In his black Ford t-shirt, jean shorts and with a bourbon and cola in hand, Shane Tamihana looked like the most relaxed man in the poker room.
He smirked when he bet, eyed players suspiciously if they raised - but would rarely fold, and loved nothing more than loudly proclaiming 'later bo' as he goaded an unsure opponent into folding their hand.
After 14 hours of play across two days at New Zealand's biggest poker tournament, Tamihana was, once again, the overwhelming chip leader.
He last year took home $55,000 for a share of first place in the Sky City Festival of Poker Main Event and this year, with his relentlessly aggressive style, he had amassed 300,000 chips, when the average was just 60,000.
But what Shane didn't know is that I had eyes on his title. I'd navigated my way through 80 of the 108 entrants that paid $1650 to enter the main event and was sitting fourth in chips at the start of day two, just short of the money bubble, when we went to war.
When a short-stack moved all-in from early position, I looked down at pocket aces, internally celebrated, and called his bet. I glanced at Shane in the small blind picking up some chips and liked that too. "Bring it on bo," I thought as he called.
Then my house of cards came tumbling down. The flop came 69T, Shane bet, I called. The turn was a T, he checked, I bet, he moved all-in. Oh no! I called.
In the space of two minutes, I went from hero to zero. Shane had called with 9T, flopped two pair and turned a full house.
I was left speechless and penniless. One day you're the pigeon, the next, you're the statue.
What makes a good tournament poker player?
It was a question posed to me by a colleague two hours before I left work to play day two of the main event.
I mentioned discipline, understanding position and game awareness; deciding the right course of action based on your cards, your opponents' range of possible holdings, board textures, stack sizes and proximity to the money bubble. Ultimately, I concluded, you need to be a problem solver.
Tamihana was my problem. He had a huge stack and position on me, but was also incredibly erratic and unpredictable. Normally, you can range a player based on the pre-flop action and the player's tendencies, but Tamihana didn't conform to poker norms.
He was fast and loose with his calls pre-flop, but made up for it with a masterclass of aggression, pressure and some disciplined lay-downs post flop.
I returned to the casino, five hours after being knocked out, to watch Tamihana battle with Te Rangi Matenga, who also took home $55,000 last year for chopping the Main Event and Jackson Zheng, one of New Zealand's most talented players.
Tamihana had all the chips and with a $10,000 pay jump between second and third position, used his stack to bully his opponents expertly with relentless pressure.
Eventually, Zheng's AJ won a flip against Matenga's 44 and Tamihana found himself heads up against Zheng for back to back titles.
The final hand highlighted Tamihana's aggression. He called a large three-bet in position with 24hh, flopped bottom pair on a 29T board and moved all in on the flop after Zheng cleverly check/called with middle pair.
Tamihana won the tournament when he made trip twos on the turn, and claimed afterward that "winning poker tournaments is 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill".
I don't agree but Tamihana may have been self-deprecating for effect. It's more like 50-50. Tamihana didn't win two successive Festival of Poker Main Events because he was the luckiest player in the field, he won them because he was one of the best.
My tournament was really a tale of two days. On day one I doubled up early when I flopped a set of 8s against an opponent's top two pair, turned a flush in a five-way pot and got three streets of action and pulled off a number of bluffs/semi bluffs and value bets.
On day two, I really only played one notable hand with AA, which I detail below.
This was my fifth NZ Festival of Poker Main Event and, as usual, there was an eclectic mix of players and personalities.
There was the woman who turned up late, ordered a few drinks, then after about an hour seemed to get bored, and donated her stack to a lucky punter with an outrageously unsuccessful bluff.
There was the old bloke who didn't say a word all day, or really play a hand, who slowly bled his chips anonymously before getting his 8 big blinds in bad with A10 against AK.
And there were the handful of guys who bought into the tournament multiple times.
Tamihana was in this club, a small group of wealthy gents who were prepared to gamble it up in the early levels to try and build a big stack and re-buy if need be.
The Main Event itself was a big success, with SkyCity delighted with the 108 players that turned up to play. Last year's event was a higher buy-in at $2,300 and attracted 127 runners, but the Auckland poker room lost a lot of business this year to the World Series of Poker event at The Star in Sydney, Poker Palace's increased offerings during November and Christchurch's tournament series next week.
The tournament was structured well, with 200bb starting stack, six levels of late-reg or re-entry, big antes and low rake. The new poker room is a big improvement too and was a comfortable place to spend nine hours of a Thursday night.
After winning the tournament, Tamihana said he planned on having a few beers then diving back into some high-stakes cash games.
I went home to tell my wife a bad-beat story about how I busted out of New Zealand's biggest poker tournament with pocket aces.
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.
Supernit: An extremely tight, risk averse player
Flat: Calling a bet
1) I open AK at 100/200 from early position to 500 (playing off 20k)
I get two callers, one a weak, erratic player and the other a supernit.
Flop fell K23dd
The erratic player in the small blind led at flop for 500. I called.
The super nit then made it 3000, playing off 13k
Thoughts: I'm either up against a flush draw or basically drawing dead when the tightest player at the table raises in that spot but I think it's more likely he has 22 or 33. I think he would just call with a flush draw and wouldn't raise with a weaker king. I didn't want to get my stack in with top pair and would be forced to fold on the turn to most bets.
2) With blinds at 1000/2000 and with 300 ante Shane has about 300k and I've got 86k and AA.
UTG +2 shoves all in for 13k
I flat in HJ w AA
Shane calls in SB
Flop 9T6 rainbow,
Shane leads for 20k. I call.
Turn 9. Shayne checks (there's now 80k in the pot and I have 50k behind)
I bet 25k and he moves all in.
Pre-flop - When UTG + 2 moves all in for 6.5bbs, I called to induce action from other premium hands who might think they have fold equity. I should probably flat with all my range in this spot, but I might click it back with AK, AQ, and 99-JJ.
I don't like Shane's call out of the small blind with 9T offsuit. He's out of position with the weakest hand in an inflated pot.
When he leads at the pot from the small blind and I call, my range is now 99+. I also may call with AK, especially if it was suited with backdoor flush draw.
He checks the turn and I'm almost at the top of my range. I remember thinking the 9 was a good card for me. It was very difficult to attribute a range to Shane, but I thought he might play a hand like TJ, 78 or even KQ like this.
With 80k in the pot and 50k behind, I'm never folding to an opponent like Shane in this spot, but my bet on the turn was a mistake. I don't think there are many hands in his range that I beat that can call my turn bet. But I was confused why he was slowing down, when it appeared that my range was so strong.
I should have checked back the turn and called his likely all-in shove on the river, because he may have fired with some bluffs.
*Steven played in the 2016 Festival of Poker Main Event courtesy of Sky City casino.
Sky CIty's next major tournament for 2017 will be the Waitangi Deep Stack $1,100 Main Event held from 3-5 February 2017.
FInal table payouts:
1st $51,890 - Shane Tamihana
2nd $33,480 - Jackson Zheng
3rd $21,930 - Te Rangi Matenga
4th $16,740 - Jordan Ropotini
5th $12,890 - Jamie Sadlier
6th $8,370 - Hongwei Luo
7th $6,700 - Matthew Beck
8th $5,860 - Michael Poona
9th $5,020 - Sam Ruha
10th $4,520 - Michael Fu