Tournament poker is hours of boredom followed by seconds of sheer terror. And I had been playing poker at Christchurch casino for 25 hours over two days when I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.
Only 13 places paid at the 2015 New Zealand Poker Championships and I was one card away from getting knocked out in 15th place.
I had been navigating a short stack and was all-in with AQ against my opponents pocket tens, and when the board ran out 6385 with just the river* to come I stood up, took a deep breath and started preparing for an evening of feeling sorry for myself.
Glossary for the poker illiterate below*
Read more: NZ poker champion wins $40,500
The tournament cost $1650 to enter and attracted 136 entrants across three days, generating a prize pool of $204,000 with $47,000 going to first place. But in this moment all I could think about was the difference between $4500 (the min cash for 13th place) and $0 (what I would receive for 15th).
The river brought a beautiful Ace of spades and I'm embarrassed to report I let out a little girly squeal as my poker prayers were answered. "Back in the game," I confidently exclaimed to a table of frustrated blokes who all looked pretty pissed off.
But how did I get to this point? Here is the story of my NZ Poker Championship adventure.
I decided to play Day 1b of the main event, flying from Auckland to Christchurch on Saturday morning to make the 11.30am 'shuffle up and deal' call.
Three years ago I retired from life as a professional online tournament poker player to pursue a 'stable' career path and the opportunity to once again get involved in a big buy-in, well-structured, multi-day tournament was exciting.
The Christchurch main event can't be missed for any Kiwi player serious about his poker. The tournament is well run, has a clued up floor staff, a solid structure and is filled with recreational players, satellite winners and humorous characters. And they also provide some decent grub for players on break.
I was anxious to see who my table mates would be when I arrived because all going to plan, I would be seated with the majority of them for the next 12 hours.
Christchurch couldn't have served up a more diverse range of characters. There was the 80-year old man in the mobility scooter, the English internet pro, one of New Zealand's top comedians Mike King, a southern farmer, a prostitute (who came fully equipped with back rubs, massages and offered kisses to anyone who would fold to her bets - not the sort of distractions I was used to from playing online) and Jackson Zheng - perhaps New Zealand's top poker player.
Day one drifted by seamlessly. I tried to avoid pots with Zheng out of position*, targeted the weaker players and ran a few creative lines. I doubled up when my AA held against AK and had a strong finish to the night, ending with 69,700 chips, good for 22nd position with 44 remaining.
On Sunday my table was a lot tougher. I was wary of a couple of recent blowups*, and was patient in picking good spots to open, three-bet* in position and bluff.
I faced an early test when I opened AK (off 50bbs) to 3200 with blinds at 800/1600 and was met with a raise to 30,000 from an old bloke on the button* (who had me covered). With a raise that big I was essentially playing for my whole stack and after struggling to think of a hand he would play like this that I could beat, found an easy fold.
I doubled from 25 big blinds to 50 big blinds midway through the day when I got QQ all in against TT on an 855 board and held.
Things started getting really interesting when we moved to the final two tables and approached the money bubble*. This phase of the tournament separates the pretenders from the contenders.
With a $4,500 bubble it quickly became clear which players would try to sneak into the money and who would attempt to exploit their opponents' hesitancy.
The biggest contrast here was between Jackson Zheng and Mike King - who finished 5th and 6th respectively. Zheng used the bubble to mercilessly attack, generating a huge chip lead as the bubble broke. Whereas King went about it the opposite way, putting on "a masterclass of patience", as he called it. King was happy to blind right down, get his money in good and double up - then rinse and repeat. And it worked as the funniest man at the table earned $13,000 to go with his 2nd place from 2012 ($25,000).
I played three really interesting hands as the bubble loomed, which I will go into detail with below for the hardcore poker junkies.
I got shifted next to Zheng's tower of chips after catching my Ace on the river to stay alive and shortly after that a player was eliminated in 14th place. I wasn't bubble boy - phew, now it was time to try and win the thing.
But I was still short-stacked and with just 12 big blinds needed to double up to have a shot at going deep. With only a $500 pay jump separating the next four eliminations I picked a spot to shove over an active raiser's open* with pocket threes. He called with AK and when he hit a King on the flop the dream was over.
Jay Gilbert and Jason Brown went on to chop the tournament. I spent a lot of time playing with Gilbert and thought he was a worthy champion and was shocked to find out this was his first major live tournament. Early on day two play folded to Gilbert who had a huge stack in the small blind and he got into an epic pre-flop re-raising war with the big stacked big blind. Eventually, Gilbert found a very well disciplined fold with QQ as his opponent showed KK. The big folds are just as important as the big winning pots and Gilbert showed a tremendous read to keep his tournament alive.
For me, it was the second time I had finished 13th in a big live tournament and I had mixed emotions upon busting out. I was delighted to survive a scary bubble, but disappointed not to make the final table. But I wouldn't have done much differently.
I'm already looking forward to next year's event.
Glossary for the poker illiterate:
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.
To make poor decisions which result in losing a lot of chips.
Re-raising the original raiser (preflop)
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.
The "bubble" is the point in the tournament at which the next player out will not win any money, but the rest of the players will.
The first pre flop bet
1)With 16 players remaining I had 150K (37 bbs) and a fairly solid table image. We were eight handed with the blinds at 2000/4000 and I opened AT from UTG +1 to 8000. The big blind, who had me covered and who I had never played with before, called. The flop fell AJ8 rainbow and I bet 10k into a pot of 20k and he called. The turn was a 6 of spades, putting two spades out there and I bet again, this time for 25k. The villain raised to 60k and put me in a tough spot. His range seemed polarised to AA, AJ, A8, A6 or 88 or some sort of draw on the turn - or a bluff, but I felt he was strong and folded.
2)With 15 left, Charlie Hawes, a sound online player (playing off 18bbs) opened from UTG +1. Despite being short stacked, Charlie had opened a lot and I decided to three-bet with AJ from UTG+2. The old man next to me then flat called my raise. I thought his range was somewhere between 77-JJ and AJ+. Charlie then moved all in, which I thought gave him a very strong range - QQ+ and AK. I folded, old man called with AJ and Charlie showed QQ.
3)I then slipped down to 13 bbs with 15 left and had folded for two full orbits. At this stage my image was very tight and I opened AT from UTG+1 and alarm bells went off when I was flatted by Jason Brown sitting in UTG+2. He is one of NZ's top players and his range is so strong here I had all but given up hope of continuing unless I hit an A. The flop came AK8 and I was in a tough spot. I bet half pot and he put me all in. I don't think he plays the hand this way without AK, AQ or AJ in this spot so found a fold.
Main Event payouts:
1st - $40,500 Jay Gilbert
2nd -$40,500 Jason Brown
3rd - $28,000 Charlie Hawes
4th - $22,000 Geoff Smith
5th - $17,000 Jackson Zheng
6th - $13,000 Mike King
7th - $10,000 Darryl Hussey
8th - $8,000 Roy Gourley
9th - $6000 Ash Ryman-Ferris
10th - $5000 Dan Bates
11th - $5000 Peter Tawe
12th - $4500 Rachel Bellard
13th - $4500 Steven Holloway
*Steven was flown to Christchurch courtesy of Christchurch casino.