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Lightening in a Bottle (poker version)

Every once in a while some really weird shit hits the fan that makes you smile. Here’s one of those moments that took place in this year’s WSOP (that’s “World Series of Poker” for the uninitiated). A professional poker player named Christian Pham plunked down his $1,500 for an upcoming no limit Hold ‘em event. Unfortunately (though you may want to amend that) he gave the wrong information to the clerk and was handed the entry card for a Deuce to 7 no limit event. Of course, he didn’t realize this. I’ve played in more than a few WSOP events (and cashed in a couple) and, trust me, you don’t check the entry cards. You just stick ‘em in your pocket and go to your assigned seat and assume you’re in the game you signed up for.

But, you need to understand. These two games could not be more different. In Hold ‘em you get two cards to start and, using five common cards on the board, try to make the best high hand. Deuce to 7 is a “low” game where you are dealt five cards, get one shot at replacing the ones you don’t like and try to make the lowest hand — provided it isn’t an “accidental” high hand ‘cause what you might think is a great hand like 2,3,4,5,6 is a straight and just sucks at this game. And Ace is a high card, not a low one. If you’ve never played this game before it can drive you bat shit crazy.

So what did Pham do? He sat there for the first hour or so in a puddle of confusion and frustration. He’d never played this game before. He’d been making his living as a Hold ‘em player with the no limit version his preferred game. Once the first hand was dealt he couldn’t get a refund and, as he put it, he was totally, utterly confused. So he did what any good poker player would do. He sat quietly. He watched and learned and slowly began to understand what he was stuck in.

Remarkably over the next three days he played a game he was unfamiliar with against a couple hundred folks who had actually signed up for the tournament knowing what they were doing — and beat them all. He won the coveted WSOP bracelet and the biggest cash of his career. A remarkable achievement.

Yes, he got lucky a couple of times — but, trust me, you can’t win any poker tournament without a couple of lucky breaks. But he played solid, pro-level poker and in a game he’d never played before.

Asked later about this he said something like “I guess I’m a fast learner.” This fast learner, who was born in Saigon and now lives in St. Paul, MN, said he did the only thing he could think to do. He folded almost every hand at the beginning until he began to understand how this quirky low-ball draw game was played.

There’s a bit of wisdom in that.

Congrats Mr. Pham; you’re a special guy and we should all applaud.

I’m off to my annual WSOP pilgrimage next week. If I catch lightening in a bottle like Pham, I’ll be sure to post it here.

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