The biggest bluff of Mike King's tournament was the first sentence out of his mouth.
"Hey boys, watch out for Rich," bellowed New Zealand's most famous comedian/poker player as he motioned towards me at the start of day one.
"I made the final table with him here last year and he doesn't play anything other than aces or kings."
My name is Steve. I did not make last year's final table (14th) and, perhaps to highlight King's poor combo read, I proceeded to splash around in a number of unwarranted pots with some average holdings before being eliminated halfway through day one of the two-day tournament.
I touchdown at Christchurch airport where the world's most enthusiastic taxi driver spends the 15-minute ride to the casino asking me poker questions and bemoaning the fact that he's not playing in the tournament. "Last question mate, what's your favourite starting hand?" he generates from the bottom of the question bin. "Pocket aces," I reply. He cracks up, hard. I think I like Christchurch.
Shuffle up and deal. It's been nine months since my last big-buy-in live poker tournament and I'm excited. But my table draw is tough. There's 2015 main event winner Jason Brown, 2014 winner Shane Hicks, a smattering of other quality cash-game players and an English online professional.
And of course, there is King, the life and soul of the party who has made eight final tables in the last 10 main events in Christchurch.
The structure of the tournament is nice and slow with a starting stack of 25,000 chips, blinds at 25/50 and one-hour levels. My plan was to learn about how my table mates played, pick good spots to get involved and be patient. The action on the felt got off to a stuttering start but the table chat was some of the most diverse and deep I have ever encountered.
Within the first two hours the following topics had mostly been solved:
* The housing market ("Sell now because the market is about to crash")
* The Middle East conflict ("Israel is not responsible for the refugee crisis")
* Suicide prevention ("It's time for a national inquiry into our mental health services")
* Pole vaulting ("Eliza McCartney will only get better with age")
One gent informed us that he had won so much money playing online poker that the (unspecified) site he played on wouldn't take his action anymore - a contender for a Tui billboard.
I'm struggling to get anything going. I lose three medium-size pots on boards where I flop well, but runout poorly (detailed below) and fail to get any callers when I actually do have a hand. I use my tight table image (thanks Mike) to steal a few pots but I find myself nursing a 30 big blind (bb) stack (half what I started with) at the lunch break.
BUSTO: After treading water for another few hours, picking some good spots to three-bet all in over loose opens, but never getting over 30bbs, I sink down to 16bbs. I'm now looking for a good spot to get my chips in the middle, and when an aggressive player opened from middle position and it folded to me in the big blind with 66 I decided to move in. He called with AQ and things were looking good until the ace hit on the river. The dream was over for another year.
Ten minutes after busting I am led to the VIP area, where poker boss Warren Wylie is nice enough to put me up as a 'guest of the casino'. Despite having free beer, and a free crack at the delicious rib-eye steak, all I can think about is what I could have done differently in the tournament.
Being a tournament poker player is 99.9 per cent about dealing with losses. Years ago, when I played online poker for a living, I would often play 15-20 tournaments a day and 'lose' every one. Unless you finish first, you are technically losing, and destined to be disappointed - even if you're making money. But the key to success, a healthy mindset, and improvements, is not focusing on the results, but instead the decisions you made throughout the tournament.
I felt the cards didn't fall in my favour this year, but I definitely wasn't playing great poker either. I was rusty in remembering live tournament dynamics, made a few loose calls and was far too passive with my play. I was, however, quite comfortable with my bust-out hand and after a few Monteith's Golden, was starting to feel good again. After all, I was pretty used to losing.
I'm lingering around the casino waiting to see how the final table plays out when the Conor McGregor UFC fight starts. The UFC is a phenomenon that seems to be getting more popular with every punch. Wylie said the casino "maxed out" last year during a McGregor fight, and had to turn people away. They must have been close again on Sunday because the place was crammed and the bar gave both fighters a standing ovation after the brutal five-round scrap. Incredible scenes.
After 27 hours of poker over two days, Jack Efaraimo is crowned the NZ poker champ and I can't think of a more fitting winner. Efaraimo has been playing the Christchurch main event every year since 1996. He is a deeply respected member of the poker community, who helped organise 27 of his peers in Wellington to make the trip to Christchurch this year. The 64-year-old has a laid back demeanour, some cunning table talk and a heart of gold. He cruised to victory after carrying one of the biggest stacks into day two and never looking back.
Despite the clock ticking towards 2am, Efaraimo was happy to chat for 20 minutes about his fascinating life around the tables and was beaming after the highlight of his impressive career.
Efaraimo said the poker bosses sometimes lean on him for advice on how to make their tournaments better - and whatever 'the godfather' has been telling them, is working.
The NZ champs main event was perfectly structured, with friendly, competent floor-staff and a decent luncheon spread.
It's a tournament series that cares about the players and I would recommend it to anyone interested in having a crack against New Zealand's best.
Glossary for the poker illiterate:
River: The fifth and final board card in Hold'em is called the river or 5th street.
Out of position: Being at a disadvantage due to having to act first post-flop.
Three-bet: Re-raising the original raiser (pre-flop)
Button: The button or dealer button is a chip that shows who the current dealer is. The position where the dealer sits is also called the button. We also say that the dealer is on the button.
Open: The first pre-flop bet
Pre-flop: Action that takes place before the first three community cards are dealt.
Busto: Getting knocked out of the tournament.
Bust-out hand: The hand I got knocked out of the tournament with.
Barrel: If you have made a bet in one round and then make another bet in the next round, this is called firing the second barrel. A third bet would be called a third barrel.
1)Four hours in, with blinds at 100/200, UTG +3 makes it 600, cut-off calls, I call with K♥Q♥ on button (playing off 20k and everyone in hand has me covered), SB makes it 1500, call, call and I call.
SB bets 3900, I call
SB bets 5400, I fold
Analysis: I wasn't thrilled about calling a 3-bet from a tight opponent with KQ, but with two other players in the hand, everyone nice and deep and my cards suited, folding wasn't an option. The problem with flopping one pair with KQ is that even when you hit you're never sure if you're good. My opponent made two large bets and I felt his range (due to the three bet out of position and firing two barrels) was more weighted toward AA, KK, AQ, QQ, than any two barrel bluffs.
2)UTG +2 (2014 winner Shane Hicks) opens to 600 at 100/200 and I flat in the CO with J♦Q♦ (off 17k). Two other callers.
Hicks leads for 2k, I call. Fold, fold.
Hicks bets 4.5k, I fold.
Analysis: What originally looked like a pretty good flop for me got a whole lot uglier on the turn. Despite flopping two pair, I'm never comfortable on this board, as AJ, AQ, AA, JJ, QQ and flush draws are all in his range. On such a wet board I didn't expect Shane to continue into three callers without a good chunk of it. I called on the flop, but in hindsight I think a raise here is the best option. I can get away from it if he re-raises and could check behind any scary turn cards if he calls my raise. His bet sizing also troubled me. He bet ¾ pot on the flop and nearly full pot on the turn, which signalled real strength. The turn is a terrible card for me as most of his draws got there and his large bet put me in a tough spot. If I call the turn, there are so many ugly river cards that could put me in tough spots against a player as aggressive as Hicks, plus I could easily already be beaten. I struggled with this decision for a while, but eventually found a fold.
3)CO opens at 75/150 to 450. I call on the button with J♥8♥ (playing 20k), SB calls, BB calls (both have me covered).
Checks to CO who bets 900. I call, SB calls, bb makes it 2400. CO calls, I call, SB calls.
SB checks, BB makes it 3000. CO folds, I call, SB calls.
SB checks, BB bets 6000, I fold, SB calls. BB wins with 66.
Analysis: Loose call pre-flop, but I kept getting priced in as my draws improved. I felt BB was strong and held either 66 or a two pair combination, but also thought he would pay me out if a heart hit. I think I now prefer a raise on the flop after the CO opened, but as played I can't see how I could fold flop or turn, and raising wasn't an option with the BBs range so strong.
Jack Efariamo $50,000
Steve Smith $42,500
Erich Stadler $26,000
George Abdelnour $21,000
Andrew Wilkinson $17,500
Jamie Mulligan $14,500
Hamish Crawshaw $12,500
Daniel Burich $10,500
Dale Delaroze $9,000
Darren Brown $7,500
Michael Fu $6,500
Roger Harris $5,500
Jason Brown $4,500
Peter Field $4,000
Ryan Otto $3,500
Manu Luke $3,500
*Steven was flown to Christchurch courtesy of Christchurch casino.