Close, so close, at the 2006 WSOP
Imagine that there are maybe a thousand fans watching the two of us playing heads-up poker, even though there are only about 300 seats in the whole arena. Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, movie star Shannon Elizabeth, and many other poker greats and notables are in attendance. ESPN is there filming, and the worldwide poker press is reporting on the spectacle. The scene is electric.
That was where I sat as I went for my would-be historic, record-tying 10th win at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). My wife had flown in for the final table, and my family, my friends and poker fans all over the world were watching the CardPlayer.com coverage on the Internet.
Too bad I failed. Again. With 608 people to beat, I had beaten 607. The event was the $5,000 buy-in no-limit Hold 'em tournament, and first place was over $820,000. I did manage to win $423,000 for second place, and I did set the all-time WSOP record for most times (52) finishing in the money. (The money is great, and the record is great, but I sure would have liked to grab that bracelet!) As for winning my 10th bracelet and tying the all-time WSOP win record with Chan and Brunson, I was so close.
After it ended, and I was staring at a young man from east Los Angeles who had been playing poker for just one year (Jeff Cabanillas is a great story), something happened to me that doesn't happen very often: I was perfectly gracious in defeat. I gave a thoughtful talk in front of the crowd and the ESPN cameras, congratulating the victor. Jeff's father came up to me to thank me for the way I handled myself. Considering that my past "Poker Brat" behavior wasn't pretty, and also considering that my dream of winning my 10th WSOP bracelet was snatched from my grasp so abruptly, everyone was surprised at how I handled the loss. I even surprised myself.
Hadn't I been unlucky in five key pots against the kid? Didn't I want that bracelet more than almost anyone else in the whole world? Still, it was over, and there was nothing I could do about it. I appreciated the fact that I had come so close. I appreciated the fact that I have been blessed in so many ways, and that I get to do what I love to do, for a living. Which is: win history-making poker tournaments. I appreciated the fact that there was such a huge crowd watching me take a run at poker history.
In one key hand, I had a chance to win, but Jeff made a great bluff to take the pot away from me. With the blinds at $10,000-$20,000, I called on the button with 5-5, and the kid raised it up $80,000 more with Ac-Kc (5-5 is about even money against Ac-Kc before the flop). Had I reraised him all-in, he would have called and I would almost certainly have won the tournament. Instead, I called the $80,000 raise, the flop came down Qd-Jd-9s, and the kid checked. I bet out $80,000, and he called. The turn card was the 7c, and Jeff checked. Then I bet out $80,000 and he raised me $100,000. Now I was thinking that the kid sure looked weak when he made that $100,000 raise. Finally, I decided to call the bet. (Had I reraised, I probably would have won the whole thing right then.) In any case, the last card was the six of diamonds (Qd-Jd-9s-7s-6d) and Jeff moved all-in for about $560,000. After a brief study, I folded my hand, and he showed me his bluff!
He showed me the hand, of course, to try to get under my skin, but that was a mistake, since I now knew what he looked like when he was making a big bluff (he was weak on the betting round before). Whatever. But give the kid credit for making a great bluff. And give him further credit for playing so well over our four-hour-long heads up match. But please don't tell anyone that I handled myself so well. (After all, I've made a fortune as the "Bad Boy of Poker"!)
Did I lose last Thursday night? Yep, but I'll be back!
5-5 is how much of a favorite over Ac-Kc before the flop:
D) roughly a coin flip (50/50)
Phil Hellmuth is a nine-time World Series of Poker champion and the author of "Play Poker like the Pros" and "Bad Beats and Lucky Draws" (both published by HarperCollins).