Here it was, the only thing I'd been dreading. Make no mistake, there was absolutely no downside to making Day 2, but I knew that if I made the final table I'd have to pull back the curtain on my identity, use my real name and allow myself to be photographed. For 5 1/2 years I had successfully confused the public, my readers, and many inside the poker industry itself with my relentless pursuit of anonymity. I wrote under at least three pen names. And in the age of Twitpics, YouTube and Facebook, I kept my picture off the internet. Initially, I chose that path because I was a Hollywood development executive writing a poker blog. When that part of my life ended and I started traveling internationally for poker, I decided it was just as well to keep it up, even if only for safety's sake. Were there other more deep-seated emotional reasons as well? Probably, but I'll save that for my shrink.
Mad Harper, one of PokerStars' media directors, was standing in front of me with a notepad. I've worked different events and drank in hotel bars with Mad in half a dozen countries and she knows the lengths I've gone to stay under the radar. I bit the bullet and told her that once I made the money, it was OK to let the cat out of the bag.
Once I made the money. Not if I made the money. In that moment, I was floored by my own confidence. Having the chip lead certainly helped.
My plan for the first couple of levels back was basically to not do anything stupid. After the overnight redraw I had position on a couple of short stacks and took advantage of it, stealing some blinds and making a couple of successful preflop three-bets. I had chipped up to nearly 150,000 and was in the big blind when the action folded around to Veronica Dabul on the button. With the blinds at 1,000/2,000, she had about 35,000 behind and opened for 5,000. I looked down at Ad-Qd and made it 15,000, half her remaining stack. Veronica tanked for about a minute before shoving and I quickly called to see her Kd-8d. An eight hit the flop, and Veronica doubled up, but she busted out a short time later in 11th place.
I made the nine-handed final table with somewhere in the neighborhood of 130-135k. I knew I had lost the chiplead, which was now held by Ricki Lake with more than 200,000. Blinds were at 1,200/2,400 and the woman directly to my left had less than ten big blinds. We were right on the money bubble, ninth place leaving with nothing while eighth would take home just over $3,700. Less than an orbit in, a huge hand unfolded between Lauren Kling, who also had about 130,000 and Ricki. Lauren opened from under-the-gun and the action folded around to Ricki, who called on the button. The flop was 9-6-3 with two spades. Lauren led out, Ricki raised, Lauren four-bet, and Ricki moved all-in, having Lauren covered. Lauren looked positively tortured, but she said "I have to call," pushing her large-denomination chips across the line.
Lauren tabled 6-9 for top two pair while Ricki sheepishly turned over 8c-8d. Although Ricki picked up a straight draw on the turn, Lauren's hand held and she rocketed into the chip lead with more than 360,000. Ricki was left with about 70k.
After the dust settled from that hand, a discussion broke out about doing a save for the bubble girl, each of the eight players in the money contributing $100. We hadn't voted yet when Little Kristen opened for 4,800 from early position and I looked down at pocket aces. I three-bet to 13,500, and it folded around to High Heels Poker Tour founder Lauren Failla in the big blind. She moved all-in, Little Kristen moved all-in behind her, and I called, having them both covered.
Little Kristen: Ks-Kc
Lauren F.: Jh-Jd
I'm only a 2-1 favorite in this situation, but my hand held up, the board running out all small cards. Lauren F. had Little Kristen covered so she ended up with 8th place money, while the tough, tiny Canadian bubbled. She was so gracious in her exit and we almost immediately voted to do the save anyway. Not all of us had cash on us, so Vicky Coren put up the bucks and we'd all pay her back. Watch that ever happen in an open event.
"Hey Pauly, you got a hundo?" I shouted.
"Not anymore. I've just been to the sportsbook."
True story there. My beloved was sweating the Steelers-Ravens game on the big screen at the back of the tournament room as much as he was sweating me.
I could not get my hands to stop shaking. I was dropping my chips everywhere and knocking over stacks of them. It took me almost an entire orbit to get everything cleaned up and counted. Lauren Kling and I were roughly even at 350k apiece while the rest of the field had stacks ranging from 20k-90k. It was the first time I allowed myself to see at least five figures at the end of the tunnel for me.
We went down from seven to four rather quickly. Short-stacked Kathy Jamison went out in seventh after fearing for her tournament life on the bubble with nine big blinds. Ricki Lake took out Deb Qualley in sixth in a very strange hand where Ricki moved all-in on a 9-high flop holding K-J and Deb called with Q-T. Ricki departed in fifth place a short time later leaving an all-blonde final four-- myself, Lauren Kling, Vicky Coren, and Viktoria Lucenkova.
Four-handed play went on for quite a while. Lauren and I had about 75% of the chips in play between us while the two Victorias were both under 20 big blinds. Lauren ended up taking out Russian Vicky while I eliminated British Vicky with pocket nines against As-5s.
I had Lauren slightly outchipped going in to heads-up play. We took a quick break before getting started. I was already guaranteed more than $18,000 and as I looked in the ladies' room mirror, I told myself that whatever happened, I was already ecstatic about my result. Lauren is one of the most successful (and marketable) up-and-coming female pros on the circuit. She's shipped tourneys for six figures and has already made nearly $1 million in combined live and online earnings. It wouldn't be a tragedy to lose to Lauren, and I imagined that the title meant more to her than the cash.
Almost everything about heads-up play was a blur. Someone told me later that a pack of guys behind me were continually screaming at each other about prop bets regarding water slide races. (Pauly and Jen Shahade eventually determined that if you're going to bet, bet on the right-hand slide). I was so far in the zone that I didn't hear them at all. I was able to pull out to a significant chip lead after one monster hand where I value-towned a set and Lauren folded the river. My strategy at that point was just to chip away at her stack and avoid doubling her back up to something more workable. I could tell she was frustrated and card-dead and I was raising just about 100% of my buttons. Once Lauren was down to about 20 big blinds, she started re-shoving over those button raises, but the poker gods were shining on me and we didn't go through too much of that before I picked up Qs-Qd. With the blinds at 3,000/6,000 I raised on the button to my standard 13,000 and Lauren moved all-in. I snap-called and she tabled pocket eights. Everyone sweating swarmed to the edge of the rail and craned their necks as the board came out. I couldn't tell you what it was, all I know is that there was no eight and no straight cards. My hands flew to my face just as they did when I shipped the satellite win and I struggled not to burst into tears right then and there.
I immediately rounded the table and shook Lauren's hand, telling her how much I genuinely respect her game. It was when I finally found Pauly on the rail and melted into his arms as he whispered in my ear how proud he was of me that I finally lost it and let the tears flow. I looked around and saw the faces of so many friends. Otis. Jess Welman. Jen Shahade and her boyfriend Daniel. Many of the gang from the PokerStars Blog and some of my former colleagues from PokerNews. And Gloria Balding in an adorable red dress holding a microphone. Holy shit. I had to give an interview and take a winners photo! I did my best to stop my eye makeup from rolling down my face, thanked myself for packing a lip gloss in my purse, and posed with my pocket queens for my first-ever authorized photo on the internet.
Showcase told me he'd never seen me so happy as I was in my interview with Gloria. And in the short-term, he's probably right. Poker, both the game itself and the industry surrounding it, had beat me down over the last couple of years. The further I progressed as a writer and member of the media, the more income I lost over cutbacks, layoffs, and frankly, stupid petty bullshit. And the more income I lost, the less I could actually play poker, for fear of losing next month's rent or credit card payments.
It was only when I was shoved off the cliff and hanging for dear life by a fingernail that I found the internal fortitude to finally say "fuck you, I'm not going to let anyone make me feel this way anymore." I sat up and started coming back to life. It really is true that once you turn your head around, your poker game will turn around right along with it. I can already feel that this win is a huge springboard for me into a new era. I'm not only back from the brink of financial ruin, I'm infused with the confidence I probably always should have had.
There's no more living behind a nickname anymore. You know who I am. Now it's time to make good on my promises.
Oh and Bank of America? Fuck off.
This story actually has a pretty hilarious epilogue. You see that trophy sitting next to me? Big-ass trophy, right? Well, a trio of online guys cooked up a prop bet that involved stealing it from the tournament room late on Day 1. They took it to the PokerStars party and then back to their room where they posed for pictures with it and posted them on 2+2. I'll just cut to the best part:
At around 4AM, after we got back from Aura and were hanging out in my room, security knocked on the door and simply said "I am here to collect the trophy you have in dis room."For the record, I thought it was kind of comedy gold. Juvenile of course, but undeniably funny. I'm just glad it was recovered. It's now on a truck somewhere in the greater Miami area, bound for the Bicycle Casino if you guys want to try and hijack it again. There was no way TSA wasn't going to classify that thing as a weapon.
So the head of Atlantis Security, Simien something, takes the trophy and is about to leave without saying another word, when he turns around and says "Why you take da ting that is not yars? This is a womun's trophy, are you a womun?" He goes on to lecture us for 2-3 minutes about why what we did was inappropriate, writes down my name on a notepad and leaves.
Four blondes photo by Matt Waldron. Winners photo courtesy of PokerStarsBlog.com.