top of page

Turning 60 (Finally) Pays Off: My Unlikely Run at the World Series of Poker

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

I counted out a sizable bet and slid it across the green felt toward the three aces face-up in the middle of the table. Then I rested my arms on the padded rail in front of me and tried not to move, staring at a random spot in front of my chips. If anyone had the fourth ace in their hand, I was dead.

My bet was an aggressive semi-bluff. I had a hand – a pair of deuces to make a full house - but it was very vulnerable, if not already behind. I was first to act and my first thought was to check, afraid of such a crazy flop. But then I remembered that the other three players had “limped” into the pot rather than raising it – not exactly a show of strength. I decided to try and win right now, or at least learn more about what my opponents might hold.

Welcome to Day 2 of the 2023 World Series of Poker Super Seniors Main Event, open to anyone over 60 and willing to pay the $1,000 buy-in. I'd been planning the trip for months and joined more than 3,100 other players who took their seats on on Day 1. Now, after about 16 hours of live play, we were down to 600, and that number was falling fast as players ran out of chips. The money line was 469, meaning everyone busting out before then would walk away with nothing. After that prizes started at $1,600 and worked their way up to more than $350,000 for the winner.

If the three players still in the hand folded to me, I knew I’d likely have enough chips to make it into “the money.” If not, I was probably drawing dead and would be fighting to outlast the other short stacks to the bubble.

The first two players folded quickly. The last paused and stared at me, then looked at his cards again. He looked down at his very large stack and began to count out chips for a call or raise, then looked back at me for a reaction. Did I want him to call? Did I want him to raise? Did I want him to fold? I was only looking at him in my peripheral vision, still trying to stare a hole in the felt.

He looked at his cards one more time and shook his head, then tossed them face-down into the muck. Fold.

The pot was mine and I didn’t need to show my cards, since no one called my bet. Indeed, it’s standard practice to not show them, leaving opponents to wonder if they made the right decision to fold. But players will occasionally show, as I did with my deuces before reaching out to rake in the pot.

“Now that,” drawled the old guy sitting next to me (think Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water” or Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country for Old Men.”) “was a nahhhhce bet.”

I’d love to tell you there were more hands like this one, and that I am now $350,000 richer and the proud owner of a coveted World Series of Poker champion’s bracelet. But that was my high-water mark. I grinded for a few more hours, past the dramatic moment when they announced we were all in the money, before getting knocked out in 302nd place. I cashed for $2,000, and was overjoyed.

I got a lot of concerned looks when I told people I was going to Las Vegas to pay $1,000 to enter a poker tournament. I suppose many likened it to walking into a casino and dropping a grand on 33 on the roulette table, or to play a hand of blackjack. But while most casino games are played against the house, which must have a mathematical advantage to stay in business, poker is played against the other players. It is a game of skill with an element of luck. Anyone can win a single hand. But skillful play matters, and skillful players win more often over the long haul.

You can, for example, win a hand of poker without showing your cards. It happens a lot. A player simply makes a large bet that suggests they have a very strong hand. Maybe they have it and maybe they don’t. But their opponent, unsure and unwilling to risk the large amount of chips needed to call, folds. Bluffing is an integral part of the game, though it is not done as often as people think. Players who bluff too often get their bluffs called and lose.

It is exciting when you get lucky, and an unlikely card is turned over that wins you a pot. But it is exhilarating when you win a pot with a bet, knowing that you probably didn’t have the best hand. You can also bluff a good hand, projecting weakness and enticing pot-building large bets from opponents before springing "the nuts" - the best possible hand with the cards available.

The World Series of Poker attracts top players from across the country and around the world. And it is structured to reduce the luck factor. Poker tournament strategy is deeply tied to the "blinds," rotating mandatory bets that go up steadily through the tournament. Players who do not work to build their chip stacks - who merely wait for premium hands - will see their stacks swallowed up by the growing blinds. Late in tournaments, players with small stacks are often forced to be "all-in," regardless of what cards they hold, because of the size of the blinds

At one-night charity tournaments, blinds go up every 15 minutes or so, reducing the number of hands played and therefore increasing the role of luck in the hands. At the WSOP Super Seniors, the blinds go up every hour. I made it to Day 2, but the tournament lasted four days. (The $10,000 Main Event, where the blinds go up every two hours, typically lasts for six or seven days.)

Because of the increasing blinds, the top players are constantly looking for opportunities to "steal" pots, raising when they sense weakness, or when they can catch other players out of position. Top players are good at "reading" their opponents and betting accordingly. Poker is a game of managing risk and leveraging uncertainty.

Good poker players also tend to be very good at math, and are constantly calculating things like pot odds, implied pot odds, and expected value. Some of the best scholarly books about Game Theory - the art of extracting maximum value in situations with a variety of data points, many of them not precisely known - are books about tournament poker. Here is an open source course on poker theory you can take at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I am a pretty good poker player, but not a great one. If I sat down every day with poker professionals – players who literally make their living playing poker tournaments and cash games – I would lose far more money than I would win. But in a single tournament, with a combination of smart play and a little bit of luck, I have a chance to win. At the very least I have the chance to test myself against good players.

My road to the WSOP began about two years ago, not long after we moved to Nashville. I was playing in a charity poker tournament and got to talking to a friendly guy named Butch, who eventually invited me to join his poker group.

It’s called Jackie Deuce, after the favorite hand of one of the founding members, the late Al Bunetta. (If the name looks familiar to some of you music fans, he was the manager of legendary songwriter John Prine, and the co-founder of Prine’s record label, Oh Boy Records.) We play anywhere from one to three times per week.

We play both live cash games and online tournaments. (In cash games, the blinds never go up, and the chips represent real money. In tournaments, each player "buys in" for a specific amount, and the last player standing, with all the chips, wins. Also, the blinds are constantly going up, forcing action.) I'm better at tournaments, and play the online game more often.

We have a parallel Zoom call for conversation, and it’s a very friendly group of very good poker players. I’ve learned a lot, both about poker and the music business. Several members of the group play in the WSOP each year, and we started talking about it months in advance.

When I decided to sign up for the WSOP, I wondered if I would be embarrassed – if I would lose and walk away thinking I had no business sitting at the table with players at this level. It didn’t happen. I held my own and proved to myself that I could at least complete.

There is a little bit of personal redemption here that goes beyond poker. As far back as grade school, I’ve struggled with ADD – attention deficit disorder. It wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, but the diagnosis explained a lot. I struggled in high school because I didn’t have the patience or focus to do hours of homework or test preparation. I squeaked by because I listened in class (at least in the classes I liked) and could write. My college grades were average, but I found my calling at the student newspaper, where I spent most of my time.

As a professional journalist, I did my best work under intense deadline pressure. I thrived covering crime and breaking news, often crafting stories in minutes and dictating them, in the pre-internet days, over the phone. When they put me on the weeks-long projects that most reporters covet, I was unhappy.

So it was a little bit of a surprise when I discovered that not only was I competent at poker, I enjoy playing it for long stretches. I lose focus sometimes, and try to step away from the table when I do. But I am somehow good enough, and playing is not only fun, it makes me feel good.

I had trouble writing this post mainly because I wasn't sure how much people cared about poker. I guess that's the reason poker players enjoy the WSOP so much. It is filled with people who love poker. Break time conversation is filled with break-downs of hands and woeful laments over bad beats.

Breaks are also when you can encounter some of the best players in the world. The WSOP includes many events, including "high roller" tournaments that attract top players. Even lower buy-in events attract pros eying the big payoffs and the coveted WSOP bracelets.

On my first day at the WSOP I walked into one of the two massive poker rooms to see what it was like. Sitting at the very first table I looked at was Eric Seidel, a cerebral pro and one of my favorite players. Seidel is perhaps best known for his appearance in "Rounders," the 1998 film often credited with jump-starting the poker boom. In that movie, Matt Damon's character obsessively watches a tape of the final table at the 1988 World Series of Poker, which ended in a heads-up battle between Seidel and Johnny Chan. Chan won. You can hear Seidel talk about the movie and that hand here.

Seidel is also featured in an excellent new book about poker, "The Biggest Bluff," which I highly recommend.

Running into top players is part of the thrill of playing the WSOP, as the tournaments are open to anyone willing to pay the buy-in. But it is the fun and the challenge of playing that will make me come back.

The cost of the buy-in can't be ignored, of course. Given the odds - only the top 15 percent of players who enter a WSOP event actually "cash" - you shouldn't enter unless you are prepared to lose the buy-in. But, having dutifully taken my $2,000 win and paid all my expenses and then some for the WSOP Vegas trip, I have another year to build the poker bankroll.

Life is too short not to follow a passion. And, to borrow a phrase from my friend and fellow newspaper refugee, the outstanding blogger Nancy Nall Derringer, I ain't dead yet.



bottom of page