hold ’em table to kill time. I sat in seat one and bought in for $500. Four hours later, I was sitting on about $3,000. In the big blind, I peered down at pocket aces and watched two people ahead of me limp into the pot for $10. Seat 10 raised it up to $90 to go, I smooth called, and both limpers went away. The flop came down As-Qs-Ah. I checked … seat 10 bet $220, and I smooth called again. The turn card was the 10s, I checked, praying that he had spades, and he bet $500. I raised it up to $1,100 to go, and he pushed all-in! He had me covered, so I called for all of my remaining chips. I proudly flipped over my four aces, and he showed me pocket kings with the king of spades. “Yummy!” I thought.
Then the river card was peeled off, and the Js hit the felt as if it were in slow motion — like in a movie. Boom! Royal flush for seat 10, and a big pile of chips gets pushed his way. I stood up from the table and said, “There’s no justice in poker.” I then called my friend Nina, who hooked me up with her tattoo artist. I headed down to his shop, where he tattooed four aces going up in flames on my entire back with a banner below it, which read: “No Justice.”
Last week, I watched NBC’s “Poker After Dark,” which featured Gus and the girls. That is, Gus Hansen, Clonie Gowen, Erica Schoenberg, Vanessa Rousso, J.J. Liu and Beth Shak. FYI: I like all six players, and they are well liked on the poker tour. Of course, a lot of beauty surrounded the table in this match (not Gus)! In “PAD,” the six players buy-in for $20,000, and first place is a winner-take-all prize of $120,000. “PAD” reminds me of the old days when I used to play primarily with great players — the same ones that regularly compete on the show now. These days, I’m not around the poker tour as much — until the World Series of Poker events begin — and I miss the guys and gals. I miss the witty banter, the big mood swings (OK, that’s just me), the intelligent conversations, the side bets, the high-stakes poker and the feel of competing against the best.
In our hand of interest, with the blinds at $100 to $200, Shak opened for $600 under the gun with A-J off suit. Schoenberg called — in second position — with the 9c-8c, and everyone else folded. The flop was Q-Q-8, Shak bet out $1,200, and Schoenberg called. On the turn, a five hit: Shak bet out $2,500 quickly, and Schoenberg took her time before she called. On the river, a nine hit: Shak bet out $5,000 immediately, and Schoenberg studied a while before she finally sighed and folded her hand.
I’ll soon be traveling to Las Vegas, where one of the most important tournaments of the year takes place on April 19. The WPT Championship — a $25,000 buy-in tournament — is held at the Bellagio, and it will pay at least $5 million for first place. I can’t wait! In 2006, I made it down to the money, where I suffered a couple of bad beats and wound up finishing in about 50th place. Last year, I had the chip lead for much of days three and four, only to finish in 18th place when I overplayed pocket jacks. Too many times over the past year, I’ve looked back and wished that I had folded my pocket jacks versus Thomas Wahlroos’ pocket aces. Even though the flop was 9-8-5, I should’ve been able to escape. I didn’t, and the bad memory still stings. It comes down to smarts, because if I had folded that hand, I probably would have made it to the final six players, and perhaps I would have won the whole darn thing.
The WPT Championship is the one tournament I want to win as badly as I want to win another bracelet at the World Series of Poker. So, in my opinion, here is the order of importance of modern-day tournaments: the WSOP Main Event; the WPT Championship; the NBC Heads-Up Championship; any WSOP event; the Bicycle Club WPT Championship; the Commerce WPT Championship; the World Poker Open at the Gold Strike in Tunica, Miss.; the Bellagio “Doyle Brunson Five Diamond” WPT Championship; the Bellagio “Festa Al Lago” WPT Championship; the Foxwoods WPT Championship; and any WPT event.
In early March, on the heels of the NBC Heads-Up tournament, Calgary hosted the Canadian National Heads-Up Championship. Many of the top poker players were there, including Huck Seed, Joe Hachem, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly, Mel Judah and Greg Mueller. When it came time for the finals, Seed took on Brad Booth — someone I have called the “best unknown poker player in the world.” Seed, an old friend, has been making a nice comeback of late. Only a few days before Seed made the finals in Calgary, he qualified for the semifinals in the NBC Heads-Up, losing his match to Andy Bloch.
Before his fall from the pinnacle of the poker world, Seed was considered a perennial favorite to win the World Series of Poker in the late 1990s. In player polls of that era, Seed always ranked in the top three in no-limit hold ’em. Yet most of the world doesn’t know Huckleberry Seed. His timing was bad — he hit his funk when poker really hit television.
The World Poker Tour came to the Bay Area in early March, and I was fired up! First, the hosting casino — the Bay 101 in San Jose, Calif. — resides in my backyard. And second, I had just final-tabled on the WPT in Los Angeles 10 days earlier, so I was feeling at the peak of my powers. I also had the added bonus of being able to sleep in my own bed. As I drove in to play in the tournament, I received a text message from John Juanda, saying he was betting a lot of money on me to win. I felt like Juanda had made a good bet, because when I begin to catch my stride in tourneys, I usually stay in “form” for a month or two. I knew that I was in form, partly because I had a clear blueprint — in my head — of how to win. The day-one part of that blueprint is this: Make it until the end of the day by playing patiently — and by avoiding big pots.
About an hour into the tournament, I was sitting on my starting chip stack of $20,000 when the following hand came up. With the blinds at $150 to $300, five players limped in, and I called $75 more from the small blind with 9s-6c. The flop was Qc-9c-2d. All five of us checked, and the turn card was the 4c. I bet out $1,100, three players folded and then Alex (a local player and a nice guy) made it $3,600 to go. I studied for a moment, and I thought that Alex probably had a weak hand that included the Ac, which would give him a draw at an ace-high flush. Why did I think Alex was weak? He had played five out of the last seven hands and hadn’t shown any of his hole cards. I assumed that he was loose and reckless.