Taking a Shot in Televised $25-$50 NLH Game
The cards are face up. The action is complete. Pocket queens versus ace-king offsuit, all in preflop — the classic race. Shaun Deeb yells across the table to my opponent, Mike Matusow, saying he’s rooting for me to win. Sh*t, I’m rooting for me, too. After all, it is by far the biggest pot I’ve ever played. We’re flipping for $10,000.
“Let’s see the flop,” a producer says into a small, hidden microphone.
My heart skips a beat. I’m sweating underneath my leather jacket. “Wear the jacket,” they said. “It looks cool,” they said. Cool my ass.
The flop comes, and there’s a king in the door. I don’t feel the need to watch the board run out. I know the odds. The pot ships towards Matusow, and the only thing moving faster than his mouth are the chips he’s stacking. We're five hands in, and I’m already reaching into my purse for a rebuy.
Getting On the Show
It all started with an iMessage in a group text that includes a few of my closest friends and my husband, Andrew. The message contained a link to Nolan Dalla’s blog post announcing the opportunity for a few players to be a part of an up-and-coming show called Poker Night in America. To apply, hopefuls were to send a bio and video stating why he or she would be a great fit for a show that’s main objective is to feature the fun side of poker. Winners would fly in a private jet from Las Vegas to Turning Stone Casino in New York, have their rooms paid for, be granted an entry into the $1,600 buy-in Empire State Championships Main Event, and play in a televised $25/$50 no-limit hold’em cash game on their own dime.
My group of friends urged me to apply, so without giving it too much thought, I shot off an application.
The Sunday before the trip, I received the call. I’d been chosen. I was excited, but almost immediately, anxiety set in. What would people think? What if I played badly? Did I deserve this? Had I worked hard enough on my game? Was I ready?
I asked Andrew for his opinion. He encouraged me, reminded me what a great opportunity it was, and assured me that we would figure out the logistics together as long as I was sure I wanted to do it. Of course I was sure. I was just having trouble shaking my feelings of guilt and insecurity. Maybe there were players who deserved this opportunity more than me. Then again, it was poker. Luck was part of the equation, so I figured it was okay to take advantage of it when it visited me.
Over the next four days, I logged somewhere between 25 and 30 hours at the Vegas poker tables, trying to get my head into grind mode. During that time, word got out that I was going to be playing in a big, televised cash game.
The following is a conversation I had at a poker table at Aria.
“You're going to play $25/$50?” a regular asked in an incredulous tone.
“Yes, but obviously I’m selling pieces,” I replied, feeling the need to explain myself.
He scoffed, “Who would buy a piece of you?”
“If you want to know the truth, ya jerk,” I thought, but didn’t say, “most of my action was sold before I even officially asked!” I was a bit irked by his attitude, but not exactly surprised. I knew that this kind of reaction would be common.
It’s still the common perception that if you’re a woman you’re not going to be good or that you’re going to play in a predictable weak-tight style. I think people who don’t know me would be shocked to know the time and hard work I’ve put in over the years. I received coaching from Andrew “Balugawhale” Seidman of DeucesCracked.com and have always been a winner in live cash games. Just before Black Friday, I was grinding low-stakes, six-max cash games online and also took down a MiniFTOPS heads-up event. When I’m not working, I try to play as much as possible, and when I am working, I’m learning about poker from the best players in the world — the same players I was about to go up against in this cash game.
On Thursday morning, I grabbed a cab to take me to the private hangar. As soon as I walked in, I saw players handing the woman at the front desk the keys to their car. Of course, people who fly private jets don’t take cabs. I’m an idiot. That’s okay, my little Toyota Prius wouldn’t fit in with this fleet of cars anyway.
Other than the players themselves, the prime necessities for the flight were decks of cards and alcohol. With the late arrival of Gavin Smith, the only player yet to be accounted for, two of those three needs were fulfilled. The stewardess provided cards.
We walked out the back door of the office building and there it was. It was a shiny white jet with a set of drop-down stairs. It looked just as glamorous as I had imagined. I felt like I was in a rap video.
Once seated on the plane, the gambling started immediately. Open-face Chinese poker kicked off at $100 a point at the front of the plane between Matusow, Greg Mueller, Eli Elezra, and David Baker, and at $5 a point in the back with Layne Flack and Smith. I was seated on one of two bench seats that faced each other, located just behind the pilot. During takeoff, we could actually see the pilots at work. It was an odd experience flying sitting sideways, but as soon as we were at reasonable elevation, we were able to get up and mingle.
The cameras filmed it all. Despite all my on-camera experience, I found myself pulling an Asian Ricky Bobby. I had no idea what to do with my hands! Where was my microphone? Who was I interviewing? Wait, I’m being interviewed? I’m not in control of this conversation? Ahhhh! Act natural. What the heck am I supposed to do with my hands!?
Okay, maybe I wasn’t that awkward, but I did start to feel anxious and overwhelmed. I headed to the bathroom to take a breather and give myself a pep talk. After drying my hands with a washcloth (people who fly on private jets must not like paper towels), I reentered the cabin with new resolve. I had a wonderful, real, and meaningful conversation with Phil Laak, spoke articulately in an interview for Poker Night in America cameras, and even got in on some of the ribbing that was going on amongst the group.
Getting Stacked and Stacking Chips
That night, from the 16 players invited to play, we drafted for two lineups of eight players. My game included Smith, Matusow, Deeb, Matt Glantz, Mueller, David Levi, and Tom Schneider. We were to play the following day while the others played the tournament.
I couldn’t sleep. In the morning, annoyed and grouchy, I ate a piece of toast with peanut butter and tried to suck down enough coffee to get my brain working.
By the time I arrived on set, everyone was set up and ready to go. I didn’t have much time to think about it, but I saw that Deeb and Mueller both bought in deep, and Smith and Levi bought in on the shorter side. I put $5,000 on the table and figured I’d reevaluate once we got started.
I drew an amazing seat. Deeb was across the table, and the loosest players, Schneider and Mueller, were to my right. We sat down to play, and the banter began. Matusow played the first few hands and made sure to tell the table how “loose” he was playing. We were all fairly sure he was just picking up hands.
On the fifth or sixth hand we played, it folded around to me in the big blind, and I looked down at pocket queens. I raised into Matusow's $100 straddle. He three-bet, and I four-bet for value. When he shipped, I called off. It was a pretty standard spot being only 50 big blinds effective because of the straddle. The part that wasn’t standard was that it was being filmed for TV, and I was playing in the biggest game of my life. In any case, I got stacked.
The camera zoomed in on my face. I breathed deep and told myself to smile, then realized I already was smiling. I kept waiting for the gut-punched feeling to set in, but oddly it didn’t come. I also had the sense that the other players at the table were feeling a little bad for me. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have gladly taken my money themselves, but maybe they were remembering the first time they took a shot in a big game and lost.
I quickly rebought and refocused. I saw that the game would be straddled more than half the time, so I topped off my stack to $10,000. The game was loose and splashy, much more so than I had anticipated. After getting stacked and reassessing the game, I knew that the right approach was to play tight. There were a number of reasons I didn’t want to do this, including the chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want people to say, “Of course, she’s playing tight. It's because she’s a girl. She’s scared.” But I wasn’t going to let my ego dictate strategy. The truth is, it actually surprised me how insanely comfortable I was at the table. Not once did I think anything along the lines of, “Oh, I just lost a car in that pot.”
And speaking of losing, Matusow lost all my money plus some when he got stacked and slow-rolled by Deeb. He went from chirping and laughing between every hand to angrily mumbling to himself and threatening to quit. In Matusow’s book, slow-rolling is a big no-no.
Mueller provided the most action at the table and was frequently reaching under his chair into a manila folder stuffed with cash and random casino chips to reload. The first and only player to bust from the table and not rebuy was Levi. He was replaced by an East Coast grinder with enormous biceps called “Mike The Pro” — whose real name is Mike Dentale. To be honest, I was little disappointed by his arrival because previous to that, I was the most in-shape person at the table! Oooohhhh burn! See, I told you I got in on the ribbing.
I played a classic tight-aggressive style and was the aggressor in almost every hand I played. Over the next couple of hours, I grinded my way back to near even. After double barreling Schneider with an overpair in a multi-way, three-bet pot out of position, I was finally in the black. It was a big pot, and I have to say, my heart was beating hard when he tanked on the turn before ultimately folding.
We had been playing for about six hours when I started feeling sick and dizzy. Looking back, it was clearly because I hadn’t eaten anything other than a piece of toast and a granola bar all day. Usually, I eat every two hours on the dot and drink lots of water. Because of my nerves, I just wasn’t hungry all day. I think at some point the adrenaline and lack of sustenance got to me. We were scheduled to finish up soon, and I desperately wanted to hold out until the end.
With about 40 minutes to go, I doubled-barreled Deeb in a straddled pot and lost. The composure and focus I’d had at the beginning of the day was drastically diminished. When I started to feel nauseous, despite my earlier resolve, I decided to call it quits. I knew I’d regret it if I spewed money or puked on the table when I could have just gotten up. There was no glory in trying to be a hero. It’s true I’d only come out with a small $900 win, but after getting stacked the first hand I played, it felt huge.
I went back to my hotel room, scarfed down some Chinese food, and chugged a bottle of water. I sprawled out on the bed and read all the Twitter and Facebook messages of support I’d received throughout the day. I felt so grateful and a little relieved that I’d come away from the game unscathed.
Less Pressure, More Fun
The next two days were pure fun. On Saturday, I freerolled the Empire State Poker Championships Main Event and busted just after dinner break. I didn’t play that well. I was more concerned with watching the live stream of the other cash game! And Sunday, for those who didn’t make Day 2 of the tournament, was golf day.
Having never played a round of golf in my life, I was hesitant to join the crew. I figured what better time to try than with some fellow poker players. Also, someone whispered that as soon as I saw Elezra swing a club, I’d feel much more confident about playing. Again, they split up the group, and we “scrambled,” meaning you play your team’s best shot. I’d always thought golf was boring, but I absolutely loved playing this way. Also, there was beer, gambling, and someone let me drive a golf cart (idiots).
Wanting to get us more involved, the boys decided that Lauren Billings (the other audition winner) and I should have a “drive-off” and they could bet on it. At the beginning of a new hole, we would each get one chance to hit the ball, and the ball that went the farthest won. After seeing each of us both swing a club, those who bet on Billings got two-to-one odds. I think I’m pretty athletic, but this was unfamiliar territory. Plus, people wagered a decent amount of money at a disadvantage because they were that confident I’d win. I walked up to the ball and did my usual “you got this” talk that I do when I’m in a pressure situation. I pulled back, kept my eye on the ball, and swung through as hard as I could. Shank. The ball never left the ground. It rolled a decent length forward, but I didn’t think I had hope.
Billings walked up to take her shot. She seemed uncomfortable, but I recognized the competitive sparkle in her eyes. Boom. Her club made direct contact with the ball. At first, we all thought she was going to win, but somehow, it hit the grass and just dribbled along, short of my ball. It was a sad showing by us ladies, but I’m not going to lie, it always feels good to win.
The best golfers were Flack and Schneider. They carried each of their respective teams, but after all was said and done, Schneider’s team won the money. He also won the award for best dressed.
The Last Supper
Famished after golf, we made our way to the casino’s steakhouse. It was a classy and quiet joint until we sauntered in, countless beers deep, wearing tennis shoes, t-shirts, and ball caps. The hostess (probably thinking of the best way to hide us) told us she’d set us up in a private room, but while they were getting it ready, we headed to the bar to grab a drink. Needless to say, once there, a game of Chinese poker immediately broke out.
Dinner was a lively and rambunctious affair. It didn’t matter if you’d won or lost a few thousand over the weekend because there was world-class food to eat and stories to share. Somehow, someone convinced me to reenact Matusow’s reaction to getting slow-rolled by Deeb (blame it on the alcohol). I hope footage of that never surfaces.
I looked around the table and felt incredibly lucky. A few years ago, I was watching these people play poker on ESPN, just hoping that one day I could meet them. Now, here I was. It was a bit surreal. As dinner wound down, I decided to make a toast.
“Hey, quiet! Kristy wants to say something!” yelled Mueller. When a six-foot-six, former professional hockey player tells people to shut up, they tend to listen. The room went quiet. I had the floor.
I stood up, a bit wobbly from a combination of nerves and a few glasses of expensive wine. I lifted my glass. I wanted to say that I was so grateful for the experience. I wanted to convey my gratitude towards everyone for including me and making me feel like “one of them.” I tried to string the words together in the most poetic way I could muster. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much of that came across. I think it was more of a wine-fueled “I love you man” speech. Oh well, I tried.
The bill was $1,700, and we did a massive credit card roulette. It was decided that if you won in the cash game, you had to put in more cards than those who lost. Billings and I only put one card in each (who says poker players aren’t chivalrous?). I didn’t have much of a sweat as my card was picked pretty early, but several others did. The big losers were Smith and Baker, who decided before the start of the roulette that they’d chop if either of them lost. Smith’s card was the loneliest one in the hat.
We continued the party with more open-face Chinese Poker. I bought a little of Mueller’s action and joked about the influence they’d all had on me. I never gamble on anything other than poker, and here I’d gambled on golf prop bets, Chinese poker, and taken part in a four-figure credit card roulette! Who was I!?
When Mueller came back from losing to even, I decided to call it a night. I went to bed and wouldn’t you know it, when I emerged from my hotel room to check out the next morning, they were still in the lobby playing.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Tired, sluggish, and a bit hungover, we all dragged ass onto the jet the next morning. The energy on the flight back was the complete opposite from the trip there. The cameras were off, and other than those who continued playing Chinese, there was little conversation. It gave me a chance to reflect on the past few days.
I’m so happy and lucky to have had this experience. Looking back, I can see that I learned a lot about what I’m capable of in terms of both poker and life. In poker, I know I have so much learning still to do, but I am confident about my potential. Under the lights, cameras, and pressure, I made solid poker decisions that I am happy with.
I realize, though, that this trip could have been disastrous. I could have played terribly, made lamentable missteps, and lost $20,000. Financially, I would have been fine (and so would my friends), but emotionally, it would have been tougher. Embarrassment and bruised ego can take a long time to go away. The alternative was to choose not to play, but I would most certainly have had regrets.
It may seem I’m being results oriented, and that I’m standing behind my decision to play because it went well. I’d like to think I’d feel the same about it all regardless, but it’s impossible to tell. I do acknowledge, however, that accepting challenges and taking calculated risks is scary, but firmly believe that walking the line between what’s comfortable and what’s possible is when you’re really living. So, as long as there’s no risk of ruin, I’ll take queens over ace-king all day, any day.