Pot-Limit Hold’em

$2,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em “Spiked Aces and Sour Faces”

Back when many of us poker-playing types were in high school, the big deal at parties was the sneaky way one of us could spike the punch with some harmless substance like 190 proof grain alcohol while an accomplice was distracting chaperone Mrs. Grundy with compliments about the wonderful party decorations.

Now that we’re all grown up, and spend most of our waking hours doing mature things like trying to rip the cash and heart out of our poker-playing friends, we’ve evolved beyond spiking punch, and now mostly worry about spiking aces at key times. Today’s $2,000 entry Pot-Limit Hold’em event proved no exception.

When we started play, the seats and chip counts, playing with $1,000-2,000 blinds, were:

1) Leonard Leth, $36,500

2) Jason Lester, $65,000

3) Jimmy Athenas, $94,000

4) Phil Hellmuth, Jr., $16,000

5) Wayne Chang, $60,500

6) Dave Colclough, $54,000

7) Bob “Cowboy” Wolford, $42,000

8) Peter Nathan, $14,000

9) Thomas Stang Wolf, $86,500

The first important ace of the day didn’t need to be spiked. Wolf had two of them in his hand, and the short-stacked Nathan called for all of his chips when the flop came 2-5-9, giving his 7-8 an open-ender, but an 8-Q finish ended Nathan’s chance to be famous.

Cowboy Wolford, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat and blue jean/leather overalls, started the ace-spiking trend by getting all of his money in pre-flop with A-Q. Leth happily continued the re-raising with pocket kings.

Even after the 9-4-Q flop, Leth was in good shape, but another queen on the turn sent Cowboy into the lead and an ace on the river added insult to injury. Nothing like starting off with one overcard and winding up with a full house to get the momentum going, and Cowboy came right over the top of a Colclough raise on the next hand to keep the chips piling up.

There’s an old line that says to win a poker tournament, you have to be able to win with A-K and have to be able to beat A-K. We added a corollary today. You have to be able to win with K-K and not lose against K-K. Leonard Leth came out on the wrong end of both. After Cowboy ripped most of Leth’s chips away with his A-Q full house, an obviously tilted Leth got the rest of his money in pre-flop in a series of raises and re-raises with Jason Lester, one of the three best poker/backgammon combination players in the world (Erik Seidel and Huck Seed are the other two; Erik and Huck get the poker edge but I think I’d put my money on Jason in the backgammon).

This time it was Leth that held the overcard with his A-3 offsuit, but Lester’s pocket kings were never threatened by the J-10-9-2-J board, and Leth exited a whipsawed 8th.

Hellmuth was now the short stack, but he kept finding the right spots to take blinds and pick off small blind-stealing raises, and started getting back into the fray, and Chang, who had been bleeding off chips a little at a time, soon found himself the short man. Feeling a bit desperate, he got all his chips in with K-9, and Lester sensed this K9 was a big dog to his A9, so called, and Wayne’s world ended seventh.

Tempers started flaring shortly thereafter. A new deck came in, and Hellmuth received a card with such a big gouge in it that no one could have done it with a fingernail; it really would have taken a pair of scissors. Hellmuth immediately pointed this out, and Athenas, on Hellmuth’s right, asked if this meant it was a dead hand. No one answered, two players folded, and Lester raised it to $10,500. Hellmuth complained but Tom Elias ruled that since no one had seen the card, even though it had been pointed out before there was no action, the action stood. Hellmuth mucked his small blind hand with an angry comment to Lester.

On the very next hand, Athenas, perhaps suspecting a Hellmuth tilt factor, raised into Phil from the small blind, making it the maximum $9,000 and Hellmuth instantly came back over the top for his last $8,000. Athenas reluctantly called: Q-3 for the caught-stealing Athenas, A-9 for Hellmuth, and the A-K-A flop ended the suspense. Hellmuth suddenly had $34,000 and some uneasy competitors.

Athenas’ timing on the Hellmuth steal might have been off, but he immediately followed it up with one of two great calls he made on the day. Now in the big blind, Jimmy snuck into a hand with Cowboy with 4-9 offsuit. The flop came down 3-4-K, check-check, the turn offered a seven, check-check, and when a six hit on the river, Athenas checked again, then called Cowboy’s $15,000 bet. Jimmy turned over his four, and Wolford mucked.

Hellmuth joined the ace-spiking club with a key hand against Lester. Jason raised the pot to $9,000, and Phil came over the top for his last $19,000. Lester, holding pocket tens, called the big bet without much hesitation, and Phil said “you probably got me.” Indeed he had; A-6 offsuit for Hellmuth against the pocket tens, and the J-J-8 flop left Hellmuth gasping for air. But an ace spiked on the turn, and an irrelevant five on the river left Hellmuth doubled up. Hellmuth apologized to Lester for sucking out with the worst hand, but Jason just shrugged and moved on.

As the blinds moved to 2&4, the starting equities had changed mightily. Colclough, thanks in part to several re-raises of Hellmuth moves, now had about $130,000. Wolf had fallen from his starting position to about $60,000, and Lester had about the same. Athenas had about $80,000, as did Hellmuth, and Wolford and trailed with about $50,000.

Almost immediately, Wolf gobbled up 2/3 of Lester’s stack, as his Kh-Jd turned into a flush with running hearts on the turn and river. Lester looked like the next candidate to exit, but he got to watch some fireworks first.

Hellmuth entered the hand with 2-4 from the big blind, and Colclough, who had seemed to relish the Hellmuth nemesis role throughout the day, limped in under the gun. Lester released his hand, and the flop came 4-5-8. Hellmuth, who had seen Colclough limping in with big pairs throughout the day, checked the flop. Colclough bet $4,000, Hellmuth raised $6,000 more, “and when Colclough called, I knew I was beat,” he said. The two of clubs hit on the turn, giving Hellmuth two pair. Now sure he was in the lead, Hellmuth bet another $25,000, and the rivals started playing staredown, probably for a full minute. Colclough eventually called, and Hellmuth announced “I hope you have tens again” (Colclough had re-raised Hellmuth’s pocket sevens with pocket tens the previous hand, and Hellmuth had shown and released the hand).

When Colclough called, Hellmuth had already decided, he told me, that he would not bet or call on the river if an eight or five hit, figuring Colclough’s overpair would then be the winner. He also indicated he wouldn’t have bet out if a 10, J, Q, K or A hit the river, because he’d suspected Colclough might have held one of those overpairs.

“He’s not gonna get my last $40,000 if any of those cards come,” Hellmuth said, “so basically he’s calling $25,000 as a 22-1 underdog for the $40,000 and a 4.5-1 dog (8 outs) for the money already in the pot.” Nines were the one pair Hellmuth didn’t have Colclough on, because he had been limping with big pairs, not medium or small ones.

Hellmuth was right to wish Colclough had tens again. A nine hit on the river, and Hellmuth shoved his last $40,000 into the pot. Colclough called instantly and turned over the pocket nines that had turned into a set on the river. Hellmuth flipped up the two pair he’d made on the turn, and made several comments about how Colclough could have committed all those chips: knowing Hellmuth had never bet more than $8,000 all day, it was obvious he had to have something better than nines, he felt. Hellmuth, who had fought back from his short stack brilliantly, only to see his house of cards collapse on the river, calmed down after about 15 seconds, and returned to the table to shake Colclough’s hand, but the Brit declined the offer.

“He kept saying things about ‘how could I call with only two outs,’ but I had more,” Colclough explained afterwards. “I was pretty sure nines weren’t enough going to the river, but I could have won with a nine, eight, or five, and I wasn’t going to call his last $40,000 if I didn’t improve, although he kept saying I’d committed all my chips with an inferior hand. So we had a different vision of the hand, and I wasn’t in the mood to forgive and forget at that point.”

Colclough wasn’t in the mood to stop accumulating chips either, because on the very next hand, he took J-10 against Lester’s Q-9 on the J-9-4 flop, and eliminated Lester in fifth place. After eliminating two dangerous rivals in two hands, he had a commanding chip lead, about $300,000 to roughly $60,000 each for Wolford, Wolf, and Athenas.

Wolf shifted into survival mode, apparently determined to try to move up the ladder while his rivals went at it, because holding a king in his hand with a flop of K-K-9, he checked the flop, turn (ace) and river (another ace) to win a small pot. Checking the river was understandable enough, as any ace would have given a rival a bigger full house, but the checks on the flop and turn seemed unduly conservative, a move he would repeat shortly thereafter.

In the interim, Athenas made the call of the tournament. Staring at a flop of As-7s-7c, he led out with a $20,000 bet. Chip monster Colclough raised back for all of Jimmy’s remaining $45,000. Folding would have left Jimmy with a reasonable position to move up the ladder against three other reasonably short stacks, but not much chance to win. Jimmy stared a long time. Did Colclough have a flush draw, or a seven? He stared so long that eventually Cowboy Wolford called for a clock, and with about 12 of his 70 seconds remaining, Jimmy decided that if he was playing to win the tournament, he had to go with his A-K, and called.

Flush draw it was; Colclough held J-10 of spades, and an ace that spiked on the turn filled Jimmy up and ended any fears, a good thing for Jimmy because the Ks hit on the river, giving Colclough a flush that wasn’t any good. Suddenly Athenas had more than $150,000, Colclough’s lead was within reach, and we had a horserace.

Wolf then played his second three kings, check ‘em down hand, even with two diamonds on the turn leaving Jimmy a free shot at a flush. Wolf was surviving, and winning small pots, but his caution was leaving too many chips on the table, and he seemed to realize this too late. Shortly thereafter, he decided that while three kings weren’t all that promising, top pair with J-10 on a board of J-5-4 was, and he called his last $30,000 when Jimmy bet out at the flop. Athenas’ A-J outkicked Wolf, who’d kept his 44-magnum unfired but tried blasting away with his 22-caliber.

Athenas, who only moments before had been pondering a fold that would have left him a short stack, now stood at $205,000, only slightly behind Colclough’s $240,000, and well ahead of Wolford’s pesky $30,000

Longtime veteran Wolford played his short stack brilliantly, firing when he sensed weakness and folding when he sensed strength. “I never saw him turn over aces or kings all day,” Colclough said afterwards. “He got every chip his cards entitled him to, and quite a few they didn’t.”

Eventually Wolford maneuvered his stack to a playable $60,000, and the trio talked deal. Wolford originally said he’d take $60,000 (third place money was $44,650) and let the others figure out how they wanted to split the rest, and wandered away from the table to chat with some friends. Athenas and Colclough were near a deal when Cowboy came back and said he wanted $65,000. “My friends told me I made a bad offer,” he said. “You can each cut $2,500 from your shares, or we can sit down and gamble.”

Wolford was probably right; another $16,000 wasn’t much to sacrifice for the upside of $173,900 for first, and his opponents agreed. Colclough, with about $290,000 in chips, took $140,350, Athenas took $102,500, and Cowboy got his $65,000.

With only the bracelet left in play, the game loosed up just a tiny bit, more or less like the Pacific Ocean is a tiny bit wet. Colclough and Wolford got all their chips in pre-flop, Cowboy holding A-K against Colclough’s 6-8 offsuit. The A-5-6-A-2 board doubled Cowboy up.

The fast and furious action wasn’t limited to the (formerly) short-stacked Cowboy. Colclough asked to kick the blinds up higher than the printed schedule when the clock next went off. Not to be outdone in this new relaxed atmosphere, Athenas piled all of his $119,000 in pre-flop against Colclough’s second-favorite pre-flop hand, pocket tens. The flop was almost inevitable: A-K-2, and with an A-2 river for good measure. Jimmy now had the lead.

The action wasn’t fast enough for the Wild Bunch, so next they agreed to switch from 80 minute rounds to 20 minute rounds, and to skip a step, moving the blinds directly from 3-6 to 6-12. Cowboy finally got knocked out when his Q-9 couldn’t take down Athenas’ A-K, and the final two decided the action wasn’t nearly fast enough, so without waiting for the 20 minute clock, they agreed to move the blinds to $10,000-20,000.

One hand later, they piled everything in. As-Jh for Colclough, K-9 for Jimmy, and when the flop came Kd-Qs-7s, we looked like we had a winner. But running spades on the turn and river handed the $420,000 pot to Colclough, and Jimmy had only $50,000 left.

“One card away,” Jimmy sighed, apparently still interested in the bracelet despite having agreed, once the money was locked up, to play pretty much everything except no-peek Indian poker.

Jimmy piled his remaining chips in with 8-5 offsuit, clearly a huge favorite over Colclough’s J-9, and the A-8-3-Q-K board doubled him up. There are people in this room who would give a testicle or an ovary for a bracelet, and these two are playing showdown.

Jimmy doubled up again when his K-10 held up against Colclough’s Q-J, and now had $262,000 and the lead. After a couple of hands where the players actually declined to put all their chips in pre-flop, Jimmy took the title when his 7-8 beat Colclough’s Kd-Jd via a board of A-10-8-9-2.

Colclough, who makes money playing poker but makes a lot more in the computer business, was predictably philosophical about losing the bracelet after holding a $420,00-$50,000 chip lead. “I probably wouldn’t even have entered this tournament if I could have found a pot-limit Omaha game yesterday morning,” he said. “I’m much more a money player than a tournament player. I’d have liked the bracelet for the prestige, but wouldn’t have worn it, I’m not a jewelry-wearing fellow. I’d probably just have framed it. One thing I would like to say is that I enjoyed playing with Jimmy. He kept a smile on his face the whole time, and that was a welcome change from a lot of the games I play in, and from some of the action earlier today.”

Athenas was pleased with his bracelet, but in the aftermath, his 20-20 hindsight had him regretting the deal. “It’s hard not to make a deal when you need the money, but play certainly changes 100% after there’s no money involved,” the St. Louis native said. “The real difference was the comeback Cowboy made. He deserves a lot of credit. If we knock him out, I don’t think there would have been a deal, and who knows what would have happened then?”

Just a guess, but someone holding an ace would have caught someone holding a pair, methinks. We saw two tournaments today, and while the action in the second one was certainly exciting, the poker purist in me preferred the tooth and nail fighting we saw in the early action. In the meanwhile, I’m going to practice my no-peek Indian poker, just in case I ever get three-handed late in one of the biggest tournaments in the world.

By the Numbers

Entries: 235

Total Prize Pool $470,000

1) Jimmy Athenas, $102,500 ($173,900 officially).

2) Dave Colclough, $140,350 ($89,300 officially).

3) Bob “Cowboy” Wolford, $65,000 ($44,650 officially).

4) Thomas Stang Wolf, $28,200.

5) Jason Lester, $21,150.

6) Phil Hellmuth, Jr., $16,450.

7) Wayne Chang, $11,750.

8) Leonard Leth, $9,400.

9) Peter Nathan, $7,520.

10th-12th, $5,640: An Tran, Doc Earle, John Darce.

13th-15th, $4,700: Allen Cunningham, Richard St. Peter, Paul Armstrong.

16th-18th, $3,760: Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott, Michael Davis, Carl McKelvey.

19th-27th, $2,820: Lester Williams, Michael Tedesco, David Winston, Fred Sigur, Jan Olav Javik, Alex Brenes, Thor Hansen, Rick Davis, Jr., Frank Knight.

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