Winning Back-to-Back World Poker Tour Events
This post was originally written in October of 2008, and I have kept it almost exactly the same. Only the grammar has changed for readability.
Originally titled “Bink-to-Bink,” this post maps my incredible good fortune in winning back-to-back tournaments at the Bellagio’s Fiesta al Lago World Poker Tour in Las Vegas.
(Bink: a poker term used when one’s extremely lucky. Ex. “I was all-in on the turn with pocket kings against pocket aces when I binked a king on the river to win the pot.”)
I awoke around 10a.m. and began preparing myself for a $3,000 buy-in tournament at the Bellagio. I had planned to play as many preliminary tournaments as possible for the Fiesta Al Lago for several reasons.
Recently, I wrote about my four goals to accomplish over the next six months. One of them was to win a poker tournament.
While this is predominately out of my control, there were several steps I was prepared to take to make this dream a reality. My friend once told me something very wise that can be applied to many areas of our lives. He asked me if I knew the easiest way to double the amount of girls I went out with.
I pondered for some time before he interrupted, and I was shocked at the simplicity of his answer: “Talk to twice as many.” That really hit home for me. Not necessarily literally, but it made me think about all the areas I can apply the “knock on more doors” concept to improve my own life.
Back-to-back tournaments. I was struggling to think of the best way to increase my potential for winning. I thought and thought and while studied in terms of improving my game, I never increased my chances mathematically. If you double the number of tournaments you play, guess what: You double your chances of winning. It’s as simple as that. While trivial, I feel many of us often overlook the most simplistic concepts when striving for success.
After a morning at the Wynn Spa (my favorite spot for working out, steam room, reading, Jacuzzi, sauna, manicure, etc.), I headed over to the Bellagio for registration. I arrived several hours late—Spa or Poker? Easy choice for me, which wasn’t that big of a mistake, because at Bellagio you can register up to 2 hours late without losing any chips.
Often times I find late registration more profitable, because I cannot play my A-game for longer than 10 hours of live play. I minimize the times I’m playing sub, A-game poker and do it at the least important time. By the end of the day, when everyone is tired, I’m still going strong and making crucial and correct decisions when they matter most.
In the beginning of a tournament the decisions are less significant relative to those you will be making later. Ideally, I would play A-game poker for the entire 12 hours. I often talk to people and they laugh at me that I’m giving up so much edge early on in a tournament. To them I say two things: the cost of losing chips is FAR greater than the value of gaining chips because like one’s net worth each dollar (or chip) diminishes in value as you get richer.
Arriving late (especially when you are not penalized—being blinded off—like you are in a World Poker Tour event) makes it that much better.
Secondly, I cannot understand how someone can claim to play their A-game for 12 hours straight (or perhaps 14 if they arrive on time at noon) without fading. I feel like I take way more steps to ensure I play my best relative to others and still find it to be a huge struggle. The steps I take to enhance my mental and physical stamina are:
1) Eating. I often bring food from home to poker tournaments (in a cooler I prepack snacks and lunch) that have high nutritional value, keeping me focused and alert while playing (High Protein, Green Tea, etc.). If I am forced to order food at the casino, I call it in ahead of time, so I can use the full break to eat instead of rushing and always choose a healthy meal.
2) Distractions. I turn off my cell phone while playing to stay focused and “in the zone.” I also bring several books to read during the breaks to give my mind a rest and distract it from poker for as long as possible. (Similar to taking breaks in between sets while working out to let your muscles recover so you can lift harder, better, and longer.)
I often see people discussing hands on the break and talking about poker constantly while playing. How can they focus if they do this? How do they give their mind a break? And surely this discussion isn’t imminent.
People struggle to get their story in during the break and for what? Will any of this mental energy be used to improve performance during the next few hours? No. Save that for later when you’re fresh and can put energy into thinking about decisions when you don’t have a tournament to play.
3) Exercise. I exercise regularly to build up stamina and reduce fatigue at the poker table. My triathlon prepared me both mentally and physically in one of the best ways possible and had a direct effect on my ability to focus when I’m tired or tilted. I also stretch regularly while playing and get up for brief walks, which keeps my blood flowing. Additionally, I get massages if I’m tense, which might not be worth the amount you’re paying but it contributes to relaxation and improved performance and at the table.
4) Goal Setting: I set regular goals for myself (winning a poker tournament) and remind myself of these goals at the table to stay focused and keep my mind on the goal while playing. Everything else is just noise.
Nonetheless, after implementing these strategies I still find it extremely difficult to stay focused for extended periods of time. Maybe it’s just me but I feel that many poker players (and perhaps I’m the biggest sinner when it comes to this) often over value their ability to make decisions when tired and tilted.
Sure, I’m still probably better than the average player and have an edge, but I’m not maximizing my potential for winning and not doing my job to the best of my ability if I’m tired. To be the best you have to work hard, both on and off the table, and this is one area I feel like I’m taking big steps toward improving, so enough on that.
Note from 2018 Alec
Playing my A-game during long sessions is something I’ve worked diligently on over the course of my career. Competing in the high stakes games in Macau, where a session could easily last 24 hours, forced me to refine my strategy. I got to the point where I could play for a day or longer and still maintain my focus to play my A-game.
If this is a subject you’d like to know more about, please leave a comment below. If it gets some traction, I may dedicate an entire blog post to my stamina routine in the future.
I was seated at the end table just in time for the big blind. The blinds were 50/100 and I started with 9,000 in chips. Everyone folded to the button who limped, the small blind completed, and I looked down at Qd Jd. I made it 500 to go and the button min-raised to 900. The SB folded and I called, putting him on a big pair.
The flop came KT6 rainbow. We both checked. The turn brought a 9 making me the nuts. I bet out 1400; he made it 3600, and I shoved, putting him on KK or AA. He snapped called immediately with KK, and I dodged 10 outs and immediately doubled my starting stack.
The next few hands I flopped a set and had an over-pair to work my stack up to 25,000 quickly. Welcome to Bellagio!
We played the duration of the day and I crushed. I ran highly above expectation and played my A-game nearly the whole day. I made one questionable play costing me a decent amount of chips near the end of the day but still managed to make it to the final nine, ending the day second in chips.
75 players down and 8 to go and I had one goal in mind: win.
The final table had a mixed field which included a few complete bananas and a few regulars—John Pham (who was running extremely well that year) and Johnathan Little (WPT winner). I forgot what happened but suddenly we were down to 3 players and we were all about even in chips.
I was playing well and feeling confident. I raised the button with 22 and got called by the big blind, who defended extremely light. The flop came 842 rainbow and he check/ called. We had about 30 BB each. The turn brought me quads and we both checked. The river brought a 4 and he bet 1/4 pot. I raised and he put me all-in when he rivered a straight with 67. Easy game. I was heads-up with Johnathan Little.
“You want to chop or make a deal?” he asked.
“No, sorry,” I replied without much explanation. “I did that once before and I won and it tilted me. I’m playing to win, so in the event I lose the money, compensation wouldn’t increase my happiness level; whereas, if I won and made a deal, it would decrease it since it would linger in my mind in terms of lack of potential satisfaction. (Ex: you won but could have won more attitude).
Maybe my logic was flawed, but it made sense to me at the time. I didn’t care. We battled sometime before the following hand came up.
I raised the button with 77 and he re-raised from the big blind. I had an easy decision and immediately put him all-in, and he quickly called. He turned over As 9s.
“Are you good at these?” I asked, referring to the quintessential, so called 50-50 flip.
“Pretty decent,” he replied.
The board came J83.
The turn brought a 4. My heart skipped a beat. I was one card away from my first win. The gold bracelet with the word “Bellagio” embezzled on the front staring me in the face. The dealer pounded the table. Burned.
An off-suit three.
It blanked, giving me the best for the bracelet and $84,000. I shook John’s hand and just stood there. I can’t describe the feeling. I had waited so long for this and it finally happened.
I had won my bracelet—maybe not in the World Series of Poker, but a bracelet nonetheless. Of course I cannot control when I run well or when I’m fortunate enough to win a tournament.
I didn’t care about the TV time, fame, or public approval. As I strive to do with everything, I compete with myself and this time I did it.
In retrospect, it seems foolish to chase a goal that is predominately luck based, but my entire teen years were spent unaware of this knowledge. I was “fooled by randomness,” as Nassim Taleb calls it, and it was something that stuck with me. Similar to fairy tales that are often unexplainable or childish, winning a poker tournament was mine.
Now it came true. Five years ago, when I started playing poker, I dreamed about winning a big tournament and having that bracelet. It was surreal.
That night I went out to celebrate with Robl at Il Mulino (one of my favorite Italian restaurants in town), at Caesar’s, and just enjoyed some nice wine and dinner. I went to bed, not wanting the euphoria to end.
I woke up the next morning around 8 am. I was getting up at an early hour after my week in Zion and my previous training for the triathlon. I headed back to the Wynn Spa. Afterwards, I was unsure what to do, so I ventured over to Bellagio just in time to register for the day’s $5,000 event.
Almost immediately after I got there, we were on our first break. Playing throughout the day, I busted several players, including Layne Flack. I won a few crucial flips (and lost a few) and battled it out until the final table was approaching.
Before I knew it, we were down to 15 and I was the commanding chip leader. After several more people busted, I was still chip leader going into the final table and day 2.
I got home that night a little after 1:30 am and immediately passed out.
I dreamt of poker. I had played so much in the past few days I couldn’t really tell if I was sleeping or not. That’s when you know you’re all-in.
I woke up the next day feeling good and ready to play. I didn’t get short sighted and kept my eye on the prize. When the final table started I realized this presented a huge opportunity for me.
Nobody had won back-to-back events at Bellagio or any major tournament for that matter since Layne Flack (known as back-to-back Flack) did it many years ago in the World Series of Poker.
Due to the increase in field size this feat became nearly impossible. I had a real shot. I played my heart out and battled down to the top two to find one of the biggest ironies I have ever experienced.
I sat across from none other than Johnathan Little once again. Two days in a row we both found ourselves heads-up against each other. If I beat him again, it would make for one of the sickest stories in poker history. (See the end of this post for a detailed explanation of just how unlikely the nature of this event is.)
I wasn’t going to let the pressure get to me. Included in the $120,000 first place prize was a $25,000 seat into the WPT Championships held in April at the Bellagio, as well as a seat in the Celebrity Invitational event in February, which you cannot buy into.
One must win a seat or be invited and it provided a $200,000 free-roll in prize money. I was determined. I knew John fairly well; he wasn’t going to give up easily. He didn’t want to lose twice (especially to the same person) and had a lot of experience heads-up in tournaments.
After a lot of battling, the following hand came up: We each had about 450,000 in chips and the blinds were 6,000/12,000 with a 2,000 ante. John raised the button (which he had done nearly every hand) to 25,000 and I called from the blind with 8d5d. The flop came J94 with 2 diamonds. I checked and he bet 30,000 (which he always did). I had been check/raising a lot of flops and didn’t want to be forced to get all my chips in as a big underdog so I decided to just call.
The turn brought a 5, giving me a pair, and I checked again. He quickly checked behind. The turn brought an off-suit King (not completing the flush). I checked again and he bet 55,000.
I ran through the hand in my head. I remembered a hand we played earlier in the match when I called him down on the flop with A4 on J54 board and it was checked to the river and I won with a pair of 4’s.
I knew he was smart enough to realize that I probably didn’t have a strong hand, so he wasn’t going to let me go to showdown every hand without a fight. A lot more complex thought went into this hand that I won’t delve into here, but I ended up calling and he showed AT for a bluff.
I won the pot and gave myself a decent chip lead and momentum in the match. I raised several future pots and he re-raised all-in nearly every time. I raised the button three times with KK, AJ, and 99, and he folded every time but somehow seemed to shove when I didn’t have the goods, which of course, was frustrating.
I was dwindling him down, however, and nearly had a 2:1 chip lead when I looked down at AT on the button. I raised; he shoved, and I snapped him off. He showed Ks9s and I was 60/40 for the title.
The flop came, A82 and he was all but dead. The turn brought another Ace and I won, again. Two in a row! (I want to note that it is impossible to win two events in a row because the final table is the second day on which another tournament is played and one cannot play both due to different starting times. However, I won both events that I played back-to-back, which is the most one can do given the circumstances.)
I was totally shocked. Having my parents and Andrew there to watch made it that much sweeter, not to mention beating the same person twice (nothing against Jonathan Little, just how the cards roll).
I received a ton of congrats and really felt content with poker. I had the feeling that even if that was the pinnacle point in my poker career, I think I’d be happy. That’s not to say I’m going to quit tomorrow; it’s just comforting to view my overall experience as a success and makes playing less important from a competitive standpoint.
The feats that made Johnny Chan and Layne Flack famous, I had just done. Of course, I don’t measure myself by them and understand that I will never receive their fame as tournament players. It probably won’t even be a CardPlayer cover story. I’m fine with that. I did it for myself.
I had accomplished all I wanted with the game of poker and did everything imaginable from traveling around the world competing in major tournaments, to beating the highest cash games online: I did it all, or so I thought.
The Math behind the Tournaments
I couldn’t help but wonder just how unlikely these events were, so I began the process of getting a true estimation of one player beating the same player heads-up two times in a row.
A few facts are needed:
1) the amount of people in the first tournament was 84.
2) the amount of people in the second tournament was 64.
We will first start with the odds of me winning the first tournamnet. Assuming I have above average skill we can say my chances are roughly one in fifty or 2%.
Now for the second tournament
Here we have to figure out the chances that I win again and the same player gets second again.
First, the probability of me winning. Since there were 64 players we can estimate my odds are 1/40 or 2.5%.
The chance that Little will finish second can be roughly estimated at 1/40 since he’s also one of the best players in the field.
Now, let’s crunch some numbers. To do that we simply multiply all the probabilities together.
The probability of me winning the first one and both of us getting heads up again in the second one are 1/50 x 1/40 x 1/40 = 1/80,000.
Some like to say I ran slightly above expectation. People say of Johnny Chan, “Oh he won back-to-back main events.” Hopefully, now you understand why I prefer the phrase, “bink to bink.”