Indeed, at times during the first day of the inaugural World Series of Poker Circuit event at the Horseshoe (about 20 miles outside Chicago) it seemed like most of the 165 souls who'd ponied up the $5,150 entry fee were overaged trick-or-treaters who'd come dressed as poker professionals in some dastardly imitation of a real high-stakes cardplaying battle.
Strategies strange and horrible were the norm at The Venue, a cavernous bat-cave of a concert hall that served as the setting for our play unpleasant. With barely nineteen tables of hopefuls having made the trek over the Chicago Skyway to the Horseshoe's rather nondescript location between two shuttered steel mills on the shores of Lake Michigan The Venue was barely one-quarter filled, its deserted corners shadowed and empty as our barren collection of poker souls ground out their desperate hours on the baize.
Walking amongst the pretenders were a handful of notable names, including twin peaks of online poker supremacy Kevin "BeLOWaBOVe" Saul and Steve "MrSmokey1" Billirakis, the progress of whose roller-coaster chip stacks commanded most of our attention when we weren't gaping, as a passerby to a traffic accident, at the horrific standards of play we were witnessing before us.
That's not to say it wasn't fun to watch - or to play, as the poker-playing public of Chicagoland seemed themselves to be having a great time. Characters and caricatures abounded, with most of the field seeming to know one another and sharing a certain intimacy with every pot won or "barbecue" (local parlance for an elimination) grilled.
Among the most gregarious of said characters was Amid Fakhouri, a spectacle in his snow-white tracksuit, Air Force Ones, blinged-out watch and bracelet combo and gleaming hairless dome. Fakhouri played nearly every hand he was dealt and rode a wave of incredible luck throughout the day, beginning with his blind open-shove with 4♠ 2♠ that resulted in a flopped two-pair and a triple through pocket nines and A-K.
Fakhouri employed the live-straddle (a rarity in tournament poker) to some success, and his bag of tricks further included the blind-check, the blind-bet and the blind-raise, as well as the balls-out check-raise turned pathos-inducing-fold in a cloud of obvious self-loathing. Unfortunately for all involved (including his tablemates), the man was eliminated late in the day after committing the egregious sin of getting his money in good for once, holding jacks against tens and seeing his rival flop a ten. The tournament was the worse for his loss.
While Fakhouri was doing his thing, the rest of the field was making mincemeat of proper poker strategy. The PokerListings.com live updates logs are filled with horrifying accounts of players betting into dry side pots with Mississippi Slick (2-3; in this part of the world they call it The Jordan), good for bottom pair on draw-heavy boards - and winning.
Elsewhere, Saul was making brisk business of picking off mindless bluffs with his own bottom pair against rivals holding naught but six-high. And further down the charts was Billirakis, racking up a monster windfall after convincing an opponent to put him all-in on the turn of a 5-4-2-Q board while he held the nut straight and his hapless opponent, with A-2, was drawing stone dead.
It was a ghoulish display, and even Saul was unable to dodge the horror in the end. BeLOWaBOVe found his stock begin to falter as the field broke for dinner after the sixth of their twelve levels and immediately found himself riding a Washington Mutual-esque wave of despair down to the danger zone after doubling up Dean Hamrick with sevens against aces, all-in on a ten-high flop. The 2007 Bellagio Cup champ would fall before the stroke of midnight.
Those who managed to avoid Saul's fate, however (and that of Alan Cutler, Dean Schultz, Yoon Kim and Young Phan) find themselves facing the treat of a prize pool worth $788,250. The trick of it, however, is that only eighteen of the 40 who survived the first twelve hours will partake, with the lowest of that lot taking $13,794 and the payouts moving steadily upwards from there.
The final table is guaranteed at least $21,677, with our top two finishers banking six figures for the win. Second-place earns $126,120 in pretax winnings, while the tournament's top dog gets $208,885 to chow on, as well as a sparkling WSOPC ring and an entry into the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event in the summer of 2009.
As mentioned, 125 of the 165 disqualified themselves from prize pool eligibility on Day 1, but while Saul, Schultz et al may have faltered, the likes of Billirakis, Jason DeWitt and a rather zoned-out Dustin "Neverwin" Woolf more than capitalized on the tournament's deadly donkstrikery, with the latter rocketing up the chip counts in the late levels thanks to a scorched-earth policy of blind defense coupled with an incredible run of cards that pushed him over the $200,000 chip marker before anyone else on the tournament floor.
It was Billirakis who wound up with the chip lead however, making a hero call on the last hand of the day in a $295,600 pot after calling off the last of his stack with Q-10 and a busted flush draw on a 7-3-2-10-6 board and getting a miraculous muck from his rival.
Action concluded shortly after 2 a.m. Central time on Saturday morning and will resume at 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, with the Day 1 survivors returning to the Horseshoe to play down to a final table. PokerListings.com will never erase from our minds the poker atrocities we witnessed on the first day of this three-day affair but we'll return nevertheless on Day 2, determined to bring you the very best in poker tournament coverage from this unique and too-often-ignored corner of the Great Republic. Until tomorrow, then.