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Gaming Guru

Jeff Haney
 

Hours Online, Then The 'Big One'

8 August 2006

Chris Hogan was beating himself up over how he had played a losing hand.

"It was bottom two pair," Hogan said. "I could've let it go."

Hogan had seen hundreds of hands Monday in the opening round of the World Series of Poker championship event at the Rio.

One was stuck on auto-repeat in his mind.

Holding two pair, Hogan lost a hefty portion of his chips when his opponent showed a straight.

"That one really hurt," Hogan said. "God, I'm so down right now."

But it was only 10 p.m. Although the day's tournament action had started at noon, there was still a lot of poker to be played.

• • •

After creeping up slowly for most of the World Series of Poker's 37-year history, the number of entrants in the $10,000 buy-in championship event has increased dramatically in the past several years.

The field barely doubled from 167 players in 1988 to 350 in 1998. It was up to 839 players by 2003, when Chris Moneymaker changed the face of big-time tournament poker by winning $2.5 million after qualifying online. The number of entrants shot up to 2,576 in 2004, then 5,619 last year.

This year, the "Big One," as the main event is known, drew 8,773 entrants competing for a top prize of $12 million.

That impressive growth rate has been driven by thousands of Chris Hogans - youngsters who take up the game in college, polish their skills by playing countless hours online, and dream of coming to Las Vegas to make a big score against poker's best players in the World Series.

You never heard of Hogan. He hasn't appeared on any of the myriad poker TV shows. Before this week, the only major live tournament he had entered was a $5,000 buy-in event in the Bahamas, where he finished about 100th in a field of 326.

Yet the World Series remains the centerpiece of poker's calendar thanks largely to guys like him - with their devotion to no-limit Texas hold 'em, their bankrolls nurtured from scratch, their confidence they can take on the game's leading professionals in a tournament and get the best of 'em.

"I actually started playing a couple months before the whole Moneymaker thing," said Hogan, a 24-year-old computer programmer from Kansas City, Mo. "I didn't really start playing until I got into it on the Internet. I mean, I knew what beat what, but I didn't really understand what you have to do to win."

While studying at the University of Missouri, Hogan began playing online "freerolls" - tournaments with no entry fee - and graduated to small cash games at the 25-cent level.

"Several $25 deposits later, I started getting the hang of it," Hogan said. "I thought to myself, hey, maybe I'll give this a try."

The earliest World Series of Poker champions - "road gamblers" such as Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts - relied on their wits and sometimes harrowing experiences in underground poker games to develop their skills.

A later generation incorporated computer simulations and now-classic texts such as "Hold 'em Poker for Advanced Players" by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, into their games.

Hogan comes from a new school of players who use the rapid pace of online poker and techniques such as "multi-tabling" (playing in more than one game at a time online) to amass a virtual lifetime of experience in a few short years.

"I wouldn't say anybody really taught me to play," Hogan said. "I basically taught myself."

He has picked up tips from other sources along the way, including Doyle Brunson's "Super System," John Vorhaus' "Killer Poker Online," Barry Greenstein's "Ace on the River," and the strategy articles in Card Player magazine, Hogan said.

After consistently placing in the money in Internet tournaments, Hogan began to attract some attention as an up-and-coming online star. The founder of Pocketfives.com, a poker discussion Web site, offered him a part-time job as a kind of resident expert.

"I became one of the original writers on the site," Hogan said. "It was a really cool opportunity."

A six-day Vegas vacation during last year's World Series clinched it for Hogan: He wanted a shot at the Big One.

"My dad, my brother and me are all poker players, and we spent a couple of days watching from the rail," Hogan said. "It was kind of weird, seeing all the guys in person that you see on TV at least once a month, the celebrity players.

"All three of us had an agreement. We actually said it out loud. We were going to come back, and next time we were going to be players."

(Of the three, only Hogan qualified by winning an online tournament .)

The day before the biggest poker tournament of his life, Hogan speculated on whether he would go from fan to foe and find himself contesting a large pot against one of the game's well-known professionals.

"I've wondered about that," he said. "Obviously the pros know what they're doing better than anyone in the room, so you have to be careful that you really have something. You don't want to be on a draw or sitting on a weak hand and just throwing money at them.

"I mean, there's a reason they're making tons and tons of money."

• • •

Although sugar-free Red Bull has replaced nicotine as the stimulant of choice, the form of poker in the Big One is still no-limit hold 'em, just as it has been since the World Series' inception.

That means a player can go all-in, or bet his entire stack of chips, at any time.

That's what Hogan's opponent - not a pro, just another amateur hopeful - did on the hand that kept playing, over and over again, in Hogan's mind during that break in the action Monday night.

The cards on the board read queen-10-7-9 with one final card, the "river," to come. Hogan called the all-in wager with 7-9 in his hand, and it was like a shot to his solar plexus when the other guy showed jack-8 for a straight. The river was another queen, and the straight won.

"A couple of other times, he made a big bet like that with nothing, then showed his bluff," Hogan said.

His opponent's large bet with the "nuts," or best possible hand, did look suspicious. When you have the best hand, you want the other player to pay you off rather than fold. A more conventional play would have been to bet a smaller amount in an attempt to induce a call.

"You see people do that all the time, overbet the pot when they don't want to get called," Hogan's brother Scott, 25, said.

• • •

Hogan projects a steely composure at the table.

He'll chat with the people around him, but he's not a loudmouth or a trash talker.

Instead of a gimmicky, go-to-hell getup that some brash young poker players favor, Hogan wears a blue Paradise Poker golf shirt, pressed khaki shorts and a leather belt. It's a look that fits his compact, solid Midwestern build.

He keeps sunglasses with him at the table, but puts them on sporadically.

Wearing the shades, with his full facial contours he bears at least a passing physical resemblance to Chris Moneymaker, the man some credit with transforming the World Series from a gathering of good-old-boy gamblers on Fremont Street to an international phenomenon.

"I can't get over how big this has become," said veteran Las Vegas bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, playing in his first World Series this year since 1984, when he put up the $10,000 entry fee almost as a favor to his buddy Eric Drache, then the tournament director at its former home at Binion's.

It's up for debate whether the poker marathons that take place in major tournaments such as the World Series aid the young Internet hotshots or the grizzled cash-game pros.

"The Internet players are not used to the sheer stamina of playing live for this long," said World Series veteran Mark Patrick of the London-based oddsmaking firm Eurobet.

Extended live sessions do not faze Hogan. Though he's an online specialist, he also puts in the occasional hard day's night in the poker rooms in Kansas City.

After winning a few small, uncontested pots, Hogan "doubled up" late Monday night to get back into the game. Holding the 10-jack of hearts, he got all his chips in after the flop showed a jack and two small hearts. His opponent was overplaying a pocket pair of nines.

"It was such a relief to get back after that big hand earlier - I was so depressed, man," Hogan said. "Once I saw the flop, I knew I was going with this hand."

• • •

By 2 a.m., Hogan's chip stack had surpassed $20,000. He smiled broadly and pumped his fist.

A couple of minutes later, he got up, strolled to an adjacent table, fished a camera from his pocket and snapped a picture of Robert Varkonyi, the 2002 World Series champion.

At 3, the announcement came that everyone remaining - about 900 players from the 2,000-plus who started the day - had survived the first round. They would return Wednesday for another go-round as the tournament progressed toward the final table set for Aug. 10.

Hogan's stack had drifted down to about $15,000, but he was still alive.

"Wow, I'm just glad I made it," Hogan said. "Now I'm ready for bed."

• • •

"Rivered" can be the most painful word in poker.

It's when the final card dealt changes the outcome of a hand, a golden ticket out of Loserville for the player who had been trailing.

When you get rivered as a big favorite, it feels like getting kicked in the teeth.

On his final hand of the 2006 World Series of Poker Wednesday , Chris Hogan got rivered.

In the small blind - one of two forced bets posted each hand in rotation - Hogan was happy to get all his chips in with a pocket pair of nines against an aggressive player in the big blind, who had re-raised all-in holding ace-king. Everyone else had folded.

"I thought he was making a move on me," Hogan said, using poker lingo meaning a bluff designed to bully a single opponent out of the pot.

Hogan had about $19,000 in chips and figured he had a decent chance to double up. His nines were about a 55 percent favorite before the flop, and about an 85 percent favorite right before the river.

The river was a dreaded king.

"I'm very disappointed, but it was a good experience," Hogan said. "I said my goal was to get through the first day, and I made it. Still, it's very disappointing."

Pokered out for at least a little while, Hogan planned to spend Wednesday night blowing off some steam at the Rio's blackjack tables.

Hours Online, Then The 'Big One' is republished from CasinoVendors.com.