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Playing the WSOP Main Event

women_thumb.jpgBarely able to eat the day before the Main Event of the World Series of Poker, I arrived at the table buzzed. Along with other players who only play a single 10K a year, I'd been waiting for this morning for a long time and the chance to play super-deep poker, with 30K in starting chips and two-hour levels.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I was seated at a typically diverse Main Event table. World class players and famous gambling personalities sat next to amateur players who thought that open-raising to eight times the big was a clever way to protect pocket jacks.

As ESPN cameras gathered around our table a few minutes into play, I discovered that one of my foes was businessman, Bobby Baldwin, the 1980 Main Event Champion whose famous "Bobby's Room" hosts nosebleed cash games at the Bellagio. Baldwin showed genuine curiosity about his tablemates. For example, he innocently asked one of the less experienced players at the table, a gentleman in his fifties from the Midwest: "What are you going to do with the money if you win the Main Event?" Then he turned to me and inquired: "It seems like you like to play poker. Why?" I told Bobby that I generally enjoy poker, but particularly loved feeling the energy of so many other Main Event dreamers.

Another famous poker player at the table, Adam Junglen, entered the tournament in a good mood - he was having a great series, reaching final tables in two events. From his banter he let the table know right away that he would be aggressive and out for action. "Playing the Main Event is like walking into a buzz saw, it's going to end badly," he said. Comparing himself to even younger online whizzes, Adam bemoaned that at 23, he was officially "over the hill." This tickled Baldwin, who won the 1978 World Series of Poker Main Event when he was 28, making him the youngest winner at the time. "I can't believe I lost a pot," Baldwin said wryly as chips were pushed in Adam's direction, "to someone who's over the hill."

My table also featured a loose aggressive online player, Kenny and the poker author Colin Moshman, who is also the husband of my fellow grindette, Katie Dozier. My own strategy at the table was to avoid the four obvious pros at the table in marginal situations and try to isolate some of the other players. I three-bet the players to my right and opened less frequently from late position, since I wasn't that interested in playing pots out of position with Adam Junglen, and a spewy online player to my direct left. I felt happy about chipping up for the first four levels of the day. On the last level, I got into a few pre-flop confrontations with Adam that didn't work out well. Later Adam became my friend, looked me in the eye and told me "I never had much when I three-bet you." The unsuited broadway holdings he revealed were not shocking to me; I thought he may have been three-betting with even worse!

I ended the day with a slightly smaller stack than I started with but upon reflection, felt okay with how I played. I spent the two-day break railing some of my friends, including the #6 chessplayer in the World, Hikaru Nakamura, and two of my favorite female pros, Jamie Kerstteter and Katie Stone. Unfortunately, women comprised just over 3.5% of the field (242 of 6,865) but I was lucky to meet many of them.

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Jennifer Shahade and Ted Forrest

On day two, Ted Forrest , a high stakes pro and cash player, sat on my left. He relied on his post-flop skills, avoiding three-bet pots while flatting and limping often. A few hours into it a player to my right who hated to fold gift-wrapped one for me. He completed in the small blind. I checked with 8-5 off suit and hit the second nuts when the board came 679. I managed to get about 60 big blinds in on the flop and when he turned over his hand, I was pleasantly shocked. He had nine-deuce off suit and was drawing to runner-runner.

Just after dinner, I moved to a table with Team Poker Stars Pro Sebastian Ruthenberg, along with a few other aggressive players. I won a cooler and then treaded water the rest of the night. I knew I was doing a great job of cultivating a tight image when I three-bet in the hijack and the original opener in early position literally laughed while mucking. I had A♦2♦ in that instance. At the end of the night, Sebastian looked at me with his piercing eyes and charming smile and said, "Wow, so beautiful." I was flattered until he completed the thought, "the way you bag chips." On further consideration, I decided this was exactly the compliment I wanted.

After another two-day break, I entered day three with few expectations. I had well below the chip average, leaving me very vulnerable. My main goal was to play my best. Then all of a sudden, I won a few huge pots and went from 65K to 160K very quickly. With fewer than 1,000 players left in the tournament, the pressure was on. Just before dinner break the TD announced that "the main event champion is in the room."

I ran into Team PokerStars Pro Vanessa Rousso on break and she told me that she had also turned her short stack into an above average chip count. Recalling Vanessa's advice not to eat heavy meals during breaks, I napped over the elongated two-hour dinner break, nourishing myself with iced green tea and nuts. I felt totally alert and ready to play poker.

That's when disaster struck. An aggressive player who told me that I had a nice face (no kidding) opened in middle position. I three-bet with A♣Q♣. I'd often flat there, but I'd been pretty tight, so I figured he'd fold a lot of his range. He seemed to consider 4-betting me and then just called. I took one stab at the pot, but ended up folding on an ugly board with three hearts. Later he swore on his mother's eyes that he had flopped the nuts, A♥K♥. Even though it was not the most dramatic hand, losing a three-bet pot at that stage in the main event felt truly awful.

Then came the fatal hand. With about 40 big blinds I opened from the cutoff with J-9 off suit and a solid semi-pro called me on the button. The flop came 9-2-2. I bet and he min-raised. I didn't want to fold because I thought there were a ton of bluff hands in his range and I didn't think it made sense to raise. I called and the turn was a harmless 3. I checked and he checked behind quickly. The river was a queen and I bet about 1/3 pot. I felt it likely at this point that my hand was good, but the purpose of betting was more as a blocking bet than a value bet since he'd probably fold most worse hands. He seemed to be contemplating raising or folding but finally called and showed Q-T. His pair of winning black queens felt worse than checkmate.

The short-stacked segment of my evening didn't work out as I took a blind vs. blind spot with 9-8 off suit only to run into ace-ten. After busting, I walked around the Amazon room for some time, checking out various players and friends. As for the fates of aforementioned members of Team PokerStars Pros: Vanessa Rousso ended in 551th for $23,876 while Sebastian Ruthenberg finished 55th for a $130, 997 payday.

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Vanessa Rousso

When I finally departed the tournament quarters, it felt as though I'd been turned upside down and all the blood was drained into my head, allowing my body to float around weightlessly. If not for the fact that I had to be knocked out of the main event of the World Series of Poker to get that feeling, it might even be worth repeating. Eventually the head rush wore off and I was left with a more mundane feeling. I would wake up the next morning without a bag of chips to unzip.

I obsessed over my plays with J♥9♠ and A♣Q♣. I could not untangle emotional pain from intellectual regret. I used to have chips and I no longer did - was I simply sad or actually angry with myself? I called my brother Greg, an online pro who taught me poker. I talked to him about some of the hands and he said the three words that every sister wants to hear after getting knocked out of the Main: "Sounds pretty standard."

Before I left Las Vegas, I spent a couple days sweating friends and hanging out with other members of the vanquished. I was inspired by the intelligence and spirit of so many I met at WSOP from the media folks who made the event so much fun to follow, to the women of "That's What She Said," to some top minds in MTT poker. I left Vegas with renewed determination for my next big poker tournament, which is likely to be the EPT Ladies Event in London.

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