NZME journalist Steven Holloway entered New Zealand's biggest poker tournament last weekend, a $1650-buy in event at Christchurch casino. It generated a prize pool of $337,500 with $75,000 going to first place. This was his experience.

Two seconds after I moved 'all in' I knew I'd made a mistake.

In poker, every decision requires a clear purpose, but my thinking was tired.

A sleepless night with a young baby, an early flight from Auckland to Christchurch, and eight hours of relatively solid poker formed the background to my exit, but they're all just excuses; I lost my focus.


Hemi Mulligan is one of New Zealand poker's best young players. And he wasn't falling for my sh*t. He called my poorly executed semi-bluff on the turn, and after not improving on the river, I was gone. Straight to the bar to think about what I'd done.

I had been looking forward to the New Zealand Poker Champs main event for months. A multi-day tournament with a big buy-in, slow structure and big prize pool is a dream weekend away for me - and Christchurch Casino always knows how to turn it on.

But after a few Canadian Club and dries I sombrely, not soberly, decided this trip would have to be chalked up to a "learning experience".

Read more: Kiwi poker player wins $75,000
Saturday 19 August, 9.30am:
I spend the two-hour flight from Hamilton to Christchurch reading Chris Moorman's latest poker book. Moorman is a former roommate who went on to become the "winningest" online tournament poker player in the world, and has amassed $30 million in poker winnings. I'm a "retired" online poker-pro-turned-journalist, who hasn't played a hand of poker since bubbling the Auckland main event in June.

I'm seeking inspiration. His book is full of pearls about managing tournaments, picking good spots and thinking three steps ahead of the field. His advice was about to be ignored.

I arrive in Christchurch just before the 11.30am start time and settle into my motel room, nestled between the closest things to New Zealand poker royalty. Staying next door is comedian Mike King and on the other side Shurane Vijayaram, the Aussie Millions winner who this year turned $130 into $1.6 million. The big boys are in town and I'm excited.

12.30pm: I need a Red Bull. I forgot what a long, slow grind, live poker tournaments are and the yawns have started early. The key to success in the early stages of live, big buy-in tournaments is patience and discipline. I splash around in a few small pots but mostly fold for the first three hours of the tournament. It feels like I'm being dealt 82 off-suit on loop.

4.30pm: The ante-stage has kicked in, which means pots are more valuable and worth fighting for. I start chipping up by catching a few bluffs, then call a short stacked all-in shove with KQ and beat his A7 when a Q spikes the river.


6:00pm: I'm playing well and have a good understanding of my table - which is a relatively tough one. There are two smart online players to my direct left, professional online cash player Mulligan has just been moved to my table along with King, the funniest man at the table. I have around 60,000 chips at 400/800 blinds.

6.30pm: A short stack shoves all-in for 8 big blinds and I call with pocket nines. His A5 wins when another A hits the flop. Bugger. A few hands later a new, older player is moved to our table and shoves all-in for 13 big blinds. I look down at AQ and after a bit of deliberation, make the call (detailed reasons of thinking below). He shows 77. I flop an ace but he hits a 7 on the river to stay alive. This tilts me much more than it should and is the beginning of my decline.

7pm: King lobbies for a chop. With 67 players left he starts asking who would be keen to split up the prize pool. Everyone would get $5k. "Anyone keen?" he bellows. The table cracks up.

8pm: I've slowly dissolved from 50 big blinds to 30 after struggling to win a pot for a couple of hours and am starting to take my eye off the prize. I open the betting with ten jack of clubs in early position and get two callers, one is Mulligan on the button. The flop comes 8JQ and I bet again. Mulligan is the only one who calls. The turn is a 6, and I move all-in. Mulligan thinks for a while and calls with AQ. Bugger. I don't improve on the river and I'm out.

I was gutted. My decision making was nonsensical and my exit fueled a quick existential poker crisis, aided by booze.

Drink one: "Well, that was stupid. I'm an idiot."
Drink two: "Was it that bad though? It might have been okay."
Drink three: "No, it was definitely bad play. Idiot."
Drink four: "Shit, now I'm going to have to write about it. Poker sucks. How do you really know if someone is a good tournament poker player anyway? Short term results rely on a disproportionate amount of luck, and the sample size of live tournaments is too small to be meaningful. If I play one hand badly but 300 hands well, am I good or bad? How many guys here think they're good but are actually bad? Am I one of them? Why the hell did I bet the turn? I need another drink."

And so it goes..

Sunday 10pm: I returned Sunday night to watch Ben Rendall scoop the $75k first place prize with a final-table masterclass. Rendall hit a three-outer on the river to stay alive just before the bubble broke and then fearlessly used his stack to apply pressure on all the players trying to just sneak into the money. Rendall is a 26-year-old doctor, who plays high-stakes cash games on the side and is clearly a smart cookie. His play was calculated and aggressive and helped me answer the question of what a really good player looks like.

The final three.
The final three.

He also gave an incredibly thoughtful post-win interview. Here he talks about what makes a good tournament player.

"The key to succeeding in tournaments is the same thing that makes a good poker player. You need a good mix of understanding people and understanding the game," he said. "The point where those two come together is where you make your money. When you understand what people are doing and how they're feeling, you're playing the game with a lot more ammunition than they are."

NZPC poker champ Ben Rendall.
NZPC poker champ Ben Rendall.

It was a hugely successful weekend for Christchurch casino, who sold out all but one of their 8 minor tournaments during the series, and attracted 147 entrants and 78 re-buys to the main event, their highests numbers yet.

Christchurch poker boss Warren Wylie put the success down to a slight poker uplift and a casino that works hard to make the players feel welcome.

With lunch provided each day, a $30 bar tab for all main event entrants and capable and professional floor staff, it's easy to see why the punters keep coming back in record numbers.

I'm already looking forward to using my "learnings" in next year's event and have taken solace in one of Moorman's favourite lines: "If you don't look stupid at the table from time to time, you're doing a lot wrong."

Glossary for the poker illiterate:
Busting - Getting knocked out of
Bust out hand - The hand I got knocked out of the tournament with
Antes - Money placed in the pot before the hand has begun
Hijack position - A player seated two seat to the right of the dealer
Four bet - The raise of a re-raise
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.
Nuts - The 'nuts' is the best possible hand in any given situation.
Flush - A flush is a poker hand consisting of five cards of the same suit.
River - The fifth and final board card in Hold'em is called the river or 5th street.
Tilt - Losing your composure at the table and making mistakes because of it

To use in a sentence: My bust out hand happened pre-antes, when I bet from the Hijack position, got raised by the button, four bet because I had the nuts but then he made a flush on the river.

Hand analysis:
Hand #1
Older player shoves all-in from CO for 11,000 at 400/800.
I have AQdd on the button and have 50k. The two players behind me have me covered.
I call and he shows 77.
Thoughts: A new, older player moves to our table and after a few hands he moves his short stack of 13bbs all-in from the cutoff. I often have trouble ranging older live players and AQ is at the bottom of my calling range, but I like the call. I think his range is probably 55-JJ and AT +. But its possible he's got some lower suited aces in his shoving range too. There's also an "over it" range to consider. Older players don't necessarily appreciate they have 13bbs, they just realise they're short and might just see it folded to them in late and shove. That's different from online players in that they'll shove wide with 13bbs from the c/o with a calculated range.

Hand #2
Blinds 500/1000 and I open TJcc to 2300 from UTG +1 playing off 30k.
CO calls and Hemi Mulligan on button calls.
Flop 8JQss.
I bet 5k, CO folds, Hemi calls.
Turn 6d
I move all in 17k, Hemi calls with AQ.
River 8h
Thoughts: I'm happy with the open, it's near the bottom of my range, especially with 30bbs, but the table hasn't been 3bet happy, so I'm confident of either stealing the blinds or seeing a flop - albeit potentially out of position. But I should be check-calling the flop. There is no merit in firing at that board into two players when it smacks their range and I only block middle pair with a gut-shot draw.

It's important to have some really strong hands in both my leading range and my checking range or my opponents can make easy decisions against me. Whether I should have T9 in my range having opened in early is a discussion point, but given my mindset at the time, and the reality of anything suited and connected looking like Aces a few hours into a live event, it's almost certain that I'd have all four combos of T9s here.

The straight is a perfect hand to lead with, as it blocks no pairs that my opponents can have and call a bet with, and it's the nuts! Similarly, leading with 88 and JJ doesn't block draws or top pair, so leading with those could also be good. On such a wet board versus two players it may seem like a high risk play, but I think I should lean towards checking QQ at least some of the time, if not all the time, as I block top pair heavily and I need to have some nutty hands in my checking range, otherwise I can just be blasted off my hand on the turn or river.

But I lost my focus. My betting had no purpose. I was just absent-mindedly firing, praying they would fold. One poor decision can lead to a catastrophe. When I played online poker for a living the trend amongst regs was to continuation bet blindly. This tactic is incredibly exploitable and is well outdated, but in my tiredness I reverted back to bad habits.

When the turn bricked, I had a pot size bet back and was frustrated. I thought I could make Hemi fold KQ, QT, AJ and other flush draws by bombing the river. And if he called I would have outs. But AQ was an easy call for him.

I've got T9s, some sets, QJ, KK and AA in my range here, though I won't shove them all on the turn. But I do need to continue with some bluffs. Check folding gives him a chance to bluff me off with spades or a hand like 89s, but you have to fold the winning hand sometimes. I think he will also check back a lot. I prefer check/folding turn to shoving.

1st: Ben Rendall $75,000
2nd: Steve Ahn $55,000
3rd: Kwang Son $39,000
4th: Devon Kyle $32,000
5th: Matt Stark $26,000
6th: Matt Carlson $21,000
7th: Ferg Spary $17,000
8th: Jamie Mulligan $13,000
9th: Neranga Jayaweera $10,000
10th: Shurane Vijayaram $7000
11th: Phill Coll $6000
12th: Simon Thwaites $6,000
13th: Tyson Ratahi $5,000
14th: Eamonn Hyland $4,000
15th: Matty Yates $4,000
16th: Dave Bonham $3,500
17th: Jason French $3500
18th: Jeremy Kaywash $3,500
19th: Steve Cook $3,500
20th: Petera Gamlen $3500

*Steven was flown to Christchurch courtesy of Christchurch casino.