Shuffle up and deal at the World Series of Poker

Max Petrunya

By Max PetrunyaStaff Reporter

The Main Event at the World Series of Poker is the largest and most prestigious poker tournament in the world. Celebrating its 36th anniversary this year, 8,733 players from across the globe came to Las Vegas on July 28, each putting up $10,000 to compete for a first prize worth $12 million.

When I began playing poker freshman year, my friends and I would consistently play on Tuesday night when ESPN would premier the latest WSOP episode. We watched as amateur and professional players battled for the title of Main Event Champion, a title that brings with it millions of dollars, international fame and notoriety.

We would critique the play of those on TV and talk about how we would play in this event when we were of legal gambling age. At the time, being only 18 and playing for $20 among friends, it seemed as if the WSOP was out of our grasps for years. Little did I know, however, that three years later, one of my best friends and I would be playing in the Main Event.

Before qualifying this summer, I had quit playing poker for nearly eight months. I was inspired to start playing again when I received an e-mail from in July informing me that they were running a tournament on July 23 with at least 150 WSOP Main Event seat packages guaranteed. There were nearly 7,400 people in the tournament; the players who finished in the top 234 would win “Seat Packages” to the WSOP.  The tournament lasted roughly seven hours, with the last hand being dealt at 2 a.m.

When I realized I had won, I could hardly contain myself. I ran upstairs and woke up my roommate. I called everyone I knew. It was an amazing feeling. I had achieved a lifetime goal that seemed nearly impossible just eight months earlier. I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I was too preoccupied with imagining what this experience would be like. No matter how hard I tried, however, I couldn’t envision what I was in store for.

The “Seat Package” provided to me by PokerStars included:

My $10,000 buy-in to the Main Event

Nine nights at Treasure Island Hotel

$1,000 spending money

An entire PokerStars wardrobe to wear during the tournament.

I flew out of Philadelphia on July 27 and would start playing at the next day. The five hour flight felt like 10. I couldn’t wait to touch down, check into the hotel and relax before my big day.

That night, I went over to the Rio, where the event was being held, to fill out my player’s card. When I entered the poker room, it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Two hundred and fifty poker tables, celebrities everywhere, cameras all over the place and more chip shuffling sounds echoing across the room than I had ever heard before. It was everything I could have hoped for and more.

I woke up at 8 a.m. the next morning after barely sleeping and headed over to the Rio for an exclusive PokerStars breakfast buffet before we started play. I drew table 67 and was the first one to arrive.  As players started filling in the seats, I didn’t recognize any big names sitting with me, mostly online qualifiers from Party Poker.  Then, two professionals filled in seat 10 and seat six: Angel Largay, a no-limit cash game pro from Alaska who has his own poker book out and writes for Bluff magazine, and Casey Kastle, a relatively unknown pro who has final tabled two WPT events and one Professional Poker Tour event.  With me sitting in seat nine, it meant that I would have them between me all day. 

I knew it was going to be a rough day, as I had to deal with the four Party Poker qualifiers, who can never fold a hand, and two professionals, who would be tough to outplay.  It was a tough table draw, but I didn’t let it get to me; I was primed to play the best poker of my life.

Patience is key when playing in events like this, so for the first four hours, I really didn’t get involved in too many hands. I folded 80 percent of the hands I was dealt, and didn’t get much action when I did play. My stack fluctuated between 10,625 chips after the first break, and 8,250.

Twenty minute breaks are taken at the end of every two hour round so players can go to the bathroom or grab something to eat.  After the second break, an older gentlemen sat down in seat four with 16,000 in chips.  When he was taking them out of the rack, you could tell he was nervous because he could barely stack them straight, and his hands were shaking like mad.  Largay and Kastle and I noticed it right away.

For the next two hours we assaulted his chip stack until he was sent to the rail early in the fifth round.  I played a big hand against this man during the middle of round two.  With my 9,000 chips to his 15,000 and the blinds at 50-100, he raised to 300.  Kastle called behind him, and I called holding 7-5 of spades.  This is an abysmal hand, but judging the competition, I thought I might mix it up a little bit and see if I could flop a big hand against our table’s chip donator. The flop came 6-6-2. 

I checked, and the older man bet 400 into the 1,000 chip pot.  Kastle folded and I just called, thinking he had nothing hoping to bluff him on the turn.  The turn card was a 9 and I checked once again.  He bet 400 again.  I raised him 800 more, making it 1,200 total.  He thought for a few seconds and threw 800 more chips in.  UH OH.  Not what I wanted to happen…we need to reevaluate this play.  The pot now stood at 4,200.  The last card was a 4 giving us a final board of 6-6-2-9-4.  I fired 2,500 chips in with nothing, leaving me with 4,500 if I lost.  He thought about it for what felt like an eternity before finally folding.  I now had 13,200 in chips and would go on to end the round 14,175. 

When we returned from the third break, the table went from bad to worse.  Seat seven had been eliminated before break, and Young Phan, another professional, took the seat.  With Kastle in seat six they raised my big blind every single time, except when I had AA and everyone folded.  Awesome. 

The biggest hand I played in round four was with Young.  With the blinds at 100-200 with a 25 chip ante, I was on the button with KK.  Young raised to 800, the gentleman to his left folded and I re-raised to 2,500.  It folded around to Young who went all-in.  He had 9,000 chips to my 11,000.  I instantly called as he smacked himself on the head and proclaimed, “Oh man, you got me.” As he tabled his AK, I flipped over my KK, and he realized he was in big trouble. 

It is an incredible feeling to outplay a professional, and I could hardly keep from smiling when we showed our hands.  This is poker, however, and it wasn’t as if I had won yet.  My KK is a 70 percent favorite over his AK, so he still had a three percent chance to win.  Before the dealer dealt, the man sitting between us announced he folded AJ.  Great, now I am an 88 percent favorite because one of his aces was out of the deck.  The pot totaled 22,000, and I could see myself raking it in, knocking out a pro, and having enough chips to play the remaining six hours and move on to day two. 

My dreams were crushed however when the flop came 9-J-Q.  Even though I was still in the lead, I had a bad feeling that he might still win.  The turn card was of course a 10, so now he was in the lead with his straight ace high straight.  Every curse word I had ever learned was cycling through my mind as I sat in amazement.  The tables had turned. Now I had to have one of the two remaining aces hit on the river just so I could split the pot.  I had a five percent chance.  Luckily the ace fell, and I was able to split the pot, but I was still bummed that I didn’t win the hand outright. 

That hand ended up being the deciding hand between me going on to day two, and being eliminated a few hours later.  After that hand, I would lose half my chips when I tried bluffing one of the Party Poker players (I know, I know…never bluff these guys). I then doubled up to 7,000 chips when I made three sevens, lost 5,000 chips the very next hand when my full house ran into quad tens (that was a lot of fun) and finally got eliminated when my 5-5 didn’t improve against J-J.

When it was all said and done, I was exhausted. Every part of my body and brain ached, so I cheered on my friend as he finished day one, and went back to my hotel to get some much needed rest.

Overall, the experience of playing in the WSOP was everything I could have hoped for and more. I got to do something that most people will never have the opportunity to do, plus, I still got to stay nine nights in Vegas with $1,000 cash to have fun. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I can’t wait to go back next year and return with better results.