Part I



"The Magnificent Nine"

By Andrew N.S. Glazer, "The Poker Pundit"

Regular readers already know about my movie fixation, and so those regulars probably aren’t surprised to see the tale of the strongest final at the 2003 World Series of Poker involving a take-off on the great Yul Brynner movie, The Magnificent Seven (itself a remake of The Seven Samurai).

Some of the Magnificent Seven didn’t make it out alive; that fits too, because eight of our Magnificent Nine couldn’t, by definition, win this event.

That we’d get a great final nine in the $5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha (PLO) event isn’t surprising. $5,000 events tend to attract only the strongest players, and PLO may well involve even more skill than no-limit hold’em, because there are so many difficult post-flop decisions.

Certainly PLO has become THE big money side action game: just follow the tournament trail around, and you’ll see that the biggest actions games are almost always PLO. Like they said in All the President’s Men, when you’re trying to learn the real truth, “follow the money.” If you play a game for huge stakes using real money, you probably develop a skill set that will serve you well in tournaments.

This helps explain why I practically danced last night when I saw that the field for today would be:

Seat Player Chip Count
1 Huck Seed $35,000
2 Erik Seidel $58,300
3 Immanuel Sebag $54,100
4 Johnny Chan $76,300
5 Jon Brody $31,800
6 Phillip Marmorstein $5,200
7 John Juanda $39,800
8 Robert Williamson III $90,600
9 Maurice Atlani $33,900

Most of these players need no introduction, but I’ll give a brief one for everyone:

  • Seed: Lives in Las Vegas. 1996 World Champ, two other bracelets, 11th all time in WSOP earnings.
  • Seidel: Lives in Las Vegas. 5th all-time WSOP earnings, six bracelets, including PLO last year. Historic confrontations with Chan in 1988 and 2002.
  • Sebag: Lives in London, where they play a lot of PLO, 2nd cash this year.
  • Chan: Lives in LA/Vegas. 1987 and 1988 World Champ. Six other bracelets. #1 all-time WSOP earnings. Featured with Seidel in movie “Rounders.”
  • Brody: Lives in Davie, Florida. This was his FOURTH final table this year alone, and second in two days; five cashes in 2003 alone.
  • Juanda: Lives in LA suburb Marina Del Rey. Won second bracelet three days ago. 14th in career WSOP earnings. Runner-up in Card Player “Player of the Year Standings in both 2001 and 2002.
  • Marmorstein. Lives in Munich, Germany. One of world’s best backgammon players. Four WSOP cashes.
  • Williamson: Lives in Dallas, Texas. Defending champion in this WSOP event. Won PLO event at 2003 World Poker Open. Recently given (earned!) “Brian Saltus Award” for poker citizenship, class, and gentlemanly honorable play.
  • Atlani: Lives in Bologne, France, where they also play a lot of PLO. Two WSOP cashes.

Only the three Europeans aren’t famous in America, and that’s primarily because…they’re Europeans, who play a different circuit most of the time.

When you add the well-earned European reputation in pot-limit, a victory by any of the final nine clearly wouldn’t have been a shock (although Marmorstein was severely handicapped by his short stack), and probably not even a surprise.

A MINI “TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS”

This table was practically a “Tournament of Champions” all by itself, so let’s get on with it. Play began with $600-1,200 blinds, allowing the first raiser to bet anywhere from $2,400 to $4,200 (the maximum first raise in any WSOP PLO event is a call of the existing bet and then a pot-sized raise, a figure that always works out to seven times the small blind).

Marmorstein moved practically his entire stack in from the button on hand #2, and Williamson, with $1,200 already invested, decided to shove the $3,400 necessary to call the bet and put Marmorstein’s final $400 into play.

Marmorstein started with the lead, A-A-10-2, but Omaha high only starting hands aren’t like hold’em hands: it’s pretty rare for ANY hand to be more than a 2-1 dog heads-up, and 3-2 edges are far more common even in what looks to the inexperienced eye like a dominated situation.

Williamson turned over Q-10-7-4, flopped a seven and turned a ten, and his two pair KO’d Marmorstein and his unimproved aces. Because Chan didn’t arrive until after hand #4 had been dealt, he never even saw Marmorstein.

The short time remaining on the round from yesterday ended after hand #11, and the blinds moved to $800-1,600, allowing the opening raiser to bet from $3,200 to $5,600.

CHAN TAKES ON SEED…WHERE HAVE WE SEEN THIS BEFORE?

Two hands into the new round, Chan limped in under the gun (the first position after the blinds, called UTG), Seed limped from the button (a bit odd, given the early going: Seed had already entered four of the first 12 hands via a raise or re-raise), and both blinds came along for the ride.

The flop came Kc-Jd-4d, the blinds checked, Chan bet 6k, and Seed raised back 18k more. The blinds cleared out, but Chan called. A third diamond, the 8d, hit the turn.

With $42,400 already in the pot, Seed’s last $11,300 went in, although the bets were small enough, relative to the pot size, that I lost track of betting sequence on the turn. I think Chan check-raised after Seed made a small bet, but I wouldn’t swear to it; because I had tracked all the betting on the prior hands, I can swear to the $11,300.

Chan turned over K-K-A-10; he’d flopped top set and a gutshot straight draw. Seed also turned over an A-K, but his two were suited in diamonds, giving him the nut flush (his other cards, 9-7, weren’t going to matter now).

The four of hearts hit the river, making the board Kc-Jd-4d-8d-4h, and giving Chan a full house. Hand #13 had indeed been unlucky for Seed. This confrontation reminded me of last year’s $3,000 NLH event, when Chan also eliminated Seed quite early, although the games and the hands (a missed draw against a pair) were quite different.

A CLASSIC OMAHA HAND

This was in many ways a classic Omaha hand: Chan had the better hand pre-flop, and the better hand when 24k each went in on the flop. He fell behind when the last few chips went in on the turn, and regained the lead on the river.

In a tennis match, when you finish someone off, it’s Game-Set-Match. Here Seed’s end was Set-Flush-Boat. That’s Omaha for you, a game whose nature probably requires more “tilt-proofness” than any other.

After hand #36, I made a chip estimate, which turned out to be particularly useful given what happened on #37:

Erik Seidel $50,000
Immanuel Sebag $27,000
Johnny Chan $115,000
Jon Brody $33,000
John Juanda $40,000
Robert Williamson III $120,000
Maurice Atlani $27,000

Brody’s ability to reach today’s final table was helped by his early bust-out at the final yesterday. You’re not allowed to run back and forth from one tournament to the other: if you enter a noon event and have a final table that starts at 2:00, you must leave the noon event and not return until you’re done at the final. This rule makes reaching final tables on consecutive days quite a feat.

On hand #37, Brody limped in from the button, and Juanda, who hadn’t quite made final tables in consecutive days but had WON a final just three days ago, pushed the legal limit in from the small blind, $4,800.

DECISION TIME FOR JUANDA

The chip-heavy Williamson called from the big blind, but Brody decided to let it go, and the flop came 3d-Qh-6c. Juanda again bet the limit, $14,600, and Williamson raised the maximum, a number more than big enough to put Juanda all-in if he called.

Juanda removed the $14,600 from his stack to see what he’d have left if he made the call and lost, and decided both that he had a pretty good hand and that he was getting pretty good odds on his call (risking his final $20,600 to attempt to claim the $61,000 sitting in the pot).

Juanda thus made the call and turned over A-A-K-8, and discovered that not only was he getting great pot odds, he was leading, because Williamson had only Q-9-8-7 (top pair, mediocre kicker).

The kicker didn’t look so mediocre when the 9d hit the turn: it gave Williamson two pair and left Juanda staring into a 3-Q-6-9 board needing a three, six, or ace to hit the river (a nine or queen also pairs the board but these cards give Williamson a full house).

The river didn’t help (actually, the ten improved Williamson to a straight he didn’t need), and the player who supposedly always gets lucky in big pots had been knocked out on a hand in which he was leading at every moment when any bet was made. Juanda was gone seventh, yet another great player vanquished…but that of course was today’s leitmotif, because anyone you vanquished was great.

IT’S BAAAAAAAAACK

Life and poker are each full of little ironies, and the cheesy Q-9-8-7 made its return seven hands later, when Seidel, who had been taking advantage of the slow structure to stay out of most pots until his own cheesy cards got a little better, limped in. Brody, who’d probably played three times as many pots as Seidel, also limped, with Williamson and Atlani coming along from the blinds.

The flop came 7h-6s-Qd, and if you haven’t already noticed, that flops gives whomsoever was playing Q-9-8-7 the top two pair, as well as an open-ended straight draw. The action was checked around to Brody, who tested the waters with a little 5k bet, only to see Williamson come over the top with a $16,400 raise.

Brody only had about 28k left in front of him, and he shoved it all-in. This was a tiny raise compared to the pot and Williamson called quickly with…Q-9-8-7. The same guy had not only caught the same quirky hand, but he’d gotten all of another player’s chips in with it again.

The only problem was that Brody turned over Q?-Qh-3?-2h, for a set of queens. Q-9-8-7 is going to start getting written up as a classic Omaha powerhouse, I guess, because when the 10h hit the turn, Williamson’s two pair and open-ended straight draw had improved to a straight. Brody slumped: there weren’t any queens left, and he thought for a moment that the only outs on the Q-7-6-10 board were sevens, sixes, or tens, but perked up a bit when pal Mike Matusow cried out from the rail, “Hey, flush draw!"

WELL, THEY WEREN’T PLAYING TENNIS ANYWAY

The four of hearts hit the river, and instead of Game-Set-Match it was Set-Straight-Flush. Brody was alive and kicking with 70k, and Williamson’s second try with Q-9-8-7 (to be fair, he had been in the blind with it each time) cost him almost as much as he had won with it the first time.

Not only was this the second time Q-9-8-7 had played a role in a big pot, it was the second time that the 4h had turned a trailer into a winner (Chan had knocked out Seed with the same card).

The books had been balanced, unless of course your name is John Juanda.

Now that Brody had picked up some chips, he wasn’t in a hurry to give them back. On the next hand (#44), he made it $5,600 to go, and Williamson flat called from the button. The flop came Jd-5h-10h, and Brody checked.

Williamson, as was his pattern throughout the day, made an odd sized bet, $10,800. Many of the great European pot limit players sneer at the way Americans tend to play the game, which is either with small bets or pot-sized bets. The Europeans claim that very often it is correct to make a bet somewhere in between.

As it has long been established in the poker world that Texas is a separate country from the rest of the US, maybe it’s in Europe, and if so that might explain Williamson’s tendency to make the quirky-looking bets he made.

BRODY SHOWS A BIG LAYDOWN

Brody thought for quite a while, and then showed he was laying down J-5-A-A: not merely top and bottom pair, but also aces that could wind up coming into play in any number of ways.

Williamson decided to show that his good friend had made a good laydown by turning up his J-10-9-8 – not merely top two, but also an opened ended straight draw. He later indicated that with both top two and the straight draw “I was coming if Brody had moved in on me.”

Although it turned out Brody had indeed made a great laydown (he did have some outs with fives and aces, but not enough), it’s not at all clear that he did the right thing by showing it. It certainly earned him respect for making such a good read at a critical moment, but traditional poker wisdom is that you don’t want to show big laydowns, because most players don’t play aggressively enough and showing a big laydown invites players to attack you more often.

FROM LITTLE HANDS DO MIGHTY OAKS GROW

My word count limitation is preventing me from detailing many of the smaller hands, but these seemingly inconsequential hands had throughout the early going played a big role in the way two of the star-filled table’s biggest stars, Chan and Seidel, maneuvered their stacks.

Chan had masterfully picked off small pot after small pot, usually by sensing weakness after the flop and playing at someone unwilling or unable to play back, and even though he hadn’t won any spectacular hands since sending Seed to the sidelines, his stack grew steadily, seemingly without ever putting many chips at risk. He wasn’t interested in gambling. He was just steady as a rock, and I started playing around with titles I might use if he won. Given his old “Orient Express” nickname, the steady pace suggested something like “If you absolutely, positively need to win tomorrow, don’t fool around with anyone else: use Federal Orient Express.”

On reflection, it was both too much of a mouthful and not really funny enough, but the “absolutely, positively” part tells you something about the powerful, steady, confident way he was playing.

Seidel is usually all of those things, but I think a combination of many weak hands and too much confidence in the structure to give him enough time had his stack slowly and quietly eroding.

When we hit the break, the $100 chips came off the table, and the new chip counts were:

Erik Seidel $34,500
Immanuel Sebag $17,500
Johnny Chan $139,500
Jon Brody $57,500
Robert Williamson III $132,000
Maurice Atlani $44,000

When the players returned, the new blinds were $1,000-2,000, allowing a first raise from $4,000-7,000.

Seidel’s slide quickened on the first post-break hand, in an unraised battle between the blinds. The flop came 6c-2h-3d, Seidel led out for 3k, and Sebag called.

THE JOINT AND THE NUTS…COULD MAKE FOR AN INTERESTING EVENING

The 10s hit the turn, and Seidel moved enough chips to put Sebag all-in if he called. There wasn’t much “if” to it, because Sebag had flopped “the joint” (the phrase that seems to be replacing “the nuts” as the pro’s favorite substitute for “the unbeatable hand”): his 4-4-5-J gave him the nut straight, and his mere call had let Seidel get in trouble when his Q-10-4-2 turned top pair and left him gasping with a gutshot hope for the straight Sebag already held.

Only a trey could let Seidel escape with a split, and three-squared (9, for the mathematically-challenged) isn’t three. Sebag doubled to 35k, and essentially traded chip positions with Seidel, who now had 17k.

Sebag grew energized from the double-up, because he played the next five pots, winning four of them, and suddenly was a factor with 50k. I can just hear Dick Vitale saying “He really needed that T/O, baby.”

NO CH-CH-(CHAN)GES

Chan kept getting so much respect, that I kept finding “ch-ch-Chan” in my notes (check-check-Chan bets), which evoked memories of one of many great David Bowie songs, although the actual lyrics that followed that line in “Changes” (“Ch-ch-changes, don't want to be a richer man”) didn’t quite fit what Chan was trying to do.

If you want an example of the respect, take a look at hand #75, where Chan limped in along with the blinds. The flop came Jc-Ad-Kh, and Seidel led out for 4k, with both Sebag and Chan calling. The Jh hit the turn, pairing the board and also putting a flush draw out, and everyone checked.

An irrelevant-looking 5c hit the river, and again it went ch-ch-Chan, with Chan betting 10k. Seidel let it go, and Sebag really surprised me by folding and showing Q-10.

He’d flopped the joint, didn’t push it against Seidel’s bet, and once Chan called behind him, he just shut it down, checking the turn and assuming that if Chan were willing to bet the river after four consecutive checks from his opponents, he must have a full house that would beat his straight.

MAYBE I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE TO WATCH TOO MANY VIDEOS

Maybe he’d watched either the video from the ’88 WSOP or Rounders too many times (Chan checked the nuts twice against Seidel there, and Rounders used that clip). Respecting Chan is one thing, and makes sense, but this seemed unduly cautious.

Sebag got tricky again three hands later, when he was one of four players to see the flop for 5k each. Everyone checked as it came 9s-Kh-2c, but when the 5s hit the turn, Sebag bet 15k, only to see Williamson flat-call him.

Another spade, the 2s, hit the river, pairing the board in the process. Sebag bet only 8k into the 51k pot, and left Williamson wondering whether the tiny bet was one of those “I’ve got you stone-cold, but I’m going to make a value bet so small you HAVE to call” bets, or if he was using reverse psychology to take a shot at making Williamson lay down something strong when Sebag didn’t have anything.

The bet certainly left Williamson confused, and he thought for quite a while, clearly hating the idea of getting milked but eventually refusing to get psyched out of a pot he had a chance at. He called and turned over his As-3s, the nut flush so long as Sebag didn’t have the big full house or quads that the bet implied.

THE POST OAK BLUFF NEARLY TAKES IT

Sebag indicated that Williamson’s flush was good, and Williamson nodded in respect, conveying non-verbally that the underbet (sometimes called a Post Oak Bluff) had very nearly worked.

Three hands later, Erik Seidel’s frustrating day finally ended. He had 7k left, and raised the max from the small blind, to 6k. Sebag didn’t exactly have any chips to waste, but he went ahead and re-raised the final $1,000 to put Seidel all-in.

The hands were about as much of a coin flip as you could imagine: A-9-8-3 for Seidel, A-9-6s-2s for Sebag. Seidel stood when the flop came 4-2-K, giving Sebag a pair of twos, and exited when the board finished J-Q. Sebag actually made a flush he didn’t need; he’d just needed for the river not to bring an eight or a three, and his hand made it. Seidel was sixth.

It’s a pretty rough table when you look at the 6-7-8 finishers and their names are Seidel, Juanda, and Seed.

Meanwhile, Steve Zolotow had come in to do some guest announcing, and he offered some solid basic Omaha advice for which Seidel, while still barely in the tournament, had retained enough of a sense of a humor to say “Hey, that’s pretty good advice, it’s just a little late for the guys who are already out.”

HE’S DRIER THAN DEHYDRATED DUST

When Seidel busted out, Zolotow noted that while the sixth place payoff was about 18 thousand dollars, it really was only a $13,000 win, because the buy-in had been $5,000. With that arid sense of humor of his (it could suck the moisture out of the Sahara desert during the dry season), Zolotow noted that “For those of you who think it’s disappointing to win only $13,000 when you had a chance to win $158,000, I should point out that there are some people who have to work all week to make $13,000.”

While Chan continued to work the table for $3,000 here and $8,000 there – this theme never did Chan-ge – we finally ran into a big collision on the “silly millimeter longer” hand (#101).

Williamson, Sebag, and the two blinds (Chan and Brody) took a look at the flop for 2k each. The cheap flop was the kind that you just KNOW provides at least one player with a draw and maybe more; made hands aren’t impossible either with Qh-4c-10c.

Chan checked (no gambling, remember), Brody checked, Williamson bet 8k, and Sebag said “all-in,” but actually he wasn’t. The maximum legal bet in that spot was 24k and he had 24.5k. For a silly 0.5k longer, we’ll let this one go.


Editor's note: Today's report is unusually long, and to make sure it arrives in your in-box, we have split it into two parts. Part one ends here. Part two picks right up with the next email you receive from us. We regret that you will probably not receive part two for about three hours. We must send out all 25,000 copies of part one first before we can start sending out part two.

Andy Glazer

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