I was in a cramped little bar section of a Mexican restaurant in the Valley. I had just spent the day assisting in a TV shoot for a syndicated special that counted down the hottest “jams” of the summer. My workload amounted to carrying sand bags and standing around while two former child stars read scripted introductions to videos off of cue cards. It had been fun getting out of the office and hanging around all day in the sun, and now some of my fellow workmates and I were enjoying our own little wrap party.
The margaritas and cervesas were flowing and we had just begun to dig into the treacherously deep-fried sampler platter when I noticed a familiar sight on the silent TV screen above the bar.
“That’s Three Rivers Stadium,” I exclaimed, “That’s in Pittsburgh, where I grew up.”
At that moment, Three Rivers Stadium imploded and crumbled to the ground. Imagine my shock. I hadn’t been following the news, I hadn’t been reading the ligaz11 sports page, none of my friends or family back home had thought to mention that this historic landmark was being demolished to make way for two new stadiums. In an instant, without so much as a warning, the place where I had spent countless occasions watching the likes of Tony Peña, Barry Bonds, and Bobby Bonilla swing a bat for the Pirates was no more.
My emotions had taken a roller coaster ride, from the joy of seeing a structure that symbolized the city I grew up in to the surprise and horror of watching it fall, before I had a chance to do so much as breathe. It’s not something that’s had a devastating impact on my life, but it’s certainly a moment I’ll never forget.
I went through a similar range of emotions during the first big tournament I ever played in. It was the California State Poker Championship’s $330 buy in Seven Card Stud event at Commerce Casino. I nearly missed the tournament due to a band practice gone long. We finished up about thirty minutes before sign-up time, so I bid my bandmates adieu, hopped into my car and floored it.
After forty-five minutes of battling LA traffic I arrived at Commerce and sprinted to the Copa Cabana Room. The woman registering in players told me that she had to wait for one more player before she could open a new table. The thunderous clacking of chips echoed through the room as I waited until another player finally showed up.
About ten minutes after I sat down, another player arrived at the table and took his seat. A hushed silence came over our table and a few of my fellow players said “Hi Chris.” Chris Ferguson, who just months earlier had won the World Series of Poker, quietly nodded hellos back.
I figured I was in over my head, but by playing tight and catching some good cards, I managed to make it to the final five tables. That’s about the time things got interesting.
I had a medium to low chip count and I went into a three-way pot with the players on either side of me. On fourth street I had two pair, tens and nines. The guy to my right had a pair of aces and the one to my left had three jacks. On sixth street I hit another ten and filled up. The other players got no help and I scooped the pot, knocking one of them out in the process.
I was now chip leader at my table and in really good shape. On the very next hand I went heads up against a player sitting directly across from me. She bet her pair of aces against my 9-10-J-Q all the way to the river where I caught my straight. Getting nothing to go with her aces, she checked the river. This is where I made my first mistake. Being relatively new to poker and extremely nervous, I didn’t notice that she had only one chip left. Instead of putting her all-in, I checked and turned over my straight. My straight was good and I won the pot, but along with it came the vocal criticisms of the others at my table who chastised me for not knocking my opponent out of the tournament. Being that I was chip leader, I brushed off their comments and focused on my game.
We broke down to four tables and I got high-carded and moved to another seat. This is where I made my second mistake. Instead of sitting on my chips which would have all but guaranteed me a spot at the final table, I played way too loose. I kept starting with good cards. My first hand I had rolled up queens and went heads up against a player with a 10 showing. On fourth street I caught a 10 and he caught junk. I checked as did he. On fifth street I caught junk and he caught his third 10. He bet and I folded. This kind of pattern continued on through the next round. I’d start with a big pair, lose a bunch of chips, and fold. Apparently I had left my luck back at the other table.
Before I knew it we were down to three tables and I was down to a small stack. We drew for seats and I took my place at table two. Much to my surprise and dismay, the woman who I could’ve knocked out of the tournament was sitting directly across from me. She had managed to turn her one chip into a stack about half the size of mine. This is where I (finally) wised up and realized that I had to hold onto my chips if I wanted to make it to the money.
We were down to 18 players, only two more had to be knocked out to break down to two tables. We were playing hand-by-hand at this point and I was doing everything I could to stay alive. The other players at my table were doing everything they could to knock me and my short-stacked nemesis out. Finally she went all in and lost, half an hour after she should’ve been gone.
A player at table one had the same unfortunate amount of chips that I did, and it became obvious that barring any great luck, one of us wasn’t going to make the money. It was a waiting game, but guess who got low carded literally every single hand. I figured my luck was probably somewhere out in the parking lot by now. Then I made my last mistake. I got the low card yet again, this time with the deuce of clubs, but I happened to have a deuce underneath as well. Seat two raised immediately with a king showing. Everyone else folded and it came down to me. I announced “I have a pair, but it’s the worst pair you could have.” I could go all in with my pair of deuces or I could ante one or two more hands depending on whether or not I got low carded again. I threw my deuces away and seat two revealed that he had K-10-Q offsuit. A dangerous hand, but certainly one that I would’ve had a fighting chance against with my two deuces.
I anted the next hand and caught the low card yet again which put me all in. This time I had junk and my heart sank. Here I was, a few chips away from the money and I was going to be knocked out. No help came and I finished the tournament in 17th place.
It was a great learning experience, but needless to say, one of the most frustrating ones of my life. When I lost that last hand, it was like Three Rivers Stadium had come crashing down all over again. Unlike the momentary shock I felt at the leveling of that historical edifice, this experience is one that has had a lasting impact. It changed my tournament strategy. It changed the way I play poker.