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Life on the Bubble

It is a genuine privilege for me to now be a columnist for Card Player . Throughout my 10 years as a professional poker player, and several years prior to that as a serious semipro, I have read Card Player religiously. In fact, I probably have gained more poker knowledge from the pages of this magazine over the years than from any other single source. In my columns, I will be addressing a host of issues, including live-game strategies, tournament play, being a professional poker player, and topics pertaining to the poker industry as a whole.

 

A recent trip to attend the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure , a World Poker Tour event held at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, gave me the subject matter for this my first column.

 

A total of 461 players entered this event, in which 80 places were paid, with first place being a tidy sum of $890,000, and 80th spot, $11,600; 81st place, “the bubble,” paid zip. As we neared the money, play in the tournament tightened up considerably. This is typical of major events, in which many of the participants try desperately to avoid elimination. Going out on the bubble is one of the worst feelings in poker, and the large number of players with short stacks were playing squeaky tight.

 

Armed with this knowledge, several of the players with big stacks were wielding their chips as a weapon. These bullies recognized what was happening, and used their dominant position to pick on the short stacks, who were desperate for survival. Consequently, many big stacks got significantly bigger with relatively little risk, and the short stacks eroded even more.

 

I found myself in the position of being a short stack, too. After starting the day with only $4,500, I had increased my chip position to $30,000. However, the cards had run cold the previous couple of hours, and I found myself very short as we approached the bubble, although I wasn’t in danger of anteing myself broke. My strategy was to play to give myself a chance to win the tournament, which meant that if I found a good hand, I would play it, even if it meant risking elimination just short of the money. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to find a reasonable hand, so I had to just sit back and watch.

 

A couple of tim es, I would’ve liked trading cards with my neighbor, who clearly wanted to make the money. I watched as he folded J-J in late position in an unopened pot, and then he later folded Q-Q after an extremely aggressive player had opened with a late-position raise. By doing so, I believed he was a lock to make $11,600, but was forfeiting his claim to $890,000 in the process.

 

With 81 players left, it wasn’t a short stack who “took one for the team,” but a young player at my table with a healthy stack of chips. I hadn’t played with this guy before, but since he had moved to my table a couple hours earlier, I had been impressed with his style; he seemed to play at a good speed, was neither too loose nor too tight, and was willing to make moves or big calls when he thought the tim e was right. In short, he trusted his instincts, and was playing good poker.

 

In the key pot, Alex Brenes raised from the button. Alex is a very aggressive and very tough no-limit hold’em player from Costa Rica , and he had amassed an impressive stack of chips. After the small blind folded, the good young player in the big blind fired in a reraise with A-J. While A-J isn’t exactly a powerhouse, it figured to be by far the best hand in this situation. After only a brief deliberation, Alex reraised all in. The big blind thought for a bit, and then called with his A-J. Alex had him covered, so if he lost this pot, he would finish 81st. He wouldn’t leave with any money, but he would make some new friends.

 

When the Pkv Poker hands were turned up, the spectators couldn’t believe what they saw: A-J for the young player in the big blind, and K-9 offsuit for Alex. Many of these incredulous onlookers were the same folks who had been folding A-K and Q-Q for the previous hour or so, trying to lock up a profit. Naturally, the K-9 won the pot, and we were in the money.

 

I haven’t played with the man on the bubble since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised to turn on the television some tim e in the near future and see him at the final table of a major tournament. He didn’t play to win $11,600; he was clearly playing to win the tournament. He didn’t make the call with A-J because he thought it was such a great hand, as 99 tim es out of 100, A-J would be the worst hand when all the money goes in between two big stacks in a tournament. He earned my respect for recognizing that this was the one tim e when it was good, and then acting confidently on his read.

 

As play continued, a spirited debate was waged at the table about whether or not he made the correct play. Most of the players believed he was mistaken to risk his entire tournament with this hand, especially in light of the fact that he would finish out of the money if he lost. They argued that even though his A-J was the best hand before the flop, he was only about a 3-to-2 favorite over K-9. Perhaps this was an example of a tim e in which it would be correct to fold the best hand. While I saw their point, I believed that his play dramatically increased his chances of winning the tournament, and that’s ul tim ately why we play these little exercises in torture. What do you think?

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