During this spring 2006 quest to capture a seat for the Foxwoods Poker Classic $10,000 main event, I had already played in four Act III satellites (Foxwoods' version of a super satellite), twice coming very close. Although I still had to qualify, I felt I had played relatively well, but just had not sealed the deal.
As I headed back down into the deep woods of southeastern Connecticut, I realized that this was my last opportunity to qualify for the tournament. Before this spring, I had played in the last three Foxwoods main events. It would be a shame to miss this tournament at what I consider my "home" casino.
While I was registering, one of the Foxwoods' floormen nicknamed Bobo welcomed me from behind the desk. For tonight's satellite, we had 98 players competing for nine seats and seven buy-ins, with the top 17 places taking cash. If two more people would have registered, there would have been an even 100 players, resulting in exactly 10 seats to the main event.
"How are you feeling tonight, Bernard?" inquired Bobo.
"Actually, Bobo. I'm feeling unusually nervous. Tonight is my last chance to qualify."
"Don't worry, Bernard. This is your day. I can feel it."
Let's hope so.
Well, it sure did not start out that way. After not playing a single hand during the first round, the second round (blinds 50 and 100) started with me looking down at J-J in early position. After raising to 400, a solid player sitting directly to my left called me. After everyone else folded, including the blinds, the heads-up flop brought Qh-9h-5c. Wanting to eliminate a potential flush draw and testing to see if he had a queen, I decided to bet the pot for 950 chips. After a slight deliberation, the player next to me declared a raise. After counting his chips, he pushed in 2,500. I knew he had me beat, but not with just a queen. Knowing he did not have a set of queens because he would have reraised preflop, he must have had a set of 9s or 5s. "I fold," as I showed him my jacks. "Nice laydown," he stated as he confirmed my read by showing me his 5-5.
Shortly thereafter, I faced another dilemma. After taking a bad beat, one of the short stacks decided to push all-in with his remaining 825 chips. The next player, who seemed fairly inexperienced, decided just to call the bet. As I looked down to see Ah-Jh, I decided that when it came to me that I was going all-in. This play would squeeze the middle guy out of the hand, allowing me to go heads-up with the potentially steaming short stack. However, before I could execute my plan, the player to my immediate right pushes all-in. During the early going, this player had been a chatter box, revealing that he did not know the intricacies of the game. Although he was clearly not a sophisticated player, how could I call this hand? After some deliberation, I folded my hand and watched my plan be stolen by this talkative player. After the short stack flipped over 8-8 (a better hand than I thought he had), the raiser flipped over J-10. What?! Well, let's hope that he saved me from losing a lot of chips. Anxiously awaiting the flop, I watched as the dealer revealed A-J-6. Ugh! Biting my tongue, I watched a harmless turn (4) and river (5) complete my agony. Those chips could have definitely helped my cause.
When we began the third round (blinds 100 and 200), we received some good news -- there were two last-second registrants. These additions made the field 100 players, resulting in exactly 10 seats to the main event. However, this good fortune did not initially translate into better luck for me. As another short-stacked player decided to go all-in, I coincidentally saw A-J again. This time, I pushed all-in and, of course, the short stack had me dominated with A-K. After losing this hand, I was down to 925 chips and clinging to hope to qualify for the main event.
The other players definitely thought I was steaming after this run of bad luck. So when I looked down to see A-A on the very next hand, I decided to play the part. After tossing my remaining chips in the middle, everyone folded to the big blind. After looking at his cards, he blurted out a laugh, yet still contemplated a call.
"I know you have nothing, but I have nothing to call you with," the big blind exasperated as he flipped over 9-4. Shaking my head, I turned over my aces and the big blind breathed a sigh of relief. Great. Now I get cards, but can't get callers. However, although this hand did not bring me a stack of desperately needed chips, it did seem to rejuvenate my cards.
With my luck seemingly reversed, I won a few hands in Rounds 4 and 5 to gradually build my chip stack to about 2,000. In Round 6 (blinds 200 and 400, antes 50), I completed a rare trifecta that allowed me to get back in the tournament. I was dealt A-Q, A-Q, A-K back-to-back-to-back. Unbelievable. Although I pushed all-in each time, I did not have one caller (also unbelievable). Nevertheless, I did pick up 1,100 chips per hand. At the end of Round 5, we dispersed for our first break. With approximately 60 players still remaining, I held approximately 4,200 chips stacked in front of my kids' picture. With the average stack at 6,700, I had plenty of catching up to do, but at least I was no longer on life support.
When play resumed, I hoped to make up some ground against my competitors. However, the poker gods decided to test my patience. I barely saw one, forget two, cards that were playable. Thankfully, I was able to pick up a few blinds and antes during the next couple of rounds just to remain near the 4,000 chip threshold. As the blinds and antes increased, I realized that my chances of survival were once again diminishing.
During Round 9 (blinds 600 and 1,200, antes 150), my cards began to warm up again. I took three hands uncontested with 3-3 (from the big blind), As-4s (on the button), and Kc-Tc (from late position). I managed to build my chip stack to almost 9,000 chips. With 30 players remaining, I felt a glimmer of hope, but also kept in mind that there was still a long way to go.
Before we returned from our next break, many of the players, including myself, began surveying the tables to see how many short stacks remained. As Round 10 (blinds 600 and 1,200, antes 200) got underway, five players clung to their tournament lives with less than 5,000 chips. Some players did not even have enough chips to go one full cycle around the table. We knew their inevitable elimination would continue to thin the field. Fortunately, I won a couple of blinds and antes and increased my chip stack once again to 13,500. Midway through Round 11 (blinds 1,000 and 2,000, antes 300), the most pivotal hand of my tournament occurred. Sitting in the big blind, I looked down to see 4-4. As a player in late position decided to raise my big blind to 5,000, I quickly looked at his chip stack and realized that he had slightly more than I did. Having played against this player multiple times, we had built a mutual respect for each other's play. Of course, if he lost the hand, he still would be alive in the tournament, but severely crippled. With only 23 players remaining, he would still have enough chips to do battle if he folded. As the players in between us all mucked their cards, I deduced that unless he had kings or aces or possibly A-K, he would be willing to lay down his hand in order to not be eliminated this late in the tournament. Besides, he may be just trying to steal the blinds and antes from late position. Therefore, I declared, "I'm all-in." As I pushed my remaining chips slowly into the pot, he immediately went into the think tank. Uh, oh! Maybe he really does have a hand or he just wants to put on an act to cover up his steal attempt. Either way, let's just hope he lays down his hand. Sitting motionless, I awaited this game-changing decision. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally folded declaring, "I believe you. Nice bet." He stated that he mucked two jacks (his bottom card was a jack as he mucked his hand). Thank goodness my read was correct or else I would have been a 19 to 81 underdog going into the flop. As we ended Round 11, this critical hand brought my chip count to 21,300 with only 20 players remaining.
For the first time in the tournament, I was slightly above the average chip stack. As long as the cards continued to go my way, I just might be able to win a seat. However, I soon learned that getting ahead of myself would upset the poker gods, and my roller coaster ride continued. In the next round, I did not play a single hand. I watched my chip stack dwindle back down to 11,000 chips. With 17 players remaining, it was a horrible time for my cards to freeze up. I had been this close twice before. I desperately did not want to fall short once again. To make matters worse, during the next round (Round 13 with blinds 2,000 and 4,000, antes 500), it would take exactly 11,000 chips just to make it around one cycle. Thankfully, the roller coaster ride took a fortuitous upturn just before Round 12 ended. I quickly "stole" a couple of critical blinds and antes with K-J and J-T, building my chip stack back to 21,500. Amazingly, in these few minutes, five additional players (including a double knockout) were sent to the rail, leaving us with only 12 remaining players heading into Round 13.
After player No. 12 went fairly quietly (I actually did not realize it for a few minutes), the next player eliminated would be bestowed the dubious "bubble boy" honor. Consequently, most players decided to go into hibernation. For the next 10 minutes, our table did not see a single flop. However, one player was quickly becoming the table's target, since his chip stack was dangerous low. Finally, as he sat in the big blind, everyone had him directly in their crosshairs. After posting 4,000 chips, he had only 1,000 chips remaining. Immediately, two players bet 8,000 to put him all-in. As the small blind, I looked down to see 10-4. I even contemplated calling to gang up on the big blind. However, after the player to my right called the bet, I decided to fold just in case the short stack won. They headed to the flop, three versus one. Accidentally, the big blind revealed his hand of K-3; however, this was fairly inconsequential as his three opponents were almost certainly going to check down the bets. As the dealer counted out three cards, I internally chanted, "No king! No king!" It came down Q-9-4. The turn brought a 10 and the river a 2. Knowing the big blind did not connect, we just needed one of the players to turn over a pair, an ace or at least another king with a better kicker. Unfortunately, the first two players both mucked their hands. Fears of second-guessing myself began running through my mind, since my pair of fours would have won. However, the player to my right revealed an ace, ending the tournament and my potential nightmares.
Although I was elated, I sincerely felt bad for the "bubble boy." I had been there before, most recently a few weeks ago. I shook his hand and reassured him that he had played very well. As others came over to offer him condolences, I walked away from the table to let out a little scream of relief. It definitely was a huge burden off my shoulders to get my seat after such a roller coaster satellite ride. As I turned back around, one of the guys proclaimed (with some humor and light-hearted sarcasm), "There is Bernard Lee. Never one to hold back emotion." He was definitely right. I felt extremely happy to have won my seat on my last attempt. I collected my seat ticket and congratulated everyone. See you guys at the main event, where it counts for real.
Epilogue: 2006 Foxwoods Poker Classic main event:
On the actual day of the main event, I felt thoroughly prepared. Having gotten significant sleep the few nights before the event (thanks to my ever-understanding wife, who helped to take care of our two young kids) and exercising regularly before the event, I went into the main event refreshed and prepared both mentally and physically. I arrived about an hour early, reviewed some tournament notes and stretched a bit. After finding my seat, I began listening to my iPod to "pump" myself up for the tournament. Suddenly, I was approached by CardPlayer.com to do a quick interview about the tournament. Afterward, I saw some old friends/competitors and wished them all good luck, just as the announcer asked all players to take their seats.
After kissing the picture of my kids and my wife, the cards were in the air and we were underway. For me, the tournament started out well. Starting with 20,000 chips, I got A-A on my second hand. Although I was frozen after a flush and two pair hit the board on the river, I was still able to win a relatively decent pot. Later in the round, I caught trips on the turn (and an unnecessary full house on the river) to win another significant pot to end Round 1 with over 25,000 chips.
During Round 2, my day rolled downhill quickly. First, Hoyt Corkins caught me bluffing at a sizeable pot. He made a great call on the river (that's why he's Hoyt). Then I proceeded to miss two flush draws (including a straight flush draw), a straight draw. My day came to an abrupt end when my Kh-Kd was run down by a runner-runner club four flush. This was my earliest exit from a main event tournament since the 2005 WSOP. Heck, this was my earliest exit ever! Well, that's tournament poker. On my poker journey, there will be many more satellites and many more main events to play. Let's drive on to try qualifying for my next main event: the 2006 WSOP.
Bernard Lee finished 13th in the 2005 World Series of Poker and is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald.