Steven Holloway entered the main event of the New Zealand Poker Championship at Christchurch casino last weekend. 230 players paid $1950 for a seat at the tournament, generating a prize pool of $428,400, with $107,000 to the winner.
The worst sound you can hear after moving all-in at a poker tournament is a snap "call".
Snap, is poker parlance for immediate. In most situations, it means you don't have the best hand and are likely going home. Your opponent doesn't need time to evaluate options, calculate pot odds, work out your range; he just knows he's got the best of it.
Six hours into the main event at the NZPC I moved all in. I was snap called.
Here's my story.
Saturday, 10.30am: Touchdown in Christchurch. It's been a year since my last real hand of poker and I've been looking forward to this tournament for a while. It's like a trip back in time.
Ten years ago, I was a professional poker player. Life was fun; early 20s, no responsibilities, gambling thousands of dollars a day while playing 60-100 tournaments a week online. I was living the poker dream - but it wasn't sustainable.
Our "poker house" of nine professionals knew it wasn't forever and the real world would soon come calling. It called. Life is different now. A career in media, a wife, two kids under three, a mortgage and limited free time. There is little room for poker.
This weekend is the exception. It's my fifth trip to Christchurch to play in their main event and one of my annual highlights. This year, I link up with a former room-mate, poker professional and real-world convert Shaun Goldsbury.
For five years until 2012, Shaun was arguably New Zealand's best online tournament player, winning more than 200 online tournaments and earning $2 million in prizemoney - but it wasn't sustainable. He ditched the tables for a job at Genesis and after six promotions in six years, now sits on their executive team. Next year, he hopes to earn more than he did at his poker peak.
It turns out the skills needed to be a successful poker player (problem solving, maths, logical thinking, discipline) transition nicely into the real world.
We haven't seen each other in a year, but small talk and catch ups are quickly brushed aside for poker chat. We're both craving it.
11.30am: Shuffle up and deal. We're underway and I quickly remember what a slow grind the big buy-in live tournaments are. The winner will have played for 30 hours over three days and patience is a key attribute of a winning player.
My table draw is tough, with two good young players on my direct left – meaning they have position on me (position is key in poker).
Scroll down for poker glossary
There's a lively pensioner at the table who is better at telling yarns than playing cards, but keeps everyone entertained with a few classics (when facing a pot-sized bet on a 77882 board says, "Well, I know you've got the full house but I'm going to call you anyway," before losing to a full house).
2.30pm: I started with 25k and after three hours I have... 25k. I don't play many significant hands and am quite comfortable being patient and waiting for good spots. There are two player competing for 'table captain', the young guy on my direct left and a tricky loose player (TLP) opposite me. Spoiler alert: TLP will be my undoing.
3.30pm: It's been a while since I've played a hand, and I decide to give King, Ten (K10) of clubs a whirl when it's folded to me in early position. I receive just one caller, the TLP. He tries to steal the pot off me on the flop, but I'm not falling for his sh*t (yet). I win the pot and hit my peak stack for the tournament, 30k.
Full hand breakdown below
5.30pm: Big buy-in poker tournaments are an interesting beast. You can patiently sit waiting for hours and hours to find a good spot, and then within seconds, your tournament is over.
My tournament ended at the hands of the TLP. On a board of KTJ2, his AQ was well ahead of my KT when all the chips went in the middle. But it didn't need to be this way. He bamboozled me.
We both played our hands deceptively by checking the flop, but his deception was a lot cleverer than mine. By over valueing two-pair on a dangerous board, I was gone.
Full hand breakdown below
6.30pm: When you only play one poker tournament a year, the hour post-bustout can be painful. It's a scattered mix of regret, justification, denial, sadness and eventually acceptance. I was out but hey, Shaun was still in and that bottle of bourbon wasn't going to drink itself.
Sunday, 6:30pm: I spent most of the next day in the casino, keeping an eye on both Shaun and the tournament.
There's a great community feel to the poker scene at Christchurch casino. The week-long series, expertly led by poker manager Warren Wyllie, appears to get more popular and stronger every year, while the cast of key protagonists remains the same.
There was the 2018 main event champion Ben Rendall, a doctor from Palmerston North who took home $37,000 on Thursday for winning the High-Stakes tournament; Shurane Vijayara, an Aussie landscaper who turned $130 into $1.6 million at the Aussie millions in 2017 and is now a regular on the New Zealand circuit; Jacko Efaraimo, "the Godfather"; and tournament whizzkids like Hamish Crawshaw ($553,318 in live winnings), Paul Hockin ($481,132) and the old master Scott Hamilton-Hill ($413,298).
But the star of the weekend was Christchurch painter Jon Pye. The self-proclaimed "recreational player" played six events, cashed in every one and made five final tables.
That included first in the main event for $107,000, $11,600 for a fourth placed finish in the South Island champs, $3000 for 8th in the Canterbury champs, $4,250 for fourth in the Pot Limit Omaha re-buy event, and $1,200 for 10th in the Bounty event. His standout 2019 also included a fifth in the Auckland WPT main event earlier this year, for $39,960.
What makes him so good?
"Pay attention," Pye said when asked what the most important trait of a successful poker player is. "Just be aware of what's going on around you. For me, it's getting so many physical tells from people. Just their mannerisms, what they do, how they act, how they look at their cards, there's just so many micro things that I tend to be able to pick up on. I'm good at reading situations.
"Also, having the ability to fold big hands and trusting your instincts. But it's my ability to read a situation which is priceless for me and gets me there, consistently."
I could learn a lot from Jon Pye.
After playing till 1.30am on Saturday morning, then 3.30am on Monday morning, Pye finally took the title at 3.00pm on Monday afternoon. He beat fellow Christchurch local Hamilton-Hill heads up after putting on a final table masterclass.
Anyone questioning the luck versus skill dynamics in poker, should take a close look at Pye's results.
Shaun nurses a small stack for six hours to scrape into the money, taking home $4000 for his 23rd place finish after his AK lost to A2 when all the money went in pre-flop.
Shaun, like probably 98% of the 230 players who entered the main event, was back at work on Monday, with a success story to tell about his weekend away at the tables.
I just had a story to tell about a good weekend away.
Steven was invited to play in the New Zealand Poker Championship by Christchurch Casino.
Poker glossary for dummies
To run out of chips when betting or calling.
An immediate, instant call.
All the possible cards with which a player would play in a given situation.
The amount of money in the pot compared to the amount you must put in the pot to continue playing.
Any three cards of the same number or face value, plus any other two cards of the same number or face value.
An aggressive player that seems to be in every pot, dictating the way that you – and the rest of the table – plays.
After being eliminated from tournament.
Key Hands for the poker nerds
I open KTcc to 1000 (playing off 25k) at 200/400 from UTG +2.
Button calls, sb calls.
I bet 1600, button folds, sb raises to 3600. I call
Sb checks, I check
He checks, I bet 4.5k and win.
Thoughts: The small blind was the tricky loose player. When he min check raised my flop bet I was suspicious he was getting out of line and because he raised so small was an easy call with a gutshot and two overs. When the board paired on the turn and he gave up, I checked back, because that's what I'd do with most of my value range. When the river bricks and he checks I have an obvious bet and win the pot.
2) I open AJss to 1100 at 250/500 from HJ. Button, who had been pretty loose, 3-bets to 2600.
I check, he checks.
I lead 4k at turn and he puts me in for 35bbs effective. I fold.
Thoughts: I don't like a lot of this. Calling a three-bet out of position against one of the better players at the table w AJ is a recipe for disaster. After he checks back the flop and the board pairs, I think a bet is ok. I'm open-ended, need to give myself a chance to win pot and can follow through on lots of rivers (He later tells me he has AKdd).
3) I had 23k on button at 300/600
Utg+2 opened (TLP) to 1600, I called button with KTss.
Utg+2 checks, I check.
Utg +2 checks, I bet 3k, he makes it 9k, I move all-in, he calls.
Thoughts: I'm ok with the call in position against his loose opening range. The flop is scary, and even with two-pair I am suspicious of his check on such a loaded board. It hits his range a lot harder than mine (I don't often have KK, JJ, TT, AQ here, all of which I would likely three-bet pre flop). The standard play is to bet the flop with two pair, which I should have done in hindsight. I can get value from all his one pair hands that will call and If I bet and get check raised, I likely could have got away from it by the river if he fires three barrels.
When he checked the blank turn, it changed the picture for me. I thought it highly unlikely he would check twice with KK, JJ or TT on a board where so many turn/river cards could kill his action. When he checked the turn, I had to bet, but when he re-raised me it put me in a tricky spot.
There's now 15,700 in the pot and I have 17k left. I think best line is to flat his turn raise, and re-evaluate river. Another diamond or paired board could slow him down, or if he's bluffing he might give up.
But I shoved. I thought (with the double check) he was more weighted toward draws and felt my hand was so underrepped it was a good time for him to make a move. But I got bamboozled. Thanks for making it to the end :)
Final table payouts: