Duck, Duck, Loser: My Failed Bid for $10 Million

I had 105,000 chips at the World Series of Poker. Here's how I blew it.
James McManus, feeling fowl.

Writers worry about transitions all the time. We want to find the most seamless -- or arrestingly abrupt -- move from Point A to Point B, from a summary of the myriad events at a massive poker tournament, say, to the intricate details of a subtly contested hand. From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, in some cases.

That's the kind of thing that's been occupying me since I arrived at the Rio casino in Las Vegas on June 24 to play in and cover a few World Series of Poker events. I didn't play in the Big One for One Drop tournament, of course, because I didn't have a million dollars to buy into it. But I did play in four smaller events, and I had one tiny cash win of $3,900. After that, I focused on the Main Event, which began July 5.

I arrived near the dinner break of Day Three with about 105,000 chips. There's no better feeling for a poker player than having a healthy stack of chips to riffle through and bet with in the Main Event. Being the chip leader late on Day Three of the 2000 tournament was the sweetest rush of pleasure and adrenalin I'd ever felt, with the possible exception of the birth of my four children and perhaps a Keith Richards moment or three in the late 1960s. Hard to say, because all those experiences are getting rather fuzzy in the mnemonic smog of being 63 1/2.

Suffice it to say, I'd wanted to enter what was then called the Big One, to simply sit down at an oval table in Binion's Horseshoe and compete for poker's world championship, since I first heard about it in the early 1980s. When, lo and behold, on a juicy assignment for Harper's magazine, I found myself at the final table with the second-biggest stack, every cell of my body felt positively exquisite ... until they didn't, and Hasan Habib busted my ace-queen with his -- oh, never mind.

By late afternoon yesterday, I wasn't among the chip leaders of the Main Event, but I did have a comfortable stack of 105,000. With antes of 400 and the blind bets at 1,200 and 2,400, I was able to wait for solid hole cards to open-raise with, or to three-bet if someone opened ahead of me. While I patiently waited for one of those hands, my stack shrank to 75,000.

I was sitting under the gun, the first to act before the three flop cards are dealt, when I looked down at two aces. The standard opening raise at the table had been between 5,000 and 6,000, and I decided to make it six to discourage extra callers. It looked like only the large middle-aged southern gentleman, who was sitting in Seat Four on the button, would call me, but then so did the ginger-headed young man in the small blind. I could tell the Ginger Man had a strong enough hand to feel tempted to raise me, but as hard as I willed him to do it, all he did was call. Instead of an 11-2 favorite over one caller, I was now about a 3-1 favorite to win at least the 8,400 that was already in the pot. Both players had me covered -- that is, they had more chips than I did.

The flop was 7-queen-2, with two hearts, and the Ginger Man bet 6,800. I knew neither of them had two queens or else they would've raised before the flop, ditto for two kings. Hoping he had ace-queen, I raised the rest of my chips, for a total of about 67,600.

Big mistake. I could have either called or raised a smaller amount, trying to get all his chips on a later street, but I was trying to push both him and Southern Man off possible heart draws. It was only when Southern Man snap-called that I knew I was in trouble, because he couldn't call that big a bet unless he'd flopped a set of deuces or 7s. While the redhead thought about calling, talking to himself about what a big hand he might have to fold, I desperately tried to convince myself that Southern Man had ace-queen, for top pair, top kicker. Only a very bad player, however, would call a big all-in raise from a tight player like me with only one pair. And I knew that.

As soon as the redhead finally folded, Southern Man and I turned over our hole cards: 2-2 versus ace-ace. Quack, quack, quack. (Deuces are called ducks, and three of them can get to quacking rather obnoxiously.) I was dead to the two remaining aces in the deck, neither of which chose to make an appearance on the turn or the river.

Cursing myself and my opponent during the quarter-mile walk back to my room, I stupidly wished I'd shoved all in before the flop and made him fold his foul little fowl. It would have been ridiculous to open for 31 big blinds, of course, because I would've lost the chance to make any profit with Hold 'em's best hole cards -- though if I had, I would still be in the tournament.

Back to that transition I was talking about. Ninety minutes after I overplayed my aces -- classic rookie mistake -- I was back in the Rio's Amazon room with a pen and a legal pad, dutifully covering the action of young Zach Jiganti. To do so, I had to stand four feet away from the seat I'd so recently left, now occupied by a stranger. My 75,000 chips were tucked neatly into the rest of Southern Man's burgeoning stack. I know you'll believe me when I tell you it was a pukeworthy, painful transition.

I'll report on the progress of Jiganti, who ended the night with 354,000 chips, as well as on that of Howard Diamond, a rising young ad executive who plays in my home game, who bagged 409,500, as soon as I'm able to hack up the rest of these feathers from the back of my throat.

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    James McManus at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Timothy Lavin at

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