It’s fitting that my impossible run through the World Series of Poker tournament was a study in black and white:
An exhilarating roller coaster ride encompassing 40 hours of mind-thumping boredom.
A liberal former politician succeeding by playing with an über-conservative game plan.
A victory of steadfast patience, the absence of which has been my defining character flaw.
The long distance coaching of one of my better friends, whom I’ve only met twice in person.
A game legendary for its macho bravado that’s dominated by pasty-faced math geeks.
And the most striking contrast of all: I’ve lived a life of painstaking diligence — some might say monomaniacal zeal — toward building a career centered around moral values; and one of my life’s highlights — indeed one of the most truly spiritual moments — came playing a card game that I’d hardly practiced and that’s banned in my home state because of its purportedly immoral implications.
On Independence Day 2012, the 73rd anniversary of baseball legend Lou Gehrig’s famous statement that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” I began a journey that certainly contested the Iron Horse’s declaration. Indeed, it was pure serendipity that I was even playing in the tournament in the first place.
Months earlier, when we learned the schedule of my youngest daughter‘s summer in Israel program, my wife, who had a trip planned already to Mexico, suggested that after I dropped Abby off at JFK airport, I should make it a long weekend playing poker in Vegas. She knew how much I loved no limit Texas hold ‘em — a game that both rewarded my high school math skills and stoked my innate competitive fires — and that I so rarely got chance to play since online poker was made illegal.
It wasn’t until a few weeks prior to the event that I realized I’d be in Sin City during the World Series of Poker AND that there was a four-day no-limit hold ‘em tournament being played precisely the same four days I’d be in town AND that the $1,000 entry fee wasn’t too expensive to throw down the proverbial toilet.
Arriving in Vegas is always an undefinable, sublime thrill. Maybe it’s the striking colors and landscapes. Perhaps it’s the extra oxygen that the casinos reportedly pump into their buildings to drive testosterone and adrenaline, subliminally convincing each of us to feel larger and take greater risks. I’m sure it has something to do with the city being founded by Jewish tough guys — it’s been a source of perverse pride that my great-gradnfather was a lawyer for the Jewish mafia.
When I sat down at my first table, I felt that I’d already won. Playing the World Series of Poker had been an impossible dream since I’d first watched it on ESPN in the mid 00s. Impossible, because a Bible Belt politician with any ambition couldn’t be caught playing a miscreant’s game. So as the announcer instructed the hundreds of dealers serving up cards to the 4,620 original entrants to “shuffle up and deal,” I quietly whispered “Thank God I’m not in politics anymore.”
My goal was fairly modest: I wanted to enjoy as much of this experience as I could, so I ventured to survive until the end of Day 1, after which only 15 percent of the field would be left sitting. I also had promised the team at No Labels, a grassroots political movement that I co-founded last year, that I’d wear a new hat that had been commissioned for these very circumstances, and UPS hadn’t delivered it on the national holiday.
My strategy was set through a series of phone calls with my good friend, fellow poker lover, and contributing RP Jeff Smith, who couldn’t weasel out of prior commitments to join me at the felt. Since I was to be competing against some of the very best professionals in the game, I needed to play a very conservative game, only entering pots in which I had a very strong hand, and only betting where the mathematical odds and my own intuitive reading of my opponents dictated that I was in a very favorable position.
My game plan was successful. I didn’t have any particularly extraordinary luck, but most importantly, I didn’t have any extraordinarily bad luck — every time I was “all-in” and mathematically favored to win the hand, I won. And I finished the day with the 60th largest stack of chips. (If you are curious about the details, I wrote about my Day 1 exploits here.)
When Day 2 began, about 600 of the original 4620 of us remained. I revised my personal goal: Now I wanted to “cash” — the top 460 finishers would win at least double their $1,000 entry fee. I kept to my game plan, staying out of most hands, but remaining aggressive when I had good cards, putting myself at risk of going home broke during hands when I was confident that I was the odds-on favorite.
I rolled easily to qualify for some small return on my investment, but as the day and then night progressed, I ran through a streak of really lousy cards. I folded and folded and folded and watched my pot slowly deteriorate through mandatory antes and the required posting of blinds. All the time, I was tempted to abandon my conservative strategy, and enter hands with less perfect cards, but I stayed disciplined and true to my game plan. Through texts and phone calls, Jeff provided invaluable reinforcement — stick to it, buddy!
By the time I had reached my latest, revised, newly improved personal goal — the top 100! — I was in desperate chip shape: 16,000 left, and I was required to post a 6,000 blind. Then the Poker Gods smiled upon me. On three consecutive hands, I went all-in. Each time, I was called. Each time, I won. By the end of Day 2, my stack exceeded 100,000, and was in 41st place of the remaining 51 players. (Read more details about my Day 2 exploits: “How I Was Saved by the Jackson 5.” )
As Day 3 began, my goal was very simple: Stay in as long as I can. The longer I could hold out, the more money I would win. The same pattern of the first few days repeated itself: I would receive a bunch of poor hands and fold them. My stack would dwindle, and I’d consider then reject the idea to change my strategy. When my chip total would reach dangerously low levels, I’d be blessed with a monster hand, go all-in as the mathematical favorite, and double up my stack.
Meanwhile, all around me, players were dropping out like hornets. (At least that was the metaphor used by the English-challenged Dane sitting next to me during most of the day.) Soon we were down to three tables, then two, then I was furiously wondering: Was it possible? Could I really make the final table of 9?
By the time 15 of us were left, my prospects looked bleak. I had the smallest stack at the table, and the required blinds were growing every hour. And I couldn’t catch any good cards. Of course, the poker gods continued with their magic, and a sudden rush of player busts resulted in ten of us remaining.
We all gathered at one table, with 5 minutes to go before a break. I had by far the smallest stack with only about 500,000 chips remaining.
I worried that my elimination was imminent. While I sat at “a” final table of 10, the statutory “final table” only consists of 9 — only 9 players would sit at the fancy table on the stage and were filmed for ESPN. My mind was racing, trying to build the rationale that I really did sit at “the” final table, when the player to my left went all in with a pair of aces — by far, the best hand — was called by a bigger stack who held a king and a queen, and when the last card was laid dowm, defying a 95 percent improbability, the aces were cracked, and the player to my left was busted.
I was really, truly now at the final table. And we were on a dinner break.
For an hour, I furiously texted my wife, daughters, friends. My the time I got to Facebook, I discovered that hundreds of my friends already knew — my final table status as reported by wsop.com had gone viral. Texts, comments, emails, tweets were pouring in. In my decade of elected politics, I could only dream for such a reception. Now that I no longer needed the attention — and was finally mentally healthy enough to understand that it didn’t matter — I heard from old friends and associates that I hadn’t seen in years, and even old political rivals whom I battled in the arena, jumping to lend me their support and congratulations.
It’s tough to find any adjective better than “surreal” to describe the final table. I’d been watching poker on television for nearly a decade, and now I was the one on screen. The table was filled with pros who’d spent literally millions of hands preparing for this moment and a few amateurs who had made the World Series a regular practice. Meanwhile, I had by far the smallest stack of chips at the table, yet I’m confident that I was the most relaxed, and certainly the happiest.
I spent the first half hour soaking in the ambiance and throwing away bad hands. At a table filled with piranhas, I was the minnow everyone was waiting to devour. 9th place meant $53,000, and each of my opponents was hoping I would be eliminated soon so that they could move up the pay ranks.
Finally, I received a decent hand, and the tiny stack that I was protecting mandated that I go all in. It turned out that I was completely dominated by a much bigger hand — my chances of winning were less than 10 percent. As the cards were laid on the table, another poker miracle occurred: The dealer laid down a straight — five consecutive cards — meaning the hand was a tie, and that I’d live for another few minutes.’
Soon after, I had a slightly better hand, and went all-in. Again I was called and totally dominated. And yet again, the hand resulted in an improbable tie. I was trying hard to keep from laughing, joked that the dream still lived, while the other final eight stewed at my good fortune.
After a few hands, another player — perhaps frustrated by my failure to go away — went all-in, and was called. When the final “river” card revealed that he was busted, I had earned at least another $16,000. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
The next hand, however, sealed my fate. My hole cards were very strong — an ace and a queen — so I went all-in. I was called by a much stronger hand — two kings. My impossible journey had ended. I had finished at my lucky number 8 (number of NCAA hoops championships won by the University of Kentucky; my childhood hero, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan’s uniform number), and won over $69,000.
In the 48 hours since I left Vegas, I caught myself on at least a dozen occasions shaking my head and smiling like a fool. I am just catching up on sleep (we’d play until 2:30 a.m. each night), and trying to keep my real job under control. But I continue to float on a blissful adrenaline, at times finding it hard to believe what I’ve done. I’ve received more than a dozen interview requests, an incredible irony for someone who spent a decade desperately seeking press attention.
For years, especially since my father’s death, I’ve been on a solemn quest to live a life full of meaning. Leaving politics has allowed me to escape a suffocating bubble and expand my life’s work to fight for causes I never could focus on while in the arena — gay marriage, marijuana legalization, a strong and secure Israel.
A poker win certainly doesn’t fit into this moral equation. But the unexpected success produced a display of extraordinary support from people around the country that reminded me of how the true definition of being the luckiest man on earth. That’s what is really meaningful. And it has confirmed that my becoming a recovering politician was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
This column from TheRecoveringPolitician.com. It is used by permission of the author and the publisher.