"Murphy’s Second Law"
By Andrew N.S. Glazer, "The Poker Pundit"

Everyone 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:

Seat Chip Count
1 Eric Holum $19,100
2 Phi Nguyen $141,200
3 Tom Jacobs $68,000
4 Steve Zolotow $43,000
5 T.J. Cloutier $62,100
6 Abraham Rosencrantz $17,600
7 Kenna James $21,000
8 David Singer $29,900
9 Mike Matusow $190,800
10 Jim Miller $55,000

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:

Holum, $27,000
Nguyen, $127,000
Jacobs, $54,000
Zolotow, $46,000
Cloutier, $9,500
Rosencrantz, $24,500
James, $15,000
Singer, $93,000
Matusow, $197,000
Miller, $55,000

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 all-in.

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 to me!”

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 18k.

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:

Nguyen, $54,000
Jacobs, $117,000
Zolotow, $90,000
James, $130,000
Singer, $65,000
Matusow, $127,000
Miller, $60,000

I thought there had been carnage on #75. If “carnage” was the right word there, #78 was more like “pillaging and plundering.

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

Nguyen, $138,000
Jacobs, $132,000
Zolotow, $85,000
James, $61,000
Singer, $58,000
Matusow, $119,000
Miller, $55,000

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 RANDOM, EITHER

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 all-in.

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 SIMULTANEOUSLY

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:

Nguyen, $308,000
Jacobs, $115,000
James, $40,000
Matusow, $135,000
Miller, $50,000

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 held up.

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 just 107.

Chips were flying around pretty quickly, so it was time to reassess who’d done what to whom:

Nguyen, $310,000
James, $85,000
Matusow, $153,000
Miller, $100,000

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 PUNISHMENT

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:

Nguyen, $299,000
Matusow, $276,500
Miller, $72,500

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.”

A 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 Nguyen’s Ks-9s.

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

Nguyen, $180,000
Matusow, $330,000
Miller, $138,000

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 it up.

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

Nguyen, $269,000
Matusow, $317,000
Miller, $62,000

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 Nguyen mucked.

I didn’t see the hand, but that sure wasn’t small pot poker.

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 A-K suited.

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 Js-Jc.

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 OF SECONDS

“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 relatively inconsequential.

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 right.

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 pots either.

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 of five.

(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 here.

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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