Trip reports are a tradition of long standing on the Internet NewsGroup, Rec.Gambling.Poker. Like others that have preceded and will follow this one, it’s my account of ESCARGOT, the annual February gathering of RGPers, who descend from all across the country to sunny southern California for a weekend of fun, frivolity, and poker.
Even before the official ESCARGOT events were slated to begin, the RGP spirit was in the air and everyone who arrived a day or so early was ready to party, and play some poker. Jerrod Ankenman is always in charge of organizing the “unofficial” ESCARGOT events. He’s the self-professed “King Of Hotel Room Poker Games,” and a man who’s found his calling. Perhaps “organize” implies a bit more rigidity and structure than Jerrod uses to get these events off the ground, but that’s somehow right in keeping with the spirit of ESCARGOT.
Although starting times, and even the days of these unofficial ป๊อกเด้ง ไฮโล events are often a moving target, everyone wanting to play in them seems to quickly plug into the loop. The SCATS event, won Jerrod, is a satellite in which the winner receives an entry to TARGET, which is also a satellite, albeit one in which the winner gets to play in the World Series of Poker. There’s also the World Chowaha Championship, and often some other events that are held during odd hours, either at the Bike itself or at the hotel across the street, where tired players have been know to fall asleep on the floor or in the corner as they await their next hand of cards.
RGPer Marc Gilutin, who works as a prop at the Bike, is instrumental in getting a one-table satellite started. For a thirty-dollar buy in, the winner gains entry into all of the official ESCARGOT events. We manage to finish two satellites before the start of the Bike’s evening tournament, and event that many of the early arrives plan on entering. Jerrod Ankenman wins the first satellite. He’s also the chip leader in the second event, but when it’s three-handed, he dumps off his money in a few big hands, and Michael Patterson and I, the two remaining players who are now about evenly stacked decide to chop the winnings and get ourselves into the Bike’s evening tournament while there’s still time.
Everyone at an ARG event is a story unto themselves, and one of the true joys in attending ESCARGOT, BARGE, MARGE, and all of the other gatherings is the opportunity to meet some incredibly fascinating people, and to renew acquaintances with them every year. I get to see how the ADBers — a subgroup of irreverent idolaters who worship beer kegs, taps, bottles, and shots — defy poker strategy and conventional logic by playing poker quite well while three more than a few sheets to the wind.
Early arrivals gather for the all your ESCARGOT buy-ins belong to us
Then there’s Harry Baldwin. Each year, Harry, who is in his 70s, rides his bicycle from San Diego to Los Angeles to attend ESCARGOT. That’s a distance of about 130 miles, up some pretty steep grades, but Harry’s done it every year now since the very first ESCARGOT.
Thursday marks the first day of official ESCARGOT events, and by late afternoon most of the guests have shown up, picked up their registration packets and are already hard into enjoying themselves. Now the Bike is full of RGPers, and the inevitable questions from the regulars about the “computer nerds” who have invaded the place. And lots of these invaders have come from a distance to attend. There’s quite a contingent of Right Coasters, with Linda Lewis, Steve “Ice” Eisenstein, Scott Byron and others on hand, as well as Gavin Scott from Toronto, Mary from Madison Wisconsin, and New Jane from Fargo, North Dakota.
The Bike has an incredible promotional that evening. It’s a “real cash” tournament that occurs in their $6-$12 and $9-$18 games. Now don’t think of “tournament” in the traditional sense, where you sign up, pay a registration fee, and continue on until all but one player has been eliminated. In this event you are playing with real chips, not the tourney variety, and you can cash out anytime. Here’s how it works. The event is merely a designated 30 hands, and a token is awarded to the winner of each pot during that time period. At the end of those thirty hands, the Bike awards the four players who have accumulated the most tokens a cash prize. That cash prize is an overlay; it does not come from player entries or buy-ins — there are none.
But here’s the rub. If ever one needed a real time lesson of why the object of poker is to win money and not pots, this is it. Many players are going balls out to win the most pots and collect the largest number of tokens during that thirty-hand period. One of the players at my table accumulated five of them – a pretty good stash in and of itself – but went through two racks of chips in the process. He didn’t cash in the event either — there were players who won more pots than he did — but managed to blow off a huge number of chips in his futile attempt to win a prize that would not have equaled his loss even if he had gotten lucky.
Bike Tournament Director Denny Williams with ESCARGOT organizer Lou Krieger
Even players that did know better, who simply got on a rush early on and found themselves in contention for the money offered up as part of the Bike’s promotion, were forced to play every hand later on in the event, in order to ensure themselves a chance at getting into the prize pool. As a result, raises were the order of the day, and it didn’t matter if the raiser had a hand or not. Once near the prize money the goal for these players became one of eliminating others, in order to stand a better chance of getting lucky and winning. “I have no choice, I’m gonna play every hand now. I’ve got to,” said one RGPer, who had gotten lucky early and won a number of pots. And play he did, raising and trying to eliminate the most players he could, since every token acquired for winning a pot might push him higher up the money list.
In these incredible promotional events, even if one doesn’t win many pots, the nature of the game brings out the maximum gamble in people. If one plays very solidly, and concentrates on playing only those hands that can grow into very big hands, it only takes one good pot to turn the hour of that 30-hand promotion into a winning one.
And the object lesson is clear too. If there’s any player out there who thinks the object of poker is winning pots and not money, I’d like to sentence him to playing this game each day until he sees the error of his ways.
The evening’s tournament was ROE, alternating rounds of Razz, Omaha/8, and 7-stud/8, and I really love playing two of them. The event began at 7:15 with about 60 entrants, and by the time I was eliminated in tenth place it was nearly 1:30 AM. At that point, Beth Even had most of the chips and eliminated me in an Omaha hand when my pair of aces lost to her flush, and my low never materialized. Beth made most of her money the round before when she tripled up during a Razz hand. Her two opponents went all-in after frequent raising and reraising and Beth’s made eight morphed into a made six on the river and she skewered two players who held sevens. I didn’t stick around to watch the end. I was tired enough as I staggered out the door of the Bike into the cool damp night and decided to give it a rest for the day.
Gary ‘Creepshow’ Furness and Steve ‘Ice’ Eisenstein enjoy a moment at the banquet
Friday night held the promise of a limit hold’em tournament, but I had places to go and things to see before I could sit down and play cards. I had to meet Daniel Negreanu at the Commerce Casino that afternoon, to interview him for a feature article that will appear in Midwest Gaming and Travel. Wanting to check out the action at Commerce, I arrived about four hours before I was to meet Daniel.
Because of their tournaments, nearly every table at Commerce was full, and the room looked like a feeding frenzy of poker players. They had moved the $20-$40 games out of their usual location in the top section for the duration, and were spreading only $30-$60 games and above in that locale. A new $30-$60 hold’em list was in the process of being called down when I arrived, so I quickly put myself on the list and was in the process of being seated when the powers that be decided that the game was to be $40-$80.
Since I’ve been living in Palm Springs for the past four and a half months, where a game bigger than $15-$30 is seldom seen, I decided to play a bit above my usual limits and sat down just as the first hand was being dealt. I looked down to find A-K. I was in seventh position at the time, and only one player had called the blind thus far. I raised, and the big blind and the player who had limped in both called. The flop was terrific, to say the least — a couple of kings and a nine.
I bet when the hand was checked to me. The big blind folded and the last remaining player called. The turn was inconsequential, but my opponent called when I bet. The river was a jack. My opponent checked, quietly called my bet, and won the pot when he showed me a straight. He had taken far the worst of it to draw at his inside straight with a Q-T, and he played the hand more like you’d expect it to be played in a $4-$8 game than pone played at ten times those limits. But that’s poker, and I was stuck from the first shots fired. I played for a few hours and wound up losing a grand total of four dollars for my efforts, when it was time to meet Daniel Negreanu and conduct my interview.
I never had a shot in the limit hold’em tournament that evening, finishing unceremoniously in the midst of the pack. But Nolan Hee, from Long Beach, wound up winning the whole thing, and that meant some money in my pocket. One of the ESCARGOT traditions is the last-longer bet. No individual bets, mind you, but bets designed to capitalize on the intrastate rivalry that seems to affect all things involving both halves of this very bifurcated state of ours.
So we have teams of bettors, described either as SoCals or NoCals. But this didn’t seem fair to our other guests, so a “Rest-of-the-World” team — instantly dubbed the UnCals — was formed too. The cost of the wager is ten bucks per participant per event. Losers pay winners and the winners divvy up the loot. That makes it fair for smaller teams. Their chances of winning on a purely numerical basis is reduced, but compensated for because each player’s share of the loot is bigger if they do manage to win.
Chris ‘Ploink’ Straghalis concentrates during Saturday’s NLHE finals
Nolan’s win squared the books for the SoCal team, since the money won from the UnCals and NoCals on Friday night’s event was somewhat more per person than our loss the first night.
Friday night did not bring much sleep to anyone, since Saturday’s event was slated to begin at 11:00 AM, an early hour for poker players. But there really wasn’t any other way to go about it, if we wanted to ensure that we would wind up the tournament in time for that evening’s award banquet.
The event was a no-limit hold’em shootout-to-match play format. We’d begin with eight tables and play would continue until there was one winner per table. In other words, as players were eliminated, tables would not be combined as they are in traditional tournament formats. Instead, play would continue shorthanded, until there was one winner at each table.
These table winners and those finishing second at each table would move on to match play. Match play was a double-elimination format, with the proviso that each second place table finisher entering match play was deemed to have one loss. Brackets were established so that winners played winners and losers played losers. Whenever a table winner was eliminated from the winners bracket; he or she was moved down into the losers bracket. Once in the losers bracket, another loss meant the player was eliminated from the competition.
By the time the dust had settled, Nolan Hee, the winner of the previous night’s event, emerged from the bracket of the once beaten to challenge undefeated, and former world Chowaha champion, Chris Straghalis. This match was a seesaw battle all the way, with Hee winning the first match to square things up. Now Hee and Straghalis each had one defeat pinned on them, and whoever won the next heads-up match would be the champion. After being short-stacked on numerous occasions, Straghalis rose to the challenge and defeated Hee to win the event.
For those with a wagering interest in the outcome, Straghalis and Hee are both SoCal residents and I was fortunate enough to be on the winning team in two of the three events.
Earlier in this event a hand materialized that ought to have gotten the “Suck-out of the Year” award, if we had such a category. It involved Gary Furness, a physician from Santa Rosa, CA, and Steve “Ice” Eisenstein, an attorney from New Jersey. They were the two remaining players at their table. Furness held a pair of nines in the pocket, while Ice was holding a pair of tens. All of Ice’s money was in before the flop, which was 10-8-3 of mixed suits.
Steve Eisenstein, having flopped a set of tens was a huge favorite over Gary Furness. But Gary caught two perfect running cards, made a straight, and won his table. Not only did this hand determine a table winner in the shootout-to-match play format, it was an east coast versus west coast competition, as well as the classic lawyer-doctor showdown. It was clear to me when Gary caught those two perfect cards to skewer Ice, that God, just like everyone else, wants to stick it to the lawyers every time.
Four be00tiful bald headed gamb00lerz at the same table? Take our picture, Kim! (Adam, Marc, JV, and Dan)
I was curious about just how big an underdog Gary Furness was, so I ran a few simulations. In the first, I gave Gary and Ice their pairs, and kept the suits the same, to eliminate any wins Gary might have by making a four-card flush. With random flops, turns, and rivers, and a million hands dealt, Gary Furness won 17 percent of the time. The remaining 83 percent of the victories belonged to Steve Eisenstein.
Next I simulated those hands and added the flop to the mix. With a 10-8-3 flop, Ice won slightly more than 95 percent of the one million simulated hands. That made him a pretty big favorite, though not as big as many people suspected when everyone who witnessed, or heard about it was discussing the hand.
Our guest speaker at that evening’s award banquet was the very funny, witty, irreverent, and right on point, John Vorhaus. Poker Digest editor Melissa Raimondi was a guest at the banquet and kind enough to give a complimentary subscription to every ESCARGOT attendee.
Once the banquet was ended players drifted off to play in cash games on the casino floor, though some found their way to the hotel across the street where the world Chowaha championship was to be decided. Invented by Mike Chow, Chowaha is a staple whenever the Internet poker community gets together. It’s like hold’em, except that three flops are dealt, one atop the other. There are two turn cards. The topmost turn card plays with the top and middle flop; the bottom turn card can be used only with the middle and bottom flop. One river card that plays with all three boards is dealt, and the best poker hand wins the pot at the showdown. Peter Secor won it, and has the distinction some would call it the dubious honor of being referred to as the World Chowaha Champion for 2002.
This was the fourth annual ESCARGOT, an event I created in 1999 because I thought that southern California, an area with more poker tables than any other in the country, deserved its own gathering to honor those poker players who chat about poker and other topics of mutual interest on the Internet newsgroup Rec.Gambling.Poker. But four years is a long time, fresh blood and new ideas are always welcomed, and ESCARGOT 2003 will be planned and directed by Russ Fox. I’ll be there. I always am and always hope to be. But this time I hope to enjoy it as a guest who has all of the fun and none of the responsibility. You can too. It’s never too soon to plan for a good time, so mark your calendars for early February 2003.