Playing in the World Series of Poker as an Underqualified Amateur

To my left is Barry Schulman, the owner of CardPlayer magazine, and a professional poker player. At the next table over is Jennifer Harman, considered to be one of the very best limit hold’em players in the world. As the dealer starts flinging the cards around our table, Jennifer stands up. She’s just been busted out of the same tournament I’m playing.

I look down at my cards and see pocket queens, the third best hand you can be dealt. I’ve been waiting for a hand like this for hours.

Amid a field of 675 poker players, the majority of them professionals, and a handful of them famous, only 100 players remain. Improbably, I’m one of them. Luck has a giant part to play in this, of course. If not, I would have been busted out long before Jennifer Harman was. But at the same time, playing for twelve hours with some of the best poker players on earth has given me a lot of confidence. They’re better than me, but I’ve held my own. I’m good enough, at least, to not be totally run over.

I’ve wanted a test like this for a long time, but normally these players are playing at tables where individual pots can be thousands of dollars. That’s way more risk than I could take on just to see how I play against pros. But right now I’m in the $1500 Limit Hold’Em World Series event. The prizes and prestige associated with placing well are significant, but $1500 is cheap enough that I could justify paying it for the experience.

Then again, I probably wouldn’t have entered if I had known just how good everyone was. I figured that the low buy-in would attract mediocre players. It may have attracted a handful of them, but mostly it’s just pros trying to win a World Series bracelet. And me.

It’s the second day and my stack is down to around $13,000. I’ve been playing conservatively, looking for a hand like this to take a stand, play aggressively, and try to double up. The top 63 places get paid, and doubling up would make me enough money that I’ll probably make it there.

Everyone folds to the button. Being the last position before the blinds, a raise is almost required there no matter what cards he has. The blinds are now $600 and $1200, and a raise can often steal them. As expected, the button raises.

Small blind folds. I reraise. He calls– it’s just the two of us.

The flop comes JJ7. That’s a great flop for me– unless has a jack or two sevens, I’m WAY ahead. If he had KK or AA he would have reraised me before the flop. I bet and he calls.

The turn comes an eight. Unless he has two eights, seven-eight, or nine-ten, it can’t help him. I bet. He raises.

His raise is telling me that he has one of those hands. Maybe he’s trying to bluff me because we both know that if I complete this hand, all of my money is going into it. But more likely, he has the hand he’s representing.

Despite this, I have to raise. There are still four cards that give me the best hand (the two remaining jacks and queens), or he may be holding something weird like ace-eight. He calls my raise, and we flip over our cards. He indeed has the miraculous ten-nine, and has made a straight. The last card is a deuce, which leaves him the winner and knocks me out of the tournament.

It stings to lose the tournament so close to the money, but knowing that I did way better than could have ever been expected against these pros makes the pill a little easier to swallow.

Even if there was no prize money, I would still have been glad to pay the $1500. It gave me the unbelievable experience of playing in a professional-level game for twelve hours, winning and losing hands against the people you see on ESPN, and made me more confident in my game. In fact, I immediately started playing a higher limit game after the tournament, and did quite well.


Photo was taken by Christophe. It’s the only one he got where I don’t look scared for my life.

It’s hard to write a poker article that non poker players will understand/enjoy. The short version is that I had a great hand and was a huge favorite to double up and win enough money to coast to the level where players make money. A guy played correctly, got lucky, and beat me.

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