PokerPlayer goes down-under

Dave Woods jets off to Melbourne and meets up with Scott Fischman for a blast of poker

Can you feel the bass?’ I haven’t heard vocals like this since the heady rave days of old, but I most certainly can. And the five older men sitting around the table look like they’re feeling it for the first time judging by the scowls on their faces. ‘So it’s not so bad they give us 15 seconds to make a decision, they’ve got to bombard us with this machine gun music as well?’ They’re clearly not impressed. And then the MC kicks in – an act that, all things considered, is unlikely to improve their demeanor.

‘Welcome to the future of poker ladies and gentlemen. 15 seconds, two dealers, 100 hands per hour! This is Speed Poker! Pot-limit pre-flop, no-limit after… We’re fully sold out folks, 204 people at the Crown Casino, Melbourne! Speed Poker!!!’ All I need now is the drugs. Thankfully a fridge full of complimentary Red Bulls, conveniently situated on my left shoulder is beckoning. If I need any more convincing, Darude belts in over the sound system. And this, as far as Speed Poker is concerned, counts as the call to shuffle up and deal. Old people, head for the hills.


My job today is threefold: to get the better of 203 other people and take down the Speed Poker Championship; to combat the crippling jetlag I’m suffering after my 21-hour flight to Melbourne; and to track down Scott Fischman, acknowledged by many as the best upcoming poker player in the world and a fellow combatant in today’s tournament. Trouble is, at this point things are looking bleak. Fischman is a noshow, the Red Bull hasn’t stopped the thousand-yard stare I’ve had since touching down in Australia, and my practice run on the Crown’s poker tables the previous evening ended in misery when I bankrupted myself on the no-limit cash tables. But as they say, things can only get better.

And they do. Fischman appears, fashionably late, and settles himself down at a table nearby. And the poker gods start smiling on me early doors. I take down two decent pots when my A-K connects with an Ace on the flop, and a mid-pair flops into trips. Above average in chips and with Red Bull coursing through my veins I suddenly get involved in a monster pot. Dealt A-K again, I put a decent raise in and get a caller all the way to the river where a scary board reads 10-4-9- 3-J. Even with a check in front of me I’m pretty sure I’m behind in the hand and decide to move allin. It’s my first pressure point and the 15 seconds I’ve got to decide whether this is a move that’s going to win me a huge pot or one that’s going to bring my participation to a swift halt pass in the blink of an eye. Ironically, when I get a fierce stare from my opponent, the same amount of time feels like a good couple of hours. Thankfully he folds.


Then disaster strikes. On the big blind I’m let in for free with 3-4 and flop two-pair with a 4-3-5 rainbow board. I make a modest raise, get two callers and the same happens on the turn when a blank hits. Ready to take another monster pot and move towards the chip lead a Two drops on the river and my hand’s suddenly in tatters. Big bets come in from the two players ahead of me and I have to fold. They end up chopping the pot with their Aces. I replay the hand in my head and drift off for a few seconds, forgetting this is Speed Poker. Suddenly the dealer’s asking me what I want to do and I realise the action’s back with me. I haven’t heard a raise and call on the small blind with my 4-5 suited. Unfortunately I’ve actually missed a 3000-chip raise and am now committed to calling it. Worse, I hit two hearts on the flop and bet out but miss on the turn and end up losing a big proportion of my chips. And despite hanging in for another couple of hours I eventually die when someone hits an inside straight draw on the river because I haven’t got enough chips left to scare him off the draw. Arsecakes. And thus endeth my first lesson in Speed Poker. You can’t take your eye off the ball for a second. Out in 77th I’m disappointed but pretty stoked with the whole Speed Poker shenanigans. It might not be the future of poker but it’s fast, fun and makes a brilliant crossover for the new young breed of Internet players who are used to working under pressure.

No pressure

I hang around for a couple of hours until the field is whittled down to 36 players and play breaks up for the day. Ducking through the throngs I manage to collar Scott Fischman, who, unlike me, has won a seat in the semi-final shootouts. What does he make of Speed Poker? ‘I love it. The fact that it’s pot-limit before the flop gives established pros a real edge. You see more flops, which means you have to make more decisions. Anytime I can take my opponent deep into the hand – to the flop or turn – I’ve got a massive advantage.’

I ask him whether the 15- second time limit caused him any problems. ‘Not me but it definitely affected other players.’ (Like me.) ‘They were rushed. I play online a lot and I know what I’m going to do ahead of time so it’s no problem.’ And does he think it’s going to catch on? ‘Definitely. It’s more like online poker. There’s music going off, beautiful ladies counting the time down… How can it not catch on?’

I tell him about the elderly gentlemen on my starting table. ‘That’s great. It’s the young players Speed Poker’s targeting. We’re not looking to get 80-yearold players into the game.’ Scott’s semi-final is scheduled for the next morning and arriving for an uncharacteristically early start, he receives a nasty shock.

‘I was late arriving for day one and didn’t know the format of the tournament was switching to six single-table shootouts. I would have altered my game if I knew when we were down to the last 36 I’d have to accumulate all the chips off the other five players to progress.’ To make matters worse he’s managed to draw the table with the overall chip leader who’s sitting with a 4-1 chip advantage over Fischman. ‘He’s got 85,000 chips – even If I bust everyone else on the table I’m still going to be the short stack.’ He takes his seat and I watch from the back room as he unleashes a monstrous display of short-handed Hold’em to overcome the odds and win a seat at the final table. Fischman’s quick to point out that it wasn’t a lucky win. ‘I ended up playing him heads-up for nearly three hours. The structure of the tournament is brilliant in that respect. In a normal tournament, when you’re down to six you don’t normally get that much play. It gave me the opportunity to play my game and beat him.’

The Fisher King

And Fischman’s game is seen by many as immense these days. He’s name-checked by the likes of Brunson and Harman, and seen by others as the Next Big Thing in the poker world. Not bad for someone who only turned pro three years ago. And his story is an inspiration for anyone considering ditching the day job and moving into poker full-time. He first learnt to play poker with a high school friend, who lived in Arizona where you only need to be 18 to gamble. ‘I played and lost for a couple of years and then when I turned 21 I got a job as a dealer and that’s when I really learnt how to play the game. It’s the best way to learn – when you’re dealing you get to watch people and how they play their hands for eight hours a day.’

But turning pro wasn’t the reason that Fischman took the job as a dealer in the first place. ‘It was just a job. It was good for me because it was indoors and Vegas is really hot. I was valet parking cars for a while – that was tough.’

But the job taught him the game and pretty soon he was winning tournaments and taking down pretty decent cash. ‘I’d done well in a couple of tournaments and I was making good money playing. It took a while though – I didn’t give up dealing until I was pretty sure I could make a go of it.’ And it turned out to be a great career move. Since turning pro in 2003 Fischman’s earnings have risen steadily, with two WSOP bracelets in 2004 complimenting dozens of money finishes in big events. And Fischman still sees himself as a tournament player despite recently making a move on the cash tables, something he’d previously steered clear of.

‘I felt like I needed to play just one form of poker at the start to really learn it and do well at it, and cash games are so different to tournaments that if you play both you’re kind of doing yourself an injustice. Just recently though I felt like I’ve really mastered the tournament so I’ve allowed myself to get involved in cash games. I’m playing at the Bellagio and the Commerce, usually $400-$800 mixed games – Omaha, Hold’em and Triple Draw.’

And it’s this enthusiasm for the mixed game that’s responsible for his tag of ‘best upcoming player’. The world might be Hold’em crazy at the moment, but back in the beginning the WSOP was a tournament where the best player across all poker disciplines won the title. When Fischman won the 2004 H.O.R.S.E event at the WSOP (Hold’em, Omaha, Razz, Stud and Eight or Better), he won a lot of respect from the biggest players. And he’s looking forward to defending his title in 2006 after the unpopular decision to skip the event last year. ‘I’m really looking forward to the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event at the 2006 WSOP. It would be nice to win again, especially because of the $50,000 buy-in. That would be f ing sweet. The buy-in might be steep, but I’m happy about it. It’ll be a pretty small field, which means that it’ll all be good players, which I like. I’m sure a lot of players are going to look at it like the best poker player will win the H.O.R.S.E event. I don’t think the best player will win the Main Event, so maybe a lot of players will see the H.O.R.S.E as the big one.’

Final table

But that’s then and this is now. And for me the big one is the final table of the Speed Poker, where Fischman’s up against five other players, all with equal starting chips. It’s his favoured format and he’s feeling good going into it. It’s looking good early on as a couple of players drop out straight away and with four players left, Fischman’s the chip leader. But then he takes a big hit, losing 30,000 chips to a local player who proceeds to bluff them away to the second best player on the table, a cool Swede called Ray Sanchez. It turns out to be a pivotal point in the game, and watching from the TV room I can see Fischman’s visibly rattled. He gets down to heads-up with Sanchez but he’s fighting a losing battle and despite laying down a set of Kings which would have lost him the tournament, he eventually goes out on a full house Eights full of Queens, when Sanchez makes Queens full of Eights. It means a lot to Fischman and it’s nothing to do with the cash. He’s just ultra-competitive and wants to win everything and talking to him afterwards he points to the turning point.

‘I lost 30,000 chips to Dane Coltman and straight away he lost them to Ray, which was a big swing for me. Ray had a 60-70,000 edge on me for that reason. That’s when I lost the tournament. He won my chips and started playing aggressively and bluffed all his chips to Ray. You could see how upset I was. It wasn’t the fact I’d lost my hand but that he’d given the tournament to Ray. Ray was really good and I couldn’t get back at him after that.’

No cigar

For Scott, losing hurts, and when he crashes out of the main event a few days later after finishing day two as third chip leader, he’s distraught. I catch up with him to find out what went down.

‘I ran into a couple of unfortunate situations. Both times I had the worst hand and should not have been involved, but then flopped monster hands. Once I was A-3 against Q-Q, and the flop came Q-2-3. I was on the big blind and called a small raise on the flop, the turn was an Ace and I couldn’t get off the hand. It wasn’t a bad beat, just an unfortunate situation. It’s hard to take though. I try and control my emotions but I was doing so well and then I was out so quick. It happens and I’m used to it, but it’s always hard. That’s when I go off and sleep for a couple of days, take a bit of time off.’

And from the little time I’ve spent with him I can confirm that the ‘hardest working player in poker’ tag seems justified. ‘All I do is play. I’m really dedicated to the game and treat it like a job. I’m a workaholic – I can’t stop playing.’ An attitude that’s propelled him close to the top. If he successfully defends his H.O.R.S.E. title at this year’s WSOP he will lay a strong claim to the number one spot. My advice? Don’t bet against him.

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