Glass Half Full

REFLECTING ON MY 2014 MAIN EVENT RUN

Without fail, the World Series of Poker Main Event is the one tournament that I still get a little bit nervous for, every time. Even though I was coming off of my personal WSOP summer best of seven cashes, I still couldn’t help but feel anxious and excited as I walked into the Pavilion Room to take my seat in the Main Event. Everybody wants to make the Main Event the one that counts. Eighth time’s the charm?!

DAY 1

I always have the same thoughts run through my head when I first sit down to play: who are these people, are they good, am I better? Poker is the kind of game that, no matter how well you seem to be doing at any given moment, you’ll always end up questioning your ability to excel at some point.

Mario HoAfter a few orbits the nerves subsided. I reminded myself, This is just like any other tournament. In that moment, I allowed myself to forget how much we were playing for or that this is the biggest tournament of the year. The confident professional in me kicked in. Game on.

My Main Event advice to people for the early stages is always, “Allow the other players to make the big mistakes. Don’t force the action. Try to create situations where other people will make bigger and more mistakes than you will, and be there to capitalize on it.” Slow and steady tends to be my Day 1 Main Event strategy. I practice what I preach and went from 30K (starting stack) to 50K fairly early on Day 1 when an opponent overplayed a big pair when I flopped a set. I let him make all the mistakes and kindly took 20,000 chips off his hands.

Three levels into play, I got moved to the left of a player with well over 100K chips. He (Sam) was a younger kid, which immediately raised flags. I pegged him for an online player and predicted, based on position, that we’d be getting involved. During my 2007 Main Event run this scenario might have frightened me. I might have tried to avoid him. But all 2014 Maria could think was, “I want those chips!”

Sure enough, Sam put me to the test several times in the span of a few hours and I passed every time. On the second to last hand of the night, he raised under the gun +1. Based on how I had seen him play, I opted to just call next to act behind him with kings, intent on disguising the strength of my hand in hopes that someone behind me would try to three-bet squeeze. What happened was my worst-case scenario. Four players called behind me, including the blinds. Six of us saw a flop of J 4 3 rainbow. Sam c-bet. Although it was a fairly safe flop for my hand I called, to see what would develop behind me. Everyone folded but the Big Blind. The turn was a 6, which brought a backdoor flush draw. Sam, who had us covered, put us all in and I called and the big blind folded and Sam turned over A7 for a gut shot straight draw and an over card. My 2014 Main Event would have ended very differently had Sam not bricked that river. I’ve sweated a lot of river cards in my career. Needless to say, that was one hell of a sweat!

DAY 2

I always look up my table draw the night before I play. I like to know who and what I’m up against. I had what looked to be a very easy table draw, and I had a comfortable chip stack of 73,000.

The third hand of the day I raised the river as a bluff and luckily it got through, or else it would have been a demoralizing way to start. Unfortunately, the rest of the day didn’t follow suit. I felt handcuffed and couldn’t find many spots to make anything work. I sufficed to sit back and revert to some very boring, ABC poker. I was able to grind my stack up to 100K but after a few unfortunate (but very standard) series of hands, I ultimately bagged 49,300.

DAY 3

I came into the day with less than 30 big blinds. Although I am confident playing this size stack, you obviously feel a little less comfortable and a little more concerned embarking on Day 3 of the Main with a stack of this size. But the one thing I know about poker is that you can never count yourself out, especially where the Main Event is concerned! A positive mindset was probably the most important thing I took with me into Day 3. Luckily, the cards came my way and within the first two levels I got a full double up with aces verses kings. I eventually ended the day with 182,500 chips. Now that’s what I call a spin up.

DAY 4

Although I’m never trying to “just cash” a tournament, the prospect of obtaining my eighth cash of the Series (and my third lifetime WSOP Main Event cash) was alluring.

I had a big stack as we approached the Money Bubble, which put me in prime position to play aggressively against the shorter stacks, who were merely trying to avoid elimination and squeak into the money. Not on my watch!

If you’ve never been to or seen the WSOP Main Event when the money bubble bursts everyone claps. In the past, my clapping is a monkey-see-monkey-do-type response. I clap because everyone else is clapping. It’s also a nod to all the other players who have made it this far. It’s an exciting thing to cash in the WSOP Main Event. Good for you! Good for you! But this year I noticed that my clapping came from a different place … from within. I felt a personal sense of pride; as if I was acknowledging the hard work that I myself had put in to get here … and to have gotten here three times over.

After dinner break, I was moved to the ESPN featured TV table, with a 580K chip stack. Playing at a televised feature table is an entirely different ballgame. The cameras and the hole card cameras add a new dynamic to the game and can completely change a player’s style. Players become aware that their moves, decisions and hands will be shown on TV, therefore they seem less willing to fold because they don’t want to be shown getting bluffed on TV. They’re also more willing to make riskier plays or do something noteworthy in an attempt to show off on TV.

Being aware of this, I changed my style of play. I also honed in on the ways the other players might be adjusting their own patterns that I had come to observe over the course of playing with them away from the cameras. No choking up in front of the cameras. It was smooth sailing for me and I passed the half million park by night’s end.

DAY 5

There are different mental stages and goals in the Main Event. On Day 1 everyone just wants to make it through the first day. In the next stage, the Money Bubble nears and you just want to cash. On Day 5 you start to look around and notice how few players are left. You’ve played for four, 12-hour days and it’s mostly been a blur, but on Day 5 the haze stars to lift. For the first time you can see the finish line in sight. You started with an impossible field of 6,683, but now it’s a whole new, totally doable tournament of just 291 players. You’ve won and final tabled 300 person tournaments. Making the final table is an actual possibility, not just a dream anymore.

As the field dwindled, my table draws got harder, expectedly so. I played two of my toughest tables. My chip stack was a roller coaster ride. I hit the one million mark then built that up to three million, feeling proud of some clever plays and a few bluffs that I’ll leave up to ESPN to show. But then I suffered two unfortunate all in losses with AK vs AQ for a 1.7 million chip pot, and AK vs 10s for a 700K pot.

Just like that I was back to 30 big blinds. I was dejected, especially in light of the fact that just a few hours ago I had what was probably a Top 20 chip stack in the tournament.

At play’s end as I was bagging what eventually became a 10 big blind stack, feeling ready to go home and have this day be over, I saw Andrew Feldmen (ESPN) and Lance Bradly (BLUFF Magazine) run up to me with a tape recorder in their hand.

“How does it feel to be last woman standing???” My response, “I am?”

I hadn’t even realized that I was the Last Woman Standing for a record third time in a WSOP Main Event (if you include the WSOPE Main).

That news made me feel better as I exited the Rio for the evening, but at this point in my career my goals aren’t gender centric. I am grateful for the honor and the accomplishment, but my mind was on one thing. I had work to do. “November Nine” has a better ring to it than “Last Woman Standing” ;)

Day 6

I found myself, yet again, at the ESPN featured TV table but for the first time in the entire tournament, and with a 10 big blind stack, really felt like my back was against the wall.

It’s weird how, even though poker is a very singular game, you can feel a sense of camaraderie and support when playing against a friend. Craig McCorkell was seated next to me at the table and looking over to see a friendly face gave me comfort as my tournament death slowly encroached.

Eventually it was J8 suited that did me in. I got all in preflop with eight big blinds and unfortunately someone woke up with queens. 5 Q 8 … 7 turn (giving me a flush draw) … A river. Good game, Maria.

This was the most emotional I’ve felt busting a tournament. Yes, I was proud of my deep run but knowing how rare it is to have that kind of shot in the Main Event was upsetting. After my 38th-place finish in 2007, I thought, realistically, that would be the last time I’d be in that position. So, to actually get another shot and to be in such a good position — with a large Day 5 chip stack and seven more years experience under my belt, makes the bust out hard to swallow.

Looking back, a month later, I feel fortunate to have been given another shot and to have taken the ride, yet again. I am proud of my successful summer: a total of eight WSOP cashes, another Last Woman Standing notch, and a 77th-place finish in the Main. Nothing to be upset about.

Some people might think that’s it. It might be. But now that it’s happened twice, I feel like it’s even more likely that I’ll get there again. Let see if lightning can strike three times. Come on poker gods … I dare you!

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September 2014