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Opinion: Before the bubble

I've written a lot about poker in the past decade, and most of the pieces you've read are about things that happened after the money bubble popped. It's rare that any of us concern ourselves with the people who bust before the bubble.

I played my first World Series of Poker event eight years ago today. That means nothing to you, and that's okay. Actually, that's exactly why I'm telling you.

Because it means nothing to you.

I'm telling you because, at the time, it was the most important thing in my life, and that's saying something, because that day was my fifth wedding anniversary. My dad was still alive. My first child wasn't even a year old. My wife was deep in a bed in West Wing of the MGM and telling me she loved me as I headed off to the Rio. The greatest anniversary gift she could've given me that day was the freedom to plunk down $1,500 of my roll for a chance at a bracelet. Every person I loved was alive, and they were excited about the fact I was playing a WSOP bracelet event.

Why would you care? Why would anyone care? I was one of more than 2,000 players that day. I was literally nobody.

You are somebody.

Maybe you already have a WSOP bracelet. Maybe your lifelong dream is to win a bracelet. Maybe you only want big tournament poker to be around long enough for you to bink something big.

It doesn't really matter.

I cared.

And that's why you should care.

***

My little brother, Jeff, and one of my great friends, CJ (immortalized in this ridiculous Dmitri Nobles video a year later), met me in the hallway outside the Rio's Amazon Room and gave me my 2005 morning sustenance: a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew and a roll of Sweet Tarts (I've since reformed to a cup of coffee and some scrambled egg whites.). They were probably both wrecked from a long Vegas night, but they got up early to let me know they cared about me believing in myself. That's the kind of friendship and love on which lifetimes and fortunes are built.

In the modern poker world, $1,500 is an entry-level poker tournament buy-in, but at the time, it was a good deal of money for me. I had breakfast with a few guys I knew who were chasing the same dream. We took a picture together in a Rio convention center hallway. We were a motley bunch who played online against each other. That morning we ate steak and eggs at the Sao Paulo Café and dreamed of a life less ordinary.

2005_wsop.jpg

Like my wife, these guys knew I was getting ready to sit down for what was--to me--a validation of all the work I'd put in to that point. In my time playing cards I would run a $100 online deposit up to $60,000. I would play big daily tournaments and chop a few for five figures. I'd even be stupid enough to play above my head and book five-figure wins in cash games. In today's nosebleed poker world, that seems quaint, but back then, it was intoxicating in a way I've not known since. Looking back, though, none of it meant more to me than the morning of June 3, 2005.

***

There's a joke among bloggers that the people you see sitting down half an hour before a tournament begins are the people who are the least likely to win an event. There is some truth in that. I know, because that was me eight years ago. I was in Seat 1 of Table 2. If you have been in the Amazon Room at the Rio, imagine the farthest-right corner you can be in if you enter from the main hallway.

Outside of a few untellable romantic experiences, there has never been a moment of greater anticipation for me. The event was enormous. I remember sitting in my seat as the cards went in the air. The WSOP didn't even have enough dealer buttons to handle the crowd. My table used a Starbucks coffee lid to mark the dealer for the first hour. I looked at the never-ending line of alternate players and saw Glenn Hughes about sixty people back.

Glenn Hughes?

You don't know him? Well, you should. He placed fifth for more than $1 million in the 2004 WSOP Main Event. Less than a year earlier, he was on ESPN and playing for the bracelet Greg Raymer won. At that time, Glenn Hughes was a bigger star than most of the people in the room.

And he was an alternate.

I had a seat. I had chips. I had aces in the first level and almost folded them to an all-in bet on a queen-high flop. I called to see my opponent's pocket kings, and I doubled up. When it was over, some cowboy across the table said, "You can breathe now, son."

Yeah, you say in 2013, that's automatic. Get the chips early, or go home. It's just a hand in a $1,500 donakament. It's a quick Twitter post. It's a mathematical decision. It's nothing.

But it's not. For me, it's a visceral moment that I can still feel eight years later. I remember the struggle of deciding whether the guy had a set, ace-queen, kings, or nothing. It was 30 interminable seconds of waiting for the turn and river to come out with no king.

To you, it's a rote hand. Anyone who plays it otherwise is a nit, right?

Looking back, that's how it seems to me, too. But it was, at the moment, the most important decision I'd made in my life. It was bigger than a $2,000 pot I lost online with aces versus queens. It was bigger than the decision I'd made to go into a journalism career. It was bigger than the decision I made to make my wedding anniversary trip a poker trip.

The rest of that day is a blur, but an instructive one.

***

There isn't a victory in this story. I lasted until a few minutes before the dinner break. I busted just before 6pm with ace-king to pocket tens all-in pre-flop.

I don't know this because I took notes on it or wrote about it at the time. I know this because I remember it better than the details of the six hours of poker I played last night. I know it better than I know my second son's birthday. It's the memory of busting out of my very first WSOP attempt.

I was in the six seat. The guy who busted me was in the one seat. He stood up, shook my hand, and said he was sorry. There were probably 300 people in the room, and I was no longer one of them. I wandered like I was drunk out of the room into a side hallway of the Rio Convention Center. I felt like I'd been awake for three days. I stood--alone--for five minutes trying to understand what had just happened. And then, because the cab line out of the Rio seemed too long, I walked back to the Strip. By the time I got back to my wife at MGM, I was in danger of either a heat stroke or summary Harikari.

But why should you care?

Well, stop for a moment and remember: I was nobody. I was the guy you had never read about. I was the guy who would never show up in your hand databases. I was, likely, in your estimation, dead money.

The game has changed a lot since 2005. I don't even recognize it sometimes. Some of the people who were my peers eight years ago are superstars now. What's more, there are people tearing up the circuit today who were in middle school when I played my first WSOP event. Why does it matter?

The answer is simple: because I was nobody.

I'm still nobody. Most of the big name players today couldn't pick me out of a police line up. I was a guy who pulled $1,500 out of his roll and took a shot. I fell short of the money on one random day in the middle of one random series. I fell way short of a bracelet. I'd eventually play more at the WSOP, but that day I was nobody, and I finished as nobody.

And that fact carries more importance than you probably appreciate.

Why?

Because without the young dreamers, the best poker players of 2013 are just passing their fortunes back and forth between themselves.

***

I walked in 94-degree heat up Flamingo. I stopped on the bridge and considered turning back. I started sweating out the four Red Bulls I'd downed that afternoon. I soldiered on and stumbled to the Bally's cab stand where I fought with a cabbie who tried to insist I take the tram to MGM. I got back to the hotel. I fell into bed, sweated for an hour, and tried to decide if I could have done anything differently. And then it occurred to me:

I was every guy who ever busted out of a WSOP event. In the beginning, I felt like I could be the next millionaire. I'd put in the work. I put in the grind. I had enough talent to make it happen.

And then, in one tournament, I didn't.

Still, you don't care.

I get that. I do. Why bother your head for a moment about some kid who took a shot and missed? Honestly, I've spent the past nine years of my career functionally unconcerned with the people who busted out of a tournament short of the money. They are never the story. One tournament is one tournament. There isn't a single player in the top 100 of the GPI who hasn't busted out of a tournament before the dinner break, so why should it matter?

Why?

In short, it occurred to me recently that the game of poker has become so insular and perfect that it will, if unchecked, kill itself.

Or, put more simply, it's simple: poker needs the me of 2005. If you don't think it does, let me introduce you to the me of 2013.

***


I'm not a balla. I'm not playing $100/$200 anymore. I'm a guy who writes about poker for the best online poker company in the world. I'm not what I used to be. I've had my highs. I've had my lows. I'm just a guy.

With all that understood, I think back on that experience from 2005, and my only regret is that I didn't win a flip. That's it. As much as I think about that one afternoon eight years ago, I have never considered it a bad experience. In fact, I look back on it as an example of how poker should be.

I sat down at a table of hopefuls. I played as hard as I could. We respected each other. My table broke. I moved on to another table. We respected each other there, too. It was, in a word, fun. And even when it wasn't fun, I always felt like I was a part of something.

But, a couple of months ago, I had a couple days of free time and decided to play a cheap side event on the WSOP Circuit. I drew an unlikely table of people older than me. For a few hours, it felt like the same game I played back in 2005. By and by, some seats opened up, and a younger player got moved to my table.

He was a nice guy, as near as I could tell. His etiquette was fine. He wasn't at all rude. But, eventually, something happened that gave me pause.

The player started talking to the dealer like they were friends. They had a tête-à-tête about where they could hang out that night. The young man's friends (presumably bust) showed up and surrounded the table.

The consensus was this: this tournament is a worthless low buy-in event, and the best thing we can do is make plans for later in the night. Where can we watch the game? Where can I buy you a drink? Could you just bust out so we can freaking leave?

This is a reality, I understand. I won't pretend I don't appreciate that the nature of tournament play is that you have to grind a lot of events to even out the fickle whims of fate. You get to know the people on the tour. It happens.

But there was something about that hour that rubbed me in a way that the old 2005 WSOP event didn't.

The young man and his un-seated tableside crew chatted like we were visitors in their house. Despite the fact they had come into our community, they seemed to go out of their way to make everyone understand the tour was theirs, cards be damned.

It didn't bother me much. I was in it as much for the escape to youth as I was the potential payoff. But it made me think about a lot of the talk I've heard in recent months about the so-called regs who dominate the games both live and online. They are the people who berate the locals, criticize the new players, and go out of their way to make sure the new players understand they are out of their depth.

There is no argument that the last of these is true. The modern tournament circuit, both on the WSOP and abroad, is awash with the best of the world's players. It's also true that some of the best of the world's players are functionally illiterate in how to deal with guys like me. And it's here I submit to you that the future of profitable poker depends on the best of the players re-evaluating how they approach the 2013 game and their opponents.

I need to point out that my brief recent experience shouldn't be read as an indictment of a tour or a generation of players. I shared this piece with my friend Martin Harris before I published it, and he reminded me about the great many Circuit regulars who work very hard to show the locals a good time as they work to score points to get to New Orleans. Those are the people who understand, and they shouldn't get lumped in with the rest of the people who don't get it.

As I wrote this piece and linked to the old Dmitri Nobles video, it reminded me of that guy's amazing couple of days in Las Vegas. I'd completely forgotten that the big hand in the video was against George Danzer before he was a Team Pro. What's more, I had also forgotten how Danzer comes back at the end to show the exact kind of class a pro should. Danzer understood then what we should all understand now: Nobles was having the time of his life, and no one should have ever tried to take that feeling away from him.

My point is simply this: if you want an insular world in which only the best play against the best, then, by all means, do your best to make the new money feel unwelcome. Make sure they know they aren't part of your clique. Make sure they know you would prefer to play against people who make perfect plays. And, then, eventually, make sure you cripple your your expectations for your earning potential, because there is only so much money you can win inside your circle of friends.

Today, I'm just some guy who hasn't played a lot by modern standards. But, I've played enough to know that winning involves a lot more than playing against your friends and the fish you know. Sometimes you need to thank the guys who bust before the bubble.

Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging

Want to read thoughts from big name players including Daniel Negreanu and Jason Mercier? Click through to our Team PokerStars Pro Blog page.

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