All-In: My week at the World Series of Poker
Lessons learned after the experience of a lifetime
(This story isn’t about Valparaiso athletics. It’s about…me. We’ll get back to stories about Valparaiso in the coming days, but for now, enjoy this lengthy story about a dream I didn’t even know I had coming true. This story is open for both paid and free subscribers)
I had been playing poker for more than 33 hours in the World Series of Poker Main Event when I took another look at my hole cards. A chill went down my spine as I came to a chilling realization. This might be my last hand.
Action had folded around to me when I looked down at a pair of Kings. With the big blind at 10,000 and sitting on a stack of 350,000, I opened to 23k. The guy to my left, a Texan named Bart Bogard, was the chip leader at the table with around 1.3 million in chips. Despite his overwhelming chip lead at the table, he hadn’t shown much interest in playing pots through the first three hours of the day. He described himself as a nit when we first sat down and he never used his stack to his advantage. Through the scouting report I had on him from my research heading into the day, it appeared that he might be content to sit back and ladder up the pay jumps of the tournament. We all came into Day 4 having locked up $15,000 in winnings and by 3:13 p.m. on Sunday, July 10, we had all made an additional $4,000.
There was nothing special about my open to 23k. The fact I was in the cutoff (one to the right of the button) meant I had seen five other players fold and only had to worry about the button, the small blind and the big blind in the hand, but I wasn’t worried. I had Kings. Bogard didn’t waste much time in firing a 3-bet to 56,000. The blinds folded and it was back to me. I’m never calling in this spot. I’m also never folding in this spot. Matter of fact, I’m in the best spot I’ve been in the tournament in four days. I look back at my cards one last time and I flick a single red chip into the pot as I say those magic words “All-In.”
Before I tell you about the end of my tournament, let me tell you about the beginning.
I was never supposed to be here.
I don’t have one of those great poker stories about how I grew up playing for nickels and dimes with my grandparents at the kitchen table. Quite the opposite. I watched as a family member struggled with gambling addiction while I was growing up. It was a sickness that tore his life apart. I watched as a casino was built in downtown Milwaukee when I was a teenager, polarizing the city. I’ve been to Vegas plenty of times and I’ve seen up close how crippling that addiction can be. I’ve also felt the thrill of what that addiction can be. It’s something I’ve always tried to keep my finger on the pulse of; never wanting to fall into the trap my family member did when I was a child.
What I will say about poker is that it allows me my own glimpse into a world of competition that I’m often writing about, but so rarely living in. My athletic career ended in eighth grade due to a lack of talent. I lasted one day at Little League practice before my father almost got into a fist fight with the manager for drilling me twice in the face. I guess I was crowding the plate. My basketball career came to an end when the eighth-grade coach came up to me after the last game of the season and he told me he was excited for me to be the starting center the next year. He didn’t seem all that concerned when I told him I was actually already in eighth grade and I’d be moving onto high school the following year. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
So I did a bunch of theater in high school, became the statistician for the football team and eventually tried to start a school newspaper. With the exception of serving 15 straight points in a volleyball match in gym class, the popular athletes never knew I existed. By the time I got to college however I knew I wanted to talk/write about sports for a living. I would dabble in the occasional intramural league and I proudly won the football championship my freshman year, picking off the opposing quarterback three times in the title game. But that was it. My list of athletic/competitive accomplishments was nil and I was fine with it. I never dreamed of hitting the game-winning shot. I dreamed about interviewing the player who hit that game-winning shot. Except when it came to poker.
The poker boom hit in 2003 after Chris Moneymaker, an amateur player who parlayed a $40 dream into a seat at the World Series of Poker Main Event, took down a seasoned pro to win it all. Moneymaker, an everyman in poker if there ever was one, seemed to speak to the casual player who had dreams of bright lights and big bankrolls. I was working at a rock radio station at the time in Milwaukee and poker was absolutely something we wanted to get involved in. Our target audience was the 18-34 male and poker was suddenly the topic of conversation at every bar or concert we were at. The radio station started hosting poker tournaments and they even brought in a guy to professionally train us how to deal. My roommate at the time was starting to have success in home games around the city as well as at the casino. Friends of ours would show up every Monday night to watch football on TV and play poker. Long after everyone would leave and by the time ESPN was airing MNF on replay, my roommate and I would be sitting in our basement running through hands and situations. It was a method of competition that eliminated the need for athleticism, something I sorely lacked.
All this being said, I never had dreams of going big time into poker, but I did like rubbing elbows with the stars. My old roommate (who we can refer to as my best friend) and I went out to Vegas in 2006 and 2007 for the WSOP with media credentials in hand. He did live radio broadcasts leading up to the Main Event and I wrote a host of stories, including one about the Voice of Valparaiso athletics, Todd Ickow. I played in the 2007 WSOP Media Event. I got ESPN poker reporter Andrew Feldman at my table. My best friend got American Pie star Shannon Elizabeth as well as Penn Jillette from the comedy group Penn & Teller.
While people go out to the World Series to buy a $10,000 lottery ticket, I was content on playing in the $45-$85 daily tournaments that were filled with tourists looking to say they played poker in Vegas once. I got pretty good at them, once winning three in one day. It was the peak of my poker (or competitive) accomplishments.
The WSOP isn’t just limited to Vegas. As soon as the series ends out west each summer, a group of circuit events pop up all over the country. I’ve played a few times when the circuit has made a stop in Hammond, but never to any success. These tournaments weren’t filled with drunk tourists, but with semipros and grinders who were traveling the country making a living. I was outclassed and outmatched, just like I was on the basketball court in eighth grade. So I’d pick my spots. Play a daily tournament here and there. Try to improve along the way, but be content with my place in the poker food chain.
COVID hit and poker was a way to bond again. My friends and I created an online poker league where we’d play for bragging rights and really to keep ourselves from going crazy during lockdown. Another childhood friend got me into a poker group with former Washington Football Team coach Jay Gruden (who wasn’t very good).
The world started to open up again last year and the WSOP got pushed back to the fall. It had always been a bucket list item to play in an actual WSOP event. I took my shot at “The Reunion.” It was by far the smallest buy-in of the series, aimed at getting people like me - dreamers - to come to Vegas and sit down with the pros. That’s exactly what I did. While I didn’t make the money, I played well and I played deep into the night. My performance in that tournament was like my tee shots on 17. After playing like garbage for an entire round, I always hit a beauty on 17, a shot that will convince me to drop hundreds more on equipment, driving range time and more rounds. Rinse and repeat.
Fast forward to last month when my best friend was out in Vegas. The WSOP moved locations this year from the Rio to Paris/Bally’s. Being a sucker for anything historic, I wanted to be there for the first year on the Strip. Throw in the FOMO I was experiencing from my best friend being out there and the plane ticket was booked before I could talk myself out of it. It didn’t hurt that Eron Gordon and Javon Freeman-Liberty were playing in the NBA Summer League at the same time.
On my second day in town I decided to take a shot. There was a satellite tournament to enter the Main Event. Think of it as a conference tournament in order to win your way into the NCAA tournament. The cost ($580) was a fraction of what it would take to enter the Main Event ($10,000). I figured most of the field would again be people like me. Casual players trying to shortcut their way into the Big Dance. I imagined I could hold my own with those types. Then Dan Heimiller sat down. Heimiller has more than $6 million in career poker winnings and sits just outside the top 100 in the country. What is he doing at my table in this (relatively) cheap satellite? And what am I doing carving him up like Thanksgiving turkey?
I quadrupled my chip stack almost immediately, then I tripled that stack. What started as a dream now was turning into a reality. Players started to fall by the wayside quickly, Heimiller included. There were 591 players in the tournament and 29 would get seats into the Main Event. Soon we were down to fewer than 100 players. Then 80. Then 60. Then disaster. I pushed two short stacks in with AK against AQ and KJ. I had them both dominated, including a social media influencer who has 9 million TikTok followers. The flop was QJx and I was immediately in third place. The board didn’t improve and I was in real trouble. We had one hand left before break and I was ready to shove all-in with any two cards, mostly because I didn’t want to sit through 20 minutes of a break before busting out. The dream was over. I looked down at 2-7 offsuit, the worst hand in poker. I laughed as I quickly folded. I came back from break and got dealt KK on the first hand. Another played shoved all-in and I doubled up against his QQ. I hung on for the next hour. We were down to 36 players. Then 33. Then three busted simultaneously. I was three hands away from being blinded out of the tournament with one player left to go. There was a buzz at the table on my right. Someone was all-in and he’d been called. He lost, and I won. I was going to the Main Event.
I’ve covered a mid-major basketball team for my entire professional career and I’ve been fortunate enough to cover Valparaiso in three NCAA tournaments (Kentucky, Michigan State, Maryland). I’m used to being around competitors who are massive underdogs once they get to the Big Dance. That was me walking into the Main Event. On the first day I just didn’t want to embarrass myself. What makes the Main Event so great, and why people pay so much to get in, is the structure of the tournament. Blinds are slow and levels are long. So I set goals. Make it through the first level. Make it to the dinner break. Bag chips.
By the time I sat down on Day 1D in the 2022 Main Event, I had been playing poker casually for 17 years and I had never advanced to the second day of a tournament. (To be fair, I’ve mostly played in daily tournaments that didn’t require a second day.) I watched as the last hours and minutes ticked off the clock and I bagged up 86,600 chips, up from the starting stack of 60,000. Not only did I not embarrass myself, I was in the fight. The highlight of the day came when the fifth-place finisher from 2015 made a point to come up to me as we were bagging chips and tell me how well I handled myself throughout the day. It cost him nothing to pay the compliment forward, but it meant everything to me.
There was a day off between Day 1D and Day 2D. I spent my down time trying to make sense of what had occurred in the last 30 hours. I spent Thursday evening watching Eron Gordon and the Rockets take on Paolo Banchero and the Magic in the Summer League. I grabbed dinner with Valparaiso basketball coaches Matt Lottich and Rob Holloway. They were both buzzing about the WSOP and I felt so out of my element. These are guys that I interview. Guys who I’m generally buzzing about. Not the other way around. It provided a strange moment of levity to the situation.
Day 2D was an absolute blast. There was a guy at my table who had just turned 50 from Oak Creek, Wisconsin and he was living out his bucket list item with a gift to himself. PokerNews got wind of my story through a friend of mine and they came over to take my picture and writeup a story about me. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.
I made it through the day and I chipped up to 232,000. I was done being nervous and thinking about embarrassing myself. Everything felt natural. We were just playing poker. We were still hours away from making the money and those thoughts still hadn’t entered my mind as I tried to get some sleep on Friday night.
Day 3 is among the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I started the day with 232,000 in chips and took some early hits before making a rally midway through the day when my scouting reports started to pay off. There was a pro at my table from Minnesota and my best friend had played a bunch with him. He gave me some insight into how he would treat amateur players. (By this point of the tournament, everyone at my table knew I was a newcomer to the Main Event stage) The scouting report proved to be correct as Everett Carlton bluffed off his entire stack to me when I hit two pair on the river. My table broke midway through the day and I was moved to the main room in Bally’s, just feet from the feature tables. Over the next hour I lost with KK, QQ and JJ, but with each passing defeat, I found a new layer of resolve. I regrouped with a flush, a flopped full house and quad Jacks to beat QQ. The last hour of the night was spent approaching the money bubble and I was in comfortable shape. I finished the night in the money with 680,000 in chips, good for 224th out of the 1,299 remaining players.
Day 4 had the chance to be one of the biggest days of my life. If I could navigate all the landmines of a poker tournament for another day, we’d be flirting with life-changing money on the other side. But (and I know this might sound convoluted or privileged or whatever) it wasn’t about the money. I wasn’t watching the clock or watching the pay jumps. I was just concentrating on making the best decisions with each hand.
Before play started on Day 4, it was time to clue in my family as to what was going on. I had been live tweeting for much of the first three days and I had put some photos up on Instagram, but neither of my parents spend much time on those sites. I intentionally didn’t put anything on Facebook until I had the chance to talk with them. My mom loves Vegas and my dad would just as soon see the city burn to the ground, so they were two different conversations, but both were supportive. My mom was looking at flights out and my dad told me to get home safe.
The day started off rough. I had two pros, Victor Ramdin and Asher Conniff, to my right and I knew they’d be attacking me. I overplayed a pocket pair against Conniff and doubled him up when he just happened to have KK. I got the majority of those chips back against Ramdin, winning a sizable amount in a hand where he flopped a set, but I took it down when the board completed the flush and the straight. I had neither, but I had heart. Victor, who is one of the nicest people in poker, told me that I was responsible for at least one of his coming nightmares.
I was just over 650k when I was dealt TT. I raised and Bogard called. The flop was all low cards. I bet, he called. Another low card. I bet, he called. A King fell on the river and it was the third heart on the board. I checked and Bogard quickly checked behind. I was sure I was good when he checked. He flipped over AK for the rivered win. My stack was cut in half once again. I shook off the beat and took a sip of water. I looked at my phone and saw a message from a friend. Jeff Platt, the television sideline reporter, was heading my way in the next 10 minutes. I was going to be interviewed for the broadcast.
For the first time in five days of poker I started to feel a little emotion. I didn’t celebrate when I won the seat in the Main Event. I was too much in shock. The next three days were so exhausting that all I could do at the end of the night was close my eyes and focus on the next task at hand. Sitting at the table on Day 4 of the Main Event, with friends and family starting to blow up my phone, it all hit me. I cracked a smile thinking about being on TV. Platt is excellent at what he does and I couldn’t wait to be the subject of his questions. The reporter who never had any athletic talent was finally getting a story of his own. It didn’t feel real. It wasn’t.
I peeled the cards back and saw the King of spades and the King of hearts. Two beautiful cards when paired together. I raised and when Bogard fired back, I knew I had him right where I wanted him. I looked back at my cards one last time and I flicked a single red chip into the pot as I say those magic words “All-In.” If he called, it would be the first time in five days of poker that my tournament life would be at risk. (For perspective, I’ve had tournaments where I’ve been all-in on the first hand. I don’t recommend that approach.)
Bogard didn’t immediately call, so I knew he didn’t have Aces, but he also called pretty quickly, so I knew he was confident in his hand. He called a 350k shove with AQ offsuit. I was both ecstatic and sick. Have Queens. Have Jacks! That would make sense. AQ is a hand he can fold there. It’s probably a hand he should fold there. But, he’s the chip leader and he had room to make a mistake and not let it hurt him.
I stood up and pulled out my camera. Whatever was to come, I wanted to document it. I was too late. The dealer ripped off the flop before I could hit record and right there for all the world to see was the Ace of diamonds. My stomach sank. Asher let out a groan. Victor shook his head in disgust. (Whether they were upset that I was getting knocked out or that the chip leader was getting more chips is up for debate) The 10s came on the turn and I was left hoping for one of the two remaining Kings in the deck. My final card of the 2022 Main Event was the Ace of hearts. A cruel pinprick to the heart. Bile filled my mouth and I wanted to be anywhere in the world than where I was right then and there. WSOP protocol is you stand at your seat after you bust out until someone comes to usher you from the tournament area so they can give you a bustout slip.
Three minutes after I busted out of the tournament I received an alert on my phone. The final turning of the knife. So close.
It’s been a week since I returned home from the experience of a lifetime. Although I’ve written 3,583 words to this point of the article, I still haven’t begun to put into words everything I experienced in those five days. I’ve spent 20+ years as a sports journalist and it’s always been easy to jump from one defeat to another. A high school team loses in the first round of the playoffs? I’m covering the second round next week. A college coach gets fired or leaves for another job? I’m covering the new coach at their introductory press conference. An athletic director retires after a storied career? It’s time to get to know the new athletic director. Nothing ever ends in this job. Which is why the end of the Main Event was so gutting to me. There’s always another game to cover. But there wasn’t another hand to be dealt.
I think I have a newfound appreciation for how empty a coach or an athlete feels at the end of a season. Keep in mind of course that I only spent five days in this season, not an entire year. One of my friends told me to jump into another poker tournament right away. That would be like going from the Sweet 16 to a pickup game later that night and thinking it would be the same because both are played on a basketball court.
No, the only way for me to feel better about those final moments were to write about them. That’s my arena. So I appreciate all of you who have made it this far in the article. I wanted to share this journey with you all, but mostly I needed to put it down on paper for my own good.
Leah Earnest, a member of the Valparaiso women’s basketball team, and one hell of a graphic designer, asked me to explain my WSOP journey to her in terms that a non-poker player would understand. I told her that it was as if a NAIA team somehow qualified for the NCAA tournament, pulled off a few upsets while gaining confidence and experience along the way. Then the team bowed out of the tournament in crushing fashion while capturing the hearts of the nation. Slight increase to the budget for the following season. See you next year.
(First photo taken by Danny Maxwell, PokerNews.com)
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