Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Foxwoods Trip Report
My November 2005 article originally published on pokerschoolonline.com
There used to be several places that I could go where I never wanted to sleep once I arrived. At this stage in my life, however, there are only two: Fenway Park and Foxwoods Resort Casino. Please allow me to start off my World Poker Finals trip report by introducing you to Foxwoods.
Foxwoods was founded in 1986 as a High Stakes Bingo Parlor on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation in Ledyard, Connecticut. Today Foxwoods comprises six casinos that collectively offer more than 7,400 slot machines and an incredible 388 tables for 17 different types of table games, including 76 for poker. During poker tournaments, the tables spill over into three areas outside of the main poker room. These are known as the Skylight Satellite Parlor, the so-called Middle Area, and the Sunrise Ballroom. I will be referring to these playing locations during this report. Of course, Foxwoods has a website. Go here to look around. The rest of the trip report will be waiting when you return…
Coming to Foxwoods is, for me, like returning home. I started coming here soon after it opened. During a five-year period in the early nineties, I often visited three times per week to play blackjack. I have seen concerts by Frank Sinatra, Cyndi Lauper, Kenny G, Yanni, and Tom Jones and have played in more than a dozen major chess tournaments here. In 1998 I literally lived in the Two Trees Inn for six consecutive weeks while recovering from a stroke. Somehow I convinced myself that marathon blackjack sessions would accelerate my rehab. I was ahead $11,000 after the first two weeks but eventually lost it all plus another $1,800 as well as the 3,000 Wampum points I had accumulated over the course of ten years. As much as I enjoy this place, the truth is that if I had never come here my body would be 40 pounds lighter and my bankroll at least that much heavier.
I walked through the poker room at Foxwoods for the first time in April 1999. My opponent in the last round of a chess tournament was a friendly guy from Rhode Island by the name of Richard Duscza. Richard was a good chess player but had recently started playing poker for a living. He recounted the poker successes of some mutual chess friends including 1995 World Champion Dan Harrington and Howard Lederer, among others, and suggested that as an experienced chess player that I would have a much bigger advantage at the poker tables than would ever be possible at blackjack. I was already ‘retired’ from blackjack but filed the information away in the back of my mind for future reference.
I agreed to meet Richard at Foxwoods one Saturday afternoon to try my hand at poker. He was already at a table when I arrived so I went to the sign up desk and learned there was an hour or more wait for a table in all games except something called 5/10 Omaha. I wandered over to one of the Omaha tables, observed a few hands, shook my head, and went away. I had no clue! After that, I walked through the poker room at Foxwoods a dozen times without ever taking a seat. I found the waiting lists to be quite daunting. Four years later, I finally got hooked on poker.
I moved to East Hampton, Connecticut on Thanksgiving weekend 2003, the same weekend I joined Poker School Online, and remained there for a year while beginning to work on a book of inspirational stories about people who have touched my life. During that time I became a ‘regular’ in the Foxwoods poker room. Last fall I went to Foxwoods one day hoping interview Dan Harrington for my book, in order to pay tribute to his inspirational life story. He was there for the Professional Poker Tour event and made the final table. Although he didn’t have much time to talk, he encouraged me to play in the Senior event where I surprised myself by finishing in the money. I was eliminated in a hand with Men 'the master' Nguyen when I was ahead until...oh, you know (no bad beat stories from this guy). Anyway, Men the master went on to win $48,000 in the event. I was able, in the process, to sit next to him for nearly five hours and observe his tactics and demeanor. It was then that I knew for sure that this game was far more skill than luck!
Encouraged by successfully building a poker bankroll at Foxwoods, I spent the entire month of December 2004 in Tunica, Mississippi. There I played poker 4-8 hours per day including at least three live tournaments per week while waiting for the PSO convention to begin. I won my first live poker tournament ($1,441) at the Grand Casino on the Friday night before Christmas. Unfortunately, I slipped on some ice and dislocated my shoulder on New Year's Eve and had to return home to Connecticut. I moved soon thereafter to New York. I missed the PSO convention and have not been back to Tunica, or to Foxwoods, until this trip.
I arrived this past weekend to find the long waiting lists that pushed me away in the first place. Rumor has it that 64 additional poker tables will be added once this tournament is over. Some players are wondering if that will be enough. Last year at this time there were two live no limit hold’em tables; a $100 maximum buy-in $1/$2 blinds and a $200 minimum buy-in with $5/$5 blinds. I have played in both without much success. This weekend there were ten (!) no limit live games going. Some of the tables had a lot of money on them. One player visiting from Brooklyn lost $35,000 in real money in one hand when his pocket sevens hit a flop of 797. The turn card was an ace. He was pushed all in by the biggest stack at the table, one of the Foxwoods regulars, making the pot more than $70,000. The river was another nine resulting in quads over quads. Ugh. What a long drive back to Brooklyn he must’ve had!
Foxwoods has a large contingent of professional players. Some of them, including Greg ‘Fossilman’ Raymer, are very skilled at poker. The standing joke in the Foxwoods poker room concerns Fossilman. “Greg may be the best player in the world right now”, they say, “but he is only one of the top five at Foxwoods.” The others on that list include names like Mike Gammerman, Mike Salem, and “Spiro the Greek”. Many players think theirs is the ‘other’ name so there is no consensus on the complete list. That’s what makes the discussion fun. A quick perusal of the results on Sharla’s blogs on PokerPages will provide confirming evidence to support the names mentioned. In any case, the Foxwoods poker room is a very tough place. At least four players claim to earn over $200,000 per year in the Foxwoods cash games. Other regulars with whom I talked said there are probably more who won’t admit it. I believe it.
On Tuesday, we scheduled our initial PSO gathering in the foyer outside of the Sunrise Ballroom. This is the room used as the main venue for the tournaments and satellites. I left a voice mail message for KRVJ (Noel) and was joined initially by Bluechip (Ward). Runner_836 (Ron) and Blackchipguy (Dave) were en route from NY and arrived later than the others. Sharla was handling the final table action for PokerPages and said she would try to join with us for a short while if possible. As it turned out, nobody was hungry and the drinks were free in the foyer so we just stayed there and chatted for a couple of hours. Ward is a retired airline pilot who honed his poker skills playing in Las Vegas on many stopovers during his career.
We traded stories until Ward and I decided to play together in a satellite ($100 + $15) with $1,000 cash prize for first place. I busted in 5th place after moving in from the small blind with pocket fours. The button player raised with AJ and I anticipated a heads-up race when Walt called from the big blind with pocket sevens making it a three way pot. Ward’s hand held up and he went on to chop the prize money with one other player, thus earning his entry fee into Wednesday’s PSO live tour event.
It had been my intention to skip the PSO live tour event in order to be free to serve as volunteer ‘Team Leader’. When it became clear that the PSO contingent would probably be small I spoke to Sharla and she recommended that I play. With only 10 or 15 players competing for 250 sponsorship points as well as a seat in a freeroll for an additional $50,000, I decided that my equity in the generous PSO stakes was too much to pass up. So I changed my mind. Or so I thought.
The tournament was scheduled to begin at 10 AM on Wednesday with 110 tables for a total of 1,100 players, easily surpassing last year's record 893 players in this event. At 8:30 AM I showed up at the tournament desk and got in line. It was a long line but I figured that I had a half hour before I needed to get downstairs to start signing in PSO members. Before long one of the registration clerks announced that we were at 1,089 entrants and the cut-off was 1,100. A few people were in the midst of registration so it wasn’t clear who in line would get in. Based on my count there seemed like 14 players ahead of me. I was about to leave the line when the two in front of me made the same observation and left. Then an announcement was made that there may be alternates. Neither the computer nor the playing rooms were set up to handle 11 players at a table as was done last year. So, thankfully, that wasn’t an option. I decided to stay in line figuring that if I received an alternate slip I would hold it for another PSO member who may have arrived too late to get in. Little did I realize that the alternate slips would quickly have cash value!
The 1,100th registrant was the person standing immediately in front of me in line. As she walked up to the desk we were told, “entries are now closed”. Then I heard the clerk say, “Sorry but credit cards cannot be used; only cash. Next!” I was released from the bubble and joined the tournament. At 8:55 AM tournament director Mike Ward began handing out numbered 'alternate slips'. A total of 297 alternate slips were passed out. Prior to the start of play the announcement was made that alternates would be added for the first 50-minute round ONLY. Anyone who didn't get in prior to the start of Round 2 would not be permitted to play. Suddenly, a black market for low numbered alternate slips developed and one of them reportedly changed hands for $300!
Once the final entrant was seated at 10:49 AM, another announcement was made that a new world record for a $500 buy-in poker tournament had been set: 1,245 players. The total prize fund of $624,500 ($2,000 was added by the Casino) and the first place prize of $160,809 are also records for a $500 buy-in event. 152 disappointed poker players were turned away without a seat.
Despite the masses, only ten PSO members made the trip to Foxwoods for this tournament. I received e-mails from two players saying that the mid-week start made it impossible to get off from work. Others mentioned the high buy-in ($565) combined with the gas and hotel costs making it financially difficult. One other member (who asked to remain anonymous) was there playing in satellites and announced that he would enter only if he could win his buy-in. He was unsuccessful.
As the cards got in the air, the startling realization that there were only 1,500 starting chips began to sink in among the players. This was the only way, the officials figured, that a tournament of this size could be substantially completed in one day. It resulted in what could be best described as a ‘crap shoot’. The best strategy, it seemed, would be to play aggressively early and either accumulate chips or go home. This put many players, including KRVJ and myself, outside of our comfort zones. The maniacs around us were in their glory.
Four players were busted on the first hand of the tournament. Two of them had pocket aces cracked. Both runner_836 and KRVJ hit sets on the second hand. Ron’s pocket deuces made a full house when two sixes hit the board allowing his chip stack to quickly increase to 2,800. Noel, on the other hand, got no action to go with his set. I didn’t play a hand for the first two orbits but realized that I had to make some moves, with or without cards, or I would go down in flames without a fight. I won six hands without having to show my cards. Near the end of the second hour I was dealt Ac Kc and was able to get action from a player holding Ah Jc on the button. The flop came Kd 8h 6h. I led out and was called. The turn was Ad. I bet half pot and he raised me all in. I called. The river was 8s pushing my stack to 4,700. After that, I coasted until the first break.
All of the players were very cooperative in terms of checking with me at the breaks, showing the PSO ‘colors’, and sharing the details of their key hands (whether painful to recount or not). At the end of the first break (two hours), there were 87 tables remaining and nine of the ten PSO players were still alive (with the following stacks):
ChessSafari (Frank) - 4,100
Bluechip (Ward) - 3,600
Seanoo (Sean) - 2,500
Runner_836 (Ron) - 2,100
Espozuno (Frank “the force”) - 2,000
RedChrome (Rich) - 1,525
Blackchipguy (Dave) -1,100
KRVJ (Noel) - 800
Alykat (Lenny) - 800
Dragon8432 (Bill) – Out
I’d like to say I was crippled by a bad beat. But that would be a lie. Late in the third round I made a terrible blunder and crippled myself. Just as Lenny came by my table to tell me he was out, I was dealt pocket nines in the small blind. UTG player who had been playing loose aggressive poker and accumulating chips limped into the pot first to act. Everyone folded to me and I raised three times the big blind. The big blind folded and UTG called. I knew he was going to call so, in retrospect, I should have limped in and taken a cheap flop along with him and the big blind. The flop was a king and two rags. I bet and he called. The turn was a ten. I checked, feeling I would release if he bet since I missed my set. But he checked. I read this as weakness rather than a trap. The river was another ten. At this point I made a big mistake. This was one of those situations that if I bet I would only be called if beaten. On the other hand, if I checked he could bluff me off the pot by betting. The bottom line is that I was out of position and made a costly mistake. I bet 800 (a third of my remaining stack) into a pot of 1,800. He called and showed his top pair. I fell for the trap. My pre-flop raise, my bet on the flop, and the failed move on the river were all mistakes. Now I had to hunker down.
Lenny was eliminated without winning a pot, a victim of the low starting chips. His pocket jacks lost to aces. His rockets were cracked by a flush on the river. Finally, he succumbed when he was dealt 73 in the big blind and moved in with his last $700 when the flop came 745. He was called by AQ and went out when an ugly ace hit the board. This was his first live tournament and, while he wished he lasted longer, was pleased with the way he played.
Meanwhile, Noel was card dead and had to watch helplessly as his chip stack dwindled. With chips left for less than two orbits he moved all in first to act with AT and lost to JJ. He was disappointed because he was expecting a lot more of himself and promptly started the 16-hour drive back to Chicago. The low starting chips, the “cut throat” atmosphere and the long waits for cash games made the trip “not fun”. The only real positives, he remarked, were the brief cash game he managed to get into in the main poker room and meeting his PSO friends.
Blackchipguy and RedChrome were eliminated soon thereafter. Both took tough beats. Once again, the small starting chip stacks made it difficult to recover from any kind of setback. Espozuno was short stacked after two rough hands (KK lost to QQ and AA lost to AKs) and had little remaining ammunition to survive.
The key hand of the tournament came for Ron (runner_836) during the fourth hour when his stack dwindled to 1,375 chips. He had been playing patiently but sensed the need to make a move soon. He was dealt QQ and pushed his remaining chips in the middle and was called by the big stack with AT and another player with pocket tens. The flop came Q and two rags followed by a Jack on the turn and another Jack on the river allowing him to triple up in the nick of time.
My day came to an end when I was dealt AT on the button and called a middle position player who moved all in. Her small pocket pair won the race and I went out with 50 tables remaining. Espozuno joined me on the rail a few minutes later after another brutal bad beat. The next break came at the end of the fourth hour. We were down to three PSO players with 47 tables remaining:
Runner_836 (Ron) – 2,900 chips
Seanoo (Sean) - 2,600
Bluechip (Ward) - 1,250
Ward was playing in the Sunrise Ballroom but Sean (Middle Area) and Ron (Skylight Satellite Parlor) were still upstairs. This made it difficult to observe and I was worried that the last two PSO players might be eliminated simultaneously in two different parts of the Casino. Ward soon picked his spot and moved in with Ah Qh. Two players called and they checked it down as the board showed 2c Jh 3c 5h, giving him straight and flush draws with a card to come. The river was the Qd making top pair. Another player turned over Ac Qs resulting in a chop. A few hands later he hit a straight on the river but the same card gave his opponent a flush and his tournament was over.
Ron and Sean worked hard to pick up pots where they could and survive to the end of the next break. After 6 hours there were 28 tables left and two PSO survivors. Ron had 4,900 chips and Sean 2,900. The average stack size was close to 6,000 chips so both were starting to feel pressure.
After another hour of patiently waiting for a decent hand, Sean was dealt 44 in the big blind. AQ raised FTA and was re-raised by AK. He called for his last 1,700 chips assuming correctly that two hands in play contained dueling aces. The board came 6Q6AK. Runner_836 became the sole PSO survivor.
Ron started to get some good hands as the tournament entered its eighth hour. His patience was rewarded and his stack climbed to 17,000 chips by the 6:30 PM dinner break. At this point there were 140 players left and Ron was determined to last at least to the money (top 100). Since 60th through 100th places all paid the same, his strategy was to become more aggressive once he hit the money and try to accumulate chips for the finish. He made the prize money with 11,000 chips remaining despite not having a hand better than QQ the whole tournament.
Midway into hour number twelve, with 8 tables remaining, Ron’s stack in relation to the escalating blinds and antes became a concern. He could no longer be patient. With 8,200 chips remaining and blinds of 800/1600 with 200 antes, he had less than two orbits remaining. He was in the dreaded ‘Red Zone’. He made a conscious decision to settle for any pair or any ace as first to act. He moved in with A7 two off the button and the big blind woke up with pocket queens. An ace and a seven came on the flop bringing a moment of excitement. A Queen came on the turn like a dagger.
Ron played for nearly 12 hours and placed ahead of 1,171 other players. His official prize money of $936 was a nice addition to his 250 PSO sponsorship points and a seat in the PSO Final where he will be competing for $50,000 in PSO sponsorship money. In addition, he won nearly $1,200 over the weekend in a super satellite where he finished one place away from a seat in the $10,000 main event.
He will be donating 10% of everything he wins at Foxwoods to his favorite charity to prevent child abuse - go to http://www.preventchildabuseny.org . He and his girlfriend, Angela, will be back at Foxwoods this coming weekend when he will enter the $1,000 buy-in event with the hope of winning more money to add to his existing donation. He claims the highlight of the trip so far has actually been his ring games where he has competed profitably in games that included two WSOP bracelet winners.
Ron would like to thank Mark and Tina and all affiliated with Poker School Online for the chance to compete in the PSO Live Tour. He is looking forward to taking his seat at the PSO Final. Congratulations to Ron, Sean, Ward and all the others who represented PSO so visibly, proudly and positively during the tournament. Even Chrome's Devil Horns and necktie were perfectly coordinated to the PSO logo colors!
There's no way to know for sure at this point, but I think we recruited a bunch of new PSO members in the process. Special thanks also to Sharla for her moral and logistical support. I don't know when she sleeps. She seemed to be in the tournament room around the clock every day this week!
Here's a link to the photos fom this event.