I looked out the small window of the Boeing 737, watching the billowing clouds envelop us as we descended toward Vegas. As we approached Sin City, my pulse quickened and a good, but nervous energy began building. I was in Vegas, a long distance from my home in Greenville, South Carolina. As the tires scorched on the runway, I felt more alive than I had in my young 21 years on the earth. I was living a dream - I was going to play poker on TV. I was going to be in the Poker Dome Challenge.
The only way to get to the Poker Dome is to play a qualifier tournament on MansionPoker. In my case, I started by playing with a 600-person freeroll satellite and placed in the Top 6. The next stage was a weekly qualifier where the top three advance to the Poker Dome. There were 150 people entered in this $5,000 chip championship structure tournament. With a relatively small field of 150 people and $5,000 being a relatively large starting stack, there was a lot of room for play and I was able to get very creative. The tournament was going very well. After several hours I was one of the four remaining people and I could see myself sitting in the Dome. As fate would have it, I went card dead - . I got blinded down and eventually forced to make a move. Not only did I go, parting out on a bad beat, I was a Poker Dome bubble boy. I didn't think I had won a thing....
The next afternoon, brooding over the bad beat, I received a very big email surprise: - It stated I was to be included in the Mansion Poker experience after all as an alternate! Flying out and receiving the exact same package as the players excluding the $5,000 entry and seat. Even better, three days before the trip, I received a second email saying I was actually going to be playing, thanks to a player from Norway that had passport issues. Email brought a round trip air ticket a few days before departure and I could almost taste Vegas.
After a long trip across the country with all the heightened security, I arrived in Las Vegas. The Vegas airport was an eclectic mix of humanity, smiles and tears. A few poor schleps were donating their last few quarters in the airport slots hoping to salvage a bit of their bankroll before heading home. As I approached the baggage claim area, my own personal limo driver greeted me with a sign. It didn't have my name, but read "mansionpoker.net". What the heck - I'd live.
The limo delivered me to the VIP entrance of Caesars. Mansion put me in a very nice room on the 37th floor of the Augustus Tower, complete with a nice bottle of champagne. First on my itinerary was an interview in the Anzio Room on the Promenade Level. It was a basic studio room with a green screen. I answered a bunch of questions in front of the camera, and then they told me to do some silly poses. I just let go and did whatever came to me, hoping my enjoyment of the moment wouldn't come back to embarrass me during the broadcast. After the interview, Las Vegas was mine until dinner at eight. Though anxious to play poker in the fabled city, I chose to rest up. Plus I hadn't received my casino money yet and being a College undergrad from Greenville S.C. I didn't exactly come with a pocket full of money.
Feeling fine from the champagne, and not paying attention to time, I received a phone call from the producer, I answer but can get no signal. I hear him though, saying I was probably passed out drunk in my hotel room. How dare he say that - no matter how true it was.
I walked to dinner with my assigned Poker Dome baby sitter. There I received $500 in restriction-free casino chips, and I got to meet all my Poker Dome table mates for the first time. After dinner, a speech from another producer and a goodie bag full of poker paraphernalia. Everyone quickly went to their own agenda; I headed back toward my room with a couple of contestants from Michigan. We never made it anywhere near our rooms, instead, we were pulled in by the allure of the green felt in Caesar's poker room.
We attempted to find a sit and go, but had no luck, so we settled for a 10 handed $1-2 NL cash game. I was so excited this being my first B&M experience, I sat down with two years of online play and some home game knowledge under my belt. Ready to tackle the world, I then proceeded to double my new friend up. After losing that hand I went to get another stack of nickels ($100), and after that, I never lost another major hand at Caesars. After making Kings full against this 21- year old, iPod wearing donkey from Indiana who slaps down his trip nines with a ace kicker for all his money. So sure Kings full was good. He then accused me of slow rolling at the end of the hand, but I just laughed and left. I played for 2 1/2 hours and cashed out $225 richer - a good start to my Vegas gambling experience. I stopped by the gift shop in front of Caesars and bought some gifts for relatives. On my way up to my room at 3:30 am, I saw Cameron Diaz walking through the Forum which was my celebrity sighting of the trip. That was kind of cool. I made time for a quick soak in the hot tub - no, not with Cameron, unfortunately - and then dropped it was off to sleep.
I skipped breakfast the next morning and took my cheap butt down to the Roulette wheel with one $25 chip. Soon I'd worked it up to $70. I then decided to go back to the room to do absolutely nothing. My good intentions went out the window when I saw my new fellow Poker Dome buddy from Michigan on his way to the poker room and decided to join him. It was another profitable afternoon, I flopped three Sets in 30 thirty minutes and got max value out of all of them. While chowing on a prime rib dip I grabbed at the poker table, I won some other small pots, and left with over $500. I stayed in the poker room until 11:30 am, and the shuttle for the Dome was picked picking us up at 11:45 am in fifteen minutes! Rather than cut it any closer than it was already going to be, I scooped up my $500 in winnings and hit the cashier's cage.
The shuttle was very nice, stocked with ice-cold water to combat the dry, desert air. The big lounge seats made the trip from the Strip to downtown Las Vegas seem like only seconds. I took the opportunity to check out my competition a bit closer. All the guys on the show had me age-wise by eight years or more. It was a little intimidating, but I don't mind being the underdog. All the players were very nice and respectful to one another. Except for the Aussie - so certain he was going to win from his perch of superiority and cocky as ever it just seemed he kinda looked down on us. I hoped to take him out.
We arrived at the studio and entered the Greenroom to find a long table covered with food and drinks. I was so nervous, I couldn't eat a thing. The production team put us through poker school, showing us how they wanted us to play. They told us to show our hole cards, not to splash our bets, and shared a few other pet peeves of the production team...such as exactly what you do if you lose and basic rehearsal of the show. After an hour's worth of camera work for the show, they held a practice game. The oldest player at the table, a pro from Nevada moved all in on the first hand with 10-5 off-suit, which really broke the ice and had us all laughing. Everyone else took to his lead. After that game we got a break, and I chose to go to the bar downstairs and have a few drinks. I talked with the arrogant Aussie I was playing with. I could tell he liked playing a lot of head games, but I needed some company, so I hung out.
Suddenly it was one hour before air! They did even more camera shots and gave me a heart monitor; they also gave me some Brad Pitt makeup and hairstyle action. We did some group and solo photos. While that wasn't really my cup of tea, but hey, who put up the $25,000 first place prize? Oh yeah, Mansion! The studio audience numbered about 150 people. They polled the audience as to who they thought was going to win I got 37 votes. Matt Savage, the tourney director, announced, "Shuffle up and deal," and it was time to begin!
With all that electrical equipment and lights in such a small area, the temperature at the table was about 86 degrees. I was unable to put my jacket on the back of the chair. So if I busted out, I didn't want to get up without a coat to put on over my salmon-colored shirt in case I turned into a sweat factory, so I opted to cope with the heat and leave the jacket on.
The cards were dealt. Every card has a computer chip in it. Between those chips and the pocket cams, the audience already knew what I'd gotten before I'd even looked. They even got to see the rate of my thundering heart on every hand. Every player started with $50k in chips with blinds starting at 1k-1k. The players were all tight, picking great spots to get aggressive. It was a great rush to be there and to be playing on TV, probably one of the best feelings out there; the whole experience incredibly surreal.
Though wanting to play tight and aggressive, I picked up decent hole cards and I played the first three hands, winning one. Then, there was a six minute break for commercial insertion. Yes, play is stopped to insert commercials. I think this ruined the flow of the game and it soon became an annoyance. At any rate, the Aussie decided it was time and began with the head games, talking to the opponent closest to him - a nice middle- aged man that came in to the Dome through a buy- in with a league. The Aussie told him that he would never raise ace eight or ace nine while we are still six handed and started criticizing his play. After raising my blinds a few times, and continuing to criticize the other players. He finally decided it was time to lay some of that table love on me. He began calling me a folding station and rambled on how he was going to raise my big blind every time it came around. I laughed and called him a windbag - not the name I necessarily wanted to call him, but I was mindful of the audience and the abundance of cameras.
Play proceeded with one of the Michigan boys taking down the majority of the pots. I figured he was being just overly aggressive. I later find out he was flopping sets every other hand. I am serious - three sets the guy made. The other Michigander was holding his own by playing position and being lucky enough that nobody had anything. I wasn't as fortunate. After being bluffed off several hands by three different players, I began to worry about my chip stack in relation to the rapidly rising blinds.
Despite the fun of the tournament, I got melted down below $30k, with blinds at $2k-4k, and going to $3k -6k in the next few minutes, I called the small blinds preflop raise preflop with Q-10 [d] from the button. I caught middle pair on the Flop and a gut shot straight draw on a board of J-10-8 rainbow. I was hoping he had two big cards to that flop, something like A-K, A-Q, or K-Q which would all give him ‘overs' and gutshot draws, but I would be the favorite. He pushed me all in, completely robbing me of my position. Only fifteen seconds to act - time ticking down - I opted to take my one thirty second time extension. It didn't take half of it before I came to the conclusion that he was trying to push me off my hand and he could afford to do so. Thinking I might be ahead, I made the all in call for my last $17,500. After being able to hear the gasp from the crowd I knew I was in trouble. Unfortunately, I ran into a set of Jacks and my tournament life was reduced to a four outer which didn't hit, and out went the young gun in 6th place.
Disappointed in the outcome, a small consolation was the fact that, in this format, second and sixth place paid the same. I shook hands with the table and Matt Savage, waved goodbye to the crowd after chatting with Leeann Tweeden, and then cut out. I figured a great disappointment, but hey, I look at it as I got eight years to catch up to that $25k payday down the road that only one of those guys is going to get tonight. I went down to the bar and got a nice cocktail and went back up to the lobby where the Poker Dome is held and watched the end of the tournament on the big screen. I wanted to see who was going to take it down. Everyone that saw me congratulated me for getting as far as I did. I met one of the other player's guest and we watched the rest of the program together rooting for his friend.
After the Poker Dome tournament, all of us from the show entered the 11pm $60+$10 buy-in. I ran deep, playing good, solid poker, but my nemesis (who won the show) knocked me out when he made a raise with Ace rag. I moved in with my pocket eights and he called. Of course, while he was getting his $10 massage he plucked an Ace on the flop for top pair. He went on to win the tourney. Hey, when you're running good, you're really running good.
I stepped immediately back into a 1$-2$ NL cash games and made my presence known, playing aggressively and taking down pots. When I left at 5:30 that morning, I was $700 richer. I slept until 10:30 and then went straight back to the poker room. It was pretty comical to be drinking milk and eating sausage biscuits while sitting there playing cards. At noon, I went to my room and gathered my things. After a last glance out my window at the Strip, I checked my luggage at the bell desk. So what does a poker player with nine hours in Vegas to spare do? See a show, walk the scorching macadam of the Vegas jungle, or a movie? Yeah, right.
Back in the poker room, I clocked in with my player rewards card and went to work. I would always sit with $200 or less to start, and if I hit $700, I automatically left. Other than lunch at Misu Grill, the TV chef's restaurant, I lived in Caesars Poker room. I'd considered trying out some other casinos, but the dead money at Caesar's was just too good to leave. It was simple feasting on the drunks and weak players. I won a $300 pot with Aces full, another $300 pot in the same session with a two-pair of sevens and treys. So, I believe I was mixing my play up very well. I was up substantially until I started drinking at 7pm and decided I wanted to lose a little out on the floor before I left. So I went to the pit and bet big on everything I shouldn't have bet on and quickly lost $400 of the $1900 I'd won in the poker room. Thankfully, it was time to hit the airport and I barely caught my limo at 9:30 pm.
On the way back home, I sat looking out the window, down onto the bright city lights of Las Vegas feeling torn - part of me needing to go home and part of me never wanting to leave. I spent the trip across the country sipping cocktails, going over the past two days, wondering if I would ever make it to the spot light again. Luckily, I didn't have to pout for long. Due to mistaken seating arrangements, I got the two most beautiful models that worked for FHM sitting next to me which helped to pass the time and forget about what I was leaving behind. The next thing I knew, I was at my layover and almost home.
All in all, even though I didn't win, my trip was a major success. I got to see Vegas for the first time and I proved to myself that I can play B&M. I went home with a pocket full of cash, and a smile on my face and the memory of my fifteen minutes. My stay was very enjoyable and I would love to move to Vegas, but MAN, I was worn out when I got back! That Vegas lifestyle will do that to you!
In less than a week, I received a DVD of the episode I was on. It was very cool to watch myself and easy to criticize, but when you're down there on that felt...oh baby, sometimes it's tough.
Trying to go to the Poker Dome? Here are my tips:
1. Just play poker 101 early in the satellites. Don't get tricky; just keep it simple.
2. After level 10, start making plays or you'll find yourself getting short stacked in a hurry.
3. Mansion now runs buy-ins to get to the qualifier instead of free roll Satellite.
If you can make it past the satellite, you'll find the qualifier is completely different. It's a deep stack poker tourney. If you don't understand that, do some reading up on the difference.
If you're already going to the Poker Dome, realize the tourney you will be playing on TV is completely different than any other tournament you've ever played. I suggest finding some reading material on speed poker. Fifteen seconds to act can be crucial, and don't be like me - get lots of sleep before your match, and play position, position, position.
Good luck everyone. Your hopes to make it to the Million Dollar Final table are still alive. It just goes to show that any ole Joe (or Jesse) can make it!