Better Than an Empty Chair: Playing the Main Event of the 2021 World Series of Poker

Playing the Main Event of the World Series of Poker has been a dream of mine for a while, but because it’s typically held in the summer (my busy season), I haven’t had the opportunity. [1] This year, thanks to the pandemic, the Series was pushed back to fall, so I jumped at the chance.

The Main Event is poker’s most prestigious tournament, drawing pros and amateurs from around the world. There’s no qualifying process (other than, this year, getting vaccinated). Anyone who can afford the buy-in (or satellite in) can take their shot. [2] And though poker is most definitely a skill game, there’s enough luck involved that anyone has a chance to win. The first place prize of $8,000,000 is a big draw, but so is the chance to play alongside the world’s best players as peers if not exactly equals.

My goal wasn’t to win or even cash. I just wanted to survive until Day 3. Because the field is so large (6,650 entrants this year) and the structure so generous (two hour levels with a 300 big blind starting stack), it takes more than a week to play down to the winner. The first “day” was divided into six starting flights (Day 1A through Day 1F) because even the cavernous Amazon Room at the Rio can’t accomodate all those players at once. Even the second “day” was split in two (Day 2ABD and Day 2CEF). Day 3 is the first time that the entire field is united. I wanted to be able to say I played in the same room as the eventual winner. [3]

I had another reason for choosing Day 3 as my target. The starting stacks on Day 1 are deep enough that you can survive until Day 2 even if you never play a hand, so that didn’t seem ambitious enough an objective. [4] So, my goal for Day 1 was to play better than an empty chair. My goal for Day 2 was just to survive. 

You get to select your own starting flight, it’s not randomly assigned, so I picked Day 1C (for reasons [5]), which turned out to be the second smallest with just 600 players, but still studded with poker talent. [6]

My table draw was pretty good. Almost everyone seemed intent on playing tight, solid poker and just surviving to Day Two—which suited my style and strategy. 

The guy on my immediate right turned out to be a minor poker celebrity, James Magner, who made a deep run in 2015, finishing in 27th for a $262,574 cash, though I didn’t hear that story till later. He introduced himself by pitching his book of mystery stories, many of which are poker-themed. A fellow writer! I bought his book on the spot (though I have to confess, I haven’t had a chance to read beyond the introductions yet) and gave him a pointer to this blog so he could read some of my own stories. [7]

James had a habit of writing down the details of every significant hand he played for use in his stories—a habit I wish I had adopted for reasons that will be clear later. He also enthusiastically pitched his book to everyone who sat by him, including a German pro who joined us with a short stack about half-way through the day. His name was Koray something (didn’t catch the last name), and he had a reserved manner and play style, though he did seem genuinely interested in James’s book.

Day 1 consisted of five two-hour levels, and I managed to chip up every level except the last when the stress finally caught up to me. I’m used to playing poker for 12 to 14 hours a day in smaller tournaments, but something about the Main wore me out. I didn’t feel stressed—I was thrilled to be there and having a blast—but I found it pretty punishing. I played well and ran good, but I was practically falling asleep in my chair for the final level of Day 1. At the end of the day, I bagged 99,600 chips, which put me 124th out of the 433 surviving players. Comfortably above average. Considerably better than an empty chair.

[Picture]

Here’s me, late on Day 1, trying to check the tournament clock to see how much time till the next break.

My “Day 2” (Day 2CEF) began four days later (to accomodate the extra starting flights and Day 2ABD). We all got shuffled to new tables, which was disappointing as I’d enjoyed the company of my Day 1 fellows and, more importantly, developed a pretty good feel for their playing styles.

I decided to play extra snug while I worked out the new table dynamics of Day 2. Unfortunately, the cards refused to cooperate. I kept getting dealt monsters (including two flopped straights) which turned out to be second best. Three hours later, I was out. Not terrible for my first Main Event but disappointing in that I didn’t survive until the field was unified and couldn’t necessarily say I’d played with the world champion.

But wait, there’s more to this story …

Back in Hawaii, I watched PokerGo’s streams of the event. The broadcast was amazing this year with eight to ten hours of coverage per day. It took me longer to watch the Main than it did to play it. Most of the attention focused on the feature table with occasional forays onto the floor, following whatever story seemed to be developing.

The first big story was the pure poker nostalgia of Chris Moneymaker making another deep run in the Main. He dominated the coverage (and his table) for three days before busting on Day 5.

With Moneymaker gone, the story shifted to a Pittsburgh amateur, Nicholas Rigby, with a wild rail and a wilder playing style. Sadly, the entertaining newcomer didn’t survive Day 6, busting in 52nd place.

The story drifted a bit before settling on a familiar-looking German pro who was quietly amassing a mountain of chips. His name was Koray Aldemir, and he was the gentlemen two seats to my right on Day 1.

I’d been carefully avoiding spoilers as I worked my way through the PokerGo streams, so even though I wasn’t watching in real time, I didn’t know who had been crowned. But Aldemir looked poised to go all the way. I was on the edge of my seat watching the final days.

On Day 6, Aldemir was fifth in chips. By Day 7, he held the chip lead by a large margin and started to flex his monster stack which had grown large enough to generate its own gravity. On Day 8, he made the final table with nearly a third of the total chips. And on Day 10, he took down the Main Event and was crowned the 2021 World Champion.

There’s a scene in Rounders [8] where Matt Damon runs into three-time champion Johnny Chan in Atlantic City and “outplays” him on one hand. It’s bullshit, of course, because anyone can outplay anyone on a single hand, but that’s not pithy enough for a movie. The point is, he went head to head with a legend and survived. He proved to himself that he belonged at the table.

I felt something of that thrill watching the final days of the Main Event play out. Koray Aldemir was already a legend in Germany (fourth on the German all-time money list with $12 million in career earnings before he won the Main Event), but now he’s part of the poker pantheon. And I wasn’t just in the same room—he was at my table. [9]

Next time: Poker Sins – what writers get wrong about poker

____________________

[1] Nitpick: I had the opportunity in 2010 somehow (I think I directed the first show of the season for HSF and the Main Event comes at the end of the Series). I actually went to Vegas, intending to play the Main but didn’t. But that’s a story for another time.

[2] I’m going to throw all the potentially unfamiliar poker terminology (like “satellite”) into a glossary at the end of this post.

[3] As it turns out, the field was still so large on Day 3 that it spread over two rooms, the Amazon and the Pavilion, but the field was still “united” in that all the remaining players were at the Rio at the same time.

[4] I actually did the math on this. You could collect your stack and then just walk away from the table, letting the dealer collect your blinds and antes. At an average of 27 hands per hour (three orbits of nine-handed play), you’d lose (100+200+200) * 3 for each of the first two hours or 3,000 chips for the first level. And so on. At the end of the day, you’d bag just under 30,000 chips, about half the starting stack.

You can also just buy in to Day 2 directly as a late registrant, undermining the significance (to me) of surviving Day 1. You get the same starting stack (60,000 chips), as those who bought in on Day 1, which puts you at a slight disadvantage because the average stack is around 80,000 at that point. On the other hand, you avoid busting on Day (as 25% of the field did), and if you’re trying to manage your energy, you avoid 12 grueling hours of play. I talked to a couple of players who chose this option as a deliberate strategy. 

[5] I spent far more time deliberating on my choice of starting day than necessary. My initial assumption was that Day 1A would be the smallest flight (true) and therefore easier (false). I actually ran numbers on past WSOP survival rates by day, and the larger flights are slightly better by a couple of percentage points. Possibly because the early days (Thursday and Friday) are packed with grizzled local pros, and the dead money shows up on the weekend? Who knows. Ultimately I chose Day 1C (Saturday) so I could take a practice run with the Mini Main Event, a cheaper, three-day tournament that runs earlier in the week (ending on Friday).

[6]  I spotted Dennis Phillips (third in 2019) and JC Tran (fifth in 2013) in the crowd. Also in the field were Josh Arieh (third in 2004 and leading the race for Player of the Year), Hossein Ensan (champion in 2019), Qui Nguyen (champion in 2016) and Erik Seidel at the feature table (who famously came in second to Johnny Chan in 1988, immortalized in the movie Rounders). 

[7] If you were looking for the writing connection in this post, that was it.

[8] Rounders is the best poker movie ever made. It’s not perfect, but it’s head and shoulders above anything else.

[9] And now you know why I’d taken notes on my hands. I’m sure over the five or so hours Koray and I played at the same table we tangled in a pot or two, but I can’t remember the details. Argh.

Glossary

Ante—originally a forced bet by every player in the hand, now typically consolidated into a “big blind ante” for speed of play. For example, an old-style level might be 100/200/25, meaning a 100 chip small blind, a 200 chip big blind and a 25 chip ante from every player; a new-style level would be 100/200/200, meaning 100 from the small blind, 200 from the big blind and an additional 200 from the big blind for the ante. There are some subtle distinctions between 100/200/200 and 100/400, but they’re not worth teasing out here.

Big Blind—a forced bet by the player two spots to the left of the dealer button. Stack depth is typically measured in big blinds.

Bubble—an inflection point in the payout structure. The bubble is the money bubble. Everyone who busts before (or on) the bubble gets paid nothing. Everyone after usually gets at least a min-cash, which is more than the cost of the buy-in ($15,000 for the Main Event).

Buy-in—the cost of entry into the tournament ($10,000 for the Main Event).

Cash (verb)—to place well enough in a tournament to receive a cash prize. Tournaments are typically pretty top heavy with only 10-15% of the field cashing and 25% (or more) of the total prize pool going to first place.

Chips—tournament chips have no cash value. If you bust before you cash, you get nothing.

In The Money—once the money bubble bursts (everyone surviving will cash once they bust), players are said to be “in the money.”

Level—tournaments are structured into levels which may be anywhere from 10 minutes long (for a turbo) to two hours long (for the Main Event). Every level the blinds go up making things more and more precarious for players who aren’t building their stack. 

Rail—spectators aren’t allowed by the poker tables and instead congregate outside the cordon which is called “the rail.” Your friends who are sweating your action from the rail are your rail. 

Satellite—a relatively inexpensive tournament that has entries to a larger tournament as the prize. Chris Moneymaker famously won a $39 online satellite through PokerStars that paid for his Main Event entry and travel expenses.

Shoot Out—most tournaments are structured as shoot outs, which means play continues until one player has all the chips.

Small Blind—a forced bet by the player one spot to the left of the dealer button.

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