The Player of the Year Race
I honestly think one of the reasons I did as well as I did in 2004 was that I didn’t play in any tournaments I didn’t feel like playing. At the beginning of the year, I decided that I was going to stay in Vegas more and play in the big cash games. As for tournaments, I’d play “only” in the World Series of Poker events and other big buy-in events.
As it turned out, though, that’s not how things went. It seemed like every week in 2004, there was a $10,000 buy-in event! I’d get home from a tournament and wind down for a few days, then I was right back out on the road for another event.
When the year began, I’d written off winning the Card Player Player of the Year award entirely. I knew that I wasn’t going to play a full slate of events, so I didn’t figure that I had much of a chance.
I started the year off right, though, coming in third in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and following that up with a second-place finish in the PartyPoker Million. I was ecstatic about my start, but still never wavered on my plans for the year — to play only in the big events.
Well, the WSOP is a big event, and I played as many events in it as I could. In other words, I played every one, unless I was at the final table of the previous day’s event. Once the WSOP was over, I had a pretty nice lead in the race. Still, I thought I was a huge underdog to win.
There were events going on in L.A. and at Bellagio, and I was either at home or visiting Grand Rapids. The idea that I had to get out there and play all the events just wasn’t appealing to me at all.
After a few more scores, I finally realized that I did have a legitimate shot at winning it all. I kicked back and relaxed while John Juanda went on an absolute tear. John was at every World Poker Tour final table, and was even playing in the $2,000 stud events and winning!
Going into the last series of events at Bellagio, I held a slim lead of just 428 points. I was convinced without a doubt that if John played all of the events at Bellagio and I didn’t, I could say bye-bye to the Player of the Year award. All of a sudden, it felt like that would be such a shame, such a waste of a good year.
The pkv poker Superstars Invitational II was being filmed during the first week of the Bellagio tournament, and both John and I were invited to play. Things got really nutty with the negotiations, and a group of us decided by majority vote not to play in the event.
So, that would give John even more time to catch me. “Well, it looks like I’ve got to get back to work,” I thought. I called in the heavy artillery, flying my mother to Vegas for her cooking (my secret weapon) and to take care of my dog, Mushu.
So, it would seem that I should be prepared for the event, but then … oh my, what in the world? I couldn’t sit still! I was so bored, I can’t explain it. I don’t mean to demean a $2,000 buy-in event, but I just wasn’t into it. I don’t do as well in smaller tournaments with faster structures. Fast-paced tournaments are played predominantly preflop, while the big WPT events I’d become accustomed to rewarded post-flop play.
I wasn’t sleeping well and was showing up late for the tournaments. When I got there, I read a magazine, listened to an audio book on my iPod, or did whatever it took to avoid paying attention. I was basically playing poker on autopilot and getting the results I deserved.
In the meantime, Juanda was knocking on the door every night, lasting until the wee hours, but still not acquiring enough points to pass me. What about me? I was officially dead money. I was playing badly, with no real shot of making a final table unless the deck hit me square in the face. Honestly, even then it would have been close! I blanked out in every tournament.
With two tournaments remaining before the main event, I was still in the lead. Juanda was out of the day’s tournament, so I could rest easily. Or could I? Out of nowhere, David Pham, who needed first place to pass me, did exactly that. He beat a field of more than 400 players to take a 100-point lead. “Oh no, I’m sick to my stomach!” All this time, I was worried about Juanda, not realizing that “The Dragon” was still in contention.
So, I had the pot-limit Omaha and the final event left to regain the lead. What did I do? I skipped the pot-limit Omaha event. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it did for me. I came to realize that I needed to get my head right for the big event. If I played in the Omaha event, my focus wouldn’t be there, I wouldn’t be at my best; I’d just be wasting my time.
So, instead, I went to Bellagio later that night and played in the $4,000-$8,000 mixed game. Why? I needed to regain my focus. I needed to focus on playing my best game, which is something I always do when I play in the big game. The smaller tournaments? I’m not proud of this, but I just don’t have it in me to play well in them.
So, with just one tournament left with 376 players, I needed ninth place or better to retake the lead from the Dragon. The night before the event started, I entered the following into my blog: “Call it overconfident, call it cocky, call it what you will … I’m going to get the job done.”
OK, it wasn’t on par with Babe Ruth or Joe Namath, but I was feeling very good going into the final event. I have always thrived under pressure throughout my poker career. When my back’s against the wall, it often brings out the best in me.
So, now that the stage is set, my next few columns are dedicated to the final tournament of 2004, and my one and only chance of capturing the Player of the Year award.