Chips, not Euros: Inside the Monte Carlo cash game
About a month before the EPT, I received an invitation to participate in the Million Euro Cash Game at Monte Carlo. One million euro buyin, no-limit hold'em, blinds of 1k/2k.
It was to be, I believe, the biggest non-private cash game ever run in Europe, and definitely the biggest one ever to be televised or live-streamed. It was a lot to be excited about, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate. There was also a lot to be stressed about.
First of all, the logistics of getting a million euros from my PokerStars account to a casino in Monte Carlo in a timely fashion were non-trivial, though that's not the sort of material that makes for a compelling blog post.
There's the issue of risk management - how much of my own action should I take and how much should I sell? And to whom? And, of course, I couldn't let myself underestimate the emotional impact of playing for the highest stakes I'd ever played in my life and of doing so in front of such a large worldwide audience. It's so easy to make mistakes when you're playing for higher sums of money than you are accustomed to. It's tempting to be too cautious, a little gun shy. Those sorts of mistakes can be very costly.
It's also easy to overcompensate, blasting off on a bad bluff or making a too-heroic call because you're determined not to let the stakes make you timid. When post-flop action amounts to, "I'll bet a BMW," "I'll raise a starter home," "I'll re-raise a McMansion," it's hard not to be distracted by the surreality and the massive excess of it all.
When I got to Monte Carlo, it didn't seem to be a certainty that the game would run at all. The week leading up to the appointed Saturday was filled with discussions and rumors of who would and would not be playing, whose money had or had not arrived. No one had accounted for a French bank holiday and it seemed uncertain that several players, myself included, would get their money in time. At one point, around the middle of the week, I had resigned myself to the belief that the game probably wouldn't run, and that if it did it would probably be without me.
However, Saturday rolled around and things had worked themselves out. My wire turned up at about the last possible minute, and out of the ten or so possible players, a group of six definites had solidified. As soon as Viktor Blom, Talal Shakerchi, Niklas Heinecker, Sam Trickett, Paul Newey, and I were all eliminated from the 25k tourney that had started the previous day, the game would commence. The buy-in was reduced to 500k, but the stakes were kept at 1k/2k.
Pretty soon after we started, I played the biggest pot of my life. Talal opened to 7k in the cutoff, and, with effective stacks of just over 500k, I three-bet to 23k on the button with Q♠T♠. The blinds folded, and Talal made it 52k. I called. The flop came a beautiful J♠8♠5♠, and he bet 75k. I called.
The turn was an offsuit [A], he continued with a bet of 125k, and I called. The dream runout continued with a river offsuit [Q]. Talal checked, I shoved for just over 250k into a pot of just over 500k, and he deliberated only briefly before calling. He didn't say what he had, but my first guess would be a set of aces. If you're wondering, yes, winning a million euro pot feels as good as you think it would. Even when it is just a brutal cooler in a four-bet pot.
The couple hours following this hand went well but were relatively uneventful. The biggest pot I played was one in which I opened [A][K] under the gun and got four callers. I c-bet an [A][K][Q] rainbow flop and called a checkraise from Niklas. The turn paired the [Q], and he checked. With 175k in the pot and around 425k to play, I decided to turn my hand into a bluff. I bet 105k and he folded on the turn, but I was undecided if I was going to fire the rest on the river if he called. When we took a break for dinner, I was up a bit over 600k.
Despite my early good fortune in the game (or possibly because of it), I found my head spinning a little as I walked back to my hotel room. Should I really have folded in that one spot? Was I letting the pressure of playing at such nosebleed stakes get to me? Was it affecting my play? And then, back in my room as I was describing a hand I played to my wife, vacillating over whether or not I had made the right decision in a tough spot, I suddenly felt a huge amount of relief as I heard the words come out of my mouth: I was using the word "chips" instead of the word "euros." The difference is subtle, and on the surface it's a meaningless distinction. Putting 40,000 chips into the pot is, of course, the same as putting €40,000 into the pot. But saying "chips" indicated to me that I was thinking about the decisions and not about the money. Chips are what you use to play poker. They're game pieces. Euros are what I use to pay my rent.
This is a lesson I've had to reacquaint myself with many times throughout my career as a poker player, whenever I've moved up in stakes or whenever I've found anxiety about my personal finances sneaking its way into the decisions I make at the table. And it's something that every poker player needs to remain conscious of, no matter what stakes you're playing.
The chips are the game pieces and nothing more. When you start to think about them in terms of their monetary value, in terms of what that money means to you personally, your decisions in the game take on an emotional weight that is almost certain to derail your ability to think rationally about the situation you're in and make the correct play.
It's demonstrably true that people are bad at making rational decisions about money. This is something that's been written about at length in a number of recent popular books such as Predictably Irrational and Freakanomics. It would seem that the evolution of the human intellect just hasn't caught up to the realities of modern economies and that it is next to impossible to make decisions about money without emotions getting in the way. And there is just no room for that sort of emotion at the poker table.
You can find three hours of the live stream here:
And a good writeup on the game from Lee Jones, who was on the rail much of the night.
Isaac Haxton is a member of Team Online