March Poker: Bounty Shootout and Breaking Even

teampokerstarsonlinelogo.PNGOne thing I considered crucial to a proper poker approach for 2011 was focusing my energy on the online quotidian and not spending time and energy travelling to the big "live" poker tournaments that take place all over the world, all year around. Last year at this exact time, I was setting off to Europe for a two-month trip to play a series of high stakes events, travelling from San Remo to Paris to Barcelona. Looking back, the intensity of the trip contributed to lackluster online results for the second half of the 2010 and also caused my general direction to go off course.

It's tough to put in the kind of volume and hours necessary to be profitable in online poker while also traveling to high-buyin tournaments throughout the world, and there are very few tournament players who manage to do both at a proficient level. Kevin MacPhee stands out in this category, and there are plenty of one-off live scores by "online players" that defy the rule. But for the most part, a player like JC Tran-- whose bread and butter is live poker tournaments--doesn't play online poker very often and vice-versa for many online MTT grinders.


I still had my eye on a few live tournaments, though, particularly the ones that take place every year in California during February and March, when the WPT hosts well-attended $10K-buyin tournaments at Commerce Casino in Los Angeles and Bay 101 Casino in San Jose. This year, the California poker circuit had some extra action with a series at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, CA that concluded with a $5,000-buyin main event and a $10K-buyin Bounty Shootout (BSO).

The BSO is a format that PokerStars pioneered last year in conjunction with its launch of the North American Poker Tour, and it's a very unique, fun structure. Unlike a standard poker tournament, in which a large starting field gets whittled down, player by player, and the tables get consolidated until one final table remains, a shootout involves winning the equivalent of single-table tournament (STT) in order to advance to the next round. For instance, in a "triple shootout," you must win three STTs in order to claim the title.

The $10,000 BSO event that took place from March 10th-12th, 2011 at the Bike was a "double shootout" starting with 81 players, nine tables with nine players per table. Each tabled yielded one winner for a nine-handed final table. This tournament also had a few added wrinkles: specifically, bounties--eliminating a player was worth $2,000 at the first table and $10,000 at the final table. In addition, the person who collected the most bounties throughout the tournament would win $20,000 and a freeroll into a future PokerStars BSO event.

The most important strategic consideration for the tournament was the winner-take-all prize structure: The only other prizes besides bounties were those awarded for winning each round--the nine winners of round 1 got $40,000 and the eventual winner of the tournament, Pat Walsh, got $171,700 (plus bounties).


My first table was a diverse mix of both "live" and "online" poker personalities. From the 1-9 seat (I was in the 3-seat): (1) Canadian pro Marcello Del Grosso; (2) Kathy Liebert, probably the most accomplished female live tournament pro; (4) Shaun Deeb, one of the most successful, pioneering online MTT players in the world but also a prime example of someone who has struggled to adjust in the live poker arena; (5) Jennifer Tilly, the highly accomplished actress who is also a fixture at various stops on the live circuit; (6) Dan Heimiller, a quirky player who has had success both live and online; ditto for (7) Bertrand "Elky" Grospellier, the soft-spoken French former pro-gamer with an outrageously amazing poker resume; (8) Pat Pezzin, another Canadian pro with a lot of results in both live and online (and both cash games and tournaments); and finally in the (9), a Russian player who was the only "unknown" at the table.


Jennifer Tilly is always a good sport with us poker nerds. Here she displays her "bounty chip" on Day 1 of the Bounty Shootout. Elky looks on in the background.

After Elky busted early, the two players I was most worried about at the table were Shaun Deeb and Pat Pezzin, although for different reasons. In my estimation, those two had the the type of playing styles (again, very different styles) that would wind up being the hardest to defend against in this format.

It turned out not to matter much, and, as with a lot of things in poker, I advanced to the final table only with the aid of a whole lot of luck. After Deeb was eliminated in fourth place, my two remaining opponents were the Canadians Del Grosso and Pezzin. I put a brutal beat on Del Grosso, winning with pockets 6s against his pocket 9s, a 4-1 underdog with all my chips in the middle. I then busted him in what we call a "coinflip," a poker situation where the probability of each hand winning is roughly 50/50.

I eventually got extremely lucky one more time in order to advance to the second round of the shootout, when I took most of Pezzin's chips with AJ vs QQ (I was about a 2.5-1 underdog in the hand).


As I told Dave Swartz during the interview we did for the ESPN broadcast that 441 Productions is putting together to air in the Spring, this tournament was maybe the one time where I might answer something other than "money" when asked what was the most important aspect of being at the final table. When Swartz asked in the interview what a win would mean to me, I told it him it would represent that I was back in form, that I was in a good space mentally and in my poker career.

Just being in the same room as the 441 crew was a great throwback to better poker days. It was my fourth time in front of the ESPN cameras, and for all the obvious reasons, sitting down for an ESPN interview is one of the most satisfying things you can experience in poker. The quality of the interview questions is unparalleled in the poker world, and to me it always feels like a great opportunity to express myself to an abnormally large audience.

Unfortunately, as was the case in 2005 and 2007 when I made televised final tables (and took 5th both times) at the WSOP, I didn't get far enough at the final table of the Bounty Shootout to necessarily be a relevant part of the finalized TV product. When we played the final table on Saturday, March 12th, I "just couldn't get anything going," as the expression goes.

After the early elimination of Victor Ramdin (who had just won $500,000 in the $5K-buyin main event a couple of days earlier before making the BSO final table), the table played 8-handed for a long time. Surrounded by two seasoned professionals, Ali Eslami on my immediate right and Matt Woodward on my immediate left, I didn't find any great situations to put my chips in the middle. Finally, I "woke up" with a pair of tens against Alex Keating's open raise. It was a standard spot to go allin, but unfortunately he had a much better hand (kings) to call with.


My total winnings for the event were $46,000 ($6,000 for three round-one bounties and $40,000 for winning the table), but here's the actual breakdown of what I walked with:

First of all, when we were three-handed, the Canadians and I made a "save," which is basically a way of reducing variance in a situation where first place will receive a fairly large payout while second and third got nothing. We agreed that the eventual winner pay each of the other two $5,000. When Pat and I got headsup, we added another $3,000 to the save. (Pat and I also agreed to trade 1% of the final table action, which turned out to be irrelevant since I didn't win any additional money at the final table).

So, out of that $46,000, I paid off Marcello's $5K and Pat's $8K, which left me with gross cashes of $33,000. But wait! As is common practice with high-buyin tournaments, I had sold off a high percentage of my action to outside investors in order to minimize the exposure to my own bankroll. I was playing for a total of 16% of my action. Sixteen percent of $33,000 is $5,280. Subtract $100 I tipped to the casino staff and other assorted expenses, I was left with just about $5K--not bad for a weekend's work, but a distant reality from what people see when they check my publicly available tournament results.


BSO final table at the Bicycle Casino, March 12th, 2011. Clockwise from rear left: Victor Ramdin, Pat Walsh, John Smith, Matt Woodward, Jonathan Duhamel, me, Ali Eslami, Alex Keating and Joe Tehan.


And despite having the relatively tremendous advantage of being able to and drive home to the comfort of my bed after each night of tournament play, I still found it exhausting to play these tournaments. There is a sort of languid pace, a drawn-out intensity that characterizes live poker which is markedly different from the quicker, generally more gratifying momentum of online poker.

Still, I will be travelling back east tomorrow, for my guest spot on Seven Second Delay on Wednesday and to see family and friends, but also to play another major, live poker tournament--the $5K NAPT event starting on April 9th at Mohegan Sun.

I'm concerned about the trip though; I don't want too many monthly graphs looking like the one below, where after a fruitful recovery from live poker exhaustion, I experienced a steady downswing during the second half of March, resulting in a basically break-even month:


March 2011 PokerStars MTT results