WSOP Diary

Londoner Lee Johnson, a 35-year-old presentation graphics manager at an investment bank, shares his WSOP experience with us in his diary

My journey to the WSOP begins at home in north London, playing a $5 satellite tournament against 150 other starry-eyed hopefuls on A winning streak rewards me with a $40 ticket to the next level, from which I progress to the $300 qualifying final.

It’s 11 o’clock on a Saturday night: there are just five tickets for 265 players with sufficient skill (or luck) to get near the end of the rainbow. By 3am, I’m on the final table: only half of us will fly to Las Vegas for a ten-day jaunt with the possibility of snagging $7.5 million in prize money, so the play is incredibly tight.

I’m second in the chip count and use my stack to steal blinds. The short stacks have no choice but to go all-in and hope to double up. An hour later, it’s all over. I claim my ticket, dance a jig around the room, and continue to smile idiotically for the next three days. I’m going to play in the World Series of Poker!

Vegas, baby!

So this is Las Vegas: slot machines in the airport and limos on stand-by. The 105° heat bounces off the pavement, which keeps me from forgetting that this entire city is an oasis in the desert.

We drive to what must be the most bizarre hotel/casino experience of them all – the Luxor, where I and fellow online qualifiers are staying. Outside is a giant obelisk and a sphinx; the lobby and casino are housed in a vast, black glass pyramid, topped by a laser beam that can be seen from outer space; and, inside, every wall, chandelier, knob, sign – everything – has been decorated with an Egyptian motif of one sort or another.

Next door is another massive casino resort called Mandalay Bay. It’s owned by the same corporation that owns the Luxor, and the two are joined by a couple of ingenious linking mechanisms, a moving walkway and a little train that has just three stops.

Tonight there’s going to be a party there for us members of Team 50 would-be hold’em champions from all over the world. I find myself repeating: ‘Hi, I’m Lee Johnson from England. My internet name is Croywhale. I play on Saturday.’

Just before I climb wearily into bed, not having had any sleep for 24 hours, I turn on the TV and am horrified by the news that four bombs have gone off on London Transport. No sleep for me until I’ve phoned friends and family to confirm that they’re okay.

Hitting the big time

I get up the next morning with bleary eyes, collect my green embroidered shirt and cap, and head over to the Rio, where the first days of the World Championship are being held. To walk from the front entrance of the Rio to the Convention Center, where the tournament is taking place, takes a good 15 minutes, and upon getting there I find myself inside the biggest room I’ve ever seen – it’s more like a stadium – and it’s filled with poker tables, hundreds of them, to accommodate the 5,600 people who’ve put up $10,000 of their own money or, like me, have qualified online for a relative pittance.

Play is split into three ‘first days’, each of them 15 hours long with a 20-minute break every two hours… it’s pretty intense.

Saturday comes at last, and I’m in pretty good shape, although my body clock won’t adjust to the eight-hour time difference between Vegas and London; I keep waking up and going to sleep at the wrong times. My adrenaline is pumping, though, and I arrive at the Rio early and nervous, cigarettes and shades at the ready. I grab some fries for breakfast and make my way to table number 147. That’s when I find that I’ll be competing against another qualifier as well as a Scandinavian pro, whose face I recognise from television.

The heat is on

It’s hard to concentrate on my cards with all the activity unfolding around us. While the general public, standing three deep, is cordoned off in roped corridors, photographers and cameramen are free to move between the tables. When there’s an all-in, the dealer shouts it out and a dozen media members descend, shoving their cameras and microphones past our noses. Vendors offer drinks, coffee and tea (at $3 a pop). Masseuses rub away the aches of sitting for hours ($15 for ten minutes). Floormen keep their ears open for swearing (a ten-minute suspension for each curse word uttered). With player histrionics common and cheering from the spectators positively encouraged, this isn’t exactly a quiet game.

There’s a lot of aggressive play at my table, but on the fourth hand I cop pocket Queens (known locally as Siegfried and Roy – once the resident magicians at the Mirage). They hold up and my stack rises to $12,000.

After the first break (the line to the loos is so long that you’re lucky to have adjusted your trousers before needing to return), our table sees its first all-in called. The dealer shouts: ‘All-in on table 147!’ and waits for the photographers to get into position. There’s more than $10,000 in chips on board. The Scandinavian flips over a pair of Kings. The caller shows Aces. Disgruntled noises reverberate from a group of Swedish supporters. The turn is a rag, but the river is… a King! The Swedes go wild.

Now that he’s got a big stack, the Scandinavian dominates the table. He routinely raises before and after the flop to scare out the faint-hearted and collect their blinds. I long for our table to be broken, as he is two seats to my left. He pushes me off A-9 suited and A-J off-suit when the flop fails to help me. He routinely bets half my stack. I feel like a heifer marching toward a slow slaughter.

I limp to the next break with $10,000, but when we resume playing, the blinds go up to $100/$200 and I know I’ll be forced to make a move soon. For the next two hours, I see nothing I can even remotely bluff with, and my stack is shrinking fast. Two more of our table exit, one with the bad beat of his flush against a full house caught on the river.

It’s becoming increasingly brutal. The heat, the noise and the crowd are getting to me. How do the pros manage to keep their cool? My respect for Phil Hellmuth and Greg Raymer (both with big stacks at the moment) grows by the hour, and I can only sympathise with Daniel Negreanu and Annie Duke, among the many big-name players who have already busted out.

After hours of continually mucking cards, I’m in the big blind. I look down and see Siegfried and Roy ready to perform another magic trick for me. The player on the button has stolen quite a few of my blinds, but this time I’m ready for him with my Queens.

He flat calls. I have $6,500 left and push $2,000 towards the centre of the table. Without a thought, the button-man puts me all-in. I think. And think some more. I reflect that it’s the fourth all-in move he has made against weak stacks in the last hour. If he has only an Ace, it’s a coin-flip. If he has two Kings or rockets, well, then I’m pretty much dead. If it’s a smaller pair, however, I’m a big favourite.

I try to convince myself that this is the moment to go for it. I give him a stare but can’t get a read. Suddenly, my eyes x-ray his cards and see a 10-10 there (or maybe a J-J). I call. He flips pocket rockets.

Damn, damn, damn! I stand up, the two Aces looking like poison pellets. I’m quietly, desperately, praying for a Queen, but the poker gods are asleep. Rags complete the board. Handshakes all round, which is polite, but I’m out.

Pot luck

Ah well. Time to lounge by the pool, have some drinks, go and see a show. Or maybe I’ll go over to the Monte Carlo and catch Lance Burton. On day seven of the Big One, after hearing that we have one player left (go for it, musicboy1!), I head over to the Rio and cheer him on. Lucky for me, has set up a loser’s cash-pot. For every player who gets into the money, the site will kick in $10,000, and that pot will be shared by players who fail to make it.

In the end, eight players finish in the money, and two of them progress to the top 100, with musicboy1 (of Buffalo, NY) finishing in 26th place, winning $304,680. This means the losing players share $125,000, about $2,500 each, which isn’t bad for getting knocked out on the first day! Looks like even the losers are winners this time out.

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