$3,000 Pot-Limit Hold'em "Mr. Carson's Wild Ride"

by Andy Glazer - poker.casino.com

Although Mike Carson didn’t come to the final table of the $3,000 entry Pot-Limit Hold’em event with the kind of chip lead that Layne Flack had last year, when Layne owned more than half the chips, his nearly $50,000 lead on his closest competitor had me figuring we’d need some Amarillo Slim-style poker humor to make the game interesting. The first thing they teach you in journalism school (not that I went to one) is that “Dog Bites Man” is not an interesting story, while “Man Bites Dog” is.

“Experienced Poker Player With Huge Chip Lead Wins Poker Tournament” didn’t sound promising.

I don’t care if there are 15 dachshunds running around Las Vegas, covered with mustard and standing ready to sacrifice themselves to help out the first year journalism students, the route Mike Carson took to winning this event is stranger and more interesting news.

When we started play, the seats and chip counts, playing with $1,500-3,000 blinds, were:

  1. Tony Ma, $65,000.
  2. Mads Andersen, $48,500.
  3. Jack Ward, $39,500.
  4. Greg Hopkins, $37,000.
  5. John Manchon, $45,500.
  6. Matt Lefkowitz, $74,000
  7. Mike Carson, $142,500.
  8. Daniel Studer, $54,500.
  9. T.J. Cloutier, $94,000.

Actually, I hadn’t been left completely without hope for an interesting finale; the very nature of pot-limit, with its traps and occasional huge pots, combined with some very big names and talents at the final table, offered some promise. Tony Ma and T.J. Cloutier should just have their own special chairs made for the final table, they’re here often enough, the likeable Matt Lefkowitz, an east-coast pro, was returning to defend or improve on his second-place finish in this event last year, and LA pro Greg Hopkins was no slouch either.

John Manchon wasn’t a slouch; he was just the first casualty. A poker enthusiast with a real job paying real money, Manchon travels a lot on business and finds games wherever he goes. He did exactly what a pro would want to do in a tournament like this: get all the money in with the best hand, but he got the kind of result that makes a lot of tournament pros wish they had nice steady jobs.

Manchon raised the pot to $9,000, and Tony Ma popped him back for $19,500 more. You gotta test out these unknowns, after all. Manchon re-raised for his last $17,000, and Ma, suspecting trouble but stuck for the size of the pot, called with A-Q. Manchon turned over K-K.

Man bit dog, unless you’re one of the legions of poker players who swear that an ace ALWAYS hits the flop when you have K-K. This board came down A-2-8-9-4, and Manchon left the show with some nice parting gifts: $9,600, the consolation of knowing he’d done everything right, and a good bad-beat story for his friends.

It’s nice to know that the pros often mimic the behavior of we lesser lights. Amateur players by the tens of thousands often come to their weekly games, determined that THIS time they are going to play solidly, wait for decent hands, not steam, etc., etc., etc., and this resolve usually lasts about half an hour. Pros often come to final tables determined to play solidly, wait for decent hands, not steam, etc., etc., etc., and today this resolve lasted about half an hour.

After nearly three rounds of not seeing a single flop, just about everyone decided to cut loose at once. 27 hands of relative calm, unless your name was Manchon, were interrupted by four storms in a row.

On the first, Lefkowitz raised it to 8k one off the button, Carson called on the button, and Studer, whose Swiss contingent had draped his nation’s flag over the rail, raised a hefty 27k more. Lefkowitz flat called, a warning sign of a big hand if I ever saw one, and Carson saw this one, because he released his hand in a hurry.

The flop came As-Qh-6s, Daniel checked, Matt bet his last $17,000, and Studer decided he was bakered. Although you can pretty much never believe anything a poker player ever tells you about a hand you don’t get to see, Lefkowitz made a believable case out of telling Studer the ace on the flop had saved him and his pocket kings some money, as Matt claimed pocket Aces. I would believe Matt Lefkowitz, but I’m probably too trusting for this game.

Maybe Studer was hot, maybe not, but holding the button the next hand, he raised it to $10,500, and Tony Ma called him. The flop came down Ah-Jh-9d, Ma checked, and Studer shoved his last 15k in. Ma, feeling the steam, looking at the size of the pot, and no doubt still inspired by the A-Q vs. K-K victory, called with Kc-Qc, and Studer turned over A-8 offsuit. A queen hit on the turn, giving Tony outs with a king, queen, or ten, but a harmless Jd fell on the end, and Studer was back in the hunt.

No sense letting any of the spectators breathe. On the next hand, Carson raised it to 9k, and Ma came back over the top for 19.5k more. You lose a hand in this game, you want your chips back NOW, and Carson decided to give up. The “oh, yeah, take that” continued one more hand when Cloutier raised it to $9,000 and Greg Hopkins came back over the top of that for his last $10,000 more. Cloutier’s pot odds were so good, he knew Hopkins wasn’t going to raise him without a monster, and he let it go.

Everyone breathed for about 40 seconds, and then, freshly hyperventilated, everyone was able to get back to the calm state of frenzied re-raising.

Carson raised the pot to $9,000, and Hopkins came over him for $22,500 more. Carson decided to go ahead and put Hopkins all-in for his last $4,000. Yikes, Carson had fired $26,500 into the pot with A-J off. Hopkins turned over pocket eights, and the 2-8-3 flop and 9 on the turn left Carson with no outs. It turned out fortunate for Greg that he’d flopped a set because a now irrelevant jack fell on the river.

Carson’s chip lead was gone. The wealth was now pretty well shared, but that lasted only two hands. Hopkins raised it to $9,000, Carson called on the button, and Studer called from the small blind. Nothing like the final table of the World Series for consistent multi-way action.

In what will no doubt go down as one of the more heavily analyzed hands of the finale, the flop came down Ad-3s-Jc, and everyone checked. The turn was the scary jack of diamonds, just the sort of card Studer might have held calling in the small blind. Everyone checked again.

The 3d fell on the river. Studer checked, Matt bet $15,000, Carson called, and Studer fired away for everything he had left, a raise of $31,500. Matt let it go, and Carson, after a moderate deliberation, called. Studer turned over Kd-Qd, the nut flush but dead meat if anyone held a jack or a three. Carson mucked his hand.

The checks on both the flop and turn had let Studer get there, and we had a new chip leader. Cloutier couldn’t help making a comment. “The only time Mike couldn’t win was on the end,” he said. “I don’t know what you were thinkin.”

I asked Carson about the hand after the tournament was over, and he said he’d had an ace with a bad kicker. “I know it looked like an insane call,” the former backgammon pro said. “My rule in pot-limit is not to make a bet if I don’t know what I should do if someone raises back at me, and I didn’t know what to do with ace-rag on that flop, so I didn’t bet,” he said. “On the end, I was pretty sure Greg was bluffing at it, so I called him. Then when Studer made such a big bet, I figured he either had a huge hand, or was making a great bluff bet. In fact I would have bluffed at that pot there. So I decided to call him, although I wished I knew more about the way he played; that would have made it easier. I still think calling was right, although obviously it turned out badly.”

Badly enough that the early chip leader now had only about $35,000 left, and he wasn’t shy about getting it into play. Immediately after the blinds went up to $2,000-4,000, Hopkins made it $12,000, and Carson raised $22,500 more, every last chip he had. Hopkins smelled fear and called with Kh-10c, and his nose had been perfect.

Carson turned over Ks-9c. Barring some bizarre straight or flush, Carson had three outs. One lowly undercard. A dream situation for Hopkins, until the nightmarish 5-9-4 flop, and 2-7 river. Carson had doubled back into the game. A few moments later, Carson raised a pot to $14,000, and then mucked when Ma came over him for $30,000 more. I gave up on trying to keep track of where Carson’s stack was. It kept moving up and down so fast, it looked like the Nasdaq on a day when Microsoft got bad news and Cisco reported record earnings.

I also added a margin note that “mcr” would now stand, in my notes, for “Mike Carson raises,” because I was getting tired of writing it out so much.

Jack Ward, on the other hand, had been missing in action since the game began. He had been content to wait for a big hand, and he caught one. Tony Ma raised a pot to 10k, and Ward came back over him for about $11,000 more, everything he had left. Ma decided to call with the hand that had been so good to him right out of the box, A-Q, but this time he was up against Q-Q and the J-3-8-7-5 board doubled Ward up.

With one hand left before the break, Hopkins made it $14,000, and mcr $30,000 more. Carson had been in so many hands it was impossible for Hopkins to know where Carson was, and there was probably some hoped-for revenge in Hopkins calling for the last of his chips (it looked like about $17,000). Pocket sevens for Greg, pocket rockets for the Carson show, and even though Greg muttered “it would be justice” as the Q-4-2-Q board left him two outs, Hopkins had to suffer the further, albeit brief, hope/agony of seeing a sevenish card hit the river. Unfortunately for Greg, the six of diamonds isn’t quite sevenish enough to be a seven, and Hopkins was out.

“He couldn’t play dead in a cemetery,” muttered a bitter Hopkins as he walked past me to collect his winnings. Carson was certainly playing a lively game, the sort that collects a LOT of chips if you turn over hands.

Ward, his brief Q-Q moment a round before his only real swinging so far, was playing the other end of the spectrum, but he still got action the next hand when Tony Ma made it $10,000 to go, only to see Ward pop him back for his last $26,000. Ma called with a suited version of the same hand he’d taken against Ward a round before, Ah-Qh, and Ward turned over Ad-Ac. Somehow one undercard wasn’t enough here as the board came down Jd-9d-Jh-6d-8d, an unnecessary flush for Ward on the river.

Ward was now one of the boys, I guess playing A-A gave him the look of an action guy, because on the very next hand, he raised it to $14,000, and Studer called on the button. The flop came 4d-6d-9h, very red and very low, and Ward bet $34,000. Studer shoved everything he’d collected on the big Carson hand into the pot, and Ward wasn’t shy about calling for the $30,000 or so he had left. Studer turned over As-Ks, a pretty stunning hand to risk so many chips against a fellow who had been playing as tightly as Ward, and Ward showed us Kd-Kc. No miracle aces saved Studer, and in two hands, the Alaskan Assassin (OK, I made that one up, but he is from Anchorage, and had been very silent and deadly) had quadrupled to $160,000. QQ, AA, KK, everyone gives you action even though you’ve been sitting there like the Rock of Gibraltar, and you don’t get cracked, this is an easy game.

Like I said at the start, this was a really boring final table. Bang, zoom, wham, biff, whap, and all those other words they used to use on the old Batman TV show when Adam West and Burt Ward were mixing it up with the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin, and somehow I expected some super-villains were about to join us, it was either that or jugglers and dancing bears.

No super villains appeared, but a super player departed. Cloutier, who had mostly been playing it cagey, stealing (?) $10,000 here and there but not getting involved too often, called Carson’s pre-flop $14,000 from the button, and then Carson moved $30,000 at the 6d-10c-4c flop. TJ came back over Carson for everything, a raise of probably $60,000, and Carson called. Q-Q for “Riddle me this” Carson, Ac-9c, the nut flush draw and an overcard for TJ, but the 3h-2h finish sent Cloutier out 7th, and reassembled Carson’s giant lead.

We lost Studer two hands later when, convinced by the last few hands that big pairs do stand up in this game, he re-raised Matt Lefkowitz’s $8,000 button raise for his last $17,000. Matt turned over Ac-3s, an attempted heist apparently foiled when Studer turned over Q-Q, but we returned to poker normalcy when the board came down 10-9-4-4-A

It only took a few more hands for Mike “If you think the Heisenberg Principle is uncertain, you should try to figure out where I am" Carson to eliminate another player. Mads Andersen, a Dane who hadn’t played many hands (ha, got you, you thought I was going to say “great,” didn’t you?), got all of his 34k in pre-flop with Carson, 4-4 for Mads (perhaps the best poker name I’ve ever seen, belong in the same company as football linebacker “Steve Smear”), K-K for Carson, and Mads exited gracefully. Sheesh, go and ruin a good nickname with gentlemanly behavior, why don’t you?

After staying seven-handed a long time, suddenly players were dropping like the Nasdaq on a day BOTH Microsoft and Cisco got bad news, and we were left with

Mike Carson, $314,000
Tony Ma, $114,000
Jack Ward, $113,000
Matt Lefkowitz, $60,000

Ma and Lefkowitz briefly broached the notion of a deal, but Ward quickly vetoed. “Let’s play it out,” he said, and negotiations ended, unfortunately for Lefkowitz, who had brilliantly tiptoed his way up the short stack ladder at this same table a year before and who had to be hoping for déjà vu all over again.

Carson brought the hand in for a $10,000 raise, Matt raised him back another $20,000, and Carson moved Matt’s last $30,000 in. As-Ks for Carson, Ad-Js for Lefkowitz. Nothing like some early action to get people to play with you when you finally start picking up hands. No accidents: 2-5-3-8-10, and we were three.

Ward, who had been so anti-deal four-handed, suddenly wanted to talk. He and Carson were nearing some sort of accord when Ma suddenly decided Ward wanted to give too much away to the leader, and said, “No, forget it, no deals, let’s play.”

One guess as to who went out next, and how fast. Right you are.

The blinds moved to $3,000-6,000, Carson raised it to $15,000 from the button, and Ma called from the small blind. The flop came down 4-5-8, Tony bet out $10,000, Carson raised $20,000, and Ma moved the rest of his $90,000 in. Carson called. K-8 for Carson, Q-8 for Tony, the board finished 10-A, and the deal rejecter had to settle for third.

Carson had about a $500,000-100,000 chip lead at this point, so big that nobody bothered talking deal, and a sort of peace fell over the room, kind of like a movie that doesn’t let you breath for 20 minutes finally gets to some small talk so the viewers can eat their popcorn. After a couple of hours of rock ‘em, sock ‘em, suddenly Carson and Ward were playing chess, and Ward was down about a rook and three pawns.

Ward waited for the big hands that had gotten him back into the action, but they didn’t come often, and when they did, he either checked them, hoping to trap Carson, or bet very small amounts that couldn’t hurt Carson. Carson had gambled readily enough when faced with a full table, but heads-up with an opponent who had played tight all day, he didn’t do any more gambling or big raising, and Ward was never able to spring a trap. His chips just kind of melted away, like snow in the sun, and eventually he was down to about $40,000.

After such a peaceful decline, the tournament had one last whap left to it. Carson called from the small blind/button to put $12,000 in the pot, When the flop came down Kc-5h-2h, Ward checked, Carson bet $8,000, and Ward raised the max allowed $28,000. Carson hesitated only briefly, and put Ward’s last $4,000 in. Kh-6c for Ward, 9h-5d for Carson, top pair against middle pair. An innocent jack fell on the turn, but the nine of hearts ended Ward’s day.

Although Ward’s brother Jim is a well-known pro, Jack just plays a few tournaments here and there when he comes south from the land of the midnight sun. “I realized when I got to the final table I was the only guy here who didn’t play poker for a living,” he said (Manchon had exited so quickly it was easy to forget him), “and so I wasn’t going to get too fancy. I just wanted to try to pull off an Amarillo Slim and turn a toothpick into a lumber yard.”

It was a noble effort for the solid amateur, but in the end, he was up against a veteran gambler who knew when to quit gambling. “I had planned to take my chip lead and kind of play it down the middle,” Carson said. “I wasn’t planning on going crazy, or on being too conservative either. But Tony Ma either had a good read on me or held some good hands on me, because he came over me a few times when I couldn’t play back, and I!ran into some big hands, so I had to gamble again. At least I wasn’t gambling at backgammon, where I wasted 20 years, because the skill differential there won’t bring home the money the way it will at pot-limit and no-limit poker.”

I suspect T.J. Cloutier wouldn’t mind a re-match, but it’s very hard to play poker against someone who (his theories about Ma notwithstanding) can’t easily be put on a hand. For one night at least, the geographically challenged could be excused for confusing a poker tournament in Las Vegas with a shootout in Carson City.

By the Numbers

Entries: 200

Total Prize Pool $600,000

  1. Mike Carson, $222,000.
  2. Jack Ward, $114,000.
  3. Tony Ma, $57,000.
  4. Matt Lefkowitz, $36,000.
  5. Mads Andersen, $27,000.
  6. Daniel Studer, $21,000.
  7. T.J. Cloutier, $15,000.
  8. Greg Hopkins, $12,000.
  9. John Manchon, $9,600.

10th-12th, $7,200: Bruce Yamron, Paul Evans, Jens Sjogren.
13th-15th, $6,000: Marc Jean Baptiste, Howard Lederer, Phyllis Meyers.
16th-18th, $4,800: Gerard Duguet Grasser, Alex Brenes, Emile Cohen.
19th-27th, $3,600: Mike Hart, Tam Mihn Duong, Mike Minor, John McIntosh, David Simon, Berry Johnston, Pierre Peretti, Phillip Gordon, Constantine Mousakis.

/Andy Glazer