So You Want to Make a Deal?
With about six players left in the $5,000 buy-in “Big One” at Harrah’s “Carnavale of Poker” in 2000, 1999 Player of the Year Hieu “Tony” Ma whispered to me, “Phil, how sweet is it that this Frenchman keeps betting all of his chips pre-flop? You’re going to bust him for sure!” At the time, I agreed with Ma. I thought the Frenchman’s chips were mine to win. I love playing against a “slider” (someone who moves all of his chips into the middle regardless of how high the blinds have risen because once he slides it all-in, he can’t fold when you — eventually — pick up a big pair behind him. So when the tournament came down to Farzad “Freddy” Bonyadi, Angelo ”the Frenchman” Besnainou and me, they asked me to make a deal, I told the Frenchman, “No deal.”
So much for Tony Ma’s view of things! And my own! The Frenchman ended up busting me and winning the tournament! I ended up finishing in third for $100,000 (first was $400,000 and second was $200,000), whereas I would have taken home more than $250,000 had I made the deal. Did I make the right decision? What I really wanted was the title, and I knew I would stay focused if I played for all the money. What’s more, some players give away more information under the unrelenting pressure one feels when playing for so much money, and that tends to strengthen my already strong reads on short-handed opponents. Many players, in fact, tend to melt and make serious mistakes when they’re under so much pressure. So I believe, even in hindsight, that playing for it all was the right move for me in this situation.
With the blinds at $10,000-$20,000 and the antes $4,000 a man, I had about $440,000 in chips, and a lot of momentum. I was just starting to take control of the tournament when the Frenchman slid his whole stack in for about the 25th time at that final table on the button. I looked down at Ad-Qd in the small blind and decided to call his $222,000 bet. Freddy Bonyadi folded, and the remaining two hands were turned up. The Frenchman had about what I expected: Ac-6h, making me a 2-1/2-to-1 favorite to win the pot. The flop was a nice-looking A-5-5, but the turn was his miracle 6. I was expecting a queen on the river, but instead watched a 7 hit. A crushing outcome, but I felt a strange sense of detachment from it all. I realized that for the first time in my life I was playing without any expectations, and because I had none, I really didn’t mind losing that big pot. It was easy for me to say “nice hand” with sincerity, even though the Frenchman, I felt, had played the hand badly. For me, this was a first; I’ve usually been so caught up in my own high expectations that I haven’t been the gracious loser that a world champion should be.
Somehow, for this one day, I dumped my expectations and focused on giving myself the best possible chance to win. In my mind, all day long, I kept thinking that a champion should sustain that approach, as consistently as possible. I believe I played my best game that fateful second day at this poker major. I was never all-in on that second day (and therefore couldn’t go broke). And somehow, I had moved into the chip lead.
Two hands after I lost with the Ad-Qd, the Frenchman slid in on his small-blind $10,000 and I called him from my big-blind $20,000 for about $200,000 with A-10. He had K-J and the flop came down J-Q-6. Then an ace fell on the turn, to give me the best hand and a lot of hope. But the river runs erratically some days in no-limit Hold ’em, and an unwanted ten came up to make me two pair and the Frenchman an ace-high straight, with a final board of J-Q-6-A-10. (By the way, this was one of those weird hands — fun to watch, but difficult to be involved in — where there was a different leader on every street. I had him before the flop, he had me on the flop, I had him on fourth street, and he had me on the river!)
Being eliminated by two bad beats in three hands has been the classic situation where I throw a tantrum, or at least berate my opponent a while, but again, I’d had no expectations that day. So I said, “Nice hand,” wished both players good luck, collected my $100,000, and left.
In other words, I did what I was supposed to have done all those other times in the past when I was eliminated from poker tournaments the hard way: I acted like a world champion and went home.
Ad-Qd is a favorite over A-6 by this much: