Stuart “Easy Pickings” Rutter reports once more from the far-flung reaches of the European tournaments circuit; this time from two locations that held festivals in close chronological proximity; Dublin in Ireland and Helsinki in Finland.
The beginning of June saw some of the finest from England and Ireland head to the City West Hotel in Dublin to take their shot at the Grand Final of the Irish Poker Tour. The bank holiday weekend in Ireland made a whole festival of events possible, centring on a €3000 Main Event. It is well known that the Irish Poker Tour and other big poker events in Dublin are strongly attended and have a wonderful reputation.
Whilst the people involved did indeed give the event a special friendly feel, it was a surprise to find that much of the organisation was amateurish. Picking my seat for the Main Event, I was disappointed to pull seat number one, from which it is often more difficult to see what is going on. “Never mind”, I was told, “have another pick, plenty of people have done.” In any size of poker event, the seating system should be completely fair, and the potential problems of this system in a very large buy-in event are obvious. Even the dealers seemed to be working with little confidence in the team.
Any dealer can make a mechanical error, but the sheer number of mistakes and their uncertainty in the rules reflected the poor organisation. The most alarming mistake was when I announced “all-in” from the big blind, and, whilst waiting for the small blind to make his decision, saw the dealer deal out a flop! There are a lot of problems to be solved to begin to justify the hefty 10% juice, which of course meant €300 on top of the Main Event.
Seating problems or not, every table was going to be a tough one, and I was faced with Julian Thew and a number of the tougher Irish players. Looking around the room, I had maybe got away lightly, with the whole Hendon Mob and pros Paul Jackson and Kevin O'Connell heading a strong English bunch, and Andy Black the most recognisable of the Irish.
Because of my newness on the scene, I did not recognise the softly spoken Mancunian in seat number 4. A satellite winner maybe, I thought, as he seemed intent on limping into a lot of pots early on. Raising with KQ against him half way through the first level, I missed the J74 rainbow flop. However, the “texture” of the flop, how well it fits the typical starting hands, meant that he too may have missed, so I decided to fire out a bet of 2/3 of the pot. “Call,” and a 5 fell next. Checked to me, I decided to continue the pressure, representing an overpair or AJ. The seemingly timid player scuppered my plan by announcing “Raise” and putting in most of his 10,000 starting stack; I later realised my foolishness in having not recognised 2004 World Series Star Julian Gardner!
Down but not out, I still had 8,000 of the 10k stack left to play with, and quickly realised that the table was best played for value, as a lot of hands were being called down to the end. I had to play a patient game for the best part of two levels with no real hands, but a slow structure meant that a 7,200 stack was still something to play with after the break. A young Irish player soon sat down at the table with a whole stack of chips, and seemed intent on giving them back. He would always bet with a hand in or out of position, and his inexperience made it too obvious whether he was strong or not. Finding pocket tens, I was happy when just he called my raise from the big blind. The flop was a difficult AQ9, and trusting that his check told me that he had no ace, I decided to put in a bet of half the pot. This kind of bet is often my preferred style in a tournament situation. Of course, if he has missed the flop with a suited connector or similar hand, I would take down the pot there. More importantly, if I am going to bluff at a hand, I prefer to do it at the second attempt. It is often better and more believable to aim to take a pot down in two steps, as long as a favourable turn card arrives, than it is to bluff once at the flop.
He called in a way that helped me believe his hand was not strong, but it was still unclear whether that was slightly better or slightly worse than my now weak pocket tens. A king fell next, followed by a check from my opponent, and I thought my pair of tens had now to be behind.
I looked down at a pot of 2,500 and a stack of 6,000, and wondered, “Do I break the cardinal rule, and do I try to bluff the calling station?” Whilst in general a good rule, my philosophy is that it can sometimes be right to break it. Otherwise, you are handing a big advantage to this type of player. Sure, it is never right to attempt to play a calling station off a big hand, thinking, well, they have to believe me here! However, I felt that this was a player who could make a reluctant pass, and he was giving signs that the board was as tricky for him as it was for me.
Perhaps stupidly, I fired out a pot sized bet of 2,500. My opponent spent a long time thinking, adding “you're not making it cheap for me, are you?” My fear was realised, he had both a pair of the K, Q or 9, and a gutshot draw. He eventually called, and I thought “game up.” We saw an Ace fall as the last card, giving a board of AQ9KA. To my surprise, he pointed at my stack and said “I put you all in.” This seemed to change everything. It was very clear that he believed he was bluffing, in that I could be sure that he didn't have three aces, and I was faced with a horrible decision. On what level was this man bluffing? If he realised that there was no point in “bluffing” with a king in his hand, then I now had to think more seriously that I might still be in front. I decided that he had tired of all these tricky decisions, and simply had decided to put all the chips in first. I thought long and hard about the possibility that I was beating a J9 or a T9, before eventually passing. He happily showed his “bluff,” a King Jack.
Frustrating, but I think I have myself to blame in the hand. The board meant that he was very likely to be holding both a pair and a gutshot draw, and this extra attraction makes it very difficult for weaker players to give up their hand. I think any poker player who holds the mantra “Never bluff a calling station” is not making a mistake. I was down to the felt, and had now to hope for a little luck. It seemed it may have come hitting two pair by the turn on KJ94, with three spades, but the same player had already made a flush, and an unpaired river meant an exit before the end of Act Two. At the end of a long three days play, a final table including Ram Vaswani and Mel Judah was impressively conquered by local player Brendan Walls.
Germany is very expensive to get out of during the World Cup month, so I decided to fit in another trip just before it started. After the wonderfully organised and structured Helsinki Freezeout in December, a very different climate greeted the “Midnight Sun” festival, celebrating the near 24-hour daylight at this time of year. A 20,000 starting stack and slowly increasing blinds meant that there was no rush to get chips, but I could not avoid it when, in the big blind with 25o, I saw the perfect A34 flop. Another ace on the turn meant that a big pot threatened, and there was some sense of relief when my opponent threw his hand away to a check-raise on the turn with already 8,000 chips in the middle. I was then joyed to turn trip fours on a board of AKJ4, but frustration followed on the river. It came a harmless looking 9. My opponent thought about whether to call my 4,000 bet, shuffling his cards as he did so. “Hand dead, your cards have crossed the line,” an efficient dealer barked. This is a rule far stricter than players are used to in other venues. It would have been nice to have the extra chips in a field full of tough Swedish and Finnish players, but my card-rich start meant that I had 29,000 in chips by the end of level 3. Which of the poker evils could get me now, I wondered at the break. Over confidence? Sitting back on a lead? Neither, I hoped, the plan was to continue to attack with cautious aggression.
Being me, I of course went back on this plan almost immediately. Against an aggressive Swedish player, I called a raise in the big blind with 67o, and hit a very decent flop of Q85. With such deep stacks, a check raise could not get me into too much trouble. If not immediately successful, my opponent's reaction to it may help me to decide how to continue. So, I made it 3,000 to go after a smallish bet of 800, and was immediately told “I make it 6,000 more.” There seemed to be an extra determination to my opponent's voice, and I allowed myself a long dwell to try to work out what was going on. I was uncertain, but decided on a most likely scenario. He had a strong hand, maybe an AQ, maybe a pair of kings, and did not fancy being pushed around without making it more expensive in the pot. Well, I thought, what do I know about this guy, do I have an opportunity here? He himself will know that I know he is strong. And before I knew it, they were in. 21,000 more, and I had only to concentrate on one thing. Try to keep that pulse in my neck from beating so hard, try to forget the fact that that is all my chips, that it was a long journey to get to them! It must have been a good few minutes before he decided. “I put you on a very big hand, I'm going to lay these down.” Two aces?! This is better than Ireland, I thought, hooray for players who can make a great laydown!
Working my way up to 77,000 by the next break, with the sun still shining outside, I was now playing a more patient game against a table of wonderfully aggressive Scandinavians, including Sweden's Johan Storakers. I took a chance calling a raise on the button with QJo, and was unfairly rewarded with a flop of K109. To my surprise, the aggressive young Finn checked, and I obliged with a 5,000 bet. He called, and we saw the perfect turn card for me - an Ace. With two clubs and two hearts now on the board, I had to make it expensive, and fired out a pot-sized 17,000. He called, and I was struggling to put him on a hand. It seemed most likely that this was one pair, plus a draw, and I prayed for a blank river. A 7 of clubs made a flush possible, but I should not have shied away from betting in the way I did, and could perhaps have collected a little more from his Ace Queen. However, poker is a game of both luck and skill, and at least this evening I was getting the first half right.
Going into the final level of the day, I had 132,000 in chips, and a flurry of exits meant that we had just 25 players left. With the chip lead on the table, I perhaps played with too much aggression, and allowed the ice-cool Swedes to see their chances to re-raise all-in before the flop. Just a couple of minutes before the end of play, I found two red kings, and an opportunity to get some chips back. I raised, and was disappointed to see both that it was the first hand for a while that there had not been a re-raise, and that I had four callers. Well, I must be careful now, I thought, unless the flop is very kind. No third king, but the 322 flop looked much safer than it might have been. I bet out the pot, 24,000, feeling that I should be wary of the blinds' hands, but got action only from a player in middle position. The only player covering my remaining 50,000, he put me to a decision for the rest of my chips. Pocket threes was a worry, but his aggression meant that he could easily have 45 for the straight draw. I called, and was dismayed to see that he had taken a chance of calling a raise preflop with a 25 suited! No help from the turn and river, and a horribly quick downfall. Though shocked at first, I'm learning more and more that you have to take these things with a smile in poker. However unlikely the board made it seem, an all-in re-raiser is announcing that he can beat a pair of kings, and I maybe should have passed.
No prize money for June, but a wealth of poker lessons!
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