Sam Grafton: Vegas or bust

Flying to Las Vegas there is a sense of anticipation that is almost palpable. No-one sits still. Boozers, honeymooners and Jacuzzi-users, all on their way to Vegas and certain to come back with less money than they took out. After all, that’s why Vegas exists. It’s a town created with one purpose. To take your money. The punters on this plane don’t stand a chance. Some will do their money slowly; on taxis, restaurants, strippers. Others will do it hard and fast, on bottle service or on the wheel. It doesn’t matter. The end result will be the same.

Unlike the rest of this cut-price crowd, I’m planning on leaving Vegas with my pieces intact. For the six weeks the WSOP is running, in every casino from the lowest limit cash game to the highest stakes tournament there is money to be made. Big money. Millions of dollars will pass in and out of the cage at the Rio every day. My job is to grab a share of it. That’s what’s different about me. I’m coming to Vegas to stake my claim. To get my share.

Calm before the storm 

As I make my way through the Rio, the corridors are alive with energy. The handshakes, the fist-pumps, the backslaps. We are poker players. A teeming fraternity invigorated by the money pulsating unceasingly around us day and night. We like to see ourselves as analogous to stockbrokers and the Rio convention centre is our trading floor. Action is bought and sold; swaps are collected and paid out. It’s only as the summer slips away and the tin bottom of our cash boxes becomes more visible, that we begin to suspect we might be closer in species to the craps players at the Palms than the traders of Wall Street. Perhaps we’re not even as grown up as the punters on the gaming floor. Surveying the tournament area awash with back-to-front baseball caps and oversize headphones it looks less like adult life and more like a console gaming convention. If I told a shipyard worker or an architect what I do it doesn’t really sound like the job of an adult. Yet despite this, during my days at the Rio it feels like the most important thing in the world. I’m like Copernicus discovering that the Galaxy orbits slowly around events at the Rio. The final tables here represent nothing less than the cool, hard centre of the Universe.

The magic circle

Here I am. Hoodie up, baseball cap askew. Seated at a six-max table with Antonio Esfandiari on my left, Nick Schulman on my right. This is how I get my cut of the Vegas wealth: tournaments. I’ve spent all year online practicing my craft. Honing my skills. But it seems a tougher task than when I boarded the plane. Suddenly getting my share doesn’t seem so easy. Esfandiari and Schulman have years of poker experience at the highest level all geared towards knocking me out of this tournament. It doesn’t seem fair. These two were playing in the world’s biggest cash games before I even knew a flush beat a straight. Suddenly I’m all thumbs. My bet sizing is off. I’m not the next big thing – far from it – I’m some lumbering slack-jawed exponent of antitalent and Schulman and Esfandiari can sense it. Why aren’t I more prepared? Why did I spend so many years doing other things? Girlfriends, degrees, nights out.

I bet Brian Hastings didn’t waste his youth travelling South America. Nor was Isaac Haxton idly chasing girls round the dance floor in his early twenties. Oh, how I envy their lack of social skills. A little less self-confidence and it could have been me confined to my bedroom perfecting my poker game and not Dan Kelly. I repent I say. I take it all back. I’ll forswear women. I’ll reject my friends. I’ll give away all my books, all my belongings. My kidneys, my liver. Anything! Just let me win.

The panic subsides. It’s the same game I’ve always played. Nothing is different. My two cards against their two cards. Of course it’s going to be tough. But I know what I’m doing. I’ve probably played more tournaments this year than Esfandiari’s played in his entire career. Sit up straight. Breathe. Take your time. You’re a poker player. This is what you do. This, after all is how you stake your claim. Slowly. One bet at a time.

Lessons learned – What has Sam ‘The Squid’ Grafton learned about poker this month?

PokerStars has three online series each year but SCOOP has to be my favourite. The structures are fantastic; the satellites come in a huge variety of formats and are packed with value. Perhaps best of all each event has three different buy-in levels: low, medium and high. So while I can sink my teeth into big buy-in NLHE tournaments I can also try my hand at the poker variants I’m less accomplished at in the low and medium buy-ins.

The other reason SCOOP is my favourite is because I’ve had more success in it than all the other online series combined. Last year I got my biggest ever online score in Event 2, the Sunday $2,100 Freezeout. This year I had to wait a little longer until Event 8, the Tuesday $1,000 Freezeout for my annual springtime payday. I was fortunate enough to chop the event five-ways for $153K. Not only was it a timely bankroll boost so close to Vegas but it also adds another significant result to my poker resume.

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