Andrew N.S. Glazer, "The Poker Pundit"
who has ever experienced a frustrating sequence of events
is familiar with the so-call Murphy’s Law, “If
something can go wrong, it will go wrong.”
That’s a very pessimistic view of the world, and those
who subscribe to another point of view, that we create far
more of our own realities than most of us believe, don’t
subscribe to Murphy’s Law. Even if you don’t believe
in the “creating your own reality” perspective
(it’s a little too “New Age” for many), you
probably understand that negative thinking usually doesn’t
lead to success.
Today, at the 2003 World Series of Poker’s $2,500 buy-in
No-Limit Hold’em final table, the standing-room only
crowd was privileged to see a new variation of Murphy’s
Law: “If something can happen, it will happen.”
I’ve covered far more than a hundred final tables at
various WSOPs over the years, and I truly believe I’ve
never seen a final where more unlikely events came to pass.
The spectators certainly knew they’d seen something unique,
and so did the players.
EVEN THE PLAYERS FROM THE OTHER TOURNAMENT WERE STUNNED
Hell, even the players across the room who were focused on
their battle to reach the money in the $2,500 Limit Hold’em
event realized the bizarre nature of this finale. At each break,
they’d come by and ask something like “What on
Earth is going on here? We keep hearing roars and announcements
about big hands beating other big hands?”
Because there WERE so many special hands, you’re going
to read about more confrontations here than you usually do,
although I’ll try to capture the atmosphere as well.
One thing is certain: my sore back and I picked a great day
to get to the final table right from the start. This was one
of those days where I’d gladly have worked for free (although
I’m certainly charging the usual!).
I know I’m violating one of those basic rules, like “Never
tell a crowd this is the best joke they’ve ever heard,
because you’re setting yourself up for failure: even
a very good joke won’t get many laughs when you’ve
promised that much.”
I’m OK with the promise, because this final table delivered.
If you don’t believe it was incredible by the time we’re
done, it’s because I haven’t done it justice. I’m
willing to accept the pressure because I believe I owe the
players who put on this show that much.
Now that you’re freerolling on me, let’s see what
the seats and chip counts were when the proof of Murphy’s
Second Law began at 2:00:
|1 Eric Holum
|2 Phi Nguyen
|3 Tom Jacobs
|4 Steve Zolotow
|5 T.J. Cloutier
|6 Abraham Rosencrantz
|7 Kenna James
|8 David Singer
|9 Mike Matusow
|10 Jim Miller
Play began with about 20 minutes left at the $400 ante, $1,200-2,400
blind level. Ten-handed, this meant there was $7,600 in dead
money available to the first raiser.
A trend that would impact the event began on hand #7, when
Cloutier, the WSOP’s second all-time leading money winner,
brought it in for a raise to $7,000. Singer, a New Yorker who
was in the process of making his first-ever WSOP cash here,
moved all-in for about 24k, and Cloutier mucked.
SINGER CONTINUES HIS ROLE AS CLOUTIER’S TORMENTOR
Five hands later, Cloutier again brought it in for a raise,
this time to 10k, and again Singer moved all-in, this time
for $36,100. Cloutier called and turned over A-6, a big underdog
to Singer’s A-Q, and the K-Q-9-Q board left Cloutier
with no outs, and only a little more than $10,000 left.
“I can’t lay them all down,” said Cloutier,
who on a break later told me that in playing with Singer the
day before, he’d learned that Singer was capable of making
a move with any two cards.
Three hands later, on hand #15, WSOP veteran Jacobs opened
for 10k, and Singer again moved all-in, this time with a formidable
stack. Jacobs shook his recently (since last year, at least)
shaven head as he pondered the call. He looked like he had “Excedrin
Headache #15” (I know I’m dating myself with that
reference, but I’ve got to get dates somewhere), and
he finally mucked.
Singer’s all-in moves had allowed him to make the biggest
move up as the round ended. The new chip count was approximately:
As we switched to 90 minute levels, the antes increased to
$500, with $1,500-3,000 blinds. Ten-handed, the dead money
was $9,500 (as always and by definition, that figure equaled
the amount it would cost a player to sit out a full round).
Cloutier caught a nice break two hands into the new level
when he moved all-in for 8.5k, and no one called. Although
no one ever wants to double-up T.J. Cloutier, an uncontested
jump from 8.5k to 18k was just what the doctor ordered for
his stack. James caught a similar break on the next hand, when
his all-in move for 13.5k went untouched.
“Short-stack syndrome,” explained Miller, apparently
also thinking in medical terms.
HE WORRIED ABOUT BUSTING OUT EARLY, AND GUESS WHAT?
Rosencrantz, another first-time casher who had asked the official
photographer to take his picture quickly, in case he busted
out, did just that when he took a shot from the small blind
two hands later with Kh-2s. The just pumped up James was now
more than willing to take him on with A-Q in the big blind,
and the earlier uncontested raise left him with more chips
than Rosencrantz as the board came 8-J-6-A, leaving the Costa
Rican with no outs except for tenth place.
One hand later (#22 overall), Cloutier moved all-in from the
button with “a Varkonyi,” (Q-10), and his third
time up against Singer was just as charmless as the first two.
Singer called with pocket nines, and the J-5-5-6-J sent Cloutier
out ninth. He later admitted that the A-6 call against Singer
had been weak (the problem is that even when the hand is a
favorite, it’s rarely a big favorite, but it’s
often a big underdog), and while his fate had seemed likely
after that hand, it still felt odd to see the usually patient
Cloutier out so early.
Three hands later, James opened with a raise to 7k, and Matusow
popped him back for an additional 20k. James could have gotten
away for his small investment, but his stack wasn’t that
large and he decided to take a stand, re-raising his last 20k
Matusow took a while to call, which convinced me he must have
practically nothing, because he was staring at pot odds of
something between 3.5-1 and 4-1, and there are VERY few hold’em
starting hands that are bigger underdogs than that. Eventually
he called and in turning over As-8s the hesitation made more
sense, because a weak ace against a strong one is one of those
dominated hand situations, although even A-8 suited against
A-K suited is only about a 7-3 underdog.
MATUSOW THOUGHT HE ALWAYS GOT UNLUCKY, AND GUESS WHAT?
Imagine Matusow’s surprise when he not only was getting
good pot odds, but found out he was leading when James turned
over Kd-Qh. The flop was nice and safe, 8-7-6, but shazzam,
a king hit the turn. Matusow, who usually doesn’t take
much convincing to believe he is one of the unluckier players
in poker (albeit, with lots of justification, one of the most
talented), cried out “Oh, why does this ALWAYS happen
We didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t to
happen only to Matusow this night. We were in for a lot of
cruel flops, turns, and rivers.
Skipping forward to hand #55, Zolotow, who by virtue of Cloutier’s
bust-out was now the most experienced professional at the table,
opened for a raise to 12k under the gun (UTG). Wary of a raise
from early position from such a skilled player, everyone folded
around until the betting reached the small blind and Nguyen,
who raised 20k more.
“Z” pondered for a bit, even though the dead money
meant he was going to be getting good pot odds on his call,
because he would only have 19.5k left after a call, which probably
meant he would be pot-committed. Z, an erudite New Yorker who
maintains residences both there and in Las Vegas, and who is
certainly one of poker’s more culturally developed personalities,
finally called and looked at the Jc-Js-8c flop.
AND I THOUGHT THE AIR AROUND HERE WAS DRY…
Nguyen bet right out for Z’s last chips, and he called,
turning over Ac-Qc. Nguyen could only produce Ah-9h, and after
the board finished 8h-7c, giving Z a flush he didn’t
need, Zolotow said, with his typically droll, arid sense of
humor, “You (Nguyen) probably don’t know this,
but there are people out on Ogden (one of the streets next
to Binion’s) with no shoes because they tried to bluff
me out of big pots.”
Hand #64 offered a key moment for more than one reason when
Matusow opened with a probing raise to 7k, only to see Miller,
one of the managers at the Hustler Casino in LA, and also the
WSOP Co-Tournament Director, move all-in for about 26k.
Holum (technically the defending champion in this event because
the WSOP hasn’t offered a $2,500 no-limit event since
1999) had started off short-stacked and had nursed that stack
at an always-low level throughout the finale. He saw something
he liked here, though, and called all-in for his remaining
Matusow got out of the way, and Holum turned over J-J as Miller
turned over Ks-10s. Miller might never have even gotten involved
in this hand had he not seen a chance to make a move on Matusow’s
small raise, but he was now committed and in deep trouble as
the flop came 2h-9h-Js. Holum had not only started with a hand
that was better than a 2-1 favorite, but by flopping top set
had become a 6-1 favorite.
THE FINAL JEOPARDY CATEGORY IS “FAMOUS HISTORICAL MARATHONERS” FOR
MORE THAN ONE REASON!
The 7s came off on the turn, giving Miller outs not just to
a queen but also to an eight or a spade, and shazzam, the 5s
hit the river, Eric Holum was out eighth, Jim Miller now had
some chips, and the runner-runner finish foreshadowed some
future hands that would have made Phidippides and Abebe Bikila
proud. I’ve haven’t selected the first marathoner
and a famous barefooted marathoner randomly. Ten points if
you can guess why.
A series of Big Hand vs. Bigger Hand confrontations started
on #75. Usually when you have A-Q and flop two pair with it
you’re pretty happy, unless of course you’re up
against K-K and the flop comes A-K-Q, which is what happened
when Jacobs raised it to 11k, Singer moved all-in (we’ve
heard that before and actually I skipped over another one against
Jacobs eight hands earlier), and Jacobs called all-in. Singer
owned the A-Q, and his good run of all-in moves ended here
with Jacobs more than doubling his stack and Singer suddenly
chopped down to 65k.
I stopped to assess the carnage and estimated the chips at:
I thought there had been carnage on #75. If “carnage” was
the right word there, #78 was more like “pillaging and
James opened the betting with a raise to 10k. Nguyen moved
all-in from the button, and James called instantly. A-A for
James, Ad-Ks for Nguyen. That situation made Nguyen about a
14-1 underdog, and when the flop came 10-2-2, Nguyen was now
about a 50-1 underdog. Only three finishes could save him:
K-K, J-Q, or Q-J.
MORE LIKE A CRYOGENIC FREEZE THAN A COOLER
J-Q it was, and a rather stunned Kenna James had to ship $53,000
to Nguyen, who had slipped a 50-1 noose to remain in the tournament.
I mean, this was such a major suck-out that it seems appropriate
that here in Las Vegas we are close to the Hoover Dam; we might
have to call this one the Hoover Damn.
“Win or lose,” Matusow said to Nguyen, “you
can always remember, if you’re running bad, ‘There
WAS this one hand at the World Series…’”
After five relatively normal hands, we hit the break, and
the blinds increased to $2,000-4,000, with the antes remaining
at $500, and during the much-needed ten minute recovery period,
I estimated the chips at
Three hands into the new level, Singer, looking pretty unreadable
in his low-slung baseball cap and dark shades (although it
probably isn’t right to call it a baseball cap as I’m
pretty sure there aren’t any professional teams called
the Batmans), opened hand #86 for an unusually low raise, given
all the ante money out there: he made it 10k.
Nguyen, only recently risen from the poker grave, raised another
funky amount, 19.5k, and, here’s a shocker, Singer moved
all-in. Nguyen called and flipped over Ks-Kc, while Singer
turned over the hand I consider to be the toughest to play
correctly no-limit hand, J-J. Both players whiffed on the Q-Q-9-A-8
board, and a better starting hand actually held up. Singer
was out 7th. Nguyen was now back over the 200k mark.
A DISCUSSION ABOUT “ABSOLUTE ZERO” ISN’T
It took a whole another eight hands (#94) for two big starters
to clash, and forget coolers, forget cryogenics, this one was
more like an experiment in achieving Absolute Zero (minus 459
degrees Fahrenheit, last time I checked).
With James holding the button, Nguyen brought it in for a
tiny, suspicious-looking raise to 9k. Zolotow, with whom I’d
chatted briefly on the break about what a cooler that last
hand had been, only to hear the accurate reply, “A lot
of coolers at this table,” made it 34k, and Nguyen moved
Zolotow is too much of a scholar to believe in Destiny or
unstoppable rushes, and so he decided to call, showing 10-10.
Nguyen turned over his pocket aces, and the flop came 5-10-8,
top set for Zolotow. Ah, here was justice: the man who’d
beaten aces with ace-king had just had his own aces crushed
by pocket tens…until the turn card, of course, when the
ace of diamonds hit, to give Nguyen a set of his own.
At this point I fully expected the last ten in the deck to
hit the river, but it was a jack instead, and with Matusow
shouting “This is unreal,” Nguyen had not only
retained his shoes (I mean, really, where did you think the
Abebe Bikila reference came from?), but he had knocked out
the man who’d referenced his status as the human shoehorn
in sixth place.
I SUSPECT ONE OF THE PLAYERS FELT WE’D ACCOMPLISHED
A SCIENTIFIC IMPOSSIBILITY: THE HAND BOTH SUCKED AND BLOWED
In poker terms, a hand like this is called “the old
suck and re-suck,” as the leader became the trailer and
then the leader again.
The butcher’s bill, as they used to call it in His Imperial
Majesty’s British Navy, told a new tale:
We’d now established that eight hands was the longest
the table was allowed to go without something at least eyebrow-raising
to occur, and so on hand #104, Jacobs made it 14k, Miller moved
all-in, and Jacobs called. A-A for Miller, who had been hovering
(not hoovering) around the 50k mark for what seemed like forever,
and J-J for Jacobs.
Those pesky pocket jacks had reared their ugly little heads
again, and to everyone’s astonishment, nothing strange
happened as the board came down 6-3-7-2-Q. Well, the river
card was at least a little exciting, because a queen does look
a little like a jack, at least for a split second. Jacobs had
to ship another $45,500 to Miller on top of the original 14k,
and Miller had a playable stack for the first time all day.
Jacobs, who had owned a reasonable stack for most of the final,
now suddenly had only 40k himself.
Two hands later, and well within the established eight-hand
limit, James opened for 15k, Jacobs fired right back with an
all-in bet from the big blind, and James called faster than
you could say “flops a set,” which he didn’t
do. A-Q for Jacobs, K-K for James, and even though Jacobs made
it compulsorily more interesting by flopping a queen, the kings
I HEAR THAT AFTER THE SERIES, THEY’RE OPENING AN “INSTA-CHECK” FRANCHISE
Jacobs stood to leave, but it turned out he had 2k left, which
he immediately had to post as a $500 ante and an incomplete
small blind. James tried to finish what he started by making
it 12k, and Miller decided to coming along for the ride. They
probably didn’t both check before the dealer even put
a flop out there, but it was close, and they checked the 2-2-J-4-2
board the whole way.
The two checkers each had A-Q, which checkmated Jacobs and
his A-8 into fifth place on hand #107. Normally it would take
about 10,700 hands to get this much action, but it really was
Chips were flying around pretty quickly, so it was time to
reassess who’d done what to whom:
Savage assessed everyone with a 20 minute penalty for violating
the “eight hand rule,” but because they were blinded
off equally, no chips changed position. It took 12 more hands
for someone to have aces (James), but he was only up against
Miller’s 8-8 and so couldn’t inflict heavy damage,
even if we did report James to the Bureau of Much Too Sneaky
Small Raises when Miller opened it with a raise to 15k and
James raised exactly the minimum 15k back. Miller called, but
was able to let it go when James moved in on the 7d-Qd-3s flop.
In a desperate effort to make up for the “eight hand
rule” violation, the guys got back at it on the very
next hand, when Nguyen opened for 16k on the button, James
raised 35k more, and Nguyen moved all-in.
IT’S ALWAYS THE INNOCENT EYES THAT TAKE THE
James, a rather handsome, roguish-looking type who looks to
be in his mid-to-late 30s, took off the expensive-looking glasses
he was wearing and rubbed his eyes. He took a long time to
think about it, and eventually folded, telling Nguyen “When
you checked back to look at your cards, that’s the only
reason I’m folding.” James’ ever-shifting
stack had been gutted back to 60k.
You haven’t heard Matusow’s name called too often
throughout all the wildness. That’s because Mike, who
had told me the day before the tournament that he was in dead
solid stroke and that he would be at the final table, was avoiding
the gambling hands and picking up his chips in little bites
here and there, about the same way a school of piranha would
take little bites out of a seagoing cow. That little phrase
of Roger Zelazny’s that I like so much, “killing
them by inches and hours,” seemed to apply. No giant
pots, just a steadily increasing presence, and after, let’s
see, one-two…eight more hands, he was the new chip leader.
Three hands later, on #131, Miller held the button, and Nguyen
opened for 18k. James moved all-in, a raise of 34k, and Nguyen
called, leading A-7 to A-6.
USING A PINOCHLE DECK WOULD HAVE HELPED
The board came down 3-5-3-A, and I quickly realized that any
card eight or higher would allow James to escape with a split
pot…but the seven of clubs hit the river, and Kenna James
was out fourth, the crowd and all of his opponents giving a
rousing ovation for the gutsy performance.
Two more hands brought us to the hour-long dinner break, and
we got an accurate chip count:
It was probably more of an oxygen break than a dinner break.
When play resumed, the antes remained at $500, with blinds
of $2,500-5,000. No one, not even Miller, needed to feel desperate.
There was plenty of play left at this table.
The only problem was that when the hour-long dinner break
ended, there was plenty of play left for only two players…because
Phi Nguyen was nowhere to be found. They use Paul Westfield’s
clock here, every round counted down in full view to the second,
every break timed the same way, and when the bell rang to signify
that the hour of ease had ended, Savage told the dealer to
shuffle up and deal.
“I haven’t had them wait for anyone in any tournament
so far in the World Series,” Savage told me. “Everyone
knew it was exactly one hour. We play.”
AN UNCOMFORTABLE MOMENT
This was probably exactly the sort of moment that might have
made Miller uncomfortable with his decision to play in a tournament
wherein he was the Co-Director, even though I don’t see
anything improper about it. It’s more a question of judgment,
and of whether any issues about appearances should outweigh
Jim Miller’s right to play. I’d certainly been
at several tables already at this WSOP where someone was late
getting back from a break, and in all cases, they were blinded
and/or anted off.
Frankly, poker faces many issues FAR more important than this
one, but as long as people are talking about it, and they are,
I don’t think I can ignore it. I don’t get a vote,
but if I had one, I’d say he has the right to play; whether
or not he should exercise it is a different question.
In any event, it was Nguyen’s big blind when play resumed,
and the dealer took the $5,500 from his stack. Matusow raised
8k, and Miller folded quickly. On the next hand, Miller raised
8k, and Matusow folded quickly. On the next one, Matusow raised
8k, and Miller folded quickly. The dealer gave the cards a
scramble, and Miller, in a funny but perhaps ill-timed joke,
shouted “Don’t scramble! Lock the doors!”
They did no such thing, of course, and in fact Nguyen then
arrived, about three minutes late, having missed three hands
that cost him a total of $9,000 in blinds and antes. I asked
him after the tournament if he’d lost track of the time,
and he said “No, I just thought they would wait for me.
It wasn’t a big deal.”
DIFFERENT “ABSOLUTE ZERO”: ABSOLUTELY ZERO WRONGDOING
By the way, although I have reported exactly what happened – specifically,
that Matusow and Miller each folded quickly to the other’s
bets – there was no way that either of them could possibly
have known that Nguyen was going to be late, and I was ten
feet away from them, close enough to be sure that there were
no whispers or nodded understandings about how they could maximize
the profit in the situation.
I don’t want to cause a tempest in a teapot by talking
about something that DIDN’T happen, but because the folds
were quick, I think it important to mention that their decisions
had to have been made independently, and there was nothing
like the ethical and sometimes not so silent check-down an
all-in player “conspiracy” that is often triggered
by one player loudly announcing “I CHECK” to make
sure the other player is aware that the best way to eliminate
a player is to check him down.
Nguyen would have been better off staying away for a couple
more minutes. Three hands later, he raised to 21k from the
button, and in a sudden departure from his earlier strategy,
Matusow moved all-in, a huge overbet. Nguyen thought about
it for a while, but released the hand.
FIVE MORE MINUTES WOULD HAVE SAVED HIM A LOT OF CHIPS
Perhaps four minutes would have been better still, because
three hands after that (#142 overall), Nguyen opened for 20k
from the button, and Miller moved all-in, a raise of 47.5k.
Nguyen decided to call, and Miller’s Ac-6c held up against
The first five minutes that Nguyen was present, in other words,
were infinitely more damaging to his chances than were the
three minutes he was absent.
The chip count now stood at roughly
Miller gained still more momentum on hand #151 when Nguyen
opened for 20k, Matusow called from the small blind (SB), and
Miller moved all-in, with both opponents mucking. He reached
about 160k after that play, and about 180k three hands later
when Matusow raised it to 16k from the small blind, only to
have Miller go all-in again.
Matusow mucked, and Miller, in a manner that was definitely
an accident, because one of his cards almost flew off the table,
exposed his pocket jacks.
SLOW RIDE…TAKE IT EASY…
Matusow then announced “I’m in slow gear now,
boys, I’m getting tired of all-in, all-in, all-in,” and
well he should have been. We really had a contest of wills
at the moment, in some ways like a basketball game where one
team wants to run and the other wants to play a slow tempo
half court game. Matusow wanted to play lots of small pots,
and his opponents (particularly Miller) were looking to gamble
Whoever succeeded at setting the tempo was probably going
to have the best chance to win the tournament.
Matusow stuck with his small pot plan until hand #178, when
Nguyen opened for 20k from the button, and Matusow raised back
50k more. Nguyen thought briefly, and then moved all-in, a
re-raise of 99k.
Matusow counted out his chips, recognized that even if he
let this hand go, he and Nguyen would be in a virtual tie,
and released it. After the tournament, Matusow told me he had
A-K suited. Nguyen had about 260k, Matusow about 250k, and
Miller about 140k.
Matusow is a friend, thanks to some time we spent getting
to know each other during a Card Player Cruise to the Mexican
Riviera, and we’d discussed strategy sometimes on breaks.
He got up from the table when he was out of a hand and whispered
in my ear, “The structure is so small, there’s
no reason to gamble.”
I WANTED TO SCREAM…BUT DIDN’T
Talking on a break and talking during the event seemed to
fall into different categories to me, and not wanting either
of the other players to feel uncomfortable about my presence
(although from where I was seated, I was looking at all three
players’ faces, and couldn’t have seen any hole
cards), I merely nodded and didn’t say anything, even
though there was a part of me that wanted to scream “Of
course that’s right, we talked about that earlier, why
were you pushing $70,000 into one pot!?!”
Matusow returned to his small pot ways, and gradually worked
his way back into the lead. When we reached the end of the
round, they colored up the $500 chips to remove them from the
table, and the new chip count was
The antes had increased to $1,000, and the blinds to $3,000-6,000.
In a move reminiscent of his play right after the dinner break,
on the second hand into the new level, #208 overall, Matusow
moved all-in when Nguyen opened for 24k from the button, and
I didn’t see the hand, but that sure wasn’t small
SECOND VERSE, ALMOST SAME AS THE FIRST
Nine hands later, we got another flashback, this one a semi-reprise
of hand #178. Nguyen opened for 18k from the button instead
of 20k, but Matusow’s raise was the same, 50k.
Instead of moving in, though, Nguyen made that unusual move
in no-limit play, the flat call. The flop came 4d-Jc-3c, Matusow
checked, Nguyen bet 80k, and Matusow let it go; this was the
second time he’d built up a lead slowly and had to yield
about 70k of it one hand. In the same post-tournament conversation
I referenced earlier, Matusow told me that once again he had
Usually I don’t believe anything about cards I don’t
see, even when it’s a friend telling me, but the play
seemed about right for that hand each time.
Six hands later, small bet poker became a forgotten plan.
It was hand #223 overall. Once again Nguyen had the button,
and once again he initiated contact, this time with a raise
to 22k. Matusow tried his $50,000 raise for a third time, and
while Nguyen didn’t take a very long time in deciding
to move all-in, Matusow took a length of time that can only
be expressed in tenths of a second rather than in seconds.
He called so quickly that if chips had been being pushed about,
instead of verbal declarations used, I would have said that
he practically beat Nguyen into the pot.
Nguyen turned over Qs-Qc, and in anguish Matusow turned over
OH, IT GETS WORSE…MUCH WORSE
The anguish got worse.
When a dealer releases a flop, the first card one sees is
often called the “doorcard,” a term borrowed from
its more appropriate use in stud games.
The doorcard here was a jack, and as often happens, the dealer’s
hand took a split second to pull the other two cards from the
pile of three. Matusow probably had a full half second to see
a jack, and only a jack, exposed on the board.
The other cards came free, and in one motion, everyone saw
the 4c and the Qh.
The jack had lifted Matusow’s heart, and the queen of
hearts had crushed it. The situation was now far worse than
it had been pre-flop, when Matusow had two outs and five cards
to hit one of them.
Now he had only one out, and only two cards to find it.
The three of diamonds hit the turn. Matusow needed a picture
card, specifically a jack.
ALL THE WAY BACK!
He got the picture, but the wrong one. The king of hearts
fell, and with it, Matusow’s hopes. Nguyen had him covered.
It was over. Phi Nguyen had come back from an impossibly hopeless
situation, way back when he was a 50-1 underdog with a small
stack holding A-K against A-A on a 10-2-2 flop.
I’d been an intermittent participant on the audio portion
of the Binion’s website pay-per-view broadcast, and while
the other main analyst, high limit player Mark Seif, had usually
made analyses with which I agreed, we found ourselves disagreeing
on the air about this hand. Seif thought Matusow had no choice
but to call with his pocket jacks, given how much money was
in the pot, and how strong jacks were three-handed. I wasn’t
in the mood to waffle about this one.
“Matusow could have thrown that hand away and still
had almost $200,000 in chips,” I said. “Yeah, he
hates to throw it away, it certainly could be the best hand,
but there’s a huge difference between betting all-in
with two jacks and calling all-in with them. They’re
just too vulnerable to too many different kinds of hands. Matusow’s
game plan was small bet poker and he got away from it.”
About the only waffling I was willing to do was to freely
admit that Mike Matusow is a far more experienced and talented
no-limit player than I am, so it was hard for me to criticize
his play. I was pretty sure, though, that once Mike returned,
he’d agree, and he did.
MATUSOW WISHES HE’D JUST THOUGHT FOR A COUPLE
“I can’t believe I made that call,” he said. “It’s
an easy laydown. If I had just taken two seconds to think about
it, I would have thrown it away, but for some reason, for the
first time in two days, I didn’t take any time to think,
and of course, when I make a mistake, I get punished for it.”
Although there is usually little excuse for taking no time
to think – trust me, I know that one from my own unfortunate
personal experiences – I think that in retrospect it
was fairly easy to understand.
Twice before Matusow had tried that $50,000 raise, each time
with legitimate raising hands if he’s to be believed
(and I think he is), and twice before he’d had to lay
them down. At some subconscious level, he wanted to go when
he had his next big hand, one that wasn’t going to have
to hit a flop to be worth something.
There were $648,000 in chips in play at this point, and Phi
Nguyen had roughly $588,000 of them in front of him. Jim Miller
had received a $57,000 cash bonus because Matusow and Nguyen
had gone to war before knocking him out, in a moment reminiscent
of another WSOP, a championship event.
AND AS FAST AS YOU CAN SAY “GLEN COZEN….”
In 1990, John Bonetti held A-K and flopped an ace against
Mansour Matloubi, who had held pocket sixes and flopped a set.
In that event, a hopelessly outchipped Glen Cozen suddenly
found himself $210,000 richer because the Titans had clashed
before taking care of “the other guy.” On a smaller
scale, the same thing had happened here.
Miller, outchipped 10-1 here (and even at that distance far
closer than Cozen had been), was happy about his ladder climb,
happy enough to be able to joke when Savage said “Phi
Nguyen has the chip lead.”
“Do you think?” asked a delighted Miller, not
so much to Savage as to the whole crowd.
Although Miller wasn’t going to give up, and although
comebacks from 10-1 deficits are more common than you might
think in no-limit hold’em, it wasn’t going to happen
here. It only took nine hands, the first eight of which were
On the ninth, #232 overall, Nguyen brought it in for a raise
to 20k, and Miller, with about 40k left, said with a shrug
and a smile, “let’s go,” and pushed his remaining
chips in. Nguyen called quickly, and turned over Ac-Jc, while
Miller turned over what he had correctly figured would be two
live cards, Qs-8s.
“THE MASTER” BECOMES “THE ANNOUNCER”
Nguyen’s “teacher,” Men “the Master” Nguyen,
came into the final table area to call the hand on the PA system.
He told the dealer to go slowly so everyone could follow, and
indicated that Phi Nguyen (no relation) had the lead at the
moment. He still had it after the Kd-3h-9c flop, after the
10c turn (where each player picked up a straight draw), and
when the 4c hit the river, Phi Nguyen was the champion of one
of the most exciting championships I’ve yet witnessed.
Almost certainly the event featured the largest percentage
of unlikely comebacks and cruel (or joyous, depending on your
point of view) defeats/victories I’ve ever seen. I don’t
think I’m alone in that assessment.
Jim Miller is 40 years old, but looks about 32, and while
Savage called him “the prettiest man in poker” during
the pre-tournament introductions, he has a background one normally
wouldn’t associate with the word “pretty.” He
used to be a Navy S.E.A.L., and you have to be in awfully good
shape for that. That’s one reason why he scoffed when,
upon finding him playing Chinese poker long after one day’s
events had ended last week, I told him he ought to save some
energy for the six-week WSOP.
“I work 16 hour days all the time,” he said. “When
you’re in Special Forces, you better be in top shape,
or you don’t make it.”
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, SECOND FELT PRETTY GOOD
Miller was very happy with his performance. “I think
I did great, considering what I held,” he said. I had
aces once, and I had kings once. At the final table I never
had A-K, A-Q, or even A-J, not once the whole time. To start
with the small stack I had and make it all the way to second
without catching many cards, I’m pleased.”
Phi Nguyen confirmed that he is indeed a student of Men “the
Master,” although in a specific area – tournament
play. He has been a successful money player for many years
(he’s 37), but “About four or five years ago, I
decided I wanted to learn tournaments,” he said.
“I went to Men and asked him if he would teach me about
tournaments,” Phi continued. “He has been a good
teacher, although this is my best result by far in tournaments.
I have been coming to the World Series for five years, and
I have played all the limit hold’em and no-limit hold’em
events. I’ve made two final tables, but they were a ninth
and a tenth.”
“I’m on top of the world,” he said. “After
that hand with the ace-king against the two aces, I said to
myself, ‘This tournament is mine,’ because I felt
like I was on a complete freeroll from there.”
Like many of the Los Angeles-based Vietnamese players (Nguyen
arrived in America when he was 16), Nguyen has found poker
an excellent way to make a living. “I work at the Hawaiian
Gardens casino, as a VIP host for the 30-60 and 40-80 limit
hold’em games,” he explained. “I’m
much better at limit hold’em than no-limit.”
MOVING IN WITH A-K ISN’T A CRIMINAL OFFENSE
Even though everyone will remember the A-K vs. A-A hand, it’s
impossible to say that Nguyen played it badly. After all, he
moved in with A-K – how bad a play can that be? It’s
not his fault that he happened to run into pocket aces.
His strategy at the tournament’s outset was sound, I
thought. He had the second biggest stack, and recognized that
at those very low blind/ante levels, there was no need for
him to gamble, so he didn’t. Later, when he recognized
that Matusow didn’t want to play big pots, he put Matusow
in a position where he either had to play the big pots or yield
big stacks of chips.
Murphy’s Second Law might state that if something can
happen, it will happen, but Phi Nguyen didn’t just sit
there and get lucky today. You could easily say that he got
UNLUCKY to run into pocket aces when he had the A-K, but more
important, once the cards gave him a second chance, he made
the most of it.
On a day when anything could happen, and usually did, the
player who stuck most closely to his game plan won. It’s
not a question of justice. It’s about taking advantage
of your opportunities, and, if you’ll pardon the New
Age talk, about creating your own reality. Phi Nguyen thought “this
tournament is mine” and he won. Mike Matusow thought
that he always gets unlucky, and did.
I don’t know if we can create our own realities or not,
but as long as trying to create a powerful and positive one
doesn’t cost anything, that sure seems like the way to
go to me.
Final Official Results
$2,500 No-Limit Hold’em
259 Entries, Prize Pool $602,175
1. Phi Nguyen, $222,800
2. Jim Miller, $114,420
3. Mike Matusow, $57,200
4. Kenna James, $36,140
5. Tom Jacobs, $27,100
6. Steve Zolotow, $21,015
7. David Singer, $15,060
8. Eric Holum, $12,040
9. T.J. Cloutier, $9,640
10. Abraham Rosencrantz, $7,220
11th-12th, $7,220 each: John Bolten, Tony Ma.
13th-15th, $6,020 each: Jon Brody, Casey Kastle, Todd Ostrow.
16th-18th, $4,820 each: “Miami” John Cernuto, Jan
Starvik, Jason Gray.
19th-27th, $3,620 each: Jeffrey Rothstein, Joseph Grew, Young
Phan, Charles Glorioso, George Rechnitzer, Randal Heeb, James
Grimes, Tommy Grimes, Bob Hommel.
OTHER WSOP NEWS AND NOTES
As you might have guessed, David Plastik wanted to speak with
me after yesterday’s report. What you almost certainly
didn’t guess is that he wasn’t upset about my detailing
his behavior, both good and bad; instead, he took exception
to what he thought was my description of him as a weak player,
and to my criticism of his play with his rolled-up fives. David
was OK with the conduct descriptions, because he knew that
he’d gotten too upset, and knows that it’s something
he needs to work on.
I explained to him that either he’d misread the article
when it came to my description of his play, because I’d
written “Whoever the Mr. Hyde was at this final table
was someone else, and Plastik will do well to keep him locked
away, so he can concentrate on playing poker as well as he
can, which is pretty darned well.”
I did freely admit that I had written “Everyone, even
Nguyen, folded, and Plastik showed everyone his rolled up (trip)
fives. I was surprised he put in the third raise; this was
a hand he might have grabbed a LOT of chips with….”
PLASTIK SURVEYS THE PLAYERS
David told me he’d asked a lot of players about the
hand, and that they had unanimously agreed with how he’d
played it. “If I just flat call the $4,000, not only
does that look suspicious,” he said, “but it also
means that I’m getting at least one, probably two, and
possibly three players coming along for the ride, and I’m
not a lock to win starting with trip fives: anything can happen,
and especially in a tournament, I want either to win this hand
right away, or to face at most one opponent.”
I believe that even in a tournament, where one wants to be
risk-averse, the potential upside at that stage is worth the
risk of getting drawn out on, but that’s just my opinion,
and David’s research showed that a lot of accomplished
poker players disagreed with me. That’s not the first
time that has happened, and it won’t be the last.
I certainly didn’t think (or write that) the play was
terrible; I just said I was “surprised.” Indeed, “right” or “wrong” might
not even be the right concepts here: I think there are probably
valid arguments for and against the play. Let’s take
a closer look.
LIKE MOST PLAYS, THE RIGHT ANSWER HERE “DEPENDS”
If someone is either short-stacked (where locking up a win
is important, and also where the three-bet might be viewed
as a sign of desperation and as such get a called by a weak
hand) or already has a big stack and believes himself to be
an above average player of those remaining (and as such isn’t
looking for a lot of fluctuation), the three-bet is probably
It’s also probably right if a player believes he has
a significant skill edge on the rest of the field, because
players in that situation aren’t looking to play big
How does the play stand given those parameters? I think David
rates as the third best player out of the five remaining; it’s
pretty hard for him to think he has an edge on Scotty Nguyen
or Doyle Brunson, and I think anyone who ranked Brian Haveson
or Scott Numoto ahead of David would be wrong. David was third
(Hmm, that sounds like a Borg designation to me; if so, I
should concede, because as the Borg always claim in various
Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, “Resistance
is Futile.” Now you KNOW I haven’t been feeling
well here, because that’s my first Star Trek reference
in six stories!)
ALL IN ALL, THE PLAY WAS PROBABLY FINE
On the other hand, he was the chip leader, and so didn’t
need a lot of fluctuation. All in all, the play is probably
fine, but I doubt that David would have taken exception to
the “surprised” comment if he hadn’t been
misinformed about my “plays pretty darn well” line.
In any case, making judgment calls in analysis just comes
with the territory in “working without a net ON the Net” as
I do, with no editors or poker analysts reviewing my work before
it hits the Internet.
If I was wrong in my analysis of David’s play (and again,
remember I just said I was surprised), the poker experts who
read my reports will make their own comments, and as always
I invite people to disagree. David probably was entitled, given
the texture of the negative things I reported about his conduct,
to the lengthier explanation of my analysis I’ve given
As the Collin Raye lyrics “That’s My Story” go,
(it’s a song about a guy who snuck in as the sun was
coming up and claimed he had fallen asleep in the hammock in
the back yard, only to have his woman inform him that she’d
thrown the hammock into the attic the previous week – doubly
appropriate because another attempted excuse was having played
cards all night long), my answer is the same. “Well,
that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!”
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