How our guy found redemption (but no glory) at a World Series of Poker Circuit Event at Isle Casino
Redemption is primarily the province of the Bible, or a certain type of Hollywood movie. But I went looking for—and found—it in a most unlikely place: A World Series of Poker Circuit Event at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach, Fla.
Obviously, some back story is required.
Humiliation at the felt
At this point, most of the details are hazy, at best, as the origins of my search for soul-saving date back 15-to-20 years. But these are the salient facts:
I once entered a WSOP Circuit Event at what is now called Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. The game was No Limit Texas Hold ‘em. The buy-in was $250, and I was feeling pretty good about my chances of at least winning some money as, back in those days, I was playing, on average, five-to-10 hours of Hold ‘em a week, primarily at the poker room at what was then Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort (today it’s Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City; the poker room is now part of the gambling den’s Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena).
On the very first hand of the tournament, I was dealt a pair of jacks (a hand, it’s been said, that can be played three ways—all of them wrong). I made a pre-“flop” raise and got one caller.
The flop (three face-up “community” cards that can be used by all active players in the hand) included a jack, giving me three (a “set” in Hold ‘em parlance). I immediately went all-in (that is, I bet all my chips), and the other player called me. I don’t remember what the “turn” (fourth) card was, but it didn’t matter. The “river” (fifth) card was a 10, which gave my opponent a straight to the ace—even though it was absurd, and against all poker logic and strategy, for him to have even been in the hand once I went all-in.
But he was. And after just one hand, I was eliminated from the contest—and humiliated as I’d never been before or since, at least at the poker table.
While I moved on in life, the sting of that shameful episode never completely dissipated. And while I certainly had opportunities to play in other Circuit Events, I didn’t. But this past September, fate intervened when I received a Facebook Messenger DM from an old and dear friend who for years had worked in public relations for several Atlantic City casinos and was now part of the Isle marketing team.
An offer he couldn’t refuse
She somehow remembered my passion for poker and asked if I’d be interested in playing in—and then writing about--one of the 15 separate contests that comprised this year’s WSOP Circuit Event hosted by her casino.
The deal, she explained, would be that Isle would stake my ($400) buy-in for the No-Limit Hold ‘em Monster Stack tourney as well as provide a four-night stay in Pompano Beach. The casino—which is in the process of being re-branded as Harrah’s, doesn’t have a hotel, but one is part of a planned expansion project for which it has partnered with the Cordish Companies, whose holdings include Live! Casino Hotel Philadelphia and Xfinity Live! on the site of what once housed Philadelphia’s legendary Spectrum arena.
Not that being off-property was a hardship: My wife and I wound up bivouacking at the oceanfront Ft. Lauderdale Marriott Pompano Beach Resort & Spa, a first-class, centrally located property about a 15-minute drive from the casino.
Anyway, it took me about .07 seconds to respond in the affirmative, and on a mid-October Monday, there I was, ready, willing and, hopefully, able to exorcise the demons that have tormented me since that awful day at Harrah’s so many years ago.
Ultimately, the field for the tourney would include 791 entries (re-buys were permitted, so there were more entries than actual participants) vying for a first-place prize of $45,653 (in all, $316,400 was split among the top 117 finishers). The winner would also score a commemorative ring plus a seat at next year’s WSOP Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas—which can only be entered by winning one of the sanctioned Circuit Event contests Caesars Entertainment stages at a number of its properties throughout the year.
Achieving all that was certainly a worthy goal, but really, all that mattered was making it to at least the second hand of the tournament.
The challenge begins
I arrived at the casino (which began life as the Pompano Park horse track) early enough to grab a bite, knowing that, save for a couple 10-minute bathroom breaks, the contest’s single extended timeout was the 6 p.m. dinner break.
My meal completed, I made my way to the impressive, spacious poker room that occupies what, at one time, was part of the racing grandstand, and which is located a level above the main casino floor. I registered with ease, found my seat and mentally prepared myself for what I hoped would be as much as 13 hours of poker ahead.
Because it was a “Monster Stack” tourney, all players began with chips worth a total of 30,000 units. At noon sharp, the cards were “in the air.”
My first two-card hand consisted of the Ace of hearts and 4 of diamonds. Not a particularly strong starting hand, but it only cost me the minimum 200 units to “limp in” and see the flop. An ace was among the three cards the dealer placed in the center of the table, but when a bet was made by a player acting before me, I assumed he too had an ace—plus a “kicker” that was higher than my 4. So I folded my hand.
While that signaled surrender to the other nine players at the table, to me it represented the triumph I had sought—I was going to play beyond the first hand! And play I did.
Beating the odds
It took me but six more hands to rake my first pot: I held 5D-7D and two 7s came on the flop. Truth is, I would have won the fourth hand: I had 7h-8h (a fairly strong starting hand), but I got scared off by a pre-flop raise to 500. Three hearts subsequently flopped, which would have given me a flush that would have beaten what turned out to be the winning hand.
That first hit began what was a pretty good, if short-lived, run for me. For the next round-and-and-half or so, I was never below my initial 30,000 chips thanks, in part, to being dealt pocket aces no less than three times in the first four rounds—or 38 hands (even better, all three hands were winners). This was definitely a statistical anomaly as mathematical calculation has determined that, on average, a player should expect to be dealt a pair of bullets once every 221 hands.
An amusing sideshow
As it turned out, my early, decent run wasn’t my only source of entertainment: After just a hand or three, the older woman sitting to my immediate left and the middle-aged man sitting on her left got into a verbal throw down. It started when the guy jokingly made a mild, but still disparaging—and inappropriate--remark about how she played a hand. She responded by calling him “disgusting,” to which he replied, “I’m gonna be disgusting all day.”
Before the end of the first 30-minute round, she had left the table, (after he described her as “bitter”) presumably to lodge a formal complaint after she accused him of deliberately pushing his chair into her. But she never returned and her chips were ultimately “blinded off” (that is, even though she wasn’t sitting at the table, the dealer was still required to put up the two “blinds”—or forced bets—whenever her turn to do so occurred.
A change of fortune
My early “heater” took little time to cool. In the middle of the second round, Lady Luck obviously left my side. As I like to say, my cards were so bad, even the backs didn’t match. Every hand came in along the lines of queen-6, 7-2 and jack-4 (never of the same suit). By the beginning of the fourth round, I had begun to suspect that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed an executive order prohibiting me from ever again seeing an ace on the deal.
My frustration grew, but, thankfully, I was in a good enough financial position to minimize the damage of paying the blinds but not being able to see a flop for an extended period of time.
But it turned out I was wrong about the governor: On the second hand of the fourth round, my third pair of aces showed up and I was back on track.
Making good decisions
At its essence, all poker comes down to two essential elements. One, the random turn of the cards, is beyond human control. But the other—making correct decisions—is totally autonomous. The more correct decisions a player makes, the more the chance of success. That’s why despite the role of pure luck, poker is considered a game of skill rather than a game of chance. And on this day, my decision-making was impeccable (until, of course, it wasn’t, but we’ll get to that later).
Perhaps the best example of this was the first hand of the eighth round when I was dealt the two black queens. Obviously, a pair of “ladies” is the third-best starting hand, and pre-flop, it is expected to win the pot 80 percent of the time (naturally, the appearance of an ace and/or king on the flop, turn or river greatly diminishes those odds).
At this point, the blinds were 600-1,200. The player “under-the-gun” (that is, the first to act after the cards are dealt) announced a raise to 2,500. The next three players folded, then, a young woman sitting on my right raised to 8,000.
Normally, I would have called—and maybe even re-raised--her bet. But she had been pretty quiet since she sat down at the table a few rounds earlier, and such a big play from her made it relatively easy to give up the queens.
It turned out I was right—but I was also wrong. I figured she had either kings or aces, but she had ace-king off-suit; the guy who made the initial raise was the one with the two aces. Because at that point, he had more chips than I, had I played the queens I likely would have been eliminated. But making that lay down kept me alive.
The end of the line
Thanks to my run of good decision-making, I had kept my head above water chip-wise throughout the first nine rounds. However, I was never able to make a huge score and amass a huge pile of chips (the biggest pot I dragged was 40,500—almost half of which was mine to begin with. But I was comfortable at my table, and began to allow myself to fantasize about making a deep run. But, as usual, the poker gods had other ideas.
As time wore on and more players were eliminated, tables were condensed (e.g. three players left at one table were moved to others, or tables were broken up and those at them were assigned new seats). Before the second hand of the 10th round, those at my table were dispatched to others.
At this point, I found myself a little underwater with 27,500 in chips. With the big blinds and mandatory ante by those on the big blind at 1,000-2,000-2,000, it was time to go big or go home.
My first hand at the new table was, in poker parlance, “paregoric” (nine of hearts/three of spades). The next hand started out with far more promise: ace of diamonds/10 of clubs. A 10 came on the flop. I went all-in and for the first time all day, I had doubled my chip count on a single hand.
Alas, my joy was temporary, to say the least. After sitting out the third hand with more garbage, I was dealt the ace of clubs and jack of clubs on the fourth hand. I raised the 2,000 minimum bet to 5,000. Without hesitation, the young man on my immediate left, who had considerably more chips than I, went all-in. And that’s when my decision-making instincts and thought processes took a powder.
I figured at best, he either had ace-queen, ace-king or a medium pair (7s or 8s, perhaps). The thought that he had nothing of value and was just trying to bully me out of the hand also made a quick appearance. Any of the first three hands would have put me at a serious disadvantage, but I certainly had the potential to make a big hand. So, I called for all of my 55,000 chips.
The kid turned over pocket aces. At this point I was probably no better than a 4-1 underdog, but it wasn’t completely hopeless. I could win should two jacks, three clubs, or a 10-queen-king combo hit the board. Alas, nothing of the sort happened; the five cards (none of which was a club) improved my hand not at all, and after more than five-and-a-half hours of mostly well-played poker, I was toast.
I at least got a slight chuckle out of being 86ed on the fourth hand of the 10th round—as in 10-4, as in “over and out.”
Although disappointed I didn’t go deeper in the tourney, I held my head high as I left the poker room. After all, I had lasted longer than a single hand—my main goal—and went deeper than I had any reason to expect. In addition, I think I played at a fairly high level through a total of 104 hands and, perhaps most satisfying of all, when I was eliminated, it was a matter of the random deal of the cards; I was not outplayed.
On top of that, I found the tournament to be extremely well-run in a welcoming and comfortable space, which made the experience a lot of fun. And yes, I do see myself playing in other WSOP Circuit Event down the road: I can’t wait to write a sequel to this article, one with a much happier ending!