Steven Holloway entered the Main Event of the New Zealand Poker Championships at Christchurch Casino last weekend. 202 poker players put up $1650 to enter the tournament, and there were 59 re-entries which generated a prize pool of $391,500 with $81k going to first place. This was his experience.
There's an old saying in poker: if you can't spot the sucker within the first half hour at the table, you are the sucker.
I am not a sucker. Well, I don't think I am. I used to be good at poker; played every day for hours, professionally for three years, made some money, read all the books, watched all the training videos.
Actually, I used to think I was good at poker. But who really knows? Variance in tournament poker can easily make heroes out of zeros. Anyone who's had a modicum of success at the tables thinks they're good. They can't all be right.
That was seven years ago. I look at poker a lot differently now. Instead of a game to make a living from and improve at, it's just a hobby, it's a rush, it's fun. But as I took my seat at the main event of the New Zealand poker championships in Christchurch, I didn't see many suckers.
9.40am: Touchdown in Christchurch
I'm excited. It's been nine months since my last big buy-in live poker tournament and I'm pumped full of expectation. I link up with an old friend Sean Goldsbury, a former roommate, teammate and perhaps New Zealand's most successful online tournament player. In our 'prime' as online poker professionals we lived together, sharing daily hand histories, strategies and bad beat stories. Eight years on the conversations are different; babies, mortgages, and the complications of living in the 'real world'. Times have changed.
Shuffle up and …. Sh*t. My table is a shocker. The three players to my right are Jason Brown, Goldsbury and Mike Tyler, three of the best players in the tournament. Succeeding in a multi-day live tournament is about picking good spots to attack weak opponents, but I won't find many to my right. On my left are a combination of players I would describe in no particular order as: old, competent, spewy, fishy, good and good. Could be a long day.
Perhaps one of the most under appreciated values of succeeding in poker is patience. It sounds boring, and is boring. Poker can be boring for long stretches. But when you're in a big hand it can be equally exhilarating. I play patiently and make it to the lunch break with more chips than I started with. I flopped a set of sixes in one hand, rivered a straight in another. I got this.
Sprinkled among the long stretches of restlessness is sporadic table chat. High buy-in poker tournaments attract an interesting, diverse crowd and sitting at a table with a group of strangers for 11 hours is a situation fairly unique to poker. Our table-talk covered the pros and cons of Hamilton (family-friendly/landlocked), the future of digital media (HELP!), the moral dilemma of gambling with criminals (don't do it), the popularity of women's sport (growing) and of course Trump (sigh).
The tournament is a repechage format, which means players can re-buy up untill the sixth level (six hours in). Our table is starting to loosen up. Five players at our table bust-out then opt to top up again (for another $1650), helping to swell the prize pool up to around $400,000.
My starting stack of 25k peaked at 40k, but is now down to 18k after a series of unremarkable hands. Just as I start to feel a little sorry for myself I stare down at two beautiful Aces.
With just over 20 big blinds I opt to get a bit tricky, and flat the early position raise from Tyler.
My plan goes to sh*t when four other players call and a flop of QQT is spread. Oh no.
But wait, the board checks around, my Aces could still be good here. The button bets when a 2 comes on the turn and I call, then puts me all-in on the 3 river. I call and he instantly mucks his cards. A much needed double up.
(Complete hand analysis below)
This is the run I've been waiting for. I win two pots in a row, then knock a player out when my JJ holds against my opponent's 45 when we get all-in on a 562 board.
I'm getting creative and playing well. Poker is fun when you have a big stack and I'm now second biggest stack at the table. But easy come, easy go.
To win any individual poker tournament, it's more important to be lucky than good.
Eventually, you are destined to run into a big 'flip'. Mine happened six hours into my main event. In an unavoidable spot I got my pocket queens all in against Jason Brown's ace-king. I lost, and it hurt.
Winning the hand would have pushed me up to 120,000 chips – one of the chip leaders of the tournament, but instead I was down to 40,000. Time to grind again.
I'm treading water. I lose another sizeable pot when my T9 is beaten by AK on a KT2KK board, then Zack Lowrie is moved to my table.
Lowrie is perhaps New Zealand's best cash game player, and a ferocious talent. He sits down with a stack of chips and his cell phone, that he's simultaneously playing online poker on. "The action is a bit slow live," he remarks to a table-mate. Lowrie went on to finish third in the tournament and was the chip leader for most of the final two days. He also took the majority of my remaining chips.
(hand detailed below)
After surviving as a short stack for nearly two hours, my luck runs out. The action folds around to me on the button, and with 10 big blinds and pocket twos, it's an easy decision to move all in. The small blind wakes up with AK and when a K hits the flop my tournament is over for another year.
The tournament was scheduled to finish late on Sunday night but after a whopping 202 entries and 59 rebuys, the tournament stretched to Monday night.
Long time Rotorua friends Kuru Whiston and Renae Baker weren't complaining about taking the extra day of work, after deciding to chop the prize pool when they got heads-up, taking home $70,000 each.
The NZ champs main event was perfectly structured, with friendly, competent floor staff and a decent luncheon spread.
It also had a record turnout this year, with a combined prize pool of nearly $900,000 across all 12 events. Poker is healthy down south.
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. Just don't be the sucker.
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.
Interesting hands for the poker geeks:
UTG +2 (Tyler) opens to 2000 at 400/800. I call in next seat with AA (playing off 17k), CO calls, button calls, sb calls, big blind calls.
Checks around on flop.
SB bets 6k, I call
SB bets 10k, I call. He mucks.
Analysis: I made the decision to flat with AA because of my awkward stack size. I could three-bet to 5k, or shove but both look really strong off my stack size and I didn't want to lose my opponent. I also thought there was a chance a player in late position would mistake my call for weakness and attempt a squeeze. Obviously going six ways to the flop was a worst case scenario and the QQT board wasn't great either. But when it checked around on the flop I thought I likely had the best hand. The opponent in the SB was spewy and aggressive, and when he bet the rag turn I wasn't going anywhere. The river was another easy call against this opponent. He instantly mucked.
I open JJ UTG +2 to 2200 at 500/1000 (playing off 70k), CO calls, HJ calls, button calls, SB calls.
I check, CO makes it 3.1k, I raise to 10k, he folds.
Analysis: I was prepared to give this hand up on the flop. But when the board checked around to the button and he made such a small raise I saw an opportunity. He can't have AA, KK or AK there, and most likely had a weak ace, king or flush draw. When I check raise on that board, from early position, it looks super strong and forces him to decide if he's prepared to call down with a weak ace. He showed me an ace as he folded.
UTG opens to 2200 at 500/1000, Jason Brown flats on button, I squeeze to 8k with QQ.
UTG calls, Brown shoves for 35k. I call. He has AK.
Analysis: Brown got a bit tricky by flatting the button with AK, but the hand played itself from there. Gotta win those flips!
Zack Lowrie opens the button to 3000 at 700/1400, I raise to 10k from the SB with KQhh off 36k. Lowrie calls.
I bet 8k, he calls.
Turn 3 (putting two hearts out)
I bet 10k, he calls.
River 7 (not heart)
I check he moves all in. I fold and cry.
Analysis: Ugh, this hand was a disaster. I shouldn't be going to war out of position against the best player at the tournament and I shouldn't be three-betting KQhh from the SB off 26bbs.
The board was pretty dry and I thought there was a chance he would float some non-ace hands out of position and look to take them away from me on the turn. When the 3h turned I had a flush draw, but with slightly more than a pot sized bet back, decided he wasn't folding an Ace, but would likely fold anything else to another barrel. When he called and my flush missed, I gave up.
Main event results:
Kuru Whiston $70,150
Renae Baker $70,000
Zack Lowrie $40,000
Steve Ahn $32,000
Jordan Wilding $26,000
Rachel Bellard $21,000
Francis Low $17,000
Brady Economu-Barton $14,000
Eli Samwa $12,000
Geoff Smith $10,000
Krishna Oza $8000
Jai Thomas $8000
Shane Foglietta $6000
Simon Thwaites $6000
Angus Hennah $5500
Daniel Burich $5000
Steve Smith $5000
Andy Slater $4500
Hristovoje Pavlovic $4500
David Puniani $4000
Des Hunt $4000
Kenny Frisby $3500
Mark Toelau $3500
Tom Taniwha $3500
John Snook $3500
William Qiu $3500
*Steven was invited to play the Main Event at the National Championships by Christchurch casino.