Photo by Jayne Furman
[Ed's note: Sometimes you get the cards; sometimes the cards get you. We were all set to have Jason Alexander write daily posts about his experiences in the 2013 World Series of Poker Main Event. Then he busted out on Day 1. Here, he reflects on that disappointing afternoon.]
Even when I'm not losing early, Day 1 is still the worst. Because I'm so recognizable, I attract more attention than I deserve. People everywhere want a photo. Then there are the interviews. Most of them start the same way—"Look this way, turn that way, do something with these cards, do your best chip trick"—and then I get asked all the same questions: "What's your strategy? Who are you afraid of? Who do you want to play?" They're all horrible questions. Why would I tell anyone my strategy? That bit of secrecy is often the only edge I have over the people at my table. Who do I fear? Everyone. Everyone can beat me. All they need is experience, guts and, oh, cards. Let's just take our seats.
I usually don't know anyone at my table. That doesn't mean there isn't a ranked pro there, it just means I don't know them. For a guy who loves poker, I don't follow the news too closely since this isn't how I make my living. There could be a European champion to my left; to me he's just a guy named Klaus. But people know who I am, and they will talk to me. Usually it starts with Seinfeld quotes. The one that follows me everywhere is "Can't stand ya'." At a poker table I get a lot of "Serenity now." If I beat somebody, I often get "The jerk store called," or if I win with a small hand it's, "Oh, that hand had shrinkage." People manage to work in all the classics. They find a way.
None of the talking bothers me, though. If people open up to me I can learn things about them and their approach to the game, so selfishly, that gives me an advantage. But much of the time I just enjoy getting to know people. Greg Raymer and I became friends after being together at a table; same with Joe Hachem.
Then there are guys like the one I played with at a table two or three years ago. He was in his late 80s—a war vet who had discovered poker late in his life because he was infirm and couldn't get involved with other sports he used to enjoy. I remember asking him a lot about life. That's the great thing about gambling: You meet really, really interesting people whose paths you aren't otherwise likely to cross. I've met guys who do the Deadly Catch thing—not on the show itself, but they're career fisherman. I've met guys who work in sanitation, who are involved in mob activity, gangbangers, professional athletes, people from foreign countries. One of the reasons I love acting is because I'm so interested in other people's lives, and I often incorporate things I hear or observe into my work. I've become a bit of a "person addict," and so I like brushing up against lots of different characters.
That's why the dynamic at the table is so important. You always wonder going in: Is the group going to be pleasant, or will there be some jackass who thinks he's going to win it all and makes life miserable for everyone? I've never encountered much trash talking, though it's obvious that people want to be able to say, "I took Jason Alexander out." I'm not sure why that's such a badge of honor, because I'm not a poker pro; it's not like people can't beat me. But if they do, they get to say a name that's recognizable. Every poker player, like every fisherman, needs to have a story in a box, and most poker stories are completely uninteresting. When you can add a familiar face, it gets people excited. I don't know if people play differently against me, but I do know that when I'm in a showdown with somebody, one-on-one, they clearly think about it longer. I guess they're figuring, "Well, I get a story out of it either way."
But not everyone thinks that way. The pros certainly don't. There was a situation in my first year at the WSOP where I was at the table with a pro, and we got into a heads-up hand. I had pocket 5s, he had pocket 10s, the board was ugly, he had me dominated, he pushed me hard. I cannot tell you why, but I knew my card was coming. I just knew. So I called him all the way, and on the river I got my trip 5s. This guy laid into me for about an hour. Then we took a dinner break and we came back and he was still pissed off, and about two hours after that he beat me in a decent hand and I said, "Ok, are you happy now, you big baby?" And he said, "No, I'm still not happy." Eventually—not during that tournament, but eventually—he did apologize for his behavior.
That was the worst that I've ever encountered. Most of the pros enjoy having someone else take the spotlight. One of the downsides of being a poker pro is that people see exactly how you play. The pros would rather move under the radar, so they're happy to have someone that captures the attention of the table or the camera. I get that. In fact, I think that much of the reason the pros and I get along so well is because of something that happened six years ago:
I had been invited to play in the NBC Heads Up tournament, and PokerStars sponsored me. In the first round I was put up against Huck Seed. He's a wonderful poker player, but not a huge personality. Everybody was expecting me to put on a show, so I went to Huck beforehand and said, "Look, I don't expect to be here very long. PokerStars is sponsoring me and I want to give them their money's worth, so I'm going to be animated in the hopes of getting camera time. But this is your world, man. I wouldn't want you coming to some place I perform and sh**ing on what I do, so if anything I'm doing today annoys you, say something or give me a sign and I will shut it down." He said, "You would really do that?" And I said, "Absolutely. I mean, I want to beat you, but not by being an assh***."
He must have shared that story, because I had a lot of pros come up and say, "That was a class act thing you did with Huck." I think they understand that I respect what they do and that this is how they make their living, and as a result they have been incredibly embracing of me. I've actually had coaching sessions with Phil Hellmuth, Annie Duke, and Hachem, and I've picked up a lot through casual conversations with other pros. You can learn so much just by talking through a hand with somebody and having them strategize it in hindsight. Also, I'm not a math player—I can't crunch the odds—so they've been great about giving me tips on how to do the more remedial math.
But all the lessons from all the pros won't help if you're simply snakebitten, and on Day 1 great hands meant nothing for me. Early in the day I had a nut flush that ran into a hidden full house. It was soon followed by my having trip-aces and running into a flush caught on the river. That shrank my stack to $14K. I made some back by going all in with the nut flush, but then my top-two pair lost to another river flush. When we broke for dinner, I was at $23K.
Afterward, my stack slowly wore down to about $20K. Suddenly, I got pocket A's again and made a big pre-flop raise that got called. I followed that with a big bet after the flop and got called by a guy hunting for a flush. He caught it on the turn. I now had $10K. Blinds were eating away. There were two sizable chip stacks at the table and no one got to see a flop for less than three times the big blind. Finally, with only about $8K left, I got dealt KJ suited and went all-in. I got called; the guy had AK suited. Nobody hit nothing, so the ace prevailed. I was done.
It was an incredibly frustrating day. It's one thing to play dumb poker and get killed. But playing good hands responsibly and getting repeatedly killed—it sucks. I don't ever expect to win this event. My goal is simply to improve. I am sponsored by a good company and want to do well by them. Alas. Poker is just a hobby I'm passionate about. It's not supposed to bring glory. But oh, that damned dream.