Having a "Senior" moment at the World Series of Poker

My quest for $603,713 came up $603,712 short

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Iíll never run with the bulls in Pamplona.

For one thing, I donít run. Itís tiring. But mostly, stampeding bulls scare me.

Nor will I go rock-climbing, cliff-diving, bungee-jumping, or anything else with a hyphen in the middle that mixes thrills with danger. Other than binge-snacking.

But a person gets to a point in life where he wants to something fun, exhilarating, and maybe a little crazy. So I recently played in the World Series of Poker.

It was fun. And exhilarating. And maybe more than a little bit crazy.

Poker requires skills in both math and reading people. Not to brag, but I have pretty good math skills honed from decades of computing scoring-averages and other useless minutiae.

Plus, a considerable part of my career has been spent observing people, trying to figure out where theyíre coming from and what theyíre really saying verbally and non-verbally.

The trouble is, lots of people are good at math, and donít need psychology degrees to read me. Also, theyíre a lot better at poker than me. But a boy can dream ...

First off, no, it wasnít the World Series of Poker event thatís on television every year. Thatís the Main Event, the culmination of the six-week, 61-event WSOP.

The entry fee for the Main Event is $10,000. For the No Limit Holdí Em Seniors Event, it was $1,000. Some friends offered to shoulder some of the financial load. They were the real risk-takers.

As for the ďSeniorsĒ part of it, the tourney was for people 50 and older. Iím not an actual senior. Not that thereís anything wrong with seniors. I have nothing against seniors. Some of my best friends are seniors. But I am not a senior!

No way would I jump in a WSOP tourney with 22-year-old pros who wear hoodies and sunglasses, stare holes through poker tables, and play with the aggression of one of those bulls let loose on the streets of Pamplona.

But I figured that if surrounded by people my own age who were looser with their tongues and tighter with their chips, I might have a chance.

And I did. It just wasnít a great one. Which I knew going in, since only 10 percent of the field gets paid.

The tourney commenced at 10 a.m., on June 15. The Rio casino was full of 50- and 60-somethings milling about waiting to find their table and chips. I was in a Rio snack shop around 9:30 to get a banana and a diet soda (for nutritional balance).

As I was in line waiting to pay the cashier someone handed me a wrinkled dollar bill that he picked off the floor, thinking Iíd dropped it. The person behind me saw I was a buck ahead before the tourney had even started, told me it was a lucky sign, and said ďSee you at the final table.Ē

But not everything is an omen.

I was nervously excited in the weeks before getting to Vegas. It wasnít that I had any illusions about making a run at immortality. I just didnít want to do something stupid and be eliminated in the first 10 minutes. But once I got to the Rio I didnít feel the least bit jittery.

Looking back, I think it was that I didnít quite accept being in the middle of 4,128 people (a one-day record for players in a poker tourney) trying to see if they could survive for three long days and make it to the land of big money.

It felt like a reality show was unfolding before me, and I never wanted to be in the middle of a reality show.

But then I got to my table and the nine other people there seemed like well, nine other people. There was a man from Ashton, Neb., population 213. There was a man who owned a chain of Subway sandwich shops in the Pacific Northwest. There was a woman from Canada. There were two men from Georgia, one from Peachtree City.

I won the first two hands in which I tossed in chips, both on bluffs that took small pots. I can play here, I thought. But the third bluff didnít go as well. Someone with a psychology degree was apparently at my table.

The first two hours went faster than any two hours I can remember. I had 2,675 chips, down from my starting stack of 3,000. During the 20-minute break at the 2-hour mark, the realization I needed to be more assertive was nagging at me as I joined 4,000 people in searching for a restroom at the same time.

That was a pretty fierce competition in itself.

In the third hour, something wonderful happened. A man with just 850 chips remaining went all-in. I called him. I had ace-queen. He showed a pair of fours. A queen came up on the flop. I won the hand, and eliminated someone from the World Series of Poker.

I felt bad for him, I truly did. But oh, did I ever feel good for me. I was slightly above the average chip-stack size with 3,625 after four hours, and had a little confidence again.

A monster hand or two, and the sky was the limit, right? I could make it through the 11 hours of play in Day One and get closer to the next dayís money bubble (the top 423 finishers got paid, with 423rd getting $1,858). Then, the sky would be the limit. First-prize was $603,713. A boy can dream ...

During the 20-minute break after the fourth one-hour level of play, I came upon a vendor in a hallway giving away samples of something called Alpha BRAIN, dietary supplements that claim to produce ďmental dominance.Ē I need that, I thought, and gulped two of the pills on the spot. That was done by someone who a) doesnít believe in brain pills and b) doesnít like pills, period.

Play resumed, and I kept grinding along when I suddenly found myself in possession of pocket aces. I raised the big blind of 200 chips to 800 and got called by one player. The three-card flop came up 10-7-3 of different suits, and he shoved all-in. If he had anything but three of a kind, I was in good-to-fantastic shape. Did he have three of a kind?

My mental dominance pills must have convinced me the answer was no. I should have stuck to bananas and soda. He had three 10s. I lost and was down to 1,125 chips. But two hands later I went all-in with ace-king and got two callers. A king came up and I tripled my chip-total. Alive again!

Soon after that, I got pocket kings. A nice enough guy otherwise, the man from Peachtree City bet all-in. I immediately called with all my chips hoping he didnít have pocket aces. He had queens. If my kings held up, I would double up and was looking good to at least play into the evening. And if the cards kept running good like this ... be still my beating heart.

I was an 81.7 percent favorite. The flop came and I was still golden. The turn card, no sweat. Then came the final card, the river.

A queen.

Six hours and 20 minutes after the tourney began, I was busted. Everyone at my table but Peachtree groaned on my behalf. He scooped the chips as if it was meant to be. Iíd probably have done the same thing.

I think I made a graceful exit. Iím kind of proud of myself for not cursing out loud when that queen came up on the river.

Inside, though, I may have been swearing a little. I may still be.

But thatís poker, as they say. Hey, it was still better than having an unlucky ending while cliff-diving, rock-climbing or bungee-jumping.  

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