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‘Mistakes’ On The Money Bubble

by Mike Sexton |  Published: Oct 21, 2020

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Jack StrausEditor’s Note: The following excerpt is from Mike Sexton’s Inside Professional Poker column, originally published Feb. 21, 1997 in Vol. 10, Issue No. 4 of Card Player Magazine.

What a difference a tournament makes. At the Queens Classic in September, I experienced the thrill of victory by winning the $5,000 no-limit hold’em championship event. However, at the recent Queens Classic in January, I experienced the agony of defeat by finishing “on the bubble” in the $5,000 championship event. I went from the penthouse to the outhouse, which is what all tournament players experience at one time or another.

For those of you who are not familiar with poker tournament jargon, the “bubble” represents the poor sap who has the misfortune of playing all day and finishing one out of the money. Just as every tournament has a winner, it also has someone who finishes on the bubble, and both people remember where they finished for quite a while.

At least the person on the bubble is very popular with the remaining players, as they all break into a chorus of “We’re in the money!” Perhaps we should put some fun into poker tournaments by awarding the person finishing on the bubble a box of bubble gum, or even a jar of bubbles you can blow into the air.

In the major tournaments, it usually takes a while to knock the bubble guy out. Play slows down dramatically, because no one wants to go out on the bubble. Strategy plays a key role at this time in a tournament, as the short stacks are hanging on simply trying to survive, while the aggressive players and chip leaders wisely attack, because most everyone plays very conservatively at this point. It is the most stressful time of a poker tournament, especially if you are one of the short stacks.

Let me tell you two bubble stories that I will never forget. The first took place a fairly long time ago in a $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament in Las Vegas. The tournament was down to 10 players, paying out nine places, with five remaining at each table. Like all tournaments, the director announced, “shuffle up and deal” on each hand, so that both tables would play an equal number of hands. This prevents stalling tactics by someone at one of the tables in the hopes that someone else will go broke.

Jack Straus, a former world champion and Hall of Famer, was in second-lowest chip position. At this point, he raised virtually every pot (at least 20 in a row). Everyone threw their hands away, looking over at the other table and hoping to see someone else go broke. No one did, so Straus kept raising and went from nearly last place to second place in the chip standings just by picking up the blinds and antes. Finally, he was in the big blind and the small blind moved all in. He picked up two kings and broke the guy.

The finalists assembled at the final table, and on the break, I went up to Straus to congratulate him on his performance with 10 players left. I was stunned when he looked at me and said, “Mike I can’t believe I made such a bad mistake.”

I said, “Jack, what are you talking about?”

He said, “Nobody was playing a pot and I should have mucked my two kings and let that guy have it. I could have picked up several more rounds of blinds before he went broke.”

Talk about perception! Trust me, this guy belongs in the Hall of Fame. And, yes, he won the tournament.

My other bubble memory occurred in the 1992 $10,000 no-limit hold’em world championship at Binion’s Horseshoe. It could very well be the longest time in poker history that it took to eliminate a player from the bubble. We were down to 37 players and it must have taken at least two hours to lose a player.

Hamid Dastmalchi, the eventual champion, was at my table. During the bubble, he grabbed the momentum and the chips, going from 35,000 to 100,000. Dastmalchi was brilliant throughout the tournament, but I am convinced that is was his Straus-like performance on the bubble that propelled him to victory and the world title.

Best of luck to all of you in staying off the bubble. ♠