Among author Peter Alson’s publications are a couple of significant contributions to the category of nonfiction poker writing — One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar, the World’s Greatest Poker Player(with Nolan Dalla, 2005) and Take Me to the River: A Wayward and Perilous Journey to the World Series of Poker(2007). With the 2015 World Series of Poker less than a week away, Alson shares the story of his first experience playing at the WSOP.
The first time I played in a World Series of Poker event (a $1,500 NLHE tournament) I was a bundle of nerves. I was freezing cold, my hands were clammy and my stomach was churning like a washing machine. In fact, I had to stifle the urge to run to a bathroom, something I would have done if I weren’t afraid of my stack getting blinded off.
I looked around the table and though I didn’t recognize any of my opponents, they all looked like stone cold killers in their shades, baseball caps, hoodies and headphones. Worse than my physical symptoms, my sense of now being in with “the big boys” affected my approach to playing. I froze up — and not just because I was cold.
I was like an actor who forgot all his lines as the curtain goes up. I stared at my imagined audience, and just drew a complete blank. In this state, I was thankful to look down at a bad starting hand and be able to throw my cards away. Each time I looked down and saw a crappy hand, I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I wanted to do was play poker! Better to walk across a live minefield.
When I finally did get a playable hand — pocket jacks in late position — I raised, praying that everyone would fold. Getting a call from the big blind, I immediately assumed my opponent had a bigger pair. What else could he have? It was terrible. I was trapped in my own private nightmare and there were monsters under every bed.
I played scared like this for the better part of two hours, during which time I frittered away half my stack. Then something happened. Down to my last 20 big blinds, I opened a pot with pocket kings, and one of the bullies at the table, who had three-bet me every time I entered a pot, did it again. I swear to you that I thought about folding my kings — that’s how gun-shy I was — but in the end I moved my chips in, resigned to this being the last hand of my tournament.
Imagine my surprise when he made the almost obligatory call and turned over . That hand, which I won, wound up propelling me all the way into the money, not just because it doubled me up — but because it wised me up.
This was just a game of poker, after all, the game I had been playing since I was a kid, and my opponents were just mere mortals like me, some better players, some worse.
I finally relaxed a bit, began to get a feel for the rhythms of this particular table and a sense of who was capable of what, and as I did, I began to enjoy myself more. I found my focus. I didn’t make it to the final table, but afterwards I felt proud of myself not just for cashing, but also for being able to persevere and fight through my WSOP jitters and demons.
The funny thing is, I have probably played in over 20 WSOP tournaments since, and I still get the jitters at the beginning of each one. The difference is that I know what’s going on now, and I’m able to fight through. I’m able also to recognize which other players are suffering similarly and take advantage of them.
My best advice to WSOP rookies is to take your time. Know what your intention is every time you put chips into a pot. Anticipate what your response will be if somebody calls or raises. And just generally play the game you always play.
Successful athletes have an expression when they’re in big or pressure-packed games. They say, “I let the game come to me.” What they mean is that early on, they take their time, trying not to do too little or too much. Eventually they find their rhythm and get into the flow.
That’s really all you should be thinking about when you first sit down. Don’t force things — take your time and let the game come to you.