The week of my life
Editor's note: This is part one of two in Bernard Lee's column on the week of a lifetime.
It turned out to be the week of my life -- the 2005 World Series of Poker main event. My journey to a 13th-place finish was a wild and surreal ride. Although I have played in several live main event tournaments before, this was my first WSOP. The ESPN Poker Club has asked me to relive these moments and I am happy to share them with you. Please follow along through this story of my "week" of a lifetime. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Prior to the WSOP main event:
In late March 2005, I finally qualified for the 2005 WSOP main event via a Frequent Player Point Tournament online. A miraculous hand of 9-9 vs A-J with a flop of A-K-10, a turn A and river 9 (unbelievable!) propelled me to my seat at the main event. I couldn't be happier as I told my wife when she woke that morning that I was going to the main event -- a lifelong dream.
The anticipation was immeasurable. I felt like a schoolboy counting down the days to summer vacation -- "60 days to go 50 40 30 " However, as the WSOP drew nearer, another life issue, more important than poker, came to the forefront.
In the month of June, my wife Katie began suffering some severe belly pain. Initially, she thought it might be food poisoning, but when it occurred for the third time in two weeks, we thought she should probably see her doctor. She underwent an abdominal CT scan. Quite unexpectedly, the radiologist found a small tumor on her right ovary. We scheduled surgery right away on Wednesday, June 28. I was very worried, but my wife, who is a physician herself, reassured me that this was not a life-threatening procedure and that she would be OK. Still, this was an invasive procedure that would require a rather large incision in her abdomen. My primary thoughts centered on Katie's well-being and recovery; however, in the far back of my mind, I have to admit I also thought about the possibility of not going to the WSOP main event, which was only one week after her surgery.
She came home the next day and we didn't really discuss the main event, but she knew that I was thinking about it. And what happened next is why I have been married to the best woman in the world for almost 10 years. She said, "I know you are worried about the World Series. I will be OK. I know that you need to go." We had already arranged for her sister to fly in from California to help take care of her and the kids while I was away, and as long as her recovery went well, I was preparing to go. However, on the morning of July 4 (two days before I was scheduled to leave), my wife had increased abdominal pain. We went to see the surgeon to get her wound checked out. If Katie needed to have another surgery or her complications were serious, I would not go to the main event. My family comes first.
When we entered the ER, poker was the furthest thing from my mind. In some respects, I had already resigned the fact that I wouldn't be going. Oh well, there will be many more opportunities and many more WSOP main events. I'll just try to qualify next year. The surgeon entered the room and after a thorough check of the site, reassured us that she was fine and that the pain/discoloration was normal. I still was unsure if I should go. My parents and in-laws were not pleased that I even considered leaving Katie so soon after her surgery. However, once again, my wife said, "I'll be OK. You should go." Although my in-laws (who live nearby) and sister-in-law were there to take care of my family, I did have some guilt as I left the house Wednesday morning. After kissing my wife and kids goodbye, she reassured me and said her usual, "I love you! Good luck! Have fun!"
Wednesday, July 6
When I arrived in Vegas, I headed first to the registration desk to pick up my seat assignment for Day 1B (which was Friday, technically the second day of the tournament because "Day 1" was broken up into three days). When the staffer handed me my name card and seat assignment, it felt truly "real." I saw my name in bold capital letters -- "BERNARD LEE. Event #42. Table #129. Seat #3." Woah, I really had a seat.
I decided to visit the main hall to see where I'd be sitting on Friday. As I entered the room, it suddenly hit me -- I saw 200 tables. There would be thousands of people playing, and thousands more watching. Wow! I had played in tournaments before, but nothing that looked like this. My hands got clammy and my heart beat faster just thinking about it. I hoped I would not feel this nervous on Friday. As I found my table and seat, I felt glad that my table wasn't right on the rail so that no spectators will be looking right over my shoulder. I walked over to see the TV table and dreamed for an instant about the final table. However, that was the last time I thought about this, as I did not want to get ahead of myself. I kept repeating my mantra: "My goal is to get out of each day." In fact, I had three distinct goals for this WSOP main event. First or short-term goal: Make it out of Day 1. Second or midterm goal: Make it into the money. Third or long-term goal: Make it to Binion's (the final 27) because this was the last year the tournament would be held at the historic Horseshoe, and it would be an honor to say I was there. Well, I guess we'll see how far I can go.
Day 1: Thursday, July 7
I was fortunate to have a day off. I firmly believe that I had drawn the best day as we could soak in the sights and sounds of the WSOP main event on Thursday and then rest on Saturday. I went over to the Rio to check out the action. Before you even entered, you could hear the omnipresent shuffling of chips resonating throughout the room. As I waded through the crowd, I learned that they would play down to 650 players no matter how long it took. The estimation was at least seven rounds (two hours each) and possibly longer to reach the 650 goal by the end of the night. That meant ending the night around 1-2 a.m. after an 11 a.m. start. Whew! Quite a long day. So I decided to go back to the hotel and make it an early night.
Day 2: Friday, July 8
I woke up at 9 a.m., excited as a kid on Christmas morning. Over the past couple of years, I had played in other tournaments' main events. But these were nothing like what I saw now, with the shear number of participants and the unbelievable number of spectators. At about 10:45 a.m., I went to my table and sat down. I initiated my opening routine that I started at the New England Poker Classic at Foxwoods in March 2005. I cleaned my sunglasses, put out my lucky medallion and most importantly, took out of my wallet the pictures of my family. Back then at the NEPC, it was only my son, Noah, and my wife, but now I added another picture to the family: my baby girl, Maya, who was born in late April. My rationale of using the pictures was no matter how bad the beat is or how stressful the wait is for someone to fold or call, how bad can my life be if I have my family smiling at me? My photos have worked so well that before every round, I kiss the pictures in a special routine: kiss my son, then my daughter on the front picture, and then kiss a picture of my wife. I did this before every round, every day. It makes me feel that I am close to my family even though I'm far away. The day started with announcements and the singing of the national anthem, which made me feel like it truly was a great sporting event. Around 11:30 a.m., those famous words were spoken, "Shuffle up and deal!" We are told that we will play seven full rounds and 20 minutes into Round 8. Ugh! We won't finish until around 2 a.m.
As we began, I couldn't have asked for a better start. In the first round, I began with J-J, 5-5 (folded to a large reraise), As-Ks, Kd-Qd and Ah-Qh, winning four of the five hands and jumping up to 12,500 in chips. This start really calmed me down. The next two rounds were fairly uneventful, as we had a very tight table, and very few flops were seen. I picked up several pots along the way and built my chip stack nicely to approximately 25,000 in chips.
One memorable hand happened in Round 4 (blinds 100 and 200, ante 25). I had 10-10 in mid-late position and raised to 700. The person to my left raised me back for 1,800 total and with a healthy chip stack, and I decided to call. We were to see a rare flop and it came down A-10-2 rainbow. I usually would slowplay this. However, I bet 5,000 because if he had an ace, he might think I'm overbetting the pot to steal it and push all-in or at least call. I was almost 100 percent positive he did not have A-A. He immediately called the bet. Turn card was a 2. I pushed all-in for my remaining 19,000. He thought about it for a long time and mucked A-K (just what I thought). He only had 10,000 left and he said that he almost called. Too bad! Later in Round 6, I had two hands within 15 minutes that really helped continue my upward trend. I flopped another set with 10-10. Next, I held Js-10s in the big blind and flopped K-J-J, eventually taking about 10,000 more chips in the process. As the clock beeped down, I begin to count my large chip stack. After 15 hours of play, at 2:45 a.m., I finished the round with 67,150 chips. What a start! I couldn't have asked for anything more. Well, first or short-term goal: Check.
Before I went to sleep, I decided to call my family and share the good news. My wife was happy for me and glad that I was enjoying myself, but not really understanding the impressive size of my chip stack. My daughter cooed to me over the phone and my son said, "I love you Daddy. Come home soon." No better way to go to sleep. A great start to the WSOP main event and a loving chat with my family. Life couldn't be better.
Day 3: Saturday, July 9
I had fallen asleep around 5 a.m. At noon on Saturday, I woke to the buzz of my phone (I had it on vibrate for most of the week). I had five messages -- all from friends who were following me on the Internet. Most were telling me how happy they were that I was off to such a good start and to keep it going. I would try my best. I had a fairly relaxing day -- went for a quick run, had lunch and dinner with some friends, went back to my room to review my notes, and then went to bed early in preparation for another long day.
Day 4: Sunday, July 10
I would start out the day 107th out of 1884 players left in the field. Not bad for a nobody, huh? The games started around 12:30 p.m. As they called out, "Shuffle up and deal," I kissed my family pictures and hoped that my day would be as good as Day 1. And my start definitely was. In the first three rounds, I wouldn't lose a major hand. A-A, A-K, K-10 (in the big blind with a flop of K-10-3), 9-9, 5-5 and A-Q (with a flop of Q-5-2). As we headed to the dinner break, I had built my chip stack to 102,900 after three rounds.
After dinner, I hoped to keep my momentum. However, the poker gods decided that I had had enough of an easy time and that's when the roller coaster ride began. I basically did not see a playable hand for nearly three hours. I limped with K-Q and A-10 and both times was reraised, eventually having to muck each hand. My stack slowly dwindled down to 89,300. I started Round 12 losing four of my first five hands and was down to around 70,000 in chips. I was fairly depressed, but at least I was ahead of yesterday. I drew on previous tournament experience that this dip has happened in every tournament and you have to put it into perspective. And just as quickly as I was down, that's how fast I turned it around. I won a fairly good pot when I caught two pair on the river. Then I got A-K, K-Q and 10-10 and ended the day with 105,800 in chips, around 200th out of 566. More importantly, I was six spots out of the money. I thought there was no way I was not going to make the money. Almost completed: Goal No. 2.
Day 5: Monday, July 11
Once again, survival was my primary focus. My chip stack was slightly above average -- not great, but not bad. Today, I had to survive the elimination of only six more people in order to make it into the money (560th made $12,500) and check off Goal No. 2.
When I entered the main room, I could feel the antsy anticipation among the players. To eliminate the "bubble boy," it took over an hour. After each hand, the dealer stood up to indicate that the hand was over. Only when all dealers were standing could we play the next hand. You can only imagine the chaos and the time it took for us to get through just one hand. Fortunately, during this round, I got a few hands and also took advantage of everyone's fear to bust out before the money. I grabbed a few blinds and antes and took down a nice pot to increase my chip stack to around 120,000. Finally, the bubble boy was eliminated. The room broke out into applause, as everyone congratulated each other for making the money. Goal No. 2: Check.
Just as we resumed play, the floor person asked for the big blind at our table. I looked down and realized it was me. My new table was completely across the room. In the time it took me to walk to my new table, a few more people were already knocked out. It was truly amazing! Now that all of us had made the money, "all-in" announcements flew from every corner of the room. I have seen this happen at other tournaments, but I never saw it this fast. In the same amount of time it took to eliminate the first six people of the day, the next 100 players were dismissed. One round later, the player count was already down to 461.
As for the cards, Monday was the day I knew had to come sooner or later. After two fairly positive days, a see-saw day arrived. Based on my past tournament experience, I knew I had to keep my head on straight. I could not lose patience or control on a day like today. Overall, as I reflect back, I'm very proud of the way I handled myself. Although it was a tough day, I started it out by knocking out one player with K-K vs 3-3. Then, I won a decent all-in pot with A-K vs A-Q. Overall, a memorable day and I accomplished my goal for the day: I survived. The round came to an end around 1:30 a.m. As we start bagging our chips, I discovered I finished with 143,000 chips with only 185 players left. I scanned down the payout sheet. We were all guaranteed $39,075. Wow!
Day 6: Tuesday, July 12
My 143,000 chip stack was 143rd of the 185 players remaining -- it was about 40 percent of the average stack. But I still had more than 20 times the big blind, so I'm not too short stacked. I'd need a good break within the first few hours for me to survive.
As the dealer dealt the first hand of the day, I kissed my family pictures, hoping for a good start. In the first round, I won two blinds uncontested and one decent-size pot with A-K, bringing my chip stack to 179,000. Although I received my good start, with 164 people left in the tournament, I only held half the average chip stack. I needed a big hand soon, but I couldn't panic. In previous tournaments, I had taken unnecessary chances earlier than I needed to, either getting caught or becoming pot committed and, ultimately, getting knocked out of the tournament. So I kept saying to myself, "Be patient. It will come." Just as the break was ending, ESPN's Norman Chad came over to say "Hi." I gave him a status report and he wished me luck. Boy did I need it. However, all of a sudden, the big hand came. The blinds were 3,000 and 6,000, ante 1,000. I was dealt K-K in mid-late position. Two people limp in front of me. With 30,000 already in the pot, I decided to pick up the pot right now, and raised to 50,000. Everyone folded to the big blind, who declared, "All-in." The limpers folded and it was up to me. My heart raced as I realized that he had me covered and if I lost, I would be out of the tournament. "Well, if it's my time, it's my time. I call." As I flipped over my K-K, he shook his head as he flipped over his A-Q. All I kept thinking was, "No ace! No ace!" When my prayers were answered (Sorry, I don't remember the exact cards), I let out a huge yell. There was the double up I had been waiting for and now I had around 410,000 chips. I was right back in the tournament. As I began to stack my pile of chips, I felt someone peering over my shoulder. It was Chad. "Hey, nice pot," he quipped. I told Norman that he needed to come by more often, as he was becoming my good luck charm.
Luckily, a bit more luck visited me. Shortly after Norman left, I ran into another big hand against a gentleman who was fairly short stacked. My Ac-Jc was up against his K-J. This time I thought, "No king! No king!" Here comes the flop Kc-Q-8c. Argh! But then I realize that I still had 15 outs (nine clubs, three aces and three 10s) -- I'm still about a 55 to 45 favorite. As I rubbed my family pictures, the turn brought an unhelpful 4d, which brought me to about a 35 to 65 underdog. The river 2c. Yes! That is a classic back-and-forth hand that I don't wish on anyone. Once again, I turned around and who do I see: Norman. I rubbed his jacket sleeve for luck and this became a ritual for the rest of the tournament. This hand allowed me to go into the last round before dinner break with 486,000 in chips and only 102 players remaining in the contest.
Entering the next round (blinds were 5,000 and 10,000, ante 1,000), I felt great. I had gotten the hands I hoped for, and now I just needed to survive. And, survival truly was the key description for this round -- my most memorable of the tournament -- not for any big wins, but for two huge laydowns that kept me alive. In the first hand, I was in early position and I picked up K-K again. I raised about 35,000. Now, it is important to note that the player to my left, who was new to tournament play, had watched me play solid hands all afternoon and knew I would not raise in early position with nothing. He raised me, but, as my instinct told me, raised an unusual amount, just 60,000 more. Why only 60,000? If he wanted me to fold, a larger bet such as an all-in bet was a lot more threatening than 60,000.
He seemed very calm -- almost too calm. The rest of the players folded to me. I kept thinking, "What a weird bet. He seems so calm and relaxed." He really wants me to call. He must have a really good hand, maybe even a great hand! Does he have aces? I thought about it for another minute and looked down at my kings. Could I really lay this down preflop? Maybe I'm overthinking this? If I double up here, I will have close to a million in chips and be in a great position. But, I kept thinking, what a weird bet amount. I looked down one more time, let out a deep sigh, and decided to follow my gut feeling and do the unthinkable: lay down my K-K. I showed him my hand and told him, "I know you have aces, so I'm going to lay this down." His protruding eyes told me I was right! As he picked up his jaw off the table, he flipped over his aces. I jumped out of my seat thankful that I had made the best laydown of my life in the biggest tournament of my life. As I returned to my seat, Norman showed up again. I replayed the hand for him and proceeded to rub his lucky jacket sleeve again. As for the other laydown, it seems almost anticlimactic after the last one, but in short, I raised 35,000 in middle position with Q-Q. The player to my left this time just called me and then another player (named Joseph Hachem -- you may have heard of him) reraised 125,000 more. After everyone folded, I folded my Q-Q and the player to my left folded his 3-3. After I showed Joseph my Q-Q, he showed me his K-K -- 2 for 2! Not a significant money-making round, but still the most memorable round of the tournament, for sure.
The rest of the night was fairly uneventful. I played very few hands and ended with 377,000 in chips with only 58 players left. As I was bagging up my chips, a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder. "Bernard? Hi, I'm Matt from ESPN. Do you have some time tomorrow morning to do an interview?" Who me? I was wondering if Matt might have the wrong guy. He assured me that it was indeed me he wanted to interview. After I agreed to meet with him at 11 a.m., I kept thinking how increasingly surreal this whole week was becoming.
Bernard Lee finished 13th in the 2005 World Series of Poker and is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald.