Dara O’Kearney: Of Poker Travel Snafus and WPT World Champions

  • Dara is no stranger to travel issues, often of his own doing, when traveling to poker tournaments
  • He only made it to Day 2 of the WPT World Championship, but was serenaded by Phil Hellmuth
  • Dara and David Lappin finished 4th in the tag team event
  • WPT World Champion Eliot Hudon actually read (and liked!) Dara’s new book
  • Benny Glaser’s shove against Hudon at the final table will be debated for a long time
Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Coming in 4th in the WPT World Championship Tag Team event was more fun for Dara O’Kearney than spending the night outside in the cold because he couldn’t read his itinerary. [Image: YouTube / Tylers Top Clips]

Double-checking my itinerary would have been wise

I have a bit of a history of travel mishaps on my way to Vegas. On one of my earliest WSOP trips over ten years ago, I booked (or thought I had booked) an itinerary that required me to spend a few hours overnight in Heathrow. After idling in terminal one for a while after my arrival and typing up a blog entry, I headed for terminal three, which I was assured was the Virgin Atlantic terminal. Long walk, but sure – didn’t I have all night? I was greeted at terminal three by the sight of VA logos everywhere, which was encouraging. Less encouraging was the absence of any sign of my flight to Vegas on the screens. Hmmmm. Better check the old itinerary. A quick glance at the aforementioned itinerary revealed the source of the problem here: my flight to Vegas from Heathrow was actually from Gatwick.

 just in time to see every shop, food outlet, and tube station in the joint slam its shutters shut

Having no notion of the most economical way of getting from Heathrow to Gatwick but harboring a strong suspicion that the answer wasn’t “TAXI!”, I decided to catch the last train to Paddington. That got me into Paddington around 1am, just in time to see every shop, food outlet, and tube station in the joint slam its shutters shut. Hmmmm. After ascertaining that the best plan of action now was to tube it to Victoria and then catch the Gatwick Express, I was left with the minor problem of what to do for the next four hours until the tube station reopened.

The answer I came up with, and I acknowledge it right here right now to be laughably sub-optimal, was to spend the night in Paddington shivering on a bench like a homeless person, surrounded by actual homeless people. And let me dispel any illusions you might have: spending a night shivering in London’s draftiest and least attractive train station with no food and no toilet and just your overheating and dying laptop battery as your only heat source is not as much fun as you might think.

A few hours into this, I noticed one of my homeless compadres had skulked off somewhere. A little investigation revealed the destination of the skulk to be an inexplicably open, but empty ticket office which afforded considerably more shelter and heat than the concourse benches. Better yet, it boasted a power outlet. As I reveled in the plush surroundings of the floor of the ticket office recharging my laptop and my spirits, I got all philosophical about how even the smallest things can become huge luxuries in the right light.

My reveling and revelation didn’t last long though: a station security guy materialized to chase us back out onto the concourse with shouts of “get out or you’ll have me sacked.” I wouldn’t have thought his job security was a pressing concern to the homeless fraternity, but nobody argued. He shot me a particularly quizzical look: I guess he’d never seen a homeless man in a white Miami Vice jacket clutching a laptop before.

Finally, on my way

My partially regenerated battery got me through ’til 5am, opening time for everything. Hurray! The Circle Line tube ride to Victoria was rendered all the more surreal by the fact that I was the only human in the carriage, and my companion the only bird. Yes, an actual bird of the flying feathery variety was sitting on the seat next to me, looking up at me like he’d never seen a homeless man in a white Miami Vice jacket with a laptop before. I took a picture of him with my phone to prove I wasn’t hallucinating. I also think it’s just as well the ticket conductor didn’t come until after the bird got off at Notting Hill to tell the other birds his “hey, you’ll never guess what I saw on the tube this morning” story, as I’m reasonably certain that the bird was not in possession of a valid ticket.

The Gatwick Express entertainment was provided by the panicky American old lady determined to drive her silent and sullen husband round the twist with very public fretting over them missing their plane. “We have only six hours before takeoff! Are you sure that’s enough time? How long does this train take to get to Gatwick?”

I was tempted to up the ante by telling her “Ah, you’ll be grand, it rarely takes more than five hours,” but the husband looked like it wouldn’t take much for him to snap, so I left it. Instead, I focused on the positives of my frigid night. It probably surprises nobody that knows me that I used to run for 24 hours non-stop for no good reason other than to see how much it could mess me up, that I like to put myself through some sort of pointless ordeal every so often in the view that it “builds character” and “puts things in perspective.” Anyway, when you’ve endured a night like I just had for no good reason other than your own stupidity and lack of attention to detail, you kinda need to find some sort of silver lining.

Quite the upgrade from my prior WSOP travel experience. [Image: Dara O’Kearney]

I tweeted quite a bit about my connection woes this time on the way to the WPT World Championship at the Wynn, and bleated about them on a recent episode of “The Lock In”, so I’ll spare you the threepeat. The cliffs are I missed my connection in Heathrow and after several hours of being shunted from queue to queue, I ended up trying to book an airport hotel only to find them all booked out. My friend Alex O’Brien came to the rescue, and I ended up spending the night in much more salubrious surroundings than that night in Paddington. Alex is the perfect hostess, and had champagne on ice served in gold glasses ready on my arrival.

Didn’t cash, but heard Phil Hellmuth sing

David Lappin and I were staying at the Wynn Encore for the trip, easily my favorite hotel on the strip. I was also blown away by just how well run the entire festival was. I associate playing in Vegas with all the worst of the WSOP: endless registration queues, incompetent staff, dreadful dealers, poor food options. None of these were problems here – it was one of the smoothest-run festivals I’ve ever attended.

Come on, I want to hear you sing.”

I had a tough Day 1 struggling with card death and dropped very low at one point, but managed to bag up a bit more than starting stack. My Day 2 table featured the one and only Phil Hellmuth, who is always fun to play with. We had some good banter when he read a tweet by my co-author Barry Carter suggesting I was a 90s reggae singer. When I declined Phil’s cajoling to sing, he treated us to his own rendition of Drake. My neighbor turned to me and said: “Come on, I want to hear you sing.”

“Trust me, you really don’t. It’s really bad.”

“It can’t be worse than Phil’s Drake.”

Having started the day relatively short, I was teased by doubling my stack in the first session, knocking out a shorty in a flip and winning a few other decent sized pots. Just after the first break, I got in AKs against Jacks for well above average, but couldn’t win this flip.

Side events: two heads are better than one

I fired three bullets at the mystery bounty without making Day 2, coming very close with the second bullet. I had built a big stack, but my Kings lost to QJo near the end of the day.

I also fired two bullets at the 1k on the final day. The first didn’t last long (my Kings got outdrawn by J9 in a three-bet pot), but the second one brought me not far from the bubble. This time my AKs lost to QQ.

By now, I was already technically in the tag team event. After he busted his second bullet, Lappin went and regged us both, happy to play all the hands until I busted in the 1k.

It’s a game of being whittled away, hoping to get a big infusion before you ante out.

This was a tag team event with a difference. While it was technically Hold’em, every pot was a bomb pot. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the dealer deals a hand to everyone and then a flop (so there’s no pre-flop) after everyone antes. This sounds like a lot of fun in theory, and bomb pots are apparently used to enliven cash games. As a tournament format, though, it doesn’t really work. It’s a game of being whittled away, hoping to get a big infusion before you ante out. Every pot is big, but your chances of winning it small (1 in 8 or however many players there are at your table). You need a strong hand to bet into that many players and a strong one to continue facing a bet.

Entire hours went by without a single elimination and a sort of gallows humor engulfed those of us (most of the remaining field) who were kind of regretting our decision to sign up. One guy said it reminded him of the early days when “My friends and I would all play. None of us had a clue so we’d limp every pot, check it down to the river, and then find out who won.”

Team Chip Race was hanging on grimly near the bubble, then got some heat and actually hit the chip lead briefly with six left. Lappin recorded the whole thing for the latest episode of “The Lock In”, which he assures me is his masterpiece as a director. We ended up busting in 4th for just under 5k, a partial trip saver.

Guess who read my book?

In between tournaments I signed a few books for a few folks and was particularly heartened by the number of people taking the trouble to tell me how much they appreciate them. One, in particular, stuck in my memory because of the beautiful way it was worded. As I strolled back to fire my second bullet at the 1k, a tall handsome young guy asked: “Are you Dara O’Kearney?”


“I just want to say I don’t admire many poker players, but I really admire you for your books and work. I just read GTO Poker Simplified and it made a huge difference to my game.”

He sounded Francophone so I asked his name and where he was from.

“Eliot. From Montreal.”

When I passed on this encounter to my co-author Barry Carter two days later, he said: “You mean the Main Event winner?”

For the first time, I made the connection. The day after stopping to chat with me in the corridor, Eliot Hudon from Montreal had closed out the WPT World Championship for over $4m, defeating Benny Glaser heads up.

Final table changed in a hurry

I’d stopped paying close attention to the Main Event after I busted out, but was aware that Benny Glaser went in as massive chip leader and favorite to win. The general consensus was that with almost half the chips and the most experience, he’d be able to put all the others in an ICM coffin. Everyone else except Eliot was short (sub-20 big blinds) and Eliot had only half his stack. This put everyone but Benny in a horrible ICM spot waiting for others to bust.

It all changed a few hands in. Picking up AJ under the gun, Benny just open shoved. This is a shove that’ll get through most of the time, and Eliot, in particular, needs a very strong hand to call (specifically Kings or Aces). Unfortunately for Benny, Eliot had one of those hands, Kings, and held, flipping not just the stacks but the whole complexion of the game.

the play was profitable, but not optimal

To put it in layman’s terms, it’s similar to betting 35 of the 36 numbers on the roulette wheel, a bet that will usually result in a small profit but occasionally a catastrophic loss. ICM specialist Bungakat (who kindly allowed us to reference some of his sims in our “Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book” posted the results of an HRC sim he ran that indicated the play was profitable, but not optimal.

Let the debate commence

Debate raged through the poker community and the Benny rail over the play. My own view was as follows. Even if the play was optimal (and I don’t believe it is based on the sims I’ve seen) I personally wouldn’t recommend it in this spot. When you’re the most experienced player at the table with a commanding chiplead, you can railroad your way to victory the vast majority of the time with small bets and raises. Preflop solvers don’t account for this kind of future equity and just consider each hand in a vacuum. Before the final table started, I asked several top-class players how often they thought Benny would win from here and they all estimated his chances at 90% or higher, and reckoned that he came second the rest of the time.

it was a 1% risk he didn’t need to take

When he ran into Eliot’s kings and didn’t get there, the stacks flipped, and he was now in the same horrible ICM situation Eliot was at the start (only worse, because the was out of position to him). The fact that Eliot cruised to victory from there underlined this point even further. Yes, Benny was very unlucky to run into the 1% of hands that can call, but it was a 1% risk he didn’t need to take. If the pro assessment that Benny was 90%-plus to win at the start is accurate, this shove ended up costing Benny well over a million dollars in equity.

I ran my own sim for a video with Barry Carter where we discuss the shove, the call, and all relevant factors. That sim also indicates that the shove is profitable but not optimal, and that the optimal play is a min-raise. We shared a cab to the airport with Jack Hardcastle, who concurred. He said he’d have no shoves in this spot, preferring the small ball approach. We both agreed it would be different if it was a super high roller final table with Michael Addamo, Stephen Chidwick, and three other players much better than us. In that instance we’d happily shove and hope.

Eliot’s win was extremely impressive. He handled himself with tremendous poise and grace, giving a very gracious winner’s interview. The delight of his small close-knit rail of actual friends would warm the most withered of hearts. His execution on the day and over the whole tournament suggests this is the start, not the end, for the soft-spoken lad from Montreal.

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