Pink and orange hues crest the mountain before blending into the deep blue desert sky. We hit the runway with a thunderous roar.
Sixteen hours later I'm in the Bally's Ballroom for Flight A for the largest poker tournament in the world — the World Series of Poker Main Event.
I'm the first to arrive at my table, and chat with our Iranian dealer about the tournament life. He bumps my fist before we get started.
We're in an overflow section with only twelve tables, none of them yet full. The first hour is quiet compared to the typical roar of a WSOP field. There's the ever-present low decibel clatter of chips in the background. A roaming server calls out "waterrrredbulllll", the words mumbled more with each repetition.
There are three former Main Event champions in the room, and I'm glad none of them are at my table. Instead, I'm seated among a handful of amateurs and non-famous tournament regs. One of the amateurs is visibly nervous, unsure of how to put out his antes and blinds. Another is falling asleep at the table.
I win the first hand. It's folded to me in the small blind. I limp and the big blind checks. We check it down all the way to the river and I win with king high. I take some solace that my nightmare didn't come to pass — getting my aces cracked on the first hand of the Main. Anything that happens after this is gravy.
The action is slow at our table the first couple levels. The table next to us has 2021 WSOP player of the year Josh Arieh, and he's been chatting it up with the rest of the players. Out of the corner of my eye I see one of them point at our table, laughing, "they haven't said a word in three hours!"
I've slowly chipped up my 60k starting stack to 72k when I play my first big hand. Two players limp before the button raises it to 2k. The presumed reg to my right in the small blind three-bets to 7200. I look down in the big blind at the ace-king of diamonds and after some careful thought toss in a cold four-bet of 17k. It folds around to the small blind, who calls.
The flop is 963 rainbow, with one diamond, and the small blind checks to me. I know I'm supposed to continuation bet with high frequency in this spot, but get to check my AK with a backdoor flush draw maybe half the time. I use a randomizer and roll low, so check.
The turn is the nine of diamonds, pairing the board but giving me a flush draw. The small blind now leads with a 14.5k bet, about 40% of the pot. I think hard about jamming all-in, but decide his range here is too strong. And I have too much equity to fold, so I call to see the river. Our sleepy table is glued to the action, watching the biggest pot of the day pile higher.
I'm willing the poker gods to bring me an ace, king or diamond but they laugh as the dealer turns over the meaningless eight of clubs. My opponent moves all-in and I decide to fold. I lose half my stack without seeing a showdown.
On our dinner break I can feel the anger and disappointment building. My cards are dead, my chips dwindling down below half a starting stack. I still have about 55 big blinds, but it's hard to keep in perspective when I'm surrounded by stacks more than twice the size of mine. When it's the World Series of Poker Main Event. All the anticipation, all the work, all the daydreams.
I'm trying to solve today's Wordle on my phone as I eat. It takes me until the third attempt to solve two of the letters. On my fourth attempt I'm stumped, unable to think of a single six letter word in the English language that can fit the puzzle. I'm staring at the screen long after my meal is done, looping through each combination of letters in sequence. I make a desperate guess reusing a letter I already know is dead. It gets me nothing.
I have half an hour left on break so I put away my phone and walk the halls of Bally's with my AirPods in. It takes me a while to find the right playlist — a dark techno that thunders in my ears. I feel the tension leaving my shoulders. I float among the chaos.
Back from break, my newfound resolve is tested when I make a loose three-bet call and attempt a bluff that proves futile. I'm down to a quarter of a starting stack.
A few orbits later the under-the-gun player opens and the amateur to his left flat calls. It folds to me in the big blind and I three-bet with pocket kings. The UTG player instantly moves all-in. The amateur deliberates before folding and I of course make the call. My opponent turns over pocket jacks, and a king in the window secures my lead. We're eight hours into the day, and I'm the first player at my table all-in pre-flop. I'm grateful for my double-up and continue to grind ahead.
Our table breaks, and I'm moved to the main section of the ballroom for the final two hours of the day. There are a few high stakes players and well-known pros but it's a fun table. Three of the players are running props — betting each other $20 that a card of their choice will turn up on the board. Typical poker action is punctuated by a cry of "queen of hearts!" followed by twenty dollar bills sailing across the table away from the disgruntled losers.
I chip up, I chip down. But what's most important is that I still have some left to put in the bag at the end of the night. I'll come back on Day 2 with 30k, or about 38 big blinds.
It's a little before midnight as I make my walk out the casino. My face is scrunched as I stare at my phone. I've solved one more letter on my fifth attempt, two blanks remain. A guess comes to me. The more I stare at it, the less it seems like a real word. But I hit enter for my final attempt possible.
The letters all turn green.
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